BEN FOLDS INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Liane Hansen
[ Music: Jackson Cannery starts, up full, then under: ]
LH: And now, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you, from Chapel
Hill, North Carolina, the Ben Folds Five.
[ Music up full: "Stop the bus, I wanna be lonely, when seconds pass
slowly and years go flyin' by, you gotta stop the bus and get off here"]
LH: Although they produce a big sound, the Ben Folds Five is really a
trio. Drummer Darren Jessee, Robert Sledge on a fuzz-toned bass, and
pianist Ben Folds. A rock 'n' roll band led by a pianist is a rare thing
these days, but Ben Folds never even considered hiring a guitarist.
BF: It really didn't occur to us at first. Now it's become a challenge
to see what we can do with the piano to bring it up to guitar energy.
Every member of the band really has to make up for the lack of a guitar
player. There's a good reason why in the last however many years of
rock 'n' roll there's always a guitar. We have to put out a lot more to
get that much out of it, you know.
[ Music segues under to beginning of Philosophy, then up full: "Won't
you look up at the skyline, at the mortar, block and glass, and check
out the reflections in my eyes..." Music under: ]
LH: The song that I think initially shows off your dexterity on the baby
grand piano certainly is the song called "Philosophy", and it's a song
about, sort of, standing alone...
LH: ...and, ah, it's kind of, all right, all of you people who didn't
believe in me...
LH: (laughs) kind of song.
BF: When I write anyway, I kind of take a part of my character that I
can exaggerate, and that was the, partially like the old man part, kind
of like (Uncle Walter voice) "I built this and you laughed the whole
time" kind of thing to it. I always find a lot of my friends didn't seem
to have any particular direction at the time that I wrote the song. It
was a little frustrating to me. It was also frustrating to be, well,
not laughed at, it wasn't that bad, but just like "Well, here's Ben,
he's off doing that same thing" and so I kind of wanted to put that in
the song, and it's kind of a dorky thing to put, I mean, the word
philosophy, like that, it's not very rock 'n' roll, and I really like
pushing things in to that kind of music that aren't rock 'n' roll.
[ music up full: "and I say, go ahead, you can laugh all you want, but
I got my philosophy, keeps my feet on the ground, and I trust it like
the ground, and that's why my philosophy, it keeps me running when I'm
falling down. I pushed you 'cause I loved you guys, I didn't realize
you weren't having fun...." music under ]
LH: What were those things that you were doing that people said "Oh,
there's just Ben, doing his thing"?
[ music: slow fade out ]
BF: I'm kind of, I've always been since I was real little I've been kind
of directed, and when everyone else was out playing army or whatever, I
was at home playing piano or drums or bass or guitar, or something. I
didn't get out as much [laughter]
LH: Chained to the piano. Beautiful piano playing, though.
LH: Are you trained? Did you take lessons?
BF: A year of formal training, when I was nine years old. I took it very
seriously for a year...
[ music under: beginning of Uncle Walter]
BF: ...and after that it was Little Richard kind of, beating the hell
out of the piano.
[ music up full: "Come on... Your Uncle Walter's going on and on,
'bout everything he's seen and done. The voice of 50 years' experience,
he's drunk watching the television. You know he's been around the
world. Last night he flew to Baghdad" then fade under ]
LH: So is this kind of punk, kind of sensibility?
BF: Yeah, I mean, we all grew up in the late 70s. I was in seventh grade
or something like that. You grew up listening to the corny soft pop of
the 70s, and then all of a sudden there's like the Clash and the Sex
Pistols and all this, and that was it, that was all you listened to. So
it has to be in our music somewhere, you know.
LH: Lots of attitude.
[ Music: Uncle Walter fades, then Underground up full: "I was never
cool in school. I'm sure you don't remember me. And now it's been ten
years. I'm still wondering who to be, and I'd love to mix in circles,
cliques and social coteries, that's me. Hand me my nose ring (can we be
happy?). Show me the mosh pit (can we be happy?). We can be happy
underground. Who's got the looks, who's got the brains, who's got
everything? I've got this pain in my heart, that's all. Hey you," then
fade under ]
LH: Did you ever listen to Queen? And Freddie Mercury?
BF: Yeah, on the radio. I remember hearing Rhapsody in Blue...
BF: Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue, [laughter] and loving it on the radio
but I didn't have their records.
LH: Yeah. I heard him and his influence in the song that you do called
"Underground." There's a moment where you all break off into a
vocal and I guess you're saying "Hand me my nose ring"?
BF: Uh huh. That's actually, that's Jesus Christ Superstar, that whole
LH: Oh, really?
BF: Yeah, if it had to be anything, that's what it is, the, uh, "Oh ...
we have a problem here," you know, that part. That's what that beginning
is supposed to kind of be. Lyrically it's just like, if you're in high
school and you're kind of a geek, and don't really stand out in any way
there's a good chance that a few years later you can invest in the right
tattoos, t-shirts, nose rings and mohawks and have instant friends.
It's a social clique.
[ Music up full, end of song: "Everything's heavy underground.
Everything's happy underground. Everything's heavy underground." ]
LH: Boxing's been good to me, Howard. My favorite song of yours. I've
listened to it over and over, and I thought, is he writing about
Mohammad Ali and Howard Cosell, is that what he's writing about? It
turns out yes indeed, that's what you're writing about.
BF: Yeah, that's definitely in there. My father's a big boxing fan, you
know. When I was growing up, it was always Mohammad Ali and Ken Norton,
or Ali and Frazier or Foreman or whoever it happened to be and it was
like a big deal, and I think I just gathered a romantic notion about
boxing. I've never really been interested in it but it definitely
yields its own soap operas. It's almost like "George Jones done Tammy
Wynette wrong" and to keep up with that. It's like the same thing with
Mohammad Ali. I man, he quit how many times and came back and, so using
that just as a framework. At the time I really thought I wanted to quit
playing music. It wasn't...
[ Music under: Boxing ]
BF: ...doing it for me and I wasn't, I didn't feel like I was
succeeding as much as I wanted to. And so I thought about this, you
know. "Boxing's been good to me, Howard", you know. "I tried." And
then wait for everyone to say "No don't quit, please don't quit."
That's what the song is about, is wanting to quit or saying you're going
to quit and waiting for someone to keep you from doing that.
[ Music up full: "Howard, now I confess, I'm scared and lonely and
tired. They seem to think I'm made of clay, another day I'm not cut out
for this..." then under: ]
LH: You do it as a palm court, and you add strings, violins and cellos,
it almost, it reminded me of all those daugerrotypes one sees of the
boxers in the very straight position and then juxtaposing that with the
kind of sport it became when Ali was fighting.
BF: Yeah, and it's, um, also Raging Bull was something that had
something probably to do with the feel of that song. Because as I was
writing I could imagine slo-mo shots, black and white, with the sweat
flying, the whole thing. There's something just sad about boxing. I
don't know what it is. I'm not sure if it's that once you're done with
it and you've had the hell beat out of you, like what do you do then? I
don't know what it is, there's just something just kind of sad about it.
[ Music up full: "Boxing's been good to me, Howard. Now I'm told we're
growing old. The whole time we knew, a couple of years I'd be through.
Has boxing been good... has boxing been good... has boxing been
LH: You're going to be making a video?
LH: A first video?
LH: What selection?
LH: Oh, ho, no, nose rings. (Laughter)
BF: Nose rings, mohawks and cowboy hats.
BF: We're going out to Arizona and we're gonna film on the set of "Pale
LH: Whoa. (Laughter) Stand back!
BF: It's a saloon scene, basically. Three minutes of gratuitous saloon
violence with stunt men and breakaway railing, and...
LH: (Laughter) Have fun while you're doing it.
BF: We'll definitely have fun while we're doing that. It's just
something.. I was going "What kind of a scene from a movie would I
really want to be in?" And I'm like "Yeah, I'd like to just fight with
some stunt men." So...
LH: Get some breakaway beer bottles and do the whole thing.
[ Music: toward end of "Uncle Walter" under ]
LH: All right. Ben Folds. His debut recording, "Ben Folds Five," is on
Caroline Records. Ben Folds, thanks a lot for coming in.
BF: Thank you!
[ Music: up full to conclusion ]
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