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.
Looking at your career, there’s a lot of really interesting twists and turns. Is that how those things come about? Is it just that you find people and find inspiration to do a totally different project?
Yeah, it’s very much, I run into a wall and I look up. And that’s the wall. You know what I mean?
The symphony was like that, it wasn’t something I thought out. And A Capella music was like that too. I wasn’t into A Capella in college or anything, but someone sent me a link to a tune of mine that someone had arranged for A Capella, and I thought, “well that’s pretty novel.” I checked it out and I was blown away. Then I noticed that in the related videos next to it on YouTube, that there were others and it was like ‘Oh wow, there’s like f*cking four or five hundred versions of my songs by A Capella groups.’
So when I went through them, I was like, ‘Well this is what I always wanted to hear: Other people do my music, not me.’ But unfortunately, no one ever really covered my music. I always thought I was a songwriter and other people would play my songs, but it never happened. But all these A Capella groups did, so I just sort of followed that and then as soon as I decided, really last minute, ‘Well, I’m gonna go record these bands, I’ll record them and put the record out.’ And then I guess NBC heard about that so then I ended up on their Sing Off show.
I kind of bumble through things like that. But I think some of the wisdom of going that way is that you see everything as an opportunity in that day, you know? So someone will suggest something, and if you’ve already got an idea of what you’re gonna do, then you don’t hear it or you don’t see an opportunity. Or you’re already booked.
I think the way I look at things is probably… there’s probably a screw loose, you know? There’s probably some sort of sequential thing in my brain that’s supposed to work a certain way that has it’s advantages because of the way I look at it.
When I worked with Al Yankovic, it’s because I ran into him at the grocery store and he was buying a microwave pizza. [Laughs] I just thought, ‘Oh, I should work with him!’
I don’t think it’s a sign from Jesus or some sh*t, I just think that there’s something really interesting about saying… I always felt like I could make a record with whoever is at the restaurant at that time. I feel like you could just take that table and they’re your percussion section. Because there’s always some angle or some story in a collaboration, or an opportunity to breathe music into it. I think almost none of the collaborations I’ve done have been because I sort of researched, sought out, or was shooting for that. It was generally very… a little by chance and a little bit by just going, ‘Oh yeah, sure, I’ll do that.’
Creating any kind of art is going to be hard, but has songwriting, over time, become faster or easier?
No, I don’t think it has become easier, it’s always been pretty hard. I don’t find songwriting or creating easy… especially finishing things. I always beat myself up for not making enough. Not being prolific enough.
I actually start a whole sh*t, a ton of stuff, and every once in awhile I try to sort of pump myself up by laying it all out on the table, so to speak. To go, ‘Look at all these pieces of great things I have, I’ve been working hard. Okay lets finish something.’ I just try to hype myself up a little bit to actually finish it.
It’s scary, because when you finish something, it’s never gonna be as good as you wanted it to be. You have to get over the disappointment of everything you make, if you’re good. But if you suck and are easily impressed with everything that comes out, I don’t understand that kind of person.
I mean, I think that what’s great is the imagination that you have: The thing that it could be, the idea, the ideal. And then as you make it, it’s just, you know, you have to get used to what it really is with all its problems.
I’ve experienced it too. You never want to walk away from the thing. I never want to end something, I always feel like I can revise it until it’s better.
Yeah, I think the thing is, there is a feeling you have that is the reason why you started it. If the final product doesn’t evoke that… which is always gonna be a really, really high bar if you really have soul. I think.
I mean, I kinda wonder about these people who high-five themselves after they’ve recorded one of their songs. I think… maybe they’re just amazing. Maybe that’s it.
But to me, I kinda think that if you remember — like kind of remembering that thing that you thought life was when you were a child or something — the innocence of the song before it’s finished gives you chills, and moves you. You even hear applause. The great things you can do with it. And then as it gets finished, you just see so many parts of it hitting the beach at Normandy and going down. [Laughs]
Eventually some of it washes up, hobbled with no legs or whatever. And it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, here’s the piece.’ I mean, it’s enough of it there to communicate so that someone can see what you’re going for, but I don’t think it’s very often that it does what you want.
I suppose, if you are a little more zen about it and you detach yourself from the outcome, as they say, maybe you discover that the song is something that you didn’t intend, but then I don’t know how attractive a career of doing sh*t by accident really is to me. To make song after song, it’s kinda like, ‘Wow, you know what’s great about that song is that the this and this and this is in it!’ That’s weird to me. That you would want to make something with no intention to make it what you were trying to communicate and have it come out the other end and people are like, ‘You know what I noticed is, I saw big clouds, this means this and this means this.’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. I guess I f*cked up. I guess I missed.’
When “Brick” becomes a huge hit, does the worry start to form that it’s the kind of song people are gonna expect from then on? Like, a change was going to be forced on you guys.
No, because we weren’t gonna do it. That was never a concern of mine. We weren’t gonna go, ‘Oh well, there’s a temptation to do that,’ because it didn’t matter. We knew we were letting a lot of people down when we made the next record when there was no “Brick” on it. We didn’t write one — it didn’t make sense.
Honestly, I don’t think we really cared. We felt both the critical and the commercial feedback of the next record, Reinhold Messner, and realized that we were gonna be that band who sold half the number of records every time out from then on, and that we were done. And it wasn’t nice to go out and tour under those circumstances and have that feeling and be leaving promoters bummed out because we were only half-selling sh*t.
We were doing the one hit thing, we were just like ‘F*ck that.’ That’s not really what we wanted to do, but it wouldn’t have occurred to us to go, ‘Oh, you know, we can avert this by writing ‘Brick: Part Two,” it actually didn’t even occur to us.
I remember, in hindsight, someone had said, ‘You should’ve put drums in the song ‘Magic,” which was a song that was on the Reinhold record. It kinda sounded like a hit afterwards and we just realized, this didn’t even occur to us. It wasn’t even like, ‘Oh, you know what, they want this and we can do that, and that would make it.’ It just never entered the brain. So I think collectively, as a trio, we were just a little half-life’d and it peaked on Whatever. It’s a good record, I don’t think there’s a bad song on the record.
Despite that, do you feel any kind of disconnect with any of the songs on the album at this point? Any of them that you don’t enjoy playing anymore?
No, I don’t have a problem playing any of them. There are ones that I’m sure I don’t play anymore just because I sort of forgot to, and they dropped out somehow, but I think it’s a real solid album, you know? And I think that the songs all… I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m not happy with everything I write, I think it’s just, when you look at it next to what my aspirations were for something when I began to do the work on it, I’m always a little disappointed, that’s all. And that’s without exception.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t think they’re good songs, because they are. Whatever And Ever is — especially I think in context with the times — [something] I and Robert (Sledge) and Darren (Jessee) — my bandmates — can be proud of having made a really unique album during a time that you wouldn’t have thought.
I mean, it fits in the ’90s, because it insisted that it fit the ’90s. But it was certainly… it was very unlikely, I guess. I’m proud of us for sticking by our guns.
I feel like it has a timeless quality to it.
I think so, because there’s an art to building and crafting a song that is pretty old. I mean, it goes beyond the twentieth century. Not all songwriters really craft songs in that way. In that era, it was even less likely that you would need to craft a song in that way because craftsmanship was sort of frowned upon.
I think the feeling in that era to me was always that you were supposed to feel, feel, feel. And any time spent on knowing too many chords, playing too fast, having too much of an arrangement — anything that wasn’t just sh*t out — wasn’t real.
For us, it was a balancing act of craftsmanship and then the destruction, or the attempted demolition of the craftsmanship in this presentation. So that everything was pushed to its limits and actually trying to make the song sound bad. That was very effective.
We didn’t feel like we wanted to make a Steely Dan record. But we have a lot in common with Steely Dan. There’s a lot of perspective in the songwriting and in the craftsmanship and the chords. Someone from the Steely Dan era would’ve been like, ‘Oh, we can make this gorgeous!’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, beat the sh*t out of cymbals and turn the fuzz bass up and I’ll sing out of tune. We’ll kill this!’
When the song still works, despite all that, that’s an interesting dynamic. And then when you say its timeless to me… it’s still rooted in its craft. So yeah, you can take those songs, put them in the ’70s — great. Take some of the songs, put them back in the ’30s. “Steven’s Last Night In Town” or even “Missing The War” could be… “Cigarette” could be [from] a way long time ago. “Smoke,” that might be like the ’50s or the ’60s. Most of the ’90s music was like, ‘No, that’s pretty much the ’90s.’ I mean, some of the best stuff, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not gonna happen in the ’50s.
Ben Folds is currently on tour across these United States. Check his website for information.