May 1999
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The Big, Exciting Interview with Ben Folds

by Jessica Brandt

[Introduction] [The New Album] [Screw-ups] [Videos] [Being a Rock Star/Levi's Ad] [Fear of Pop] [The Tour] [New Family] [A Real Rock Show] [More on the New Album] [Ben's Dad] [Tack Piano] ["Don't Change Your Plans"] [Comparisons] [Favorite Music] [Talk Shows] [Fans] [The Name] [Links to related stuff] [Win a Signed 'Brick' single!]

About four years ago, a guy I knew told me I had to listen to this new band. He said they were described as "Punk rock for sissies."

"They don't have a guitar," he said, "but they rock!"

So after four years, six concerts, four albums, hundreds of bootlegs, dozens of singles, and hundreds of dollars later, I finally got a chance to know Ben Folds as "just a guy." He's sweet and "southern," and very softspoken when not onstage. He's not a flamboyant rock star like Manson, or an antisocial rock star like Thom Yorke. He fits nicely inbetween, like he's just some dude who happens to play piano, and happens to be on MTV.

The band just released its third new album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner on the Sony 550 label. You can check out The Shrub's review of it at the bottom of this page. I've also got some other various goodies for you to peruse.

Ben and I talked for quite a while. He was gracious enough to make time for me before deadline, sometime between his packed tour schedule and the time he takes to talk with his pregnant girlfriend back "home" in Australia.

Since the interview is so long, I broke it up into topics, if you fancy reading it that way. If not, read straight through.

Whatever you do, listen to Ben Folds Five.

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The Shrub: What do you think of recording in a big studio over just recording at home?

Ben Folds: It's two totally different experiences with different outcomes. A recording should capture an event. Houses are good for that always. But it's painful.

The Shrub: Painful?

Ben Folds: Once you have a good grasp on getting a vibe, the art is in transferring the feeling to a huge studio. Studios sound much better. They're easier. Home recordings are a technical nightmare. Ours was; it sucked.

The Shrub: Do you think you guys are much tighter as a band now, and were able to do a good studio album?

Ben Folds: We don't let the studio boss us around anymore. We just remain ourselves, leave the fuckups and all. Keep live perfomances.

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The Shrub: Some of your fans miss the little bits of talking and screw-ups you recorded for Whatever... Was it a concious decision to leave those out of the new one, or were there just no good screw-ups?

Ben Folds: It wasn't appropriate in the middle of this album. This album was about maintaining a feeling from beginning to end. Not interupting it with 'Look how cute we are.'

But yeah, you're right. That's the beauty of home recording: give and take.

The Shrub: What about the laugh in "Army"....purposefully recorded?

Ben Folds: No.

The Shrub: It really works, especially in the video. Who is it?

Ben Folds: The laugh is Tom Maxwell [of Squirrel Nut Zippers].

It doesn't work nearly as much as the bits placed between songs on Whatever... Those were placed for a reason. It was a concious decision to place the bits in Whatever... because we were getting shit sound in that house.

We wanted to do something to bring the listener into the house. That would forgive the shortcomings of the sound and be more personal. We looked for those things.

The Shrub: Actually, there was a second pressing of Whatever... and they took most of the sounds out, as well as the "extra track"... lots of fans don't even know they exist.

Ben Folds: The talking before 'Song for the Dumped' was a painfully documented real argument that kept bringing up bad feelings. We decided to get rid of it and let the first pressings be collectors.

The Shrub: Wow. That makes sense, then.

Ben Folds: Yeah. Better to keep the band together.

It was ugly.

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The Shrub: What is it like for you recording videos? Do you look forward to it, or do you see it as just an advert for the album?

Ben Folds: Videos... we just do 'em cause we're supposed to. And because it's an experience each time, I guess...

The Shrub: Your videos are very entertaining. you guys are very physical. Except for 'Brick'...

Ben Folds: I think our videos suck for the most part. But most videos suck.

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The Shrub: How much has your life changed since becomming a "rock star" ...is it hard for you, now that you're getting even more popular?

Ben Folds: I don't know. i don't really feel like a rock star.

I'm not just saying that. I really don't.

The pressure is pretty thick sometimes, but I hate a whiny-ass rock star.

I deal fine.

The Shrub: Do you try to keep a low profile?

Ben Folds: I don't have to try. I am low profile by nature. I don't look like a rock star. And I don't act like one.

The Shrub: Why did you guys decide to do a Levi's ad?

Ben Folds: The money was right.

The Shrub: I've never seen you in a pair of jeans...

Ben Folds: I don't wear 'em. it made it hard to pick out Levi's clothes for the shoot. (laughs)

The Shrub: What did you end up wearing? what style? (this will sell a lot of jeans)

Ben Folds: No jeans. A pair of baggy pants with lots of pockets, a t-shirt and a jean jacket.

The Shrub: Are you prepared to see yourself on a big billboard?

Ben Folds: I've seen it before. It's a job.

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The Shrub: Fear of Pop....will there be a Volume 2?

Ben Folds: I'm going to skip up to volume 3 next time.

The Shrub: You should do 11....call it "Ours Goes to 11"

Ben Folds: Eleven. Lucky number for me.

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The Shrub: Why did you guys decide to start out the tour with colleges? Colleges no one can get into...

Ben Folds: Low pressure. A lot of kinks to work out before high profile touring.

The Shrub: Has there been a good reception of the new stuff?

Ben Folds: We've played in front of very receptive core audiences who should be the first to see the shows as they develop.

Also, I've got to get my ass to australia in July. That dictates some strange routing in order to be touring the right place at the right times.

[top]

The Shrub: Is that when Ben Jrs. are coming?

Ben Folds: July probably. The month that we needed most to be touring...

The Shrub: May I ask, how is Frally [Folds' girlfriend] doing? Is everything a-ok with the pregnancy?

Ben Folds: She's great thanks.

The Shrub: That's good to hear. It must be tough to have you away.

Ben Folds: Yeah. And I'm getting antsy about it. But it's fine.

The Shrub: Well, just like any father thousands of miles away should be...

Ben Folds: Yeah...

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The Shrub: How long did you have this shit for the new album? Did you just come up with it around studio time, or has it been stirring in you since Whatever...?

Ben Folds: Mostly written in the studio. Except for 'Magic,' which Darren wrote six months before.

The Shrub: Are you thinking of touring with more people after this leg of the tour, or do you like the way it's been with just the 3 of you?

Ben Folds: The three of us has been working out pretty well, I think.

The Shrub: I agree. You sound like 10 guys.

Ben Folds: I'm putting off plans to add orchestration until I think we need the excitement.

The Shrub: To tell the truth, the light show, of all things, really adds to the excitement.

Ben Folds: Yeah. It's something that so many bands at our level would have been doing a long time ago... but we've always wanted to be more personal about things.

But now, it seemed like time to go up a notch. People are paying too much not to see a real rock show.

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The Shrub: Did any of your ideas for Fear of Pop spill over into the new album? It seems like 'Regrets' could have been with either project.

Ben Folds: Actually, if i hadn't done Fear of Pop, I woulda forced my goofy ideas on Robert and Darren. As it stands, we could just concentrate on songs, since I got it out of my system for a while.

I agree about 'Regrets.' That's the one we haven't added to the set yet.

The Shrub: Was 'Regrets' intended to follow 'Army'? the end line of 'Army' and beginning of 'Regrets' fit together like a puzzle.

Ben Folds: Yeah. A lot of the songs are woven together through often sublte, motific threads. 'Army', 'Regrets' and 'Hospital' have the same exact chords.

[top]

The Shrub: So what does your dad think about his track? has it hit him that he will be a national comedy treasure?

Ben Folds: Papa thinks it's cool. He'll get a royalty check too.

So he'll be the one laughing.

The Shrub: It's not every day that you get something that exciting from your dad...

Ben Folds: It is for me.

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The Shrub: What kind of piano is your "other" piano? How do you get that sound, like on 'Mess'?

Ben Folds: That tack piano at my back in concert.

The Shrub: Tack piano...I just didn't know what it was called. What's the difference?

Ben Folds: It's the baby grand that I toured with forever. Retired it to a tack piano. Put thumbtacks in the hammers. It makes the piano sound brassier and brighter.

The Shrub: Oh, so that's why it looks like shit? that's the one that you beat up on all those years?

Ben Folds: Yup. It sounds amazing though.

The Shrub: Where did you hear of doing that, or did you make it up?

Ben Folds: People have always done that to old upright pianos. I just decided to try it on a grand. It sounds more harpsichord-ish on a grand.

The Shrub: Ah. Like that honky-tonk lady on Lawrence Welk.

Ben Folds: Yeah. Like her.

[top]

The Shrub: Let's talk about 'Don't Change Your Plans'...

Ben Folds: Okay.

The Shrub: That song is just incredible. but really, it sort of creeps me out. It almost sounds like a "goodbye" song to all of your fans...although everyone tells me it's about chicks.

Ben Folds: Hmm...

The Shrub: Like...."Don't change your plans, cuz we won't be a band after this album, freaks!"

Ben Folds: I think i'll just let that one hang in the air. It's a little bit of a mystery to me too.

Some songs just have a thing like that and we thought that one did and just never talked about it too much. We're getting along well right now.

[top]

The Shrub: How do you feel about the fact that 90% of the articles and reviews about you mention Elton John and/or Billy Joel?

"Billy Joel's first prog rock album" said Rolling Stone, I think.

Ben Folds: Rolling Stone is dumb.

The Shrub: Tell me about it.

Ben Folds: Mr. Joel probably had to put up with Elton comparisons more than I ever have.

And Elton had to put up with Jerry Lee Lewis.

And Jerry Lee had to put up with Little Richard.

And Little Richard had to put up with Fats Domino.

[top]

The Shrub: What kind of music do you like? What inspires you? What is in your CD player right now?

Ben Folds: Right now...Nojahoda from England. They rock.

The Shrub: Geezus, what kind of band is that? [See below for link]

Ben Folds: Nojahoda. They're a fucked up band that's what kind. But it's really cool.

I'm famous for being an Elliott Smith fan. And a Belle and Sebastian fan. And of course the Zippers.

The Shrub: Cake and Beck, too? Most cool rock stars like Cake and Beck. You have the same tastes as most of your fans.

Ben Folds: Cake! My buddy John [McCrea], yeah.

The Shrub: Rufus Wainwright?

Ben Folds: Beck of course. Rufus is excellent. Tori is better though.

The Shrub: Yeah but he's sexier.

Ben Folds: I'd have to disagree there.

The Shrub: Come on, he's HOT...

Ben Folds: Whatever. He's no Jeff Buckley.

[top]

The Shrub: What is it like for you being on late night talk shows? Did you grow up watching them?

Ben Folds: Yeah. I grew up watching them so I was nervous as shit the first few times playing them.

I was never nervous on Conan's show because I'd never seen it. So he was just a guy. A tall one. And very smart and charming to talk to.

Unlike Letterman who's a grump.

The Shrub: You have been on Conan's show like...5 times now. Are you really confortable with that situation now?

Ben Folds: Yeah, I feel like I'm in the fucking Conan O'Brien house band.

The Shrub: Hey, you get a lot of excellent exposure from being on Conan's show. The fans dig it.

Ben Folds: It's the best show to play. It's happening now. It's not history.

[top]

The Shrub: Do you have any stories about scary fans?

Ben Folds: No. I try to forget scary fans instead of immortalizing them in print.

The Shrub: Has anyone tried to cut off your hair or take your clothes off?

Ben Folds: Good luck getting any hair... but I've had my shoes ripped off my feet on stage. And a ring taken.

The Shrub: An expensive ring?

Ben Folds: Wedding ring.

The Shrub: Your fans...they're zealous to say the least.

Ben Folds: There was a fight in the crowd and this really cool English girl came up victoriously with my ring. She gave it back. Sweetheart.

It didn't matter cause we got a divorce the next month anyway.

The Shrub: Well at least you could pawn the ring.

Ben Folds: I don't know what I did with it.

We've got nice fans. I don't have a problem with them at all.

The Shrub: Have you ever read the [mailing lists] Magical Armchair or the Rockford Files?

Ben Folds: Never read the Rockford Files. I saw Armchair years ago.

I know I know. They fight like hell. At least that's what I heard.

The Shrub: They've since gotten over it.

[top]

The Shrub: So, give me a story about what happened to the other 2 members of your group. Why "five"?

Ben Folds: No story behind the name.

The Shrub: Come on, you made one up for every other damn magazine.....or do you need your partners Frick and Frack to make up a good one?

Ben Folds: They're tired of it too. They don't answer it either as of the last two years of that question.

[top]

Much thanks to Ginger and Sandi, without them I wouldn't be so cool.


Related Links:

The Nojahoda Homepage

WIN a 'Brick'/'Fair' 7" single, signed by all 3 members of Ben Folds Five! (contest ends June 1, 1999)

Read Ginger's review of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner in last month's issue.

Buy the new album PLUS a video!

Join the Magical Armchair

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