Bandleader Ben Folds talks about hauling pianos, emulating everyone from Billy Joel to Elton John, and leaping to his death.
Ben Folds Five is occasionally tagged as a novelty act: After all, there are no guitars; the primary instrument is a piano; and despite the name, there are only three guys in the group. But for all of Ben Folds Five's unusual attributes, it simply plays great pop music, complete with dazzling piano work and wry observations about life and commerce. The band's second album, Whatever And Ever, Amen, just came out, and The Onion recently spoke to Folds about everything from his non-influences to why Celine Dion isn't allowed to bungee-jump.
The Onion: What are the logistics of moving a piano from city to city, club to club?
Ben Folds: Well, you put it on its side, take the wheels off, and you roll it, basically, on this little skateboard. As long as the variables don't get out of hand, and it's pretty much just a straightforward load-in, it's not really that bad once you know what you're doing. But it can be terrible if you just have the slightest twist or turn loading into a place. It just becomes a big deal. It can be bad.
O: Do you ever play clubs with names like "The Attic," where you have to take it up flights of stairs?
BF: We probably wouldn't play a club named The Attic. [Laughs.] There's a place called Eddie's Attic in Atlanta, and I remember people saying, "Man, you should play Eddie's Attic!" And I'm like, "Fuck you, you play Eddie's Attic. I'm not playing Eddie's Attic with that piano."
O: Does it ever make you wish you played the harmonica?
BF: Nah, the piano's good. It gives you something to be stubborn about. It's fine. You know, I don't have any huge political leanings this year, so I might as well just fight for the piano.
O: So, I've been told that you're the voice of a disaffected generation. Is this true?
BF: The voice of a disaffected generation. Hmmm. Well, how would you mean that?
O: Well, I've been told that you speak for those of us on the outs. You're our generational spokesperson.
BF: Like the disenfranchised people of the… I don't know. Maybe kinda… I mean, not "maybe kinda" that I would be their spokesperson, but that we might have something to do with that world. There are fringe people and there are fringe people, and the truly fringe people are the ones where you open a phone book and you put your finger down, and there's someone's name, and you call 'em up, and they're fucking weird. There's a certain kind of person who normally goes to a rock club and normally buys rock records, and I think a certain amount of those people are listening to us. But then there's another group outside of that who are always telling me, "Man, I never go to rock clubs, and I came to see you guys," or, "I never buy records, but I bought your record." If you think about it, that's a very cool thing, because think about how many boxes of cereal get sold in a day. A lot more than records, I assure you. I went through a period where I didn't buy records for a long time, but I'm actually excited about what's going on in music right now, so I'm buying records.
O: What records are you buying?
BF: Well, let's see… I think the new Pavement record is great. I think the Joe Henry record is great. I'm really looking forward to the new Radiohead record, which is coming out in June. What else? You know, I like The Cardigans a lot; I'm glad they're on the radio. I like Sparklehorse, Built To Spill…
O: So why should anyone buy your record?
BF: Um, I don't know. [Laughs.] Because they've got 13 dollars they don't need, I guess. [Laughs.] Unless they can tape it off someone else. That's fine with me. I don't know, 'cause it's… [Pauses.] I hope we make the kind of records that I would want to buy, and if that's true, then I think you should buy it because I would buy it. I bought the Radiohead record, and I'll recommend it to other people. I'm not really a strange person or anything, so if there's music I like, usually there's other people who like it too. Which is a cool thing—that's what musicians forget when they're making music: They forget that if they're making something they really like, they're not that damn weird probably, and other people are probably going to like it too.
O: What do you usually talk about in these interviews? You do a million of them. You know, pianos, no guitarist, why are you Ben Folds Five and not Ben Folds Three… What do you always get saddled with that you're sick of talking about?
BF: I don't know, I usually blank those things out. Obviously, there's "Why Five and not Three?" There's, "What's it like not having a guitar?" "Why do you not have a guitar?" "How did you meet?"
O: "What are your influences?"
BF: That one's a real drag. It's dumb, because influences are by nature subconscious; you're not aware of them. You don't know. Say I'm the biggest, well, Joni Mitchell fan. Maybe not the biggest, but I love Joni Mitchell. I'm not gonna sound like Joni Mitchell. [Laughs.] Why would I want to sound like Joni Mitchell? I've got Joni Mitchell records, and they're great, and I couldn't possibly be that good. If I love her, that's what I'm gonna think, right? So maybe I'll pull influences from things I'm not aware of, things I've heard on the radio, maybe the Bee Gees. Now, I don't own a Bee Gees record—I don't care about owning a fucking Bee Gees record—but I know that we sound like the Bee Gees sometimes when we're joking around. And that must be where it came from. I don't own any Carole King records, but I think there's influences there. Todd Rundgren… A lot of '70s stuff that I heard on the radio, I don't buy those records. But that's part of your sensibility, so those are influences, but you don't want to sit there and rattle them off, because you find yourself not being able to hold a conversation with someone about it. It's like, "Yeah, The Beatles, big influence," and I can't tell 'em five fuckin' Beatles songs. Influences are subconscious, and when people ask that, I'm like, "Uhhhhh, I don't know."
O: What do you want to talk about?
BF: What do I want to talk about?
O: I posed this same question to Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf once, and all he wanted to talk about was your work on the Barry Black record. [Folds once played in Barry Black, a Bachmann side project that also featured producer Caleb Southern.]
BF: Really. That's cool. That's really nice, because we've been doing a lot of traveling, and I haven't seen Eric in a long time. He just made another Barry Black record, and me and Caleb weren't involved in it at all, so I don't what it is. But on the Archers tour, they'll come through Sweden, and then right afterward we'll come through Sweden, and people are always asking Eric about me and vice versa. And after a while, they'll start pulling a lot of negative things out—you know, Eric said he didn't like my lyrics, and I'm like, "Oh, man. You're running around all over Europe hurting my feelings." And now, to hear that he said something nice is really cool. I know he likes my musicianship a lot, and doesn't understand why I write lyrics the way I do. Which is fine; that's cool. And I'd say the same thing about him—I love his music, and sometimes I love his lyrics, and then sometimes I'm like, "Eh." But I can say that about any music. God bless Eric Bachmann. You know, if you ask me what I want to talk about, I probably… [Pauses.] I just did a bungee jump at the Arizona State Fair in Tucson, which was kinda cool, because so much of my day, it's like… [Laughs.] No offense, but it's like interviews, you know? And so, it was different. The thing is, I don't mind doing interviews; I don't mind promotion; I don't mind doing music and all that kind of stuff. But it is the same thing every day, the same as if you worked in an office or something. It's just a little different scenery. The peroxided hair is of different length at the different clubs. But that's probably the only different thing I've done.
O: So how was it? What was it like?
BF: Oh, it was amazing. Me and Kate—that's my wife, we got married in December—did a tandem jump. They strapped us together and put us on this wire, and picked us up like 110 feet. And they drop you. The cord stays slightly taut, so it basically turns into a swing, where you go 110 feet up on the other side. So you go, "Whooooooa!" It's amazing. It's a rush. It's cool.
O: If the cord's going to snap, and you're going to fall, you might as well die with the person you just married. Because then it's like a romantic thing.
BF: Yeah, unless one of us for some reason lands on the other, and the one person stays alive while the other person is, like, squooshed beneath. That would kind of be a drag. One of the heads of our record company, I had basically just met him for the first time, and he was at the fair. He's walking along, and I said, "Well, we're going to go do this bungee jump!" And he goes, "What? What? What?" He's going around asking, "Does that hurt his hands?"
O: Yeah, you're his cash cow.
BF: Yeah, hardly. He wouldn't let Celine [Dion] jump, I can guarantee you. Well, Mariah Carey goes around finding the world's biggest roller coasters, and that's basically the same thing. It's like a roller coaster.
O: I've heard you referred to as "indie-rock's Billy Joel" and "indie-rock's Joe Jackson." Which are you?
BF: Well, I mean, Joe Jackson was indie-rock when he started, wasn't he? Actually, I guess Billy Joel was, too. That's a funny thing: I don't ever want to buy into this indie-rock thing ever again, because it's all such a load of shit. [Laughs.] It really is. I do understand it: If you do something yourself—rock music on the fringe, where you're doing it yourself totally—is… It's an industry, it's commercial, it's marketing, all that stuff, but it is a lot of fun. There's a freedom about that that's undeniable, and it's really, really cool. But even most indie labels don't afford you that sort of situation. It all just comes down to image and marketing, so the indie-rock thing has just gotten to me to be like… It'll probably be the next thing I won't ever want to talk about. Billy Joel and Joe Jackson were both great, and they both play piano. A similar thing about both of them, although I don't think they'd want to be compared to each other from what I know about them, is that they both did start out in kind of an indie way, and they were both kind of against the grain to a certain extent. Even though both of them ended up being very much pop guys… I don't know, I mean, I think they're both fine. I think they're both great. They both write great melodies. Billy Joel's more prolific, Joe Jackson tends to be more consistent about meaning something in his songs. But, I mean, they're both fine. Billy Joel's more of a showman, and Joe Jackson's a little bit more of an introverted musician.
O: And where do you fit into this?
BF: I fit into both of those things in a funny kind of way. I would feel personally that I would want to be more consistent than I feel like Billy Joel… That's a terrible thing to say in print, but… There's something so songsmithy about him, and I would want to tilt a little more toward the art side and less to the songsmith side. And from Joe Jackson, I would just want to be more free. You know, if I could take things and improve—not that I could; that's what I would like to do… Those are the things about those guys, but they're both so great. They're both piano players, of course, which is why people say that about me. I kind of feel like I've got more in common with Steely Dan's early records in a way. That's something I can relate to; the first few records totally make sense. Also, I think Elton John I can relate to more than I can Billy Joel, although Elton John tends to make three great songs on a really shitty record. There'll be three masterpieces that are just amazing. He himself was a masterpiece; his records weren't always so good. Elton John also started out three-piece—piano, bass and drums—which had something to do with why we started out that way.