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The Ben
Folds
Interview

 


I interviewed Ben Folds in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Between vegetarian food, cappuccinos and espressos we were talking about his new album, a guy who found God on a tree, and the narrow American radio format

Robert Pally: Your second solo album could also be another Ben Folds Five album. Why did the band split up?

Ben Folds: We were tired of what we were doing. We didn’t feel that we needed to be attached to the band anymore. I continued to do what I did before the Ben Folds Five started.

RP: Rockin’ the Suburbs is more pop than the last Ben Folds Five album!

BF: Yes, definitely. Whether I wanted to make my next album with a band or not, I wanted to make a pop album. I had a lot of songs. I wanted to make them 3 or 4 minutes long with great choruses. That was really hard. To me it is easy to experiment - maybe not with great results. Rockin the Suburbs was a challenge. 12 Songs and a pop album. And make it all mean something to me. I am glad that it is not a huge departure from Ben Folds Five. I would like to continue naturally what I do as a career.

RP: The single "Rockin’ the Suburbs" is different from the rest. Why did you choose a song that does not represent the album?

BF: (eats) I think in America the radio format is so narrow. You know, I deserve to make a living with what I do (smiles)!

RP: I agree!

BF: Honestly, the only way to do it is to create something that effectly sounds like it is on the radio. The only way I can do that without making myself sick is to make fun of what’s on the radio. So I wrote this really fine line. "Rockin’ the Suburbs" was just released and does so far okay on the radio.

RP: And at the end it sounds like you were taking the piss of Rage Against The Machine.

BF: I like Rage Against The Machine. I am taking the piss of the whole scene, especially the followers.

RP: Where did the idea come for this song?

BF: I used to do this big rant at the end of some gigs with Ben Folds Five. The band broke into this big heavy metal thing and I started as a joke to scream in a heavy metal falsetto. I found myself saying things like: Feel my pain, I am white, feel my pain. I was going to write this song about Korn. I don’t know, it wasn’t as funny when I directed it at somebody. So I thought I would write it not directed to anybody. I mean, I would be happy to tell the guys from Korn that I wrote a song about them, but I think, when people listen to it, it is a better song when it is not directed to anybody.

RP: On the album there are a lot of songs about girls. Coincidence?

BF: (eats) What are the names of the songs? I think that there are just as many about boys!

RP: "Zak and Sara", "Annie Waits", "Losing Lisa" and "Carrying Cathy". There are only 3 about boys: "Zak and Sara", "The Ascent of Stan" and "Fred Jones Part 2"

BF: Shit! That’s right, I left "Morgan Davies" off the album. And I also did not use a song called "Hero" about a Japanese guy. That is actually one of my favorite songs of the album. But it didn’t sequence. I like songs about names and characters. Because people are interesting.

RP: Still, why are there so many songs about girls?

BF: No, they are not about ex-girlfriends. They are just characters.

RP: Can you tell me more about "Zak and Sara"?

BF: I was thinking of these kids growing up in the Midwest. A 16 year old boy plays guitar and his girlfriend has to sit and watch him play all day. She just buzzes there and listens like she had nothing better to do. Maybe the girl is also writing songs and she has this idea in her of music that will happen in 20 years time. She really has some good ideas. But she is not saying anything, cause she is supposed to listen to her boyfriend. And he is playing music that was written 20 years ago.

RP: Like on the Ben Folds Five records a lot of the songs sound as if they were written just like this. I always wondered how many of your ideas actually turn into songs?

BF: I start songs all the time. If I weren’t so lazy, I would finish them. It’s like when I have a deadline I have to. I always feel very lucky that I am forced to make records at certain times. If I was forced to make 2 records a year, I would write twice as many songs. I can’t make myself finish something unless I am forced.

RP: How many ideas did you have for Rockin’ the Suburbs?

BF: I demoed bits and pieces of maybe 25 songs. The ones that were easy to finish were done first. That were 16 songs. I will use the leftovers as b-sides. Someone said that I should use them for my next album. But I think I will write that all together like Rockin’ the Suburbs.

RP: Where were the songs recorded?

BF: In Australia in a Church in Adelaide (Ben has moved there with his family). The Church had a really, really good sound. There is a studio build into the side of it. They don’t use the actual Church, they only use the studio. My producer Ben Grosse went into the church, listen and said: "Wow, this sounds great!" Then we moved everything in there.

RP: The Cowboy Junkies also recorded their album The Trinity Sessions in a church.

BF: It’s a great thing to do because the church had a very interesting vibe. It’s made for people to be in.

RP: The last song "The Luckiest" is pretty melon collie with positive lyrics. Was this sort of a contradiction done on purpose?

BF: Yeah (thinks), it has really a melancholy side to it but also…. I don’t know what it is! The music came first and then the words. It’s funny you say that. I always thought that I would write one love song. I find it very hard. My generation doesn’t do that as good as someone like Nat King Cole. It’s like you don’t take someone serious if they come straight out like Celine Dion or someone else. I never thought about it before. Probably one of the reasons it works so well is because the music is maybe a little sad.

RP: Is the "The Luckiest" then a love song?

BF: Yes, I wrote it for my wife! It’s not really a story as much it is a synonym.

RP: In which song did you get the lyrics perfect?

BF: In "Fred Jones Part 2" I nailed them. In "Not the Same" I came close in my own weird way. I don’t expect anyone to understand it! I nailed them except for one line. Sometimes when you try to get music or lyrics right, it’s like you got a clean sheet and you try to wipe the crease out. No matter how much you wipe around the crease is still there. I was trying to iron that crease out but I couldn’t get it out of that song.

RP: What is "Not the Same" about?

BF: It’s the true story about a guy who climbed on a tree at a party. Later, after everyone went home he came back down just when the sun came up. He was a born again Christian. He broke all his records. Just imagine, this guy went up a tree and found Jesus. I was thinking, well, any action you take, can change you. You are not the same afterwards. Some things have a big effect on you, others a little. Originally, "Not the Same" was going to be list of things that change your life like: you break your car, you get beaten up at high school, you meet your girlfriend, you go to sleep. You are not the same after all this. But they didn’t sound right. Another thing on the list was this guy that climbed on a tree. So I explored that and erased the rest.

RP: You mention Robert Sledge in that song.

BF: It was Darren Jessee’s friend that climbed up the tree but Robert's name sounded better. Darren wasn’t working.

RP: I would say that Rockin’ the Suburbs sounds mostly like a mixture of Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach and Todd Rundgren. Would you agree?

BF: I think Billy Joel is great, but I don’t listen to him that much. But he is such a great songwriter. He deserves more credit than he ever got. Todd Rundgren I did listen to a lot. I feel my general sensibility is more in common with him. And Burt is genius.

RP: I know that you don’t go and try to write a song like Joel or Bacharach. A lot of things happen unconsciously.

BF: All of them come from a very similar school of craft that tries to write carefully crafted lyrics and melodies. It’s a style of music; it’s pop music really!!

RP: I hear in many of your songs the poetic piano playing of Billy Joel! I really dig his stuff.

BF: Yeah, me too. There is something in his piano playing that is kind of pretty and macho at the same time.

RP: I read that he used to be a boxer!

BF: He said he did. But I am not sure. I think he wanted to be!

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