Piano Man: Q & A with Ben Folds

Winston-Salem native Ben Folds is one of the least predictable pop songwriters out there. He’s made mainstream hits both with his piano pop combo Ben Folds Five (“Brick,” “Song for the Dumped”) and as a solo artist (“Rockin’ the Suburbs”). He’s toured and recorded as the Bens with fellow Bens Kweller and Lee, produced a spoken word record for William Shatner, and conducts a series of interviews with other artists (and sometimes fans) on his website www.benfolds.com . In 2009 he released University A Cappella, a collection of his songs covered by student choirs. As a piano playing songwriter he veers toward filling the role of Elton John or Billy Joel for the internet age, but his output is quirkier, his sense of humor intact.
    His latest album,
Lonely Avenue, is a collaboration with best-selling British author Nick Hornby. Hornby, best known for novels-turned-films like High Fidelity and About a Boy, penned the lyrics. Folds produced the music and sings. He’ll perform many when he returns to the Fillmore Saturday, November 20th ($41.50, www.livenation.com). Folds spoke to us from his home in Nashville recently about the new album, among other topics.
Nick Hornby included an essay on the Ben Folds Five song “Smoke” in his 2002 collection Songbook. Is that how your relationship began?
That’s what catalyzed it. That’s a total honor to have been chosen for one of his essays. He spent a lot of time on the song ‘Smoke’ and a lot of time (writing) about the lyrics, which I didn’t write. Anna Goodman wrote the lyrics. I got in touch with (Nick) and said thanks a lot for the kind words, but Anna Goodman actually wrote that. We’ve got a similar sense of humor so we thought the whole thing was funny. We kept up. I asked him to write some lyrics for the William Shatner record. It was natural that the next step would be his writing lyrics that would become songs you would sing rather than songs that would be spoken by actors. The spoken word piece for Shatner wasn’t a stretch (from screenwriting). This was a different animal.

You have songs about Levi Johnston, sort of white trash neighbors, and cheating in the electronic age. Did any of the subjects surprise you when you first read them?
The way (Hornby) writes is sort of a surprise. It’s not that every song is The Crying Game or something, but he writes angles you wouldn’t necessarily think of. That made it like reading a preview to one of his books. I don’t think we shocked each other in the way you’re describing. The surprises were always just that only Nick could’ve written this. He couldn’t have known what (the music) would’ve sounded like. There were two songs I did musically which he didn’t quite expect that that was the direction it would go in. “Practical Amanda,” which came off much slower. It sounds like a love song. “Saskia Hamilton” was a bit noisy. He expected it to maybe not be such a full on new wave track. It’s synthesizery, lots of bass drum, a boomy track.

How many lyrics did he send?
About thirty. I managed to get eleven or twelve. If I picked them up and nothing came to mind, I moved on. I wanted to keep the process moving. If a photographer snaps a picture and it doesn’t work; if it’s two inches too far to the left, it’s not a picture. That’s the way we did this record. If the lyric didn’t move me, I moved on. I had that luxury because Nick is prolific enough.

I read that you created it specifically for vinyl (although it’s available in other formats). Why?
I wanted an experience that resembled a vinyl listening experience and I don’t always ask that of people’s time. I know there will be people that download like one or two songs and ignore the album. There are artists that complain about that, but people aren’t making good enough albums to be bitching about that. Nick writes books and movies. If you’re stuck in a theater or reading a book it’s something you would sit for and let these stories and lives sink in. That’s the way I would intend (Lonely Avenue) to be heard. [But] I’m a realist. I know people will still choose one track.

Do you prefer vinyl as a consumer?
It depends on the record. When all things are equal generally vinyl wins. Sometimes CD wins. In the case of this record we rejected the vinyl master five times and almost missed the deadline. At first when I put the CD on next to the (early mastered) record, the CD sounded better. I gave (the vinyl plant) a pretty good push and now it sounds better than the CD. Usually when you’re releasing an album vinyl ends up being an afterthought. The vinyl master comes in the mail. You’ll have twenty-four hours to approve it, otherwise your album isn’t coming out on vinyl.

There a lot that goes into the technical side of it?
The CD master is usually more than you’ll be able to fit in the grooves of the record. If one program, side A or side B, are too much longer than twenty-two minutes you lose a lot of sound for every minute that goes by. You won’t get loud bass especially at the end of a side. Technical limitations are part of what shaped us to make records in the first place. Your favorite Pink Floyd or Beatles’ record—they’re not that long. The sides are split a certain way. Bass is rolled off. It’s not perfect. Vinyl has a lot of quirks. It’s making an impression, making you think you’re hearing something you aren’t. It starts from first mic you put on an instrument.

Did your previous relationship with William Shatner lead to your song being used as the theme for his new television series “$h*! My Dad Says.”
That’s a complete coincidence that has to do with the producers. They were going to use the something else and then they heard “Your Dogs.”

The industry seems to be moving in that direction. Are you interested in more TV and commercial work?
I think every musician would like their music to be part of the fabric. I don’t like to spend time on stuff that I don’t believe in, but don’t mind my music being mashed up as part of the fabric of our world. I don’t have much time, so it needs to mean something to me. If someone wants to use it for “Girls Gone Wild” or Kermit the Frog I’m happy with it. Well, maybe not “Girls Gone Wild” or a Pepsi commercial. I don’t want my kids rotting their teeth out.

Is there anything you miss about North Carolina?
I like that North Carolina has such a base of artists and do-it-yourself artistic integrity. When I was growing up there were local bands that I thought were national bands that I didn’t know were just local. The mentality (in Nashville) is you have to have a big record deal and have your bus together. Where I come from you break even, play for audiences, and sell your tape on tour. It’s not precious.

Do you think a lot of that has been lost because of the internet? It seems like bands are releasing albums before they play a show or tour.
I don’t think it’s helped or hurt. The industry as it existed has been nearly destroyed, but we don’t want to confuse the industry with music, and I think people make and distribute music at the same rate no matter what. A certain atmosphere favors a certain kind of musician for a while and then favors another kind of musician for a while. It’s arrogant and cynical to feel music is getting destroyed. It reminds me of photography. If you look at the wartime photography of Robert Capa, and he only got one or two negatives that would survive D-Day or the Normandy invasion, then you’ve got one amazing image that represents World War II. Now you’ve got digital cameras that will take hundreds of photographs, but how many images do you remember? The same one. That’s the way people are. We have our output as musical humans. The internet just changes the landscape. The lizards with tails survive.

What’s next on your agenda?
I could go a couple different directions. I have a two-track album that I have in my head with eight acoustic guitarists around a stereo pair of mics. And I have a very pop record. I’ve got a sound in my head with the piano, but I don’t have many songs in my head yet. Purely catchy.