In 1997, The Ben Folds Five was at their peak. Whatever And Ever Amen came out, demonstrating the craftsmanship, depth, versatility, and pop sensibilities of the band with hits like the heartbreaking “Brick” and the piano slamming screw-off anthem “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces.” But we all know what happens after you hit a peak: The band broke up, Folds went solo, took on a series of sonic adventures with a long list of unlikely collaborators, got back together with his bandmates Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee, and then went solo once more. But now, Folds is on the cusp of a new thrill — exploring Cuba and its music with a group of fans.
This week, I had the chance to speak with Folds, a noteworthy photographer as well, about why he wants to learn more about Cuba before trying to capture its majesty, his penchant for keeping himself open to new experiences, never being all the way happy with a song, and why Whatever And Ever Amen feels timeless as it passes its 20th anniversary.
With the Havana Getaway, are you more excited about going and experiencing the culture and playing with new musicians or is it the chance to just see Cuba, the architecture, take pictures, and feel the history of the island?
We’d have fun photographing [Cuba]. But I think that requires a little more history of myself with the place. It’s possible that there may be, you know, some sort of photographic study I find myself interested in once I understand the place. But until you understand a place, you tend to go in and photograph what’s attractive to you as an alien, and those don’t really stand up. After awhile, you realize, ‘Oh man, I took a bunch of pictures of some cool cars. And guess what, every motherf*cker that goes to Cuba takes a hundred pictures of some cool cars.’
It’s not that special unless you understand the place, and understand the people in a place a lot more.
I don’t weigh many things that I do in my life as more than the other, and I don’t know if that’s unusual. I just kind of step into the next day, so like, what’s today? ‘Oh sh*t, we’re going to Cuba. Well all right, lets go!’
I have that kind of view for these sort of trips, I don’t play it down like they’re not important. I just take every day as sort of like… if I go play f*cking Birmingham, Alabama, that tends to just… I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, today I’m in Birmingham!” and the next day is, ‘Oh sh*t, I’m in Cuba!’
I don’t really have that many thoughts about Cuba. I don’t feel like I know outside of what the style of the music is — a little salsa, a little rumba. I don’t really know that much about it, so this is sort of my way of experiencing it first hand and erasing a small part of the ignorance that I have.
I wish I could say, ‘Yeah, look, I’ve been studying Cuba for all this time and here’s why I want to do it this way.’ But it’s really more like the way I live my life, it’s much more vapid than that. I get a schedule and I show up. And I think what happens after that is that something profound happens, because if you’re immersed and you’re actually in the moment, I find that you meet people and do things that are actually pretty profound. It’s a different way of looking at it. But I was trying to cook up something to say about Cuba, and honestly, I will be excited about it when I land and that happens to me a lot about some of the biggest profound things I’ve done. The day before, I’ll be like, ‘Oh man, I’d rather sleep in.’ [Laughs]
Because of the way my schedule works, I’m constantly on the move, but then once I get there it’s the thing. I have a feeling it’s going to be playing with these musicians. That’s going to be very interesting because it’s very unlikely, you know? With my style of music with the Cuban percussion, we’re going to have to make that work, you know? And I think that’s cool.