"I'm in Chicago, Illinois. It's really amazing today, the weather's unbelievable." musicOMH is on the phone to Ben Folds, who has broken cover to talk about the reunion of his trio, the Ben Folds Five, and the release of the first album under that name in 13 years. Folds lives in Los Angeles, having recently moved from Adelaide, Australia. He likes the 'privacy' of LA, with its 'good out life, down town'.
Did he know for a long time that his trio was on the verge of reforming? "No. It was a breaking down process for us all, and I had a lot of stuff I wanted to do. I can rest knowing I did that, and then more. I don't know when it was exactly that we realised it was happening - maybe 2008, when we did a show for MySpace, and we realised we'd be alright, we can do this! We got together then really, but it's now 2012, which is insane - fully four years together! Another 50% of the time together was waiting for a schedule and stuff to be honest."
Is he excited by the reunion of the band, or does he find it in any way scary? "I don't find it scary at all", he laughs. "We have a very identifiable sound, I'm not sure anyone else sounds like that. When we put our name on an album I think you kind of know what you're getting. I could put out a solo record, and it might be anything - like if you had Neil Young putting out a record, but you know what you're getting with us."
As is customary with the band, much of the material is Folds' own. "Almost everything, although Darren (Jessee, the trio's drummer) wrote Sky High. Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics for the song The Sound of the Life of the Mind. He had this lyric left over from our work together, not a shitty one but there was a song in it. I thought I really had run out of time with writing it, though. This isn't at all cool to admit, but he was on the verge of giving the lyric to Rachel Unthank, so when I found out he was on the verge of giving it to her I stepped in and asked for it. Yeah, I am a slacker!"
There are some curious titles in the track listing for The Sound of the Life of the Mind, not least Michael Praytor, Five Years Later. Folds dissects the song for us. "Where I was going with this one was the randomness of people who keep coming back in your life. They might not necessarily be ones you'd choose, and you might move to another town, but the motherfuckers they're saying 'Hi, how're you doing?' In my life I've tolerated this sort of thing, but as I've become quasi famous it's part of life's path, and you're thankful for it to keep popping back up."
Musically, Folds muses on the idea that his piano playing style has changed since the band last recorded. "I think I'm going out on a limb more now. As we were experimenting, when we got together with this record, we wanted to hear the forces that we were working with. For me it's become a lot jazzier - and I don't know when that happened. I have listened to jazz and classical quite a lot over the last five years. Hopefully people don't all know these things, but a musician will notice. We consciously went for as many textures as we could without it being a stretch. With the piano I went with more Herbie Hancock voicing, based around fourths rather than roots. I would like to think there's a Shostakovich moment in there too. My ears have been on these things, and I realise now that I don't have to bash away with my left hand on the piano. Darren's tone is always very lyrical, and for me Robert's got much better too."
There is a growing sense of achievement and even something approaching contentment on the album. "I think that's a high compliment", says Folds. "There is a lyrical theme in the album, and a lot of that has to do with loss of ego. There's something wonderful about being young and cocky and having something to prove, but it's not really fucking attractive. We have a word to describe that here - 'douche bag'. When you grow up it's important to get a bit of humility. If you're playing to a crowd of 18-25 year olds, and you tell them stories, they'll stay there for half an hour. This record was maybe more comfortable with itself because we're more relaxed about who we are. The trouble then is that when you're relaxed you get, like, 'Man, I'm the fucking shit; I'm more humble than anybody!'"
"When you grow up it's important to get a bit of humility" - Ben Folds
Ben laughs a lot in the course of our interview, and his manner does suggest that of a front man at ease with his personality. So how long did the album take to write? Was that a similarly natural process? "It went in phases, and each phase was a creative boost, so it's hard to say. We were in the studio for maybe three to four weeks, and then we would get back in and do loads of background work. We could be really spontaneous if we wanted to."
There is a caveat for potential producers of the band, though. "I still write my songs right up to the mix, as I find I'm still trying to find what to say. I'm a pain in the ass; the engineer must want to kill me, as I'm always changing stuff! I'm not OCD but I'm trying to capture the feeling all the time. I have to keep on scrapping, but that's not always the best way to approach things."
And when it's time to record? "I'm quite content to abandon it when it's time to go. There's a song on the album that a lot of people have said is a favourite - I don't want to say which one - and I'm not comfortable with having let it go, but some people are saying it's a standout track. It's very personal, but when I can feel like it's a cover song it feels better for me, like it's talking about someone else's life."
A hunch - but what about the album's closing utterance, Thank You For Breaking My Heart? "That's actually the song!" he confirms. "The lyrics were written in a parking lot while the mixer was finishing. It's..." he hesitates, backed in to a corner a little "...that song is a possible projection for me. For me personally it probably means I'm allowing myself in to a position in my life - because I'm relenting and allowing things to happen. I'm opening myself up to the heartbreaks of different times. When you are busy and doing stuff you're likely to have your heart broken about everything, and I'm not just talking about relationships. I've always been a bit of a hard ass, and I regret to say I've been horrible at times. Anyone who has been in my life would understand that. There is one song called Selfless, Cold and Composed, from the Whatever and Ever Amen album. That song was written to tell someone what a jackass I'd been. That's a concept I understand. I also find that I often write stuff, and then it happens to me."
Did the subject of Selfless, Cold and Composed hear and understand the message? "I don't know, I'm not sure", he says, haltingly. "We never had a conversation about it. These things are for yourself, anyway. Other people will understand - songwriting's complicated, you know? It can be convoluted! One of the reasons I like my British audience is there's a lot more intellectual filtering going on culturally. In the USA it's in a minor key and immediately it's sad, but the UK says that's kind of hard. I remember once I was with my good friend Neil Hannon, and we toured our asses off together. We were out in a blues club, and I said to him that music is made with the heart, not with the mind. Neil took great issue with that, and said that in his belief music is made with the heart and the mind. I couldn't agree more, but Americans don't always get that. I get more out of it in Britain and the sense that when you mess up you fucking mess up!"
The band have slotted in to playing live again without too much trouble for their leader. "We've only played about four gigs, but it has been a blessing because I'd forgotten what it was like. We seem so small, but it's anything but dinky sounding. We hit the first couple of beats and it still feels like a surprise! Our first gigs were done without us rehearsing very much, but we played in front of 40,000 people, and that was pretty intense. We fucked up a lot but people were very understanding. I don't subscribe to playing bad notes, because I think the true silver linings are when the audience know that you're human, and in the room. The other advantage to a fuck up is that you might have another moment that is amazing. I saw some bands at Lollapalooza this year, and my favourite ones were the ones that were human in that way."
Folds has chosen Music Education and Music Therapy as a partial beneficiary from sales of the new album. "Part of my business is my studio, the old RCA Studio A in Nashville. It's a classic room, one of the best rooms in the world, and the studio manager is very much in to helping with therapy and education locally. This is where my heart's gone, and a lot of my business has been dedicated to it. Making this record available to PledgeMusic raises publicity - we're talking about it - because if you have a family or friend who has lost something through a stroke, music might be the only way of getting it back. The US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head - her speech only came back when they began to involve a therapist. It also aids autism, so when people are fighting over healthcare you can send a kid with a guitar to help. It's awesome, and also it's cheap. Music education doesn't really exist anymore but I put a lot of weight in to that. I've been selling pieces of a flooded piano, too."
Ben Folds Five's new album The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is out now through Columbia. The trio begin their UK tour on November 23 at Bristol O2 Academy, ending on December 5 with the second of two shows at the O2 Brixton Academy. Further information can be found here