A chat with Ben Folds, Ben Folds interview, The Sing-Off
Ben Folds

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When Ben Folds Five released their self-titled debut in 1995, if you’d told Mr. Folds that he’d one day be a judge on a prime-time series where a cappella bands compete to see which of them is the best of the best…well, let’s face it: he probably would’ve laughed in your face. Similarly, if you’d approached our man Ben in 2001, just as he was putting out his solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs, and said that there’d be another Ben Folds Five album in his future, he probably would’ve gotten a chuckle or two out of that as well. Yet here we are in 2011, Mr. Folds is a judge on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” he and bandmates Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee have recorded a few new songs for Folds’ new career retrospective (Best Imitation of Myself), and they’re heading back to studio in December 2011 to record an all-new album. Bullz-Eye chatted with Folds about all of these matters while taking a few brief moments to talk about his collaborations with William Shatner and “Weird Al” Yankovic as well.

Bullz-Eye: I have to say, it’s still a little weird seeing you in primetime on a regular basis.

Ben Folds: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s weird for me, too. But I feel I’m in service to a good cause with the a cappella kids.

"I’m not really comfortable on television. But with (‘The Sing-Off’), I thought, ‘That could work to my advantage, ‘cause I’m really just there to be a musician.’ So do I really have to be a total talking head? Not really. I can kind of ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and look up and be awkward, like I am, ‘cause that’s acceptable, ‘cause I’m giving a specific kind of advice…rather than being, like, in (host) Nick Lachey’s position. He has to be slick. I don’t have to be. At all."BE: So how did you find your way onto “The Sing-Off” in the first place? I don’t actually know the origin story. Was it something you pitched, or was it a case where someone else had the idea and knew of your affinity to a cappella?

BF: Well, it all came together…I’ll tell you, there was a lot of synchronicity going on. I mean, it was just a lot of stuff. One of the producers and his creative partner had been wanting to involve me in an a cappella movie since, like, 1996. Maybe ’97. I’d been working with another producer on the show off and on for various one-off projects since ’98. So then when I did the University A Cappella album, which was recording a bunch of university a cappella groups singing my music – they were already singing it, I just came and recorded it and sold it for a music education charity – then suddenly this a cappella movement’s taking off more and more, “Glee” is getting traction, NBC is looking to do something with a cappella music or singing of some kind. Everyone got in touch with everyone at once…and I just got the gig. So I became the expert for the second because I’d just made the University A Cappella record.

BE: Not that you’re not comfortable in front of audiences, but was it different to find yourself in front of a studio audience, as a TV star of sorts?

BF: Oh, yeah, I mean, I’ve had to get my sea legs there. (Laughs) I’m not really comfortable on television. But with this, I thought, “That could work to my advantage, ‘cause I’m really just there to be a musician, so do I really have to be a total talking head?” Not really. I can kind of “ooh” and “aah” and look up and be awkward, like I am... (Laughs) …’cause that’s acceptable, ‘cause I’m giving a specific kind of advice rather than being, like, in Nick Lachey’s position. He has to be slick. I don’t have to be. At all. He’s got to nail it, and I don’t. All I’ve got to do is kind of break the music down the best I can in 40 seconds, but in a way that has some hope of translating to a mainstream audience and that’ll also be helpful to the groups. And I find that really hard.

BE: Of the performances you’ve seen, are there any in particular that stand out as having just completely blown you away?

BF: Yeah. Every show. (Laughs) This last show, the group that went off, Kinfolk 9, they ended with “Let It Be,” and the lead singer just went Jeff Buckley on us. Unreal. Unreal pipes, that guy has. Such a personality. The guy was just so good. So, of course, what do we do? We kick him off. (Laughs) And we had good reasons for that. It’s hard, I think for their fans to understand. We deliberated…I think we deliberated for nearly two hours, so it would probably take me nearly that amount of time to explain the thought processes that went into it. But it’s because we care. Actually, the three of us get really emotionally invested in this thing. So, anyway, that blew me away. And then “American Boy,” by Afro-Blue…? That just killed. Absolutely outstanding, just so slick. Those guys are so good.

Ben FoldsBE: You’ve got a career retrospective that’s just hitting stores: The Best Imitation of Myself. Does it make you feel old, especially given how many discs they’ve devoted to you?

BF: I guess it should. But I don’t know why it doesn’t. (Laughs) It makes me feel…well, I think mostly what I’m getting out of it is that I’m actually learning something. Going through hundreds of hours of tapes and recordings, hearing the things that were working that we didn’t know were working, hearing the things that weren’t working that we thought we were working, and to have that kind of perspective and the opportunity for me to make a three-disc set which hopefully sums it up… (Trails off) Still, sometimes I think, “Aw, man, we could’ve done it differently! That doesn’t sum it up at all!” But I can tell you, what I learned from listening to everything is that you don’t know everything, and you’ve just got to let it go. So I let it go. It’s out there. And now when someone – a friend of my aunt’s or whatever – says, “Oh, you play rock ‘n’ roll music? What record should I get?” I’d be, like, “I have no fucking idea.” But now…well, first of all, I’d say, “Sorry for saying ‘fuck.’” (Laughs) And then I’d say, “I don’t know, how about the best-of?” And then they can take that, rather than me wondering if they’re gonna be a Rockin’ the Suburbs person or a Whatever and Ever Amen person. This kind of spans the whole thing pretty nicely, I think.

BE: The only thing I noticed with some sadness is that all of the versions of the collections seem to be Shatner-free.

BF: (Sighs) Yeah, I know. But, look, you know, I had to look at some of these things that were kind of side projects and realize that there may be another way to get those out at some point. But they were going to start to cut into the meat and potatoes of my songwriting, and if I’m going to leave a song off like “Steven’s Best Night in Town,” which I think is a really great, well-written song, and…oh, I dunno, let’s say “Bastard.” There are songs where I go, “God, I want those on there,” but I can’t cut more songs off to put stuff on that’s really more Bill’s record than my record. But I will find some way of getting more recognition for Bill’s album at some point. It’s just its own thing. It’s kind of like Fear of Pop. That was its own thing. We did recognize The Bens on there, but that, I think, is more understandable, because it very much had my voice in it and very much had my songwriting. So it made sense.

BE: Yeah, I was thinking more specifically of “In Love“ (from Fear of Pop’s Volume 1) more so than Shatner’s solo album (Has Been), actually.

BF: Yeah, ‘cause the Shatner solo thing is…well, I mean, it’s definitely part of what I’ve done, and I did want to put that in and show that somehow. But we just couldn’t figure out a way to do it without cutting stuff that we wanted on the record, and then it’s, like, “Well, if we’re gonna include this Bill song, then we gotta include that one, too.” It just kind of gets messy.

BE: How did the Ben Folds Five reunion come about for the retrospective?

"If a group that has chemistry has the opportunity to be generous and make some music, then…life’s short. We probably should do it. But if it’s not going to work…if we’d gone in and someone yelled, ‘You son of a bitch,’ and cymbals started being thrown and stuff, then we probably wouldn’t have done it. Obviously."BF: Well, it seemed to be the natural thing to do. I mean, it came up from a lot of sources. It was recommended or suggested a lot. And I didn’t resist that, because our MySpace reunion show really went well, so it was, like, “Well, let’s see how this goes…” And, I mean, I did resist some. But I didn’t resist a lot, obviously, because I did it. And it was really good. Most of what we worked on over the course of the three days was not stuff that we actually used. We went off on a lot of tangents of a lot of new-sounding material, and we realized that this is a retrospective record. We don’t want to jar the sound of the record. We want it to have some feeling of hindsight or reflection. So we consciously moved towards music that would be looking back a little bit more. I think the song “House” sounds a little like my solo career and a little like Ben Folds Five, and at the same time it’s very much what we did when we just played the song in the room together. So all this factored in, and it seemed to be right. But a lot of it was looking ahead, more to the future. That’s coming on the next record. We’re going to get together soon to start writing.

BE: I’m glad that “Time” made it onto the third disc of the retrospective. It’s not the studio version with “Weird Al” Yankovic singing back-up vocals, though.

BF: Yeah! The track that he did…well, the reason that the version that made Songs for Silverman was special was because of the end part that Al was singing on. It had this sort of Mamas & Papas, changing-of-the-season kind of vibe going on. It’s a real special segment of the song, I think, and that’s the reason that it went on. But the version that’s on the third disc, that’s actually the original recording, and there are things about that one that are kind of more assertive, stronger, and it’s a slightly different form around the bridge. It’s pretty cool. But I had to keep the Al version on Silverman because when Al started singing with the guys, it was vibe-y, man. Al sings his ass off! He’s a great singer.

BE: So beyond the retrospective, are you working on any new solo material, or is the focus on the Ben Folds Five reunion at the moment?

BF: Ben Folds Five are going back into the studio in December, so…that answers your question, I guess. (Laughs)

Ben Folds

BE: Did it surprise you that the reunion went well enough to result in talk of a new album? I mean, certainly not every reunion feels comfortable, but this one must’ve been at least semi-comfortable.

BF: Yeah, I don’t think you know what to expect with those things, so I don’t think it would’ve surprised anyone if it had worked or if it hadn’t worked. I think we just came into it with a real open mind and a real good reason to want it to work. If a group that has chemistry has the opportunity to be generous and make some music, then…life’s short. We probably should do it. But if it’s not going to work…if we’d gone in and someone yelled, “You son of a bitch,” and cymbals started being thrown and stuff, then we probably wouldn’t have done it. Obviously. (Laughs)

BE: Looking back at Ben Folds Five’s albums and your solo work, do you have a particular release that you consider underrated, one that didn’t necessarily get the love you thought it deserved?

BF: Well, I think they all kind of have their place like that, you know? That’s been sort of…there’s all sort of distinct. It depends on who you ask. If you ask a fan of Songs for Silverman, they’re gonna be, like, “Aw, yeah, that record never really got a fair shake, that’s the best one, it’s more honest and less smart-ass-y.” But if you ask another person, they might say, “Aw, no, no, no. Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever, Amen. All that shit he did after it just sucks.” They’re all gonna have people who feel that way about them. The truth is, they’re all what I meant to…well, maybe they’re not what I meant to do, but they’re all as they should be. It’s very Zen. (Laughs) One thing I know from listening to all this stuff is that I’ve basically done what I should’ve done. It’s not all perfect, for sure. I hear shit and I think “Wow, we fucked that up,” “We should’ve put that song on that album,” “I thought that was great, but it’s not,” and “I thought that was terrible, but it’s great.” You get perspective. But you have to kind of do what feels right and do the truth at the time. All that shit pans out later on. But I don’t have any regret like, “Aw, that record should’ve…” ‘Cause it’s all about radio singles if you’re gonna have regret, and that’s not in my control.

Yeah, “Still Fighting It” probably should’ve been a hit. And I don’t mean “should’ve been a hit” like…I just think circumstantially a lot of shit happened in the world that made it not possible for that song to be a hit. But it should’ve been. And “Landed,” that probably should’ve been a hit, too, but…really, what happened was, that song was top-5 requested at a lot of massive big-market radio stations, and then there was a big payola scandal, and everything that was in the tornado got dropped. And mine was one of them. But, you know, those things won’t define you at the end of the day. They just don’t. That’s not it. I keep cranking. All our music is gonna be forgotten one day. So I just have to chill. (Laughs) This record allows me in my lifetime to be able to give my friends and people who have a question about my music…I can give them my album. I don’t have to say, “Well, you gotta buy all ten of ‘em,” or however many I’ve made. I can just give ‘em this one and say, “Yeah, don’t waste your time with all of that shit. Just get this record. And Shatner’s record.” (Laughs)

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