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Ben Folds on His ChatRoulette Doppelgänger, Working With Nick Hornby, and Defending A Capella

Thanks to the efforts of the somewhat-convincing impersonator “Merton” on ChatRoulette, Ben Folds has made the news quite a bit lately — which isn’t to say that he wasn’t otherwise already occupied. Folds has continuously developed new facets to his piano-shredding talent over the years, gathering famous and admiring friends (Elton John), formidable collaborators (Regina Spektor), and intriguingly weird side projects (William Shatner). His latest interest: a capella, which he memorably judged on the first season of NBC’s The Sing-Off. The show will return for a second season (which Folds assumes he’ll be judging: “No one’s briefed me! As far as I know I’m doing it?”), but in the meantime, he’s back to basics, touring alone, and performing at Town Hall tonight and Tuesday. Folds spoke to Vulture about the ChatRoulette situation, what happened behind the scenes on The Sing-Off, and why sometimes he just needs to be alone with his piano.

Okay, Ben, set the record straight once and for all: Are you and Merton the same person?
Oh no, absolutely not.

How did you discover what he was doing on ChatRoulette?
I was getting a lot of mysterious texts and e-mails, and so I looked it up, and thought, “Well, okay. I can see he’s got glasses. And plays piano.” [Laughs.] We’re always looking for something to have fun with on tour, so it was a no-brainer to throw a projector and screen onstage and do something similar — the Ode to Merton. It’s fascinating how people are intoxicated with the whole ChatRoulette thing. You can feel it en masse more; the feelings are amplified when there are lots of people in one room.

What do you think of Merton’s impression of you? It was pretty clear to me it wasn’t you …
Thank you! I have people that know me really well who thought it was me. It’s bizarre. I have no idea why they think that. It’s like, there’s some glasses and stuff, and there you go? I don’t believe that it’s an impression. If it is, I don’t know. I didn’t think it seemed like me, but I’m me, so I’m not going to be that easily impressed with impressions.

This tour is called Ben Folds and a Piano. What’s the concept?
It’s something I come back to periodically now; it’s just my songs at the piano, there’s nothing to distract. The first time I ever did it was at Bowery Ballroom, fairly late in my career, and I’d always been really scared of doing it — to not be able to hide a little bit behind a rhythm section. And it was such a great thing. Now I’m going back and forth between playing symphony-orchestra shows and the solo shows. It’s good for me, to keep connected more with the song and how it’s communicating.

You seem to have become the patron saint of a capella — you even put together a CD of college a capella groups singing your songs. Have you always been into it?
No, I was only introduced to it 'cause university students were doing my music. I didn’t know much about the conventions of a capella, which is probably what allowed me to completely appreciate it. I don’t have that filter where I look at something and go, "Oh that’s cool," or "that’s corny." I’ve had that surgically removed. Who gives a shit? That’s allowed me to hear how creative the arrangements were. I like a lot of [the college groups’] versions better than what I did, and I thought they needed to be heard.

Plenty of people hate a capella. What would you say in defense of it?
It’s just music. It has to be inventive to work — it has to be coordinated musically, composed, arranged, voice-led well, performed perfectly, or it sucks. There’s nothing wimpy about that — it’s actually very difficult to do, I think.

Do you feel, in the end, the right group won The Sing-Off?
[Pauses.] Yeah, I do. Because the guys in Nota were the most likely to make use of the prize: a record contract. The [Tufts] Bubs [who placed second], you know, they change every year, which makes it a bit harder to know how they’re going to make a record. Also, they have to figure out a way to break completely out of the genre of being a university a capella group; it’s a little tongue-in-cheek and Vegas right now. There’s one more little step in there that needs to happen that I can’t explain.

Your latest project is an album with Nick Hornby — how’s that going?
It’s totally finished, except the title and album cover, stuff like that. A couple of the songs I have under my belt enough to play live, but I don’t want to do too many of them on this tour — solo piano, people kinda want to hear something that spans your whole career, and even two to three songs take up enough time that you don’t get to something from, say, your first album. Nick writes so well for a first-time listener; he writes the way he writes a book, which you have to be able to follow the first time. Songwriters, we tend to take a little liberty with what people can understand, but not him. He’s poetic, but you also get the story the first time you hear it.

Photo: Patrick McMullan