Ben Folds Five is back together and recording new material after a 12-year hiatus. "I think we all just had to live some," says Folds, who released 5 solo albums while the band was taking a break. But the music industry has also changed a lot since he was recording with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee — so much so that the band decided to release the as-yet-unnamed album on their own, without a label. I recently spoke with Folds about the process of making the album, his faithful fans and his embrace of social media to promote his music.
What about right now made it more realistic for you guys to get back together to start creating again?
I think we all just had to live some. When we started making the record and were listening to what was happening, we all knew we couldn't have made that kind of record without that insanely drawn out break. You know, 12 years between records is a pretty big deal. That time allowed me to make the records I had to make. I wrote stuff I would have never written with the band. By the time we came back together, I felt like I had done my thing. I think that's important because I wouldn't want to be making a record and thinking in the back of my head, "Man, I'd like this set to an orchestra" or, "I could do this with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller" or, "I'd like to do this with Nick Hornby."
We maybe could have made four or five albums between then and now, and they probably would have been variations on things I was writing anyway. But this one's pretty special, and sometimes that's just obvious when you're making a record. It seems effortless. It's the first time I can ever remember thinking to myself or even asking, "Should we…go back in there and turn this down some?" I don't think its going to translate as insane, out in the real world. I think its just going to be an energetic record.
Was it always the plan to go without the supervision of a label?
We knew we wanted to make a record, and we somehow didn't find ourselves going to find a record deal first. I have a studio, and we just just went in there and I paid for what I needed to pay for, because it still costs money to make a record. But we did that without a record company and without discussing it. I said, don't worry about it, I've got it, make the record and then we'll figure it out. I think we probably all assumed we were going to make the record and then go to labels, shop around, and get the highest bid, that sort of thing. Then we didn't do that! We were making this record and I think all of us partially dreading that part of the process. But at this point in my life, I have nothing against record labels. I'm actually really bummed to see them all having to struggle. I think the people left in the business are talented and passionate, but they're not getting paid that much. So we never had that revolutionary conversation where we said, "Let's just stick it to the man!" He's already 'stuck'. He's already down on one knee now, so it's not nice to stick him any further. And he may yet rise again from the douchey ashes. But we have this little window where we can make the record and promote it the way we like. I've been on Twitter for a couple of years and I have a good half-million followers. Why not just tell them the record's out? We realized though that repetition was going to be very important in selling the record. Because even though I've been tweeting about it, every day I have a ton of people who are sending tweets and comments saying they had no idea we were putting a record out. So the problem with the promotion idea that we had to begin with is: just because I tweet something out, doesn't mean that half a million people saw it. It probably means that more like 5,000 saw it. So now we're realizing that we have to be very aggressive, because we've taken a big risk here. If we're going to do this without radio and stuff, and if it's gonna work, we have to keep up and ask people to tweet, and retweet the link.
Is that scary for you three? Like jumping into the water not knowing how deep it was?
In a way. We knew it was deep, we just didn't know where it was going — and we still don't. I think we can't lose if we take this as, "We're learning". We made 200 percent of our target and we're fine with that, we'll be fine. We'll be able to pay for everything, producing it, manufacturing the records, all that stuff is going to work out. That may sound very unambitious, but that's really all we need to do. Get out on tour, put our stuff out, and move on. I think the biggest risk would be for a record to come out that some of my biggest fans never know about. I think that is a little scary. Because- that's not nice! Its like, we made this record really for the fan base whose wanted to hear a record for years. It's a bummer if everyone doesn't know about it. It's not widely known, we haven't done a lot of press about it. My intuition is to blog in the middle of the night. We released the single at midnight, I put the announcement up at midnight, during the weekend. That's kind of like asking for nobody to read it. But somehow it feels right, so I'm just going with it.
Let the insomniacs handle the rest.
That's right! Maybe that's actually our new core audience. People that can't sleep and people in Australia.
I came across [fan/ band news site] bff.magicalarmchair.com. Even though it's not officially affiliated with the band, it's been online since 1995 — that's before Google, before a lot of people were even aware of the internet. What was it like having yourselves out there in that way back then, and did you think of it the same way you might now?
We could see it was having an impact. The site was kind of like a news letter at the time, it wasn't all that interactive. Although people would post things and it would come up like once a week or something. It was a different way of doing it, but we became aware that this was some of our first mobilization of fans and it made a big impact on our career. Our audience has always been internet savvy. We have not always been internet savvy, we didn't even have computers. [Bassist] Robert had the first one, some kind of Apple laptop thingy that was shaped like a clam. That was maybe just as the band was breaking up, like 2000. [Drummer] Darren and I didn't have them. I don't think any of use had cell phones, at least when we made the last record none of us had cell phones.
So, since you've already covered Dr. Dre, have you ever consider covering an East Coast rapper?
I kind of didn't want to make a shtick out of it anymore. That's a record I really liked, and I didn't want it to get corny, but that would be a beautiful project. Actually the first group that I was gonna do before we ended up with Dre was Public Enemy.
It was "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man." That was what the melody was intended for but the lyrics to the song were too iambic pentameter-ish. They were fitting so well with the music that they sounded like limericks. But Dre and especially Snoop's style probably doesn't get enough credit these days. He [Snoop] was really a total pioneer with what he was doing with phrasing. Writing music around it, you really appreciate it. You're like "Oh, wow, nice!"
You can get yourself a free single and a full digital download of the album when it's released (and updates on exactly when that will be) by pledging 10 bucks right now. The more you pledge, the more goodies you stand to receive. Plus, follow Ben on Twitter (@BenFolds) to get updates on all of the things written by and about him and the band.