Rock This Bench
He May be a “Dork,” but Prolific Ben Folds is One of America’s Modern Pop Geniuses

By Lee Valentine Smith

“I spin a lot of plates and stay in motion,” writes Ben Folds on his website. The self-described “dork” takes his position as a purveyor of the arts very seriously. Balancing a prolific career of music with his love of photography, the Nashville-based artist is currently touring the country alternating solo and symphonic shows.

For his Symphony Hall performance, the ASO will accompany the quick-witted pianist-singer-songwriter. Leaning on selections from last year’s So There - an ambitious project with YMusic that combines his penchant for sarcastic narratives with challenging chamber pop - the show will also feature at least a couple of movements from his “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra,” an impressive 20-minute suite.

Rising to national prominence in the heyday of “commercial alternative rock in the ‘90s, Folds has released a staggeringly diverse collection of music that rivals the best of Randy Newman, Elvis Costello or Todd Rundgren, all presented with plenty of good-natured snark. By the early 2000’s, his catalog had expanded to include solo albums, TV and film scores and work with a slate of widely-varied collaborators including Nick Hornby, Amanda Palmer and even William≈Shatner.

INsite caught up with Folds by phone for a wide-ranging conversation.

The ‘90s were maligned for years but people are finally respecting a lot of the music and culture of that decade.

Yeah, in retrospect. I mean how many times do I pass high school or college-age kids with a Nirvana t-shirt on, you know? And I can now see how my own band fit into those years but it definitely took a while. Sometimes it seems that the early ‘90s was pretty much a bad version of the ‘80s.

And then Nirvana changed it all.

Certainly. And without even knowing it! They probably had no idea why and still don’t want the credit. But I love to see footage of them playing on, like Top Of The Pops or something, and how ‘80s and cheesed-out everything was. But everything they went on had the aesthetic of the ‘90s when they left. People were redoing their sets to make it grunged-out. They did a thing. They were the movement.

That was a good time for you, crossing over from the indie world to Commercial Alternative playlists in a really big way.

Yeah, and I do believe that was because of Nirvana and a bunch of bands, mostly from the Pacific Northwest. They opened the door. I knew when that door was open we might be able to fit a piano through it.

It was a unique line-up and it worked.

Yeah I think it worked because there was such a sense of unpredictability involved. There was a lot of money in the music business then and people were looking at what might be the next thing. Also, they had enough creativity to know it had to be a little different. Bands like [the Ben Folds Five] were certainly different. Soul Coughing was different. Morphine was very different. So we could play a classic song and within the new context, that became our prism. It takes a village to come up with these things.

You said once that the BFF had a “naughty rhythm section.”

(Laughs) That’s true. No one was doing what they were told. Darren [Jessee] is a classic jazz drummer, but he also understood there was no guitar and we were playing punk rock clubs - so it’s gotta hurt. And I was breaking piano strings so it was a loud, manic, happy thing we were doing. It was essentially sarcastic but positive.

You’re bringing that same sort of mindset to your symphonic shows.

Yeah, with the symphony orchestra, it’s best to humanize the ensemble to fully get it. Sometimes you’d think they were beamed in from the 19th century and that’s not always compelling to people. A lot of the audience may go home and listen to Kendrick Lamar or something. On paper it’s just a symphony orchestra, but you can make a symphony do some disturbing shit. I mean, when a symphony orchestra first played Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring,” there were riots! People got hurt. It was just like what happens in a mosh pit or a political rally gone wrong. This was a symphony orchestra getting paid to play this thing and they’re lookin’ out over their cellos and people were flippin’ the fuck out.

That’s as punk as it gets.

Yeah and that was 1913!

During your shows you veer off into a freeform section fondly known as “Rock This Bitch.” It’s obviously much easier solo or within the trio setting, but is it hard for you to lead an entire orchestra through a completely improvisational piece?

Well it can’t be true improv on their part, because there’s just too many people. I have to freestyle it and then before I get into it too much, I have to realize what the direction is and then dictate the parts to the various sections.

A lot of quick thinking on everyone’s part, in the moment.

It is and it really shows the incredible ears of the orchestra. If I say to the cello section, “Ok here’s your part, it’s two bars,” they’ve got the ears to play it back. People always think of them as being on the page but they can do this, too. For me, I have to keep the score in my head and make sure that all the parts stack up in a certain way. It’s a challenge.

That makes for a great new piece as well as an audio-visual treat for the audience.

Yeah they really get to hear and see how it works. Usually it works out pretty good, but no matter what, the audience gets to see how it all comes together.

Ben Folds plays April 24 at Symphony Hall.

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