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Ben Folds One 

Rockin' the Southern Hemisphere

To Ben Folds, rocking the suburbs isn't anything to scoff at. The Winston-Salem native, best known as the leader of the now-defunct power pop trio Ben Folds Five, recently struck out on his own as a solo artist with the album Rockin' the Suburbs, recorded mostly in his new adopted home of Adelaide, Australia. A confirmed Burt Bacharach fan, Folds doesn't believe that radio play should necessarily be anathema to an artist, especially if said artist is being true to the songs. If the songs suck, well, that's a different story. Folds formed Ben Folds Five in 1994. Whereas most alternative bands of the 90s mined the grunge rock vein until it was bone-dry, the guitar-less trio garnered many fans interested in a nice stiff pop cocktail in the midst of a tasteless, lite-beer alternative music climate. Along with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, the band was equal parts Joe Jackson and punk rock, all tied up with a dry, fifth-year senior brand of indie rock humor. Signed to Epic in 1997, their major label debut Whatever And Ever Amen showcased Folds' oeuvre nicely, featuring the tongue-in-cheek "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," the sentimental "Kate," and "Battle of Who Could Care Less," a nice crystallization of fashionable 90s ennui. Frat boys cussed along with the anthemic "Song For the Dumped." The ballad "Brick," an honest, warts-and-all look at a young couple in crisis, helped the band cross over to a wider audience, though many probably missed the fact that the song was a parable about abortion.

After touring endlessly, Folds and Co. released Naked Baby Photos, a rarities collection, and Folds completed his first solo record (under the nom de rock Fear of Pop). In 1999, the band released the masterpiece The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, a largely un-radio-ready look at Folds' self-proclaimed "redneck past." It was also the last album the band would record, as personality conflicts and musical goals sent the trio packing, and Folds finding his own (yellow brick) road.

Creative Loafing recently chatted with Folds about his new solo work, radio success (or lack thereof), and the perils of being funny. Following is an excerpt.

Creative Loafing: You've said before that most of your audience seems familiar to you ­ that you can see yourself in their spot 10 years ago, that mostly they're there for the right reasons. Do you still feel that now, even as your audience has grown?

Ben Folds: Yeah. I think so. I mean. you've got your occasional dickhead that you can't understand why he's there. (laughs) But yeah, definitely. I think you have to feel like you can be on both sides of it to make any sense, really.

You now live in Adelaide, Australia with your life and kids. How much of a culture shock, musical or otherwise, is that from Chapel Hill?

Basically, Chapel Hill is musically kind of my home, and anywhere else is anywhere else. Anywhere else is me in a vacuum, basically. Australia is not that different, really. It's just that it's not my normal pattern, so it just makes me kind of go off in a cave by myself and write the kind of songs that are coming out of me anyway.

You made it a point to hire a "radio" producer on Rockin' the Suburbs, Ben Grosse, in part because he worked on the Filter record, to quote your bio. How much did the tug-of-war between you and him have to do with how the record sounded?

There was kind of a revealing comment that he made to somebody at the record company about something I wanted. And he made this joke that, "Well, Ben has this funny way of getting whatever it is he wants." And I never thought of that because I'm not an aggressive person, but I guess I don't really settle for anything until it's what I want. So I suppose in his eyes he probably figures that lots of things he didn't want to see happen that I wanted to see happen actually did happen. But it is my record I guess, huh? (laughs) At the same time, it wasn't that much of a tug of war personally, it was just that we come from such different places. And I think for that reason it has to be a complete hybrid of those two worlds. Which is what I wanted, I always wanted to pull those two worlds together more. The organic world and the computer world. The indie rock world and the pop world. I've always wanted to see the mainstream be able to enjoy the kind of music that I like. And most people who come from indie rock don't want to see it the other way. I started off on an indie label and we played punk clubs. And that we weren't really that kind of band I guess was what made the whole thing strange. I think most people that come from that angle don't want to see the mainstream get hold of their music, you know? But I always have. I always thought the Flaming Lips should have a Top 10 record.

There's no crime in being heard, as long as you don't make too many concessions.

No, not at all. But people pull this party line, like the masses don't deserve it or as soon as everyone gets hold of it, it'll all be a big Pepsi commercial song. But I've always wanted to hear that, and I've always wanted to make leaps and stretches to make that happen, and I have to say it almost never works. When I started this album, I was trying to take my songwriting and my ideals and things I wanted to hear and I wanted to filter them through the eyes and ears of a pop music guy. . .a slick producer. To make it so it was something that everyone could listen to.

"Rockin' The Suburbs" is a bit of an ironic hit, taking on the radio climate of today. Is it your take that the only way to really be subversive is to get inside something?

I was going for that, because that's the only way I could imagine getting my music played on the radio. The song was written as a calculated attempt to be played on the radio. It basically worked. I think it could have worked better. I think there were a couple of business hiccups that kept that song from doing as well as I think it should have.

Your songs are different from most of what one hears on the radio for the simple fact you're not afraid to admit you don't always know what you're doing, and that you don't always have the answers.

People are kind of trained to hear songs written from a perspective of strength and a kind of know-it-all stance. There's always some kind of strength. Just to drop your guard and say "fuck, I don't know what's up" or "I screwed up and it's not good. . .it makes me weak" is not a popular point of view to take in a song, because it doesn't sell the artist and it doesn't make people feel great about themselves all the time. But I prefer sometimes to write from that point of view because I think it's real.

Everyone can relate.

Yeah, they should be able to, I would think. But it's not that common in music, believe me. It's not unheard of, it's just not that common. It's not a winning formula. (laughs)

Do you think the humorous aspect of your songs gets too much play in the media? To me, those same songs contain a lot of melancholy and feeling, sometimes more than the "serious" numbers.

Oh, yeah yeah yeah. There's some people that are like "this guy just can't be serious for a second," that kind of vibe.

It's certainly the way a lot of people deal with issues.

Well, that's the way I see it. And that's the way I guess the people that buy into the records and listen to them see it. There's a lot of comedians [who are] into my music. It's a weird thing. . .there's so many stand-up comedians, like famous ones, that come out to gigs. I think it's because they can relate to the humor, but they don't just see the humor. That's the way they communicate. So they're seeing the melancholic side as well. And a lot of people just see things that way. It's like the "laughing at funerals" kind of vibe, it's not funny, it's just that some people do that. Some people make a joke to get out of a pinch. Or they make a joke because they want to avoid the other emotion. But a lot of times the tension that you have as you watch someone try to joke their way out of depression, it speaks more for the depression then if you just said "I was depressed." So I'm OK with that, but it doesn't hit everyone like that. I just wish that the people it didn't hit like that would just shut up. It's true! I've heard it so much: "You just caaan't be serious." You know, I just want to tell them, "You just caaan't shut your mouth." It's just if you don't understand something or if you don't like it, that's fine, just go on to Staind or whatever it is you listen to.

They say laughter is a step away from crying, anyway.

I think it is, yeah. (laughs)

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