Last week's small paper also prevented me from running an interview with one of my favorite artists, Ben Folds. The piano man is opening for John Mayer tonight at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (show up early!). I caught up with Folds not long after he talked to some "wacky morning DJs" in San Jose, California, and chatted about the ten-year anniversary of the release of Ben Folds Five's landmark album, Whatever and Ever Amen, and an upcoming music-themed cruise he's helming, The Ben Folds Experience.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on the record? Do you even look back, since you play some of the songs live still? I’m trying to think of how I look at it. I’d almost have to talk to someone who maybe made records in, say, the 1960s. Say someone made a record in 1967 instead, and it was [now] 1977. I suppose they would feel like a little bit more of a dinosaur, since the times changed so much. But I almost feel like, from 1997 to now …the leaps in pop music haven’t been that substantial, they’ve been kind of subtle. It’s been a matter of…what to re-popularize and what to re-hash, how to change the collage around a little bit. Maybe I’m delusional, but I don’t feel like [Whatever and Ever Amen] is even from another era to me. It has some markings of what I would say, ‘Oh, that’s the ‘90s,’ but it’s not extreme. It’s not like I have this record that’s about the flower children -- and then ten years later we’re making a disco record. Which would kind of be more exciting in a way, if things would change like that, which would make my record a little more obsolete. I play a few songs from that record live probably every night, two or three, and they don’t really seem out of place.
1997 was just right before MP3s and Napster and the Internet started to really take off. But that’s it. That was the innovation in music: The way we sell it. Now it’s on the Internet. I’m not saying that nothing new has come out. [But] you think, like, 'What’s the most exciting new thing right now?' Someone might say Arcade Fire. Well, that’s great, they made a couple good records. I can’t see how those records couldn’t have come out in the ‘90s though.
No, that’s true. That’s probably a criticism and a comment on how that type of music is. And really lucky for me, [laughs] because I don’t have to change that much at all, and I still have a job.
What do you remember most about the [Whatever and Ever Amen] recording process? There were a couple of Japanese girls who had traveled from Japan to find R.E.M. and Ben Folds Five. [laughs] Our first record had made a bit of a splash in Japan, Whatever and Ever was our second record. We were in our rented house recording it, and I look up while I’m playing the piano track to ‘One Angry Dwarf’ – actually, we were playing the whole song, we did it fairly live – I could see out the window. There were these two pairs of Japanese eyes just above the windowwill sneaking a peek in at what we were doing. [laughs] They had no idea they were watching us record the record. I was like, ‘Who are these people?’
We let them sleep on the floor of our van. Then we realized…we had turned the generator on in the van so they’d have power. And then we started thinking, ‘Maybe if that sits for too long, they’ll get carbon monoxide poisioning, we better go out and check.’ And they were both asleep and we could see their feet in there, and they weren’t answering the door. [laughs] We were all freaking out cause we thought we’d killed them! They were fine, there was no carbon monoxide at all.
I also remember lyrics…writing the song ‘Brick’ while Robert [Sledge, bassist] and Darren [Jessee, drummer] were doing the background vocals on ‘Fair.’ Cause it took them ten hours of going, [sings] ‘ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba,’ all day long. Something about that part, it never sounded right. So they’d do it again, double it, take turns.
People who only know ‘Brick’ might have the wrong impression about you guys. Even on that record, listening to it, it’s a really diverse record. You really have to dig into it. I would hope that that was something that influenced people. But I doubt that it did. It may have opened the door for bands like Keane [though]. [Coldplay's] Chris Martin, I met him one time and he said, ‘Thank you for opening the door for other bands like you, like us,’ [and] he was considering Coldplay. Like, he could go out and play piano now and not be ashamed of it, because of Whatever and Ever.
That’s a really bold statement. It’s so funny to me that your fan base has stayed the same age. It makes me really happy to see fifteen-year-olds listening to piano music. How did that happen? I don’t know! I’ve got theories, but I’m starting to think that the entire rock audience is just [age] eighteen to twenty-five. Now I’m opening for John Mayer on the road, and his audience is probably older – which is funny, cause the guy is ten years younger than I am.
Tell me about this cruise you’re doing next year. It sounds like a good idea. All I know about it, is what it is. I don’t know if the whole boat is us or not, I guess it is. I listed a lot of bands that I thought would be nice to have on it. I’ve been so busy, that no one’s really told me who came through and who didn’t. But I think the Streets are going to be on it.
No way. I think so. If you don’t know that, then maybe they haven’t confirmed. But I heard that they did. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that.
That would be totally ridiculous. That would be totally ridiculous. That was number one on the wishlist.
It is your cruise. You can be like, ‘Here’s who I want.’