It’s hard to believe, but Ben Folds has tickled our funny bones and broken our hearts – often at the same time – for almost 15 years. He’s the real Piano Man to dedicated fans who have stuck with Fold’s throughout his prolific career, first with the Ben Folds Five, then on his own as a solo artist. Since lampooning fickle indie rock audiences on “Underground,” Folds has worn many hats in the world of pop music, producing Amanda Palmer’s solo debut and recording his third solo record last year alone. Folds took some time out of his busy touring schedule that brings him to Toronto this week to talk about his new record, that other new record and what’s in store for the future.
I’ve read that for this current tour you decided to dial up the stage show a notch.
That was the idea. What we’ve ended up doing was just putting some more people on stage and turning some more lights on.
And how did that go?
It was a lot brighter and there were more people on stage. No, it’s been going really well. I tour from being solo at a piano with a white light that doesn’t change as a dynamic that I like and that goes all the way up to playing with a full orchestra onstage. I like it to change, that’s the main thing. I’ve seen that a lot of people come and see me over and over again so I’m really self-conscious about coming out and having the lights look the same.
There was a three year gap between your last record and Way To Normal which you released in September. But you’ve busy producing in the interim.
Well I produced Amanda Palmer’s record and we had made some EPs and I packed those together and tried to mix and compile those in a way that if I were to get hit by a car…
You’ve produced a few records now. Is that something that you just enjoy doing or does it have to be the right person?
It has to be the right person. The reason I don’t do it more often is that I can’t afford to because what I prefer to work on, there’s never any money in it. I end up just giving my studio time away and going in and working hard. But I enjoy it. I’ve produced my own records and two other records, but I love doing it. I get sick of being the guy at the microphone and I feel that I’ve learned so much about how that feels. The main motivation for me is to put that person in the most painless space possible to get to be creative.
Did Amanda Palmer come to you or did you approach her?
I don’t really know how that happened. Anyone that I know has been welcome to use my studio. So it started there. I’m not sure how the producer thing came about. I don’t think I wanted to be called producer for a while, but I kept going in and helping her and playing things and then I became responsible for the tapes and then I was editing…
In the music business, we have all these little roles that everyone plays and just going into the studio and not picking up that is nice. That one happened organically. The William Shatner record, he asked me to produce that one.
The two of you had worked together before that.
He had been offered the opportunity to make a record and when he called me up to ask me advice on how he should make it I was like, “Fuck Bill, you can’t just go in and do some goofy-ass record. You just can’t. You’ve done that before, it’s not going to be funny. That’s just my opinion. If I were you I’d do the following things.” And then the next day he called me and says “Benny, you had so many good ideas. Why don’t you produce the record?”
You’ve worked with a few people whose music is a little bit off the beaten path – I’m thinking of both Shatner and “Weird” Al Yankovic – what is it that attracts you to these people and their music?
Well I identify with performers that no matter how big they get really have a cottage industry vibe to them. Not so much as the business goes even, just the way they independently approach what they do. They’re not really cradled by a scene, they’re not really cradled by anything really. I mean “Weird” Al is just really out there and so is Shatner. And I think that I identify with humour and what’s inherently real and serious inside of it. I sort of reject the idea that for something to be credible, serious, heavy… anything, it has to be devoid of humour because I don’t see life working that way. If you went to the wrong side of Colombia, South America you would see people with a heavier time than us making jokes too. So I’ve ended up sort of stubbornly associating with the more comic side, but we’re all fairly serious people.
You’ve certainly done that in your music as well. Your breakup songs are some of your most humourous tracks, but there is a cutting truth to them.
That’s just the way that I see it, that’s just the way that I think it works. People are always combating what they can’t deal with humour and if you can decode that you can get to the bottom of it just as quickly as you can if you just lay it out there, like “I’m sad, I had a bad day.” Okay, well that’s nice. Anything else? “Yeah it sucked. Fuck you.” Well all right, there you go. But I think that if someone is sort of avoiding that part of it, I think that tells you more sometimes and that’s more where I head. And then sometimes I just think something’s funny.
You also recorded a “fake” album to leak prior to the release of the proper version of Way To Normal. Did that “fake” record achieve its desired goal?
Yeah it did, because what I had hoped to do was to go into the studio and make a lot of music really fast. That’s really all I wanted to do. The albums always take a while even if it’s relatively smooth sailing while tracking it it always takes awhile. With this, these are fake tracks that is we’re trying to trick fool people that they’re the real album. If we record these in a day they might just suck. In fact if they do suck then that’s even better cause that’s just funny. So we went in with no pressure at all, wrote and recorded six, seven songs in an eight-hour period, went to the gig, dude mixed them, mastered it and put it out on the internet. So we made a record in three days, artwork included, plus the release date was set, distribution everything. To me, that’s what I wanted. As far as people took it, some people thought it was real and they were horrified, other people thought is was real and they were disappointed when they heard the record because they didn’t like it as much… it’s all good.
Have you considered releasing music this way in the future?
Well I think that’s what I was flirting with. You kind of have a responsibility when people go and they’re going to put their money into something and you’ve made record after record and I think just going and shooting out a record I think you’ve got to know that’s it’s good when you do it and that’s it’s really easy to go “we can make that better.” If that voice comes out, then really and it’s just the way that I was brought up, you want to make it better. What was really great about the fake tracks is there was no responsibility whatsoever because it was given away. So I think I inched closer to the edge, but I probably wouldn’t put out something like that commercially simply because the voice in my head going someone is going to buy this because it’s got my name on it. I really don’t want them to get something that sucks. But one thing that I think is inevitable is quicker tracking and faster moving sessions. Way To Normal was very slow and I think that it achieved the results it was trying to achieve and it’s a good record, but the fake tracks, that’s three days instead of six months and I’d like to split the difference on the next one. I’m making a record with Nick Hornby, the writer. We’ll probably do a bit of pre-production and rehearsal that may take a little bit. But then when we go into track the record, I’m producing it and playing it, and the plan is to go in and track it really quickly. It will just be a matter of when we feel like we’re ready we’ll just go in and knock the shit out.
How did you and Nick Hornby come to be making a record together?
Nick was a big fan of Whatever and Ever Amen when it came out and I was a huge fan of his books and neither of us knew the other was a fan until he wrote this book [21 Songs in which Hornby included an essay about the song “Smoke”] and I thought that is so fucking cool. I can get in touch with that guy. So I just wrote him a note and we hooked up. He wrote the lyrics for a couple of the songs on the William Shatner record. And after I did the fake tracks, I was really inspired to move quickly, and I don’t write lyrics fast at all. So I called Nick and said if you write a whole album I’ll go into the studio and just knock it out. But he’s written his lyrics and I haven’t done the knockin’ it out part yet.
Last September Ben Folds Five reunited for one show and played the group’s final record The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner in it’s entirety. Why did you choose that album?
This was for a MySpace series called “Front to Back” and what they want is a story. They’re looking for guys that come back together and recreate an album that was either pivotal or has a story in some way. This one was the choice for them because they felt like, here’s an album that was critically bashed, fans didn’t like it when it came out for the most part and it wasn’t commercially successful for the most part and that was on the heels of having sold millions of records. At the same time it’s become the album that the most people feel is close to their heart. It was definitely a strange one. So to come back together and to be with everyone celebrating this record that had just been bashed actually was an awesome story. And it was really powerful when we were playing it too. It was like, wow, these songs are holding up really well. And I think some of it was mature beyond our years at the time, to be able to play the stuff and interpret it now, understanding it with a little more experience in life I thought was really good.
This interview originally appeared in the Conversations section of the Exclaim! website.