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Interesting Ben Folds article from the San Diego Union-Tribune
August 1, 2003

Updated Sun, Aug 03, 2003 - 6:43am ET

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This article from the August 1, 2003 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune profiles Ben Folds, but does mention Tori a few times and the Lottapianos Tour. (Ben Folds is Tori's special guest on the tour.) The article compares the differences in how they play the pianos.

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You can read the article online at or below:

Ben Folds really knows how to pound a piano into submission

By James Chute

Steinway may call itself "the instrument of the immortals," but it was no match for pianist Ben Folds.

"I broke a bench across a piano on national TV in Australia," said Folds, who opens for Tori Amos tomorrow when Lottapianos arrives at San Diego's Open Air Theatre. "After that, Steinway stopped sending pianos to the gig and started charging us bonds to play shows; it was like, 'This is the piano I endorse?' "

Folds now plays a Baldwin, a decidedly more mortal but apparently more resilient instrument.

"They said, 'We know you are really hard on the piano, and we'd like to be the people who make the piano you can't break.'

"I'm thinking, 'Like, great. Sounds like a good idea.' This is a different day and age, and maybe kids are going to go out and buy more pianos if they see someone who is current, who is not being a total prude on the instrument."

Neither Folds nor his tour partner, Tori Amos, could be considered pianistic prudes. The Lottapianos tour, their seven-week celebration of the keyboard, should give audiences a look at two extremes of rock piano: Amos' sensual, even erotic approach to the instrument and Folds' highly percussive playing.

Of course Folds is not the only rocker to assault a piano. For decades, guitarists have tried to knock it out of its hard-won position at the very heart of pop music. But pianists like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and even Elton John have, like Folds, kept the piano viable in part through sheer physical force.

"I love drums," said Folds on the phone from Nashville during a break in a recording session. "In a funny way, that's probably my first instrument. Drums are primal. But the piano can be that way too, and that's kind of the way I play it. I guess since I'm a frustrated drummer, I play drums on the piano as well as piano."

Like most pianists (including Amos), Folds started tinkering with the instrument while still in grade school. But his attraction to the keyboard was not born out of love, but out of necessity. He wanted to play the songs he was hearing in his head.

"I didn't really learn piano traditionally," Folds said. "I didn't know how to play what I didn't write. I made a lot of noise. I can almost see a school of learning music where you make random chaotic noise, just because that gives you a sense of the instrument.

"It's like babies sticking their hands into food; it's supposed to be good for them. The piano is like that; you just pound around on it for a while and get the sensation of different parts of the keyboard, how you connect to it. That makes it really organic."

He did try a more conventional route. He briefly attended the University of Miami on a percussion scholarship, and devoted a lot of time to working on piano technique.

"I spent maybe six months just running scales with a metronome like a freak," Folds said. "I suppose that did something."

Apparently not enough. He soon left school and by way of Nashville and New York City ended up in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he formed the trio Ben Folds Five. Three albums and one hit song ("Brick") later, he disbanded the group and in 2000 went solo. His most recent work, "Speed Graphic," the first of a series of three EPs, shows his aggressive, idiosyncratic approach to the instrument. It can be downloaded from

"I don't think of myself as an original or innovative piano player in any way," Folds said. "I don't really assign myself a style. I know I do things on the piano you are really not supposed to do, and are very exaggerated. Every once in a while I'll hear somebody doing something on an obscure record, and I'll wonder if he did that because it's OK now."

Folds' playing has been analyzed down to the last eighth note by would-be imitators. Piano transcriptions of nearly every Folds song are readily available. (Folds noted that he has no idea if the transcriptions are right or wrong, since he doesn't read music well enough to play his own pieces from the written score.)

Still, the physicality in his performances is impossible to extract from the mere notes on the page. There's no way to notate the manner in which he attacks the piano, pounding it into submission, refusing to allow it to disappear into a veil of guitars and drums.

"Actually, my very small contribution is I've been stubborn, and one of the very few people to just keep the piano alive for three or four years," Folds said. "If everyone just picks it up, and puts it in the spotlight every couple years, I think it will stick around."

By piano, Folds means the acoustic instrument made up of wood, felt, metal, and strings. The one that's been around in one form or another for a couple hundred years. Don't mistake those electronic pianos, samplers, synthesizers or digital work stations for the real thing.

"An acoustic piano is the piano," Folds said. "Those digital ironing board looking things, they just aren't. It's really cut and dry. I don't play those things. It's not a political thing, it's just nothing about that makes me happy; I have no relationship with it at all."

Folds points out that with an acoustic piano, there are myriad possibilities of tone color, touch and dynamics. But with a digital instrument, there is a limited tonal palate, typically created by sampling (digitally recording) each note from an acoustic instrument.

"When they sample those pianos, somebody in a studio records every note, and somebody goes, 'OK, louder Tom, little louder, OK, let's put that in the computer.' And when you sit down and play one of those things, it's like you are playing some old, fat, dead person's bored tone. I don't get that at all."

He performed on a digital piano once, but it seems likely that the only reason he didn't put a bench through it was out of respect for the artist who had invited him on stage.

"When I sat in with Elton John last year, that's what he assigned me to," Folds said. "And I figured, OK, I'll do that. That's fine. I can't be too good to play his digital piano."

Posted by: Mikewhy

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