Ben Folds on “What Matters Most” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, February 22nd, 2024  

Ben Folds on “What Matters Most”

No More Leather Pants

Jun 23, 2023 Photography by Alysse Gafjken Web Exclusive
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Although What Matters Most is his first studio album since So There, his collaboration in 2015 with the string ensemble yMusic, Ben Folds has been keeping himself busy. Aside from his day job as the artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, he’s written a memoir (A Dream About Lightning Bugs), launched a podcast, displayed his photography in galleries in the U.S. and Europe, and appeared onscreen in films and television (including the hit Amazon Prime series The Wilds.). He’s also been nominated for an Emmy for his composition and performance of the theme song to the Apple TV special It’s the Small Things. So, what made Mr. Folds go back into the studio to make something as old fashioned as a pop record?

We spoke to Folds, who made a name for himself in the mid to late 1990s with Ben Folds Five, about the new album (recently released by New West) and whether it’s better to retire or turn into a heritage act.

Ian Rushbury (Under the Radar): You’ve said that What Matters Most has a specific sequence which builds to a finale. Was that always the concept or was that organic?

Ben Folds: I remember talking to Scott Litt, the guy that produced R.E.M. and he said they were a fucking mess at the start of their sessions but then right at the end, when you don’t think the goal is going to be scored, you kick the ball through 36 pairs of legs and the goalie’s hands and you score. They did that over and over again with their music. I kind of think that this album had a little bit of that going on.

I was looking to make an album that made a trip because I felt that life is like that. I believe that keeping an LP as the template is the best way to make records. It gives you something to focus on—a format, a time limit and an intermission, because, in the era where everyone forgot about vinyl, I was one of the people that didn’t. Every single one of my records was pressed on vinyl and I was always so concerned about how long the programs are on each side and where the highest dynamic is. I always have those things in mind. I wanted it to be a journey. Sometimes, I got a little bit lost; I thought I was in the park but I was actually on the highway, but that’s fine. I felt my way through.

There’s a cinematic feel to the record and it finishes on a real high with “Moments.” Did you always have in the back of your mind that it was going to end on something uplifting?

I’m willing to admit that I’m not very good at [writing] an utterly positive song. And that’s my problem! I eventually went to my friends Tim Harrington and Paul Wright from Tall Heights for help. I had the first line of the song and I told them, “It needs to be like this but I just can’t do it,” and they finished writing the song for me. It became an “era” thing—my era is not that good at “everything’s gonna be okay” songs. In the ’90s, we thought that everything was gonna be okay but now, when we know everything isn’t gonna be okay, the kids like some fantasy! They’re cool with it. Kids can write positive songs now and I admire that.

One track on What Matters Most—“Exhausting Lover”—is a candid recounting of a liaison with an aggressive groupie, ending with some bizarre flagellation involving a length of Hot Wheels track. Please tell me this is drawn from experience?

I hate to tell you this but it’s a product of amalgamation, exaggeration, and straight up fiction. I did want to write a song like Ice-T’s “The Girl Tried to Kill Me.” It’s so good—what he really nailed in his song was the absurdity of it. How artists have a really inflated idea of who they are. It’s dudes telling stories and they get crazier and crazier. It’s okay with me if people think it’s true. I made most of it up—sorry! Let’s say the guy in this song is just some kind of middle American middle-class kid who’s in over his head. Just when he starts thinking, “I think this might not be the girl of my dreams!” she turns around with a piece of Hot Wheels track in her hand!

Another track I thought was really interesting was “Kristine From the 7th Grade.” It’s got a European feel to it. It’s quite unusual for an American artist to write like that.

Oh yeah, you’re gonna hear Nino Rota in there, and Jacques Brel. Definitely a European influence. You can’t erase Leonard Cohen from the equation either. The song is definitely within the field of rock ‘n’ roll but it owes as much to Neil Hannon [of The Divine Comedy] as it does to any American artist. It’s funny—I don’t know why that song came together in such a way after the content of the lyric.

You’re in the middle of a pretty exhaustive world tour, including a return visit to The Royal Albert Hall in London in November. Surely all the stresses and strains of tour bus life are behind you now?

My initial plan was that this was going to be my last album. I mean I’m 56, why should I be shaking my ass on stage in leather pants after this? I’m not saying I’ll never tour again, but I felt I needed to document my feelings about the changing world in a musical time capsule. I felt like the guy on the hill with a long beard looking down from his cave, saying, “Oh God I suppose I’d better come down from the cave and scare some children,” and go back home.

Have you still got the legs for the leather pants?

I’ve still got the stick-like pins I’ve always had and I’m going to shake my ass one more time. But the day after the Albert Hall I’m gonna be stuffing my face with cake.

Do you feel that more, older artists should be leaving the stage, rather than just carrying on regardless?

I do feel for all of us. Some artists are hard-wired to do what they do. It’s a working-class job—I don’t care how much fucking money you make; this is manual labor. You show up and you get paid. It’s an honest day’s work. Some of these guys have been doing it since they were 15 years old. Who are we to tell them that they can’t go out and make an honest living anymore? When I first heard the term “heritage artists,” I thought, “Are you serious here?” I am not going to be a heritage artist! I’m not saying that I’m retiring from stuff. I just don’t plan to do any of that album cycle stuff where you make an album and you go on tour.

I’ve spent my whole life learning a craft. What I need to capture about this requires every bit of craft that I can muster. The kids don’t got the craft now. They’ve got another kind of craft and that’s fine, but they haven’t got that classic ’70s songwriting craftsmanship. The art of shaking a song out of your sleeve. So, I think it’s time for the old fella to come down from the cave, show some kids how to dot I’s and cross T’s and write a proper three-verse song with a great chorus and modulations and cool chords and metaphors and all kinds of good shit. Then I can head back up to the cave and hang up my leather pants.

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