This Sunday, Ben Folds performs a sold-out show at Powell Hall alongside the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. We talked to the versatile, potty-mouthed and misunderstood performer during a rare moment of rest between rehearsing for one of his many orchestral concerts and judging a capella acts on TV's The Sing Off.
Ryan Wasoba: Where are you right this second?
I'm in Oklahoma getting ready to rehearse with an orchestra. We only get two hours, usually the day of the show.
Is that enough time?
Well, they're sight readers. They can do this with Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Mahler, stuff that's much more difficult to play technically. With that said, some of my charts are pretty hard. And we have about 40 songs scored, which is a lot.
Is that wide scope of songs in the set related to releasing your retrospective The Best Imitation Of Myself?
It's not really related to the record, it's just an ongoing campaign to play with symphony orchestras and be involved in the Pops series. I'm on the board of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and I've spent quite a bit of time in that world trying to keep the orchestra viable and alive. We've been working at this for nearly ten years. I've played with orchestras all over the world, in the last few years with the Nashville Symphony at the Kennedy Center and Boston Pops and I think twenty other groups in America and in a lot of other countries.
Were you frightened or intimidated the first time you performed with an orchestra?
Yeah a little bit on a lot of different levels. You have to get used to that many people being there for your music on stage. Being on the other side of the conductor is a different experience for me. It sounds different in relation to the other instruments, and not knowing how the charts are exactly going to work and how my piano playing might have to be rethought around what we're charting. It's a little bit different. We're using the symphony orchestra as the rock band, so I'm not bringing the rock band in and augmenting it with the symphony orchestra. The percussion is obviously sort of the drum set, meaning that the battery percussion has become a drum set all together. There are usually six to eight percussionists and not like a drum set player. The double basses and lower brass are bass guitar.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Ben Folds Five was the distorted bass. Is it a challenge to recreate that sound when you perform that material?
Well, Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky is pretty distorted and aggressive. There are certainly ways to orchestrate aggressively. That distorted bass color exists in the symphony orchestra, not exactly as loud coming out of a specific speaker but the effect is there.
So you don't run the tuba through a Big Muff pedal?
Nah, nothing like that. But they can make their own Big Muff though, they can get a very brassy distorted sound. There are mutes they can use. But most of those arrangements aren't as much about being adventurous in the tone. Often it's not as much about the instrumentation as it is about the composition and reworking it in a way that works in different scenes. You could do a Ben Folds Five song in an a capella group, there's nobody imitating the distorted bass. At that point it's more about the song, the words, the melody and the chord structure.
A capella music must be on your mind lately because of your role as a judge in The Sing Off. Be honest - is that just your cash cow that you'll float on in order to keep playing with symphony orchestras?
I don't think so, it's just another gig. It's a good one and it's positive. It's definitely making an impact. Kids are learning music through a capella and this show I'm doing is inspiring more of it. I think it's a good thing. Will it last? No idea. You never know how long anything, any career or TV show is going to last. But I'm enjoying it while I'm doing it.
I'm curious about the dynamic of these symphonic shows, because you've been pretty potty-mouthed in a lot of your songs. Do you keep the profanity out of your songs when you're doing these higher class events?
No, but sometimes I'm less inclined to play a song like "All U Can Eat" which we have scored - it says "They give no fuck" over and over again. I don't think it's appropriate really. I try to curb it. Everything just depends on the vibe of the symphony orchestra and the people who are running it. I have no interest in trying to piss them off. So if it doesn't feel good, why do it? I'm trying to bridge the worlds rather than come in and be a dickhead.
Do you ever get into weird spots with young kids getting into your music from, say, the PG version of "Rockin' The Suburbs" you rewrote for the Over The Hedge soundtrack and then discovering that you say "shitty" a whole bunch in the original?
I think it happens sometimes that people get into the music for some of the cleaner moments and then find, "Oh shit, that's there too." I haven't gotten too much grief from it really. I think parents have so much shit to navigate. That's just one more thing like, "Okay, we don't want to download that song, do we?" I think most people are intelligent enough to know that it's all coming from a positive place. So they get into Over The Hedge and then they find my cover of "Bitches Ain't Shit" by Dr. Dre. They probably wouldn't have given me the time of day if they heard the Dr. Dre cover first. It all kind of works. I get surprising Christian magazine interviews and they're very well aware of what the fuck I do. It works. I don't know, I think people are kind of smarter than we give them credit for. I'm not out there trying to get all the dirty words in that I can. Your music generally attracts smarter people than some other artists at a similar level of popularity.
I think most of my audience kind of get it. And there are people who don't. Twitter is a good way to see some things people say. I'll see "I'm watching Sing Off and I'm disgusted by your language" because I said "ass" on TV. I'm thinking, "You're disgusted by that? Wow. You really had better not listen to my records." But that's not my core audience. My core audience, we kind of get each other.
Has your core audience expanded because of The Sing Off?
I'm maybe more recognizable. But I wouldn't go out and buy Ted Koppel's album because I saw him talk on TV. You see somebody talk on TV and that's how you know them. It's like waiting tables with somebody. Another waiter made a record, so what? It's not a calling card but the show has been more recognized than I ever expected.
Is Imitation coming out now so people can have an entry point into your music if they are curious because of the show?
No, I mean...no. I had to do a retrospective best-of record by contract. I had to find a moment to do it that wasn't one of the down moments -- you have the ups and downs -- so it would be appropriate. We wanted to do this when it seems like I'm still out there doing it. Maybe two years ago, it wasn't as good of a moment to release a greatest hits disc. But like I said, that cross-pollination idea where you're doing TV, and then you're doing a greatest hits at the same time, they don't connect like you'd think. It doesn't sell records. I sell the same amount of records whether I do phone press or not, whether I play gigs or not, whether I'm on TV or not. Same number of records. Song on the radio, same number of records. It's the core audience of people who keep up with what I do and it's kind of the sum total of this stuff. I've never really had this kind of blow out selling moment, but I keep kind of cranking along.
If it doesn't matter to your record sales, then why are you talking to me right now.
Well, because I have an obligation to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to promote the show and sell tickets.
But your show is already sold out.
Oh, good, well then I'll see you later. [Laughs] There's not one thing you can do or one combination of things in a moment that makes any difference. But it also helps me be understood in what I do because I don't have the outlets. I have The Sing Off, but I normally don't have the outlets to explain a fairly misunderstood career. Like, you're asking me about cussing in songs and kids and stuff like that. If I'm not out there being somewhat coherent on the subject it could really be read lots of ways. I mean, I'm kind of tired today so I might not sound that excited, but this is important to me. I'm not Andy Kaufman or anything. I don't want to go out and play jokes on people and be misunderstood. I did a master class last night in Oklahoma with about 400 kids. It's nice to explain why I do this and how it's done because it's really easy to be misunderstood if you don't do the exact same thing as somebody else.
Final question - do you have a cat? It seems like you should have a cat.
I had a cat, I don't currently have a cat. Yeah, I like cats. I like dogs too. Cats don't give a shit which is kind of funny. I had a cat that always knocked water on my face in the morning. Alice Childress was the name of the cat. I named a Ben Folds Five song after her. She'd scoot the water over from my night stand. I'd hear the sound of the glass scooting on the table and then she'd drop it in my face to wake me up in the morning. It sucks, waking up snorting water up my nose.