Ben Folds’ first success came in 1997 with his trio Ben Folds Five (yeah, don’t ask), with their soft-rock hit ‘Brick’ standing in stark contrast to the angst-filled rock of the era. The tongue-in-cheek piano-man relished his geeky loser suburban persona, turning both covers of Steely Dan and the gangsta rap classic ‘Bitches Ain’t S***’ into delicious vanilla and fully embracing his role with his solo debut, 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs. He even produced William Shatner’s 2004 ‘comeback album’ Has Been. Way To Normal – a collection of signature poppy rants and hooky ballads – is his first full-length album since 2005’s Songs For Silverman. We phoned the affable musician as he prepared for his latest solo tour, days after he played a surprise reunion of Ben Folds Five in Chicago.
Did the reunion show offer you any epiphanies about your solo career?
Well, it’s good to know where you came from. Up until we did that show, we had left things unclosed. It was motor-muscle memory. It’s very interesting after 10 years, to feel myself reacting to the two guys I came up with. Vocally as well – my voice went to these places, and I’m like, ‘That’s bizarre.’ I guess that’s what happens when you do something 10,000 times.
You leaked fake tracks prior to Way To Normal’s release, as a joke. They sounded more Ben Folds Fivey – was that because they weren’t heavily produced?
I cringed like hell for five years over [the slicker] Rockin’ The Suburbs. But I felt the songs were really strong. What’s really interesting is my original theory in 1999 has now paid off, which was that this is the way people make records now. And the best thing I could do was put myself in context and not rage against it. And in honesty, I had to take a pill every night to continue that kind of production. I was thoroughly disgusted, and I threatened to quit every day.
Have you grown beyond the raw sound?
The thing I’ll never leave is piano, bass and drums. Because that’s what I was doing when I was 12 years old. And I had three bands like that before Ben Folds Five – we just were not very good bands. I’ve been hitting on that over and over again since I was literally prepubescent, and I have the tapes of my crackling voice to prove it.
On the cover of Way To Normal, you’re sitting yoga-style with butlers. Is that a commentary on how you view yourself in the world?
No, there’s really nothing about that that resembles the way I live. It’s completely fraudulent!
Are you commenting on modern self-discovery?
A lot of it is a statement on balance in excess of time, money and comforts – and what do you do with that? Because you can put on your yoga clothes and get a self-help book, give 10 cents extra at the Starbucks counter for starving people in Africa and buy their ethical water. The middle class gets offended really quickly. And I know because I grew up in the West [Coast]. Very touchy group of people. And there are a lot of reasons you should be: I mean you’re overtaxed, over-expected, over-responsible and then under-thanked and manipulated beyond belief.
How can you claim to be in touch with ‘normal people,’ now that you’re a rock star?
People can go, ‘Look, he’s out of touch because he’s making jokes about a class that he doesn’t know about – us and our problems.’ These are the thoughts I was having when I was waiting tables – the class of people that would come in and never smile, never tip. I was struck because these were the people that had been waiting tables just years before and had escaped. And in a way, I still can’t get over it. It doesn’t matter if I’m in touch or not. I’m not running for office.
Have you got more angry and crotchety as you’ve grown older?
No, nobody likesto be an a**hole. I think I’ve gone the opposite. For instance, the quandary about whether to play a particular Dr Dre song that has ‘b****’ in it or not. Or ‘Rock This B****’, for instance. When you go up on stage and you feel that you’re gonna make 2,000 peoples’s day by doing it, then you do it. Who wouldn’t?
Why so much anger toward your piano then?
Aw, that b**** has had it coming for years.
Way To Normal is available at www.7digital.com