Quirky pianist Ben Folds, who performs at the Paramount this Thursday, has been creating infectious pop melodies about fucked up shit for over 15 years. The North Carolina native's 2008 album Way to Normal meditates on miscommunication, revenge, and adultery (hurray!). During a break from touring, Folds chatted with me from his New Jersey hotel room about writing music, censorship, and why college kids make the best fans.
I hear you've got the day off today, Ben. What are your plans?
I'm in New Jersey gambling [laughs]. Actually, I'm just pacing in a circle around this absolutely bizarre suite. I bet the materials in here come out to about $75,000. The furniture and carpet are brown. There's Turkish artwork on the walls. There's a massive altar in front of the mini bar and a spiraling staircase... It's all very intense.
That's quite the detailed description.
I haven't even gotten to the bathroom floor tiles yet.
Let's hope your hotel in Seattle is as impressive. When's the last time you were out here, anyway?
It's been awhile. We tour pretty often, but for some reason we don't make it out to the West Coast so much.
I've noticed you do make it out to college campuses fairly often. You seem to really strike a chord with that demographic. Why do you think that is?
It's because they still listen to music. They haven't gone off to work and had kids yet. They're trapped in dorm rooms on campus. They're at the peak of their observational powers and have the disposable time to make use of them.
I was actually thinking earlier this morning that I listened to you a lot when I was in college.
Yeah, my career has gone absolutely laterally [laughs]. Somebody will listen to me in college and then move on. Then their younger brother goes to college and starts listening to me. I'm sure a lot of graduates out there think I hung up the towel awhile ago. If they were still in college, they'd know that asshole is still out there making music.
Interestingly, you don't write about college at all in your songs. You do however, incorporate plenty of humor. Does that come naturally, or is it intentional?
I heard something by this horror movie guy--I can't remember his name--who said that everything had to be slightly funny in order for it to be scary. That's what disarms people from seeing what comes next.
My humor comes naturally. I use it as sort of a life filter. If you're David Bowie and you're singing about going to Mars, that's one thing. But the stuff I sing about is real. And I think that if something's sad, it's a little sadder if it's pitted against something that's absurd. It's similar to the way people make light of a heavy situation or laugh at a funeral.
Something you are very serious about is your artistic freedom. Last year you played a gig at Georgia's Berry College and denied their request for you to pull a song out of your set.
If I have any integrity, I'm not going to let someone take away one of my tools to do the best job I can do. The song [a cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit"] was probably the reason 40 percent of the crowd was coming to see me. It wouldn't be fair to deny them that.
What do your own kids think of your music?
They like it. They listen to everything. Gracie's nine and listens to a lot of R&B. She likes Beyoncé.
It'd be interesting--to say the least--to hear you cover Beyoncé. Will you at least indulge us with your awesome Dr. Dre cover?
Well, we sort of retired that one. It needs a break, but maybe by the time we go out to Seattle...
Oh, c'mon. It's gotta be one of the best covers of all time.
If you're actually coming to the show, we'll do it.
I'm coming to the show!
Well, there ya go. I'll do it.