Still beating the crap out of his piano.
Tomorrow night, songwriter extraordinaire Ben Folds (minus the 5) takes the stage at the Tower Theater. We chatted with him (via e-mail, as he was having some voices issues) about going solo, William Shatner, and his new record, a collaboration with writer Nick Hornby.
If memory serves, I saw Ben Folds 5 for the first time in 1996 at a little place called the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach, Fla. It was right around the time "Underground" started getting some radio play. And I remember thinking the band had this fantastically sincere-but-quirky vibe to it; the heartfelt songs with a punk-rock, overdrive bass and a singer who was not afraid to beat the shit out of his piano. And I'm wondering, as you look back, how do you think you've changed?
Wow, that's a book if I'm really going to answer it well. And it's complicated, because since the person asking the question has grown and changed, too, we have absolutely no perspective, haha. I feel as though I put everything into music that I have. I have always done that. And circumstances change, and I react to them musically. I try to concentrate on my craft first the reason that I am lucky enough to have a job. Then I try to relax everything that is not being engaged in order to let something new happen. If the comet passes I want to let it illuminate something uncharted if possible. So I'll find myself making up songs on the spot to ChatRoulette, or making an album with a novelist. These to me seem very much like the same person you described, reacting in new circumstances. I don't have the pressure of making people like me so much. When you start out, you have no gig until you can impress enough people. I enjoy having passed that. But I still feel the need to put everything I have into it. Beating the crap out of the piano is of course somehow still a part of that.
I think everyone who had even a cursory knowledge of BF5 knew you were beyond solid on the piano. I don't think that many people certainly not I knew how strong you were with other instruments, at least until you started releasing solo records. I read somewhere that actually studied percussion at the University of Miami, and if I'm remembering right, you left one credit short of graduation or something like that. I'll get into Lonely Avenue in a second, but for instance, there's some great drum work on "Doc Pomus" and a few other tracks. Now that you're basically tracking almost everything yourself in studio, how has that changed your approach to recording?
Well! Since you mention it, that drumming on "Doc Pomus" is my very capable drummer Sam Smith, who plays on tour with me, too. I did play a lot of the instruments on this album, but quite a bit of it was also captured live in the studio on analog. Oddly, some of the slickest sounding tracks were live and done quickly. I played everything on "Your Dogs" and [lead single] "From Above," for instance. They're a little rawer-sounding probably. I like the freedom to do both. Sometimes I just want to get my hands on the instruments. Other times I enjoy just being a live pianist, singer and having it all happen immediately.
I'm curious, speaking of this new record, how the collaboration with Nick Hornby came to be. What, in particular, made you want to work with him?
It was bound to happen. We're very much like brothers artistically. I love his books and he's been listening to my albums since the beginning even knows all the obscure stuff. It simply would have been a shame not to have eventually collaborated. We see things very similarly, and when we don't, we have a great discussion about and I learn something.
The record, for those who've yet to hear it, is more or less 11 short stories set to music. Tell me a bit about the writing process: Did you create a melody and have Nick fill in the words, or did he present you with words and you hammered out the music? Was he actively involved in the studio sessions, or did he hand it off to you at some point?
Nick sent me lyrics by e-mail. I returned an MP3 usually the next day with most of the song completed, and most often what he heard were the album tracks. Of course, I had to then do the necessary work to make those rough tracks into an album. Nothing manipulative, as we were staying mostly on tape. But, you know, just the right minimal sound here or there, or often orchestration to make it a record. I kept Nick abreast of these things, but he didn't feel the need to have input any more than I felt the need to change his lyrics. I didn't edit and he didn't direct music.
The record's finale, "Belinda," is to me, anyway perhaps the most striking on the record. It's bittersweet and achingly earnest. What went through your mind when you first read Nick's lyric to that?
Well, I thought that it was classic Nick. Firstly, the character has weakness and is admitting the weakness. But some of the character's weakness, in my opinion, has gone over the character's head. He's got one hit and its about his ex from years ago. So now he has to sing her name every night and he regrets having been an ass and having left her. But maybe he wasn't an ass, and he just can't let go of the past as easily as he suggests he has. We don't know Belinda, maybe she's a horrible con artist who's managed to have her name immortalized in a song while he tours the world thinking he made a mistake. Who knows. His character obviously feels that he messed up the love of his life. So it's about regret. And regret is a tough emotion. Nick captures it well, and with enough nuance and depth that we can agree or disagree with his character and still remain engaged.
You've been fairly prolific since going solo, and doing a lot of interesting stuff: A few months ago, I came across a DVD of you performing reconfigured version of some of your songs with a symphony orchestra in Australia. There was the record you produced for William Shatner; this record with Nick Hornby; you've spent some time promoting a capella groups; your insanely fun cover of "Bitches Ain't Shit." You've been covering a lot of musical ground. What is it that attracts you to some of these projects that are, in a sense, off the beaten path for many pop-music songwriters?
Quite simply, I go where my heart says. And that rarely steers me wrong. I mean, these are not all hugely commercially successful endeavors but they feel very alive to me and it's why I do what I do. My gig as I see it is simply to react musically to the opportunity or the situation before me.
You're playing Philly Saturday night: I'm wondering how you go about creating setlists. Do you go about the same list every night, or do you wing it? Also, the last time I saw you perform was last year, I think April 2009, in Orlando. And there, I noticed that you did some different versions of some of the songs on Way to Normal, the record you were promoting at the time, like "Bitch Went Nuts" and maybe a couple others. What variations might folks get to hear Saturday? What should we expect?
We're getting a new album out there, so the setlist in those phases are designed to welcome the new music and keep that thread between the now and the past. You could really make your new stuff sound stiff to place them in the set list the wrong way! I love playing a set and enjoying a song like "Landed" being received as a classic, when it only seems like a few days ago that I had to wheel that song out and play it for the first time. It took amazing discipline to incorporate "Brick" into the setlist years ago. It stopped the show from rocking, and since nobody knew it, they talked through the whole thing. I try to play the news ones like they're old hat. I try to play the old ones like they're new ... if that makes any sense. Anything is up for re-arranging but I never want to do that to the point they are not recognizable.
Sarah Palin's grandbaby-daddy Levi Johnston has become something of a fame-whore the last year or so. Any chance of you asking him to star in a video about the song about him, "Levi Johnston's Blues?"
I realize that his fame is good for the promotion of the song and so I don't discourage it. But the song doesn't come through completely when it's eclipsed by the celebrity part. I find that a little distracting just for the song's sake. The song is about growing up. Levi is a powerful symbol, as many people don't grow up in one night on stage with their mother-in-law's speech to the RNC. But we all feel our lives are dramatic and important, and that moment you find yourself traversing the line from child to adult can be quite a big deal. But you need a moment that resonates in order to get that across in a song. So Levi is a good subject in that way. It's not about him. We don't know him. We only know the bravado behind his Myspace page ("I'm a f-ing redneck," etc. this was taken word for word from his Myspace page and it's our chorus!). And we know that he looked pretty scared in his first public appearance. Boys make outrageous claims about kicking asses and so forth, or find some way to be obnoxious. That's our job when we're boys. But we lose that job the moment we have to stuff ourselves into a suit. We wrote that song before Levi became a household name, so yeah, Nick picked a winner! Haha. But I think the song will mean more years down the line.
That record you produced and recorded with William Shatner a few years back, called "Has Been," was, well, amazing, and everybody should get it. I saw the clip of Shatner on George Lopez's show doing the Cee-Lo song "Fuck You" a short while ago, and I was thinking how incredibly awesome it would be if he recorded that with you. So ... what was it like working with Shatner? And any plans to do it again?
No plans. I felt like that was a special moment that I would be nervous repeating. "Has Been" was about Bill's life and the strength of his being in the public eye for so long and having not really told his story was our fuel. I think we could do something good, but I kind of feel like we did it.
A bunch of friends want to know: Any chance of The Bens regrouping?
I think we're all too caught up and busy. Tell your friends, thanks for the thoughts!
Ben Folds plays Saturday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m. at Tower Theater.