Ben Folds talks Chatroulette, the Needle Doctor, the legacy of 'Brick'
Over the years, Folds has moved from playing with Ben Folds Five to collaborating with the likes of William Shatner, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and most recently Nick Hornby for his new album Lonely Avenue. He is no stranger to comedy and playfulness, which has helped him to develop a widely successful live show. Even if he might not always get around to playing the famously fabulous abortion song, it's practically guaranteed that Ben Folds will give a lavishly entertaining performance.
We caught up with Folds recently to talk about Chatrolette, shopping at the Needle Doctor, and the lasting impact of his most famous song.
Gimme Noise: You made a splash on YouTube by incorporating Chatroulette into your performances. Quite hysterical, where did you get this idea? Are you a frequenter of Chatroulette?
Ben Folds: I didn't know anything about it, [until] a week before those two videos were made. Everyone was saying, "I saw you on Chatroulette, on Youtube!" And I didn't know what that was, and in fact, one friend of mine in a rock band, sent me a message that says "Chatroulette, you got me smiling!" And I thought that was like some Cha Roulé, like some French girl he was seeing or something, like he sent the wrong text. Then I realized that it was this cat named Merton and he had glasses that looked like mine, and people thought it was me. And it was funny, I thought it was really, really good.
I thought, well we should confuse people further, and I'll do the same thing, except in front of an audience. So there was a massive screen behind me where everyone could see the Chattoulette. We signed up the day before to see what it was, because we had to get the technical stuff worked out; audio and stuff coming through to the chatters. Then we realized what it was immediately, it was just like two people and a dick, and then two people and a dick. Pretty much the dick to people ratio was pretty impressive. So we did it for three nights, 15 minutes a set per gig. We edited out all the guys with themselves in their hand, and edited out all the technical glitches and what we had left we put up online.
This thing has had over 5,000,000 hits!
Yeah, they have a lot. There is a whole culture of Youtube that I wasn't aware of. Like people take your video, say it's improved or something and put it up on their own site, and then you get millions of hits. So I think someone told me we were about 10,000,000 views between the two.
Can you imagine how many more views you'd have if you kept in the dicks?
[Laughing] Yeah you'd think! I can't tell if that's actually the attraction or not, I think it freaks people out, that whole dick thing. I think the Chatroulette thing is kind of a cool idea, whatever people end up using it for as long as that's what it is... For playing a live show though, because basically I'd have to say to the audience, "We're getting ready to put on some images and we don't know exactly what's going to come on, so if you've got kids... Recently there have been a lot of dicks on it. So if you got a 13-year-old kid that you don't want to see a lot of dicks, I would take him or her out now." So they'd take the kids out and we'd start the video up. We'd sign on, I'm on the piano, I'd put my hood on, the lights go down, they light the audience up just a little bit so that the Chatrouletters can see them, and then boom who do we have first, some guy with a dick in his hand, and so does the next one. So when you finally get someone real everyone's so excited, and then the chatters will next you, and next you again, and then everyone in the audience is like "Awwww!" People get really addicted to it.
You're making me want to go on and try it, but the dick thing... I don't know, kind of freaks me out.
You know it's the kind of person that's on there thinking... I don't know what it is. It makes you feel like you're at some really nasty discotheque in Miami or something. It kind of makes you sad after a while, these people that do stuff like that. Waiting for people to come on, it's not really their face or anything; it's just like an anatomical photograph. It's weird; I think it's a little odd.
How did your Nick Hornby collaboration come about? Whose idea was it to put an author and musician together?
That's a question that has a really long answer to it, and you know it's probably not even that interesting. It's just that we've known each other for a while and we've bounced around a bunch of different ideas, and that just kind of came together over time. So I think it was my idea, but we had talked about doing something like this before.
What's your favorite Nick Hornby book?
Can't avoid High Fidelity, that's really a classic. But I like A Long Way Down a lot, and actually Julia, Naked, it didn't really start out as being one of my favorites, but it's been kind of working its way up the list. Which I think is a good sign; songs and books and movies are kind of like growers.
Do you really shop at Needle Doctor here in Minneapolis? They say good things about you.
I'm looking at a small heap of equipment that I bought from those guys, actually. I bought some turntables and a little pre-amp from them. I like that place, I'm always on the phone with them.
Can you tell me about the meaning behind "Hiroshima"?
That song was supposed to be the most bone-headed, literal account that I could muster. I thought, I'll just say exactly what happened. Which is, I walked to the front of the stage, fell off, got back up on stage, played, there was blood all over the keyboard. The whole thing was exactly as it happened. Then I just kept on with the story exactly as it was. And then they took X-rays of my head, and I was showing people X-rays of my head which was kind of cool. So then that gave me the opportunity to say, "Well if you want to know what's in my head, here's a picture, here's an X-ray."
Are you "Pro-Brick"?
[Laughing] I'd need a political speech writer to answer that question. I mean I still like the song, we don't play it all that much. We'll wheel it out about once every 10 shows. But actually, someone was just asking me the other day if Christians were ever on my heels kinda biting me about that song. The answer's no, I seem to have a lot of Christian fans, despite the fact that I have a song about abortion. The thing about the song is it doesn't really take a stand about anything; it just paints a picture that's not political. So I think that that worked the way that I intended it to, which is exactly that. -- when that song came out, I don't know if there were any songs at all that approached the subject, and this barely did. But it did so in a way that if you were a pro-lifer you could show someone the song and go, "see how much sadness this has caused." And if you were a pro-choicer you could play the song to show the other side of it as well. So I think it pinpoints itself pretty well when you needed it to. So I'm pro, I guess. Yeah, I'm pro-brick, I'm all for bricks.
I didn't really want to bring it up, because I would imagine you get asked about it in just about every interview...
The truth is, although most of the people that interview me have heard the song, not all of them came in on this song. Most of them, if they're under the age of 30, which a lot of people that interview are, they might not understand that that was actually as much of a commercial success as it was. By the college age -- because I play a lot of colleges -- you play that song and it doesn't stick out as the song that was the hit. Actually I think "Bitches Ain't Shit" is the one that sticks out, because that's the one that they learned first.
It kind of surprises me how some people react when I bring up "Brick," like it was under-the-radar. I just keep thinking, where the hell were you in the '90s?!
Yeah, if you were listening to the radio in that era, or watching MTV then yeah. But it doesn't take anytime at all for the next generation (and the next generations just means kids' older brothers, older brothers and sisters), they move through and pretty soon seven years later you literally have an entirely different crowd. The people that were listening to you five years ago, they've moved on, they have better things to do -- they're doing other things. And then their little brothers and little sisters move in, and they don't know the songs, they don't know "Brick." If I play something from the first two albums, it gets a hearty sense of applause from a certain part of the audience that recognizes it as the oldies, while some of the kids in the audience think the first record I made was Rocking the Suburbs. It is an interesting path trajectory through songs.
BEN FOLDS plays with Street Corner Symphony this SUNDAY, JANUARY 23, at FIRST AVENUE. 18+. $35. 6:30 p.m.