April 24May 1, 1997
Chatting with Ben Folds sans Five.
By Margit Detweiler
Ben Folds Five.
I've been taking piano lessons, trying to squeeze them into my work day whenever I can. Though I studied classical piano for 10 years as a child, beginning when I was 7, this time everything's different.
Instead of a crabby old woman screaming at me because I haven't practiced, red-penciling the words "SLOWER!" over my Mendelssohn, I'm now blessed with a calm, groovy Settlement Music School jazz prof who puts on Pancho Sanchez as I try tolearn the Latin-jazz standard, "Morning." He tells me I can loosen up and just feel the "mood" of the piece.
"Don't worry so much if the notes are wrong... Improvise!"
Classically trained, this is everything my fingers don't understand.
It's terrifying. There's safety in notes.
But I'm trying to let go.
When Ben Folds plays the piano, his abandon is invigorating. The leader of the Chapel Hill-based trio (drum-bass-piano) Ben Folds Five drops familiar, glitzy references from Joe Jackson to Gershwin, slams out angry chords and glides into jazzyballads all in a pop construct. Certainly he's no Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra this is rock and roll. But in the context of pop, Ben Folds is wildly refreshing.
So when I called Ben Folds, who's currently touring for his second CD, Whatever and Ever Amen (Sony/ 550), I wanted to talk keys.
"I started with lessons when I was 9 and I only did that for a year," says Folds in his slight Southern drawl. "At one point my mother tried to take me to a teacher who was a really loose, kind of jazzy teacher and he didn't teach meanything. I'd go in and play stuff for him and he'd say, 'How the hell did you play that?' And I told my mother how the lessons went and she said, 'OK that's enough for lessons!'"
I explained to Folds that I was trying to de-learn my early piano-lesson stuff and use my ear more.
"Yeah, I never had to do that. I never had the frustration of being able to play wonderfully without knowing what I was playing. Which is kinda good, and then again I'd love to be able to play [by reading music]... But someone can scream out'Champagne Supernova' and I can just play it... After I quit [the lessons] I started playing a lot of other instruments, so piano just became part of the whole thing. I'd play guitar and translate it to the piano or play drums and want to hearsomething with it... But I never sat around learning other stuff."
Folds started his college career as a percussion major, and was placed in a first-year piano class.
"We'd play on these electronic pianos with headphones on and they didn't know who was playing what. One time we had a substitute teacher who was showing us how to play something and then I'd embellish on it. He'd say, 'Who did that?' and noone would say. The substitute teacher basically caught me at it. And he said, 'Let me see you after class.' I thought now I'm in trouble... but I ended up getting a piano scholarship. I switched my declared major to piano and I ended up dropping outof school after a semester."
Folds' sense of mischief shows up throughout his music. Mixing Eastern European dance swirls with whoppingly showtunish flourishes and edgy, Squeeze-like pop isn't easy to pull off, but BFF does it.
And lemme tell you, he's sick of the Gershwin references.
"Other than that one lick at the end of one song, there's not a lot of Gershwin going on. I think there's a lot of Scott Joplin and I don't mean the ragtimey stuff. I mean some of his diminished pretty stuff."
The mood of Whatever and Ever Amen is more introspective than Folds' self-titled first album for Passenger/Caroline ranging from spiteful, rockin', break-up rants to slow easy-listeners that at their best sound airy and noirish and at theirworst sound, sort of charmingly, like a TV show theme song. The sound is sharper and cleaner on the second effort: Darren Jessee tightens up the drums and Robert Sledge fuzzes down his bass.
"The thing to do [with the second album] was to do a pumped-up modern-rock version of what the first record was. Learn what we learned about playing live, slam it and play it loud, and streamline the lyrics down to simple things. But wecouldn't get excited about that. So we took a risk in that it's not what people expected. Too many ballads."
The 30-year-old songwriter doesn't like to talk much about the meanings in his songs the song "Brick" alludes to illness and loneliness, but Folds says only that "it's based on something I understood from my past." He doeselaborate on "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," a song about a geeky kid, now a successful grownup, who boasts, "If you really want to see me/ Check the papers and the TV/ Look who's telling who what to do."
Folds says that "Dwarf" is about "a pissed-off little guy who made a lot of money after he got beat up in school. It's not me. But... it's enough of me for me to be able to write about it... I always put myself into stuff todifferent extents. The more literally I put myself into something the less willing I am to talk about it."
The characters Folds chronicles are hardly heroic from the average middle-class white guy who can't express his feelings to the average middle-class white guy who screams at his ex, "Give me my money back/ You bitch."
"I like to write from a point of weakness something that you can't always trust. People like to make themselves sound good in songs, they like to narrate songs from a point of view that knows everything. It's like, I love Bob Dylan, but a lotof time that's what songs from that genre are. Like [he imitates Dylan's nasal tones], 'And then he did this, oh he's sorry now...' If you write from a point of view of oblivious weakness, people are able to connect with that."
As a band, Ben Folds Five is anything but weak. Thanks to improved distribution via Sony and Modern Rock airplay, they've already sold 36,381 albums in the month since the record was released (their Passenger album sold 60,000 copies total) and wentgold in Japan after four days of their record's release.
Along with kitsch-lounge act the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Ben Folds Five has hit the biggest of any of the bands in the North Carolina indie-rock scene, which has also spawned Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Pipe and Polvo.
"We aren't the bands anyone expected to make it big [from the North Carolina scene] especially to this extent. Either one of us is selling more a week than any other Chapel Hill bands combined," he says, sounding a little like the"Dwarf" guy. "I don't think anyone back home really knows that."
A curious angle to some of Ben Folds' success actually might have to do with our own ex-local band The Low Road. Both bands were signed to Caroline Records' new, Adult Alternative subsidiary, Passenger.
Folds was sorry to hear of the Low Road's break-up.
"That's really a shame... It's always arguable whether someone got the best treatment when it comes to a record company. To be fair, Passenger signed them and put records out for them. With a band like The Low Road they're not a rock band, orvery mainstream they're not going to get that chance very often."
According to Folds, Ben Folds Five was signed because of The Low Road, and, ironically, might have been part of the reason The Low Road was ultimately dropped.
"The Low Road was the blueprint of what Passenger Records was. [Caroline Records'] Chas Mollins' idea was, 'I'd like to sign a band like The Low Road and make it for like an older Triple A [Adult Album Alternative] crowd... and they signedus...Really quickly, we picked up with younger people and modern-rock stations the sort of thing Caroline was used to marketing. That could have screwed up The Low Road to a certain extent because Passenger just kind of abandoned all theirideas about being Triple A. So, I don't think we did them any favors."
But the esoteric-edged Folds doesn't much listen to the radio stations that play his music.
"As a format, I don't like Modern Rock that much, and I don't like Triple A that much. The funny thing is, I think Triple A has more integrity than Modern Rock, although Modern Rock touts itself as being edgy. Still, look at who makes the bigbucks. They'll tell you, 'Oh man we would love to play you but we have to play Bush, I mean we don't like that shit...' You never hear that at Triple A. Triple A plays exactly what they want to play. They happen to play some pretty dorky shit, butthey believe in it."
Like me on my keyboard. Right now, my playing sounds like some pretty dorky shit. But I believe in it.
I may not be Ben Folds. But John Tesh watch your back.
Ben Folds Five and Komeda play the T.L.A., 334 South St., on Wed., April 30. Info: 922-1011.