Ben Folds on Repeating Mistakes, Conjuring Characters, and Repeating Mistakes

Ben Folds on Repeating Mistakes, Conjuring Characters, and Repeating Mistakes

By Chris Steffen

Aug. 23, 2019

In his first book, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Ben Folds takes a long, hard look at the personal and creative arc that took him from throwing his drum set in the lake after dropping out of the University of Miami to performing his songs with orchestras around the world. The stories behind songs like "Brick," "Army," and "The Luckiest" are accounted for, but Folds eschews song-by-song breakdowns in favor of a deeper dive into the insecurities, arrogance, and general chaos that are part of a life in music. He honestly chronicles the relatively brief career of Ben Folds Five, his four divorces, and development of his kinetic style of piano-playing, alongside tales of causing John Mayer vexation, his friendship with William Shatner, and the coulda-woulda-shoulda of various blown opportunities.

Days after the book was declared a New York Times bestseller, Folds participated in a career-spanning conversation with AllMusic about the myriad characters that inhabit his songs, when making mistakes isn't cute anymore, and his feelings about the most controversial song in his catalog.

AllMusic: Did you read any books by your contemporaries before starting yours?

Ben Folds:
I can't say that rock biographies or memoirs are at the top of my list. I wanted to make this more than a memoir, but I wanted it to be built on memoir, because that gives me a framework. I wanted it to be about creativity, a portrait of one guy's ups and downs about that, things that maybe I'd want to know.

It's also for people who are artists who don't do it for a living, I think it's good for them to hear honest stories about what's behind curtain number one, what they decided not to do. If you're working as something besides a musician, and you wanted to be a musician, it doesn't mean you were thrown off the horse, it means you made a decision, and I think people get ashamed of that, like they didn't make the cut or didn't go to the Olympics, and I wanted the book to speak to artists, even ones who are accountants during the day.

AllMusic: Many of your songs focus on named characters. How nailed down are they in your head as distinct people?

I was always just trying to write the best song that I could, and you use your imagination, use things from real life, and things begin to take on a life of their own. I think of J.D. Salinger, and the more you read his short stories, like "Franny and Zooey," you start to see the relationships between all of these characters, whether they were created or from his childhood. I think that seems to be natural, and good songwriting should allow you to fill in some blanks, so it makes for modular stories that as you grow up, you relate to in different ways. I think it's all part of the interesting wisdom that we don't understand when we're creating something, it's a little bigger than your mind or your artistry.

AllMusic: Several of your characters are older than you and the majority of your audience, and deal with more mature concerns. Have you felt like you've caught up to any of them and their issues?

For many rock and roll writers, we have our biggest forum when we're in our twenties. We're writing all these things, and what the hell does someone in their twenties know? But interestingly, a lot of wisdom comes out of the cocky young man who just takes it and feels it. You see images, you see things you think are right, you report on them, you pretend to know what you don't, and a lot of it ends up being right somehow. I think there must be some good reason for that.

I try in the book to say that as much as real life informs the songs, after a while you start to realize that songs inform life, there's some wisdom in them, that you have to boil it all down to something that you can corroborate or question the lyrics with a melody, the melody can play nice with the lyrics or it can mock the lyrics. If you're saying "your mother died" and you make a minor chord out of it, that would be one thing, but if you do [mocking singsong voice] "your mother dii-eed," that would be weird. Bob Dylan was doing that more than anybody, and he'd be the first person to tell you, as an honest person, that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

AllMusic: You write about how it was important for you to never write down to these characters, because everyone is the most important person in their own world. Was that an early realization?

I think I can verbalize it and intellectualize it now, but it never felt particularly compelling to me to make a laundry list of all the bad things someone else did, to keep pointing the finger at them. You can say some scathing things about somebody, but if you're trying to scathe Satan, then that's just a compliment. "Yeah, what did you expect? I'm Satan, bro." And Satan says "bro," I can attribute that as a direct quote.

But when you look at them and you hold them accountable, it's like a best friend who you care about and you know what their challenges are, that they're weak enough to give in to something or you find out they've done something terrible, and you still see that they made this choice to do something terrible. That's more heartbreaking, more compelling, more emotionally powerful, than just saying, "You did this and you did that."

AllMusic: You also discuss how sometimes you'll make the same mistakes, whether in music or in life, over and over to make them seem intentional. Is there actual value in that or is that more justifying your stubbornness?

You have to take your data, and you have to be honest about things. You take the data, analyze it, and hopefully your data is true. And when I say "I made the same mistakes over and over again" in the song "Mess," if you know that, you can make a conscious choice to keep doing it, or you can try to figure out how to change it.

One of my points in the book is that it becomes boring to continue to make mistakes. While it's compelling for a writer to admit their weaknesses, it gets old quickly. The way that works in a song is not that that is boring, so much, but that the composer of the song is not discovering shit, and if they're not discovering, you're not taking the trip with them.

When you're taking the trip in a song, the most important thing that will happen is the times when you say something, feel something, express something, that the audience is discovering at the same time, and that holds true, because rock is not just about the words, but also the melody, the production, and the performance. The performance needs to sound like the first time, like something is being discovered.

If someone has made 10,000 mistakes, I need to have a really compelling reason to stick with that guy. I've had horrible things happen to me, but I was just doing the same stupid shit, and that was becoming less compelling, because I've already sung that and already discovered it, so no one's discovered anything, they know what they're going to get. There needs to be a sense of discovery in the art of rock and roll recording.

AllMusic: When have you found that you've repeated yourself musically?

I felt the warning bells going off on the album Way to Normal, I felt myself getting very good at writing a certain kind of song, and that was why. I was feeling pretty accomplished on that album, and I think that as an artist, you should be scared of the known, not the unknown. That's a real new age-ism, but it's so true with music. And if it's true in music, maybe it's true in life, too. So maybe if a young man is writing songs well beyond his years, his songs can teach him a thing or two about life, if he'll listen.

AllMusic: 'Way to Normal' closes with one of my favorites of yours, "Kylie From Connecticut." I've always thought you had a gift for picking great songs to end albums, do you put extra thought into those?

I don't often sequence while I'm recording, but I think it's compelling and nice to end in that way. I know it's not my last album, so I don't need to have fireworks at the end; what if I just have a few question marks to compel me to the next record? It's an interesting thing to end like that, and as soon as we ended with "Boxing" on the first record, I was hooked, I wanted that kind of song at the end that would not just leave them wanting more, but also has a bit of a question mark that compels you into the next album.

AllMusic: The opening lines from "Army" came from a real conversation with your dad ["Well, I thought about the army/Dad said, 'Son, you're fucking high'"]. Did you intentionally save that anecdote for when you had the right musical idea to go with it, or did it pop back into your head when you were making that album?

Reinhold Messner began as almost a concept album, it was going to be one long song with two sides. This was a chapter of this guy's life that represented ridiculous young mandom, and I borrowed it from my life, because that's what I knew. It came quickly, and I showed it to [Ben Folds Five drummer] Darren Jesse, and I remember him saying, "Man, this is why people love your songwriting. People will be singing that for years."

That summed up something, the indecision part of a young man's life, you think about this, you think about that. The song "Army" had this bridge that went into another part of the record that was three or four minutes long, and we ended up lopping that off and making the song "Regrets." So that morphed a lot, sometimes the artistic journey is very random, and things hit the atmosphere and parts of the spaceship fly apart and turn into other things, and you have no idea what you've done.

AllMusic: In the mid-2000s you started covering Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit," which was a divisive decision and got you into some trouble on tour. I was one of those who thought it was a bad look, so I'm glad you took the time in the book to go deeper into your thought process and how that situation played out.

The song was a throwaway B-side, but it was also kind of a serious exercise. It's touchy, because someone could say, "You think all rap is like this," but no, it's specifically gangsta rap, and that was almost a joke. Dr. Dre is no dummy; there's comedy in it, there's Quentin Tarantino, and then there's also serious stuff in it. I thought, "What if you sang that really quietly?" I don't mean as an exercise, I mean you take a soulful melody -- which I think is one of the best melodies I've written -- and put it to that, what does that create?

Then we played it live, and it was very uncomfortable, but I go towards the discomfort. I said, "I feel the discomfort in this, but it's interesting." I had a lot of people who were very critical of it. The most compelling argument I saw about it was between my friend Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide and Michael Doughty of Soul Coughing, and they were arguing with each other over the internet about it. I found that really, really compelling, and it was very interesting.

That was a little bit of a different time, and things are pretty charged now, and maybe I'm getting older, too, but I don't want to have people feel uncomfortable. I don't mind discomfort, but I do mind people feeling bad about themselves. I don't want a group of people singing one thing, and you're one of the three brown people in the audience...that's fucking weird. I don't want it, and I think my audience completely understands. I remember Dave Chappelle saying that he made certain jokes for a while until he started realizing there were some white people laughing a little too hard, and I thought about that, as well.

Questlove came by once and wanted to talk to me about it, he said it was amazing, he loved that I dignified Dr. Dre's work with a melody. So everyone didn't view it the same way, and I understand the way people like Mike Doughty viewed it, but I also know that there's something in it, and it wouldn't have worked if there wasn’t some soulness in there. The lyrics are about a guy who goes to prison, comes out, and his girlfriend is sleeping with his best friend, and he's wrecked. So if he's saying all these things about women, maybe it's because he was damaged. That song is like a six-minute-long misogynistic rant that never stops, and I took most of that stuff out.

AllMusic: You write about how when Ben Folds Five played "Brick" on 'Saturday Night Live,' you knew halfway through the song that you were bombing. Have you gone back to rewatch it and confirm your memory?

It's bad. When I was writing the book I would try to check up on things, check my perspective, and I would like to have said that I watched it and actually it's great, but no, it's terrible. The problem was real simple, though, and that's the thing; a lot of times, these issues are so solvable. People are going crazy in a rock band on tour: get those motherfuckers some sleep! Just take two days off and sleep, and you'll see people working more efficiently.

But people want to make it into all this other stuff, "They can't take the pressure," but you just haven't slept. When you're doing something like Saturday Night Live, play the tempo right, play the tune. Play the fucking song well, that's all there was. We didn't have anyone to say, "Slow it down, and remember, it's TV, so you should do this and that." So we just went in, we were tired, and we played it like shit. We should have practiced.

AllMusic: There's an anecdote about how your first bag of weed came with an Yngwie Malmsteen cassette, thanks to a fellow employee at the grocery store. Are weed and Yngwie forever linked for you?

Yngwie is always going to be linked to my time bagging groceries. That guy played that music all the time, he would show me pictures of Yngwie and wanted me to come over to his house to watch VHS videos of him shredding. So totally, Yngwie Malmsteen has a great formative place in my heart.