Ben Folds: Go Deep, Dark, And Funny With The Piano Rock Superstar

Who is f**king the guru? What brilliance lurks in the mind of Dr. Yang? What is every man’s profanely simple explanation for a failed relationship? And just how did Ben Folds manage to harness so much quirky humor, darkness, raw energy, unapologetic rawk, and plain old fun in a single recording project?

These are just a few of the many questions raised by Ben’s gutsy new album, Way to Normal.

Since he went public in the mid-’90s with Ben Folds Five, Ben has built a reputation as one of the fiercest and most entertaining piano rockers to ever push a well-worn grand on stage and beat the crap out of it. While many of his songs glow with sincerity, others are cloaked in clever cynicism or irreverent humor. But don’t let the jokes distract you from the talent that informs it all — regardless of whether he’s singing about a town called “Effington” or describing the bloody injuries he induced upon himself in front of a Japanese stadium full of fans, Ben tells his stories with a tremendous amount of compositional depth, technical prowess, sensitivity, and all around thoughtfulness.

Catching up with Ben at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Los Angeles, we got to hear just what went into paving the way to Normal. What does Way to Normal mean to you?
It’s all piano, bass, and drums and there’s not a lot of overdubbing on it. [Prior to recording it] I was doing these Internetonly EPs. On one of them, I did a cover of a Cure song, “In Between Days,” and I just had this revelation about using space in the arrangement. This album doesn’t necessarily have literal space, but I think we’re arranging things well as a threepiece and actually making the recordings taller. [Plays a simple, powerful, chordbased rock riff on the piano.] That’s more massive on the recording than if I had played all this stuff. [Plays a similar but denser riff with more notes and arpeggiated chords.]

My producer, Dennis Herring, locked me in the studio and made me work. He came in in October and I walked into the studio without a single song. There was a song I had started one day and we were set to record it the next day. So I came in the next day and he said, “Have you got that song finished?” And I said, “Yeah, I just have to dot a couple I’s and cross some T’s and I’m ready to go.” And he goes, “Okay, good. Let’s do another one.” I was like, “I don’t have another one.” He says, “Then you can write one. We’re going to lunch. But we’re not doing that song you finished when we get back. Write another one!” So that was the way the sessions were going. It was a lot of whip cracking and beating me up.

I don’t think there was much overdubbing of the piano. There were a couple notable places that were overdubbed because I wanted to hear something that I wasn’t physically capable of doing — and I’m not sure that anyone is. There’s a moment of the song “Dr. Yang” where the piano goes like this. [Plays a rapid, slightly honky-tonk figure.] But it starts to do it so fast and so hard that I’m not sure that I could ever have done it like that live. I would do part of it and then we’d cut the next section together. But we tried to make it obviously sound like an edit so that you would know it was a joke. I wouldn’t claim to be able to play that.

There are lots of different piano sounds on this album. How did you choose which piano would be best for which songs?
It’s mostly a feel thing. As I begin to play with the rhythm section, I might find that one piano will just fit better. I always want to play darker pianos than what everyone else wants me to play. Then when I hear it in the mix, I realize that they’re right and it needs to be brightened up. To me, the pianos cutting in the midrange and low end take more heart, like the piano has to actually speak. Certain pianos only cut in the high end and there’s no balls beneath it at all. None of my pianos are like that.

What advice can you offer to songwriters?
I’ve worked with guys before who were just absolutely expressive, brilliant singers, for instance, and they can’t open their mouths without making people cry when they sing. But if they’re forced to write, they can’t do it. Well, they can, but it’s horrible. That’s just not what they do. People have to do it and find out if that’s the way they express themselves. I think most people who are natural writers can’t help it.

Learning the craft is a whole other thing. I would study as much composition and theory as you can before it makes you sick. Less has changed in the last 300 years than people want to admit about the way we hear and process music, so I would encourage people to understand the components of good composition and see for themselves what’s the same about Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy — and Scott Joplin, Stravinsky, Elton John. “What is this song? Why is it working? It’s got a motif and the motif is simple, but look at how he’s turned it upside down. Here’s his phrasing, his augmentation, and he’s sequencing this, same as the classical components!”

I think the method where you sit there while you’re writing a song and think about [specific compositional elements] doesn’t work. If someone tells you to put your hands at 10:00 and 2:00 on the steering wheel when you’re in driver’s ed, later on you can choose to just put one hand at 12:00 if you want to. But someone told you to put it at 10 and 2. You know why? That’s the thing. Good instinct will lead you to good composition, but solid understanding can’t hurt. Getting it right can’t hurt. More chords in your palette can’t hurt.

There’s this big modern myth that the more you know, the more it’s going to destroy your emotional content. I rage against that idea because it’s just the dumbest f**king thing I’ve ever heard. You don’t have to use it all. When in the world was being ignorant or limiting your knowledge of something a good thing? It’s up to you what you do with your knowledge.

So you don’t sit there and consciously think, “I’m going to crescendo into this phrase and then do my motif twoand- a-half times in this other key,” etc.
No. But if you get stuck, it’s interesting that you can reach into that way of thinking. You can follow your heart and find that you’ve written yourself into a corner. “What have I done wrong? Well, I’m on my fifth chorus and I’m two minutes into the song. I think I might have a problem.” Or, “I haven’t written a chorus, but I want to write the song without a chorus.” Sorry, your song sucks. It doesn’t have a chorus! [Laughs.]

The more technique you stomach, the more you can know about music history — and then forget it all — the better you can make yourself. To me, that’s more honorable than if you know all those things and you’re tempted to use every gun in your arsenal and try to prove something about yourself. It helps to question why you might feel you need to copy someone else, or why you would need to use 20 chords when you could just use one.

How do you avoid getting caught up in the mechanics of songwriting or playing in order to let the emotion really come through?
I think if you’ve got any soul at all, you can concentrate on the mechanics and the details, and then the emotional part will be an unavoidable byproduct, like, it has to come out. Even if you think that you’re spending time on a bass drum sound or if you think that you’re trying to find the right chord and you’re distracted by these things. I’m not sure that anyone who makes an album with emotional content is ever completely aware of what that content is. I think the people who make a science of that are barking up the wrong tree. Some people do make a science of it and go, “We’ve got to get that feeling in that song.” I kind of go, “Get the f**king song right.” If it’s going to do it, it’s going to do it. And if you mean it and you’re alive and you’re a person and you’ve lived, that’s going to show. It’s unavoidable. The emotional content of something is not in the method acting. It’s just there. So with this album, I was struggling, paddling ferociously beneath the whole process to stay in tune, to stay in time, and to show up to the studio on time because I’m notoriously f**king late [laughs] — and my producer isn’t going to let me be late.

Or have a lunch break. Writing a song that quickly — what’s wild.
Yeah. I scored the strings on this record and scored the strings to the song “Kylie from Connecticut” while the string players went to lunch, too. It was all about people having lunch breaks and they weren’t me! [Laughs.] You hear about the opposite approach sometimes — you spend six months working on a single track trying to get it perfect and then you realize you’ve edited the life out of it.

I know! That’s its own art form. This record is a product of quite a bit of work, and quite a bit of editing too. The producer had his method, so sometimes he’d say, “I have to get a good take. It’s 1:00 guys, and you’ve been f**king around with this sh*t for 45 minutes and it’s not sounding right. I’ll give you until 1:15 and then the best you do is the one that I’m going to keep.” The first time he did that I was like, “He’s full of sh*t. Because if we suck before 1:15, he’s not going to keep it.” And he did every single time. So then I knew that the next time he said I had until 1:15, he was serious. I’d been burnt because he already put something on the album that we could have done better at 2:00!

But that was his method. He wanted to keep you feeling like you didn’t have a safety net. And then he would go edit the living f**k out of it. He was a very inventive editor. I think we made a very good album, but the jury’s out for me on that kind of aggressive editing. As a producer myself, when I produce someone else’s stuff, I’m not interested in that. But then again, you got spoiled back in the day. We all had to be able to do things in first or second takes because you had three takes and then you’ve eaten up your tape. Now there’s no rewind, there’s no nothing. You just do it. The most depressing thing is to hear the producer say to the engineer, “What was that? Was that 46? Marker that 47. Okay guys, do it again.” That sucks. [Laughs.]

With all the editing going on, did you ever listen back and feel like, “This isn’t me”?
No. I thought Dennis was really good. The point of the editing was to make it me so you don’t have to explain the joke. Even the earliest records were edited on some level. You’re choosing what someone’s going to hear. If you’ve got Pro Tools, then you’ve got unlimited choices. In the hands of an a**hole, it goes really awry, but not with Dennis. As a producer, he often felt like if he literally recorded exactly what I was doing, you’d have to explain it somehow — “No, no, it was cool! He was playing it hard and he was laughing about that, and this part is all emotional,” and then you listen to it and that’s not what you’re hearing at all. So then he would make sure through editing that everyone knew he was trying to feed you on a platter what he felt the event actually was.

It’s like photography, like W. Eugene Smith who would have people do something over and over again. Everyone thought he was this spontaneous on-thespot photographer, but it was more like making movies. So no, I don’t think that he ever turned me into somebody I wasn’t. But Dennis’ take on me was more masculine. I sound a little heavier and a little more aggressive. And that’s not really what happens when I just go record and I’m having a good time without all the editing. But that was his take on it and I think it’s effective.

This album, like a lot of your work, is bittersweet — there’s a lot of darkness, but you’re humorous about it.
If something really heavy’s going on, I respond to the person who’s trying to find humor inside it. I would think a Woody Allen movie is a lot sadder than, say, some melodramatic shit. Just a little bit of humor implies that there’s something real going on, because that’s the way people are. I never understood the response that automatically labels music with humor in it a novelty.

Do you think of humor as a compositional tool?
I’ve always had authority issues, formality issues. Often, the way I would deal with a situation in real life would be to make some fun of it, so I do that in my songs. There’re dirty words sometimes because that’s what people say in real life and that’s the way I express it. The formality that says, “No, you’re in church now, you’re on the radio” — I don’t understand where that came from. It’s just dumb. Sometimes my music is funny, and then sometimes there’s a dirty word. That’s just the way I see it.

Ben Folds Facts
Newest album: Way to Normal (Sony/BMG)
Recording with a click: This album is one of the only two albums I’ve ever done to click track. I don’t like playing with clicks, but Sam [Smith], the drummer, protected me by playing in such a way where I followed him. In moments where everything went away and it was just me, sometimes we would turn the click off so I could play more freely. On the song “Before Cologne,” we did that.
Piano sounds on the album: I’ve got, like, ten pianos in my studio and they all have different sounds. There’s one song called “Effington” which nobody thought would work on my Steinway because my Steinway’s too mellow. But it just felt right on that piano, even though it wasn’t sounding right at first. We used an old beat-up pair of microphones that just sounded like ass on everything else, and it worked.
Ben’s customized Baldwins: My Baldwins have extremely heavy action and are very bright. We made them that way so I can tour with them. They sound like glass. It’s not that pleasant in a room, but it cuts through with a rock band really well. So songs like “Hiroshima” are that. And then the more mellow ones I played on my Steinway.
Piano miking: We usually miked the pianos fairly conservatively — something on the high end, something on the low end, but sometimes it would ping out the compression a little too much or jerk around the EQ. The more we tweaked, the more I had to make sure that my piano playing was right. Because when you start exaggerating the piano sound, then you start hearing all the f**ked up things about it.

Synths on Way to Normal.

Hardware: For “The Frown Song,” I dialed up a sound I liked on the Minimoog and then tried to imitate it with the Nord Lead. [Nords] are mighty fine instruments. I have a Russian synth, a Polyvox, that I bought on eBay. The bass sound on “Effington” — I believe that’s the Polyvox.
Software: None.
Background: Synthesizers appeal to the arrangement part of my brain. They’re great but, as of 1999, I’d probably never played a synth. Then I got a Moog and just fell in love with it. I just kind of f**ck around with the knobs. I don’t really know what I’m doing.