Q & A: Ben Folds
Ask Ben Folds a question, and you’re likely to get a joke in return. Asked whether or not he had a co-writer for his upcoming memoir, and he answers in full-on deadpan.
“Oh no, it was totally ghost written. Eventually I’ve gotta read it myself, see what’s in there…”
He’s kidding, of course. In fact, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons” (Penguin Random House, out July 30) is the rare celebrity memoir penned entirely by the author himself.
Written in a breezy and conversational style, the book is full of anecdotes both hilarious and alarming about everything from humiliating early gigs (including a stint as one-man polka band at a restaurant, while wearing lederhosen and wooden clogs) to the real-life teenage abortion described in the Ben Folds Five hit “Brick.” But recollections are less the point of the book than lessons learned.
Now 52 years old, Folds grew up in Winston-Salem and was living in Chapel Hill when Ben Folds Five broke out in the mid-1990s, earning a platinum album and worldwide acclaim thanks to “Brick” and a barn-burning stage show featuring piano pop played at punk-rock intensity, speed and volume. He’s been through numerous phases and stages since the group broke up nearly two decades ago, including work at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra.
This summer’s tour schedule will bring Folds back to his native state for three shows -- June 22 in Cary with the North Carolina Symphony, June 29 in Boone with the Winston-Salem Symphony and Aug. 8 in Charlotte with Violent Femmes – which is a pretty solid comment on his range. We caught up with him by phone in advance of his Cary show.
Q: For the book, did you keep a journal or do you just have a really good memory?
A: It was a combination of things. I’ve kept journals at different times of my life and the process of writing songs begins in things that can seem more journal-like. But I’m a little allergic to journal-like songwriting that does not have the craft. It’s important not to just draw up laundry lists of things you do and do not like, and to lead the listener to the third verse.
I do have a good memory and if I thought I remembered something one way, I’d try to corroborate things. To me, the most important thing was not the memoir part. But if that was going to be the framework then it needed to be accurate. What happens, if you’re honest, is you begin with some assumptions and vague memories, things you might have told at dinners – you know, stories that are anecdotal gold. But at some point, you start to question and maybe reject those.
Q: Did you have to resort to any memory triggers to remember things?
A: I was going the other way from that, actually, just cutting things out. I could write a 500-page book of just crazy fuckin’ shit that happened, and it would possibly be more entertaining. I cut at least 100 pages of stuff that would have been pretty goddamned juicy for a memoir, but they didn’t really reveal anything I learned from them, so I felt like they were not helpful. Stories like that were secondary to conveying that maybe I could’ve learned a thing or two as part of cheap lessons. It was more about the curation of ideas than sensational stories, which I tried to downplay in favor of things I’ve learned in life. Not that I wanted to tell people how they should live their lives. I don’t know what’s happened to anyone else, but I do know what’s happened to me.
Looking back on my own life, the temptation to spice up a story is something everyone does. But you perceive things that happen and file them away at that moment. So a 13-year-old can’t be trusted to write ‘The Mueller Report’ of 13-year-olds. A 13-year-old is not going to respond with, ‘I got rejected and here’s why’ but, ‘That motherfucker does not like me! Yeah, well, fuck him!’ That goes into your psychological building blocks, but as a 50-year-old it does not wash. So the memories all went through that process, to figure out what I’d learned and what someone else might learn.
Q: Sounds like it would have been a very different book if you’d tried to write it 10 years ago.
A: Yeah, or even just a year earlier. It really morphed into something else. I’d been approached by publishers and agents for a while and I always thought a book was an attractive idea. I could have worked with an illustrator explaining different songs, or on something with my photos. What eventually came together is this agent worked on other books friends of mine wrote had written. So I was along for the ride as they wrote their books, and that kind of puts the bug in you.
I do a lot of writing on tour, which I expected to use as interstitial material. Like I have this ridiculous character with a name taken from Peter Sellers, Warrington Minge, this really bad sort of Oscar Wilde voice where he time-traveled to write Yelp reviews about what goes on on tour, complaining about the hotel, breakfast, the bus, audience, show: "What a ridiculous time period this is, that guy played piano and he SUCKED."
I expected those would be a part of the book at first, but they stopped having anything to do with what might be helpful. Then I was rereading Rimsky Korsakov’s "Principles of Orchestration" for the fourth time, when I finally read the intro for the first time – where he wrote that he’d been working on the book for 20 years, and he’d spent the first 15 wanting to talk about specific new instrument makers of the late 19th century. Then as he got closer to dying, he realized that maybe he wanted to leave behind something more than that. That was kind of the sequence of my reasoning: ‘You know, if I shit the bed tomorrow, get hit by a bus or whatever, what would be helpful to leave behind?’ Not advice, but telling how one person did things, how that worked out and the conclusion. If I kept my eye on that ball, it felt like it would be something helpful. It was not at all comfortable because I was revealing things where I’d really fucked up, but it’s honest.
Q: Turning to this tour, are there any new wrinkles for the symphony shows you’re doing this go-round?
A: We continue to do what we’re good at. I’m really going to shift it up next year for 2020, though, which is a real process. Changing a lot of charts and repertoire for shows like this is an investment of tens of thousands of dollars plus time, phone calls, revisions. I’m artistic advisor for the Kennedy Center, and having all that time to do charts and work on orchestrations with the National Symphony Orchestra as guinea pig is fantastic. I want to apply that to my own charts. Right now, I’ve got maybe five student interns just taking down the notes that have changed in the music so we can revise them next year. It’s quite an undertaking, and even more of one if you want to do it well.
Q: It’s been more than a decade since your last “conventional” pop album (2008’s “Way to Normal”). Do you think you’ll ever make a straight-up record like that again?
A: Well, a lot of it is just the way it’s billed. If I make an album where Nick Hornby writes the lyrics (2010’s “Lonely Avenue”), it takes on a literary angle, but it’s still pop and still my album. Same with my last album (2015’s “So There”), which I did with yMusic. I could’ve just said it was “Ben Folds.” I wrote a chapter about this called “Music for the Mating Age.” Music that’s supposed to be the competitive backdrop for the mating age is best made by people that age. After that, everyone just assumes your stuff is shitty because you get old and fat – which is fine, it’s the natural order of things. But later on, you might look back and say, “Wait a minute, some of that was pretty good.” Right now, though, I feel like there’s no reason to make one unless I have to. Records don’t really sell anymore, especially records by people outside the mating age. If I make ’em I mean ’em, therefore I don’t know what they’d be for right now. It’s kind of great not to have to unless I want to, even if I get a slight tinge of guilt because I’m supposed to make a record every two years and I haven’t. Right now, it's more interesting and rewarding for me to interview presidential candidates about arts funding and policy. (Watch Ben Folds on MSNBC here)
Q: How interested are you in politics?
A: I’m interested in what I know and my area of expertise is the arts. Turn on the TV and you’ll be disgusted by the corruption and some of the decisions. But if we have strong and enlightened artistic education to teach critical thinking, maybe it will help. There won’t be immediate gratification, we have to wait for kids to grow up and hopefully make better decisions than we did. That policy part might be the best shovel for me to pick up and try to help, by cheerleading for the amazing people doing amazing things. Like Jon Stewart bringing awareness to firefighters, that’s what I aspire to do with music. Everything from symphony orchestras down to groups in the lowest of area codes and tax brackets should have access and funding. It keeps the economy floating and makes people feel good.
The rest of it, sure, I like the horse race and the scandals, getting pissed off at all the stupid shit Trump says. But that’s not politics, it’s more like fake wrestling or roller derby where they pull each other’s hair out. It’s fun and anybody who won’t admit they enjoy the drama is probably lying. You watch and it’s the most amazing, ridiculous reality show going. It’s candy and bullshit, and I love candy.
Dont miss Ben Folds in his home state of North Carolina:
June 22 - Cary, North Carolina - Booth Amphitheatre - Ben Folds w North Carolina Symphony
June 29 - Boone, NC - Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts - Ben Folds & Winston-Salem Symphony
August 8 - Charlotte NC - Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre -Ben Folds & Violent Femmes