Interview: Ben Folds

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By James Doy

Ben Folds brought a new sound to the world of pop music with his trio “Ben Folds Five” in the 90s.  Their brand of punky piano rock was both popular and hugely influential, and since they disbanded in 2000 he has become an icon in the industry.  Taking on movie soundtracks like “Over the Hedge”, reality TV project “The Sing Off”, working with artists as diverse as William Shatner and Sara Bareilles, and partnering with authors Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby, his career continues to go from strength to strength.  Recently he has been composing for orchestra, premiering his first piano concerto in March 2014 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Ben is bringing his Paper Airplanes tour to Auckland, the first time he has appeared in New Zealand.  We caught up with him over the phone from Oklahoma.

Have I missed something or is this the first time you've ever played a New Zealand show?

I've never played NZ - I've always wanted to but it just hasn't worked out for one reason or another - it's a pretty big deal for me.   It's kind of cool that I come on a solo piano tour - I've always kind of thought that's sort of the best introduction.  And of course that I've never been before - like I'm always playing in places I've played before so this is... a little different. 

Are you touring your own piano or picking them up locally?

We may be carrying a piano - I'm not sure how they've got the production... I used to live in Australia, so I had a piano there which we just used on tour, but I guess it will be local pianos.

... Is it a worry not having your own one with you?  You do tend to beat the crap out of them...

... Yeah well, I'm used to playing different pianos all the time ... I understand what it is I'm playing, and I don't play something harder than it can take!

On the subject of the way you play, you are so aggressive with the way that you deal with a piano - how does that affect your body?  I know, I'm a pianist myself, and when I'm playing a lot, I shatter nails, I get RSI, cramped muscles - do you suffer from any of that?

Shattered nails - I put elastic bandages around my nails for protection, because on tour you end up with no fingernails which is really uncomfortable.  I have had repetitive injuries, but I'm lucky that I'm not given to them, but when I have I've also been lucky to have help so that I can modify the way I play and live enough to save shoulders, or thumbs.  A lot of times as a musician you find it's playing music and the computer, or the way you stand... all kinds of stuff.  You just have to stay on top of it if you want to stay in it, because... being a touring musician for as many years as I have, you have to respect that for sure.  At the same time, I don't believe in being precious as a result, but you have to do the work.

The Paper Airplane tour is such a great concept, and it's great that it's so analog - these days you'd expect it to be based on tweets.  What's the weirdest paper airplane you've had so far?

The problem with the weird ones is they're very unmemorable.  For me I look down and if it says something fucked up, I just have to drop it and go to the next one... you can't get hung up... Already I'm playing an entire set, and I don't know what it's going to be!  So... that's already dangerous enough.

You've written so many great songs - there must be a huge pressure on you to do the songs everyone wants to hear.  What's the makeup of this tour going to be like?

Well I play a first half that I just think of as a dignified music concert you know?  There's something cool about the second half being all requests.  It sort of allows me not to worry about that too much in the first half.  It's pretty cool... I sit down and I play the stuff that I think fits together for that mood, that night... there's some resemblance between sets from night to night.  And in the second half since people can request, I don't really feel the need to make a decision to play something popular, I put it in because I want to.

That must be a huge release almost?  

Oh yeah, it's really nice!

You've had a big influence on a lot of the biggest names in musical theatre, through Lin Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Tim Minchin, Pasek and Paul - they've all mentioned the debt that they owe to you.  Have you got any plans to write your own musical?

Not solid ones, you know I've thought about it since... around 1997, and you can see 20 years later I just haven't done anything about it.  I think it's because I'm so busy with other things.  I should... I mean I am interested... but it's a very big project and once it gets rolling there's a lot of people involved... I think I've been scared off a few times because I look at my future over the next year or two and I think I've got all this other stuff I want to do.  You really have to commit to it, and I applaud Tim, and Sara, and Lin and all those people who've put it in, because they didn't know if it was going to be a success or not, and that's very serious stuff... There's a lot of logistics going on, and if you jump in on that sort of thing early... it's probably advisable... I was touring early, and then I had kids, and other projects came up, and the television thing for a while, and the symphony orchestra things... I just haven't had time.  I was trying to answer the question... but I don't know - just couldn't tell you.

You mention you've got some big things coming up - you've written and played your own piano concerto and you've worked with so many amazing people.  What do you have left on your bucket list?

I think the driving thing for me is to continue to write songs that mean something to me.  I don't think I can write enough of them.  I love going to an art museum that is so chock-full of a guys life of art, and it changes from room to room and era to era... I'm really OK with pushing it in that, which is the way I looked at the piano concerto, as an extension, amplifying one particular part of my song-writing which is more instrumental, story telling through melody and orchestration, which has always been part of  what I do, but to make that a big thing.  So sticking with the songs is pretty much it.  I've got a good chunk of a book I've been writing for a while.  One day when I grown up I'll finish it and release it.

How are you coping with the political climate in the States at the moment?

Yes.  What can be said... I mean... it's a big country and the climate is very complex.  I suppose if I was from another country I would be looking over here and wondering what the hell was going on.  We wonder that too... we have a President that was elected... it was really not won by the popular vote at all... and since then the popularity has declined so... I think the Secretary of State... was kind of accurate... he said that basically the President speaks for himself... which is a pretty big statement.  When Bush was in, that was very unpopular in other countries as well.  And people would blame it on travelling Americans.  It was actually a very uncomfortable time to be working in other countries... you couldn't go into a bar without someone wanting to fight about it... like "What are you thinking"... but now I think that everyone feels sorry for us!  I get the feeling that... it's sort of like this was cast upon us.  It's very complex.  I'm playing a lot of... flyover country, right now I'm in Oklahoma.  I was here when the election happened actually, I happened to be on tour... the last time I was here.  It's a very red state, they went for Trump... but in all these states that are like that, there is an oddly serene, progressive, and artistic culture, and I don't know if it's counter to... reactionary... or if it's part and parcel with it...  I guess it would be easiest for me to say this is awful, this guy is terrible... most everyone I know worries that the things that set the US apart... or made the government tick... will be broken or corrupted. I think that's what people worry about the most, that the whole thing will be sold out, and all the checks and balances and the institutions that we took for granted are under extreme stress right now... And I think that's the most worriesome thing... because a lot of the other things can be recovered from, but a lot of the people's lives are ruined long term if that happens.

I guess that we just have to hope that testing the checks and balances will strengthen them.

I think that that's right...

Has it affected your work?

Well yes it did, because when that happened... the news cycle and the vibe from day to day is going so fast.  Something will happen and it will be like "Holy shit that's never happened before..." and then that's two weeks ago, and it's like last year, and so much happened since then.  As someone who's job is... in part to report stories of the way things feel, it makes you very aware that that which you think and write could well be just old news and obsolete within weeks... how are you supposed to report it and get it out?  If I wanted to record and get out an album about the way things feel right now... you can't make a prediction, he may not even be President any more... we may have... his family may be President for the rest of my life...

That's a terrifying thought to end the interview on.

Well it's possible... Because it's possible, you can't report on it as an artist easily so it makes you think... well do I want to be singing some kind of small-talk while this is going on?  Or do I really want to be a political writer?  Because that's not what I got into this for... but things feel different so I think it has stunted my song-writing for the moment because I've just sat back and gone... what am I reporting on?  I don't even know... the Washington Post can't even keep up, how the fuck am I supposed to keep up, I'm a songwriter...

It's a very alien concept for us in NZ to understand, because our political spectrum is so far to the left from the States that this does seem like total insanity from the outside - but it's reassuring to hear people like you...

Oh that's most of us.  I'm in the majority... this is a bigger machine going on right now.  And I hope that all it is flushing it out, getting it out in the open, and having what the hippies call a healing crisis. Let's just get sick, you get sick now you don't get sick later... I think that's what's going on and it's not nice... it sweeps up the whole world as well... I mean, fuck... I saw an awesome piece in the New Yorker about how all the Silicon Valley execs have end-of-the-world hideouts in New Zealand!

Oh yeah, they're all over here...  Peter Thiel... if you've got enough money, apparently you can just move here...

You’re lucky, you live there anyway - you have to choose your end of the world scenario... which end of the world do you want to live?


Ben Folds

Monday 19th February: The Powerstation, Auckland

Tickets via AAA Ticketing