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The ‘Weekly’ interview: Ben Folds

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Ben Folds plays the Pearl at Palms Friday night.
Chris Bitonti

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Ben Folds Five
January 25, 8 p.m., $44-$79
The Pearl, 942-7777

So why did Ben Folds Five decide to reunite?

I’ve come to realize that we don’t naturally really make decisions very well, things just sort of happen. And I think that’s kind of the way this went. I mean, I think after, maybe, seven years apart, it seems that the three of us were suddenly open to the idea of doing things as they came up. And then for the next five years, it just evolved. That’s kind of the way it went.

For seven years after the band split, I would say that was the no f*cking way zone. I was not gonna do that, because I was so proud of what I was doing and so excited about the things I hadn’t done yet. I was doing everything that I wanted to experience, a lot of different collaborations, playing with symphony orchestras, doing things that I really wasn’t allowed to do in the system created around the band in 1999. Since then, I’ve done those things, and probably, one could say, I feel pretty good about myself now, so I’m able to go into a band and be one-third of the band, rather than someone partly uneasy and anxious because I feel I should be doing something else.

I’ve never seen a Ben Folds Five show, but I have seen Ben Folds solo shows and they are a really unique experience in large part because of the intimacy of seeing just one man and a piano onstage. Do you miss that?

I sit inside a format like that until I start to kind of itch to do something else. And at the end of three years of solo-piano touring I remember just thinking, “I am done with this.” And, it was so exciting for the first two years and eight months, but then suddenly I’m like, “Eh, I don’t know. I mean, I’m getting good at it, but I think it’s time to move on.” And that’s kind of the way it’s always been. And I think that will be the way it is with the band, where sometimes I think, “Wow, there are so many things that you can do that aren’t a band.”

I think everyone who sees the [Ben Folds Five] shows tends to be surprised at how big it is. There’s something really big about the way the band plays together. But I really do have a soft spot for the solo shows. Any musician who writes and sings will tell you that’s the center of it, that is it. It’s almost like there’s something church-like about it and you gotta go back there, if you’re a songwriter that sings your material.

Looking back at the early days of Ben Folds Five, you guys were a three-piece with no guitar in the grunge era. Was that a hard sell to record labels?

I think it was initially. It was a liability when we were trying to get off the ground, like booking shows. But then it worked so well that the labels were clamoring within a year of us getting started. I think everyone realized this had potential. There were a lot of thinkers out there. The business as a whole might have been dumb, but the people inside it certainly got it.

Did it feel subversive to be a classically trained musician during that period?

Yeah, I think you are reading the era pretty well. I found it very stifling. There was the grunge burgeoning and the sort-of corporate-punk era. They had rebelled and put it there, but then I found that we had to rebel against that. I guess that is kind of the way cycles work. They were becoming “the man,” and we came in as trained musicians—trained, disciplined musicians that crafted songs—and suddenly we were the punks

When we rolled a piano into a grungey punk club, I thought we were pissing in their yard. They said, “You’re not gonna roll that in here, are you?”

I was like, “Yeah.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Well, we’re doing it.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of an electric piano?”

“Well I have, but this is a real one.”

The guitar bands would have 30 minutes to get offstage, and we would have five minutes, because we were offensive. ... It was the symbol of the piano, which I think was offensive to people who were in the system. But then as soon as we brought it onstage, we conformed to the point that I was playing through two Marshall stacks that had been modified to be the loudest f*cking thing you ever heard in your life, and we would just blow them away with speed and happy. Like, we played our songs 80 times faster than they needed to be played and 80 times as loud as they should be played. (laughs).

In the day when we broke, we were on the front of so many hip music magazines for being tastemakers, and we all just felt like dorks. I thought the music was dorky. Like, I would have been in an a capella group at the university had there been one. And Robert [Sledge] and Darren [Jessee] were just goofballs, so the three of us felt kind of funny about that. But hey, it changed as soon as we had a hit. We were dorks again.

It felt like your songs were self-deprecating but in an empowering way. Like you were saying, “I’m gonna say this before you can and I’m gonna own this so you can’t.”

(laughs) Yeah, you got that right. I think that’s really funny. We had the “you can’t fire me, ’cause I quit” mentality. And I think that is the nature of honesty anyway. The nature of honesty is that if someone has information or knows something about you that you don’t want heard, then they have power over you. But when you say, “I’m a dork,” well, okay, then it’s done.

It’s like people on the comments section of a YouTube video can hurt your feelings if you put something up. But if the attitude behind it is, “You know, I’m kind of a dork. Here you go,” then if some dumbass comments “You’re a fag,” well, that’s not really information (laughs).

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