We’ve Got A File On You: Ben Folds

We’ve Got A File On You: Ben Folds

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Ben Folds has a cold. As much as I hate to lean into what is now a profile-writing cliché, that first sentence seems the clear winner given Folds’ current condition. The piano-pop icon, who currently lives in Nashville, has just returned from a brief tour and caught a bug on the road. He also has to update his Zoom software in order to connect to our call. “Patience. Yes, patience. Don’t worry,” he texts his manager, who relays the message to me.

Once Folds signs on, I ask about a rather spectacular-looking piano placed just behind him. “This is a Mason & Hamlin,” he says. “It was America’s answer to the Steinway in the early 20th century. It’s an antique.” When I ask how he’s feeling, Folds admits he forgot what being sick was like, given the last few years’ COVID restrictions, masking, etc. He soldiers on though, apologizing for brief bouts of brain fog and excusing himself once to go honk into a tissue.

Sick or not, Folds has a job to do. Today, that includes press for his new LP, What Matters Most, which is technically his first album in eight years — since 2015’s collab with yMusic So There — but really is his first unadulterated, entirely solo Ben Folds record since 2008’s Way To Normal.

Folds never has to release another album again if he doesn’t feel like it. At 56, he has seemingly achieved everything a musician could ever hope to do, and then some: played in bands, established a successful solo career, collaborated with fellow entertainers, composed for TV and film, and even appeared in TV and film — much of which he chronicled in his 2019 memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons.

Famously from Greensboro, North Carolina (home to some killer BBQ and Archers Of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann), Folds started playing piano as a kid and eventually began gigging around the neighboring Winston-Salem with various early bands. His breakout moment came with the “piano-punk” collective Ben Folds Five, who had the audacity to replace guitar parts with acoustic keys and call the ensuing sounds “alternative.”

After Ben Folds Five amicably parted ways in 2000, Folds released 2001’s triumphantly hooky debut album, Rockin’ The Suburbs: a high-key “F you” to smack-talking nu-metal acts of the era who dismissed pianos as sissy. (“I’m rockin’ the suburbs/ I take the checks and face the facts/ That some producer with computers fixes all my shitty tracks,” Folds sang on the title track’s chorus, mocking every naysayer in one fell swoop.) For the record, Folds has never been afraid to fill his songs with colorful language, thus the “punk” in “piano-punk.”

Ahead of releasing What Matters Most, Folds sat down with me for a career-spanning interview, where he looks back on how Nirvana’s popularity opened an unlikely door for Ben Folds Five, why musical theater and a cappella kids love to reimagine his music, and writing a song about putting quarters in people’s exposed butt cracks for Community — among other things.

New Album What Matters Most (2023)

You’re one of those figures in pop culture who appear to be involved in 10 things at any given time, and not necessarily all music-related. Why did this seem like a good time to release a proper Ben Folds studio LP?

BEN FOLDS: Well, when I started out, it was one gear. I was a life support system for albums and touring. And that cycle, especially in the time that I came up, was everything. It was really important.

But then I guess as my career branched out – it’s just a matter of how long you’ve been a fixture – eventually you sort of feel like you get tenure. Like, I couldn’t go without making an album for too long when we began, because out of sight out of mind and you’re brand new. But after a while you can afford to put time between. So I guess all the developments led to less incentive to make a record, more things to do.

I didn’t really plan on making any more albums – at least albums like the one that I just made. In fact, I think I’d probably put that into my memoir [2019’s A Dream About Lightning Bugs] that I wasn’t going to do [any more albums]. Campaign promises are easily broken.

I guess the reason that I overcame all that was that a couple of things fell into place. One was that I actually got a dignified offer from a record label. I’m not sure if the kids these days really understand what a dignified offer is, as they’re going into label deals with all this 360 stuff and a low budget, which is fine if you’re doing it all in the computer and your music isn’t dependent upon live chemistry, but the live chemistry that I prefer in a record is expensive.

I also had a little running start. Suddenly I wasn’t touring all the time. The incentive was greater. After so much time, the writing process and everything was a lot fresher, I wasn’t under duress in any way. I was just like, “Oh.”

So it’s not that I’m not interested, it’s just that there’s so many records out there. As I’ve said in my little memoir, it’s business for the mating age for the most part. Once you’re of the age that you’ve gotten married and you’re having kids, you may listen to pop music, but it’s probably the music that you mated to. Mostly that’s what pop music is. And I think it’s best not to have any illusions about that. Even for someone who’s getting older and feels like they need to remain hip and listen to new music, it’s like you do realize it’s the same as watching Sesame Street as an adult, there comes a time when people are thinking thoughts in their early 20s that are awesome for pop music and rock music. They’re their feelings, it’s made for them, to them, in a world where they’re trying to sort out what their life is going to be, make sense out of it. The world is not in a place, and I’m not in a place where I feel I should throw my hat in the ring.

I think it’s best to understand, too, that pop music is meant to react against people who are precisely my age. I don’t want to crash their party or prove that I’m relevant. That has been a big turnoff for me in making records. I remember what that felt like; I’m not going to try to insist that I’m anything other than I actually am.

What I do have to offer is an older look at craft. I think making an album that is made of craft means that you don’t notice the craft. Plenty of people can say, “Man, that sucks. Fucking music sucks. It sucks.” Well, it doesn’t, it’s actually put together really well. You might not like it, but it doesn’t suck, it’s built well.

I wanted to have something unimpeachably crafted. Like, do I have any regrets on things that I haven’t quite crafted the way I would like to? Is there something I’ve learned? Is there something I can relax on and just make a well-crafted album? Because I think that’s of value in a world with lots of really heartfelt music that maybe doesn’t have that yet.

One thing I’ve learned from being immersed in an orchestral world and orchestral composers and classical composers over the last 15 years of my career has been like, wow, composers on their deathbed were still learning. Where in rock music you age out quickly. So those are the things I was thinking about.

[I was also thinking about] a gratuitously enjoyable listen, something that sounds good. That’s the way you would make a piece of art that would go on the wall and you’re like, “How neat. That didn’t exist, now I could look at it.” I wanted to have a lot of that in it as a record. Because when you’re expressing yourself purely, sometimes the expression isn’t actually aesthetically pleasing.

I thought, “You know what? I would like to make something that I know is crafted within an inch of its life, which means people won’t say that.” Because if they’re saying it, then I didn’t do it. Unless it’s a songwriter or someone who really is an insider, you shouldn’t be aware, it should be seamless.

If enough people say, “That fucking sucks,” that’s fine, probably good, probably means there’s something to it. I’m waiting for that, for some confirmation that I’m doing something right.

But, I mean, look: It was eight years since I made the last one [2015’s So There with yMusic]. I wouldn’t call that a normal album. It was collaborative. So this is arguably the first record I’ve done since 2008, and if I stay at that rate I’ll be like 80 next time I do [another] one.

Playing In First Bands Majosha And Pots And Pans (1988-1990)

How did you find the Winston-Salem scene? Was it rewarding for you in terms of audience? As Majosha got bigger, did you feel a heightened urge to leave North Carolina?

FOLDS: I was proud of it. In my high school, a few years before I came along, a guy named Mitch Easter came through. Mitch had a band that was actually on MTV quite a bit called Let’s Active, and he also produced R.E.M.’s first record in Winston-Salem.

There was another band called the dB’s, which were prior to Mitch. A couple of them got absorbed into the R.E.M. satellite, as I think Peter Holsapple did a lot of extra work for them. Chris Stamey went on to produce Ryan Adams’ first band, Whiskeytown, and a lot of other stuff. And Ryan was from Raleigh. So yeah, there was a local scene.

There were other bands that I knew of in high school – I guess I knew they were local, I understood that, but I also thought they were national bands. But they weren’t. They were local but they were so fucking good that you just assumed that they were [national]. There was a sense of pride in the local music, and also the sense that if you could just achieve [local fame], that was enough, because it was self-sustaining.

By the time I was a little older and Ben Folds Five was starting, Archers Of Loaf was probably probably my favorite local band. Eric Bachmann – he was the singer – we made an album together called Barry Black, which is fairly obscure, but I think it’s really good. I was the drummer. I say we made it together, but I think I was the only other musician on it, and I was playing drums.

I asked Eric, “How many records have the Archers sold?” And he’s like, “40,000.” I was like, “Fuck. okay, well if I can do that…” Then there came a time within the next two years that we were selling that every week, because that was the ’90s and shit was selling if you’re a mainstream band, which we were.

In Winston-Salem I had real access to a lot of arts, arts education, a real sense of poetry, a real sense of visual art, drama. I played in a youth orchestra really young. My percussion teacher was actually famous. So I had access to stuff that has really made a big difference long term in my career, in that I was in a musically, artistically literate place, which has been huge for me. Those are the things about being from Winston-Salem that I think are important.

It sounds like you were setting short-term goals at first, which can add up over time, if you take the big picture in bite-size pieces.

FOLDS: It wasn’t all or nothing. It wasn’t like being from a place where, “I might get a record deal and they’ll whisk me up and I’ll go off into the sky. No one will ever see me again.” Actually it was a little bit like that for me.

But having short-term, artistically satisfying goals – I could play songs I wrote in a band locally in places and pay the bills. I don’t have to be famous to do this, there is an actual scene that supports this. I think it was good.

I don’t think anyone makes it very easily without great advantages. And I’ve always admired the Malcolm Gladwell book about that, I can’t remember what it was called at this moment. [Editor’s note: It sounds like Folds is talking about Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers.]

Essentially what he’s saying in the book is if you succeeded you had a big leg up. And a lot of people like to say, “Well, I was poor, so I did it all by myself.” And maybe they were poor, but they were rich in another way. Which is kind of what I would describe my background as being. I can go around saying, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps,” or whatever the fuck it is you pull yourself up by.

And I did — I did the work and all. But the truth is, I had advantages. Which is why I make the distinction [between Winston-Salem and neighboring city] Greensboro, because I actually think Greensboro’s tougher. There’s less access to that stuff for someone in the same tax bracket.

Winston-Salem had it all. I could get access to jazz, piano players, drummers, original music more easily. And then just the arts in general, in schools and in the community, for lack of a better word, it was there. And that’s huge, for me it is. So much of my career has been predicated on being [musically] literate. Even the first Ben Folds Five records have got chords and craft all over it. And I started off talking about craft to begin, which is just composition. It’s composition, poetry and a sense of technique. It’s missing in rock music traditionally. Because rock music is off the grid, it’s not supposed to be learned.

Living In New Jersey And Doing Theater In New York (Early ’90s)

In the pre-Ben Folds Five years, what motivated your decision to relocate to the New York area, and what prompted the decision to move back to North Carolina?

FOLDS: Well, I’d been in Nashville, and Nashville’s structure was really good – studios, talent, the business – but it wasn’t really geared for rock music. It was geared for country music. Plenty of people who wanted to help me just didn’t know what I was doing.

To be honest, my music was… the world had to catch up with it. It’s not so much because it was ahead of its time in a linear way, but probably more of a cyclical way, like I was on another part of the cycle. I’m being careful to not imply that I’m an innovator or anything — I was on another part of the cycle.

I was published by Tree Publishing, which was acquired by Sony. Sony had an office in New York. I was about to be dropped from Sony in Nashville, but I found out through the grapevine that the whole office of Sony publishing in New York were fans. So I was like, “Oh, well, it’s best to go with…”

Not that they weren’t [fans] in Nashville, they just didn’t know what to do. They’d run through the whole thing, they’d tried to get me a record deal, they’d done everything they could. I was 25 years old, they had been spending money on me for two or three years in this publishing company and it wasn’t happening because no one heard it, and that was that.

But when I found out I might have a lifeline in New York, then I moved up to New York. I picked up The Village Voice, as one does sitting in New Jersey, and tried to figure out how I might have gainful employment that wasn’t terrible.

I was living in an attic over a garage where they were working on 2-cycle weed eater engines all the time. It was about 90 degrees in there in the summer. I had a fan, but the fan would blow in the 2-cycle engine smoke. And I just remember just sweat dripping on my Village Voice and going, “What can be done?” And then I saw open calls, so I would do open calls for stuff, and I got one. Made a little bit of money.

How did theater factor into this lifestyle?

FOLDS: I did the vagabond [thing] around New York, Connecticut, Jersey, wherever I could find a place to stay. Pretty much backpack and sofas for a lot of the time. I pretty much decided I was done with the music part, I was so chuffed to have income and friends. So when I did the musical theater it was like, “I get paid for this? I go to the same place. I’m not rejected every single night. Yeah, I dig this, this is good. This is my new home. Because I can do this, this is good.”

One of my secret weapons is that I played a lot of instruments, so if I was willing to act like I could act, then I came in handy. And especially community theater kind of stuff, where you can go backstage and place solos for the actor, they’re like playing guitar and you play a solo, and background vocals, do other parts. That’s kind of what I thought I would do.

When Nirvana broke through, it wasn’t just about grunge – it was about a way of looking at how to be a musician or performer. “We don’t have to practice in the mirror with a hair dryer for television anymore, you don’t have to have a stylist anymore. You can have wrong notes.” The very do-it-yourself, grassroots thing that I had learned in North Carolina since Let’s Active, and the dB’s, and the R.E.M. stuff that was always around. No one thought that that would go mainstream.

But then suddenly when Nirvana broke through, and I was doing my musical theater stuff, suddenly I realized that the things that I had been doing were relevant. They’ve been irrelevant for the last 10 years of my learning to write and play in clubs and doing things, but now they actually were.

I’d been playing with distorted bass in my recordings back in Nashville and had been formulating that I didn’t need a guitar. So when grunge broke through, I felt really the only little step I need to make is just to take the same songs that I’ve got, they’re basically Broadway sounding songs, and put them over Jesus Lizard.

That’s what we did. You take the piano out and it’s so fucking dirty and grungy. You would be shocked at what it sounds like. The piano went in and suddenly… Take the drums and the bass out of Ben Folds Five and suddenly it just sounds like well-crafted Broadway music. It’s funny.

I was aware that that would be a ticket to me, as well as using a real piano. Because there’s something about the organic-ness of the piano and the audacity of dragging it into a punk-rock club night after night. It really upset the punk-rock guys. They didn’t like that shit, they didn’t like the piano. And Excuse the parlance of the day, but they were like, “They’re fucking gay, get the fuck off my stage.”

It was very contentious when we would roll a piano in, which I felt was pretty punk rock in itself because I kind of understood the concept, and I’ve been growing up in it like, “Oh, I’m pissing in their yard.” I was like, “This is great, you’re upset. Have I triggered you with my piano?” We were playing ballads and Broadway songs to mosh pits. It was awesome.

It was pretty intense. Maybe it wasn’t necessary, it seemed like it was in the day. It was a spectacle. It required more of a spectacle because we were surrounded by only grunge bands with guitars, that was it. I mean, there was Tori [Amos]. But she wasn’t playing that particular scene, she’d kind of come in a different way. She arrived the way I’ve developed… Not that her songwriting and her approach isn’t raw, but it was slick. I was plugging into two Marshall stacks with my acoustic piano, and we were right down in the middle of all the grunge clubs. That was the idea.

Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella! (2009)

What do you think it is about your music that makes it so a cappella-friendly? Is it how you structure the songs that they can be broken down easily? Or does it have to do with theater and performing?

FOLDS: I’d say it’s a little of both. Culturally, it’s nerdy, so it’s a match. There are technical reasons why my songs voice-lead properly for groups like that. Guitar music, especially… When you’re singing a cappella music, the voice doesn’t want to jump that far. The voice only wants to go in little increments. The kind of music that is more conducive to a cappella is going to be stuff that voice leads a little more methodically, like a little more composition.

Timing [also has something to do with it]. Because a cappella groups really started blowing up about the same time as my album Rockin’ The Suburbs. Most groups that were singing my music a cappella were singing two particular albums: Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman. That was the golden age. There were kids doing the song “You Don’t Know Me” off of Way To Normal, I heard that done a lot by a cappella groups.

I was interested in a cappella because, one, I’m all for it. I think people singing together is amazing. I think it’s an amazing way to learn the insights of voicing chords, balancing, and being musical. Whether or not you’re reading [music], you’re having to understand it from the middle. And I dig that.

Also, it’s way preferable to keg stands and beer bongs and stuff. It still surprises me how little a cappella is supported by the universities. It’s sort of extracurricular, but it’s not like the Greek system or something. It’s still pretty outsider. So my music education side, which has always been in my blood, that all appeals as well.

The difference [between a cappella and Greek life] is, you’re learning a musical skill, and you’re working together with people in a way that may be a little bit better than having to pick up cherries off an ice block with your bare ass or something.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s an amazing skill to have. If you can do that, you can do anything. If you can dream that big, you’re unstoppable.

Recording A Collaborative EP With Ben Lee And Ben Kweller (2003)

I’ve been waiting about 20 years to tell a member of the Bens how much I loved The Bens EP. Do you think there’s a chance the Bens will ever reunite? If only to record a 20th anniversary EP?

FOLDS: I think it was probably a one-off. It was lovely to do. We were touring a lot at the same time, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for each of us to have played a particular venue within a month, all three of us. People would come out and say, “I just saw Kweller. I just saw Ben Lee.” And we were just getting a lot of suggestions, “Why don’t you guys tour together?” That really came from fans.

I think at least Ben Lee and I were talking about [touring together]. We thought, “Let’s do an Australian tour, that works well.” Right before the tour Ben Lee was going through this phase where he said, “An EP fixes everything. Just do an EP. If ever you need to do anything, just do an EP. Let’s do a souvenir EP for our tour.”

I’d just begun to rent a studio and bought equipment that went in. I needed to break in the studio, we wanted to have a souvenir EP, so we got together for a couple of days. We wrote songs in the studio for maybe two, three days, that was it. Made the EP, made copies of it. And it really made a splash, it was very interesting what kind of splash that made.

For me, having jumped into the weeds of a new solo career, I was surprised at how many doors opened that suddenly had been shut from not being in a band anymore. Ben Lee had crossed over into acting for a moment, which you might not have realized, but he was in a huge movie in Australia at that moment. Ben Kweller was just at the beginning [of his career].

The dynamic was that Ben Lee’s massive movie brought mainstream attention in Australia. I probably had the most solid numbers [for] live shows. And then Kweller added a new-kid-on-the-block vibe to it.

The effect of the whole thing was that Ben Kweller made it in Australia on that [EP]. He was starting to make it in the States and decided he didn’t want to do the Bens at all in the States… So although Lee and I wanted to… We were all for Saturday Night Live and a lot of other stuff, Ben Kweller said, “I don’t want to be associated with this band first. I want my career to be first.” So we just dropped it and that was kind of it.

It wasn’t a bad vibe. It was just like, “Oh, he doesn’t want to do this anymore. And that’s fine.” And that’s, you know, [mock British accent] “Paul has quit the Beatles.” That’s probably the way I would’ve done it too, so there you go.

Starring As Himself In You’re The Worst (2016-2019)

Speaking of on-screen appearances: One of my all-time favorite shows is FX’s You’re The Worst, and I love that you made so many appearances as yourself. How did you end up on the show in the first place, and how did you all decide how you’d play it?

FOLDS: I think the showrunner and the writers wanted to put me on. They could have had multiple ideas for a guest to do my part, and once I said I would do it perhaps they tailored it to me a little bit more. If it had been someone else, it would’ve been different. But it was fairly realized when I got there.

I think for them it was a matter of, “How much of a good sport can this guy be? Because we’ll just keep going down this idiot who can’t get alcohol in North Carolina, who’s jealous of Moby, and only runs around telling people about ‘Brick.'” Freaking rough. It’s not really what you think to put out there.

It wasn’t rough to me, but I can understand, it’s not the best marketing. People think, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m okay with that.” Most musicians probably wouldn’t be, I guess. But it was funny. They were definitely feeling that out. They were like, “You’re cool with this?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine with that.” I just needed to know what a pork shoulder was, I didn’t know what that was. Apparently I was supposed to make a mean pork shoulder.’ It’s some kind of North Carolina shit they knew about that I didn’t.

But yeah, so as far as the way I played it, I was directed to make it a little over the top. Then I started to realize, “Well, I’m not playing me. I’m playing this version that just doesn’t really make sense to me. But it’s funny, it’s ridiculous.”

It’s like, “Alcohol, you make alcohol? Wow.” That’s so stupid. “You sell alcohol??” Like they don’t have it everywhere? It’s so funny. It just got worse and worse. Had the show continued, I think they had even worse ideas for me.

Do you know what they were?

FOLDS: Actually, I think there was some talk about having me be in a coma where I could only blink to communicate, but maybe that was only because I wanted to get press. I don’t know how far it was going to go, but it probably was going to keep going.

My favorite having-been-recognized story — and I tell this to everyone because it makes me so happy to tell — is, I had a barista ask me, after serving me coffee for a year, but she didn’t know my name or anything. She goes, “You know what, I knew I recognized you, and now I know who you are.” And she says, “You’re the guy that plays Ben Folds on You’re The Worst.”

Singing “Ass Crack Bandit” On Community (2014)

In a similar vein, you also made a cameo in Community, but not as yourself – you played one Professor Bublitz. Community is one of those shows that sounded as bonkers behind the scenes as it was on camera. Do you have any recollections about what your experience was like on set that day?

FOLDS: Well, the dude that created it and ran the show was pretty punk rock. I mean, I like him a lot. I went out to dinner with him a couple times, and I think he’s great. He’s controversial.

Dan Harmon?

FOLDS: Yeah. He’s got a temper, he’s got an opinion. The one time I was on the show was the [episode] that they actually killed Chevy Chase off in one line. And that was interesting to me. It’s like they just said, “Oh, he died. Oh, really? Oh, well.” That’s how they killed him off. It was brutal. I heard some of the Chevy Chase and Dan stories.

But no, it was a really well-run show. Dan’s an artist. I remember when he was on a call, I’m not sure I was aware he was on the call, but I was talking to the producers of the show about writing the song “Ass Crack Bandit.” I have a tendency to really thoroughly analyze something before I write it, to the point where it might be suspicious. I was kind of going through a lot of that with one of the producers, and I heard someone in the background go, “Jesus fucking Christ, just write the fucking song.”

Then I realized, “Oh, okay, I’ve said too much.” But when I turned it in, he called within minutes. He was like, “Dude, this is fucking gorgeous. This is great. Holy shit, this is amazing.” He was so thankful and understood where I was coming from with the song, so.

But I understood why he said what he said, because sometimes [you] just [have to] get on with it, just write the song and shut up. Which I wasn’t doing. I was describing the kind of studio owner who might get one shot at making a song themselves. They own a studio, they wrote songs when they were little, but they’ve just been running a studio. Then suddenly there’s a social cause, and so they get the musicians in and they become the artist for one second. I wanted the guy who made “Ass Crack Bandit” to be that guy.

Those guys always like to imitate someone like Tom Waits, they have somebody in their mind that they want to do. They usually can’t sing that well, so I had the guy singing like this [puts on gruff voice], “It was quarter to five, but it was quarter to ass.” So I’m describing all this and Dan’s like, “I don’t want to hear all that fucking shit, just write the song.”

When production schedules run up against the creative process…

FOLDS: Yeah, no, he had other shit to do. But I just didn’t know he was on the phone. I was in a parking lot. My son was going in to get video games, so I was out in the sun in Lincoln Boulevard between [Santa Monica] and Venice at some fucking video place and outside in the sun talking to him.

I was impressed with him. He doesn’t do it the easy way, he’s a proper artist, like stuck in an area that you would normally associate a little more business-to-art ratio, but he’s more art-to-business ratio in his world. That’s what I got out of him, and I thought he was awesome.

When his name would come up when I was living [in LA], 50% of the time it was, “Fuck that guy.” The other 50% of the time it was like, “He’s a God.” So he’s doing something right, but I’m sure he knows that too.

He was the first guy I ever saw getting into an Uber. I thought he had his own personal driver, I didn’t know what Uber was. We met at a vegan restaurant and he goes, “Oh, my ride’s here,” to his phone. I was like, “Oh, shit, the ride’s here.” I mean, we’d paid the bill and everything, we were just having drinks. So I walked him over to the door and he gets into a limo. It’s like, “That’s your ride? Jesus Christ.” And then I found out that that was Uber. I just thought he had a personal limo driver. And I was like, “Wow, I’ve totally underestimated the income of a showrunner for a show like that. This guy’s rolling in it.”

What Matters Most is out 6/2 on New West.

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