Autumn de Wilde
After a dozen years apart, Ben Folds Five, one of the '90s' most-surprising success stories, reformed last year, inspired by work they did on a 2011 greatest hits record that combined material from the group with songs from Folds' solo pursuits. The resulting album is The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the band's first record together since 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The album offers up 10 new tracks of Folds' signature piano-fueled pop, including one with lyrics penned by author Nick Hornby. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we talked to Folds about the band's reunion, his frequent use of humor his most memorable Seattle experience. Ben Folds Five play The Showbox at the Market on Feb. 4th.
Autumn de Wilde
Does the band operate as a democracy? As much of a democracy as any country that claims to be a democracy.
What form are the songs in by the time the three of you get together? Are they finished compositions or just skeletons? What you can say is that they're not finished at the time that I bring them in. I finish them during the process of recording. That's kind of how I see the democracy. I have very specific things, like, "Here's what the song is built on. It's built on a bass part." So Robert might end up having more to do with the construction of a song but it's hard to say what that will be at the beginning. It's really blurry. There's a vibe and a wavelength that we operate on.
Were you at all constrained by feeling like you needed to make a record that Ben Folds Five fans would enjoy and not stray too far from the sound of the three records you made together? I don't know what most artists say, but I can't imagine having this agenda in your head about what it should be. The best thing to do is to play by feel and do things that are exciting to you. Our records are radically spiritually different from each other yet they sound very similar. You'll have one person saying, "I love that record," and they'll hate the other record. But they sound very similar and they have similar themes. I think that's really what we do. It's three guys - piano, bass and drums. I'm not saying you can't have some diversity of sound in that, but it is what it is. It took quite a while and a lot of different kinds of players and decades for Miles Davis to really start sounding different too. You can hear him play and say, "Well that's Miles, there's his trumpet."
It would be pretty amazing if Ben Folds Five tried to make a Miles Davis-sounding record. I'd be thrilled if we could make a Miles record! In our world, we'd be like, "Man, this is radical, we made the record Miles never made." And then about a year later it would sink in that we'd just made another one of our records, because that's who we are.
Robert said he could "really hear how meaningful the work is" when he went back and listened to your records together. Does it feel that way for you too? I think we can be proud of ourselves for always, no matter what, operating by feel. And since we do that, it's really important for all of us to make something that has some weight, even if it's funny. In fact, especially if it's funny. The songs that are funny, I feel more responsibility to make sure that they reflect life, because life can be funny and sad at the same time. I think all three of us really embrace that and go towards it. If we had an inner critic or fan in our head while we were recording these things we'd be horrified because we'd go, "Fucking hell, this is a novelty song. People won't take us seriously because we're trying to be brash and trying to be young for our age." But instead, really what I do is I just try to put more weight into it because I want to make sure it balances for me and that the reason you laugh at a funeral is clear in the song and that it's not just a song about laughing.
Speaking of songs with some humor, where did the idea for "On Being Frank" come from, which imagines Sinatra's tour manager after his death, and which is kind of sad? It was based on something my tour manager said, which was that when he quits this job he's not going to know where to set the thermostat for himself. I thought, "OK, well this is, in fact, literally what you would call an identity crisis -- you don't know who you are and what your story is. It's that quandary of what do I do next? My next step is not going to be determined by who I thought I was. So that's what the song is. And this is exactly what happens when you're in a long-term marriage and then it's over and you no longer know how to make your coffee or what you like because you've only defined yourself in this way. Using the tour manager was a way of lightening up that subject matter for me.
Can you talk about the Eric Joyner paintings that accompany the package, and specifically the one on the cover with the robot underwater? It has humor, it's absurd and it's also isolating. It's called "Submerged," which is perfect. It speaks to responsibility, contemplation, sensory depravation. I think it's awesome. I just feel it. I don't know shit about art. I've always liked his paintings because they're absurd and very heavy, so I like that. The only problem for me was the fact that the album cover is a marketing tool and I doubt Charles Dickens gave a shit what was on his covers, I mean look at The White Album. My only concern with the marketing tool was that the indie kids have been digging some robots for quite a while. If I was aware that maybe it was eight years too late in terms of stylistic, on-the-edge coolness, then oh well. But I think it has something that will last, kind of like the cover of "Bitches Ain't Shit" that I did. I always felt like that version had a lot of heart and that's why I was into it. I would see criticism pop up and someone say, "Ah, white guys doing an ironic cover of a gangsta rapper again," but my feeling on those things is, is it moving me and does it have heart? Weird Al Yankovic stands up because he's always played by feel and doesn't try to be anybody he's not.
Do you remember the first time you played Seattle? Seattle in our era was mecca. I think the thing I remember most about Seattle is that our sound man, who I've been working with for a few years, that's where I met him. I woke up, and he had hair at that point nearly down to his knees, and he was standing over my bed combing it out after taking a shower and I woke up to that vision. It was the weirdest thing.