Sodajerker presents… Ben Folds Five
Liverpudlian songwriting team Sodajerker and their podcast caught our attention. Here we showcase their recent interview with Ben Folds Five
ounded last year by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting free podcast has quickly established itself on iTunes and it wasn’t long before we discovered their interviews with some of the world’s greatest songwriters. Like us, the Sodajerker approach focuses on the musician’s songwriting craft rather than fame and gossip, so we were keen to join forces to give you a taste of some of their best work.
With almost 40 episodes already under their belt, the archive is a rich source of inspiration and insight from some world-class songwriters past and present, including Neil Sedaka, Mike Stock, Valerie Simpson, Mark King and many more, so we had a tough decision to choose just one. But, as a demonstration of Sodajerker’s ambition, and to start with a current artist, we picked out their video podcast with Ben Folds Five from December 2012. Highlights of the interview can be found transcribed below, followed by the full video in all its glory.
Ben Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge, known collectively as Ben Folds Five, first united in 1994, drawing immediate notice for their sardonic smarts, high-energy harmonies and unstoppable melodies. By the following year, the band’s self-titled debut was hailed as a guitar-free pop oasis amidst the grungy industrial wasteland that was mid-90s rock. 1997’s Whatever And Ever Amen proved the trio’s popular breakthrough, with the landmark single, Brick, fuelling worldwide sales in excess of 2 million. Although Ben Folds Five amicably parted ways in early 2000, after a decade the band reassembled to start recording a new album in January 2012 and, subsidised by fans via Pledge Music, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind burst into the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 upon its release in September last year.
It’s at this point in the long and winding Ben Folds Five story that Sodajerker face the North Carolina-based trio and, wisely, go right back to the very beginning…
SJ: Can you remember the first songs you wrote?
Ben: I was making up songs before I could play an instrument – that’s why I played music to begin with. Most days I wake up with a song in my head.
Robert: The first one I wrote was a song called Brick. Darren said we should write a song, and I was like, how do you do that? And he said, I don’t know, let’s try it. So we did.[cc_blockquote_right] I WANTED TO HAVE A SONG PUBLISHED BY THE TIME I WAS 13 … DIDN’T HAPPEN [/cc_blockquote_right]SJ: We had Neil Sedaka on the podcast recently, and he said he still finds songwriting quite daunting, even after 50 years of doing it. Was that the case for you, with this being a reunion?
Robert: I let Ben do all the hard work, then I just come in and jam!
Ben: I can’t imagine anyone doesn’t have some kind of completion anxiety about a song, because really it’s not all… not in the hippy-dippy sense but it’s not all coming from you. It’s just not, that’s just not the way it works. So you never know if your partner’s going to let you down or not.
And I think people who write topically maybe have an easier time. If you say I’m going to write a song about line-dancing, then you write three verses about line-dancing, you sum it all up in the chorus and you maybe go somewhere else in the bridge, all that stuff. You know what you’re doing. But if you’re writing more from just, how do I feel right now?, that’s hard.
I don’t know how Neil Sedaka does it, but he was one of my big influences as a kid. I wanted to have a song published by the time I was 13, because I saw a concert where he was talking about having his first song published when he was 13. Didn’t happen.
SJ: Is there a typical way songs start for you guys?
Darren: Lately a lot of the stuff starts with melodies and chords.
Ben: It’s almost always melody first. That’s usually the first thing… the song Philosophy I wrote on a bass guitar, around the melody and bassline, and then I found the chords on the piano and gave it a riff on top.
SJ: Harmonies have always been an important part of what you do. Robert, when you’re coming up with a harmony to go with something Ben’s doing, is that a technical process, like, that’s a perfect fourth, let’s sing a seventh, or is it more just something instinctive?
Robert: Some of it is totally just built into it, I might sing a third above Ben on a certain line, other things are more composed in kind of a choral way. And Ben always has a solid idea of what he wants to do, and then sometimes things are really just afterthoughts, like, ‘Let’s see what this sounds like with some background vocals’. And that becomes more important than we thought.
There’s only actually one song we’ve done, Hold That Thought on the new album, that’s really a straight harmony. The rest are more like choral parts.
Ben: The background vocals allow us to be a three-piece and fill a space. It would very difficult to carry a show without them.
SJ: Robert, what’s your approach to coming up with suitable basslines to go under Ben’s piano parts… is that a complex negotiation?
Robert: When I used to play soccer, the coach would always scream at us not to bunch up around the ball. But I don’t have a coach any more, and no-one’s telling me not to over-play the piano part, so now I feel as if I’m sort of glomming onto Ben’s vocal and piano part. The famous session bassist Joe Osbourne once said all basslines are already in the music, and I think that’s true: I can pull a little rhythm from here, a little melody from there. I like to jump around between different roles, between melody and rhythm.
SJ: One of our favourite songs on the new album is Sky High, which you wrote, Darren. Was that complete when you took it into the studio, or did it evolve once you presented it to the band?
Darren: It was complete in terms of the tune, but it did evolve in terms of the arrangement.
Ben: From my point of view it’s pretty much the same as the demo… I just played the guitar parts on the piano. But of course you translate if for the piano, in the same way as if you took a text from German and turned it into English.
Darren: I think Ben’s being too modest there, I think it grew and became something else. But as far as just the tune part of it, yeah, because I’m different from Ben – I don’t want to think about making a lyric decision in the studio. That’s too much pressure for me, I’d rather go in knowing that I’ve made that decision and now it’s just recording.[cc_blockquote_right] I HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME AND EFFORT ON THE LYRICS, BECAUSE I’M NOT GOOD AT IT [/cc_blockquote_right]SJ: The lushness of the backing vocals on that track made us think of 10CC…
Ben: That’s exactly what it was, a nod to that. 10CC essentially invented an instrument on I’m Not In Love and we used that instrument, which is singing aahs in the key of the song, looping them and sending them all through the board. It’s like having a Mellotron of your own band… a 10cc-atron! It’s the most intense, amazing sound.
Robert: It’s amazing because of the limitations. With sampling, you can just press a button, but when you’re using faders, it’s a different feel.
SJ: At what point do words become important? Are you the kind of songwriters who walk around with notebooks and are always jotting down interesting words and phrases?
Robert: I have a couple of ideas on my phone but I don’t do much of that, really.
Ben: I let the music decide what the words are gonna be. But I have spent a lot of time and effort on the lyrics, because I’m not good at it and I want to try and find the thing that’s not going to f*** up my melody.
SJ: There’s quite a lot of striking imagery and quite idiosyncratic phrasing in your songs, that seem to touch upon how you interact as friends. Would that be correct?
Ben: Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. Steven’s Last Night In Town was about an English engineer in Nashville, who kind of charmed everyone for a few weeks and could do no wrong, and then everyone decided actually he was a little bit weird. And he kept having all these leaving parties, one after the other.
Robert: With The Battle Of Who Could Care Less, that was about the attitude in Chapel Hill, like it’s a competition who can be cooler and more indifferent. That was definitely a shared frustration between the band because like for me, I’m always striving to play really well and expand myself, but that’s just not cool, at all.
SJ: One of our favourite songs on the album is Michael Prater. What’s the story behind that?
Ben: With that song, the music came first as it always does, and it made me think of the kind of person that you always run into your whole life, and you try and shake them off but they keep coming back and back and back. The character in the song is a composite of different people but that last verse, about the parking lot, that’s a true story. I was going through a divorce, I was driving back home with my tail tucked between my legs to my parents’ house at about five in the morning, and there was this guy sleeping in his car in the parking lot who I’d known since kindergarten. He’s the local weatherman, and he was also going through a divorce at the time and there he was, sleeping in the car.
SJ: There are a lot of other names in your songs… do you often write around characters?
Ben: That would be my contribution, I’m always putting people’s names in! I don’t know why really, the names just come to me. I guess I like to write songs that don’t sound like songs when you take the music away. I’d rather write words that sound like a physics book than do all that “yeah baby, we got it going on” and making ‘rain’ and ‘pain’ rhyme and all that stuff. I mean, sometimes you do lean on the lexicon of pop music but we’ve dumbed our vocabulary down to just two or three images.
With almost 40 episodes already under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool based duo Sodajerker. Founded last year by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Valerie Simpson and Harry Shearer among many others and has received positive reviews including celebrity endorsements from artists like Jamie Cullum.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts, go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker.
Watch the full video podcast of the interview below, where the band talk about the writing of songs like Brick, Battle Of Who Could Care Less, Philosophy, Steven’s Last Night In Town and songs from their new album The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, such as Do It Anyway, Sky High and Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.