As a songwriter who can turn on a dime from humorous parody or bleak satire to heartbreaking loneliness, Ben Folds explains to The Monument’s Rhys McGowan how he doesn’t take any aspect of the music industry seriously, except the actual music.
When the first Ben Folds Five album came out back in 1995, the straight-faced grunge obsession was at its peak, but you guys let a sense of humour and playfulness come through in your music. How did that happen?
I think we were aware that there was no joking around at that moment, and probably reacted to that a little bit. At the same time, I think we were pretty dead-serious about what we were doing. Maybe, you know, I’ve always felt like taking your music seriously is okay; I think you should take your music seriously. I just don’t think you need to take yourself seriously. And I think a lot of our contemporaries did a lot of taking themselves seriously. Which, we just didn’t do that.
You guys have attracted a bit of attention with the latest album, having crowd-sourced the funding. What were the benefits of doing it that way?
I’m not dead-sure… From a creative point-of-view, I can tell you that it allowed us a lot of flexibility because our own individual circumstance was that we were a band that hadn’t played together in twelve years. And the idea of us all coming together to have meetings with lawyers and record labels, get budgets together, and establish all this kind of business stuff, would’ve been detrimental creatively. But what crowd-funding allowed us to do was to begin making the record and then to reach out to fans to let them know that they could buy it ahead of time. And that was a lot quicker and easier than it would’ve been to establish all these budgets and to deal with that stuff. So that made it easy for us because we could sort of play it by ear.
From a sales point-of-view, or from a distribution point-of-view, I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if that was a plus or minus. You know, it’s possible if we’d been with a label from the onset, we may’ve sold more or fewer records, I’m not sure. I know that Amanda Palmer’s record is the first crowd-funded record to hit the top ten Billboard charts. It came out a week before ours and ours was next. So we’ve made one of two records that have ever hit the top ten in the States as a crowd-funded record, and I don’t think anyone’s even close. So that’s interesting. I don’t know what that means, but it’s certainly something that I haven’t seen in print yet [laughs]. You know, it’s like we didn’t get any parade, we didn’t get any article in Billboard; no one seems to give a shit. But there it is.
Well, maybe we can fix that for you here.
Yeah – give us a parade, man! We need a pat on the back for that. Be sure to, you know, help us out [laughs].
So then, in terms of the experience of actually making the album, how did that compare to the first three albums?
Well, kind of similar in a way. It was just there was less stress because there weren’t the big deadlines. The expectations were all ours, and they were really high because we expected to make an album that was as good as anything else we’d ever done. But we’re a little more mature now. Older is one thing; mature is a totally different issue. People can be a lot older and be no more mature at all. I think we’ve all grown up a bit, which is nice because we were able to make the record more civil, sort of. I think we would add to each other before, but it was just more civilised. That basic kind of bullshit touchy-feely stuff they talk about in therapy, probably, we were communicating all that shit.
It wasn’t like Metallica making ‘Some Kind of Monster’?
[Laughs] No, but we didn’t have to go through what they’ve gone through. Who knows, if we’d gone through the kind of crazy shit they’d gone through, maybe. But we’re a bit different kind of dudes because we didn’t know if we were heading into more success or less success with the band but we certainly did have a lot of commercial incentive to stay together, but we didn’t. I can see that a band like Metallica, it has meant so much to them to succeed and to have their music heard by millions, that they’ve stuck through very painful circumstances, so they need therapy. We just quit. And I don’t know, maybe if we’d been offered shit-tonnes more money, maybe we would’ve stuck it out. I kind of don’t think so. I just don’t think that’s how we really work. And that’s not a judgement. Maybe you could call us pussies for quitting, but we’re just different kind of dudes. But that Some Kind of Monster thing was fascinating. That’s just fascinating to me. When I watched that thing my jaw was just dropped the whole movie.
I couldn’t believe it; it’s just amazing.
Oh, isn’t it though? It’s just fascinating. That movie’s absolutely fantastic [laughs]. When the therapist starts putting stickers, like little Post-it notes, around with ideas for songs [laughs].
Yeah, I also loved it when they got the new bass-player and Bob Rock was clearly pissed-off that he didn’t get to be the new Metallica bassist.
I know! And you know what else I thought was interesting was when they found the new bassist it was very interesting. It was not a discussion for them; they were going to split the money absolute evenly and give him millions of dollars right upfront. That tells you a lot about those guys. ’Cause sometimes I would watch them in that movie and I’d think ‘Jesus, what’s wrong with these guys?’ And then I saw that, I thought, ‘You know what? We don’t know what it’s like to be them.’ That’s a really incredible, magnanimous, amazingly open way of looking at life. So I think they’re interesting. I am glad it’s not me, man. I don’t think I could’ve done all that stuff.
I wanted to ask you about the third BFF album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. I’ve heard you say that that was initially written as one whole album-length piece of music.
Have you attempted a large-scale concept album like that since?
Well, no. I’ve never considered it after that. I think what I was juggling with at that time was, ‘Well, what do I do?’ Maybe in a way I had aspirations to do longer-form music. You know, symphonies or musicals or something like that. And I think during that time I kind of boiled it down. It was a little bit of a moment of truth where I was considering the option of putting the band through a 45-50 minute piece of music, with all the editing and all the crazy shit that that entails, to prove that I was a composer [laughs]. And really what the band was telling me was like, ‘We’re a pop band; we make pop songs. We make 3-minute songs and that’s what you like! Don’t fuck around with this. We need songs.’ And then my producer said that, the guys in the band said that, the label said that, and then I was like, ‘Oh. I guess I write songs.’ [Laughs] So I went back into this long piece and started extracting the single ideas for songs, and I realised they were right: I write songs. It’s not a lesser job description, it’s just that my gear is to write is to write a song and it’s 3-and-a-half/four minutes long. I’m glad that they took me to task over that issue, and I’ve never considered it since. Now, I’m working on a piano concerto right now, but I’m not mixing that with the idea that this is a commercial release, released on a record label spending a lot of money. That’s just not a sure thing to do in this day and age. In the 60s you could do it. Think of all the all the records you see if you buy, at a yard sale, you buy an old 60s record and there’s no break points on either side. There’s just one song on each side and it’s just a big, long jam. You can’t do that. You just can’t do it; no one’s going to let you.
It doesn’t really fit the iTunes format.
Yeah you’re right, it doesn’t fit iTunes, does it? It just doesn’t fit into our culture, really in any way. And so if I’m insisting on that, I have to ask myself why. Am I doing it because I want to be known as a composer, or is it because I really think that people want to sit down or I want to sit down and listen to a 45-minute piece of music? Oddly enough, probably at least half of the music I listen to is classical: string quartets, piano concertos. That’s what I actually listen to. But it’s not what I write.
Just before our time’s up, I’ve always wanted to know, as a fan, is there a link between ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed’ and ‘Carrying Cathy’?
Well, harmonically they’re very similar. But they’re two sides that, as a music nerd, I feel they still need to be split apart. They’re two songs in the same key, same tempo, and a similar chord progression but they vary in a couple of important places that make them spiritually very different, to me. So I was happy to split them up and have them be different songs. It’s like the blues: how many blues songs are there? There’s so many. If I’ve invented an ascending, major chord progression, then I could use it a couple of times. I have a few blueprints like that. Selfless and Carrying Cathy are very similar. But it’s not like a Nickelback thing where it’s the same song and you just change the words [laughs]. So there’s a pattern that I do on songs like Jesus Land and I also do it on The Ascent of Stan, and I also do it on the new record on Hold that Thought. You know, I may do a few more of them. If you listen back to Burt Bacharach records you can hear him writing the same song over and over again, trying to achieve certain songs. And once he achieves the song he moves on. In retrospect we can see that, like Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, I’ve heard, like, three versions of that, where they’re all pretty much the same song with different words. He just nailed it eventually and moved on. I’m quite happy to do that because sometimes you have to change the feeling to find out what the mood is.
I think it’s interesting to a listener as well to hear how an artist grows and changes while retaining an interest in certain themes.
Yeah, I mean it might be interesting for someone in order to get perspective on any kind of writer, composer, author, anything, to see what point in his or her career they begin to abandon a theme. That might tell you a lot, asking, ‘well when did someone capitulate on a particular theme?’ You know, like, ‘I’ve written about dancing in the disco and how her ass is moving. I’ve written about that so many times that I’ve finally either perfected it or got sick of it. And that’s all I write about’ [laughs].
Great way to put it.
Yeah! I think so. But it is interesting to look back and think of it that way because I think any artist/author who’s being honest at all would tell you that they have themes that run for a while. Works of art are similar. Voltaire is a good example, and people think pretty highly of Voltaire. So I think it’s okay to do that. Scott Joplin…Nick Hornby, my friend Nick. His books have very similar themes. And why does he keep doing it? Well, because each book is getting him closer to being able to let go of it. And when he lets go of it, then everybody’s going to be fucking bummed because [laughs] they want another Nick Hornby book like High Fidelity. But then, he writes the same thing over and over again and some people are bummed because he’s revisiting the same thing. It’s just human nature: we go in circles until we finally break out. I think that’s fascinating. And I don’t think I’m sorry.