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June 2002. By Greg Phillips

Ben FoldsThere aren’t too many performers who can do what US born, Adelaide resident Ben Folds does so incredibly well. On his recent Australian tour it was just Ben, a piano and a few spotlights yet he managed not only to entertain with his ridiculously melodic songs and vibrant piano playing, but also gave totally engrossing performances featuring a wit and storytelling ability others just couldn’t aspire to. The audiences were so engrossed that they complied with Ben’s every whim including a request to participate in intricate three part harmonies. I’m still coming to terms with how a few thousand  strangers with no vocal talent to speak of can sound so heavenly in a matter of seconds. You’ll know what I’m talking about when the live recordings surface. I asked Ben about his current tour when I found him on the end of a mobile phone in a camera shop while shopping with his wife in Sydney’s CBD during a day’s break on his Aussie tour.

You’re playing on your own at the moment, are you enjoying the freedom?
I like it a lot. It’s a great way to do it.

The focus is entirely on you for the whole show, do you ever wish there was a guitar solo or something to take the spotlight off you for a minute?
A few times I have people do a little guest spot with me, which has been nice. But what I don’t miss is the structure. When you are involved with other people invariably you have to deal with structure. I have found that the audience is my partner when I’m playing. They’re singing a lot and I kind of just make it into a big living room. I don’t really feel like the spotlight is on me.

You performed recently with Elton John on his song “The Bitch Is Back”, were you always an Elton John fan?
Absolutely. I think everyone my age is. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. He had a lot to do with inspiring me to want to play piano in rock music. If it hadn’t been him doing it I don’t know who else really was. He kinda made it OK to play the piano if nothing else. The guy’s written some great songs. Watching the show it occurred to me that a lot of emphasis is put on his old songs, I actually think you could strip them all away and he would emerge in a year as an unknown. I just think he is so talented and he’s still viable. He played a great show. I was totally impressed.

Your playing styles are similar.
I think so, although I was watching him, I had a great view the other night. I never really sat around learning Elton John songs, it was the first time I had played an Elton John song. I was watching him play and I thought in some ways he has an opposite style to me. I’m more of a baritone player and he’s more of a tenor. He emphasises the top end of  the piano and has a very articulate way of playing. I’m kind of a bass and drums piano player. I play low and a lot harder. It was really interesting to watch. He’s a better piano player than me.

Are you not a fan of electric keyboards or do you just prefer acoustics?
I’m not a fan of them at all. I like synthesisers. I think Moogs are great. The Nord Lead 2 is great. I don’t like anything that is imitating something else. I don’t think a digital piano is sincere. With synths, there is nothing else making that sound, so I’m into them.

You’ve been playing Khe Sanh on this tour, do you get to hear much Australian music?
Not really, I mean I hear Triple J. I like Ben Lee a lot. That Rocket Science record sounds pretty good to me. Powderfinger write a good rock song. It’s not something I really listen to but they’re good.

With your song writing are you the type of writer who can fiddle with a song over a long period of time or do you like to finish it quickly?
No I put it off. I’ll have the inspiration then I’ll get slack and stop working on it and generally won’t pick it up to finish it until a deadline emerges, then I gotta do it.

So it can be a chore sometimes?
I think writing is a total pain in the arse. I’d much rather take pictures.

How do you document your song writing ideas?
Up in my noodle. My theory was always, and it’s not a good theory but it’s a good slacker way of doing things, that if it’s any good I’ll remember it. Sometime, some place, somehow, it’ll be inspired again and come back up. I think I lose a lot of really inspired stuff but I’ve kind of come to peace with it now. I figure the ones that are meant to come out, fate has it that they come out.

Some musical sequences in your songs wouldn’t be out of place in a Broadway musical, have you considered writing a musical or film score?
Yeah we’re kind of delving into that right now. There are a lot of possibilities. I’m not really sure right now. I would say within the next two years I will probably do a musical. It’s just a matter of do you take it to the stage first and make that commitment or do you do it on film, but then you have the whole competition of getting it into the theatres. We haven’t really decided what the medium will be yet. I think probably the stage, but it’s a lot of work.

Where does that influence come from…your mum and dad?
I don’t know. I’ve always had a theatre thing. I don’t know any plays really. I come from the south and we don’t go out and see plays in the south, they don’t have that down there. I have always liked the idea of putting theatre into pop music, it helps you make a point. I dig it. People think it’s hokey but I like it.

Ben is currently touring America with his solo show. His album Rockin’ The Suburbs is available through Sony Music.

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