We spoke to Ben Folds while en route to Washington, DC to play the Obama Inauguration festivities on Saturday. Key topics were thick sweaters and sausage trees.
This past September, the piano, bass, and drum trio Ben Folds Five returned with The Sound of The Life of The Mind, their first studio album in thirteen years. Folds’ snug, idiosyncratic vocals, the churn of his keys, and the band’s agile dynamic are still intact. The compositions bust out well with Robert Sledge’s bass distortion while Darren Jesse’s drums tidy up the often self deprecating spillage. The juices had begun to stir in 2011 when they came together to record three new songs for an anthology of their material. Shortly after, they played their first concert in over a decade at New York’s Mountain Jam Festival. Then came Bonnaroo, Milwaukee Summerfest, and Old St. Patrick’s Church Block Party in Chicago. At that point, they couldn’t not do a new album.
In January 2012, the trio went into Folds’ own Nashville studio, originally built in 1964 by Chet Atkins as the historic RCA Victor Sound Studios. After they took some time experimenting with chord changes, arrangements, and feels, they opted for a simplified method of recording, keeping the piano, bass, and drums all within ten feet of each other in the studio’s big room. Joe Pisapia (Guster, k.d. Lang) was enlisted to co-produce. A portion of the album sales, and other BFF items ordered by fans through PledgeMusic is going to support Music Education and Music Therapy, a charity chosen by the band. Folds spoke while en route to Washington, DC to play the Obama Inauguration festivities on Saturday, January 19th.
VICE: Where at the inauguration are you playing?
Ben Folds: In the National Mall area, outside, at the Service Summit. They’re expecting between 50 and 100,000 public service workers to be there. The theme of the event is to honor people who work and serve the public. I think Chelsea Clinton, Star Jones, and Angela Bassett are speaking. Michelle Obama wanted to honor public service and community service workers. I’m excited to play.
So some secret service action will be going on. Will you be wearing your protective flack-jacket to protect you from all the crazy people who want to assassinate everyone. Or your Kevlar?
I guess so. I have a really thick sweater, I’ll probably go with that [Laughs]. It’s gonna be cold.
Playing piano outside in the cold must be tricky. You’re hands are gonna freeze.
It sucks. No doubt. It hurts. I’ve played outside like this before. It bruises your hands. I don’t know why. A doctor could probably tell us why. But my knuckles will turn that bruised blue for about four days after. That’s my contribution to the event, damaged fingers.
Ben Folds is a true American hero.
A true American martyr.
You’re a patriot.
They’ll give me the purple knuckle award.
Have you dialed up any especially patriotic songs to play? Some Bon Jovi?
I thought about it. But I’ve been living in hotel rooms cause I’m on tour, and haven’t had much time to work on anything. If anything abundantly appropriate pops up at me, that has to do with service, I’ll do it. I won’t do “This Land is Your Land” or anything like that. Bon Jovi is tempting. I don’t think I have that long to play. I’ll play, and then I’ll be in the corner holding my hands, and crying, while Star Jones brings me a heating pad.
You should play that Frankie Goes to Hollywood song “Relax Don’t Do It." That would be a sweet cover.
You’re not wrong. It’s something we’ve considered covering before. We’ve talked about it. The tempo is perfect.
What is a cover over the years you’ve loved to play?
I’ve always enjoyed doing “Barrytown” by Steely Dan. But we don’t do anything necessarily unique with it. My greatest memory of any cover is getting to play “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” with Burt Bacharach. I got to do it with him on television. It was quite an honor.
So what is the sound of the life of your mind?
Ah, a good question. I’d say right now the sound of the life of my mind is the sound of your voice in my phone. And the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. What’s the sound of the life of your mind?
I’d say the sound of the life of my mind is your song by that name, because I was listening to it right before we spoke. And somehow while I was listening, I was looking at pictures of South African Sausage Trees. You should see these things. The mature fruits dangle from stalks like giant sausages. They can get up to two feet long and weigh fifteen pounds. They have blood red flowers that bloom at night that are pollinated by bats.
You’re right. I gotta see that.
I wanted to try something with you, if you don’t mind. I wanted to start fictional beef between you and another artist. If we were to start fictional internet beef between you and another artist, who would be? Like a fake long standing rift. How about Kanye West? I’m starting beef right now between you and Kanye West. Y’all have had beef for years, as of now. But what’s the rift? Is it something about Kim Kardashian? You say Kanye West has small sausage trees.
It started with my jealousy of his song writing. I wish I could summon that freedom in writing myself. But I kick his ASS in piano playing. Kanye’s piano playing sucks. That’ probably what the beef is about. He doesn’t care that he can’t play piano. But I just keep driving that home.
You’re like Franz Schubert.
To Kanye West I am.
You’re from the Winston-Salem/Chapel Hill, NC area I believe. What bands from around there are you into?
Archers of Loaf are a big inspiration. I like what Eric Bachmann did on his own too. Now he’s got Crooked Fingers. He’s always doing something worthwhile and puts out interesting, heartfelt albums. Really early I liked a band called the Other Mothers. They were just a total punk band. Southern punk band. I liked Jason and the Scorchers, but I really liked the Other Mothers. Jason and the Scorchers were a Nashville thing. The Other Mothers were just [pauses] fast. They played so fast. I loved it. I liked Let’s Active a lot when I was in high school. REM, they came up and played our neck of the woods quite a bit before they broke nationally. Stipe had really long hair and he’d sing with his hands in his pockets.
Of all the classical players and composers, who do you look up to?
I’d say Rachmaninoff. Just from the technical standpoint. It’s not something I could do. My girlfriend can, but I can’t. From an arrangement point of view, I have to go with Béla Bartók. The way his stuff comes together. Debussy is another. Ravel’s String Quartets. This is all music I wish I could play.
Maybe after Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Yeah. After I do the Frankie Goes to Hollywood I’ll have the confidence to do Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto over Kanye’s “Gold Digger.”
A power mash up. They gotta be going on at the same time.
Ben Folds Five has some tour dates you could check out. Here they are:
Jan 23, Denver, CO - Ogden Theatre
Jan 25, Las Vegas, NV - The Pearl
Jan 26, Los Angeles, CA - The Wiltern Theatre
Jan 27, San Diego, CA - House of Blues San Diego
Jan 29, Anaheim, CA - House of Blues Anaheim
Jan 31, San Francisco, CA - The Warfield Theatre
Feb 02, Reno, NV - Harrah's Tahoe
Feb 04, Seattle, WA - Showbox at the Market
Feb 05, Portland, OR - Roseland
Feb 16, Tokyo, Japan - Hitomi Kinen Kodo
Feb 18, Tokyo, Japan - Shibuya Kokaido
Feb 20, Hiroshima, Japan - Club Quattro
Feb 21, Nagoya, Japan - Club QuattroFeb 22, Osaka, Japan - Melparc Hall