Ben Folds – Melodramatic Pop Songs

At this very moment, in every college town, in every city, in every state, there is at least one functioning rock band with a lead singer/pianist.  Blame Ben Folds.  Like Elton John before him, Folds has redefined the piano as a lead instrument.

Although his 1990s power-trio, Ben Folds Five, had platinum album sales behind the single “Brick,” the band was never really a mainstream phenomenon.  However, through tireless touring and two lo-fi tours de force – Whatever and Ever, Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – Folds and company became  one of the biggest college bands of the decade.  

The group disbanded at the turn of the century and Folds has recorded several EPs and three solo studio albums since, culminating in this year’s Way to Normal.  The album was born from his recent divorce, but it is no mope-fest.  While he reportedly considered naming it “Blood on the Keyboard,” alluding to Bob Dylan’s famous divorce album, Folds decided to make something raucous and even a bit joyful from his pain.  

In September, he also reunited with BFF members Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee for a one-time performance of Reinhold Messner.  In the midst of all that, he made time to talk to Glide about the reunion and the new album while driving his kids somewhere on a noisy road.    

Let’s talk about Way to Normal.  I saw an interview with you recently where you said most of the songs came from spontaneous jams that you’d go into during live performances.

That did happen some, yeah.

Is that a normal way for you to work?

Whatever captures an idea, I’m always for.  I don’t really have any method, so when I hear something that’s inspired – it’s kind of like if I had been walking around with a tape recorder and I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a good idea.”  It’s just I happen to come up with them on stage.  That happens a lot.  It’s not really from riffs.  It’s not what you would think it is.   It’s as likely a place to have the kernel of an idea as any.  And a lot of times, the forms happen, but it’s not your normal sort of finding a riff and putting the vocal over it or anything.  It’s actually sort of conceptual from the beginning.

Where did the song “Dr. Yang” come from?

That one, the idea lyrically was, I think, pretty obvious.  It’s just sort of a list of doctors that aren’t quite normal doctors, and so to me that implies that the guy who’s the narrator has either got so much time on his hands that he’s creating symptoms that don’t exist, or maybe he’s just trying to do his best and actually fix something.  It’s something you seem to see a lot.  I mean, I was once at a chiropractor and I saw this list of patients who had signed in, and as a joke I asked the receptionist was that a petition of psychosomatics in Nashville?  And she said, “Basically.”

I can’t tell if it’s fuzz bass or not, but that song has a noise in it that sounds like a rocket taking off.

That’s two fuzz basses and a drop-D low bass playing a D below the scale.

Another one I wanted to ask about is “Errant Dog.”

That one was written really quickly, and I think there’s a place for those kinds of songs on our album.  I’m glad you liked that – I get the feeling sometimes that it’s sort of written off as being a throwaway, but that’s kind of rock ‘n roll, that’s what you do, right?

Yeah, that’s your bread and butter.

Yeah, it’s just goofing off.  That is about the concept of ownership, going so far as to have one person own another in a relationship.  So, I used the dog, like, “That’s my dog, I got him tied up.”  It’s funny – I come up with these really dumb sounding songs after reading something that’s not dumb.  It goes through my dumb filter.  I was reading about the Arawak Indians in the British West Indies before settlers came.  I guess it might have been Columbus, but I’m not sure.

I think it was.

Was it Columbus?  And, they came through and pretty much eradicated those Indians.  But, from what they know about them, they were one of those groups of people that didn’t believe in ownership of anything.  And as it turns out, when – usually it was the woman – has decided to break up with her mate, he’d come back home from whatever he was doing, and the one or two things he did own, basically something he wore would be sitting outside of the dwelling.  That’s it.  There’s no bitching, there’s no crying.  That’s it.  She’s decided she’s moving on.  He has to accept it, nobody owns anybody and that’s it.  There didn’t seem to be lots of screaming and freaking out about it.  I just wonder if half the problem when you see people absolutely flipping out over breakups is that they feel like they own the other person.  

If only it were that easy.  You just come home and all your stuff is outside.

Oh, God, yeah.  I mean, I think I could accept that, really.  

What about “Free Coffee?”  I feel like that one is different from anything I’ve heard you do before.  It’s almost electronic.

There was a lot of knob turning in that one.  The piano is quite distorted.  The piano is also prepared with metal pieces inside the piano.  That was sort of there, mainly, to have fun.  But, I have a verse that’s trying to cover 15 years of life, and it seemed like we should put someone in the twilight zone in order to do that.  Then, the second verse is just about the passing of time and how the person who’s passing the time doesn’t feel like a different person.  I mean, you see some old guy walking around town, he doesn’t really see himself that way.  So, in this thing, this person is multi-tasking at the wheel of his car with an ice-cream cone being one of the tasks, because basically that symbolizes he’s still a baby.

I saw an interview where you talked about how on an album like Whatever and Ever Amen, there would be a funny song and then there would be a song like “Brick,” that had nothing funny about it.  Then, referring to Songs for Silverman, you said the difference was that every song had a joke mixed in with the serious stuff.  Where do you see that balance with the current album?

I think it’s the same, I just think the balance is tipped more toward the jokes.  So, Silverman was more noticeably plaintive album, this one is more noticeably – not funny, it’s not supposed to be Don Rickles or something – it’s more noticeably humorous with the sad things being inside the humor.  

Humor seems to be something you’ve utilized a lot with your music.  It’s interesting because I feel like with the way music criticism has gone in the past 10 years or so, it’s almost like humor is the enemy.  It’s like there’s a Pitchfork effect, where anything tongue-in-cheek is met with upturned noses.  Why is humor still so important in your music?

I just think it’s life.  I couldn’t say why.  I think it’s not just humor, it’s anything human can come under intense attack from a certain kind of person.  If you understand it, you’re pretty confident that this is something within your grasp, then they’re like, “Ok, I got it, I’m going to trash it.”  But, if they’re not sure, if it’s laced in an obscure lyric or something mysterious, they don’t want to be the person who didn’t get the masterpiece.  That’s a pretty timeless concept, I say.  Right now, it may be worse.  With me, I tend to put a fairly obvious on-the-surface image, and they’re not accidents usually.  Usually, it’s something I thought about and there’s more to it.  These people give it one listen and do a lot of “meh” and “LOL” and “lame” and “whatev.”  I get a lot of that.

One thing I’ve noticed about the post-Ben Folds Five albums is that the production quality seems to be different.  It sounds less like three guys just bashing it out in a room and more like a studio album.  Is that something that you’ve consciously done or do you even think that’s accurate?

Well, Rockin’ the Suburbs, that’s definitely accurate of that album.  Songs for Silverman sounds to me like three dudes.  That’s just me.  It’s a little more controlled, probably.  And then, this one, I expected to do it that way and we played it that way, but that’s just not the way the producer saw it, so he kind of “studio-ed” it after the fact, but it was very organic.  There’s very organic playing going on.

The drums on this album are really intense and more in-your-face than anything I’ve heard you do.

He and the producer found a way to remain relatively simple and then stick out where they thought that they needed to stick out.  I mean, Darren (Jessee) and Robert (Sledge) and I, our whole policy was to remain unruly, and that would often shrink down to the recording.  I mean, it would sound smaller because you’ve got all this superfluous noise going on.  Sometimes we went too far.  I can think of recordings where – and they usually weren’t on the albums – but I can think of recordings, especially non-album tracks like this one called “Barrytown,” which I think is a great track, but we went a little too far.  It was really difficult to mix.  It sped up and slowed down with all the rambunctious stuff, and that’s where it went too far.  Since then, some things on Rockin’ the Suburbs went too far in the way of being controlled.  I find it hard to get a balance on that, but I keep trying.

It seems to me that the way you approach playing the piano, there’s a mixture of violence and elegance.  Sometimes you’ll throw a stool at it and sometimes you’ll play something like the end of “Underground,” that really pretty, jazzy part.  Did you have to work on that or was it just trying to be a rock ‘n’ roll band with a piano, you had to do that sort of stuff?

Well, with the piano, a jazz chord is your power chord.  With a guitar, it’s the octave with a fifth.  So, the money shot is the little jazz thing at the end of “Underground.”  And when you’re trying to rock with a band, it’s harder to be successful with that.

How was the recent Ben Folds Five reunion show?

Oh, I thought it was great.  I thought we nailed it.  The quality of recording of that, by the way, pre what had to happen to make it work on the Internet, is fantastic.  Like, I listen to it next to the original album and it’s just massive and so alive, and it’s just a great sounding recording.  I heard it on MySpace and was like, “Wow, that’s the same recording?  That sounds pretty wimpy.”  So I was a little disappointed that that had to happen, but that’s just because MySpace had to compress the audio files in order to get it on the Internet, but we would like to get that recording out as a commercial product next year, if possible.

Was it comfortable to all get back together and play again?

Yeah, it was a little rocky for the first day.  We had a three-day sound check, and then the audience comes into the same place.  It was so easy – it’s nice to have a three-day sound check.  It came together really well.

What do your fingers feel like after a show?

Well, I put these kind of special Band-Aids over the ends of my fingers so I just don’t pound them into blood.  My hands are pretty strong at that.  I mean, four or five nights into it, sometimes it’s a little tender.  I went years at a time when I’d wake up in the morning on tour, I couldn’t pick up a glass or open the hotel room door.  That was before I started thinking about my technique.  I don’t play softer or less aggressive than I used to at all, but I do it in a way now that doesn’t hurt me.

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