In a different era, Darren Jessee’s career would seem perfectly normal. As things stand, it’s something of an anomaly.
He’s best known as the drummer for Ben Folds Five, the North Carolina band with whom he achieved breakout success in the mid-1990s. He’s also worked as a drummer for Sharon Van Etten, the War on Drugs, and Hiss Golden Messenger, all while producing six albums of his own, four as the leader and primary songwriter of the band Hotel Lights and two under his name. “My drumming came from a love of songs,” says Jessee. “I’ve always thought troubadour songwriting, jazz drumming, poetry … to me, these have a thread between them. There’s a sense of beauty and craft and rhythm that makes sense to me, so it doesn’t feel like a stretch.”
Jessee’s newest album, Remover, released in October on Bar/None Records, is an astonishing collection of ten songs recorded at his home in North Carolina. It’s a quiet little masterpiece that plumbs the depths of small moments and fleeting acts of intimacy (“Your eyes in the fading light”, “We slept with the window open, we could hear the boats coming in”, “I was weak with longing, I was in midair”). “My intention, often, is to worm my way into people’s hearts and break it just a little,” says Jessee, “and then, in the end, leave it in a place where, because it’s broken, it starts to heal … because you’re no longer resisting it.”
Produced by Alan Weatherhead, the songs themselves feel cast in a soft glow, like a close-up in a 1930s movie. The overall effect is like the tail end of a dream when the seam with reality has frayed, and all the boundaries become blurry. In Jessee’s best songs, you can acutely feel his concern with years blowing by and taking our best days with them. They seem to reach about for something to grab onto; the past, the present, and the coming days all piled on top of each other. Water builds into a wave that then breaks apart. Frost gathers on windows and then melts away again. We’re here, we’re there, we’re wherever we’re headed next, and then we’re gone.
“I think it’s confusing for some people that someone who might be well-known as a drummer also makes these types of songs,” says Jessee. “It is a bit unusual, but it’s also kind of thrilling. I think drummers are supposed to make kind of silly, big rock records, or maybe just kind of shallow music. I’ve always been after something deeper.” Remover expands on the template he created with 2018’s remarkably intimate The Jane, Room 217. Remover is closer to a traditional band album, with bassist Jay Brown, Weatherhead’s guitar and keyboards, and Jessee’s drumming, guitar, and piano playing, filling out most of the arrangements. Each detail on it is so expertly rendered that taken together, and the album is a revelation.
“I think I’m a secret frustrated short story writer,” says Jessee. “I’ve tried and failed at that several times, so songwriting, to me, getting to work with the economy of lyrics and rhyme scheme and melody, when you can throw those factors into writing it makes it possible for me to tell stories. A lot of times, my songs are built to sound more personal than they are. I don’t have a big voice, but I’ve learned how to use it. And lyrically, often I’m writing a song for one person, and if I get that right, it will resonate with a lot of people.”
Jessee grew up in Houston, Texas, and his family relocated to North Carolina while still in junior high. As a teenager in the mid-’80s, he took up drumming, and his interests turned to college rock and joining a band. “It was the heyday of college radio,” he says, “so I was already getting the feeling that I wanted to join a band and see the world.” Let It Be by the Replacements, he says, is “probably why I wanted to be in a band. It looked like my friends and me, and it looked like the roof outside of my bedroom. I obsessed over that record, and I always thought, ‘I know that they’re rehearsing in their bedroom in there, and they just walked out onto the roof to take a break.'”
As his playing improved, he began paying more attention to the great drummers who had helped create bebop in the 1940s. “Once I started noticing I was getting good at drums, it was natural to look at jazz,” says Jessee. “When I discovered people like Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey, I kind of became obsessed.” He enrolled in East Carolina University with a focus on drumming, intent on building a life in music. “I didn’t have a big social life,” he says. “I was just really into music.”
Photo: Courtesy of Team Clermont
While in college, he met bassist Robert Sledge and pianist Ben Folds. In 1993, they formed Ben Folds Five: a high energy, odd duck piano, bass, and drums trio built around Folds’s frenetic piano playing and sometimes jokey and sarcastic lyrics. “It was pretty much the only piano trio at that time,” says Jessee. “Now you have piano everywhere. At that time, there was none of that. Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, even Coldplay, they didn’t exist in a commercial sense when we were starting. There was no blueprint for us except for, like, Elton John’s early trio and Randy Newman.”
Jessee’s crisp and fearless drumming complimented Folds’s piano playing (“the fuzzed-up punch of his rhythm section leads [Folds] into a world hipper than most sitdown rockers ever know,” wrote The Trouser Press in a review of the band’s debut album) and the band became known for their high-energy live shows. Jessee’s drumming could be bombastic when needed and then just as easily slip into a more supportive role. He contributed to the band’s songwriting, sang back-ups from behind his kit, and always seemed to be in the middle of everything happening on stage. At the time, there was no one else playing quite like him. Though considerably more attention was given to the more traditional rock drummers of grunge, with hindsight, it’s much easier to appreciate just how beautifully idiosyncratic and ahead of its time, his drumming was.
“I was really into Neil Young, and on those records, they’ll just use the ride cymbal in the verse,” says Jessee. “I found that you could do that in a piano, bass, and drums band because that frequency isn’t being taken over by guitar. And it creates a real mood. It was partially that the vehicle I had was perfect for my skill-set. I liked the idea of trying to find a style that not everyone was doing, so I think there’s an element of ’90s in it but this other element of jazz or big-band type propulsion, but it was all done sort of recklessly and full of energy and heart.”
The band released their self-titled debut album in 1995, followed by Whatever and Ever Amen in 1997. With the second album, Jessee says, “there were expectations. People were telling us that we needed to be the next R.E.M., and the pressure was building.” They scored an unlikely — if very welcome — hit song with “Brick”, a ballad about a teenage couple deciding to terminate their surprise pregnancy. It featured an indestructible chorus hook written by Jessee. If you were even an occasional radio listener or MTV watcher over the winter of 1997, you heard the song an awful lot.
“It’s hard for people to remember,” says Jessee. “That era was much different. It was a much more cutthroat era of radio relevance, and there was no social media. Our band was not going to survive unless we had a little commercial success because it’s hard to travel with a grand piano and just three people. So, we knew we had to get to this place where we could get a merch person, and someone to drive so we could sleep, and some help with the load-ins. We knew we had to grow the business a little to make this sustainable, or we were going to burn out. I think that the thing about ‘Brick’, and Ben mentions this in his book, it really felt more like a relief for everyone than a huge success. People expected it from us, and when it happened, we were like, ‘Thank god,’ because other bands were getting dropped. But we stuck to our guns. We made the record we wanted to make at our house, so it has integrity, and somehow we managed to hang on. And in the end, it was great having a hit song because we could pay for things finally, and we didn’t have to share the same hotel bed.”
The band made one more record, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, before breaking up. “If you’re going to play in a trio,” says Jessee, “everyone in the trio sort of needs to be accomplished for it to work. It’s also part of the reason why they don’t last because it’s an intense environment to navigate. Five-piece bands are much easier.”
Jessee moved to New York to regroup and settle on a next step. “I was touring before I could buy beer,” he says. “I signed my first record deal at 22, and then I signed a major label deal at 24. I played on Saturday Night Live with a hit song we co-wrote together at 25 years old. It was sort of non-stop. I needed to figure some things out for myself.” Offers came in to join on as a drummer-for-hire with marquee-name touring acts, but ultimately Jessee opted to put together a new band of his own that would feature his songwriting.
He formed Hotel Lights, and the band released its first album in 2004. “I had spent my 20s being told who I was,” he says. “As a musician, there are things you’ll do because you think you ought to do them. It’s hard to start saying ‘No’ to those things and just say, ‘I know what I want to do. I want to make beautiful music for sad misfits.’ It took me a while to get there. After a while, it became clear where my heart was at.”
Over the next decade, Hotel Lights released an EP and two more full-length albums before releasing their final album, 2016’s Get Your Hand In My Hand. For chunks of that time, Jessee was simultaneously staying on the road playing drums for other bands. In 2015, he reunited with Ben Folds Five for a new album and subsequent tour. He played with Sharon Van Etten on tour to support her 2014 release Are We There, and in 2016, relocated back to North Carolina to join Hiss Golden Messenger.
“It’s really cool to be able to jump back and forth because it helps you get perspective,” he says. “As far as drumming goes, I will only play with artists I love … You have to ask yourself what you’re interested in. Is it just to be on a tour bus and to be playing arenas, or is it to be an artist making music that you’re excited about? I think that was always a complicated choice for me, but ultimately I’ve made peace with the idea that deep down, I’m an artist that wants to create things I believe in rather than wake up on a tour bus.”
In 2018, he released The Jane, Room 217, the first album under his own name. It’s an almost spectral
recording, with Jessee’s acoustic guitar and vocals set among strings and woodwinds. It’s something of a stream of consciousness travelogue; “fragments of memory,” as he sings on “All But a Dream”, one of the album’s best songs, reordered, reconsidered, and pieced back together. “You could have taken that record and re-recorded it and sped the songs up and put me in a studio with a real band and made a very different record, but I fought to keep the initial epiphany of inspiration intact,” says Jessee. “It’s a little flawed in some ways, but I find that it can go deeper emotionally. I find that really appealing, and I find that it helped those particular songs speak the loudest in that setting.”
It was a bold choice for a debut release. In retrospect, it feels like something of a forced reset, aggressively stripping away the traditional trappings of a rock band to explore other possibilities for putting a song across. With Remover, more familiar elements are added back. The writing is direct but resists cliché and preciousness. There’s a kind of confidence, or even muscularity, to the construction of the album and in the band’s playing that gives the whole thing a kind of sturdiness that becomes all the more apparent as you start to realize just how rare it is in most modern albums.
Jessee was involved in making challenging, individualistic music that still manages to find an audience his entire adult life. Still, you get the feeling when talking with him that he’s just now coming into his own. “The attitude and dynamic that builds the music have changed,” he says. “Starting this new solo thing has reinvigorated me in a way. To get a fresh start this late in something you’ve been doing so long is really a great feeling.”