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by amy guyer
• design by kelly giles • photos by mary wyatt
The li insid ne to ge t e
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Ben’s LeeAnn and Mary outside
BEN FOLDS is a quiet kind of famous. Most people have heard of him. He has tons of devoted fans. But he’s only had one major radio hit — “Brick” in 1997 — and a lot of people who don’t listen to his CDs wonder why so many people know his name. While Chapel Hill is known for its music scene, few names transcend as far as Ben Folds, who lived at 107 Isley Street in the ‘90s. So when Doug Goodman, his tour manager, called me Tuesday around 6 p.m. and told me Ben could give me a call Wednesday at 11 a.m., I was nervous and excited. I had big plans. I was going to reveal all the intricacies of his nature. Anyone who read my interview would know Folds so personally that they may as well have been his mother. I settled in the Blue & White office, managing editor Robin Hilmantel sitting nearby in case of emergency, with my cell phone snug between two recorders — you know, in case one of them failed. Goodman called me. “So are you ready to talk to the man, the myth, the legend?” “Yes,” I said. “He’s next to me, shaking his head,” Goodman said. Apparently Folds does not think of himself as a man, a myth or a legend. The next time my phone rang, it was Folds.
and ever with Ben
Winner of Blue & White’s Dana Carvey look alike contest 1 year running
“Top Five of the Year” for albums list. AG: Wow. BF: And they were doing pretty well. And all of this was pretty original music, as well, and it’s still, all that crowd went around the REM circle. There was a lot of music there, and I think in retrospect it was as good as anywhere else. Chapel Hill is a bit more organized. AG: How did you learn to play the piano? I heard some story about a carpenter gave your dad a piano or something? BF: Yeah, he was a carpenter. Can you hold on just a second? I’ll get right back. He put me on hold. BF: Sorry about that. My mother was driving into town, and she needed directions. AG: I see. Chapel Hill’s kind of confusing. So coming to Chapel Hill is kind of like coming home? BF: Yeah, yeah, it is for me because I spent more of my, you know, good years here, I think. AG: I heard that you divide your time between Australia and Tennessee? Is that correct? BF: Yeah, about three months per year in Australia. But I was living in Australia for about three and a half to four years. We moved back over. AG: And you moved to Tennessee? BF: To Nashville. Yeah, to rent a studio there. I couldn’t tour very easy from Australia. It’s a 22hour trip. It made sense to just come back. AG: When you go on your tours, does your family ever come with you? BF: Not that often, no. Depends on the tour.
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AG: Basically, my first question is that a lot of people seem to be confused about your connection to Ch apel Hill. A lot of people seem to think you went to high school here. Can you clear that up a little? BF: Yeah, I lived in Chapel Hill in 1993 and I didn’t go to any school at all here, and then I left in 1999, so I was here six years. AG: OK, and that’s when you started playing in the clubs in the area? BF: Yeah, well, I mean, I had played in the area before because I used to live in Winston-Salem and everyone always traveled to play at the Cat’s Cradle. AG: So you grew up in Winston. BF: Yeah, I grew up in Winston. AG: That’s cool, I grew up in Kernersville. I know that area. Apparently he didn’t care. BF: I’d been living in New York before I lived in Chapel Hill, so it was really — I just wanted to move back to North Carolina, and I thought that Chapel Hill made more sense than Winston-Salem for me. AG: Yeah, I can see that. Not too much goes on in Winston. BF: Yeah, well, I mean, REM used to record there a lot. AG: I didn’t know that. BF: And there was this band (unfortunately, I could not understand what he said here) who at that time were probably the only band to have national notoriety for North Carolina that I can think of. They made the New York Times
AG: Do you usually write your music or lyrics first? BF: I usually start out with music, and lyrics comes after that. An airplane took over Folds’s phone. Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like. AG: Was there an airplane? BF: Hello? Can you hear me? AG: Yes, I can. Sounds like you’re kind of busy. A bus ran over Folds. At least, that’s what it sounded like. AG: What are some inspirations for your music? The airplane grew louder. BF: You still there? Hello? The signal died. Robin: Is it windy outside? AG: I don’t think so. We sat quietly. Robin suggested I call him back. He called me back. BF: We got cut off somehow. AG: Are you walking somewhere, or driving? BF: I’m walking. AG: Are you in Chapel Hill?
doesn’t have a camera on it. AG: Is it true that you played all the instruments in “Rockin’ the Suburbs”? BF: Yeah, I played everything on there. AG: So how many instruments can you play? BF: Guitar, bass, drums, piano and any variation on those. AG: Can you play the harmonica? BF: Yeah. He seemed unsure. AG: Yeah, I don’t think anybody really knows how to play it. BF: Well, there are a lot of people that play the hell out of it, but I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do on it. I can fake a couple of things here and there. AG: I heard you like to start rumors about yourself. What’s the weirdest rumor you ever started, or would you like to start one now? BF: Start rumors about me? I think he misunderstood me. Hmm.
BF: It was just a little one, but it picked up a church across the street, leveled a couple other houses, blew a lot of windows out. But small in comparison. At this point, Folds informed me that he was almost at where he was going, but he could answer another question. Last question? It had to be brilliant. AG: Where are you going? BF: Um, I’m just going to meet someone somewhere. That didn’t work so well. Robin said he thinks I’m a stalker. Thanks, Robin. I thought of a new question. AG: What’s your favorite kind of candy? BF: I like summer rolls. They’re Australian. And that was that.
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Another windstorm took the phone away. BF: Yeah, yeah. AG: Where are you walking? It seems to have bad cell phone reception. BF: Well, I’ve got really good reception. I’m over on Pritchard Street, on Rosemary. AG: Rosemary’s kind of the ghetto. A little bit. BF: Yeah, no, well, it can be, I guess. Pritchard’s pretty whitey. It’s where La Rez is. AG: What were some of your early influences? I heard you taught yourself piano by listening to Elton John? BF: Uh, sure, that works. AG: You went to Reynolds, right? BF: Yeah. AG: Did you know that one of our main basketball players went to Reynolds, too? BF: Oh, well, that’s cool. I guess that’s pretty cool. He didn’t sound too impressed. Sorry, Reyshawn. AG: I heard that you like taking pictures, is that true? BF: Yeah, I like photography a lot. I spend a lot of time in the dark room. AG: Are you on a camera phone? BF: I don’t have a camera phone, no. This one
BF: Sure, tell them that I’m a five foot ten white man. That really messes people up. AG: What do you think about the Bush administration? BF: I guess they’re pretty good salesmen. AG: What’s your favorite kind of cheese? BF: I like the American cheese slices in the little plastic wrap. AG: The yellow one or the white one? BF: The yellow one. The white’s nasty. AG: What’s your favorite word? BF: My favorite word? I think mezzanine. AG: What’s that? BF: Mezzanine. Um, m-e-z-z-a — it’s hard to spell when I’m walking. AG: What would you be doing had music not worked out? BF: I’d be a photographer. I’d be a storm photographer. AG: Do you like taking pictures of storms? BF: Well, I’ve never really had the opportunity before, but I think that I’d like to do that. AG: Would you chase tornadoes? BF: Yeah, I’ve never done that before, but I’d love to. AG: Have you ever been in a tornado? BF: Yeah, once. mezz a AG: Where? other nine: n. a s in BF: It was in Nashville, actually. a bui low stor word lding y bet ) AG: Was it a big tornado? we (a
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