Ahead Of His Majestic Stop, Ben Folds Talks Going Classical.
Once thought of as just another in a long line of piano-poppers, Ben Folds seems intent on proving himself capable of just about anything these days. After years of performing his pop tunes with orchestras all over the country, 2014 saw Folds and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra premiering the three-movement piano concerto that it had co-commissioned along with the Nashville Ballet and Minnesota Orchestra.
That 20-minute virtuosic display went on to comprise the second half of Folds’ most recent album, last year’s So There. As for the front half of that record, Folds says his experience writing for orchestra inspired him to reframe the piano pop songs he’d been writing to fit into a context that’d make sense when presented alongside the concerto. For that, he told NPR, he called on yMusic, a little-known New York classical ensemble that helped rework eight of So There‘s tracks into full-on chamber pieces.
For his current tour, which hits the Majestic Theatre this Thursday, yMusic is helping out Folds once again, serving as his live backing band. Judging from setlists and reviews from earlier dates on the current tour, you can expect plenty of classical and jazzy re-workings of songs spanning Folds’ entire catalog, including some Ben Folds Five stuff –and, yes, even the second and third movements of that piano concerto.
Ahead of his Dallas stop, we caught up with Folds earlier this month to talk classical music, breaking piano strings on tour and how he’s recently pushed himself to become a better pianist than ever.
Interestingly enough, the last time I was in Nashville happened to be the same day you were holding that rally to save RCA Studio A from demolition, which I got to attend. I saw later that the studio was given a stay of execution. What’s happening with the studio now?
Where it stands now is the building will remain. It’s historically protected, and it’s not going to be demolished. That’s what we were shooting for. I was here for 14 years, and now my stuff is gone as of today. We moved everything out, and a guy named Dave Cobb is taking over the studio. It was time for me — it was getting time for me to move on, anyway. I had it for many more years than I expected to have it. Then this threat of demolition came up, so I stuck with the studio to try and fight for its existence. But now it’s protected, so I’m moving on. I don’t have time to be a business owner of that ilk. It got too big.
So what’s the plan now? Are you going to start another studio somewhere else, but on a smaller scale?
No. I mean, the business itself is something that I needed to get out of. Even someone whose full-time gig is that is overwhelmed. That’s why they go out of business constantly. I had sort of the opposite problem; it was growing fast. I believe at the time that we were served with notice that the building was to be demolished — I had been the tenant there for 12 years at that point — we had three Grammy nominations at that moment that had just been announced, for one year. Tony Bennett had just been in there, and Casey Chambers and the Nashville Symphony, because you can record a whole symphony orchestra in there. Willie Nelson had been in there. Blind Boys of Alabama had been in there. We were just having a great year. I was like, “Wow, this is a successful studio. We’ve actually done this.” We took it from being just an empty room with shit all over the floor and cleaned it up and turned it around. It took a while. The point is, that I realized, about the time that we started having a lot of success in there, that this is not my business. I can’t do this. I have a staff and all this stuff and it just built up. I have to tour and make records. I have kids. No one makes money on studios, you might break even. If someone’s making money in the studio business, give me a call, I’d like to hear what you’re doing. I’ve never heard of it before. So, yeah, we were a successful studio, but it wasn’t something that I could keep doing. It was a bit of a detour to go, “OK, well, we’ve got to fight for this.” And then as soon as the new owners took the building over they asked that I stay for a couple years to help see it through. So I did. Now the couple years is up, and we found a guy [in Dave Cobb] that makes lots of country hits, who knows the history of the studio, who’s a great guy. He’s got awesome, beautiful equipment and artists to bring in. He’s going to take the studio to the next era.
That’s great that it’s not going anywhere and that you found someone that’s really going to appreciate it.
Totally. A totally happy ending. Weird for me. In a way, it was my home for nearly 15 years. Moving out of that place, that was certainly a magical era. Loved that building. Wrote, had all kinds of crazy moments in there. It was great. Moving on, and I’m not going to be in the studio business anymore.
Was that the same studio where you recorded So There — with the symphony and everything?
Yes. I believe that’s the last thing I ever recorded in there. The last thing I made in there was the yMusic half of the record, the chamber rock portion.
My favorite portion of that record was the piano concerto portion, interestingly enough. You’ve said before that when you were approached to write that you had to become a much better piano player to make it happen. Can you talk a little about that? How did you go about improving as a piano player?
You can write something that you can’t play, obviously. Like, I can write for violin. As long as I roughly know what’s possible, I don’t have to be able to play it. That’s the way I treated myself as a piano player. I wrote shit I didn’t know if I could play, but just knew that I would practice it and make it happen. I made it so that I knew a human could play it. I didn’t say, “I want to make this something within my ability.” I made it what I heard. One interesting thing, which is something I had never considered before, some of the things I heard were not impressive to listen to. They would just be jumping to a certain chord voicing after a small run, neither of them in themselves particularly difficult, neither of them very flashy, and just things to support rather than things that are rockstar moments. I had to many of those moments in the concerto that were so difficult to play, that I got no credit for. You want your effort to be like, “Oh, yay, look he’s playing arpeggios!” That was an interesting thing to realize that so much of the work that I had to put into playing the piece was real meat-and-potatoes support stuff. It doesn’t seem that hard, but it is very hard. I just had to practice. Once I finished writing the piece, we had the premiere of the piece a couple months later. I had to, basically, lock myself in my apartment. I was practicing six hours a day most days of the week. That included all the physical stuff that comes with it — icing my forearms and shoulders, stuff I’d never considered before. I probably fucked myself up a little bit doing that. I mean, it was very hard.
It might have initially seemed like an idea out of left field — like “Oh, Ben Folds has a new record coming out and it’s got a classical piano concerto on it.” But to me, there’s always been hints of it here and there. You quote Gershwin in “Philosophy,” for instance. It doesn’t seem that crazy of concept.
I think that’s right. If someone is paying attention to the music all along, you would know… If you took the vocal off of most of the Reinhold Messner record, and listen to just the piano playing and the melodies inside it, that’s the first and second movement to me. I think you’re right, it’s just such a different context that you make other assumptions. For someone to hear what you’ve done is a huge success, because there’s so many things that get in the way of actually hearing something. Like: “Aw, that’s Ben’s new record, he’s copying so-and-so” or “Man, I liked his old stuff better” or “Boy, that’s a lot better than so-and-so’s record.” We have so much static of context when we listen to a record. When you’re making a quote-unquote classical piece like that, there’s potential for a lot of static, like, “Oh, now he thinks he’s a classical musician. He’s really changed.” I think it’s really cool that my audience doesn’t see it that way. Those are my melodies, they can be presented in any type of style. I can jump back and forth between Queen, Randy Newman and The Beatles and that’s fine in the rock world, because we all understand that reference is part of the way it works. It’s dodgier business when you’re talking about classical music. People tend to get up in arms about it. But I didn’t really catch any shit over it. I mean, everyone gets good and bad reviews about their music no matter who you are. But it was pretty good! I felt like I was understood enough to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time.
Who are some of the composers you grew up listening to? I’m guessing Gershwin was probably one person that influenced your early playing.
I started off with piano lessons, playing stuff that you do. I started making up my own songs and I just didn’t take lessons anymore. When I started out, I was playing Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin. Chopin has some etudes and preludes and nocturnes that, some of it can be played by children. As far as listening, I mostly liked rock music. I mostly liked the R&B of the ’60s, Otis Redding and stuff like that. Like everybody else, whether you’re Axl Rose or me, I loved Elton John. No one didn’t love Elton John. I never really listened to The Beatles until later. We all hear classical music all the time. We hear orchestras every movie that we see. We all know the classics. Whether most people know it or not, when they hear Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, they fucking know the songs. Or they know William Tell overture or Swan Lake. People know these things. I played in orchestras when I was a kid, as a percussionist, from a pretty young age. So I heard [classical music] all the time. But it was something that I had to go to, because I had to. Now it’s taken a place in my soul, but I can’t say I was influenced by Debussy or Prokofiev — I think I was, actually, but I don’t know how. I wasn’t really listening to the records. Gershwin is a good example. You hear Gershwin all over the place. I used to make little skits, almost like little radio skits, on cassette tapes. I would play the music for the skits from a record player on the floor and I would speak into the microphone and have other people record their parts. I had a stack of classical records that I would buy at yard sales to have as my background music. A lot of that would be Tchaikovsky, or Debussy, a lot of Bartok, Ravel, Gershwin for sure. Gershwin was always good for something’s happening. Now we’re getting to the big city [hums Gershwin]. It just sounds like what it is. So, yeah, all that stuff is in my soul, but I think it’s in everybody’s.
Yeah, it’s like, how many pop singers have covered “Summertime”? It’s got to be in the hundreds.
Totally. And probably not even knowing that it’s Gershwin. Classical musicians, I find, are every bit as interested in a simple melody as a rock musician. So when you think about what they’re attracted to, it’s not always that different. When I’m sitting on the bus with yMusic guys, who are all classical music heads, they’re probably going to get up and dance drunk to Usher on the bus. They don’t discriminate in the way that you’d think. They love a melody.
I think that’s our time, but there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you about for a really long time. I saw you play at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie about 10 years ago. You were playing this big grand piano center stage. Then, during the last song of the set, you broke a piano string, and some guys had to come take it out before you could come back out and play the encore. I have told the story several times over the years and everyone always tells me you were probably just doing a bit. But I’ve always contended that it was genuine.
I used to break them so much. With the longer pianos, they break less frequently. But, no, no, that’s not a schtick at all. I used to bust strings all the time — especially bass strings. You wouldn’t think so. The reason I would bust a bass string more than most piano players would is because I play my left hand like a guitar. If you’re playing eighth notes like that, and playing really, really hard, the amplitude of the string is going up and down, you’d have to have one of those incredible slow motion cameras to see it. But it’s going back and forth at 110 cycles a second or something like that. When it goes down right as the hammer goes up, the velocity of the impact will break the string. That’s how they break. That was explained to me. If I’m [playing eighth notes], eventually, the chances are, the string is going to go down right as the hammer is going up, and I’m hitting it so fucking hard and it’s going so up and down that that happens. It’s a lot harder to break the top strings. When you break those, it’s because they’re old. I used to break so many strings, I’d break them on stage with shorter pianos, and they’d come shooting out the end of the piano. Even if the piano is shut, there’s still a little bit of light for them to get through. I don’t know how it would happen. They would come flying out of the piano at the bass player. So we started pointing the piano at the drums, because at least there were cymbals to protect him. It was not a stunt at all. Wrestling is real, young man. When I gave Regina Spektor a piledriver, that was real. It put her in the hospital, broke her neck.
Ben Folds and yMusic perform Thursday, April 14 at Majestic Theatre.