Ben Folds

Outgrows the Industry of Cool

Music Features Ben Folds
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Ben Folds

Tabla, New York City’s premier Indian-fusion restaurant, occupies a cavernous space on the ground level of the Met Life tower. Situated along Madison Avenue and overlooking the greenish-yellow puddle that is Madison Square Park, the place radiates comfortable refinement, all deeply burnished wood and exotic tile mosaics. The business-lunch crowd filters through the revolving doors, up the wide spiral staircase, spilling out into the curvilinear dining area in a steady trickle of designer fabrics.

Ben Folds  sits across the table from me, looking nerdy-chic in fat-rimmed eyeglasses and old jeans, his pink collared shirt untucked and hanging out below a V-neck sweater. His tousled mop obscures a slightly receding hairline. But while his outfit hardly screams “business” like the knit suits of patrons dining close by, that’s precisely what brings him to town.

April will see the release of Folds’ second full-length solo effort, Songs for Silverman—not to be confused with 2001’s critically horsewhipped Jack Black movie, Saving Silverman. The day before our interview Folds spent 21 straight hours meeting with label folks and indulging the press. By all accounts, his profession doesn’t solely involve pouring Cristal into Jacuzzis overflowing with bikini-clad runway models.

But while Folds has ample reason to be exhausted from being back on the “music business schedule,” as he calls it, you won’t hear him complaining. Things are looking up for the erstwhile leader of piano-anchored geek-rock trio, Ben Folds Five (“Bad math joke,” says Folds of the band’s head-scratching billing). For starters, the music press appears to have finally woken up to his solo career.

“It’s just bizarre how the vibe changes. With Rockin’ the Suburbs, I was a 30-something guy who’d just split with his one-hit wonder band and was on his first dodgy solo record. It’s not a position of strength. People were skipping out on the interviews. I sat in England in an office for eight hours and only one interview showed up. I felt like I’d flown there for nothing. But now everything’s so different from that. Everything’s running smoothly again. I’m older than I was, and I’m still washed-up, and I haven’t changed my music one iota. It’s just much easier to do this when people are being nice to you.”

Folds attributes his fresh momentum to a trio of successful EPs—Sunny 16, Speed Graphic and Super D—all recorded during the interim period between Rockin’ the Suburbs and his newest full-length. While the internet-exclusive EPs sailed to the top of Billboard’s download chart, Folds’ management and label fielded calls from industry suits eager to know how some has-been alt-rock pianist from Nashville managed to boot Ms. Bootylicious herself (and her ubiquitous hit “Crazy in Love”) from the #1 download spot.

Folds is no stranger to Billboard’s loftier altitudes. BF5’s 1997 sophomore release, Whatever and Ever Amen, eventually went platinum, largely thanks to the success of “Brick,” a song whose title couldn’t have been any less appropriate for the commercial radio slam dunk it turned out to be. Folds wrote the song about taking his high-school girlfriend to get an abortion, and on a live CD released in 2002 capped off a rehashing of its backstory by noting, “It was a very sad thing, but I didn’t really want to write the song from any kind of political standpoint or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect on what it feels like.” Over doleful piano lines the song’s jarringly transparent lyrics probe an impossibly tender adolescent bruise, unpacking the loneliness of two kids struggling to comfort one another amid the isolating fallout of a dead-end trauma.

The down-tempo gravitas of “Brick” set up a delightful bait-and-switch initiation for fans just tuning in. After all, most of Whatever and Ever Amen—giddy, Ritalin-munching rock tunes full of piano-banging and layer-cake ’70s-style harmonies—side-steps confessional balladry, taking its cues instead from melodic garage punk. Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis tripping on some of Brian Wilson’s most potent LSD and catching fleeting glimpses of some faraway Nirvana.

“When we came along, the tag was ‘Punk rock for sissies.’ We started playing our first gigs right about the time Kurt Cobain died, and we were playing punk clubs. That’s why we were relevant. It was basically acoustic piano with a grunge rhythm section. Our goal as BF5 was to be the loudest piano band in existence. No one had been doing that so we were competing with rock bands—only on piano. If we’d sucked, we’d have been relegated to high-art, indie music that would’ve been well-reviewed. But the better we were, the more competitive we were in the mainstream.”

Cobain brandished his middle finger in the face of a morally vacuous establishment attempting to cash in on his psychic pain, a world that would later mourn his passing while simultaneously wringing a few extra dollars from his dead corpse. Folds, on the other hand, reserved his signature vitriol-laced Kool-Aid for the maddening drip-torture of childhood romance.

On the opening track to Whatever and Ever Amen, “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” he sings, “Jane, remember second grade / Said you couldn’t stand my face / Rather than kiss me you said / You’d rather die / You’ll be sorry one day / Yes you will.”

A few tracks later, on “Song for the Dumped,” he sharpens his frustration: “Wish I hadn’t bought you dinner / Right before you dumped me / On your front porch / Give me my money back / Give me my money back, you bitch / I want my money back / And don’t forget / Don’t forget to give me back my black T-shirt.”

Folds shrugs off rejection’s sting by making a joke of it, and his audience gets a cathartic rush from hearing him sling playground insults at the girls who trounced his heart. But just when you think you’re dealing with some juvenile cut-up who won’t stop kidding long enough for you to establish any real emotional connection, on the album’s final cut (“Evaporated”), he drops his guard and sings, “It seems that all men / Wanna get in a car and go / Anywhere / Here I stand, sad and free / I can’t cry and I can’t see / What I’ve done … I poured my heart out and it evaporated.” And you reel, off-balance from the poignancy of his confessional sucker punch.

After spending a few hours in Folds’ company you realize that—like his songs—the man is anything but one-dimensional. Fans are understandably better acquainted with the flamboyant showman they’ve seen onstage conducting his audience in three-part harmony sing-alongs. “Not in a Vegas way quite so much as if you’re in church,” Folds says. “White people don’t sing together very often and, when they do, it’s about the celebrity of the song. The singing at my shows is all about harmony.”

They’re familiar with the Ben Folds notorious for peppering his set with bouts of tomfoolery (donning gaudy Elton John shades for a note-perfect cover of “Tiny Dancer”) and endearingly twisted humor (think Justin Hawkins of The Darkness, whom Folds covers on Super D). The fun-loving Ben Folds who invariably reminds male listeners of their best friend from college; and female listeners of that long-ago boyfriend who’d have them laughing so hard a few snorts would inevitably surface.

But in the first several minutes following our introduction, I find him sober, mild-mannered and at times almost shy, hinting at the buttoned-up maturity you’d reasonably expect from a 38-year-old husband and father. When he feels as though he’s sufficiently answered a question, he pensively stabs at his salmon entrée, casting frequent glances out the picture window beside us toward the park. Folds maintains a healthy diet and takes his coffee with soy milk. He prefers to keep life simple. When he’s not on the road, he splits time between home and his nearby studio.

“I don’t leave my neighborhood. I don’t go anywhere. There are four blocks I live in and there are two coffee shops, one at each end of the block. My studio at one end, that’s my studio coffee shop, and then there’s my neighborhood coffee shop so I don’t do much driving. … Some people would say they never see me because I don’t go anywhere. I stay in the blue state of Nashville, in my bubble.”

I’m just getting comfortable with my slightly reconfigured notion of Ben Folds—the socially reticent, conscientious musician who slaves away in the recording studio until it’s time to saunter home and help his wife get dinner on the table—when he complicates the picture once again, reminiscing on the shows he used to play with BF5.

“I had one big sort of shtick that always popped on television or in a performance: being absolutely and completely irreverent toward the piano as an instrument. That was the image on MTV News in 1997, right before the end of the broadcast. They showed a piano stool flying from a speaker stack 50 feet away from the stage and landing on the piano. I used to dive off of shit onto the piano.”

“Only because you couldn’t pick up the piano and flip it over,” I joke.

“But I could,” he fires back, matter-of-factly. “I know exactly where to pick it up and flip it over. I was going to flip one on Letterman one time, but we were responsible and did our research and found out the floor on The Late Show is a million-dollar floor and if I turned the piano over, we’d have to pay for the floor. I wasn’t worried about the piano because I knew what the piano would do. It’s not safe, but yeah, I can flip a piano over. You take it on this side where there’s not really as much weight.” Folds pantomimes with his hands to make sure I fully understand the technique, like a wrestling coach modeling the fine art of applying a half-nelson. “Then you move it this way, and then push it down, and you can get it over in about five seconds. My five-foot baby grand piano, anyway.”

Perhaps I need to start over: Ben Folds is a mature, responsible performer who does his homework when exploring the feasibility of maniacally flipping his baby grand on late-night television. Cerebral Knievel. These psychological extremes aren’t supposed to peacefully co-exist in a human being. Are they?

Folds was born to middle-class parents in Winston-Salem, N.C. His father built houses for a living and frequently relocated the family to different parts of town (“When you’re 10 years old and changing neighborhoods and friends, it may as well be another city,” notes Folds). They’d live in each house a couple years, sell it and move to another one. While this nomadic lifestyle—Folds estimates 13 moves prior to high school graduation—hampered his ability to build close friendships, he found sorely needed continuity in his relationship with the piano, an instrument his father brought home from work in 1975.

“I just started playing, took lessons for about a year. Didn’t like lessons, but just kept making up songs on it. I was making up songs in my head before I got the piano and would always take opportunities to play at school or on a piano when I could, so I always loved the piano.

“I remember listening to a transistor radio under my pillow at night so my parents wouldn’t know I was listening to the radio. I don’t remember if it was FM or AM, probably just AM. But I remember hearing an Elton John song and going, ‘Ah, when I wake up in the morning, I’m just going to play that on the piano.” Folds places his left and right hands on an imaginary keyboard. “OK, that’s low, that’s high—no problem.’ I was so upset when I woke up in the morning. ... I couldn’t figure any of it out. That’s how much unfounded confidence I had in my ability at that age.”

“I’d been playing bass in a band. The band broke up, but we had a gig we were supposed to play. So I took a bunch of songs I’d written, found a piano in a practice room at the University of North Carolina, learned them, and went and played the gig by myself. I’d never really sung in front of people, especially not my own songs—I had ’em in my head. I had tapes where I’d be singing really, really quietly so no one in the other room could hear. But I went and played this gig, and the gig happened to be a showcase set up for the headlining band.

“So I opened the show, just at the piano. I played 12 songs I’d written, and all the labels and publishers there wanted to talk about doing something. … I ended up getting a publishing deal with a little publisher … so I moved to Nashville from North Carolina.”

The publishing deal went sour after a couple years, at which time Folds picked up and moved to New York, where he performed in some local theater troupes (he’d been involved in drama off and on throughout high school). In addition to acting, he continued playing out, enjoying a weekly gig at East Village hotspot Café Sin-é, the venue responsible for launching Jeff Buckley’s career.

“Jeff Buckley was being signed at that time by Columbia and I was talking to Steve, his A&R guy, and somehow we knew the same people or something. So I ended up moving back to North Carolina, got a band together, played our first gig after a month, and then after another couple months we signed to Caroline records. Our first record was out eight months after that.”

So when did things with Ben Folds Five begin to take off?

“Every gig. Every one was bigger than the last. We were doing something that no one else was doing. I’m moving a baby grand piano around in a van. Someone had to step up and take a real piano into punk rock clubs. There’s always a rocker on the piano every decade. There was nobody doing it at the time. So that was us. We did it.”

Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Elton John, Billy Joel. Popular music owes a staggering debt to their contributions. Still, contemporary rock ’n’ roll sails into the future, borne along atop an ocean of drone and feedback generated by countless Fender Strats and Teles, Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, Ibanezes and Paul Reed Smiths of every lust-inspiring body finish you can imagine. But it begs the question: Why exactly has acoustic piano become such an oddity in today’s guitar-dominated rock format?

“The piano is just a different animal,” explains Folds. “It’s expensive, it’s big, it’s heavy, and it doesn’t fit in the mix easily. It’s pretty rather than brash. Everyone grew up with a piano in their living room so rocking out on the piano was accessible—it wasn’t an upper-class thing. Now pianos have become very much a piece of furniture.

“Rock ’n’ roll became about loudness at some point. It had to be loud if it was going to sell. It’s the same thing as having fluorescent shit on the shelf in a shop, or massive billboards, or loud movie trailers—it’s all just bullshit. If you’re a mastering engineer, you know what people ask you to do with their music; you peak-limit it and make it as loud as it physically can possibly be. And on the radio they limit it again, make it louder with compression—no peaks, no valleys. But that’s not loud or soft, that’s nothing. Piano’s a very dynamic instrument. You can’t do those things to it as easily. I carry that loudness with me still, but I’ve tried to shake it off a little bit, because I want those valleys and peaks. But my playing style evolved in an era of Nirvana. I play much like a guitarist, a much louder, less dynamic sound than I would probably choose, but … that’s my accent.”

Hearing Folds describe his meshing of a more classical piano approach with the gritty rock coming out of Seattle in the early- to mid-’90s calls to mind another piano player, a young spiky-haired Brit with a similarly unorthodox and irreverent approach to the instrument. Is Folds familiar with Jamie Cullum?

“I recognize the shtick. In fact, I thought it was me on TV a few months ago. I turned it on and you could see his butt and he was holding his piano stool, hammering the left side of the piano keyboard. I was thinking to myself, ‘OK, that must be 1995, I must’ve been playing … where is that?’ And I thought it was me because I’d never seen anyone else do that exactly. And the stool was the give-away because no one else plays on a drum stool [during his first stay in Nashville, Folds earned some extra cash as a session drummer]; they play on a piano stool.

“So then the camera pans out and it’s some other guy, and I’m like, ‘I’m not dead yet, who is that?’ I thought it was completely different musically, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t take much of that cue from something he saw when he was in high school. Musically, I think he’s a really good piano player, and he can sing too, but I didn’t really know how I felt about seeing someone really hammering away at this shtick which I’ve stupidly chosen to not get mileage out of anymore. I’d rather see more musical communication and less pogo-jumping.”

“Was it hard for you to scale back on the clowny aspect of your own performance?” I ask.

“The thing is, I just felt more comfortable being funny or not being myself. I was pretty much a dork growing up. Going up in front of a crowd and being an idiot was a relief when I was a kid. But talking to two or three people at once and being myself was impossible. And being myself while singing a song was more than impossible; I would’ve rather died. I get really nervous and tend to want to be an idiot.

“I had to play a George Harrison song at a benefit a couple nights ago and it was really hard for me. Obviously it wasn’t my world. I wanted to be an idiot because that was going to make it easier on me. I probably came through looking really upset, but I was really trying to concentrate and be myself. I probably looked bored.”

The Cutting Room sits along W. 24th Street, between Broadway and 6th Avenue. Once you step inside off the street you’re met with a cozy lounge arrayed in red velvet curtains, Queen Anne chairs, leather couches, a nostalgic tabletop arcade version of Galaga and a dark mahogany bar. At the room’s far end, doors open into the listening room: an intimate performance area with plenty of seating, decorated with painted tributes to a cross-section of rock’s male pantheon—Bono, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. A much larger painting of Jimi Hendrix, wailing on his Strat against a Stars-and-Stripes backdrop, looms on the rear wall above the soundboard.

Folds and his new rhythm section—bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson—take the stage and, after getting situated, launch into “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You,” Sunny 16’s lead track. The tune hops along with such infectious momentum I find myself wishing more people were around to enjoy it. After all, Folds’ recent shows have consistently drawn 4,000 to 5,000 people. The room sits mostly empty, lights all the way up, but only because it’s a Wednesday afternoon, and this isn’t a regular performance. The band is taping a handful of songs for later broadcast on an MSNBC entertainment segment.

Watching the new lineup, I can feel unmistakable chemistry. The songs don’t sound like three musicians contributing parts, but rather a single locomotive pop vehicle hurtling forward into happy oblivion. Folds’ piano work dances over the fuzzed-out bass and lock-step drum beat as the group’s overall dynamic swells and tumbles like a cresting wave. Some of Folds’ more fanatical devotees—those who’ve emotionally purchased an ownership stake in his enterprise—will likely have difficulty getting used to the idea of a different backing band. While an MSNBC reporter interviews Folds inside the club, I’m able to catch a minute with Reynolds and Jamieson while they’re outside having a smoke. Do they feel any pressure to continue the Ben Folds Five legacy?

“Oh, you get it all the time,” says Reynolds, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “We’re never gonna be Robert Sledge or Darren Jesse in people’s minds, and that’s fine. We’re different guys and that was a different period. I’ve seen stuff they did and listened to the records, thinking, ‘These guys are badass,’ but we can’t try and be those guys. You’ve gotta move along. Ben’s music is going to change over time. He was a punk kid when he started that band. Now he’s married and has a kid. People are going to mature and go in different directions.”

S ongs for Silverman deals extensively with the notion of maturity—not as a commendation we receive at a certain age, like a high school diploma, but rather as a glacially subtle process—learning from life as it happens around us. For instance, the jaded “old bastard” Folds sings about in the album’s opening track, “Bastard,” is actually a teenager who’s convinced childhood is merely a vexing annoyance to be shuffled off at the first available opportunity (“Kids today are getting old too fast / They can’t wait to grow up so they can kiss some ass”).

While in the past, Folds’ music generally responded to pain with guarded, ironic detachment, his newest batch of songs comes off less wiseass and more unabashedly wise. He’s slowly letting go of his customary defense mechanism: making a hilarious mockery of life’s trying situations. When the protagonist in “Time” looks back on a failed relationship, instead of unleashing a tongue-in-cheek verbal assault, he invites his ex- to “Think of me / Any way you want / I can be / The problem if that’s easier.”

On the jaunty number “Gracie”—over light string accents and glittering piano—Folds revels in his love for his daughter (“You can’t fool me / I saw you when you came out ... You will always have a part of me / Nobody is ever gonna see / Gracie girl”). But he visits the grimmer end of life’s timeline in “Late,” in which he remembers the Elliott Smith he knew personally from various shared billings—not just the guy who wrote beautiful music, but also the one who played dirty in pick-up basketball.

Musically Silverman feels less self-conscious than Folds’ previous work. The synthetic beats and textures sprinkled across Rockin’ the Suburbs are replaced by the straightforward sound of a trio playing together live in the studio. Lounging in the backseat of the car shuttling us from The Cutting Room across town to the photo shoot, Folds describes the recording process: “The main thing is that we performed the songs, then went to the speakers—if we liked it, we kept it; if we didn’t, then we did it again. That seems like the most obvious way to record but it really isn’t the way we make records in this day and age. This is just very old-fashioned.”

In addition to working on a musical, a film score and soundtrack, as well as compiling a large collection of photographs he’s taken over the last several years (“I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but that’s just what I do for the kind of satisfaction I used to get out of writing songs”), Folds continues his quest to find humor and beauty in the mundane.

“I wrote a song that never really saw the light of day called ‘Breakup at Food Court’ about someone’s first horrible breakup having to be under fluorescent lights in a mall food court. But the reason I didn’t finish it is because I wanted to put the silver lining in there somewhere—that’s your life, you experienced it and one day you’ll look back on it, and at least you felt something—so it’s not a one-dimensional song. I was having a hard time pulling the second and third dimension out of the song, so I shit-canned it for a while.

“I think the second and third dimensions are really important for me as a songwriter. They’re not important for a first impression; three dimensions today are bad for a first impression. You want one good dimension to make an impression, to sell what you do and make people feel like they’re cool for listening to it. But it’s really more honorable to go ahead and do your job and try and build something that’s going to last.”

Folds goes silent. I stare out the window at the rainy New York asphalt, all cracked and weathered and whizzing past. I hope he’s right. I hope multiple dimensions increase a song’s chances of surviving the moment, this week’s playlist, this fickle, Neilsen-ruined industry climate. But even more, I hope the songwriter’s dimensions prove similarly indicative. Because, perhaps selfishly, I want to hear Folds’ take on things when he’s old and bald and—for the first time in his life—truly uncool.

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