Ben Folds and the phone interview that almost wasn’t

It comes to pass that you can’t always get what you want. The Rolling Stones penned a tune to that effect decades ago and it stands true today when I look back on all of my failed attempts to interview admirable celebrities. Let me mention that I have been very lucky thus far in acquiring some such interviews but there are always those that sneak past like a trench-coat flasher on a balmy night.

The requests I dole out are pleasant and always refined and rather than no interview at all some management teams will secure a phone interview. Let me add that this is standard procedure as most firms don’t really want their clients susceptible to an in-person rendezvous with a strange reporter. For the musician at hand this is a lifesaving technique but for we, the humble and hardworking reporters, this is a nightmare.

Over the phone interviews are impossible to tape (without a phone tap), awkward and nauseating. You have no clue if the person on the opposite end of the line is clipping their toe nails or sniffing paint and you can’t really grasp any sort of emotion. I’ve had my fair share of phone conversations with musical talent and while they’re ever so kind to oblige me, the interview is often brief and winds up going something like this…

Enjoy these excerpts from the following Ben Folds interview. I engaged him while I sat at an Argo tea shop in downtown Chicago. I was an hour late with the call as I had switched time zones and burned through three pencils just jotting down the beguiling exchange of words. He provided a humble and pleasant chat but this over-the-phone prelude fell short as I imagined him sitting down to room service in an over-sized bathrobe, annoyed that yet another green reporter was calling to interrupt his relaxing hotel stay.

Your band Ben Folds Five began in Winston-Salem, N.C. Was there a lot of local support for your brand of music there?

Local venues treated us fairly well but as far as booking shows, we had a hard time. We had a real piano and I was insistent on that. When we went to book shows they’d place us on folk nights, Mondays and Tuesdays. We wanted to play with real bands. When you have a band that refuses to play folk night two or three weeks in a row, with a 600 lb. baby grand piano, it’s tough. There were exceptions, but we freaked clubs out, we were a big liability. We ended up settling for places that were class to begin with like the Cats Cradle in Carrboro. I talk to the owner, Frank, to this day.

Is there any word on the three Bens collaborating once more?

We always wanted to make an EP really quickly. The beauty was that there was an unspoken consensus among us as artists and it just became a project. There are no business plans for the future, no projects together that I can see.

Do you have any advice for bands touring these United States as we speak?

No, not really any input. There seems to be a great depression out there in the music industry. One thing that stuck out about my band is that we were primarily about the live act. If we’re out there, we’re making music.

There is a little town on the coast of North Carolina called Wilmington, ever been?

I remember playing Wilmington when Dennis Hopper was there filming Blue Velvet.

You’ve always been a great act to see live. What is it you sought, besides that, for Ben Folds Five?

The style, our idea then and now, was always to misplace… to put the band out of context. For example, we aspired to play a punk venue and offend their status quo because they’re not supposed to be offended.

You went on tour with John Mayer awhile back and I never pegged you for an opener in that sort of musical arena.

I had three shows with him. His fans aren’t really my fans. My fans aren’t going to pay that much money for a ticket. Most of the people in his audience hadn’t heard my music; the whole experience wasn’t that great.

-Holly Jones, Editor, On Tour Magazine