Originally published by PopMatters on October 14, 2010
At every possible turn, superproducer Mark Ronson has talked up his work on the forthcoming Duran Duran album in the press. It’s as though he’s being paid by the word, but listening to his own new album, Record Collection, it’s obvious Ronson is really more of a fan than even he’s admitted.
Ronson is a music nerd through and through, and he’s put himself in a position through his production success with artists like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen to field his own fantasy team when he puts together his own albums. On Record Collection, Ronson’s third solo effort, the selection is as diverse as your own actual record collection, with on-paper options that seem incongruous until they’re flowing through your speakers.
Ronson’s last album, Version, was primarily comprised of covers of indie hits past and present filtered through a retro-soul aesthetic. It worked if you’re into that sort of thing, but not everyone was, and Ronson has confessed to hearing from humorless fans of the Smiths, whose “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” sung by Daniel Merriweather sat alongside covers of songs by Radiohead, the Jam, Kaiser Chiefs, the Zutons, and…err…Britney Spears.
It’s hard to understand what it is about Ronson that irritates his critics. Perhaps it’s his ability to make mixtapes with real people, or his increasingly skinny ties and lapels, each more perfectly crafted than the last. But even though he probably sleeps on a pile of money Scrooge McDuck would pop his buttons over, Ronson really is a lot like those of us who’ve found themselves worryingly bordering on obsessed over a single song, or digging through digital or physical archives to find the next two-and-a-half minutes of aural bliss. Love him or loathe him, Ronson is a fellow music nerd, and Record Collection proves it.
Much has been made of Ronson’s cultural shift between his last album and his new one, though it’s really nothing more than trading in one row of instruments for another. The beats, for better or worse, are pretty much the same. Three years ago, Ronson was really into horns, and now—thanks to Nick Rhodes, apparently—he’s into synthesizers.
Here’s a confession of my own: Like Ronson, I’m a huge Duran Duran fan. Like Ronson, my tonsorial history has seen ozone-destroying forays into John Taylor-aping highs and lows, and my shoes were once so pointy I could have auditioned for the part of Rosa Klebb in a splashy dinner theater performance of From Russia with Love. And like Ronson, I never gave up on Duran Duran, even when they weren’t cool. And, let’s face it, some people never thought Duran Duran was cool.
But Mark Ronson did, and he’s spent the better part of the last couple of years flouting it to the world. Never mind the synthesizers, he’s even got contributions from Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes on Record Collection, the former singing the most honest thing he’s sung in the past 20 years on the chorus album’s title track: “I only want to be in your record collection.”
Ronson’s true gift, at least on his own records, is having an innate alchemist’s understanding of what’s going to work well in any given situation, no matter how patently ridiculous it might appear at first glance. It’s why lead single “Bang Bang Bang” features Q-Tip and MNDR, or why Le Bon is paired up with Wiley, or why Boy George sings alongside Andrew Wyatt.
It’s not all ‘80s futuristic, though: “You Gave Me Nothing” is a synth-heavy nod to the his/her response of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, with vocals by Wyatt and Ronson’s latest female muse, Rose Elinor Dougall. Dougall, former singer for the Pipettes, also appears on the Afrobeat/synthpop album track “Hey Boy” and closer “The Night Last Night”. The most curious track is possibly “Glass Mountain Trust,” featuring vocals by D’Angelo on which the reclusive crooner sounds more Cee-Lo than “Brown Sugar.”
As on Ronson’s last album, Record Collection is sometimes bogged down by interesting but ultimately pointless brief instrumental interludes. But like anyone’s record collection, Record Collection has more hits than misses. It’s future pop with a foot firmly in the past.
Originally published by PopMatters on October 1, 2010
There’s been some chatter on the internet that the Black Angels’ move to the newly resurrected Blue Horizon label is tantamount to selling out, a tiresome complaint that was as old as dirt way back when Mark Perry stopped sniffin’ glue long enough to bitch about the Clash signing to CBS Records.
In the case of the splendid new album by Austin’s Black Angels,Phosphene Dream, maybe it was a gripe rendered before the opening number even spun. Fair enough, because over two prior albums of fantastically schlocky psychedelic drone, the Black Angels and brevity weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Yet the longest track on Phopshene Dream is the swirling “Yellow Elevator #2”, which clocks in at just under five minutes. For the Ramones or (early) Wire, that’s a marathon, but for a band with no less than three songs at over seven minutes on their sophomore effort (Directions to See a Ghost), it crosses the finish line quicker than Usain Bolt.
But while Phosphene Dream clocks in at a little over half an hour, the 10 songs on the album proper (there’s a variety of bonus tracks from different sources) hit like an earthquake, replete with unsettling aftershocks. That the lengthy instrumental passages have been condensed on record may be a turnoff to some of the Black Angels most ardent fans, but it’s unlikely they’re ready to give up the ghost on stage.
The new clipped aesthetic is the band’s primary departure from its signature sound, and while those who like to hear their menace ramble on for ages might have hard time adjusting, the core elements of what makes the Black Angels so intriguing are still undeniably in the mix.
The first step is admitting there’s never been anything particularly revelatory about the Black Angels. Even their name is a nod to rock’s dark history, a nod to the Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, a grim little number even by Lou Reed’s decayed standards. They’ve appeared on Northern Star Records’ “Psychedelica” compilations and host their own Psych-Fest in Austin. Even Alex Maas’ vocals sound like Grace Slick doing a Jim Morrison impression.
But even if the Black Angels don’t necessarily cover any new territory, they lay it to waste with brain-scrambling guitars that come off like the lost soundtrack to a drive-in double feature of biker and slasher flicks. Dirty shit goes down to the music of the Black Angels. The music doesn’t embrace you as much as it props you up while the world spins into oblivion.
Phosphene Dream feels like a natural progression from earlier efforts, especially the album’s first two tracks, “Bad Vibrations” and “Haunting at 1300 McKinley”. The guitars still sound as though they’re howling from across a dark heavy woods one minute, then suddenly exploding in your personal space the next. It’s all very ominous and beautiful. But three songs in, something strange happens. “Yellow Elevator #2” is clearly the Black Angels with its fun house on the edge of the abyss feel, but goddamn if you don’t want to shake your ass on the ride. “Sunday Afternoon” is even more of a rave-up, something prior marches through the sludge might have left one wholly unprepared for.
While the band’s new focus is admirable, it doesn’t always feel like the right choice. “Telephone”, the album’s lead single, is an organ-and-guitar fuelled frenzy that lasts just two minutes. A recent appearance on Late Show with David Letterman saw the band add an extra minute of soaring harmonies, leading to a satisfying end. It’s a minor gripe, especially when Phosphene Dream is such a delight; but the addition of this finish on the album version of the song might have just about made it perfect.
Originally published by PopMatters on September 29, 2010
They've fought a volcano to tour North America, so the very least you could do is turn out to hear first wave British shoegaze legends Chapterhouse bend nature to its will with howling guitars. Chapterhouse begins its brief journey on Friday, October 1. It may prove to be the group’s final act.
Because fame is fickle, especially in Great Britain, Chapterhouse was swept up in the early ‘90s as darlings of “the scene that celebrates itself” before being unceremoniously dismissed as pointy-headed navel contemplators by a hyperbolic media suddenly in thrall to Britpop.
History has been far kinder to Chapterhouse, whose legacy has survived thanks to a stellar debut (Whirlpool), a genre-defying sophomore effort (Blood Music), and an expansive career retrospective which left its fans longing for more. With their North American tour looming, Andrew Sherriff and Stephen Patman took the time to speak to PopMatters.
“Bar another volcano, we’ll be there,” says Sherriff, joking about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which left Patman stranded in Japan back in May just as the band was meant to begin the tour it is finally able to undertake.
“Although we were psyched up and really wanted to come out and do the shows, we were also quite tired, because there was an intense period where we had the Japan tour and the Scala gig in London as well,” Sherriff said. “It was quite full on, and in a way we had more time to be relaxed for this tour. We’ve been taking full day rehearsals rather than evening rehearsals, and we feel that we’re in a better state to cope with this now.”
The break allowed the band’s members to regroup and to reschedule their postponed dates, which features electronic artist Ulrich Schnauss at each of the seven shows, along with a different support act every stop along the way. The tour may not allow Chapterhouse to reach all its fans, but that it’s happening at all is something of a minor miracle.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve got to try to cram as many shows into a limited amount of time, and we don’t really have much flexibility there,” Patman says. “What’s there is set in stone. We’ve been getting a lot of offers to extend things out a little bit, but we’ve got to keep it pretty tight.”
Chapterhouse was formed in the late ‘80s by guitarist/vocalists Sherriff and Patman, along with guitarist Simon Rowe, drummer Ashley Bates and bass guitarist Jon Curtis. Following a tour with Spacemen 3, Curtis was replaced by Russell Barrett, and the band began releasing what have now come to be regarded as seminal EPs. Right around the time My Bloody Valentine first blended wall-of-sound guitars and dance beats with the Glider EP, Chapterhouse released “Falling Down” on the FreefallEP, followed later by “Pearl”, a swirling masterpiece built around samples of Led Zeppelin and Schoolly D.
Whirlpool (1991) is rightly considered the quintessential Chapterhouse release, and the standalone “Mesmerise” single which followed later the same year was cut from the same mid-tempo cloth as “Pearl”. While the band’s music to this point often integrated dance rhythms into the effects-laden shoegaze aesthetic, Blood Music’s club sound was something of a surprise. Though Sherriff and Patman express disappointment in how much of the completed album was mixed, it’s still a worthy follow-up to their debut full-length.
“We look back at the production of Blood Music and are not particularly happy with the way it was produced,” says Sherriff. “Basically nearly every track had a different producer on it.”
Those issues are being put to bed on tour.
“We’re not doing a great deal of material from Blood Music, but the tracks we are doing are addressing them in the way we wanted to do them at the time”, says Patman. “In all honesty, we were behind what was happening at the time, and we felt it was a movement and were into those things. But there was a lot of input from various things that might have driven us down certain routes, and it got a little bit overblown, the production just made it a little bit too bombastic. The nice thing about the place we’re in now is that we’re able to address the songs that we’re still proud of and present them in a way that we felt they should have sounded then.”
If not for Schnauss, Chapterhouse might not have reunited at all. The German musician has cited the band—and Blood Music in particular—as an influence on his own sound, and after covering the album’s epic closer, asked the band to perform the song with him at the 2008 Truck Festival in England.
“This was actually prior to us even considering reuniting,” Patman says. “Ulrich was doing a cover version of ‘Love Forever’ for a compilation. We got to know him, I’m not even sure how, but we kind of talked about possibly helping out with vocals and guitar on that. He put together the track and then we got together in the studio. Andy did some vocals and I did some guitar, and it kind of became part of the mix. And when the Truck Festival came along, Ulrich was playing and the guys putting it together, Sonic Cathedral, asked if we’d like to just go on at the end of the night and play that track as a bit of a collaboration. Since it was a no pressure thing, it didn’t really involve us doing much except for just working the song out a bit. We asked Simon (Rowe) if he wanted to come out, too. We just did it really as a one-off thing, and it wasn’t for another year or more before we were officially approached by Club AC30, who were a label and club over in London, who I suppose are focused on the whole Nu-Gaze thing, if you want to call it that.”
Club AC30, which in a sense celebrates the scene that celebrated itself, isn’t just a club night designed to bring the ethereal sounds of shoegaze into the present, it’s also a record label which profiles contemporary bands who work within the genre, like Exit Calm. Through Schnauss, Club AC30 forged a relationship with Chapterhouse, which led to the band’s first gig—during the Reverence festival in London—and the tour that was cut short by a volcano earlier this year.
“Even though we’ve been asked quite frequently over the years to reform, we’ve kind of really not had any particular drive to do it,” Patman says. “We figured we’d leave it all in the past. We’re all still really good friends, but it wasn’t something we’d really considered all that seriously. Yet when we were offered this, we thought it could be fun. If we could put together a Japanese, American tour and just basically have some good experiences out of it again, we just thought we’d give it a try.”
“We kind of basically decided that we would only play the ICA [London] if we did Japan and America as well to make it worthwhile all the rehearsing,” Sherriff adds. “We always said the only way we would reform is if we got to play Tokyo, New York, L.A., Chicago, those sorts of places. Not Hull.”
Sherriff says the band is playing together again in Chapterhouse for all the right reasons.
“We’re not trying to sell anything, we’re not trying to sell our egos,” Sherriff says. “We’re just out for the pleasure of playing again. And also, in the climate of so many new bands at the moment kind of embracing what we were doing back then, and also citing us as an influence, it seemed like a really good climate that if we were going to do this to do it now. We’ve all remained great friends, so to go back to something we enjoyed so much felt really good. It affirmed it was something that we should do just purely for the life experience.”
“We can do what the fuck we want,” he says. “The whole machinery of selling records means there’s a label behind you pushing you in certain areas. And that was an area of the band that we felt very confined by, and were pushed into bad decision-making. If anything, this makes it possible for us to do it exactly how it should have been done in the first place. And also we’ve gained a lot of years in musical experience. We’ve all been working in music since, and we’re in such a far better place.”
After the dissolution of Chapterhouse, the band’s members moved into different musical areas, with Sherriff, Patman, and Bates currently working in a team of four composers writing music for film and television. Bates is also a member of Tunng, while Rowe is a founding member of Mojave 3, something of a shoegaze supergroup with Neil Halstead and Rachel Gowsell of Slowdive.
Because they all remained friends, initial rehearsals for the Chapterhouse reunion went smoothly. And the time apart also allowed the band to bring its equipment into the 21st century along with its music.
“We had to actually buy [guitar pedals] again,” said Sherriff. “We’ve sold them or moved on. Well, I will say now that there’s a lot of what are called boutique pedals that weren’t available back then which sound really good. Back then we were kind of using a lot of digital multi-effects. We wanted this time for it to be a bit more like we initially wanted Chapterhouse to be. The set’s going to be mostly live. There’s a couple of tracks—“Pearl” obviously, and “Love Forver” that use sequencing, but the rest of them are completely live. We wanted to have more pedals rather than sequenced up multi-processors.”
“A lot of the sounds from back in the day for the band came from two specific multi-effects processors that came out,” Patman continues. “You kind of plugged your guitar through it and you had a lot of scope. But they were quite synthetic, and we kind of wanted to go back to basics and have a guitar plugged into some pedals plugged into an amp, and try and recreate what we were doing back then, but with much more rudimentary equipment. Like Andy said, there’s a lot more stuff out there that you can buy. Back in the early ‘90s it was pretty slim. You could buy your heavy metal pedal or your wah, but there’s so much more available to do that. We’ve kind of heavied stuff up a bit, made it more raw. Pressure from the label was constantly to keep things accessible, and it kind of drove us down a route where we had to clean ourselves up. We’ve kind of gone back to our roots and are doing it with a sense of a band just kicking it in a room.”
The live shows will serve as a celebration of the music of Chapterhouse, a band which like so many before and since saw its support in the press suddenly withdrawn in favor of a new scene.
“The press was going through a phase at that time, especially in the UK,” says Sherriff. “It was a transition in music, and there wasn’t anything happening in the mainstream of any consequence. There were a few bands doing things in the underground who were beginning to cross over, but there was a lot of pressure for journalists to kind of find the next big thing, and they jumped on a few bands thinking that might be the case. The shoegaze genre really didn’t cross over into the mainstream, and I think a lot of journalists were disappointed by that, so they reacted against it. But the English music press is notorious for that.”
Patman says the band’s fans knew better than to buy how they were presented in the tabloid music press.
“I think the people who came to see us live and bought the records realized that we were nothing like what the press portrayed us to be,” he says. “That was almost a caricature that suited them. And their motives for doing that, I don’t know. But we weren’t the band that represented shoegaze the most. We were quite rocky compared to some of those bands, and dancey as well. But I think we suited their purpose more than some of the other bands, so that’s what happened.”
The future of Chapterhouse is uncertain, though new incidental music is being created as part of a forthcoming DVD about the reunion tour. The tour, which begins on Friday, October 1 at Lincoln Hall in Chicago and finishes at Mezzanine in San Francisco on Tuesday, October 9, also includes dates in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, Toronto, and Los Angeles.
“We’ve always treated this as a one-off thing,” says Sherriff. “It’s very unlikely that we’ll be returning to the States. If something came along that seemed like it would be fun, we might do it. But we’ve got no plans to do this any longer.”
The Rownderbout compilation, a highly-coveted two-disc set released by Dedicated in 1994, either sets the record straight or serves as a reminder to Chapterhouse about what the band might eventually do should it decide to record again.
“It’s odd really, because [Rownderbout] was put together without our knowledge, and the first thing I heard about it was when some guy mentioned it to me in a pub, and I was like, ‘Oh really?’ because we’d split up by then,” Patman says. “The one thing it did, we were writing a lot of material in the lead in to splitting up, and we ended up with a lot of songs which the label was not releasing because they wanted to have a hit single, and we were just not that type of band. And a lot of that ended up on Rownderbout, and that represents that side of us more.”
Sherriff sees some of those demos and unreleased tracks as a blueprint for where Chapterhouse not only might have once gone, but could possibly go one day in the future.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently,” he says. “But the downside is that we just haven’t had enough time really. To do these tours, we’ve actually taken them as holiday from work, and we’ve been doing a lot of rehearsals in the evening or at the weekend, which means we’re not getting to see the families and so on. It’s unlikely that we’ll be reforming as a band, but it would be nice to record some new stuff. We’ve always been intending to release a record that had some of the music that we made between Whirlpool and Blood Music, some demos, and it would be nice to re-address a couple of the songs on Blood Music and other periods that we felt weren’t recorded properly.”
Originally published by PopMatters on September 29, 2010
Ben Folds is a singer-songwriter, and in many ways is sort of a bridge between the first generation who bore the title from decades ago by virtue of his innate knack for killer pop hooks and contemporary music fans who value a quick wit as part of the big picture. Folds, a celebrated lyricist, took time out of his busy schedule to chat with PopMatters about Lonely Avenue, a collaboration between himself and author Nick Hornby. This unique album saw Folds write music around the e-mailed lyrics of Hornby. The end result—which took 18 months from conception to completion—is terrific pop music, with the co-conspirators’ fondness for cleverness very much at the fore.
Folds, a supremely gregarious interviewee, talked about how the album came together, what fans who come to the shows might expect to see and hear, and some of the other musical endeavors on his very full dance card.
I’ve had a number of listens to the album, and I’m really enjoying it.
Thank you. That’s always nicer than, “I’ve heard your album, and I enjoyed it.” It implies it’s never going to be heard again.
So, you and Nick Hornby kind of talked this project over during dinner and it actually came to fruition. Is this the first time in the history of the world that two friends have talked over a scheme over dinner and it actually came through?
It could be. We were a little bit underway by the time said dinner occurred, so we sort of knew we were going do this for a while. We had discussed doing it, but it was just a matter of nailing it shut and having some resolve to do it. It’s so easy to say, “We’re going to do it,” and it never happens. I think the first time we sort of discussed it was years ago, sometime around the William Shatner record [2004’s Has Been], but you look up and five years are gone. We originally were going to make the record in three days, that was kind of the original idea. But of course that theory didn’t pan out. It took us 18 months with touring and Nick’s collecting awards and movies and all the things he had to do.
Certainly you’ve had your fair share of accolades as well. Are the two of you going to pick up some awards for this album?
I always joke that I kind of stop the awards and break people’s winning streaks. We did this album to try to do something unique in our careers at a time where we could afford to not really be attached to the outcome, if that makes any sense. We would be very happy if anyone has anything nice to say about our record, but we had the luxury I think to, you know, let this one be what it was going to be.
Was there a topic where you went to Nick ahead of time and said, “Don’t give me anything about that”?
No, there were no rules or real direction. I think I said one time that I would really enjoy hearing what you happen to be thinking about on that day or moment as opposed to broader topics. Not that we had too much of that, but he was nailing some biggies. But that’s when he turned around with the song “Doc Pomus.” It’s a big topic, but more narrow. It’s something he does in his books all the time, and I just thought it might be a time to do that. Otherwise, no. There wasn’t any real direction of that sort.
Did you get any lyrics that surprised you?
They all read like Nick Hornby books. He’s got such a style, and that’s why people identify with him, I suppose. He’s just got such a thumbprint. Pretty much I would just open the lyrics and think, “Wow, this is cool. I’ve got a mini-Nick Hornby book before anybody. I’m cool!” He’ll nail an angle sometimes in some way you wouldn’t have thought about, but that’s something you expect from him, so that’s not a surprise.
Did he ever tell you after you came back to him with music that maybe you could have done something differently, or maybe that he wasn’t pleased with something you’d done?
There are two songs that come to mind I think that he wasn’t expecting to come back the way they did, but for the most part I think he was thrilled. He would send me an e-mail, and then the very next day, usually the next day, he got an mp3 with some portion of the song, sometimes almost all of it. Of course there was a lot of recording to do, but he was getting a tape of what it was going to be. I think he was really pretty excited most of the time. But there were two songs, one was “Saskia Hamilton,” and I think at first he kind felt was noisy. He didn’t say that really, but I’m perceptive enough and I could tell it really wasn’t his cup of tea. And he didn’t quite understand why I took this sort of almost new wave approach on the song. Later on when he finally met Saskia Hamilton over e-mail, he was very excited because she used to play in a punk band, so suddenly it made sense, even though I didn’t know she’d played in a punk band. I got lucky. Eventually, I think what happened, is the song became easier to listen to as I fleshed it out. And he listened to it, and so we kind of met in the middle, and I think he likes it now.
The other one was “Practical Amanda.” He expected an up-tempo song, which was sort of, he said, “ala ‘Kate,’” which is a song I’d written on a Ben Folds Five record. It was sort of, “Boy, she’s a great girl. She smokes pot, how cool is she?” Nice things to say, but a lot of little jokes. And I took his jokey song and made it very serious, which sort of made the singer sound a little weaker and made it sad. And I think he was a little queasy about that at first, but he realized it was a good song. As Randy Newman says, “You’ve got to run over your grandmother for a good song.”
“Levi Johnson’s Blues” doesn’t really sound like it was written by an Englishman.
He’s good like that, isn’t he?
He seems to have tapped into a very American redneck prototype. There are rednecks all over the world, but he really had a way with the lyric of that one.
Luckily Levi wrote the chorus for us. That came from his MySpace page. That’s what fascinated Nick was the bravado of the MySpace page pitted against this guy who was basically scared out of his wits stuffed into a tuxedo in front of everybody at the Republican National Convention. That’s growing up fast and very publicly, and that’s total Nick territory. He wasn’t going to watch the political part, he would have been more, “Wait a minute! Stop the tape! Who’s that kid back there?”
Is there a single song on the album that really encapsulates what you were trying to do, or maybe accomplished what you tried to do more than any other?
I don’t think so. It takes me a while to know down the road what the classics might wind up being. I find it really easy to play the song “Picture Window” live. I can feel that it translates quickly even though it’s not the simplest thing, it’s fairly wordy, but we got it right in a way I think both of us are comfortable with. For us to accomplish that at the same time as the backstory, the subtleties and harmonic changes. We do a lot of thinking, the both of us, and it should make us happy that this song, despite the craft and the thinking, moves people and it works. And that’s what we set out to do.
Do you feel as though Lonely Avenue tells a complete story?
If it does, I’m not aware of it. The two things I wanted to do was, one, make it a collection of songs and not a thematic record, but then I wanted it to flow as an album. Now, everyone says they want records to flow as an album, and a lot of people seem to be up in arms about the ability to download one song, or to pick one off a CD quickly. I’m not fussed about that, because I think that we don’t always make albums. Sometimes you make songs. This one I wanted to make an album, because I feel that you’re going to get ... it’s respect, if nothing else. When you read Nick’s books, you sit down and you read them. You don’t just pick a sentence out of the middle of a chapter. And I wanted to make the album work for him so that people would feel comfortable sitting down and listening to it like a vinyl record. And, you know, you take a break in the middle, go grab a beer and turn the record over and listen to side two. That’s what I wanted it to be, though not necessarily with a storyline, but a flow that would invite you to the end of the record.
You mentioned how technology has given people maybe a bit more power, and they’re just downloading single tracks sometimes. How much of that have you personally taken advantage of?
I think the best of both worlds eventually happens. I try to make records so they flow as albums, but I’m not too precious about it generally if they pick out their moments and download those. I’m the same way. Sometimes I really love a song, and I don’t really connect with the rest of the record. Or maybe it takes me five or six years before I realize, “Side B is really good.” I listen to something just for the intro.
Was there anything that was left over for B-sides?
We have one B-side, which is called “The Christian Life.” For him it’s a vicar who is just sort of going through the motions these days. He figures it’s not such a bad idea, because he helps old ladies and dispenses cake. But he doesn’t sit around thinking of the afterlife anymore. He goes and watches the ballgame and gets on with his life. One of the lines is, “You don’t have to buy Bruce Willis as an alien.” Why do we have to buy the vicar? That’s what that one is about.
And then we have one other one that I really liked that we didn’t even record because time ran out. It’s called “The Sound of the Life of the Mind.” It’s just about someone’s imagination about the sounds inside their mind, and I really liked that one.
Now that you’ve put it all together, do you feel as though this is maybe something that you’ll do again with Nick, or is this a one-off?
It was such a natural way to work that I would imagine that we’ll probably do it again. When it was finished, I didn’t feel like we’d passed it. It almost felt like we’d just gotten warmed up. It’s a good feeling, because sometimes you get to the finish line on a record, even good records, and you just go, “Thank Christ. I’ll never be able to do this again.” This time around, I couldn’t wait for class to begin again.
Were you conscious of the Minutemen album when you put the cover together? Double Nickels on the Dime is such an iconic album cover, and I wondered if that was in your mind?
Wow, how about that? No, I’m not aware of that album cover. I’m aware of the Minutemen, and what’s the bass player’s name? He’s really funny.
Yeah, Mike Watt. Yeah, I’ve seen him out and about for years. Don’t know what he’s up to these days.
He plays with the Stooges.
How are you going to tour this record? Is Nick going to come out, warm the crowd up?
Juggling? The only thing we managed to do together is the Pomplamoose song (“Things You Think”). We did that after the fact because we both like Pomplamoose. We might perform together on TV once or twice, and we might perform in bookstores. But for the most part, this album will end up reading sort of like one of my albums that happens to have Nick Hornby lyrics. The songs speak really well like they are. Had we written them another way, and that was a possibility when we were discussing the record to begin with, it could have been anything. We were going to have Nick speaking and other singers, but it just ended up being what this is.
How much of the tour is going to be this album and how much will be some of your older songs?
I always kind of do anything. Sometimes I’ll frustrate everyone by not doing any old stuff for a couple of weeks, and then I’ll stop doing album tracks and do all oldies. It’s whatever is sort of inspiring. I would imagine we’ll stick on the record a lot, because I really dig the record and we haven’t performed it since we recorded it, so I’m likely to be excited about it while it’s new.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to change tracks a little bit to a couple of other things. Tell me how the Ben Folds Presents: University a Capella! album came out.
People had sent a few YouTube links to groups doing a cappella versions of my songs. And this goes back a long way. Occasionally we’ll get a cassette or CD or something from a cappella university groups covering my music. But it must have hit critical mass, because I’ve noticed a lot of it. In the “related music” category there’s even more. There are hundreds of them. Immediately I thought, “This has to be a record.” Some of this stuff is really moving. They’re the only people that have taken the time to cover my music besides Bette Midler and Yellowcard. So I thought, “This will be a charity record, and I’ll go out and record these groups, a la National Geographic field recordings from the ‘70s.” It’s their natural habitat. We recorded them in their dorms, their cafeterias, wherever we happened to be able to capture them. I feel like it’s exciting to be in an era where kids are singing together so well with no one telling them to do it. They’re just doing it, and I just feel like that’s really cool. So I just went out as a documentarian, and as a songwriter of course I’m just happy they’re covering my music. And as someone who just wants to give back a bit, I wanted to give money to music education to help further that art form.
Was there a particular group where they really surprised you?
That could be said about all of them. There was one group who covered “The Luckiest”, and they had a singer who’d become a science teacher since they’d done the YouTube video, so they had to track him down. He’d moved to another city. But his voice was so Art Garfunkel angelic and ghosty that I thought we needed to have that guy back. Some of the discipline and the groove, like the group from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Spartones was almost like military, but really impressive. There was a group from St. Louis who did “Still Fighting It”, and I just thought that was really strong. We picked one group that had done a really produced and computerized version of the song “Magic.” I just thought this was something that could not be reproduced live, and I thought it was a good example of something you could do with technology and voices. Sorry to keep going on about this, but there was another group that did “Selfless, Cold and Composed”, the Sacramento State Jazz Singers, and that was just so amazingly re-harmonized. What makes me happy about this is that they’re everyday people who are going off to be science teachers and stockbrokers and whatever else they’re going to be, yet they’re so good. Some of the things they brought out of some of my songs that maybe some would find it cheesy, but it doesn’t strike me that way. To me it sounds like people singing and bringing something out of the song that I might not have thought of. I’m excited as a songwriter.
Has The Sing Off made you more recognizable on the street, and if so are people coming up to you and singing in your face and trying to get you to give them your opinion?
Nothing like that. TV, give it about three weeks and it’s out of sight, out of mind. That was the case with this. We did that show, and for about three weeks I was getting stopped everywhere. Three weeks later I’m back good as new.
You’re doing the show again, so it’ll happen again.
Yeah, it’ll happen again, but that’s okay. There’s a lot of people saying something I never thought I would hear: “Hey, you’re Ben Folds of The Sing Off!” I’m from The Sing Off like it’s a planet. It’s usually families, a little older, and they’ll ask if I make records myself.
How did that come about?
The producers of the show have been interested in a cappella for a while. It looked like it was time to do it, and they got it all together and were looking for experts.
Are you happy to be a part of this?
I’m very happy. I’m in a position where I feel like I’m not hung up about anything, and I don’t have as much to prove. Doing something like The Sing Off, going in and saying that’s not in tune, that’s in tune, I think it could have been better, I’m proud of you for trying, whatever I can do, it’s a good gig. Maybe ten years ago I might have been touchier about it. My knee-jerk reaction was, this is a reality kind of TV show and I should say no, but then I thought about it and thought, “Why not?” And I’ve had such a great time doing it. And the second season has been great. We started working on it, and I think it’s really good TV now.
What’s coming in the future?
Almost anything that happens at the moment, I’m sort of going with it. I spent last night and this morning in the studio with this kid Ethan Bortnick, who could be described as a prodigy on the piano. I felt compelled to see how his head operates, and I wanted to show him some maybe irresponsible things to do on the piano. And he had a blast. By the end he was playing the inside of the piano, muting the strings, and playing the microphone with a shaker. He’s so good; he’ll just sit there and play 200 classical pieces in a row by memory.