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Key-tar King

John Moe

Marc Sanchez

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Ben Folds
(Kim Tonelli)
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Ben Folds is out on the road. The singer/songwriter/pianist is in Austin, Texas tonight at Stubb's. Folds has been touring on and off for over 10 years now. That can be a grind, especially when you have to play the hits each night - and enjoy doing it. So Ben Folds brings toys. You should see the stage at his concerts: French horns, multiple glockenspiels, melodicas, a grand piano that he pulls from town to town. It's like an orchestra up there, but with just a few guys. John Moe caught up with Ben Folds at a recent stop in the Twin Cities area and asked him about his touring arsenal.

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Ben Folds: Well, of course there's piano, bass and drums. That's the staple for me. And then there's French horn, glockenspiel, and we have triangles, shakers, tambourines, synthesizers.

John Moe: What goes into that for you as a composer? Are you working on a song and you say: "I'm going to need glockenspiel here"? When does that instrumentation come into it, creatively, for you?

Folds: I like to work with what I got. There's two guys back there, and we've got a lot of toys, so I start to find use for those. I've always thought you could just use pots and pans. Sometimes it sounds best with just piano, bass and drums. We don't have to use our arsenal.

Moe: I notice that you have a key-tar up there.

Folds: We've got two of them!

Moe: Tell me about the key-tar.

Folds: Well, the key-tar has to do with guitar envy. It's a strap-on synthesizer. It wears like a guitar for a piano player. They can stand up and play them.

Moe: Is the key-tar just there for fun, or is it a serious, non-ironic instrument?

Folds: Well, it's for theater. There are two positions for guys wearing massive frowny masks. And they're sporting the key-tar and two, big, yellow, upside-down smiles.

Moe: Why are they doing that?

Folds: We have a song called "The Frowne Song." It's sort of the anthem for people who walk around town bumming people out.

Moe: How about the process of touring with all this stuff? It's not just you and a banjo and a case. You've got a lot of stuff to carry around.

Folds: It's a rock tour. On one hand, I suppose we've been kind of minimalist over the years. I've gone either just as a piano player - we've had piano, bass and drums--but even that piano's pretty big, so I can't really call myself all that portable. I felt like we were going into a time period where everyone was saying touring was very expensive and difficult. Audiences are thinning out, because they don't have the money to go to rock shows. My natural, knee-jerk [reaction] is to spend more when I know I'm going to make less. Some of that is because I know, if people are going to get off the couch or out of work to go see a show, they should actually get a generous one.

I've always enjoyed making rock music as a piano, bass and drums act when no one else was doing that. That didn't seem like a very logical palette. But, when given the challenge, creativity is determined by how you're limited. Your creative limitations determine your style, and your physical limitations determine how creative you can be.

Moe: A lot of people think of you as a pianist, but you're a percussionist as well. How do those intersect?

Folds: I play piano like a left-handed drummer. My first instrument was percussion. I played a basketball for two years, before I could do it on a snare drum - before I had a snare drum. I was always practicing patterns on a basketball with a two sticks.

Moe: Because you just didn't have a drum?

Folds: We didn't have a drum, and we had a small house. No one wanted to hear the noise. Once a week, in band class, I got to play the real snare drum, but all my practice was done on a basketball.

Moe: When you say, "play it like a left-handed drummer," I don't understand what that means. What does that mean?

Folds: I'm lucky, because I was naturally left-handed, and then I was coerced into being right-handed when we changed over to cursive. I played guitar left-handed for a little while, and then I switched to right-handed. I still play left-hand lead, which is actually snare drum patterns. If you go, "left, right, left, left, right, left, right, right, left, right left, left," everything starts with your left hand. If you're playing drums and you're playing right-handed, everything becomes right-hand lead, so it was counter. I learned how to play left-handed drums. That's really good for piano, because everything on my downbeat remains in my left hand, because I'm leading with my left hand. I always get big compliments from other piano players, and I'm not an amazing piano player by any stretch.

Moe: Because you're drumming.

Folds: Because I'm drumming, and I'm leading with my left hand. The coordination is easy for me, because I practiced all these percussion patterns when I was growing up, like a fiend, every day.

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