Ben Folds Five are back and after 12 years they’re bringing their fifth studio album “The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind” with them.
The new LP, which was made with the help of their fans using online donation site Pledge Music, is due to be released on the 18th of September.
WJ caught up with the man himself to hear just what its like to be back together again with his bandmates, why he likes to tweet and that all important new album – we’ve had a sneaky listen and couldn’t resist asking all about it…
Your upcoming release is out next month, this is the first LP for the Ben Folds Five in 12 years, what was it like to be working as a trio once more?
It’s great because we haven’t played together for so long and we have a definite sound that happens immediately and it’s definitely not something to be taken for granted.
Ben Folds Five are also back on the road with an extensive tour including US and European dates, are you looking forward to performing together live once more?
Yeah we played some festivals in the States, I mean we started straight in, we finished the record and jumped on a bus without really rehearsing and played stages in front of; forty, fifty thousand people at festivals and we sound bigger than we did, I don’t know how that happened, I guess it’s just experience but now after not playing together for years we sound like a larger band. I’m absolutely looking forward to performing, just knowing you can make that much noise with three dudes, its nice!
You’ll be visiting London in early December where you’ll be playing two nights at Brixton Academy – are there any places you’ll visit while you’re here?
You know we never have time for that; I’ve almost never had time to visit much of anything when I’m on tour. Sometimes, if I get some time and we’re on the corner of the park or something I can get a walk through it if its not pouring down with rain, but you know, not much.
One time I’ll take a day at the end of the tour or something and actually hang out – you can tell me where to go because I don’t know.
“The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind” is the title of your latest LP and it has been involved in a Pledge Music project, could you tell us more about it?
The sequence of the release and the recording of it, doing it by a crowd-funding site such as Pledge, allowed us to run studio and begin recording without a budget and that was really wonderful. I mean that was just freedom because we weren’t exactly sure when we would start.
Most of the time you would have a record deal together, you would have all the stuff in place and then you would make a plan and go into the studio but in this case we were able to go in spontaneously, start working and then go OK, how are we going to pay for it? Rather than get complicated we just went up on a website called Pledge Music and that way we can announce to the fans that the record is being recorded and that they can more or less be part of it by buying the record upfront plus some other stuff. Then we worried about the record label afterwards, we started our own record company and then we signed distribution with Sony. So we’ve got it all working now but we did it backwards, it’s definitely a very free way to do it.
I never minded taking chances on these things; some people don’t like the concept of the crowd-funding sites because I think they basically don’t understand it. It’s really not that odd, for the last however many years artists have been funding themselves sometimes, the record companies hasn’t stepped in and funded things the artist has. So in this case, its just saying look we have a fan base, we’re all paying for the record and having a good time over here and when the record labels want to get to get involved then they have the freedom to pick and choose what they want to. So it’s actually not such a bad system.
“Erase Me” is quite a strong opening track for the album, was this intentional?
I think that the track kind of made all the statements that we’d want to make as a first track, to make sure that the listener knows they are in good hands.
It’s a little eccentric maybe but I think it’s very solid and it goes through a lot of seasons. It just made sense as the first, we didn’t really place the sequence as a lyrical sequence as much as we did a musical sequence and it just seemed like that was a nice way that feels very solid to me.
I’ve never heard a song quite like it; it has kind of soundtrack qualities to it sort, of Philip Glass chord changes so it’s a little unusual.
Do you have a favourite track from the new album?
No I don’t, I mean I think there are a few that I am particularly proud of as a songwriter and those are probably “Being Frank” and “Erase Me” is one of my favourites as well, as I say I’ve never really heard anything quite like it and harmonically it makes me happy.
“Away When You Were Here” I think is going to be a bit of a sleeper, that’s the second to last track. The second to last tracks are always kind of a – one that takes people usually a while to discover because people like for the last tracks seems the finale, I know I do that its like oh what’s at the end? But the second one at the end is always like there you know and I think that ones a good track.
What is your songwriting process; do you have a particular system?
Um I don’t really, I have a mechanical system, which is that I resort to notecards at some point. As I travel a lot I find it nice to have stacks of thoughts that are organised into sometimes envelopes, like this is the song title and here’s a lot of cards. Maybe I’ll have a flash of a verse and ill right the verse and then it’ll be on the card and I make sure I put verse at the top of it and the name of the song, incase it gets shuffled out of order. I write extra verses that way and modify them by just copying it onto the next card so I do a lot of that.
Musically, I try to stay away from the piano for a good deal of the writing of the music, that way I’m not being terribly lead around by what falls under my hands naturally. Hands are shaped a certain way, I like to imagine it and then find it, it’s more difficult but I think it’s more rewarding in the song.
Your music uses an alternative selection of instruments compared to that of more generic bands in the same genre, do you find this makes you stand out?
I think what makes the band stand out is just the chemistry of the band; we could all be playing different instruments than we are, we have a way of landing in a groove that’s very very distinct and we have a way of presenting a song that I think is pretty much our voice. That’s pretty much it.
I mean we enjoy the odd overdub – when its just piano, bass and drums, if its just three instruments on a record and I think this is held true for almost any trio, you do have to find ways to present it that don’t wear people out because you’re using the same sounds over and over again. Even if you’re only using piano, bass and drums there are ways to present it so that they’re not being beat up with the same sound.
We have a lot of background vocals on this record, really pretty intense vocal sessions to layer vocals that we wanted to hear, we recorded them all at different distances from the microphone and different configurations. Sometimes it would be Robert and Darren on one mic a long way from it; sometimes it would be all three of us close to it, sometimes we’d all be on separate mics and that gives you a different stereo image every time that you hear the background vocals.
During your solo career you collaborated with quite a few artists, do you have a particular project that you enjoyed the most?
I really enjoyed working with Nick Hornby, Nick is one of my artistic brothers, maybe I should at least think of him as an older brother here – the older more talented brother. That was just a really nice project; I really enjoyed working with him, his lyrics and his approach, I really learned a lot and I think our collaboration was effortless. I think the record that we made probably wasn’t widely distributed and heard, but I’m really proud of it, it’s one of my favourites and I think it will stick around in whatever form. Nicks writing, he writes thoughts and feelings that just last and resonate.
Your lyrics explore a multitude of different emotions and often contain humour, how important is lyrical songwriting to you?
Very important, they are the song really. I start with the music and I love the compositional aspect but it’s all about trying to find what you’re saying and that’s the main way that people identify with the song. There’s just a real art to it and there always has been.
I think that in a way like anything when it’s really being done well, it’s often not noticed that much you know? Some of the best songs seem very simple to people, they don’t have to be simple actually; they just appear that way and sound that way. The lyrics and they way they feel with the music is very important.
You’re quite the Tweeter, what do you enjoy most about micro blogging?
I like that its held to 140 characters, I like that I can get a message out there quickly and I like that it can be playful, it doesn’t always have to be work. I think Twitter is a really smart platform and its really well thought out.
I like that the internet has been a way to take out some of the middle man vibe that was going on when we started, where you had to say well here’s what I’d like to say and then it had to be filtered through, someone would have to OK it you know? Like there’s a gatekeeper.
Now if I have something to say I can bypass it all. I mean we announce we were making our record by Twitter; we’ve made a lot of announcements through my twitter, very spontaneously, not even like well oh lets do it this way and then people will here it, it’s more like oh shit I’ll just tweet that – OK and it works.
So I’m interested in it, I think its always shifting; there are so many people on twitter now that it may be experience a bit of a bugged out on it, maybe people are a bit twittered out.
You’re a father as well as a musician, are your children musical and do they enjoy your music?
Well yes on most counts, they’ve just turned 13 and I suppose that they have very hip taste in music. I’m not sure where I sit on that hip meter for a 13 year old but I know that they’re very proud of what I do and they grew up with it you know?
They’re very musical yeah; it’s not something I push on them but especially Gracie’s becoming really – just music is a real big part, she identifies herself more and more as a musician which I never expected.