Don’t count on kiddie tunes from the pop pianist anytime soon.
Talking to Ben Folds two weeks ago was a career highlight for me, as I’ve long been a fan of both his original work and the very funny, imaginative and expletive-laden cover songs he’s recorded. Going into the interview, I wanted to focus on his most recent songwriting and how he felt about the 10th anniversary of “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” but Brian Winkeler at Robot House Creative here in OKC suggested another question that prompted some insight from the world-famous songwriter.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room in my story to include Folds’ answer — slim to none — so a blog post will have to suffice. Here goes:
OKS: I spoke recently with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, and he remarked on very young fans latching on to their music from their work on the children’s albums. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed younger fans getting into your music from the “Over the Hedge” soundtrack and if working with that potentially whetted your interest in writing songs for kids.
Folds: I don’t think songs have to be written for kids in order to be understood and consumed by kids. So, just a straight-up kids album, I’m not sure about that one. I don’t know how I feel about that. Because you see kids like 4, 5 years old listening to The Beatles. And it can be on the level that’s like, God, “Yellow Submarine.” I don’t know if you have to write it for kids.
To me, They Might Be Giants’ music is very brilliant. But their kid record, meh. I got that ’cause I had kids at the time and then I thought, “God, I don’t want them listening to this crap.” I played them Elliott Smith instead; they liked that. I think They Might Be Giants — Linnell especially — is just absolutely brilliant, so I don’t mean any disrespect. I just think that maybe that’s not the best purpose is to write to kids directly.
Well, there you have it. Folds plays the Civic Center with the OKC Philharmonic tomorrow night at 8 p.m., but you can also catch him tonight as he'll be giving a Mastersclass for ACM@UCO at Exhibit Hall D, Cox Convention Center, 1 Myriad Gardens at 7 p.m. It's free and open to the public.
Worry not, for OKSee was there taking notes for you.
The quick hits: ACM@UCO head honcho Scott Booker tossed open-ended questions Folds’ way for about an hour, which he spent detailing his start and several of the early business decisions he made. About 500+ sat in rapt attention, cheering and occasionally even gently heckling the two men on stage. Wayne Coyne sat front row, which Folds acknowledged during the interview.
Booker ended his bit, opening the floor to questions from the audience. The line formed long quickly, and OKSee took off for the Ra Ra Riot show a few questions in. However, it was more than enough time to hear some great, enlightening banter from Booker and Folds, particularly the nature and function of the artist within the modern music business. Also, he made a buncha funnies.
I’ve gone through my notes and assembled a highlight reel of sound bites that are below. Enjoy.
On growing up singing in the South, where the stereotype that musically minded boys were all homosexuals:
“My father said I had a terrible voice.”
On breaking his hand while defending his roommate from bullies at the University of Miami, and subsequently flunking a test and losing his music scholarship:
“I threw my drums in the lake.”
On his experience working on a music publishing deal in Nashville:
“I enjoyed it, sort of. I didn’t get any royalty money for three or four years because of the bad contract. ... Ben Folds Five happened because I got so scared of the Nashville thing.”
On the transfer from working on a Nashville hit-making assembly line to his own solo project:
“Suddenly I realized all the things that were getting me rejected were suddenly valued. ... Then I heard Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’ ... and that set me off. I knew about The Replacements, but I didn’t really know about indie stuff.”
On the piano he lugged around during those earlier BF5 years:
“I borrowed a lot of money to pay for that first piano. It was in constant danger of getting repossessed.”
On the business end:
“We got a business manager who explained we needed to borrow money to pay taxes.”
On 550 Music’s (a division of Sony Music Entertainment) promotion of the single “Brick”:
“They treated ‘Brick’ like ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’: Release two rockers, then a power ballad. And it worked.”
On signing to a major label:
“It was a relief. It meant I didn’t have to move my piano anymore.”
On working as a producer:
“I like being the producer when I’m brining to life something that wouldn’t be music otherwise. The Nick Hornby collaboration, for instance.”
On certain of his works being considered “novelty” or a joke:
“My biggest frustration is the words ‘novelty song.’ I don’t know what that means.”
On Elliott Smith, with whom he toured (and whom Booker briefly managed):
“He’s such a great songwriter technically. He was trying to write Beatles songs, and people heard him for what he was, which was desperate.”
Odds and ends:
“I was writing waltzes about Howard Cosell and stuff.”
“We got a tour manager who’d worked for Slayer.”
“We spent money on a producer; we liked his name, Stiff Johnson.”
“After ‘Brick,’ I started pulling favors. Like, ‘OK, I want to make a spoken-word record with William Shatner.’”
“Rivers [Cuomo, of Weezer] was off on an island somewhere, laying in the sun. I think that’s where he got the song.”
“[‘Weird Al’ Yankovic] is the most not-weird man I’ve ever met.”