Ben Folds Five: Voyages to Fraggle Rock, Colbert and The Sound of the Life of the Mind
JPG: So, you were keeping yourself busy musically? It wasn’t like you completely turned your back on the music world and completely got away from it.
RS: Oh, no. My God, no. That’s all I’ve ever done. That’s the thing I’m actually really good at. Like, I suck at a ton of stuff but if you prop me up onstage and give me some good music to play, that’s the thing I excel at. I just really love to play. I’ve done a ton of session work, I’ve taught music for awhile over the last four or five years. I do pick up gigs around town, mostly professional stuff. Unless someone’s paying me…because I have a kid now and I’m trying to keep the lights on so I tend to pick up mostly paying gigs, which limits my range a little bit. (slight laugh)
JPG: But it kept the lights on.
RS: Yeah, it keeps the lights on. I like to be professional. That really helps. When I got back together with Ben and Darren, I played better than I used to.
JPG: I guess you were playing different types of music and you were able to bring that back in.
RS: Yeah. I played pop music and R&B on sessions and onstage, and I played a bunch of Country and Americana as well. Upright bass and electric bass.
JPG: Was there much call for your patented use of the distortion pedal on these sessions?
RS: (slight laugh) Not as much. And it was kind of nice because a lot of people came to me like, “Oh, well, you’re this guy whose in a band. I don’t really know much about your band, but, obviously, you’re professional.” I’m like, “Yes, I’m professional.” And they hire me to do the thing and I play bass real well.
People who knew me really from the band, that’s all they want is for me to step on the distortion box and play a solo. It makes me feel really limited. Most people would like to have that problem; have what they’re known for (slight laugh) and are getting work from it, but it doesn’t seem like the whole me. I can play a lot of different type of styles. I play finger style. I grew up playing slap, pop and funk and all this stuff. I can do all this stuff but I don’t mind being known as the solo bass distortionist.
JPG: Listening to the new album it’s so cool when that bass distortion comes in out of nowhere. It’s not expected within these catchy and melodic songs with harmonies. Where did that originate?
RS: When Ben met me, he heard about me through his brother. I was playing in a band called Toxic Popsicle. We were this punk rock funk band that played too fast. We were trying to be danceable, but we weren’t really. We were just playing super fast and playing this funk stuff that didn’t even sound like funk because it was too fast. But it was really fun and we’d blow people’s minds, and I played with a lot of distortion in that band. I would take solos with distortion and Ben really got into that idea. So, when we started this band, trying to service these songs and trying to paint a picture and tell a story in a more broad sense than I’d ever done before, that was just part of my legacy; this tool that I brought with me.
And also, it must be said that I was an angry young man (laughs) and I played a lot of really aggressive music like heavy metal and punk funk. And, I guess I bring something to playing with distortion that a civilized sort of well-adjusted person might not. You know what I mean? Like Pete Townshend when he kicks it in. He gets this gleam in his eye and he’s like, “Hell yeah! This is amazing! I’m going to melt someone’s face off!” All of a sudden he’s empowered. I guess I have that same attitude.
JPG: In the late 80’s there was the whole punk funk moment. In that realm, it’s noticeable but not as noticeable as when it pops in now when you do it in Ben Folds Five.
RS: I really like it because when I first thought about it I was like, “Wow what a contrast.” Number one, we don’t really need a guitar. You don’t miss the guitar at that point. Also, it adds this abstract idea. It’s like, “Where did that even come from? Why would you even do that, to mess up this real pretty piano ballad or whatever with distortion?” It draws a very abstract line, something kind of aggressive and powerful. It really does contrast and support the song really well. All that stuff happens in your mind in about five minutes during rehearsal and everybody starts nodding and their eyes get big and they’re like, “Yeah.” I can analyze it now but it just felt really good.
JPG: It brings up this aspect of the band’s material. The only word that I can think of right now is ‘pretty’ but then there’s more going on within the song that’s more acerbic wit, dry wit…
JPG: Yeah, sardonic. It makes me view Ben Folds Five as kind of a punk band wrapped in melodic material.
RS: It’s just subtle and not so subtle social commentary going on. The things I like about what Ben is saying, he’s just sort of dissatisfied with a lot of people not doing their best. I really relate to that. I’ve seen a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of weirdness in the South that is difficult to deal with and I think Ben deals with it in his own way, clever social commentary going on.
JPG: I also mean that as far the band itself, the idea that a song could be going one way and then you smash it up and take it another direction. It’s the whole package, not just the lyrics.
RS: Right. The lyrics I think are enabling in a way. There’s that and also Ben is such a fantastic musician and people used to say stuff about Frank Zappa when we first started and we wanted to steer clear of any comparison like that. But I will say that the band has a lot of musical ability so we can really change and be convincing, mostly convincing to ourselves. That’s the first thing. In a song like “Erase Me,” all of a sudden it sounds like an opera in the bridge. That seemed like an obvious choice to us but that might be a little jarring to other people.
JPG: Also with “Erase Me,” it starts off with the distortion pedal, almost like a re-introduction, as if to say, “Here we are!” Then, it cuts off and goes into a quieter more melodic world.
RS: I guess we’re from the ‘90s…what’s that movie, the Pixies movie? Loudquietloud. That’s where we’re from. You know, stuff like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Super loud then it gets quiet then super loud again. I think that that’s a really powerful way to support a lot of different ideas. It doesn’t have to be, “I’m happy, I’m sad. I’m mad or I’m brooding.” You can use that to illustrate the same idea and just put a different light on it. Put it in orange instead of blue. That’s more where we’re coming from.
JPG: How does the writing process work and did it change with this album because you weren’t together for such a long period?
RS: Ben came in with a lot of song starts, songs that, maybe, had music for the verse and chorus for most things. Most of the song starts had verse chorus riffs but there was no form to the song and in most cases, not many lyrics, just melodies. He had rough ideas about the songs but it wasn’t until the band played through a lot of these song starts that…this is what he said that he really heard them the way they should be in a way.
Some things made it and some things didn’t. As song starts started to fall off and we narrowed it down to 15 songs, we spent more time on each song. It was just a narrowing down process that took about two weeks. Then we got burnt out on that and then Darren brings in a whole completed song, which is what most bands do. (slight laugh) It was like a breath of fresh air. We got to work on a completed song, which is reinvigorating. Then, Ben got back to finishing lyrics and we finished it up.
The majority of the tracks were done completely live. There’s a lot of elbows being thrown and weird timing and stuff that just got left in there because the performance sounds complete, and that’s where I come from. I want people to imagine me playing because that’s what I’m doing. I’m performing a song. We’re really fortunate that we played off each other really well and got some really good takes.
JPG: When you say that Ben came in with pieces of a song is he just playing something on the piano or is he playing a demo with a rhythm track to give you and Darren some sort of guide?
RS: We sit in a room together, just the three of us at our instruments with headphones on — tape is already rolling — and Ben just starts playing piano and we scramble to follow him. I’m not even able to see his hands most of the time. I figure it out as quickly as I can. That’s how we do it. Not many of them had any prior recordings. He didn’t do any band recordings. That’s not usually what he does.
JPG: At that point are you and Darren looking at each other to figure out what you are going to do together or is it just chaos until something sticks?
RS: I usually get inspired really quickly about something. I start developing parts really fast and so does Darren. We sort of develop parts and then bend our ears towards each other and develop parts and bend our ears. Working as a three-piece you can really get a lot of individuality. It ends up working that way where you’re working on your own solo interpretation of this idea and also the other half of your brain is working on flattering someone else’s interpretation. As soon as we hear something, we’re instantly coming up with our parts because things are happening so fast. That’s just the way we work.
We don’t start off with traditional arrangements where Darren just plays two and four on the snare drum. Doesn’t usually work that way. We don’t usually dictate to each other that this thing’s going to sound funk or that this gonna sound R&B or whatever.