Ben Folds On Harmonies, Chick-fil-A and Feeling Like an Underwater Robot

Jonathan Zeller


Ben Folds Five, the piano-based trio (not quintet) known as much for manic, potty-mouthed thrash-fests like "Song for the Dumped" as for sensitive ballads like hit single "Brick," are set to release Sound of the Life of the Mind -- their first album in more than a decade -- on September 18.

Ben Folds, the group's irrepressible leader, has spent the years since the band disbanded in 2000 playing solo, with a capella groups and symphony orchestras, as well as judging on NBC's The Sing-Off. He took some time from his hectic touring schedule and making Fraggle videos to chat on the phone with PAPERMAG.

 

Chick-Fil-A has been in the news lately due to their stance on gay rights, and the public's response to said position. You sing about the place in "Army." Did you really work there?

No. I thought Chick-Fil-A was just a good, trashy, funny place to put in a lyric. I worked at Hardee's. But I could have easily worked at Chick-Fil-A instead.

What's your take on the controversy surrounding them?

Well, I think they're really mean to chickens. I take offense to that, and I wouldn't eat that shit for all the money in the world.

It doesn't surprise me if any company steps across the line. That, I think, is their right. It is also my right to say they're a bunch of fucking assholes, you know? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they're nice people. But it's my right; I can say that if I want to. It's their right to take the stands that they take. But is it right? [Laughs].

The other thing that I think about is that we don't have time to really take on every issue we'd like to. It strikes me as really interesting what people decide to just go nuts over all of a sudden. Because I would have gone nuts over what they did with chickens, but no one seemed to care about that. And then they actively oppose gay people's rights, and that's horrible, too. But they're not rolling them in their own shit, driving them around scared in a van before they kill them pumped up on hormones, and that's what they do to chickens.

So I don't know. I don't have much interest in a trashy company like that in the first place. I think they have an awesome name, and it's good for my song, you know?

You guys are among many '90s bands to come back lately. What did you like about that era?

I have bands that I really love. I'm always happy if Liz Phair makes a new record. I was always happy if Rage Against the Machine made a record. Sebadoh would be cool. Pavement, Built to Spill -- I mean, there were great bands in that era. What I liked about the '90s is that it was an era where the bands actually had a sound when they started to play, even before the singer came in. It's organic; it comes out of the hands.

Is there anything you're hoping stays trapped in the '90s and never returns?

Well, most of it; but I think it's safe to say that's happened already. That happens in all eras. You hear people do throwbacks to an era, and we're far and away in a time of recapitulation and revisiting. It's like the '80s. There's this overarching sound to the '80s that will never come back. It was the main thing, and it's just so horrible. No one, even ironically, is going to do that shit. When people say: "I made an '80s record," part of me thinks I'd be really interested if they actually did, like, Dirty Dancing-soundtrack '80s. What kind of a hipster would it take to actually pull that shit off? That would be really funny.

The new album has its fair share of classic Ben Folds Five harmonies. Are you inspired to write differently because you're working with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee again?

I know what's available. I know that Robert's a violin and Darren's a viola. That's the way I've always thought about it. They have such unique tambours in their voices, and we've always sounded a certain way together. I think one way I tend to arrange with Robert and Darren that I don't with others has to do with the way my voice becomes the harmony on vowels, and that's kind of geeky and boring. But if I have a sustained note, and it's on a nine, that's awesome--then, OK, I'm going to give Robert the fifth above, and then Darren's going to come in, like, the seventh below, just for a second--and it creates a really cool three-part harmony where it sounds as if there are three people singing background vocals and one singing lead, when actually it's only two singing background.

Why was this the right time to get the band back together?

It just felt right at the moment. I don't think that we really make decisions [Laughs]. These days, I think people in general are so busy that the things we do are sort of random. If you make a to-do list, you don't get to any of it anymore. Nobody does. Because if you're lucky enough to be working, you're getting paid half of what you used to get paid, and you're working twice as much as you ever thought you could. I think that's the way it works with the band. If we all hadn't been free on the same day to talk on the telephone about coming to the studio, the record might not have even happened.



Where did the album title come from?

That's the title of the song Nick Hornby wrote. Nick's a writer, so I figured that his title was probably going to be better than mine.

Does it mean something to you? Or did you just think, "heck, this sounds pretty cool?"

I think I thought it sounded pretty cool. [Laughs]. It's long enough to command some sort of -- like, I don't know, it must be important, it's got fucking 20 words in it.

But I also think there's something to it. The album is a little bit about the stripping of the ego; the story that one has acquired over a lifetime that you suddenly realize you have to get rid of if you're going to survive. That's a real 40-year-old thought.

I put it together with the album cover, which is by an artist I've always wanted to work with [Eric Joyner]. I was always drawn to the solitude of his robots. They're all going through the same things I feel like I'm going through when I look at his paintings, and his submerged painting of the robot really reflected The Sound of the Life of the Mind. It's all in your mind. It's all there. When I see that title and see the album cover and I hear the strains of the music, it all seems right to me. We're really making this record by feel completely, so I don't know. Maybe there's no reason for it, but it feels like there is.

So sometimes you feel like an underwater robot?

I do! I do! I mean, don't you? I totally do. Like, you just feel like an underwater robot.


Photo by Autumn de Wilde
(L-R): Robert Sledge, Ben Folds, Darren Jessee.

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