Interview with Ben Folds and William Shatner -- EW talks to the musical odd couple about their recent collaboration and audience reaction to their spoken-word album

Who’da thunk the most legitimately punk-rock song of 2004 would belong to William Shatner? Maybe only Ben Folds, who paired the actor with Joe Jackson on a remake of Pulp’s 1995 U.K. hit ”Common People” that may be the most raging evocation of class warfare since the Clash had acne. Most of the rest of Shatner’s Has Been — his first album since 1968’s notorious The Transformed Man — sets his own spoken-word monologues to Folds’ music, with alternately comic and (believe it or not) touching results. Set audience reactions on…stunned.

EW This isn’t the album of ironic covers people might expect.

FOLDS Someone says ”Produce a William Shatner record” and the first thing you think is ”Man, wouldn’t it be great if Shatner did this [song]? It’d be so f—in’ funny!” Then it occurred to me that there was nothing lasting or real about that. He’s 70-whatever years old and has a lot to say, and the need to communicate that just oozed out of him.

SHATNER I said to Ben, ”What are we gonna do?” And he said, ”Tell the truth.”

EW The balance of comedy and sobriety will throw people off.

SHATNER Even the progression of numbers was given a great deal of thought — how to lead your ear and alert you to the fact that you’re not going to laugh at, you’re going to laugh with….I was on Howard Stern last week and he said, ”Is this a goof?” He obviously hadn’t heard it. This is my heart and feelings showing….I’ve got to take that wild stampede of laughter and corral it. And make a chorale of it!

FOLDS I love the angle of ”Is he serious?” There’s some art in that, when you have to look at something again because it’s thrown your brain into a different context. I realize that there is the cheap appeal of ”William Shatner recites rock music,” and we’ll sell some records on that [laughs], so I don’t complain about it too much. But I wanted to make sure he was always in control of the laugh….I’m probably more defensive of it than Bill. Or parental. I just keep on wanting to hit someone upside the head with a Coke bottle if they don’t like it.

EW Did you have doubts about putting on that deeply personal monologue about your third wife’s death, ”What Have You Done, ” amid so much comedic material?

SHATNER Yes, huge doubts. I wanted to tell even my kids — with whom I’ve never sat down and said, ”This is what happened and how I feel” — about this subject. They know I’m looking at death and pondering what’s beyond our existence here. I knew I would never perform the song, but I included it because I wanted to explain it to the people I love.