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 Folds’ 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 band’s use of Pledge Music and crowd-sourcing (for this recent eQB feature), as well as his band’s 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 I’ve said this every time I talk about this because it’s true: We don’t know what the f*** we’re doin’. The whole landscape is evolving and I’m not particularly interested in being a revolutionary about this, to tell you the truth. The industry’s 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 there’s no music industry to speak of anymore. It’s not like it was when we came in and the money was flowing. People sold s**tloads of records. That doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s 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 it’s 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 people’s hands, then you have to pay for more records. Then you have to pay for promotion in order to get it into people’s hands again. What people misunderstand about Kickstarter (and the name of Kickstarter is brilliant) is that it’s a kick start, that’s it. It’s not a record company. It’s 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 we’re in bed with Sony, we’re not revolutionary. We’re just doing it a little bit differently because that’s what the times call for.  

Let’s discuss the different options you gave your fans. The highest-priced option had you re-recording the vocals to “Do It Anyway” with lyrics about the pledger, correct?
Yeah, it’s 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 didn’t 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 you’re pretty much our closest friend. I know some big fans who didn’t know we’re putting out a record yet. We didn’t 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 it’s actually worth. It’s 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 Palmer’s 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 backers’ name in the song didn’t 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 I’ve seen über-fans who are college age, shell out a thousand dollars for something that I wish they wouldn’t because they don’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t have the money would be paying that amount for it.
            As it turns out, it was couples and they’re 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 money…
No, no, we never asked for that. We’ve seen that option for other people’s releases, where it’s pay what you think it’s 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 doesn’t mean they’re going to sell a s**tload of records. Sony might have taken the risk on that, put a lot of money in and wouldn’t 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 they’re 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 haven’t really considered and don’t 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 didn’t 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, what’s 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 what’s happening is that the fans and the artists are getting together sharing this responsibility and everyone gets something for it.
            I’m gonna be dealing with these pledge campaign promises for another month. It’s taken a couple of hours out of every day. When I talked to Amanda Palmer, her whole life is based on it now. She’s gonna be living up to her campaign promises for six months now, paying these people back for what they’ve 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, “How is she going to make it for six months of this?” But she is the most resilient, energetic person I’ve ever met, and she’ll be fine. 

Let’s 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, it’s awesome; it was as you described it. We got together for this one show and then we thought, “We need to find an excuse to get together and actually record a little bit.” 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, “We’ve got to do this, it’s gonna be a good record.” But it was all one step at a time.            
            We’ve been playing it by feel and we’ve been fairly careful and conservative about it. We haven’t 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 record’s good. I don’t know how it’s 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 press…

It feels a little better because we’ve all sort of dropped much of our egos, and that’s 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 weren’t so graceful about it back in the day when we were tired and younger, and I’m 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 we’re in a pretty good space, something that I wouldn’t 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 n’ roll. There’s no one who plays like that. Who plays like that? It’s insane. And for me to have gone for years of playing in the band with him and just never mention that, that’s kind of weird.            
            Now when I’m 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 he’s 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 don’t want to take up his space with my left hand.
            Anybody who’s 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 there’s of a lot of that. But there’s also a lot of really sensitive playing on it too. Half of what he’s really good at is playing lyrically, like a string arranger, or cello lines and doing stuff that he’s not going to get credit for. He’s getting credit for being a rock god and that’s awesome. But he’s also doing this other stuff that’s pretty intense.  

Let’s talk about the single “Do It Anyway,” 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, “You 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, heartache…be successful anyway.”  So that was back there in my psyche somewhere.            
            Then I played a show the Wiltern in Los Angeles and said onstage, “This is not the kind of song I could stand on the piano and, you know, shake my ass to,” referring to a ballad I was about to play. And someone [in the crowd] screamed, “Do it anyway!”  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 aren’t comfortable and sort of stripping the ego, taking yourself out of being the dude in control. “Do It Anyway” is kind of like that too. There’re a lot of angles of loss of control in it, but that gives you control. It’s beyond my ability to actually articulate it, philosophers have had a hard time with it too and they’re smarter than I am…  

That’s how you wrote a lot of Way To Normal, right? They grew out of improvised songs in your solo shows…
Yeah, because that’s one of the places where I’m the most spontaneously, unguardedly creative. When someone says something in the audience, and I make up something on stage, I’m in a space that is just an enviable creative space, compared to walking around, stressing about how I’m going to come up with a song. Every single night I come up with these things and they’re pretty good. So I use those. You can’t 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 that’s 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 don’t get to hear ‘rock with your cock out’ 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.
[That’s author] Nick Hornby’s lyric, he wrote the lyrics to that song. It was a leftover from the lyrics from Lonely Avenue [Folds & Hornby’s 2010 collaborative album]. It wasn’t leftover because it wasn’t good, it’s just I couldn’t get to it. He’d 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 friend’s life. There’s a big rock show going on outside and that’s awesome, but she’s kind of up in her head, which is far more dangerous and noisier. It’s like Keates and Emerson and all these people are playing a Rock concert in their heads. That’s kind of what he’s talking about.  

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

It’s important to me to keep doing the things that I want to do as an independent entity. Sometimes it’s not comfortable to cut out a little bit of band time because, for example, I gotta do a string arrangement for Ke$ha and Wayne, or I’m getting ready to go do a little bit part in a movie tomorrow. These little things are things I enjoy doing.
            The Ke$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 they’ve had experiences with before. But they had a good experience with me because I’ve been working with my guys for 15 years, and we rock out the strings, so I think they were really inspired by it.             Ke$ha’s my bud too. She wasn’t 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. She’s a good songwriter, and this song she wrote, I hope it makes the album. I hope our string arrangement makes the album, but it’s 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. It’s just really a gorgeous, honest, kick-ass vocal, and it’s got a lot of vibe in it.  

Did you meet her after you covered her song “Sleazy” 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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