Songs for Silverman (Epic)
An interview with Ben Folds
By Tim Den
After wetting our appetites with three EPs and a collaborative band (The Bens, with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller), the full-length we’ve long been waiting for has finally arrived. Songs for Silverman is Ben Folds’ “grown up” record: A statement of independence, a declaration that he no longer needs to live up to anyone’s expectations. You expected a Rockin’ the Suburbs sequel? You ain’t gettin’ one. You expected a piano-bashing ruckus? Too bad. Songs for Silverman slowly unfurls at a steady, introspective pace, building subtlety upon subtlety in ripples of nuanced melodic play. Some have compared it to The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, but it’s much more sturdy and honed in. The tempos and the mood might echo “Missing the War” instead of “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” but place your attention in the slippery turn of phrase (lyrically and melodically) and you shall be rewarded. This is a record you need to devote time to, despite its accessible appearance.
And although it’s not without faults (single “Landed” rips a bit of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain;” a remake of “Give Judy My Notice” feels regimented and stiff; the piano lick after the third line in the chorus of opener “Bastard” reminds me so much of Blossom’s theme song that I cringe every time), Songs for Silverman is as involved as a piano pop record can get without losing catchiness. Funny (but not funny funny) chord changes, irregular meters, and lyrics that are a shade darker than the usual Folds cannon paint this collection one for the winter. It might not be for everyone, but for those who’ve always felt the melancholy beneath Folds’ bright hooks, it’s simply wonderful.
You’re living in Australia these days, right?
Yeah, I just came from there. I’m there about three months out of the year, the other times I’m in Nashville. I’m in America a lot because I’m working, but soon, I’m going to spend an entire year in Australia.
I ask because your bio mentions that you found your current bandmates (bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson) “down the street from where you live.” Are they Australian?
No, Lindsay is British and Jared is American.
What’s your musical life like in Australia? Is it pretty nonexistent? No one to jam with?
Yeah, pretty much, but I’ve never really “jammed” when I’m not writing songs anyway. I tend to write songs on my own and then bring them to the band.
Was that how the ’Five worked as well? How did you find those guys?
I was living in New York at the time, and I decided that I was going to get serious about my music. Up until then, I’d been really slack about it. At age 27 (no less). I really wanted a certain kind of bassist and a certain kind of drummer, and I knew I wasn’t going to find those kinds of players in a big town like New York. So I moved down to North Carolina, found those guys, and it came together pretty quickly.
That’s interesting, since the ’Five always seemed like three close friends who just happened to start a band together.
No, we didn’t know each other at all, actually. But we went from strangers to practically living out of each other’s pockets… which contributed to the band’s demise, I think.
The bio says you’d recorded the entire album yourself, and then scrapped it when you found the new guys?
No, I didn’t record the whole album… That’s a mis-something in the bio. I recorded a few songs, but they were basically demos. After I did the three EPs (Sunny 16, Speed Graphic, and Super D, all released on Folds’ own Attacked by Plastic imprint post-Rockin’ the Suburbs), I had a ton of songs leftover, and I called the label and said “hey, uh, I have an album ready.” But after listening to them, I felt that the album deserved more than scraps from the EPs. So I started writing new songs and found Jared and Lindsay.
It’s hard when you record everything yourself, because a lot of the subtleties are lost. Instead of shades of grey, all I had was a grey mush.
Do you mean that, because you’re writing all the songs and playing all the instruments, you’re too close to it all and too burnt out to notice the dynamics?
It’s more like… when you’re recording the drums, you’re only listening to the drums. And then when you record other instruments, you don’t sense the chemistry between me, me, and me until the song is almost finished. And then if you notice something, and you’re like “fuck, I gotta start all over again.” I’d already gone through that once with Rockin’ the Suburbs, and it made for a really slick album. With this one, I wanted it to be more subtle, more about the songs and not the singing or the piano playing. It needed the subtleties between individual players.
I’ve read a review or two that mentioned Songs for Silverman doesn’t “rock” as much, which is completely ridiculous because good songs aren’t only about “rocking.” They’re about nuance and character; whether or not they’re eventful and crafted…
Yeah, I can see how – to some people – “rocking” can be important. You’re always judged by your past. And to those people, I can see how they’d think this album is kinda “flatline.” But with this album, I didn’t feel the need to be jokey or loud for loud’s sake. I wanted the songs to speak naturally. I think the lyrics hold a lot of weight on their own and didn’t need to be shouted or musically accentuated. I know some people will probably look at the title “Jesusland” and think “oh my god, he’s gonna go OFF!” But musically, I didn’t have to. It says exactly what it needs to say. There are a lot of subtleties and dynamics in the songs, but in the seams. And because the seams aren’t showing, you gotta look for them and listen carefully.
There were times when I walked away with my fingers bloody from playing these songs. Just because they sound “easy” doesn’t mean they are. I used to be really good at playing stuff that sounded more difficult than it really was, and I was like “fuck yeah, people dig my shit!” But as I said, I wanted this album to be about the songs… I felt like I no longer needed gimmicks. I don’t have to be a clown if I don’t feel like it.
One of my goals was to be able to wear a white tee shirt, play acoustic piano on stage, and have it ROCK. I feel like I’ve done that and taken it as far as I can.
About a week ago, when I started doing press for the album, I got really nervous. I started thinking “Ugh, I should’ve put those two songs on there to make it a bit more upbeat” or “I should’ve sung that one line/song with more power.” But then I realized that I went into this album knowing exactly what I wanted. And you can’t bother with what people are going to pick at because you’ll never win that way.
But you know, now I just want to get back into the studio and just bang the shit out of everything. (laughs)