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Ben Folds Five: Voyages to Fraggle Rock, Colbert and The Sound of the Life of the Mind

JPG: Going back to the timeline of playing the MySpace show, recording several tracks for the box set, did you record “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” before you played festival dates such as Mountain Jam and Bonnaroo?

RS: We were at the very end of recording when we started that. In fact, the week prior to Bonaroo we were recording vocals all week. We did the majority of the background vocals for the record at House of Blues Studio D in Nashville the week prior to Bonaroo.

JPG: So many bands tour first in order bring awareness and then release an album. Why was the plan, record an album first and then tour?

RS: We decided early on to not be so nostalgic about our own material. I believe what this band does well is spontaneous music. We wouldn’t be characterized as a jamband but we’re actually a pretty good jam band. Some of the material, Ben had been playing solo for a long time and for us to just go out and be nostalgic about the ‘90s and then also to reinterpret the stuff that had been interpreted by Ben in his solo shows wasn’t as satisfying to us as making a full length record that we can go out and represent ourselves as we are now. It worked out really well.

It was a little bit difficult in the beginning to negotiate with anybody because a lot of bands drum up support and do some touring. Us taking a different path, maybe, limited us in the industry. We didn’t think about that too much. We just said, “Since Ben has a fantastic studio…” I don’t know if you know about his studio, it’s Chet Atkins’ old RCA Studio A room on Music Square West in Nashville. So it’s this gymnasium-sized old school studio built for symphonic recording. Ben has a facility there now and a whole lot of people have been making records there. It was built in 1962.

So, we go in there and play for six weeks. During that time we decided to go with the Pledge Music campaign to get some pre-sales going. We established a whole lot of pre-sales for the record before it was even finished and came up with our own plans for marketing before we even signed a distribution deal with Sony. Everything was in the can. The enthusiasm for the record was there. Everything, before we even got a record company involved. It was just our own record company for awhile We had the luxury of doing that because Ben has this nice studio.

JPG: Do you guys allow people to tape your shows?

RS: Yes, they can tape. We only have one front of house engineer. He has his hands full. I don’t want to invite people to start trying to get a feed off of his board and we don’t have a setup for people to get board mixes. If they want to bring a personal hand held recorder, be my guest.

JPG: What about mic stands?

RS: Without having a section, that might be a little bit intrusive for other people’s space. I’m a novice about this stuff. I’m sure that there’s lots of bands who have a policy and have it worked out to where everybody has a good show regardless of whether they’re taping or not. Right now, my policy is handheld-only.

JPG: That’s still good enough for some people because I’ve downloaded a couple of shows from your current tour.

RS: Yeah?

JPG: Somebody got in with something.

RS: That’s cool. That’s fine. I mean I think a lot of songs that we just jam on and kind of spontaneously make up…Ben hears something from a heckler or someone from the crowd and he makes a song out of it. There’s plenty of those songs out on the internet and they eventually become album tracks. I think those improvised versions have a lot more fire than some half-baked version that we’re still roughing out in the studio.

JPG: A lot of those sites are from people that are so fanatical that they’re so excited to get a slightly different version from one show to the next or a different setlist. On to Pledge Music. How was that used with the new album?

RS: It wasn’t used to finance the production. It was used to pre-order quality product like digipaks and vinyl albums to get people interested.

You have a goal, and you say whether you goal is 50 per cent met or not. In our case, we set our goal kind of low. We just wanted to pre-order a bunch of vinyl but then it got to about 500 per cent of the goal. So, we had a lot pre-orders on the record and that was really flattering and unexpected.

I don’t know a whole lot about Amanda Palmer’s campaign. Evidently, that’s the most successful Kickstarter campaign that probably happened in the last year; that she just raised so much money. I know she raised well over $100,000. All we ever wanted to do was get enough money for a pre-order record.

JPG: With this hand-on approach, do you feel that that you’re in the same position that you were in the music world that you were before 2000, kind of your own world but that’s okay?

RS: Yeah, there’s pros and cons to that and that’s true. It’s, sometimes, a little bit alienating as far as your marketing contemporaries go. We’re very different from a lot of other bands in the market place. So, finding, carving out our niche is, sometimes, difficult. Staying within our own bubble and slowly growing fans has been easy, but, of course, there’s a cap to that. Personally, I want everybody to get along (slight laugh) but I do feel that.

I have plenty of other musician friends, but I definitely think that certain elements of the band are extremely contemporary. It’s just that we service the song in a way that other people don’t. I think that that’s where the divide happens. In order for Ben to be his full self, sometimes, people get their feelings bruised.

JPG: What I meant is that although there’s more groups featuring piano today those mainstream acts have a certain slickness and that you guys have a uniqueness to your take with the bass, drum and piano that incorporates different elements and styles that makes it your own, that isn’t quite easily categorized.

RS: Well, thank you. I just think that Darren and Ben could play convincing jazz. They could blend right in and play on a record that sounds like it came from the ‘50s or ‘60s. That’s the inspiration that they mostly draw from as players not as writers. I could fumble along and support them and not sound like a complete idiot, I hope. Our take on piano, bass and drums really has more in common with Ramsey Lewis Trio than it would, say, early ‘80s Elton John or Bruce Hornsby or something like that, which is a lot more dance-driven and steady whereas we have a lot of chaotic car crashes in our music for effect. That’s just what we think is art. We certainly know that if we turn on the drum machine we could get people to dance and Ben has done that. He’s covered Ke$ha and his duet with Regina Spektor was very unconventional for him and kind of dancey but when me, Ben and Darren get together and play as a band, the unit becomes an instrument. It’s just not a very mainstream instrument.

JPG: Earlier, you mentioned in regards to the band’s success as being “capped.” You didn’t receive the Colbert Bump when you appeared on “The Colbert Report?”

RS: The Colbert Bump! We did. I think we did. We definitely received a Muppet bump. That was amazing. We’re open to it. I would like to present myself as a band to the people. Anybody can get involved and there are some associations that we do reach a wider audience and that’s fantastic because I’m really proud of those collaborations. It’s something that the whole band is proud of. Working with Chris Hardwick and the Henson team [on “Do It Anyway”] and working with Stephen Colbert was a dream come true. I don’t want to sound like I never want to purposefully limit myself, but I do think that there’s a lot of bands that are in their own niche these days. We’re very familiar with it.

JPG: Being on “The Colbert Report,” I imagine you’ve seen the show so you’re prepared as far as how he interviews his guests. Is there a pre-show talk with his staff to get you ready or do you just run with it?

RS: Well, it doesn’t take any urging for us to be wacky or be dry and have fun with an interview. Our presumption was before we even talk to anybody that that was part of the reason that we were going to be on there and we were going to have a whacky interview. Then, we were told, “No, let Stephen do the talking.” “Okay, that’s fine.” And then, right before we went on they go, “Don’t let Stephen do all the talking. Go in there and tell your story.” They’re like, “Don’t leave him hangin’.” I’m like, “Okay, we’ll do that, too.”

Stephen’s a southerner. He’s from South Carolina. I’ve got relatives in Charleston. I know a little bit of what it’s like to make it in the northeast and have these Southern roots. You end up being a little bit of a wild card. I really admire that in Stephen Colbert, that he’s such an individual, that’s he’s very rooted in the South; something that is still part of me. It was nice to be on the show with him. We had some stuff in common. I was really happy to be there.

JPG: It comes off really well with him and the majority of musicians. Once in awhile you get somebody who is gun shy, afraid to play along.

RS: He met us in the dressing room prior to the show. He shook my hand and said, “Feel free to disabuse me of my beliefs.” I said, “Alright.”

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