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Tori Amos and Ben Folds rock the suburbs and more with 176 keys and a lot of paid dues between them. By Tom Brislin.
Tori Amos and Ben Folds have a few obvious things in common. They're both singer/songwriters who choose piano as their main instrument. Their attitudes and inspirations are decidedly rock 'n' roll in nature. They both built successful careers in a time when rock piano was not a popular idea (debate among yourselves the last time it was). Their songs are personal, and yet have connected with legions of fans around the world. And yet, they don't sound anything like each other. These similarities and differences brought them together for the Lottapianos Tour, which kicked off in the Summer of 2003. Ben began each evening with a rousing solo set, a feeling captured on his latest release, Ben Folds Live. Tori treated fans to material from Scarlet's Walk, plus new spins on numbers from her 11-year catalog, augmented by bass and drums. Prior to their concert in Camden, New Jersey, in August, they spoke individually, and -- a Keyboard exclusive -- together, about their past, present, and future.
How's the tour going?
Tori: I've really enjoyed it. I think originally the idea was to have two very different perspectives on the same instrument. I liked that idea. You come up with a lot of ideas when you're thinking about pairings, and tours. And this is one of those ideas that I thought transcended gender, and transcended anything commercial in the industry. I didn't get involved in all that thinking that you pair with somebody because you have the same philosophy. You think about those things, but finally it was, "Hang on a minute, this is the idea that is inspiring me right now." The same instrument, two very different takes on it, a male and a female -- I liked that kind of balance. And, I put the idea forth and it got a good response. Ben was open to it, and that's how it came together.
Have you had the opportunity, or do you care to do a lot of writing while on tour?
Tori: I wrote a lot of Scarlet's Walk while I was on tour. That was, as you know, a very strange time touring in America. It was the end of September 2001 -- two weeks after the twins fell down. And it started to really take over my unconscious. By the end of that tour, Native Americans had come to visit me. Somehow, they had tapped into what I was doing, and I found that quite intimidating. And they came back and kindly and lovingly read me the riot act. And said "Look, we believe that you are writing about our spiritual mother, which is part of your background -- we understand that your mother's people are Eastern Cherokee. But if you're going to talk about our spiritual mother then you have to tell her story." It hurts to hear those things, and it's very humbling. But that's when Scarlet came. And I haven't had that experience on all tours. That's one of the few where most of that was written; on the road, touring in very troubled times.
When you were confronted by these bigger concepts, what was it like to come back to the piano? Did you feel like you could explore these things through the piano?
Tori: Scarlet came at a time when I had experimented with all forms of keyboards, from harpsichord to synthesizers to sampled things, and each album that I've done I think has taught me something about a different facet of the keyboard world. I am a pianist more than a keyboard player. And you have to delineate that for yourself. I know B-3 players who are B-3 players. I would never say to you that I am a B-3 player, ever. I mean, maybe in 40 years time if I started doing it tomorrow for six hours a day. The piano is my passion and my core. With Scarlet, it wasn't about samples sounds. I needed to capture the authenticity of the land, so I used instruments that weren't a sample of themselves. And I was also trying to tap into that "great American road trip." And the Wurly and the Rhodes lent themselves to that. But we were going for more of that classic songwriting, sonically nostalgic feeling. The instruments, the engineering, the way that things were recorded, the choice Matt was making -- the different kits he had. It all went core-up. As opposed to everything in post -- it wasn't about that. It was the compressors that were being used at the time as we were recording. There was more of a classic approach, but we were using very updated equipment.
On a tune like "Pancake," did you write on the Wurly? Do certain tunes come to life on different instruments as opposed to piano?
Tori: Yes, definately. I had the Wurly and the Rhodes out with me on Strange Little Girls and maybe that's why things started developing. "Sweet Sangria" was written as you hear it, partly on the Rhodes and partly on piano. So there was a real integration of these keyboards; that they were a part of the soundscape for this journey, for this woman who was born in the 1960s. They're a part of her template, and, growing up and listening to those records, they were a part of that. Synths hadn't been developed yet, so they're not a part of her palette.
How do you pick which songs go into your live set?
Tori: Ninety percent of the time, it's because of what's going on that day, personally, and then, socially. And you have to have an opportunity -- especially in these kinds of times -- to chronicle that, or not. And because I'm fascinated by how history affects personal lives, that's what I am drawn to. So I usually tap into that and tell a different story every night.
How does it feel to interact with an audience since you've had a band, as opposed to playing solo?
Tori: I think now it's quite different than it was in 1998. I think there's more of an integration of me at the piano and rhythm, as opposed to "plugged" and "unplugged." We re-arranged a lot of the songs from the old days, like "Crucify." Playing with Matt and Jon, having a rhythm section with a piano, it's more like having just a piano, not competing with guitars onstage. Not that I wouldn't consider having guitars onstage again, but right now, I just felt that establishing the piano with this sort of John Bonham/John Paul Jones kind of bottom end was really sexy and exciting. And I felt like the piano didn't have to compete with that. Sometimes guitars and pianos can take up the same midrange space, and it's a lot for the ear to handle. Especially if we're talking about pianos like I'm talking about. In a lot of bands that have pianos and guitars, the pianos aren't the "core." They're doing pads or something. It's not as if they're playing like Ben and I are playing. So, when you've got a guitar player doing that too there can be a lot going on. It's not as if you can contain it like you can on records. We are fighting for the same space. Whereas bass isn't fighting for the space of the vocal and the piano, and neither are the drums. And that's why, as much as I've loved all the guitar players I've ever worked with, I made a choice that I didn't want the ear to have to fight that onstage -- at this time.
[Ben Folds enters. Tori turns to him.]
Tori: How do you like playing by yourself right now?
Ben: I like it. I like it better.
Tori: I love it to.
Ben: I had a bootleg of yours from years ago. It was part of the inspiration for me to do this. It's so good. One of my favorite records.
Tori: It sounds like you're having a fantastic time out there. Big fun. It's so freeing. I find it's so liberating.
Ben: The freedom that you were taking with your songs was inspiring. When you've got a band, you can do that, but you've got to plan it. I don't screw with my songs as much as you'd be inclined to, but if I want to change something, I can.
Tori: You can put in a bar of seven, or whatever you want to do. You think "I'm stretching this out."
Ben: You know why you're stretching it out, because it means something while you're doing it. As opposed to having to think about what it might mean before you do it. You're in the moment.
Tori: But if I do it now, Matt might look at me really funny.
Ben: He could probably hang in there better than most, though.
Tori: He's one of the greatest drummers alive.
Ben: Matt Chamberlain is awesome. I was walking around for the first three days going "That drummer... God, she's got a good drummer." I'm glad you dropped the guitar.
Tori: I think it was the right decision. But again, playing with guitarists like Adrian Belew, was such a trip. On the cover record, he had played on some of those original records, which just cracked me up. He said to me "You're going to go out and play it by yourself, right? I think you should, because it won't be in the placement that it should be."
Both of you decided early on to make the commitment to use real pianos live. Did you encounter a lot of resistance from the crews and venues that wanted you to use more convenient alternatives? How did you stick to your guns?
Ben: My band carried a baby grand piano to every show. And if it wouldn't fit, or if they didn't want us on the stage with the piano, then we just wouldn't play there. If the crew guys said anything about it, I'd just tell them to "fuck off," and roll the piano in. It's pretty opinionated, but, for my music, I can't play those digital pianos.
Tori: I know, they're terrible.
Ben: Not to get too esoteric about it, but whoever played the pianos recorded in those things. ... I mean... he's bored. I don't want to play with some bored guy's fingers. They might be dead by now. A bored, dead guy's fingers. I'm not going to play that piano.
Tori: On my first tour, in 1991, I was opening for Mark Cohn in Europe. I was carrying a (Yamaha) CP-80 with me, which is okay.
Ben: That'll work. I like those.
Tori: I had to get what I could get. At the time, things were tough and tight. I didn't have a big support system. I'd play every place that didn't even have a toilet in it. That was the year the "girl with the piano" thing was over. It was over with Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones. And that's why I had to fight to even keep the pianos on the record. When I turned Little Earthquakes in, it was rejected. It was a bit different from what it ended up being, but "Silent All These Years," "Crucify," "Winter," "Leather" -- they were all on there. And the record company said, "We're rejecting this record because we think that you should take all the pianos off and put guitars on it." One of the people that made that suggestion has since become very, very successful being involved in very famous female piano players' careers.
Ben: I don't think the industry is set up -- only by luck occasionally -- for someone who is doing anything unique. If you're following your instincts, you're probably gonna catch an enormous amount of shit for it. Five years later you can turn around and talk about how cool you were, but while you're going through it, you feel like a chump. You're like, "Aw, man, they're all telling me to do this. I know it's the wrong thing to do, but it's all I can do."
Tori: I do remember one of the first things I bought with my money was a Bosendorfer. I rented it in 1994, on Under the Pink and I just fell in love with it. It can handle temperature changes really well. I guess I'm a Bosendorfer fan because I played them when I was at the Peabody Conservatory. I find it a very sexy instrument, but again, it's taken a lot to turn people's heads around. People have said "It's something that doesn't fit between your legs." And I say, "Honey, my piano's nine foot one. Not a lot of guitar players can say that." On that note...
How does it feel to be playing in front of larger audiences, as opposed to with a group?
Ben: It's backwards from what you would think. I don't struggle to reach the back of the room playing solo. So far, I've been pretty lucky to turn these places into large living rooms. With a band, I always found that it formalized the performance in a way that makes it "stage/audience." That makes it tougher for me to actually feel like I'm in the same room as somebody who's way in the back. It feels like the people in the back row are a hundred yards from the stage. When you play by yourself, they're on the stage.
How do you pick which songs go into the set?
Ben: Playing with Tori, I've been doing a little more of a rigid set than I thought I would, because, I'm really doing the things that I think are the most immediate. Half the audience very likely hasn't heard what I do before. I feel like I need to pick the strongest stuff from every era, and then some new stuff as well. If I was playing for just my audience, I would be a lot more random about it. But I feel like I've got an hour to establish myself. If I don't establish myself pretty quickly, well, it's a sad moment when you lose 10,000 people. Ten thousand people talking over a solo piano player is pretty brutal.
Looking back to Rockin' The Suburbs: Having played nearly all the instruments on the record, how did that affect your approach when it came time to lay down the piano tracks?
Ben: It was an education. I've always played all the instruments on my demos, so I'm accustomed to making music that way. It's a real natural way for me to do it. What wasn't natural for me on Rockin' The Suburbs was getting it "perfect," whatever that is. I probably wouldn't do it that way again. What I learned was that I'm a very busy piano player. That's what I realized, because I was playing drums to the piano. I tended to play the piano first, and then go back and play drums to it. And I'd be playing drums, going, "Man, the piano player plays like a jackass." Left hand all over the place. I was telling Tori about her left hand. In a way, she's at a level that I'm imagining that I might be at one day. If you just sat and watched her.... To me, that's an education. Maybe just because it's a different perspective.
Would you care to mention any other players that you dig?
Ben: Because we came out of the same time, Jeff Buckley. The guy only got to make an album and a half, but his "give it everything" approach in that era was something I loved. Weezer, for that same reason. Weezer came out about the same time, and it was something I could relate to, for pop music.
What about piano players that have influenced your language, as far as jazz or blues influences?
Ben: Ray Charles. Any kind of southern rock piano. Elton John-isms and Billy Joel-isms are probably in my playing, but, I think if you listen closer, and you go to the source, it would be more like Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Wet Willy, or Ray Charles; people from the South, playing piano.
What would you say to a young musician, namely a piano player, who wants to get into the business?
Ben: I'd love to roll what I've seen and learned into a book. I'd have a hard time squeezing it into a sentence. There's a lot I'd like to tell the "kids." I want to think that everyone is going to be fiercely independent about expressing themselves musically. Fiercely. It's a way of life; it's not a hobby. Tori said she couldn't compromise her piano thing. If you play the fucking kazoo, you cannot compromise that. The business is way overrated. The business proper has way to much clout in people's heads. They're selling just one part of music. But maybe there's some freak selling nose-harp music through bookstores somewhere. Or he's playing normal music but he doesn't feel like kissing ass. I say: Down with the music business. And shame on them. Because I think they have been really short-sighted, really greedy, really not-about-music, really not thinking for themselves, and they've brought a lot of artists close to artistic death. You really can't kill the artists. They're still out there. Commerce and music don't integrate that well, but they damn well should integrate a little bit better than they have. Movies and commerce have managed, somehow, to integrate a little bit better, because they're smarter. People in the music business, by and large, are rejects from other businesses. I know some really smart people in the music business too, but for the most part, people in the music business just don't get it.
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