Ben Folds morphs into a pop-music hydra when he walks on stage
—now he’s plucking your heartstrings with a crooned, tender ballad; now he’s slamming the keys and throttling a rock number; now he’s irrepressible, accompanying himself rapping out a Top 40 cover. For years now, Folds has perplexed the most nimble of musical minds with his inventive approach to piano songwriting, opting to keep it fresh rather than settle into the deeply carved ruts of his key-tickling forebears.
In the wake of some recent give-it-all festival appearances—and in anticipation of a new album—Paste grabbed a few moments on the phone with the troubadour to chat about the (non-)retirement of “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” what it was like producing Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer’s solo album and how to shame Björk with faux-electronic instruments.
: So where exactly in Europe are you right now?
Ben Folds: I'm in Bochum, Germany.
: How did your Glastonbury set go?
Folds: It was pretty good. The only rain during the festival happened right before our set—it just pissed down rain—and stopped when the set finished. So, uh, that wasn't too cool, but it was pretty good.
: Did you stay true to the oath you made onstage at Bonnaroo and keep [your Dr. Dre cover] "Bitches Ain't Shit" in retirement?
Folds: Oh no, we brought it out of retirement.
: So it's now the Michael Jordan of your live set.
Folds: I mean, I was choked up when we retired "Bitches Ain't Shit" at Bonnaroo, but then to bring it out of retirement like that was somehow even more moving for me. Then it went back into retirement, and then we brought it out again last night. So it's been an emotional roller coaster.
: Why did you retire it to begin with?
Folds: Well, the first time we retired it was actually a few nights before Bonnaroo. I just felt like we had played it enough. And then we were at Bonnaroo and I just looked out on the faces of all the children, and I just thought it wasn't fair that they didn't get to sing that. So, um, I brought it out of retirement for that. And then I felt like, when we played Glastonbury, I didn't want to give the children of America something that I didn't offer to the British kids too.
Folds: And then it's just sort of—and then it's just one thing leads to another and now we're in Germany and I felt like I need to bring it out too because I didn't want to offend the Germans.
: You need to learn the song in German and actually deliver it in their native language.
Folds: Yeah, something about bitches and schlumpa, bitches and schlumpa.
: In addition to these festival gigs, you've been playing a lot with orchestras—basically every orchestra in the country of Australia, the Boston Pops last year, and then you're playing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in September. When you were writing this new record, were you ever conscious about how the songs might translate to that context?
Folds: No, not at all. The new record is a very un-orchestral record. It's a fairly lyric-driven rock record. In fact, we've looked at taking a few of the songs on the new record and scoring them for orchestra and it was kind of slim pickins. It takes a certain kind of song with a certain sort of chord movement and voice leading to be conducive to that big of an ensemble. There's a couple that are going to work really well for orchestra, I think, but mostly the record is a rock record.
: The track "Free Coffee" jumped out as being much more electronic than a lot of the previous material you've written.
Folds: You know what's cool about that is that it's an acoustic piano playing the whole thing. It's an acoustic grand piano with lots of Altoids cans taped to the strings. And a distortion pedal. So everything in the beginning—there's no drums at the top or anything, the drums don't come in til the chorus—all that stuff is just the hammers of the piano hitting those boxes taped to the strings, and the distortion pedal.
: If only Björk knew that she could save thousands and thousands of dollars.
Folds: She could bring me and let me just plug my piano in, absolutely.
: With this being election season, are you planning to get political onstage at all?
Folds: I don't think I can sum my politics up as easily as…yeah, no. I mean I don't mind stating my opinion, but I'm not so interested in the basketball-game aspect, I guess.
: On the new record, I was excited to hear Regina Spektor pop up on the track "You Don’t Know Me." How did that collaboration come about?
Folds: It was pretty simple. I just got in touch with her. (Laughs) My booking agent is her booking agent. And actually I just produced Amanda Palmer's record, and Amanda and Brian [of the Dresden Dolls] are friends of Regina's too. So I guess I could've done it that way too, but just happened to be talking to my booking agent and she said, "Oh, I'll call her for you." So we just rang her up, and I sent a tape of the song in the form that it was at the moment and she liked it and we did it.
: Given your affinity for hip-hop, it seems sort of appropriate to throw some guest collaborators on the record.
Folds: Yeah, you've got to have one or two.
: What have you not done so far in your career that you’d still like to?
Folds: Um, sell a lot of records—that would be kind of cool.
Let's see... I feel like I’ve got loads more opportunities than I really have the time to jump at. I was reading through some quote book the other day and someone said something like, “as soon as you stopped wanting something, it happened.” A lot of things I’ve really never thought about doing are presenting themselves, which is great. I just go, "Oh, I'd like to do that, and I'd like to do that." I think when you really shoot for something, that's tougher. So, I don't really have any big aspirations. I just want to say busy and be proud of what I'm doing.
: There does seem to be something to that sort of Zen/Buddhist approach.
Folds: Yeah, which perfect, and that's good. Unless what it is that I'm making is really shitty music and I'm miserable. If that’s ever the case, I'll stop being a Buddhist about it.
: Your new record, Way to Normal, is one of the funnier, more irreverent albums you've made in your career. Have there been artists or people in your life that have encouraged you to tone down the cheekiness, grow up and write more conventional songs?
Folds: No, luckily I have a loyal team of yes men. And whatever I say is just the fucking shit. No, no, you know what, that's not true at all. What I do have is a few good friends and people that I work with who are really happy when I'm having a good time with something.
In this record there are a couple of moments that I was nervous about, that I took to my band and friends and producer, and people that were close to me while this record was going on. And I'd say, “God, you know, I think this is fun and good, but I'm leaning towards chickening out.” And they all went, "Nah, nah, don't do that, that's great! Just, ah! Do it!" (Laughs) So I think that's good.
: In that vein, did you have any concerns about fans interpreting the track "Bitch Went Nuts" as a cheeky backhand to your ex-wife Frally?
Folds: Oh, no. I mean I would be worried that it would be interpreted that way. But I would have never written something like that or used that word for someone specific. If there's a specific person in that, it's only the basketball-stabbing person, who was someone who stabbed a volleyball belonging to a friend of mine in college. And the idea behind the song—and I think it's in the intro of the song—is that if you ask loads of women what went wrong in a relationship, they're going to give you a variety of answers. But if you ask men, especially at a bar somewhere, and they're gonna go "Uh! Bitch went nuts!" It's really more of a comment on the male perspective than it is on a…yeah, no one ever stabbed a basketball and uh, I would never call someone that I know a “bitch,” so there you go.
: Besides the new record are there any additional upcoming projects or happenings in the life of Ben Folds that Paste readers might be interested in?
Folds: Well, I'm excited for people to hear Amanda Palmer's record.
: You produced that one, right?
Folds: Yeah, I put in quite an effort on that. And I think that the songs that we did together on that record are really strong in terms of both her voice and the production. I just think it's a really good record. I'm happy about that and I want to do more of that, some more making, allowing people to sing in the studio, just sing—it's nice.
: Well, it seems like being in Nashville, you're in a great place for that.
Folds: Oh, it's awesome because I've got my studio and they can come into a very comfortable place and we can turn it into a playpen, and figure out how to make a record that's never been made before. And I think I did that both with Shatner and with Amanda. I'm proud of both those records.
: Are there any other artists that you're talking to right now about bringing them into the studio?
Folds: Yeah, but I don't like to speculate on them and mess the whole thing up. But I'm excited about a couple. And they're not going to be predictable at all. People are going to be like "what the fuck is he working on now?" I never want to make a normal record, if possible.
: After Shatner and Weird Al, I think you've pretty much exploded the expectations.
Folds: Yeah, yeah, it needs to stay like that because there just aren't enough records that sound really unique. That's what you want to do is make a record that people haven't heard.
: For you, is that more of a post-production pursuit? Deconstructing the sound?
Folds: No, I think it's in the state of mind that we're all in as we walk in the studio. I mean, I think it's just about going, "what's the real strength of this person?" You know, first of all you need to help an artist get past their self-perceived strength—it's always wrong. You know, they might think "Hey I'm the class clown" or "I'm good looking," or "I'm popular." And you've got to get past that with them. And then it's a matter of finding what that unique thing is that makes their talent just come busting out in a way that is not being done.
: Look forward to hearing it. Thanks for checking in and good luck with the rest of the tour.