Ben Folds

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY Ian GormelyPublished Sep 26, 2011

After 18 years of tickling the ivories, Ben Folds could be forgiven for wanting to take a moment to reflect on his past. But it seems The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, wasn't his idea. "It was a contractual obligation that I'd put off for some time," he says. "I don't think anyone wants to make a best-of record." The 60-track affair includes a traditional disc of "hits" and an additional two discs collecting demos, rarities and alternate versions from both his solo career and his years with his band the Five. The collection came about after a flood struck Nashville, where Folds currently lives. "It ruined my piano and $100,000 of touring equipment and all my tapes went floating to the top of eight feet of water." Making the best of a bad situation Folds decided now was as good a time as ever to dig up his past. "I realized when we were trying to recover [the tapes] just how much I had done and how much hadn't been released," he says. "Later on sometimes things sound a little different than they did. That's why it's a retrospective disc. It has a lot of hindsight in it."

What are you up to?
I'm heading to the airport. I'm in the front seat because I don't like to sit in the back seat. I'll sit there if I have to. We're releasing a three-disc retrospective record that I'm doing promotion for right now. There are 60 songs on there, and another 50 online. It took forever to put together. And I'm doing a television show for NBC called Sing Off. Other than that I'm doing a lot of writing in a journal.

What are your current fixations?
I've learned about digital recording just recently and I'm interested in that. I've understood what it means for a long time, but I've become interested in playing with it, to see what can be done. I read bits and pieces of books. I haven't really read a whole book in a while. I pick one up and read it from the middle or read the table of contents or if there's a back that talks about the author. I really don't have that much time at the moment.

Why do you live where you do?
Well, my studio is there [Nashville, TN]. It's evolved. It's become the hub. I like it, but I like a lot of places, so Nashville works just fine. You can get everything you need. It's a pretty smart place.

Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Bach. Kanye West sometimes hits the spot. The Crucible, it's timeless human nature. It plays itself out time and time again and I think it's amazing when someone can capture that. Same thing with Bach – I don't sit around and listen to Bach, but boy if it doesn't play out over and over again, all the concepts of what he did. I think those things are mind altering, because as an artist I can't fathom… I mean did they realize that when they were doing these things? [Kanye] writes such direct, amazing pop songs. And when he does it right, I think people are going to look back and say, "Well how do you sum this up?" Like, there are lots of people doing the same thing, and I think there's something about what he does that will sum it up, when he's on. When he's off, he's off. And as our president says, he can be a jackass.

What have been your career highs and lows?
Well, they happen often. The lows are when your perception is short and small and your perspective is more desperate and that can happen any day. The highs, it's the opposite and its expansive. I don't think they've been long term and short term. I think commercially, different variables have gone up and down. But it's only as good as you think it is. It's like when you're making an album and there's a moment that you think that it's great and it is great in that moment, because you can see that it can be great. But you can go down a road and then suddenly perspective changes and you've gone down the wormhole and you don't think it's great and it's not. You've got to get back to where it was. Even if the final product doesn't compare to your perspective. You can't achieve the perspective without having that moment. So it's all sort of dynamic like that.

What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I don't have mean stuff said around the gigs. I think people are somehow accountable. I think the mean stuff come in print, because they're not accountable, especially on the internet. The magazines have often taken up that role as well. I think its mean to be personal in a review, which I've gotten quiet a bit of. Not so much mean because what they said was mean but because somewhere they must know that that's off-limits or dirty.

What should everyone shut up about?
Probably the Republican debates. There's nothing to talk about.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Well my least favourite traits, I wouldn't even get into. They're too least favourite. They might not be a big deal to anyone else. Best trait? I think I'm capable of morphing. I think that's a good trait. I'm 45 and I can see where I'm resistant and then I can see where I'm relaxed and allow things to happen.

What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I don't know. I work all the time. A perfect any day would be around 75 degrees and grey.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Slow down.

What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Usually when I kick someone out of something it's because they were pissing me off for quite some time but I wasn't cool enough to let them in on the little things so they could change. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere, I'm like "Get outta here." That's usually the way it happens. It's not cool.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Seventy-five degrees and grey. I think Canada is spread out and generally I assume Canadians are smart and a little less easy to manipulate and ramp up politically. Everyone in Canada seems to have a best kept secret place to go to. You go to Toronto and people are like, this is the best, this is state of the art, precision living sort of thing that goes on. And when the music is corny, it's really corny. And when it's really good, it's really unique and free of precision.

What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Love Will Keep us Together
LP, by the Captain and Tenille. First cassette was at a yard sale. I purchased three Elton John cassettes. One of them was Tumbleweed Connection.

What was your most memorable day job?
I had so many of them. Probably working at Hardee's, which is like Burger King or McDonald's. I remember that for some reason, I don't know why. I had a lot of day jobs though.

How do you spoil yourself?
Sometimes I get into the habit of something because it's easy and I'll splurge on it, even if it's ridiculous and kind of expensive. Like taking nice cars places because I don't want to drive. And then I'll realize that's expensive and irresponsible and I won't do it for a long time.

If I wasn't playing music I would be…
A photographer.

What do you fear most?
That's kind of like what's your least favourite trait. I don't think I'd say it, just because I'd be too afraid that if I said it, it would happen. It's unreasonable. But that's fear for you, it's unreasonable. Reasonable fears – snakes, spiders, shit like that. There's that chapter in 1984 where they put his head in a cage of rats, that sounds pretty scary. Those are legitimate fears.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
I don't know, Devo? [singing] "We-are De-vo." That'll do it every time.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I saw a really famous actor recently on the other side of the room in a restaurant. He was really grumpy because he couldn't see the menu and he got them to give him a flashlight and then he'd shine the flashlight on everything in the room and he'd blink the flashlight at the waiter to get his attention, just totally in his own world. I thought that was pretty bizarre. I didn't meet him. I was just completely amused by this guy. He was just absolutely doing his own fucking thing. And he's very famous. I wouldn't say [who it is] cause I have a feeling he wouldn't want to spotted in that way. He's big stuff, older guy.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Gertrude Stein and I'd make her cream of wheat and tea. It just seems like it'd be fun. And I'd play her 78s of Nat King Cole. That would have been really ahead of its time for her.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
I think she's pretty happy with what I'm doing. I think she feels bad that my job is pressuring and that I remain on a bit of a treadmill and it's isolating. Mothers see the insides of these kinds of things. Stuff that I'd never complain about, she'll point out and I'll go, "Yeah…" She gets it. You don't complain about those things because I'm lucky to have a gig. She can complain about it for me. I don't know what she'd rather have me do. My upbringing was very sort of working class, so I don't think any of this ever occurred to my parents until it started happening.

What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
What was that song – it's a horrible song – in Lost in Translation, and there's that bar song in Tokyo and there's this really horrible song about sucking on my titties or something like that.

"Fuck the Pain Away" by Peaches.
Yeah, I think they should play that to the point of distortion. At least everybody would smile.

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