Hello reddit. I’m Ben Folds and I play piano. Most recently I wrote a piano concerto and 8 new chamber rock songs. I recorded the concerto with the Nashville Symphony, the new chamber rock songs with yMusic, and put it all on a new record that comes out tomorrow, September 11. It’s available here.
Ask me anything.
Banana for scale: http://i.imgur.com/ollbBNH.jpg
What’s in those plastic cups you’re always going backstage to refill during your show? What’s Ben Folds’ drink of choice?
Generally a pretty damn good scotch.
What song do you love that would surprise us?
It would probably surprise most to know I listened to Piece Of Me by Britney Spears on repeat during the production of Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. I also made everyone else listen to it.
When Reinhold Mesner came out back in 1999, there were tales of “Don’t Change Your Plans For Me” originally being longer before it was shortened to the album version we have today. Is there any trace of your original vision of the song before it was shortened?
It was shortened on the 2 inch tape machine. Caleb cut the parts he didn’t like and literally left the unwanted bits on the floor. I imagine the floor was cleaned and the recording went into the trash.
Do you ever forget how to play a song you composed and have to listen to your recordings or look up videos of your performances on YouTube and be like “Oh yeah, that’s what I did there”?
Absolutely! I used to have that everything I ever did went up on YouTube but it’s useful, especially for remembering what I’ve made up on stage. The concerto on the new album… I have to revisit the music once a month, so I carry the score. It leaves my brain – too many notes – who the hell wrote that shit?
What is your favorite and least favorite thing about living in Middle Tennessee/Nashville?
Nashville offered me a commission to compose a concerto. Then we sold out show after show, for a piece of instrumental music. That is true support, encouragement to dumb nothing down and to keep pushing and learning. Not every city does that for their local artists.
Billy Joel or Elton John?
Apples and Oranges. I relate to both. Both have inspired and personally encouraged me. They mean different things. But be assured, they would be as successful in any era – both are geniuses.
Did you ever get your black t shirt back?
Nope. But nobody ever took one from me. That was Darren’s lyric – true story from the night his girlfriend dumped him… after he had bought her dinner. He was pissed.
That was Summer of Summer B. She happened to be my room mate as well. I recently saw her and she’s just the same.
Has Dr. Dre ever given a reaction to your cover of Bitches Ain’t Shit? I’d love to know if he’s listened to it and what he thought of it.
I understand Snoop approved our use. Never heard from Dre. Big fan of both and I sincerely hoped to do something with their song that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves, and would be both as serious as the place their music came from, and as irreverent as well. Like any good piece, it was often misunderstood. I think it’s one of my most sincere vocals and melodies, and there’s a reason for that. It’s also absurd of course, as was intended by the composers!
I was in the audience at Colbert’s Late Show premiere on Tuesday and was SO happy that you were a surprise guest. How did that all come together, and what was the vibe like backstage?
Vibe was excited, even jittery like any good first night. Stephen’s crew came over from the old show and they’re the best. Lots of time backstage with everyone else talking shit. Batiste if fantastic too A real talent
Do you ever worry about opinions of yours being misconstrued when you write songs from the perspective of other people?
Yeah, I enjoy the ambiguity and freedom of writing a character and using first person. Some of course is a part of me. Some is completely made up. I always assume people are smart enough to know when I’m writing a douche character, but that’s not a safe assumption and I’m often disappointed in myself to be offended when someone calls me a misogynist for instance, because I wrote a few nasty characters. But hey, I asked for it because I was playing with that dynamic when I wrote, so I need to suck it up. The only bad thing would be someone drawing inspiration from a character that I wrote that was a horrible person. I’m sure that’s rare. Anyway, people ARE smart – never write down to them. And never write down to your characters. There’s good and bad in everyone. I think that’s a good and hard thing to remember when creating fiction.
One of my favorite things you’ve ever done is the chatroulette piano improv, as an ode to Merton. I laughed way too hard at those videos. Any chance of doing that again?
That was a moment. It would be fun to do more of that, but to tell you the truth we only did it three nights. About 20 minutes each time. We edited all the dicks out and the technical glitches and left exactly what remained. Kinda special. I edited that on the bus and uploaded it before hotel. I think I’ll leave it at that.
Was there anything from your upbringing that you attribute to sparking your interest? Any lessons that lead to your success which originated from your parents?
Good question, and I’ve been pondering this for the book that I want to write. I admire Malcolm Gladwell for pointing out that nobody succeeds on their own – there’s always something about their upbringing which gives them an advantage. In my case, my parents were accepting of my music. They were accepting of my messiness about it, the repetition. I think they knew I had more confidence because of it. At the same time, they didn’t think it was a good idea for a profession. Nothing wrong with wanting to prove your parents wrong. I think each kid being different, demands a different treatment. Some kids just don’t want to play an instrument and so I’d say expose them to it and let them move away from it before you turn them of completely.
Have you ever gotten star struck?
I got star struck seeing Sugar Ray Leonard at a restaurant. Years ago saw Randy Newman in airport and got really quiet. Since then I had at the opportunity to have dinner with him and he’s nothing to fear! A great guy. Ya never know… Michelle Obama I thought would make me shy but she’s such an inclusive one on one person that I relaxed. Ah, I’m quite the nervous one around those famous people.
Why does Rockin’ The Suburbs sound so different, production-wise, than the rest of your albums? Is there a reason you decided to go all out on that album with things like synths, perfect vocal takes, etc.?
Suburbs was my wanting a production value that was mainstream and current. I felt as though if my music had something to say, it may as well be said through the current filter. I often worried that you’d hear my records in fifty years and assume they were from the 70s. So that was a phase for me. It was painful to be honest. In retrospect I think I was right. Produce the fuck out of it like it’s 2000 and be proud. It’s a good record in my opinion and despite my wanting to quit every single night of that record, I think it’s perfect. I also think the producer Ben Grosse is a complete bad ass and was very patient with me.
What’s the biggest difference, musically and personally, between 1995 ben folds five and 2015 ben folds + yMusic? Who are some current sources of inspiration?
Each incarnation has had it’s moments of discovery. Then, the tough part is growing and really being in the moment, while you’re being patted on the back for the past.
So I think there’s something about the first BF5 record that’s utterly unique and naively very brave. Once we were told what that was and patted on the back, it was harder to keep. That said, I don’t think we made a bad record.
My solo period same. Rocking The Suburbs… well, that’s a pretty damn solid set of songs because I was scared shitless about going solo. So I worked hard and put in craftsmanship that I wasn’t always doing for BF5.
This album with yMusic is that moment again. It’s new – somewhere I haven’t been. These guys/girls push me. They’re the best musicians I’ve ever been in a room with which is inspiring. Personally I’m just in a good space too. But of course, if this becomes a ‘thing’, and defined, then yMusic and I will have to decide to keep up more of the same, rebel against the old, add to it? The waves that knock you around.
I think the Shatner record stands out as a unique moment too and why I never wanted to make another with him. We did our thang.
How’d it feel to throw your drums into Lake Oceola?
I recall it felt really fun. Anyway, those drums were awful. I was the token poor kid at that school, there on scholarship. The crappy drums which were purchased for 27 dollars, including stool, were an embarrassment to me. I now am proud of where I came from, it gets cooler as you become more successful. But I was ashamed of them, and my clothes, my accent and manner. So that display was cathartic.
How does your practice routine look like? Do you have any particular pattern or collection of exercise? Or is it more like doodle on the piano, get loose, play some familiar tunes?
As an adult my practice has been taking risks on stage. So that’s not helpful advice for you. When I had to practice for the first performance of the concerto I took off 6 weeks. I practiced a good 6-8 hours a day. I began with slow scales. All of them. Arpeggios as well. Very slow with metronome and speeding as I went. Fuckin Hanon exercises too!
Then I played my piece section by section with metronome slowly. Painfully slowly. I really adjusted my technique at this time. Actually I did some Alexander Technique which I found helpful as my posture is awful at piano. Finally, I would take breaks and even ice my forearms and shoulders.
As a lady who has been completely twitterpated with you for years, how would I get a date with you if I ever became single?
Haha you’re called “The Future Mrs Folds” and you’re NOT single? It’s your boyfriend I need to meet!
You did a Way to Normal ‘piracy’ version which was pretty amazing by the way – being someone who is financially directly impacted by piracy how do you feel about someone who may love your music but have never paid a penny/cent/local global currency to listen to it?
Well I feel two ways. Mainly I always just wanted people to hear and be effected by what I did, as I was by music as a child. It truly saved me. So I almost feel a hippocratic oath vibe about it. I do it because I am supposed to. At the same time I can see how much the music business suffered for it. I know many good people who don’t have jobs now etc. The good thing is that kids entering music now don’t harbor the illusion they will become rich. They’re doing it because they love it. Downloading for free has had many good effects and bad. I ride the wave. I don’t advocate on this issue simply because I’d rather put my time into education and music therapy and there aren’t enough hours in a day.
If you had to give one piece of invaluable, but not often said, advice to someone learning music – be it piano, drum, or vocals, what would it be?
Reset every moment. Take time to be aware of energy that you’re recruiting that you don’t need. Those are barriers. They come from being self conscious usually. Tension. If this is observed in technique it will rub off on performance in general. I say reset, because each day brings new hang ups we don’t realize. Lose those and you will express freely. That’s what I THINK anyway…
I saw a post you wrote earlier about working on a book and I’m just wondering if there is any sort of timeline for when it will be published?
Hi! No timeline on book. I get nice nudges from my book agent weekly but obviously I’m currently on a new album. When I have time, I write write write with no real form yet. Much is about my childhood, but as it relates to how it effected my musicianship and my perspective, and hopefully I can broaden that to help anyone else realize how obvious it is to tap into your own unique personality and talent. I feel everyone has good music in there, that would succeed in it’s own way, but I also see that most of us are sort of constipated creatively. Those who make music easiest, somehow didn’t get the ‘memo’. In other words, we don’t know we’re not supposed to do certain things. I think there’s a way there for anyone, and I’d like to explore that. Will be a good year before I get there, I imagine.
What are the differences in the creative processes between your solo work and your work with The Ben Folds Five?
The creative process wasn’t that different. I bring in songs that are half baked in general and start recording. I steer them with those I’m working with. The first BF5 album had finished songs that had been toured. Never happened that way after that one.
How does “So There” compare to the past albums you’ve put out? Your solo career definitely has a uniquely different feel in comparison to the work you’ve done with Ben Folds Five. Working with yMusic, how do you feel you’ve evolved as a solo artist on this album?
To be blunt and honest and probably horribly cocky, I think So There is my best album. It’s the one I would give someone first anyway. You’d think that would be my attitude towards them all, as they’re always the latest child to be born, but this is a unique feeling this album. I’m feeling a great wave of freedom.
What did you want to be growing up and what’s your most embarrassing memory as a kid?
I wanted to be a musician but I never admitted that. I kept that to myself. Not that I played music, but that I aspired to it as a career.
Embarrassing memory. Standing in front of the class and realizing that I had no pants on and that my junk was painted as Ronald McDonald, orange pubic hair coloring etc. Terrifying… wait. That was last night’s dream.
Since you’re one of the precious few songwriters left who can actually tell a story, have you ever thought about writing the score for a stage musical?
First thank you. And… I have yes, but for some reason I haven’t DONE it. Maybe that is because the songs already do the story for me? I’m not sure. I don’t know if I want them to have anymore context than they already do.
What is going to be next for you? Do you think with the success of your piano concerto that you’ll write another one?
I want to write pieces of university orchestras, with choir. I’ve got a few melodies for this and a basic idea of where to start with texture. What I want is for them to have another piece of music that is theirs. Something that challenges them, but not necessarily because of how many notes it has, but that it’s outside of comfort zones for instruments, at times. I want the lyrics to break the law and have them feel what that is to sing, with an orchestra… the informality with the formal. I’m very inspired about this and this is what I want to do next.
What was it like to work with Regina Spektor (I absolutely adore her and have seen her in concert in multiple countries) and do you have any plans for further work together?
I too adore Regina. Just had lunch with her and her husband Jack recently and we never talked about music once haha. Should have I guess. I know she’s got loads of new songs and I’m sure she’ll take her time, as she should. Maybe we’ll do a thing again some day.
Any movies you’ve seen recently (doesn’t necessarily have to be from this year) that you really loved or related to?
I LOVED Straight Outta Compton, which is what I just saw. No comment on how it was made or shot or any of it, I just walked out inspired and wanted a bigger backyard with a pool.
Do you enjoy performing at smaller or larger venues?
learned early on from opening for Neil Young, that you have to make big places feel small. The only insurmountably large venue I recall playing was Giants Stadium which held nearly 100k, with Dave Matthews. Can’t make that feel small. All the rest are good to me as long as it sounds okay.
Which would you consider your strong suit, piano or lyrical songwriting?
I’ve always considered myself a songwriter. As a performer, I’ve leaned heavily on the piano of course, but I do this because I have songs in my head.
Saw you on Colbert last night. That was quite the supergroup of musicians. How was playing with Derek Trucks? He’s one of my favorite guitar players. Seems like a really cool guy too.
Derek and Susan are very genuine and obviously insanely talented. Honestly I couldn’t hear shit where I was. Mostly B3 which Jon was slaying and 100 vocals! It was just fun to be there.
I follow you on Facebook and have seen a lot of your photography–it’s always interesting to me when artists cross over into other mediums of expression, so I’m curious: What other forms of art have you forayed into and what do you think a musically trained mind brings to the table with these other art forms?
Really, I think it’s more of what photography has brought to my music. My music side eats every experience for breakfast. It makes me appreciate and notice what I see more, as I photograph. That makes its way into songs.
Is Mayonnaise an instrument?
It can be if your put your dick in it.. Did I say that? I don’t even know what it means. Actually what it means is that’s my last question. Gotta move on. Tell all your Reddit friends thank you I still don’t even understand how this shit works. I’m just answering what I see. Group hug. Reddit!!!! ooxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxxx