Friday, August 15, 2008

An Interview With Darren Jessee

Darren Jessee was the drummer for Ben Folds Five, and he's now the leader of Hotel Lights, a band I've championed around here more than once. (That's Jessee at right. Photo credit: Debora Francis.) Spin has written, “with his new project, Hotel Lights, Jessee reveals a more aching, hushed side to his craft that owes as much to Sparklehorse (which, coincidentally, shares a member in guitarist Alan Weatherhead) as it does the lonely landscapes of Being There-era Wilco. And even in Jessee's most introspective moments, the sparkling folk-pop arrangements of Hotel Lights conjure a breezy autumn whimsy.” So, given that breezy autumn is mercifully approaching, it's only appropriate that Hotel Lights' sophomore full-length, Firecracker People, is coming out next Tuesday. I've heard it, and it's terrific. Jessee was kind enough to answer several questions by e-mail:

ASWOBA: What's the biggest difference for you, in terms of the creative process or otherwise, between being part of a band and being the leader of a band?

DARREN JESSEE: Well, writing songs would be the biggest creative difference. But I feel like I approach each project with the goal of making a great recording.

SW: What's your favorite place in the U.S. -- anywhere from a small town to a big city -- that you've visited while touring and might not have discovered otherwise?

DJ: Hmm...I first came to New York City on tour in 1994 and now it’s my home. I also love the midwest and northwest.

SW: A friend and I once played a parlor game: If you had to play a full night of songs from another songwriter's catalog, which songwriter would you choose and why? (This is a much more relevant question for you, since my friend and I aren't musicians. For the record, though, we both chose Paul Simon.)

DJ: Kool Keith! I dunno. I would just want to have fun with something like that. Maybe the Vasolines!

SW: Pardon the potentially sappy/silly tone of this, which is not how I mean it, but in listening to Hotel Lights songs -- both the instrumentation and the way it blends with your voice -- it seems that you're interested in sonic beauty in ways that not many current-day musicians are. Could you talk a little about whether I'm crazy, or if you think that's true.

DJ: I love atmosphere in music, and Hotel Lights is my vehicle to create it. I don’t really concern myself too much with what other artists are doing except to enjoy their music. I try to follow my gut and write some truth into a song if I can. I love good melodies with unexpected moves.

SW: If someone reading this hasn't heard Hotel Lights yet, and wants to download three songs to give you guys a test run (let's assume they're a cheap person), which three would you recommend? No reasons necessary.

DJ: Maybe . . . “You Come and I Go,” “Amelia Bright,” and “Small Town Shit.”

SW: What are three or four of your favorite songs from the Ben Folds Five years? (I think I read somewhere that you co-wrote "Wandering," which appeared on a solo e.p. of his. That's a favorite of mine.)

DJ: Oh, cool, glad you like “Wandering.” I’d pick “Julianne,” “Alice Childress,” “Brick,” and “Narcolepsy.”

SW: Heard anything good lately that you'd recommend? And how do you find out about most of the new music you listen to -- other musicians, magazines, online?

DJ: Yeah, I find out in all those ways, and mostly from my friends. I’d recommend James Yorkston if you like good mellow songwriters. I also love Richard Hawley.

SW: What's your favorite Beatles song?

DJ: Are you serious? Sorry, John, that’s an impossible question.

SW: What's the longest you've ever gone between first coming up with an idea for a song and recording it?

DJ: Eight years.

SW: Let's avoid the traditional "desert island discs" question. Instead, let's say for whatever ridiculous reason that you can only save three records -- one that reminds you of when you were 16, one that reminds you of when you were 23, and a third that you've been listening to a lot this year. What three records are we looking at?

DJ: At 16: The Replacements or The Cure. 23: Grandaddy or Richard Buckner. This year: Dylan -- the bootleg series.

SW: Lastly, the new Hotel Lights record, Firecracker People, which is out in a few days. How are you feeling now that it's almost out in the world?

DJ: I’ve always admired bands that make different sounding albums each time. I didn’t want to make the same sounding backdrop. I tried to keep moving sonically on the new album, and we had fun using Chamberlin keyboard samples and string samples to build arrangements behind my acoustic guitar. I hope that it’s all grounded by my singing and songwriting.


Blogger David said...

Excellent interview, John. I've often wondered what became of Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge after the break-up of Ben Folds Five; you've satisfied half of that idle curiosity.

I'll have to check out Hotel Lights. I'm especially interested in hearing Amelia Bright; Ben Folds Five performed it in concert on several occasions (in the pre-"The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" days), but, to my knowledge, never recorded it. I have a bootleg copy of the song, which I like a lot, but I've always hoped to hear a properly recorded version of it that doesn't sound like it was performed underwater. It looks like I'll have my chance.

7:45 PM  

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