into the piano,” says Ben Folds, seated at a grand piano at New York City’s Steinway Hall. “I play a lot of wrong notes, partially because I go for things that I miss, but also because I know that dissonance creates energy.”
In the mid-1990s, power trio Ben Folds Five dared to put acoustic piano front and center in what was then the keyboards-aren’t-cool world of indie rock, shooting to international acclaim in the process. After 13 years, they’ve reunited with The Sound of the Life of the Mind, on which Folds, drummer Darren Jessee, and bassist Robert Sledge rock with reckless abandon and precise purpose at the same time. It’s a masterpiece where the visceral and cerebral collide.
Why the 13-year hiatus since your last album as Ben Folds Five?
We split up because we were working too hard. I think we started to associate the band with not having fun. When we started out, we were moving a baby grand piano into rock clubs by ourselves. We did that for three years, hauling it around in a van. I think that depicts a band that’s pretty passionate about what it does. So when that passion was no longer there, we called it. I had a lot of songs, though, so I made solo records and collaborated with different people. But as time went by, we recovered. I think we also grew up a bit.
You recently said you felt pressure to make the new album really mean something. What did you mean by that?
I think as an artist, if you set out to make “the best record you’ve ever made,” it’s just not an achievable goal, no matter what point you’re at in your career. For example, black and white photography from the 1940s and ’50s hasn’t been surpassed, in my opinion. That may be because it was what made money at the time. But so do the advances now being made in computer technology, and those will be surpassed. So when you’re in a band, you can’t relive past magic—you have to do what you’re great at, at that moment. I think that requires playing completely by feel—what feels right to you, not what you think is going market well to a certain audience.
How did the band rise to that challenge?
Part of what was exciting about making this record is that we’ve all gotten better since the last time we worked together. I’ve done a lot of arranging, scoring, and work with symphony orchestras. Robert has done a lot more playing. So when he starts breaking out of his normal space in a song, I just start lifting fingers up in my left hand. His sense of music theory is more intuitive, whereas mine is more “brainy.” The combination works well. Robert hears bits and pieces of the melody and, like a good arranger, he takes them into account in terms of what he plays. At certain times in the middle of a song, he’d actually foreshadow things that happened at the end of it.
Did you write the majority of the songs on your own, or with the band?
I pretty much write everything, but there’s a different editorial process with this band than what happens otherwise, and it’s not something we even need to speak about. If I play a few bars of something and it’s being yawned through, I’ll be like, “We don’t have to talk about that. Let’s try this.” We’re a good committee, because if I don’t respond to something positively or negatively, Darren might. If he doesn’t, Robert might. We’re each so different that if something gets by all three of us, it’s probably pretty good.
The opener “Erase Me” seems to refute the claim that the piano can’t rock as hard as the guitar. . . .
Well, the piano is a really physical instrument, but playing it more forte doesn’t necessarily make it sound more aggressive. If you look at what a guitar player has to do physically to make a giant sound, it’s minute. Even the sissiest of piano players is putting out more energy, almost like the enormous effort a tuba player has to make. So if my hand hits neighboring notes on the piano, it creates dissonance, which adds some thunder to the tone. That’s why I love a real piano as opposed to a sampled one. A sampled piano is someone else’s tone, and I don’t know that person. I want my tone.
“Erase Me” also has unusual bass motion. Is this related to you originally being a bass player?
Some of it comes from that, but there’s also a way of thinking about music that’s kind of R&B in nature: There’s a melody and a bass line and a groove, and that’s pretty much it. Often, piano players think in terms of inversions, or if you’re a jazzer, you define your chords by the third and the extensions you play. You don’t really think about the bass. But change the bass, and you change the entire quality of the chord.
Almost like Bill Evans’ early trio, there seems to be a constant musical dialogue between all of you, which is rare in pop.
I think that’s probably the kindest compliment that I can think of about our record, because we do have chemistry, and it’s acquired just like in a jazz group. You think John Coltrane or Benny Goodman didn’t talk about how they fit together with their bands? Of course they did. A good example of incredible chemistry today is the band the Civil Wars. When they sing together it’s just unreal.
“Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” has lush, Beach Boys-esque vocals. Can you describe your approach to vocal harmonies?
The Beach Boys owned that sound so much that when you put stacked harmonies like that on a track, you have to give them credit. But I was never a big Beach Boys listener. I’m coming to that sound more from old-fashioned arranging chops, and most of this kind of vocal arranging is about avoiding things. I made sure there were never any big leading tones doubled between the piano and the singer, that there were no parallel thirds, and that the voice movement was well executed. For instance, if I’m singing or passing through the melody and my voice lands on the third of a chord for even half a bar, that’s an opportunity to have Robert singing the ninth and Darren on the fifth. When you do all of those things and you’re singing “ahs” and “oohs,” people think Beach Boys—but you could just as easily call it a Manhattan Transfer moment.
The record seems very “through-composed,” yet spontaneous. How did you strike this balance?
We felt that there’s a point where you’re still discovering the music and f***ing up, but you have just enough facility that you realize you are. That’s the take to put on the album—the one before the one most producers would use. We’d tie those “dangerous” takes together with serious orchestration. For example, on the song “Being Frank,” I used [Elton John arranger] Paul Buckmaster for the string arrangements. I’ve worked with him for ten years. He’s amazing. I’ve played his work for some people and they say, “Yeah, that’s cool, it’s got strings on it.” And I want to scream at them, “Don’t you know anything? Are you listening to what the violas are doing?” [Laughs.]
How did you get such a massive sound from a three-piece group?
I didn’t want this record to sound like it was full of overdubs, so one of the ways we dealt with that was to set up different “scenes” for background vocals. One scene was a pair of stereo mics for all three of us to sing into. Another was a pair of stereo mics for the just the other two guys. A third scene was one mono mic in omni mode for the guys to sing on either side of, and the last was each of them singing into their own mic. Having these different scenes in the same song gives you sound choices without ever having to make a mix move. You can hear it on “Draw a Crowd,” where we’re singing “ahs.” For the big background vocals, all three of us sang all three parts, which gave us a massive spread. Then all of a sudden, the background vocals tighten up to just two people singing in mono on another mic.
What about the sustained pads in the background? Vocals or keyboards?
The band 10cc invented an “instrument” I don’t think anyone else has used up until now. It consists of vocal loops, painstakingly recorded and played on the mixing console. We sang “ahs” diatonically for two octaves—all together on one mic in mono. This created awesome columns of sound that were all slightly different. Then they’re spread across the console and looped for the entire length of the song. I wrote the names of the notes on the console channels, and literally played the board like an instrument. It was so inspiring that I actually thought about taking someone on tour to do it. Oddly enough, “Draw a Crowd” didn’t receive any mastering. It wasn’t equalized, compressed, or anything. In fact, this record was mastered at a very low level. All the dynamics were left intact.
“Sky High” starts with a piano hook, framed by what sounds like a muted, chugging guitar arpeggio. What is that?
It’s piano, with me reaching my hand inside to mute the strings. It sounds like there’s reverb on that part, but it’s actually my foot on the sustain pedal. “Sky High” was also interesting in that it was the big production piece on the album. The piano line was actually doubled between two pianos: the Steinway B grand used on most of the album, and an old Baldwin Acrosonic upright. I’ve got a lot of pianos, so I messed around with different ones until I found the one that seemed to really lock and sound spooky to me.
Were you actually thinking, “Which of my pianos would be right for this song or that part?”
Well, I initially thought that song should be played on an upright piano. So superstitiously, we went to the one I recorded “Brick” on, which is a giant, turn-of-the-century, upright grand. I bought it for 50 dollars and we made a lot of records on it. But it didn’t work for me. I thought the song needed to sound large, not like I was trying to make an indie record, which is often what happens when you use an upright. So I went to the grand instead, and it sounded beautiful and awesome. To get more of the tone I was looking for, I snuck in a little of the Acrosonic upright in the background.
Instead of the usual verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and so on, the title track has musical interludes, drum fills, vocal call-and-response, and more. Was there a mission to break from pop song form?
I do that a lot, and then sometimes I come to my senses! What I’m always looking for is a surprise, and sometimes you find that the best way to do that is to keep the form traditional and surprise with the content. I have certain maneuvers that have now become parts of my palette. One is to cut out a couple of beats in the bars before the choruses, so that the downbeat of the chorus hits two beats earlier, which adds that element of surprise. A half-length last verse is a good one, too. That makes it sound like the singer was starting to say something else and then thought, “Screw it, it’s not even worth it.” That feels amazing to me, and then the chorus celebrates it even further. So I guess I do believe in song form, but for some reason, I always start start by fighting it.
What is that otherworldly keyboard sound at the beginning of “Draw a Crowd”?
That’s a little Casio keyboard that was brought in for pitch reference while I was recording vocals. Darren was driving me crazy the entire time playing those sound effect-like runs while I was singing, so I said to him, “You know you want it. So go in there and play it!” And that’s how we started the song.
Did you start writing the song with that danceable piano riff on the intro?
That song was its own animal. We were pretty close to finishing the record—I think it was the next to last day of tracking. I was driving home and Darren texted me, “Do you know that Big Audio Dynamite song ‘Rush’? We need a fun song like that.” Darren’s always been more of the A&R person in the band who says, “We need to have something a little more poppy.” He’s very good at seeing the big picture. So the next day, I started singing falsetto and playing a funky muted piano line on the bridge. We started playing that over and over again, and that eventually led me to the chorus riff.
Where did the lyric “I only wanted to be Stevie Wonder, but I had to settle for this vanilla thunder” come from?
It sounds like a joke, but when I was growing up, I almost didn’t know white people played music, because all of the records I had and the ones my father brought home were by black artists. I’ve always had so much reverence for R&B from the ’60s that I consciously try not to sound like it. So it’s true—if I could be any musician it would be Stevie. But it’ll never happen. So I’ll have to settle for vanilla thunder.
What other keyboards were used on the album?
I used a 1938 Steinway B grand for most of the piano, as well as a larger Steinway C and a smaller M model from the 1920s for the song “Hold That Thought.” I also used the Baldwin Acrosonic upright, a Baldwin baby grand with tacks stuck in the hammers that I used on “Away When You Were Here,” the old upright from “Brick,” a Wurlitzer EP, a Hammond B-3 organ, and that little Casio that was laying around.
What advice would you give to a songwriter who aspires to a career like yours?
I did a songwriting master class in Los Angeles, and I was telling the attendees, “If your song sucks, but you know deep down that your instinct was right, get your stopwatch out. Is your intro 12 to 15 seconds long? Does your first chorus hit at the one-minute mark? If these things aren’t happening, make them happen. Then see if the song still sucks.” Conversely, you can always point to someone who pulled off something amazing because there’s no form. Someone once pointed that out to me about “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Fifty percent of songwriting may be what new-agers call “the universe”—the mistakes, the things you didn’t expect to happen. Respect those, but don’t over-respect them. You still have to enforce your will and craft things artfully, and that takes technique. That’s where you put in your 50 percent.