Sometimes a fake is even better than the real thing. Before Ben Folds released his latest record, Way to Normal, he spent a day in the studio producing “fake” versions of his new songs to leak to the public. Although these recordings were initially meant as a joke, a fun way to kill a day in the studio, they contain moments of brilliance that match anything on the “real” album. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Folds said that the idea of making a fake album allowed him to create in a way he wasn’t totally used to: “The word ‘fake’ came up when we started doing it and it takes all the responsibility out. You can just be free to write and let it go.”
That goes a long way toward explaining how the leaked album, made in a single day, even came close to the official release. Trying to fake being yourself might actually generate something that feels completely authentic, not burdened by reputation and assumptions. The distinction between real and fake is important during the process of creation, but its power diminishes once the art is out in the wild. If you played Lovesick Diagnostician (a fake song) and Dr. Yang (the real track) for someone who knew nothing about Ben Folds, and asked that person whether they were real songs, the question wouldn’t make any sense.
Frank Portman hit on this idea in one of my favorite novels, King Dork. Tom Henderson, the titular dork, learns the following lesson during his life as a high school outcast: “Start a band. Or go around saying you’re in a band, which is, let’s face it, pretty much the same thing. The quality of your life can only improve.” To really be in a band, you have to make music. When you just say you’re in a band, you don’t necessarily have to make anything.
If you’ve ever made up fantasy band names and album titles, a game Tom Henderson and Sam Hellerman play throughout King Dork, you know that the identity often matters more than the music. The iconography you produce under the guise of your new band can take on a life independent of any music that has been or will ever be made anywhere in the world. There’s something tantalizing about titles of songs and records no one will ever hear and posters for shows nobody will ever play.
Some fake bands, like the ones Tom and Sam create in King Dork, eventually cross over into real band territory. They rehearse, they make recordings, and they play shows. Others have no intention of getting there at all. In fact, they make a point of never engaging in any musical activity whatsoever. My friend Evan Hamilton (who, it’s worth mentioning, is in a real band) told me about The Tree Brains, a “theoretical rock” band that started online. Here’s how The Tree Brains describe themselves:
The Tree Brains are an imaginary band that anyone can be a part of. No musical ability is required to join. The band will never play anywhere because it only exists in theory. There is no initiation into the band. If you want to be in it, you’re in it. You may lay claim to any instrument or job in the band you would like.
If you decide to join the Tree Brains, you’ll be able to go around saying you’re a part of the band, and there won’t be anything made up about it.
A concept like the Tree Brains seems fun, but not particularly practical. I think it can actually be put to great artistic use, though. Creating a band, or an alternate personality, takes the pressure off in the same way Ben Folds did when he labeled his work “fake.” If you feel too close to your work, like you’re risking too much, then try acting like it’s someone else’s. Invent a character (or a band) that comes from the part of you that doesn’t self-censor, and then write, draw, build or sing from there, too. The part of Ben Folds that writes whimsical, honest, borderline inappropriate lyrics made a damned good album.