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Ben Folds Don't Need No Record Label. (Interview)
In 2008, Ben Folds reconnected with Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums), the rest of the Ben Folds Five, for a live run-through of 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. While it was intended as a one-off, the trio reformed again in 2011, and are finishing up work on a new studio album (which will be their first as a unit in thirteen years). A rough cut of one of the album’s songs, Do It Anyway, was released as a free download recently (and you can listen to it below, toward the bottom of this article).
Rock Cellar Magazine recently had a delightful conversation with Ben Folds, as the songwriter/pianist/The Sing-Off judge/producer/jack of all trades shared some insight with us about his band’s unique promotional campaign, the music industry, and why the Ben Folds Five decided to give it another shot.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Talk a little bit about the whole crowd-funding thing – how that came about, how you guys realized this would be a viable way to fund and work on a new Ben Folds Five album.
Ben Folds: Well, it’s like we fell down steps, or something, and that’s where we ended up. I mean, it was just tossed up in the air. We made the record on my dime – I have a studio – the timing of when we got together was real touch and go for a while, and so we didn’t know when we were gonna be doing it. And then BOOM, we did it. We never discussed whether or not we would have a record label involved. So once it was sounding really good – I think we really realized that it didn’t feel great to have to audition. You know, going out and finding a label to do it.
RCM: Pitching yourself.
BF: Yeah, yeah, the pitching, but mainly because the process of the record was so right and special for us. We’ve done it enough to know that you can pretty much go through a process of selling your record, which can kind of undo some of that magic feeling. And I just don’t think any of us were willing to do that. Last time we were in the studio together making a record there were no cell phones. We didn’t have cell phones. I mean, they existed, but we didn’t have ‘em. And we didn’t have computers sitting around. It wasn’t like that, so I think that in a way we kind of stepped off a spaceship. And we’re all of a sudden some kind of Rip Van Winkle shit, and we’re making an album in this era – I think that makes us a little more open-minded to it because it all seems nutty.
So I don’t know how we decided to do the crowd-funding, except I know that my manager had talked to Pledge Music months ago, and then brought it up to me that that might be a way to do it. We didn’t discuss it any more – I think we were talking to labels, and then suddenly last weekend we just decided to let it rip. And I think it probably wasn’t the most comfortable thing for everyone who’s doing business, that suddenly we have our record up on Pledge Music, crowd-funding it. So it’s kind of fallen together, and we don’t exactly know what we’ll do next, but I think we’re relaxed about it, because as far as we know this is the only record that we’ll make together and we just want it to be…we just want everything to feel right.
RCM: It seems like every three days a band from the 1990s gets back together, but in a lot of those cases it seems like they just want to get back together, play the hits, and make some money. It seems different from your perspective, because you’ve had a very successful solo career. What made you decide to get the guys back together and give it another go?
BF: When we played our Myspace reunion-y thing, the Front to Back – I don’t know if you know about that –
RCM: In 2008?
BF: We played a thing for Myspace, it was called Front to Back. You know, take one of your albums and you play it front to back.
RCM: You did Reinhold Messner, right?
BF: Yep, we did Reinhold. It went really well and we thought, “maybe we should make a record” because it felt really natural and good, so the next time our schedules converged, was 2011…or 12. Whatever year this is. So that’s kind of what happened, we just decided to put it back together, but it took forever. I’ve just stayed really, really busy. We kept putting it off by six months, and putting it off by six months, I don’t really remember what happened. I think I booked some of the time out, called the guys, they were good and they drove to town, and we just started doing it.
RCM: Speaking of the new album, you said it’s done, it’s supposed to be out in August or September?
RCM: How does it compare to Whatever and Ever, Amen, Reinhold Messner and your self-titled? Does the music sound like that, or is this a new era for the band?
BF: Well, it’s kind of both. I’d say that the approach was very similar to the first album.
RCM: No guitars again?
BF: No, we’ve never had a guitar in any of it. There was a b-side I played acoustic guitar on once, but we’ve never had that. So it’s just piano, bass, drums – what made it similar to the first one is that there’s not really an overdub thing going on.
It’s mostly about what can be done with piano, bass and drums, and three voices. With the exception of this one song – there’s one that we put some strings on. Paul Buckmaster, who always does string arrangements that I can’t do, did those.
RCM: You mean there’s something you can’t do, musically?
BF: Oh, there are loads – but I have a harder time arranging my songs. I do it sometimes, but I have a harder time doing it. I didn’t have a problem when I produced this Sara Bareilles record, I just threw strings around. I enjoy it, but it’s when I do my own record. Yeah, so that’s how it’s like the first record. I’d say it’s quite a bit more up tempo than the Reinhold record, and maybe it’s more intense? It seems to be more powerful in some ways. I think that’s just because we hadn’t played together in a long time and it was nice to have the break…we got better.
RCM: Have you created any more fictional characters for the songs, like Kate and Alice Childress, or have you abandoned that kind of thematic structure?
BF: I think I’m probably writing more fiction from first person.
RCM: Along the lines of Army, or was that autobiographical?
BF: That was much more autobiographical. And then it became more – the end was a lot of little funny analogies and side stories going on. I mean – always take some freedom with it, you know?
Take some artistic license to be from Mars if you want to. I have a feeling David Bowie would go to Mars. If you listen to his songs, one would assume that David Bowie did go to Mars, but I’m gonna venture to say that he didn’t. So yeah, I screw around with it sometimes. As soon as I started collecting songs for it (the new album), it seemed to have a theme of loss of ego, or the attempt to do so. That generally goes…the way that that endeavor usually goes, which is wrong.
RCM: So that would imply the ‘intensity’ of the songs, then, if it comes from that kind of a theme.
BF: Yeah. And so they come from first-person points of view and they’re obviously not true. For instance, I didn’t tour manage Frank Sinatra for 35 years.
RCM: Well that would have been cool.
BF: Yeah, it would have been. One of them is from the point of view of Frank Sinatra’s tour manager, another one is about when my father died. But he didn’t ever die, or he hasn’t done so. That’s a weird thing to do, but it’s like fiction.
RCM: A bit of a detour in topics from the new album: People ask you about the song Jesusland. Especially since you’re from North Carolina – you initially said that song wasn’t really a “statement”, that you weren’t trying to get out there and critique society, but do you think the song has any kind of added meaning or value, especially now as compared to when you wrote it?
BF: Yeah, I think it has, more and more. But I think the human part of it is what I’m always interested in when writing something like that. There’s a thought I have about the song that I didn’t have when I wrote it. There’s a movie, a short documentary called Life-Like Dust, which was about a Vietnamese kid who was sold in slavery, ended up in Los Angeles, joined a Vietnamese gang and ended up in jail. It followed a lot of his life.
But there was this section where he had been – basically, his parents put him in this boat, sent him off to someplace safer, in the middle of the night, he doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on, it’s 4 in the morning or something, he’s maybe 5 or 6 years old, and he ends up in the back of a car, riding through the nastiest, roughest neighborhood – wherever in Los Angeles that is – and he’s looking out the window. The documentary maker showed how ugly the houses were, they were just beaten down, no grass…the whole thing just looked really beat-up and horrible. And he said “I’d never seen something that beautiful in my life.”
He kept talking about how beautiful that was, and it makes me think about that song, how to me all the strip mall stuff, the whole Jesusland …lots of monuments to this nasty sort of capitalistic thing in the name of The Big Man. I don’t know, it seems like there would be – there should be something that resembles universal beauty, a standard, some gold standard – but I don’t think that’s the way people see it. I think people see what they want to see. So I don’t know. When I sing the song that’s what I think about now.
RCM: You think about Vietnam.
BF: I think about ‘Nam.
RCM: We wanted to ask a fun question, because of that ridiculous fervor that went along with the Tupac hologram at Coachella –
BF: (Laughs) Yeah.
RCM: If you could perform with any musician, alive, dead or hologram, who would you pick and why? You’ve worked with Sara Bareilles, you’ve said you would like to work with Mike Skinner of The Streets, which would have been really cool –
BF: Yeah, we almost worked that out. That was exciting, and then it didn’t happen. Well, I don’t know…Scott Joplin? I don’t really think of it like that, because I only work with – if someone decided to shoot a hologram into the middle of the studio, randomly, whoever it was, that’d probably be fine with me. I go towards what sort of glows at the moment. It’s like being in the grocery store – “Oh that apple looks more luminous than that apple does.”
I don’t have a set thing, like “I want to work with this person or this person”. They come into your periphery, and it’s like a satellite – do you start circling the same thing? Sara and I decided to work together before The Sing-Off happened. It just seemed like everything we were doing was at the same time. We came into the same place, made the record, and…yeah. So I’m not good at that one, I can’t think of anyone you’d want to put up a hologram of. Buster Keaton?
RCM: Well you did an album with Nick Hornby, so anything’s possible.
BF: Yeah, I did one with William Shatner too.
I think Buster Keaton would be great. Charlie Chaplin would be good. I’d make an album with him. John Wayne, he could sing…
RCM: So going back to what you were hinting at earlier, you pretty much think you guys will release this album, which doesn’t have a title or lead single yet, and then that will probably be it? Or is it one of those “we’ll see what happens” situations?
BF: I think we’ll see how it feels. And so far, so good – the first week I took home three CDs full of ideas we had started working on. Thirty-five ID numbers, with vague descriptions – “E Flat”, stuff like that. I think part of it is that the experience of the whole process of making the record needs to feel good, and that’s why we’re doing it starting with the crowd-funding. Preaching to the choir, rather than going out and kissing every ass in the world, trying to hope that one out of ten new people like it. We did that for years, but it’s a little deflating after a while.
That’s the main thing, if we can make it…if we can tour, but not tour to the point where we’re ragged. We moved our own baby grand piano for the first three years we were a band. We were only in it because of the music, and then when it stopped feeling right, and we were getting the highest paychecks we’d ever gotten, we just stopped one day. We didn’t give anyone any notice; we just called our manager and said “We’re done.” “Why?” “We’re finished.”
RCM: You just didn’t feel it anymore.
BF: Yeah, and that was kind of always the way we’ve done it. And that’s what we’re doing now.
RCM: Is there any creative difference in how you conceptualize your solo material versus with Ben Folds Five?
BF: Well I bring in the ideas in pretty much the same way…it’s just with them, we came up together, so we have associations. And we have a different way of editing stuff. It’s not that they go “hey, that sucks” or “that’s great”, it’s just that “wow, that sounds awesome” and “boy, they don’t get that, and I don’t get that, so we’ll just put that aside”. The stuff that we gravitate towards starts to determine the style. So I write to that, then. That probably causes me to write a little bit more heavy – the writing is heavier on this record. Robert’s an aggressive player, and Darren is a very lyrical drummer, and it brings out those things.
RCM: In closing the new record discussion, what are your expectations or goals for a new album? What are your expectations or hopes for the fans and for yourselves?
BF: Well, to have made a great record and to not defecate on the memory of it by going out and just being prostitutes. That’s basically it, and I’m excited to deliver the record to everyone who wants to hear it. I’m not at all interested in talking someone into liking the music that doesn’t like it, and I’m not even really interested in their opinion.
RCM: Pitching and promoting, not interested.
BF: Yeah, but it’s really freeing, I think is the thing. When you make a record, you have the weight of your legacy up to that point. You know what worked for you, you know what you got a piece of candy for, what you got kicked in the ass for, what made it easier for you to get a table at one place or offended someone. Those things mount up, and you can see how the baggage of a long career becomes pretty heavy if you’ll accept it.
Take a magazine like Rolling Stone – it’s gotten so personal, that they absolutely to me disappointingly invalidated their entire magazine, and I used to really like some of it. How could you allow a writer, two times in a row, to be so personal? It’s like “did you not listen to the music?” And when you start thinking about that stuff, it slows you down. You’re in the studio and you feel like you’ve allowed yourself to do that. You allow yourself to become creatively bullied by someone who doesn’t even care, they’re somewhere sippin’ a fuckin’ latte at that point, and you’re sitting in the studio thinking “wow, I guess I shouldn’t make this sound like this”.
I think all artists do it, and the artist that doesn’t do that is lying. But I think you can free yourself of it by considering the long-term process, and like you say, “what do you want to do with it?”
And what I want to do with it is make a great record and be alive to hear that some people enjoyed it.
I think that’s really all you can do. Then later on, the record may find a place that is beyond what you guessed…or it may just end up in a pile of plastic somewhere…so I don’t know. I feel pretty good about it right now, and the reason I do is because we’re taking it very easy.
RCM: But it’s intense.
BF: The whole thing about being an “artist” is the difficulty of actually purely expressing, because there are so many things in the way. Technique is in the way, and there’s your brain and all sorts of things. But you need those things at the same time. So you’re trying to employ them and push them away at the same time, and the balance of that is what it takes.
If you’ve got to be Cat Stevens and go somewhere else for the rest of your life…maybe he makes records now and they’re better than they would have been because he did that, or Bill Withers…or if you’ve got to be David Bowie and change every five minutes, or Ryan Adams, and put out an album every five minutes, you see people doing what they can.
I think the “real artists” are the ones that are trying these things because the attempt is to make something great. I would always say, “Okay, so have we gotten this song to the point where I could go out and get hit by a bus now?” Everyone thinks that’s a morbid thing to say and they laugh, but I always do think about it. “Can you finish this if I were to die tonight?” I think you do that as an artist, and after that it becomes increasingly about an artist’s ego at that point: how many can you sell, who liked it, and that’s totally acceptable. We’re human beings. But then you build it up, and you have to make the next record, and you’ve brought all this horrible garbage with you that you have to get out of the way. So, that’s where we’re at.
Visit Pledge Music to find out more about the Ben Folds Five’s crowd-funded album, which has already shot well past its intended financial target.
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