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The last Ben Folds Five record, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, released 13 years ago. To give some perspective, that same year—1999—the Euro debuted, Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office, and Monica and Chandler had just fallen in love on Friends.
Our world might be a bit different these days, but the new Ben Folds Five record, The Sound of Life and Mind (out Tuesday), picks up right where the band left off. It’s a 10-track blitz of classic Ben Folds-style piano rock: cheeky lyrics, flashy melodies, and a whole lot of honesty. After recording it in January, the band turned to a crowdsourcing campaign for its release in May, quickly raising 200 percent more than their goal. Folds has mentioned briefly in interviews that they ended up with enough material for at least two records, so who knows what’s in store for the future. Sound of the City chatted with the 46-year-old back in August over the phone about the pressures of a band reunion, why college kids love his music, and getting older (but not sitting down when he pees).
What has it been like touring around this summer?
We enjoyed it, but it was a little unnatural because it was for audiences of 10, 20, 30 thousand people at festivals, and it was only four shows. I think we rehearsed for two hours before.
That’s a lot of pressure.
It was exciting, you know? It was kind of cool. It was probably slightly out of control, I suppose, but it was really awesome if you were there. And if it was recorded, god forbid, probably was a little out of control. But it was exciting. It makes you feel good to see that many people who are interested in even our obscure stuff. You never know if someone is going to remember something, even in two years, so that was pretty awesome.
Those are big crowds, but were you able to tell at all who was showing up? New fans? Old fans?
Those things are hard to know, but I would say it ran the gamut. I’ve been playing consistently in front of audiences that seem to remain 20 to 25 years old, but that’s just because that’s rock audiences. But I think it’s difficult to rouse older people into action, you know? Because when you’re aging, there is so much responsibility. No one really feels like going out and listening to a bunch of loud shit. I noticed more people from back in the day, I suppose. But it was still a little of both. The last few years, I’ve had kids—I say kids, but my parents were like 20 years old when they had me, so they’re able to reproduce, but they’re still kind of kids [laughs]—come up that are like, “I was, like, eight years old when ‘Brick’ was out and my parents were big fans.” And it’s neat that they’re grown up, going to concerts, and having a conversation with me. It’s pretty bizarre. There’s those people, too. It’s a trip.
What do you think it is about your music that’s so attractive to 20 to 25-year-olds?
I don’t know. I think some of it is that I put a lot of time and thought into what I write. I’m not sure that my peers or contemporaries have the time to think about the things that I’ve thought about.
What kind of things?
It can be very mature, actually. It can be stuff about the mindset you have when you hit 40 years old. The conventional wisdom would be to say that kids don’t want to hear what’s on some 40-year-old’s mind, but if it’s really what I believe, and it’s really what I’m feeling, they know they’re going to be 40 someday, and they’re interested in the truth. And I think they’re also interested in an approach that’s honest and playful, that’s all I can figure. I know if I go out with some fraudulent shit that I’m not having fun with, if you’ve got time when you’re 20 years old, you don’t want to sit and listen to a bunch of bullshit. But if there is something there, then you have disposable time and you’re in your intellectual peak for such things. Someone in college, their mind is honed to really absorb music. I love that audience because I can put stuff out there like that. There’s a song on the new record, “Draw A Crowd,” and the verses have a lot in it. If I was 20 years old, I would’ve had the time to really listen to that and think about what was being said, think about the images and then relate to the playfulness of the melody and these things. But someone my age is going to listen to it and they’re going to go, “Oh, that’s a funny little novelty song.” You’ll hear the word novelty associated with that [song], and it’s going to be old people saying that shit.
That makes sense. I remember driving around when I was 17, listening to “Still Fighting It,” getting down with some emotions—when the reality is that this guy singing this song is like 15 years older than me.
We make a really shallow assumption that just because a few people don’t have the exact same experiences, they can’t have anything in common. What would be not working is if I tried to write from the perspective of being 18. Would you have given a shit about that? No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have either, so everyone sort of loses then. You don’t do that dreaded thing where you try to relate. I’m not interested in relating to someone who’s 18 years old. I could give a small fuck about that. But what I think I am interested in is communicating. If I’ve climbed up the hill, and I’m on some plateau and I can see some shit, and I shout that down to someone who hasn’t got to that point, they might be interested, you know? But if I start shouting from that area something like, “Well, I know what you’re seeing down there, young man. You’re seeing some trees. Deer shit.” That’s just not cool, you know? Who gives a shit?
Nobody wants to be told what to think.
Exactly. You want to know what someone’s experience is. I got a lot of the John Lennon interview around the time he was shot. It was a Rolling Stone interview, and he was just saying something like, “You know, man, I’m 40 years old. I write these songs about where I am right now. And if you’re interested in that, then listen. And if you’re not, then don’t.” And I think that attitude is an important and respectful way to relate to your audience, you know? I can’t say why someone who is 18 years old might be interested in [my music]. But now I kind of feel like there’s more value these days in a seasoned band than there used to be.
What do you mean by that?
Well, look at The Who. They said they wanted to die before they got old, and… they didn’t. [Laughs.]
Yeah, they’re touring this fall.
They’re still doing it after awhile in their lifetime because no rock ‘n’ roll band has ever [done that], because it was all new. Rock bands weren’t old. Rock bands were just young. But now, we’re finding out that we’re all human and we get old, our knees get brittle, we have to sit down when we pee.
Does Ben Folds sit down while he pees?
Fuck no, man! I hang from the ceiling with a massive splash guard.
But you know what I’m saying. It’s like, now, the rockers do get older. The cool thing is that if you go to see—well, if you go see the Rolling Stones they’re not going to be exactly like they were in 1968. But there’s nobody else like ’em. They don’t grow people like that anymore, and you get to relate to another way of thinking. It’s really inspiring. The guys and I are hitting our next phase where we’re coming back with something kind of valuable. We play like a jazz band. We look so fucking old school on stage right now. It freaks me out to see these pictures of us. There’s no gear. Our shit’s old. There’s only three guys on stage. We just look like a little jazz band or something. I think that’s pretty badass. I’m digging that.
It seems like in your career you have a path of going to do new things to keep it fresh, whether that’s going solo or collaborating with an author or writing a movie. Was coming back to the trio another new thing, even though you’re going back to an old thing?
Yeah, well, I think you’re onto something there. That’s probably not going to be explained very easy, but being youthful isn’t about imitating yourself in your youth. When you were younger, you weren’t imitating anything. You were discovering it. When you get back, you really have to have very solid footing. For me to get back with my band, I really did not want to be reliving the past. I didn’t want to be, like, reliving the magic. It was important for me to hear things come out of the speaker that were going to surprise me. That’s just the way we made our first record. In a way, for me, the way to stay excited and youthful about music at that moment was to explore something new with the guys that I played with. It really only came down to that. I think people assume “cash-in time” and things like that when you see a band reunite. I think, you know, I don’t know. I think it should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about what we’ve done that that’s not the way we operate. We moved a baby grand piano ourselves on the stage and in the van for three years with no promise of ever even paying the piano off. We quit when we were at our commercial potential and peak, and I was back to playing clubs for 200 people, playing by myself on a piano again.
Getting the guys back together, you know, it’s actually a pay cut for me. But I’m into it because this is inspiring. Sorry I’m talking your ear off, but the guys, I’m working with artists. I’ve played with musicians who are just as good. It’s not like the Olympics when you get a gold medal for it, but I’ve played with really good musicians. These guys are good, too, but the real difference is that these guys are artists, and they just can’t help it.
Going back into the studio, how did you get back into the mindset of Ben Folds Five, and what did you do to make it fresh?
There was no effort involved in that process. It’s just a matter of just playing. There would’ve been an effort in trying to navigate it into territory that wasn’t natural. If we were the kind of guys who were going to sit down and have a conversation about what the album needed to sound like, I think we would have been dead in the water. It’s just that we got together and started playing.
How did you end up playing together again happen—just the reunion show a couple of years ago?
The reunion show opened the door to consider finding an excuse to go on tour. And then in 2011, last year, I had to make a retrospective record and my contract said that I needed to record some new songs for it. So that was a good excuse. We got the studio to do that. But I think what we discovered was that we had to make some effort to make the new songs have a retrospective feel, and so that is really the way the songs sound to me. There is effort involved in keeping it old school. And then in the same session, I ended up spontaneously sharing about 15 new ideas and we started playing on them all and we burned this CD that had all this inspiring stuff, and it didn’t sound like the past. It sounded like a new album. And I knew that we were going to make a new album at that point. It just took another year for me to clear my schedule enough to sit down and make a record.
Do you have any fears going into the new record? There has to be a lot of pressure when a band that’s so important to so many people comes back together, and long-time fans listen to the new record and say something like, “Well, this isn’t ‘Army,’ so fuck this.”
Well, you know, what happens is that the trajectory of the proverbial rock star is fairly cliché and documented. Like, in Behind the Music, you know what to expect. It’s not new. We fuckin’ followed the script. I think that fans don’t realize they do the same thing. Every album I’ve made since my first record, I’ve had to come to grips with a lot of disappointment. Fans get really fucking into what you’re doing, and they come on board based on that. They feel like it’s a contract, you know? It’s like, “He promised me that he was this person,” and then like five, four, two years later you come out with a new album and when it doesn’t sound like that person, they feel betrayed. They’re very vocal about it. They go online and say [things like], “This new album fucking sucks. It’s not this. It’s not this.” But then that record finds new fans, and those fans are ripe for disappointment on your next record. So I have no fears about this; I completely expect it.
But I also can’t lie, it always hurt my feelings because I don’t want to see someone disappointed. I can’t help it. I know I’m doing the right thing when people are disappointed. It sucks, you know. I’m putting it up as a front. We artists like to say, “Oh, we don’t care what people think. And I know I’m doing the right thing, so fuck those people.” But the truth is that it does hurt my feelings. It does bum me out. I want to please everybody. But I can’t help it. I make what I feel at the time, and I know intellectually that people are going to [respond that way]. I have to remember, when we put out The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, that disappointed a lot of people, and I would have conversations—I was still so naive—with fans about it, saying things like, “No, no, no, with time, you’ll like the record. I went in a different direction! I didn’t mean to abandon you!”
And now what I realize is that I have to completely accept it when people say things like, “I love the new record. Thank god he got back with those guys because the last 10 years of his work has been utterly invalid, crappy, and shitty.” And the way they’ll compliment the new record will be by [saying] that 10 years of my life where I’ve been pouring my heart out into my albums is totally invalid. And then I have to also accept that they say, “But despite the fact that it’s better than that shit he did the past 10 years, it’s still not up with what I loved about the Ben Folds Five records.” So I have to deal with that. But I also know that this album is capable of making new fans, and it’s just as good as anything we’ve ever done. In some ways, it’s the best record we’ve made. If you measure it up against the other records for what they’re strong at, it’s not as good. And our first record isn’t as good as this one if you measure it up in a certain way. So if you’re doing your job, you’re moving forward, you’re pissing some people off, you’re bumming yourself out, and you’re making new fans.
You’ve been making music during the technology boom. How have you seen the internet and social media change the music industry?
Well, you’ve gotta take the good and the bad. I’ve enjoyed the illuminating of the creative middle man in some ways, so that no one is going to tell me what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. I’ll just say it. At midnight, I’ll put out an mp3 and people like it or they don’t like it. I don’t have someone telling me from an office, over an earpiece, that it’s not going to work. At the same time, I also have to accept the bad with the good which is that we will never sell the kind of records again that we sold in the ’90s. It just won’t happen. And we’re all trying to eek a living out of almost nothing, and at the same time, our poor fans are inundated with everyone trying to get their ear, and they have to spend what little money that they don’t have on one concert, and we’re trying to tell them that, “No, this is the only concert you can see, and it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg,” because that’s what it takes to put on the concert and pay the promoter because they’ve lost money on the other concerts. The business has gone to shit. And I’m on Twitter with people complaining directly to me about ticket prices, like I set them, you know? I think they know that I didn’t set them, but they don’t have anyone to bitch to and they know that it’s easier to get in touch with me versus the promoter.
@BenFolds is easier than calling Ticketmaster.
Yeah! I mean, that shit. That’s right. They’re not going to get customer service at Ticketmaster, but they’re certainly going to get a response from me because they say something like, “You’re ticket price costs more than Madonna,” or something like that, so I say, “Well, I’ll look into it.” And find out if it’s true. And I look into it, and find out that it’s not true, but it is true that it’s expensive. And when I ask the promoter or manager about it, they insure me that it’s on the lower end of things, and if they could go any lower, then they won’t make any money off the concert. So I don’t know. This kind of stuff… I never had to think about this type of shit when it was 1994. I just showed up to the gig and played.
How does it feel to get asked what Ben Folds Five means again?
You know, I think that it was a name that was arrived at in minutes. It was like, before a gig when we just needed to say what our name was. I’d played solo gigs before that, so even though, I don’t know, I had 100 fans, that was our fanbase. So we put my name in it, but I don’t think we wanted to do it too earnestly. I don’t know. And then for the next, however many years, that’s the main question. I have a friend whose name is Sorry. No one stops to think that she might have heard that joke. [Laughs.]
Ben Folds Five plays Central Park SummerStage on Friday.