There's really no way that you can think of the piano as one of pop's truly maligned instruments. Now the bassoon; that's an entirely different matter. When was the last time you heard the grandaddy woodwind coming to the fore of a chart topper? Motown and Christmas 1970 are the only clues I can offer without giving it away entirely. But while there was much keyboard figuring into rock's nascent moments, it's been backhanded and relegated to a second class status ever since. Ergo, all the fuss afforded the Ben Fold's Five since the release of their self titled debut last year. Forget Keith Emerson, forget the former Mr. Christie Brinkley, and for the moment you can put aside Elton as well. So fervent was the noise that the North Carolina trio was eventually asked to offset the power chords reigning over Lolla-Metallica's mainstage this year and give the indie kids something to gawk at on stage B.
While en route to one of those aforementioned gigs, Ben Folds stepped out of the confines of their stylish Ryder rental and phoned in from a truck stop for the following:
Consumable: Where you guys approached for the second stage thing or did you want to be on it in particular?
Ben Folds Five: Well I think probably everybody want to be on it. I'm not sure how it came about, but I think we were asked to do it. Based on our positioning on the second stage where we're basically opening up for the headliner. I don't think this was one of those things that we got bought on to, but you never know.
C: Is it comfortable to do, going from city to city for this type of carnival thing?
BF: It's probably not bad. They just tell you when to show up. They've got the piano to deal with stage wise, so we'll probably have to be there before everyone else.
C: When I saw you play here, it didn't look like a tremendous piano. I mean, you wouldn't think it would be too difficult to cart around between, say three people. Maybe I'm wrong.
BF: It's a thousand pound piano, and that was a big stage with a lot of distance between everybody. I don't know, put that thing in your living room and then check it out (laughs). It's big.
C: Since the record came out back in, what, July last year, has the material started to wear thin a bit?
BF: The rigor of six nights a week and some of the traveling that we've been doing has made it seem like it wears thin sometimes, but I think we're just in time for the new record. It'll be a relief to play those songs in the middle of a set where people don't know the new stuff. We have hit that dirged out, shitty feeling very much. A couple of times. Right now we're learning how to hold the songs back and that may sound stupid, but we're really excited about it. We're not playing too fast all of sudden.
C: You have stuff done up for the next record already?
BF: Yeah, I was just in the back of the Ryder on the couch going through the number of possible songs. It's somewhere around thirty solid, good starts.
C: And you've gen'd all that stuff up while traveling?
BF: A lot of it. I'm a real slow writer. I don't really write that much. You know, I'll have an idea and three or four years later, it's kind of mulled over in my head and turned into something else. In fact one of the songs from the first album, "Video", was for the most part finished when I was in high school. It just kind of got the final touch on it right before we [recorded]. So it's not like I've been slaving over for ten years (laughs)! About half of what I'm walking on now, the seeds are a year or so ago.
C: Are you guys sticking with Caroline Records for the next one?
BF: No, we signed with Epic/550 a few months after the record came out.
C: Was there any reason in particular? Was this a distribution type thing?
BF: Well there was a lot of reasons, but it basically came down to is with the kind of music we're making and the direction we're going, it wasn't going to remain an honest situation to remain with a label whose specialty is another kind of music. For the first album I think it was an interesting thing that we barely lapped over enough into the indie world by the nature of what we were doing - it had some hint of rebellion in there. And for them, they're an indie that goes just enough into the side of pop music to where it worked out. But beyond that, they're a grass roots organization and if we write hit songs, it's hard for them to be hits. I'm sure they would like to do that, but honestly, I think what they're good at is discovering really cool stuff and making it work in a real musical grass roots way. If we had been on a major label, we would have been screwed. Not screwed by the label, but screwed by circumstances. We wouldn't have had to fight up from nothing like we had to and that gives you a lot of stamina.
C: Is it getting to be a bit of a drag having to continually talk about why your playing the piano and not a guitar?
BF: Nah, because I'm happy that they're noticing that and it's setting us apart. We knew that was going to be the case when we started. We could only hope that we would have some kind of distinction. Think of how many bands are out there. I mean we don't want to wear make up to stand out. So the piano is a very dignified way of standing out in the crowd. I don't mind talking about the piano because I play it all the time.
C: I thought it was fun seeing the fair amount of abuse you give it during a performance like lying on your back and launching the stool at the keys.
BF: That was in lieu of diving into it. I had a broken rib and I was wheezing through the gig. And when it was over I was in a funny mood and I wanted to dive into it, which I sometimes do, but I was hurting too bad.
C: You broke a rib?
BF: Yeah, I broke it doing the video [for the single "Uncle Walter" ]. I dove off a box onto Darren [Jesse, drummer] and he wasn't ready for me and I landed my full weight on his knee.
C: Are you still doing the "Video Killed the Radio Star" cover? I was amazed at how people just lost their minds over it.
BF: Actually we're sort of getting ready to retire that. We chose that song because there was a compilation album coming out from Elektra of well known bands doing covers of one hit wonders. Elektra just gives you a catalogue to chose from and there's thousands of these one hit wonder songs. You know they're all funny for a second, but then you think "Fuck, this is a terrible song." Because with most one hit wonders, truth is, they're horrible songs. This song was one that once you get below the campy stuff, it really has a cool sentiment to it and a lot of energy. The original's not that energetic, and we put it in people's faces a little more and they realize how much they really like it, because it's a really good song.
C: Have you had any odd reactions from playing a song like "Underground" which seems like a poke in the ribs at indie culture, in front of this mass of alternative fans.
BF: It's like self-deprecation kinda. If you were like a Ray Stevens or something singing about [inserts twangy vocal here] 'them damn kids today..', it obviously comes from an outside point of view. But this is so obviously from within. Besides, people love making fun of themselves anyway. It's kind of like being a hipster, scenester type in a small town and everyone's walking around going 'There's a couple of hipsters, they know what's going on.' But the truth is they're looking at you saying the same thing if your onto the same vibe. It's been cool to be cool for too long now and now it's cool not to be cool.