Ben Folds Five: Reunited But Not Revolutionaries

By Joey Odorisio

Piano Rock trio Ben Folds Five split over a decade ago, but under friendly circumstances, as the band was burnt out after years on the road together. In 2008, Ben Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee reunited for a one-off charity performance; then last year recorded three songs for a retrospective of Foldsí career. So it came as no surprise that this gradual reunion led to their first new album in 13 years: The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. I recently spoke to Folds about the bandís use of Pledge Music and crowd-sourcing (for this recent eQB feature), as well as his bandís reunion and how things have changed after a dozen years apart.  

Why did you decided to use Pledge Music for the release for the new record?
I think the first thing to emphasize, and Iíve said this every time I talk about this because itís true: We donít know what the f*** weíre doiní. The whole landscape is evolving and Iím not particularly interested in being a revolutionary about this, to tell you the truth. The industryís changing and you have to find a way to do things that suit you at that moment. We [have to] take the good with the bad. I think we all know the bad is that thereís no music industry to speak of anymore. Itís not like it was when we came in and the money was flowing. People sold s**tloads of records. That doesnít exist anymore. You really have to beat the pavement and eke out a living.
            You have to look at how you can take advantage of the chaos. Right now for us, the way we can take advantage of the chaos is that we didnít really want to have a plan. We wanted to go into the studio and not have to commit to finishing the record; or releasing the record on any kind of schedule or even at all. And the only way to do that is to pay for it ourselves. So thatís what we did.
            The idea came up [that] we could pay for this by pre-selling it and this crowd-sourcing method seems to be good. Plus crowd-sourcing was going to get a certain amount of press, because itís new. So it generated its own interest while involving fans. If I had to sum up, I would say: This is not that different. Crowd-sourcing is still part of a system that pretty much by design remains fairly stable, which is: You have to pay for a record, you have to manufacture it and you have to get it into peopleís hands, then you have to pay for more records. Then you have to pay for promotion in order to get it into peopleís hands again. What people misunderstand about Kickstarter (and the name of Kickstarter is brilliant) is that itís a kick start, thatís it. Itís not a record company. Itís not taking the place of the record companies. We started our own record company (ImAVeePee) after we did the pledge campaign, and now we have distribution with Sony so weíre in bed with Sony, weíre not revolutionary. Weíre just doing it a little bit differently because thatís what the times call for.  

Letís discuss the different options you gave your fans. The highest-priced option had you re-recording the vocals to ďDo It AnywayĒ with lyrics about the pledger, correct?
Yeah, itís been a little of an education. The Pledge Music crowd-sourcing gives you the direct connection with the fans that are the closest. In our case they really are the closest because we didnít go to the press with this. We announced everything we were doing over my Twitter at midnight, and so if you found us and you supported the record through a pledge youíre pretty much our closest friend. I know some big fans who didnít know weíre putting out a record yet. We didnít go full-tilt with this.
            With the closest fans, you feel like you really owe them something special. In order to spend your time in doing these amazingly special things, you find yourself having to charge the amount that itís actually worth. Itís funny, we tried to stay off the high dollar options, and I looked at the average pledging amounts out there with crowd-sourcing. I could see my friend Amanda Palmerís average Kickstarter backer was quite a bit more money that ours, but she did art books and house parties and other stuff. {You can read my interview with Palmer about her own crowd-sourcing experiences here.}
            Recording the backersí name in the song didnít take as much time as I thought it would.  When it comes to the name in the songs, we priced it up really high, and this may sound like weird logic, but Iíve seen Łber-fans who are college age, shell out a thousand dollars for something that I wish they wouldnít because they donít have the money. I made this weird, subjective decision to price that one up enough where only established people could afford it, because I was going to be really not happy if some college kid had spent a thousand dollars of the money they didnít have in order to have their name in a song. We tried to actually out-price, over price that [option]. I almost went to $3,000 simply because that would assure that the college kid who didnít have the money would be paying that amount for it.
            As it turns out, it was couples and theyíre older and more established and have the money, so they can make that decision. It took me a full day in the studio to be able to re-record all that stuff, put it together, and then another day to remix each one of them, and then re-mastered and placed in the record.

Did anyone go above and beyond the price points you set? You said you were worried about people spending way too much moneyÖ
No, no, we never asked for that. Weíve seen that option for other peopleís releases, where itís pay what you think itís worth. Then it becomes more at that point about actually backing the band. We were more thinking of this as pre-ordering.
            So we signed up with Sony again, when all is said and done, and I think a lot of people thought of this as a revolutionary period but we never intended it to be. When we signed with Sony, I realized Sony was getting a really good example, or taking a good temperature on what they were buying. Just because a band gets back together doesnít mean theyíre going to sell a s**tload of records. Sony might have taken the risk on that, put a lot of money in and wouldnít have known. But as it is, we took the risk. We went in the studio and then when we went online and announced the record, we sold s**tloads of records really. So at that point the record label can safely know what theyíre buying into, and it takes them out being the one who takes the risk.
            One other thing I think is interesting is a development of the music business that people havenít really considered and donít know about: as the record labels have stopped being able to take risks they used to take, the artists are taking those on. So artists have been funding their own records and their artwork and tours. If you get nice packaging with your vinyl, that came right out of the pocket of the artist. They didnít make their money back; no one made their money. If you buy a Sufjan Stevens record with gorgeous packaging and the vinyl is gorgeous, I can tell you who paid for that: Mr. Stevens paid for that, and not the label.
            Nowadays, whatís happening is the artist is now sharing that burden with their fans, who are willing to pay because they want to know that their artists made a new record and they can be in on it. So really whatís happening is that the fans and the artists are getting together sharing this responsibility and everyone gets something for it.
            Iím gonna be dealing with these pledge campaign promises for another month. Itís taken a couple of hours out of every day. When I talked to Amanda Palmer, her whole life is based on it now. Sheís gonna be living up to her campaign promises for six months now, paying these people back for what theyíve done for her. She brought in a lot of cash, as we all know, so I think she owes them that. I was sitting with her at breakfast looking somewhat tired, and wondering, ďHow is she going to make it for six months of this?Ē But she is the most resilient, energetic person Iíve ever met, and sheíll be fine. 

Letís move on from the business side and talk about the reunion of Ben Folds Five. It felt very organic and natural. You got back together for that charity reunion show a few years ago, and then recorded three songs for the retrospective collection last year, so a full reunion made sense as the next step.
Yeah, itís awesome; it was as you described it. We got together for this one show and then we thought, ďWe need to find an excuse to get together and actually record a little bit.Ē So we did that when we made the retrospective, and it really felt like there was something there. I felt there was an album. I actually felt the spark that became the album. We said, ďWeíve got to do this, itís gonna be a good record.Ē But it was all one step at a time.            
            Weíve been playing it by feel and weíve been fairly careful and conservative about it. We havenít committed to more than we feel that we could do, which is kind of nice. We knew we could make some music, we knew we could make a record. We could tour a little bit, and maybe we can make another record, or maybe not. We just play all this by ear and play it by feel, and we felt really good making the record, and I know the recordís good. I donít know how itís gonna be received, but I can rest at night knowing that we made one of our best records.  

Has it felt natural working together again? Not just recording music, but also making videos and doing pressÖ

It feels a little better because weíve all sort of dropped much of our egos, and thatís really nice. It manifests itself in the arrangement of the music as well as the way we go about our day and the way just made our video, and the way we went into our photo sessions and all this promotional stuff. We werenít so graceful about it back in the day when we were tired and younger, and Iím watching us proudly navigate this stuff with some grace and maturity. Every once in a while I feel the pang of being suddenly 25 years-old again and I want to be a f***ing a**hole. But if any of us feel that way for a second, we get over it. I can say now weíre in a pretty good space, something that I wouldnít have said in 1999. For example and it just comes out of my mouth over-and-over again, I play with the best bass player in rock ní roll. Thereís no one who plays like that. Who plays like that? Itís insane. And for me to have gone for years of playing in the band with him and just never mention that, thatís kind of weird.            
            Now when Iím playing and I feel him doing something over on the bass, I lift the fingers on my left hand. I just take them off the keyboard, because heís taken that space up. When you listen to the mix of the album, it might sound like someone suddenly turned him up, and he goes up front. No one turned him up; I just got out of the way because I was proud of what he was playing now. Instead of being his competitor, I donít want to take up his space with my left hand.
            Anybody whoís a fan of how he plays is gonna s**t when they hear the record. It starts with this explosion of Sledge to begin with, and thereís of a lot of that. But thereís also a lot of really sensitive playing on it too. Half of what heís really good at is playing lyrically, like a string arranger, or cello lines and doing stuff that heís not going to get credit for. Heís getting credit for being a rock god and thatís awesome. But heís also doing this other stuff thatís pretty intense.  

Letís talk about the single ďDo It Anyway,Ē which is a really inspirational song.
Thank you, the song came from two places: one is that years ago my Mother gave me birthday cards, with quotes which were attributed to Mother Theresa. For example, ďYou may be honest in your life, that honesty may upset some people, be honest anyway. You might find yourself very successful. Things that are gonna upset other people and incite jealousy cause you problems, heartacheÖbe successful anyway.Ē  So that was back there in my psyche somewhere.            
            Then I played a show the Wiltern in Los Angeles and said onstage, ďThis is not the kind of song I could stand on the piano and, you know, shake my ass to,Ē referring to a ballad I was about to play. And someone [in the crowd] screamed, ďDo it anyway!Ē  So I made up the bulk of what you hear in the song, at least musically, and some of the lyrics. When we got the board tape, I played it for friends and it freaked them out.
            So I brought that song in, and adapted it a little bit to fit the Mother Theresa thing. Also I was aspiring to a lot of honesty in this record with the intention of saying things that arenít comfortable and sort of stripping the ego, taking yourself out of being the dude in control. ďDo It AnywayĒ is kind of like that too. Thereíre a lot of angles of loss of control in it, but that gives you control. Itís beyond my ability to actually articulate it, philosophers have had a hard time with it too and theyíre smarter than I amÖ  

Thatís how you wrote a lot of Way To Normal, right? They grew out of improvised songs in your solo showsÖ
Yeah, because thatís one of the places where Iím the most spontaneously, unguardedly creative. When someone says something in the audience, and I make up something on stage, Iím in a space that is just an enviable creative space, compared to walking around, stressing about how Iím going to come up with a song. Every single night I come up with these things and theyíre pretty good. So I use those. You canít use most of them because most of them are associated to the moment, and bastardizing them can disappoint people. Like I can take a song thatís about rocking out with your cock out, [but] if I change the words to means something, I can feel the groans of disappointment as people donít get to hear Ďrock with your cock outí anymore. So it makes it hard for me to adapt most of these. Some of the melodies and ideas are really worth pursuing. On the stage is one of the most comfortable places to become creative and for whatever reason, I use it.  

Explain the title The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind.
[Thatís author] Nick Hornbyís lyric, he wrote the lyrics to that song. It was a leftover from the lyrics from Lonely Avenue [Folds & Hornbyís 2010 collaborative album]. It wasnít leftover because it wasnít good, itís just I couldnít get to it. Heíd written so much and I only got around to the 12 songs on the album. He was talking about a friend of his, the author Sarah Vowell, and was saying that sometimes the world can sometimes feel like a thuggish place, not all that friendly. And up in your mind you can have your books, you can have any thoughts that you want, and that is kind of the story of his friendís life. Thereís a big rock show going on outside and thatís awesome, but sheís kind of up in her head, which is far more dangerous and noisier. Itís like Keates and Emerson and all these people are playing a Rock concert in their heads. Thatís kind of what heís talking about.  

Youíre about to go on a big world tour and the Five is obviously your focus in the immediate future, but youíre always keeping busy with other projects. What else is in the works? I know you just recorded something with Wayne Coyne and Ke$ha.

Itís important to me to keep doing the things that I want to do as an independent entity. Sometimes itís not comfortable to cut out a little bit of band time because, for example, I gotta do a string arrangement for Ke$ha and Wayne, or Iím getting ready to go do a little bit part in a movie tomorrow. These little things are things I enjoy doing.
            The Ke$ha arrangement I think is really good, I was really proud of it. I think Wayne liked it, he came down, and we recorded with a string section, which is not something theyíve had experiences with before. But they had a good experience with me because Iíve been working with my guys for 15 years, and we rock out the strings, so I think they were really inspired by it.             Ke$haís my bud too. She wasnít there but I wanted to do a good job for her, so I really spent some time trying to make it pretty, because she absolutely likes beautiful music. Sheís a good songwriter, and this song she wrote, I hope it makes the album. I hope our string arrangement makes the album, but itís got a lot of people to go through, so maybe they s**tcan my arrangement, but she sent me a beautiful vocal on this song. Itís just really a gorgeous, honest, kick-ass vocal, and itís got a lot of vibe in it.  

Did you meet her after you covered her song ďSleazyĒ a year or two ago?
Yeah, she had been a fan since she was 16 and had actually come to one of my shows. My old manager is managing her. When I covered that song, of course my manager played it for her and she really loved it.

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