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Rockin' the suburbs… with a big string section
Acclaimed musician Ben Folds plays with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic
By Jim Fester
Fort Wayne Reader
Ben Folds and his band the Ben Folds Five (there were actually only three musicians) were a breath of fresh air when they came along in the midst of the “alternative” 90s. Their first hit, “Underground,” was a sarcastic take on the whole notion of “alternative music” and an underground scene. Irony and sarcasm were hardly in short supply in the 90s, but Ben Folds’ irony came across a little deeper, a little more earned and a little more biting. In other words, a little more adult. And when they’d leave the jokes behind to get serious, as on their massive hit “Brick,” it gave those songs an extra punch.
But probably the first thing anyone thought when a Ben Folds Five song popped up on “alternative” radio in the 90s was “hey, is that a piano?” In an era of muddy guitars and grunting vocalists, Ben Folds’ main instrument was the piano, and he often cited Billy Joel as a big influence.
The Ben Folds Five split in 1999, and since then, Ben Folds has gone on to release several acclaimed solo albums (his latest, Way To Normal, drops September 30), tour extensively, and work with a wide range of collaborators as a producer and composer. Folds will play with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic on Friday, October 3 as part of the Sweetwater Pops Series. FWR had a chance to talk to Ben Folds, who at the time of our interview was rehearsing for a one-off reunion show with The Ben Folds Five.
Fort Wayne Reader: You’ve been around for a while now. What do your fans look like these days?
Ben Folds: I have to assume that most audiences kind of hang out between 18 and 25, and as you go along, they age out and new ones come in.
FWR: So you have fans that are aware you’ve built a pretty extensive catalogue? You don’t have people showing up expecting you to play “Underground”?
BF: I’d say 75% or more of the audience has never heard of that song. Sometimes I’ll pull out something old and I guess in the back of my head I’ll think “oh this is going to make them happy, I’m pulling an oldie out” and actually they don’t know it. Their idea of an oldie is “Rockin’ the Suburbs” or something. Or “Brick” they know.
FWR: When did the idea of scoring songs with an orchestra come about? What does this allow you to do that you hadn’t done before?
BF: I’ve sort of always been in the business of writing songs that should have been more orchestrated, and kind of beating them up with rock music arrangements, which I think is kind of cool. You retain an informality about things (it doesn’t) beat people over the head with arrangements. What this does it allow me to hear it the way I kind of think it should have been done to begin with.
FWR: So you have a bigger sound in mind when you’re writing?
BF: Yeah, kind of. I just hear the arrangements in general being more classic and ornate when I’ve got it in my head, and then I go to reality, which is the palette I’ve given myself and I know how to work with.
FWR: You’ve had some formal music training. Does any of your education come in to play when you’re working with an orchestra?
BF: Oh yeah, for sure. You don’t have to be necessarily music literate to do things like this. It’s still just music, you know. The orchestra is going to jump in to my world to play these, so it’s not like I have to sit down with them and play Shostakovich. But there is a language, a way of rehearsing and a way of performing that is specific to what we always called “legit” music when I was a kid. So it’s nice to know that language.
FWR: What kind of material do you play when you’re working with the big orchestras?
BF: Well, the Fort Wayne show is the only one I’m doing with an orchestra on this tour. My band will be taking the night off. We play what we have scored, and I think there must be 35 – 40 charts now. Some of them have gone by the wayside — obviously, we’re not going to be playing that many. Some have died, some have been revised. Generally, the ones Paul Buckmaster scored didn’t need revision. The stuff I do tends to need it. When I’ve talked to Fort Wayne, you have a resident composer (Adrian Mann) and he’s scored a few of my old songs.
FWR: Ben Folds Five recently reunited to perform The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (their fourth and final album, released 1999) at the University of North Carolina. What was it like revisiting some of the older stuff almost 10 years later?
BF: Ummm… well, it’s really great to play with the guys, since we really haven’t even seen each other much in the last 10 years. I kept thinking the whole time we were rehearsing “oh, we need to play this song and this song off the new album,” because the going backwards part, until the actual show, is not always fun for everybody. It’s interesting, because a lot of these songs we really never played much live, so we don’t… know the chords and stuff. The first rehearsals, we’re just flailing on memory (laughs). But as we go along, we get to get it all together and get our sea legs back. Basically, we’re having fun.
FWR: Is that the reason you did the show? A chance to have fun?
BF: That’s usually the reason I choose to do something or not. It’s the same thing this old Sun records musician said one time that made a big impression on me, and that’s “we’re in the fun business, and if we’re not having fun, how do we expect anyone else to?” So I make these choices… not that you don’t have moments where you’re like “damn this is work,” but there’s something about it that you know at its core is fun.
FWR: Speaking of fun, you seem to get a kick out of the things the internet allows you to get away with as far as releasing music. You’ve released a series of download-only EPs, and recently you released a fake version of your new album Way To Normal.
BF: Well, I think for all the things that technology makes more difficult, you have to find out what it does better. For example, I love photography and I love the dark room, but I’m enjoying Photoshop. But I have to enjoy Photoshop for what it will do that the dark room won’t do, because if I have to imitate the darkroom, it’s just kind of wrong. So I think the same way about the internet. I think “what can we do here? What’s really idiosyncratic to this particular medium that we can mess with?” So we put out a fake album… I think we recorded it on a Thursday and it was on the internet by the next Tuesday. And when I say Thursday, it was written and recorded on Thursday. Wednesday night, none of it existed. And less than a week later, people were listening to it. Could you have done that at the beginning of rock n’ roll? Well, actually, the truth is, you could, now that I think about it. (laughs) There’s the legend of the radio show Buddy Holly did at some skating rink, and they pressed it to vinyl and sent it to some radio station in New York. So, I guess you can. But it was a new medium at the time, and they didn’t have all the restrictions figured out yet.
FWR: You didn’t have to go through months of marketing meetings.
BF: Yeah, that whole set up.
FWR: Eef Barzelay recently played here at a tiny venue. Do you ever do those small tours?
BF: Well, we did that for a long time and it’s… I try to find situations to do those things in that make sense, you know? I did one tour where we kept going into coffee shops with an upright piano, and doing little radio things from them. It’s like, the piano on the small stages, it’s just such an utter pain in the ass, that all-in-all when I look at the big picture, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to do tours like that.
FWR: You’ve done a lot of collaborations during your career so far. You’ve produced the recent solo album by Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. You produced William Shatner’s album Has Been… you seem to like collaborations.
BF: Who wouldn’t? When you get to see someone else’s method and why they’re who they are, that’s always fun. It’s just inspiring to get out of your bubble. Like with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller (Folds did an EP with Kweller and Lee as The Bens), it wouldn’t occur to me that these are three guys that are totally pro and get things done. We sat around a mic and did one song all live, with all the instruments straight on, and all the harmonies were absolutely dead on. Nobody had to say a word and it was just done, and I thought “that’s pretty cool. That’s the way you picture the Three Tenors doing it, or The Eagles.” (laughs) There’s something cool about knowing that even in this day and age people with character voices might actually be really good at what they do. Amanda Palmer, she’s just such a hard worker. I wouldn’t have thought that this is someone with such a hard work ethic.
FWR: Those people are musicians. What was William Shatner like to work with?
BF: So far, of everyone I’ve ever worked with, he was the most open-minded and spontaneous. The youngest. He’s what… 71? 72? If you wonder why someone like that looks so good as he does… Every take was different, he was completely open minded to my saying “I don’t think that’s you right there.” He’d say, “Say no more. Let me… surprise you.” And the next take, he’d surprised me.
FWR: I read where you’re going to do an album with novelist Nick Hornby?
BF: I told like two people and now it’s all over the internet. Nick’s going to kick my ass. Someone asked me if the fake record and working quickly like that would change the way I work. I said it inspired me to book some studio time for Nick Hornby and I to do 10 or so songs. So, we’re going to do that. Whether it actually becomes a record… it may just be something the two of us have that we listen to. I don’t know what we’ll do with it. But I’m glad you mentioned that. It has popped up in a few places.
The Sweetwater Pops Series presents Ben Folds with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic
Friday, October 3, 2008 at 8:00 pm
Tickets start at $20. Call (260) 481-0777