Before Riverside show, Ben Folds talks beating up pianos and his fave MKE place
Ben Folds' upcoming Thursday night performance at the Riverside Theater may be advertised as just the alt rock star and a piano, a simple night of one man and one instrument on a stage.
But anyone who's turned even a casual ear toward Folds' music knows the kind of key-crushing, inventive, rocking ruckus the multi-genre maestro can create with only a piano – and maybe something as random as an Altoids tin.
Before he brings his signature witty lyrics and whacked-out piano prowess to the Riverside stage, however, we got a chance to chat with Ben Folds about his upcoming show, one of his other passions – photography – and the Milwaukee hot spot he misses.
OnMilwaukee: For this show, it's just you and a piano. Why the return to the solo approach for this go-around?
Ben Folds: Just couldn't find anybody to play with me! Nah, I just do this every once in a while. It's like birds migrating; I migrate back to the piano – and meanwhile, along the way, I sh*t on a lot of cars.
Do you plan on stripping down ...
I don't do anything dirty like that in my shows!
... some of your songs, I mean, or do you plan on playing exclusively material you've written for the piano?
I mean, I don't see versions of my songs as being … there's always a lot going on in a song, at least there is for me. So if it's orchestrated across the piano, those voices are active. If it's an orchestra, then of course I back off on the piano; the orchestra is taking care of those voices. Or a rock band or whatever. It's just a lot more work, and it's a harder thing to do.
I don't really see the solo shows as, like, a complete "An Evening With" vibe, where we put candles all over the stage and I tell stories. There is that element to any time you're solo, I guess, but that's not really … I don't know; it's just a piano, and I beat the sh*t out of it sometimes. I does what I does. But there's no particular rhyme or reason to the whole thing. Right now, I really feel like touring in that way; that suits me to be able to be that spontaneous and do whatever I want.
What's the most damage you've inflicted on a piano during a set?
I played half a set before with a broken sustain pedal. You have to hope those things break closed and not open, in that it's very difficult to play when everything rings the whole night. I've had to stop and do something else, find another way of making music for 45 minutes while a team of dudes puts it back together.
This is far from your first visit to Milwaukee. Do you have any particular memories from shows here in town or any places you remember from visits?
I miss this old bookstore you used to have Downtown that had this incredible classical LP section – one of the best in the country – upstairs. Like a whole floor of nothing but classical records. I was kind of crushed when that went away. It was pretty near – maybe within four or five blocks – of the art museum. I don't know what it was called anymore; I just used to go down there and walk out with boxes of records. I just bought that place up and put it all in the trailer of the bus – and hopefully get it back home in one piece.
I'd love to ask about one of your non-piano passions: photography. When did you discover that, and what really opened up that interest for you?
I always was interested. I always liked photography; I think everything kind of does a little bit. I did some darkroom in high school when I could get my hands on a camera and some film – and understand that, when I was a kid, that was a huge luxury. It wasn't like you went out and shot all the images you wanted to. To see a still image that you shot come back, someone had to spend a little money, and it took a week to come back from the photo lab – and sometimes it didn't even come out right. But when I was a kid, I loved any chance I could get to shoot.
Then, when my kids were born, I wanted to make darkroom prints that they could have when they grew up, and that gave me sort of an excuse to find the art in the moments and to also spend time in the craft of it.
Yeah, nowadays with Instagram, people can just instantly see the photo and put a nice filter on it, but back in the day, it was an actual process and art.
It's just different. I enjoy all the filters as well; most of them are sort of retro-y and sort of resemble the certain things that used to be. But still I think in 20 years, we'll look back and go, "God damn, that was so 2017!"
Ben Folds will perform at the Riverside Theater on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. For information on tickets, visit the Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall's website.
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