When the Ben Folds Five single "Underground" hit radio airwaves in the mid-'90s, its attitude was pure Gen-X slacker irony, but its flashy sound hearkened back to the old-fashioned songcraft and big melodies of '70s piano men like Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson. Ben Folds Five's self-titled Caroline debut sold well enough to get the iconoclastic trio signed to Sony, where its major-label debut Whatever And Ever Amen scored a fluke blockbuster hit with "Brick," a dry, spare, but affecting narrative about taking a girlfriend to an abortion clinic. The album won a big cult following, but the messier, less immediate 1999 follow-up The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner failed to match its success, and the group eventually broke up.
By that point, Folds had already released the side-project album Fear Of Pop: Volume 1, and in 2001, he released Rockin' The Suburbs, a typically assured set filled with wry, literate story-songs and infectious melodies. Folds recently unveiled Suburbs' official follow-up, Songs For Silverman, but the singer-songwriter hasn't just been taking it easy between albums. In addition to touring regularly, he released a well-received series of solo EPs through the Internet, recorded an EP with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee as The Bens, and produced and co-wrote much of Has Been, an singular, strangely melancholy William Shatner album that ended up on plenty of critics' Top 10 lists last year. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Folds about his image, seeing kangaroos, and the surprising reason "Brick" became a hit.
The Onion: How're you doing?
Ben Folds: I'm trying to sound perky. It's four in the morning for me still. I just got in from Australia. So if I'm manic, that's why.
O: You might try ingesting several Red Bulls as rapidly as possible.
BF: The problem is, that would make me fucking crazy, because I get, like, way too much energy for about 20 minutes, and then I die. Then I get way too much energy again. It's weird. Right now I'm on the too-much-energy thing. I was trying to harness that energy. I live in Australia for about two, three months a year right now, because most of the time, I'm working. All my good shit's there, our house, my stuff. Even though I live in America more, I feel like when I go to Adelaide, that's when I get to go home.
O: How did all your good shit end up in Australia?
BF: I got married to an Australian. The thing is, she likes America better and I like being in Australia. So there you go.
O: What do you like about Australia, and what does she like about America?
BF: I just feel at home there. I get off the plane, the air feels right. I know the neighborhood. It's all geared to me walking down the street and accomplishing anything I need to. I can do everything by foot there, and I know everybody, and it's just comfortable.
O: Do you get recognized a lot there?
BF: Yeah, but it's different. Like, I was walking around L.A. for a couple of hours and having people shout out their car windows and stuff like that. The occasional person will stop me, or whatever. It's more of a celebrity thing. In Adelaide, they all know I live there. People who normally wouldn't have heard my music are familiar with it because I live in Adelaide. So they just nod. Everyone I pass, "How you doing?" "How you doing?" I go into somewhere that I've never been before, to do my laundry or whatever the hell, and casually, while they're doing their thing, they go, "So, has your tour just started?" It's like that. You just kind of know everybody. It's nice. I get my little place in the café that way. It's a nice way to live.
O: Do you get to interact with koalas and kangaroos?
BF: I've never seen a koala! I've seen lots of kangaroos now, but I've never seen a koala.
O: Is seeing kangaroos exciting?
BF: Hell yeah! I was trying to photograph one with a 4x5 field camera. You know much about those? It's slow work. It takes a lot of technique just to set it up and focus it. You have to go underneath a dark cloth cape and all that shit. There was this big red kangaroo on the top of this rock. It was about 25 feet from me. So I started to set up. He stood there for the longest time. And just as I soon as I got a camera set up, he hopped away. He was a big motherfucker. We had a moment. He decided—he must have been downwind or something. He was like, "Okay, this is a person. I need to get out of here." So he split. They're pretty amazing animals. They'll fucking kick the shit out of you, too. You can't get too close to them.
O: In a recent interview, you said that doing promotion for your new album is very different than for your first solo album. How so?
BF: My first solo album almost inevitably had to come from—a point of view arises with the press. The press is like any business. It's a group of really intelligent individuals that ends up being one slathering, one-eyed, drooling monster. It's like a story is decided upon in its sleep. And no one's aware of the meeting or anything. It's just, all of the sudden there's this story. The story behind my solo album was, "Thirtysomething-year-old dude in one-hit-wonder, cult-following band makes an overproduced album and will disappear soon." [Laughs.] So the line of questioning and the reviews and everything put me on the defensive. What do you really say to that? It's like, "So, how long before you cash it all in? Because you basically are washed-up." That's the subtext. It was pretty tough. It would always be accompanied by, "Well, that's what they say, but between me and you, you know I stick up for you."
This time it's not really like that. This time, it's more like, "Oh. That fucker's still making records? It's not that bad, really. Hmm." [Laughs.] Which is much better. I don't really have a story. I don't cook up something to be presented. If I'm asked about my record, I don't really go over the top with my own glowing review about how fucking great my record is. I'm aware that I'm very fringe, and it's nice that way. The last press was—I just had to be on the defensive the whole time. It's like being in the position of—in half of the industry's mind, you're kind of a cult-following, independent rocker. And on the other hand, you're a sellout. But neither one of them are right. I don't get that much radio. I don't sell that many records, and my music's extremely accessible. So it puts me in a weird position as far as the press goes. There's no story. I don't know. I'm not that damn good-looking. So there you go.
O: But you have a real following, a solid fan base.
BF: Oh, it's one of the heartiest fan bases, reliable, built like a truck kind of thing. They're pretty solid. They're unshakeable. I play two, three, four, five thousand in every town with very little promotion. They know all the words to the songs. The people that open up for me get lots of airplay and great reviews. And they're lucky to get the opening slot. [Laughs.] It's just a weird little world. It's cool. I really like my position. It's a great position. But, yeah, if you come up with a story, let me know. I'll start spouting something. I haven't cracked the code. I don't really know.
O: When you first came out nationally, you certainly did have a story and a gimmick—you were the zany guy who plays piano. Did you regret that image?
BF: No. I didn't regret that. We were a good business. I wrote songs, and they were complicated, and I knew that, so I knew that we had to sum ourselves up in a sentence. "The piano band that rocks. By the way, they're nerds." That's basically it. I can't put it in one sentence these days. It's because I can't do it with a straight face anymore. I can't sit around like my own marketing guy and come up with something. It's a bit frustrating, because I wish I could. [Laughs.] I wish I could make myself do it, but they lined up about 200 asses for me to kiss, maybe more, 250, for Rockin' The Suburbs. I got through the first 50 and started choking. I couldn't do it anymore. After that point, I seem to have just retreated to making music and doing the best I can for promotion. I seem to have hit some equilibrium, and it's good. I don't really have to explain that part as much anymore. But, yeah, what would it be? "The piano band that rocked." That was it. Now, it's "The guy that's been making records for a while and writes good songs and talks about himself for six hours a day on the phone."
O: In the mid-'90s, guitar-based alternative rock was the preeminent form of music; your piano-based power-poppy stuff was swimming in the face of that. Do you feel like you're still an anomaly, or has the pop world moved closer to you?
BF: No. I'm definitely an anomaly, but I'm making things. They're selling, say, martinis, and I'm kind of making vintage Riesling. People aren't going to sit there very often, not your average public, and your average music-business monster is not going to take the time to notice the overtones and the undertones inside the flavor. They'd rather just have the martini. But I continue to just build these things, and I know that there's a lot in it that goes by people. Because I write very simply, but inside the simplicity, there's a lot of subtlety. That's what I'm proud of. But how do you say that? It's something I've always wanted to achieve in my music, and I'm starting to. But I'm not going to be able to tell anyone, explain that to anybody very easily.
It's like—I love photography, and I liken my new album to a collection of Wynn Bullock prints. With Ansel Adams, everyone's going to go, "Wow! Ansel Adams! Big, big landscapes! Huge! Amazing! Yeah, Ansel Adams!" Wynn Bullock… "Yeah… uh… not… no." Because he just built very subtle, simple prints that are lasting. Over the course of time, they are proven to really hang in there. They're understated. And I made my name being overstated, smashing pianos. Now I'm making more understated music sometimes. You listen to it the first time, and maybe you're compelled to listen to it again at some point, but it's not going to do the trick on the first listen. I think that's another reason we don't have a story.
O: Your music often seems to be about the past, and to carry a real sense of regret. Why is that such a resonant and persistent theme for you?
BF: I think it's how you read it. I write, as they've told me in the movie business, coming-of-age songs. I do that because that's just the way I see things. I'm not a very regretful person. In fact, I'm probably more regret-free than anybody I know, but I take time to sit on the cliff just a second and go, "Wow! Look where the fuck I went!" A song I had on the last record—when people listen to it, sometimes maybe they misunderstood it as "It sucks to grow up." I was talking about "It sucks to be born," or "It sucks to be pissing your bed when you're 80 years old." I don't bum about aging and moving on. The past and the present are all there when I'm writing. Even if it's just implied. Usually, if it sounds as if I'm bummed about something, if you just really read it, you might see sometimes how it's built to not really be like that. At the end of the thing, I want all my songs to be positive, because I'm not a depressive person. But you can't be happy without being sad, and vice versa. So the presence of both sides makes for more of the way real life is.
O: It seems like that's kind of consistent on the William Shatner album as well.
BF: You know, that's all him. That's all his words. I think that's what drew me to it. I've read a lot of portrait photographers who say that a good portrait is one of someone where they are wearing, somehow, in their expression, where they've been and where they're going. I think when someone really goes to tell you something about what they're thinking, they're going to wear that experience with them. That's what you have to share. On the Shatner record, he's basically telling us that when he was a kid, he thought something was going to happen. He was waiting, and now he's 75 years old and he's still waiting. It doesn't get any better, kids. That's pretty good information. It's like he's way up there at the top of a cliff and he's yelling down. We're like, "Did you find it!?" He's like, "Uh, no!" [Laughs.] It doesn't exist, keep going. So when I say something about aging, it's always about any age. It's never about one particular age. People are so scared of talking about age because there's only one age for a rocker, and that's a young man. Because people are marketed to at their disposable-income age, which has been deemed to be the cool age, from 18 to 25.
O: That's when you can be on The Real World.
BF: Exactly. That's when you can be on anything. That's the age that is marketed to. And the funny thing is, everyone else goes, "Aww man, that was amazing! I wish I was still… I'm still young! No really, I'm still young!" Because their age bracket gets no respect, because of the way we market things. So anyone that's outside that age group had better not talk about age, because they'll draw attention to the fact that it's not cool to be any other age. I personally feel fine. I don't care. Age should be an issue for me only for something I can't do, like, I'm out of breath or something trying to play piano.
O: You've described Has Been's theme as William Shatner saying, "I'm 75 and I can't get my shit together." Would you say you have your shit together at your age?
BF: Nobody does. It's all about balance. And that's fine. I'm much better off than I have been sometimes, and I expect like anybody, I'll slide and go into something else. That's another thing. I don't write songs from the position—I hope I don't write songs from the position of Tony Robbins. I'm not saying, "Hey kids, I've got it together and you'll see, here's how it goes." I write from a position of being slightly confused or vulnerable, because that's the way I see things. I want to be more or less honest. Unfortunately, marketing works so well that I can feel as the times change that it takes more for someone to let it dawn on them that they want to hear the marketed 18- to 25-year-old thing. That hasn't always been the case. If you listen to, say, music in the '70s, it's okay for Cat Stevens, total fucking hippie, to write a song for his kid. Who gives a shit? That's fine. He smokes pot, writes a song for his kid. He goes out and he's a rock star. He's on the radio. It's all good. You don't do that now. I did it, but I don't know many people that do. You don't go out and write a song about your kid. I actually applaud Eminem for doing the same. He has that "hush little baby" song ["Hummingbird"] on the radio. I thought that was really touching. I thought it was amazing that he would let himself be that un-rock-star-like. It's very cool.
O: In the '90s, it seemed like being vulnerable and openly emotional was more taboo. That was part of the whole Gen-X thing.
BF: I always slip that between the cracks in my records. It'd be like, "Gimme back my black T-shirt, you bitch," and then the next song was just about as earnest as you can get. Whether it's "Evaporated" or "Brick" or "Selfless, Cold And Composed," those aren't smart-ass songs. Those are very earnest songs, but they're couched between other things, because that's the way the times were, I guess.
O: Do you feel like you don't get enough credit for either of those things?
BF: I might not get credit in the mainstream thing that I'm talking about, but I get plenty of credit. I really do. I feel very validated and loved and all that bullshit. I feel totally fine. It's just when I have to operate in the world that me and you are now, where we're promoting an album, basically. Then it gets tough. But I didn't expect when I was 12 years old that I would write songs and millions of people would hear them and like them. That's freakish.
O: Is that what you had hoped for?
BF: Oh yeah. I probably didn't think about it like that, but anyone would hope for that and it would be good. But I didn't expect it. To me, then, that's enough credit. There's always more credit to get. I mean, if you're Elvis Presley, you're probably slightly bummed that people in tribes in Africa have never heard of your music. There's always someone out there. There's always one more.
O: You can always be doing better.
BF: You can always be doing better, and there's no one who's immune from it. I hope to God that I never allow myself to be bitter because I don't feel like the reviews are good enough, or I don't feel like I get credit. But that takes work, because I have to live in the middle of it too. Someone can go "So-and-so's album is just getting great reviews, and yours is kind of not." And then I go, "Wait a minute! My record's better than that motherfucker's, and they're going to know in 25 years!" I can start to get mad about it, but then I go, "Man. I have a good job. Shut up."
O: "Brick" was quite the anomaly for a hit. Why do you think such an unconventional, downbeat song became such a success?
BF: It was just damn good, lucky timing. It probably comes down to that we entered the scene as such an anomaly. We made ourselves that way. We played punk-rock clubs instead of doing what everyone wanted us to do, which was to play lounges and places with pianos. I came up through those ranks, so our introduction to the music business was all about CMJ and NME. It was very like, "Here's the next thing." Everyone knew we were going to have a hit. No one knew which song it was going to be. It was almost random. It happened to be that at the same time, alternative radio wanted a power ballad.
O: Ben Folds Five is full of really catchy great songs that you can imagine being huge hits on radio. " Brick" isn't really like that. It seems a lot more subtle and subdued.
BF: It couldn't afford to be flashy. It wasn't because I just wrote the song that was about an experience I had. It was a very honest song. A flashy version of that wouldn't have flown. It was a well-cast song to be on KROQ at the time. It was generational. It fit the times. It wasn't going to be like "Wind Beneath My Wings." That wouldn't have worked.
O: Do you think working with William Shatner influenced this new album?
BF: It did, because it was such a not-lonely experience having all these people come through. The presence of this greatness popping through the studio was just really nice. I was making my record at the same time by myself, and it was more lonesome. Then I was like, "Oh man. This is what I have to do. I've got to do this not all by myself."