Ben Folds talks jam bands, orchestra funding, the 'Hamilton' mixtape and more
Ask Ben Folds about the funding crisis facing the world of classical music, from orchestras all the way down to kids just picking up an instrument, and he’ll offer a surprising rebuttal: There is no such crisis.
“I’ve certainly sat with my share of senators and congressmen and talked about funding before,” Folds said by phone from New York. “It’s not that expensive, is really what it comes down to. It would be the equivalent of being in a household, trying to decide how you’re going to spend your money, and it’s 5 cents on the year that you’re talking about. We don’t spend anything on it at all.”
And that, he says, is a problem — not for musicians, but for cities.
“Look at cities that people fly from everywhere to go to,” he said. “They have artistic, interesting architecture; they have things to do; and they have a symphony orchestra and a ballet. The kind of cities that don’t have those things, people don’t come do business in them. It’s that simple.”
Folds, 49, has become one of pop music’s foremost advocates for classical musicianship and training — maybe not the role we would’ve expected when his brainy piano-pop trio Ben Folds Five broke through in the mid-’90s, positioning Folds to become a modern incarnation of Billy Joel or Randy Newman. But it’s a role he’s embraced wholeheartedly. In recent years, Folds has let his musical muse meander to the worlds of a cappella and symphonic collaborations, including a Tampa performance with the Florida Orchestra in 2014. (“Good orchestra,” he recalls.)
Folds’ latest project is So There, a joint album with the chamber-pop ensemble yMusic, with whom he’ll perform at the Mahaffey Theater on April 20 (click here for details). Before the show, he talked to us about fine arts, jam bands and Hamilton. Here are excerpts.
I don’t know how many people know that you actually attended music school in Miami. Do you have many musical memories from your time in Florida?
I’ve got a couple of pretty crazy Miami moments of throwing my drums in a lake, which is something that apparently students talk about a lot now. I hadn’t really been out of the state of North Carolina, to speak of, when I went to the University of Miami. Suddenly it’s hot, there’s palm trees, and it’s a totally different vibe. It’s seriously another part of the country. It’s beyond the South. It’s something else.
Whenever a new subject catches your fancy, whether it’s classical music or a cappella or Broadway musicals, what’s your process for investigating it? How do you immerse yourself in a world?
I don’t think it needs a process. If you’re interested in something, you’re just drawn to it. There might be chores around the house that you’re supposed to be doing, and suddenly you find yourself instead thumbing through YouTube videos or making a phone call. The things that we’re interested in, it’s no problem to do them, and the general things that we ought to be doing in life — flossing our teeth, calling our mother on her birthday, s--- like that — can go into a list. To me, the following of an interest is the most important thing in a music career. You’ll be interested in something; don’t question it. Just go towards it.
You improvise with orchestras during your symphonic piece Rock this B----. Did you ever fall in with the jam-band crowd, or get inspired to noodle around with a band like Phish?
No, because I’m not that interested in that sort of noodling. The difference with the Rock this B---- moments, even with an orchestra, is it’s a little improvisation, but it’s mostly really fast composition and orchestration. It’s not like, Okay, everyone play! The improvisation I’m best at is almost like what someone might call freestyling. That’s quite different from, We’re going to play over these four chords, and see what kind of experience we have.
I had a particularly not-interesting one the other night. It was just, in my opinion, a piece of crap. It was terrible. But there was a whole run of ones I’d done in the U.K., and they’re all solid pieces. They’re all solid songs. You wouldn’t believe that they were improvised, or created in the moment. When I hit that, that’s what I’m really interested in.
What you’re describing sounds more like longform improv comedy, where you don’t quite know what the story is going to be, but you find the direction and everybody moves in that direction together. There’s a beginning and an end, as opposed to something open-ended.
Noodling around, I don’t know how long that keeps my interest. I remember playing with a pretty popular jam band one night, just sitting in, and it was a different world. I had a hit on the radio at the time, and maybe they weren’t expecting that I had any chops. So when I played some Miles Davis with them, I think the band and the audience were suddenly like, Oh, man, dude can jam! Yes, I can jam! I might have been good at that moment, but the next night I probably wouldn’t have been, and each night after it, I’d probably get worse and worse.
It’s funny, because the last real heavy, long-ass jam moment I can think of was actually with John Mayer. He was sitting cross-legged on top of my piano with my synth, and he had I think a cigar. (laughs) And he was jamming his ass off. We spent maybe 20 minutes on this thing, going back and forth. I enjoyed that. I don’t think the next night I would’ve enjoyed that. Or the night after that.
Kendrick Lamar did a show with the National Symphony Orchestra. Have you encouraged other pop artists to take up what you’re doing and try something like that?
Yeah. I emailed some with Kendrick about that, in fact. I was lobbying him to listen to a couple of very specific classical artists that are pushing it. What he did with the jazz sax guy, (Kamasi) Washington, it’s great — it’s just this monstrous resonance; it’s so good. He could be doing something with Yuja Wang; there are acts I can see him collaborating with.
But I do bring it up for pop musicians, the ones that are my friends. I feel like I’m on the verge of having Regina Spektor talked into composing arias, because she grew up with classical music in that very Russian upbringing. I grew up playing in orchestras, but it was more of a school thing. Taught me a lot, but I didn’t come in with her reverence for it, because I wasn’t beaten on the back of the hand while I was practicing.
What’s your involvement going to be on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton mixtape?
It was Regina’s thing, and I came in and sang some. I think we probably spent a total of two hours doing some vocal stuff, and the next four hours, drinking and talking s---. (laughs) But she’s so good, and the track is f---ing great. I’m going to see the show this Sunday, actually.
-- Jay Cridlin