Darren Jessee has some street (smarts)

Clinging to all dignity I have left is a virtue of mine. That dignity is shrouded in the musical stylings of my contemporaries and one musician who lends hope to my desperate, fragile, state is Darren Jessee of Hotel Lights. What can I say besides, “I’ve always had a thing for the drummer?”

That being said, the former percussion junkie-cum-frontman has been making a few solo albums since departing from Ben Folds Five and while he no longer lends dissonance to obscure tracks, I adore this new project that proves unnerving in the most beautiful way possible. It’s as though his transition from backbone to center-stage was in the cards all along. Thanks to his fearless ambition I can trudge forward into the masses knowing sweet tunes will be awaiting my return back home.

He was kind enough to agree to an interview at a small Chicago staple, The Hideout. If you’re not acquainted with the locale you most likely wouldn’t step foot inside. It’s located in a rather industrial part of town, the guise of someones two story home. It’s near alleyways and rundown lots. The streets surrounding are the perfect spot for a late night brawl to turn brutal but you’d really never meet with such demise here. This place is simply where locals come to hear truly great, off the radar groups, not your typical top 40 nonsense.

Cut to the chase will ya lady? I’d love to. Here before you are lines of the interview I ever so dutifully conducted on a small bench outside of the bar. We spoke before his set and I often muttered over him trying to keep focus on the line of questioning at hand. The show took place afterward and the bars atmosphere was perfect for his haunting, humble works. So without further distraction:

Ben Folds Five originated in North Carolina. Did you grow up there?

When I was really young I lived in Texas but ended up in North Carolina.

Texas has a lot to offer a budding musician. Did you gather any influence from Texas bred artists:

I was too small to really listen to what was playing on the radio when I lived there. But, yeah…I mean Townes Van Zandt. Texas has always had some great songwriters.

Where do you reside now?

I was traveling back and forth from Chapel Hill to New York a lot. I lived in Chapel Hill for a number of years and after I made this new record I went to live in Brooklyn. It’s great. I have a lot of great friends there, I know a lot of musicians. I like just walking around the city, soaking it up. Chapel Hill is my home, that’s where I started in bands and so I have a connection there. My heart is sort of in between both places.

Do you find it troublesome booking shows?

It can be difficult. This tour right now, it’s stripped back and very acoustic. We’re just playing little spots and trying out new songs. It’s really very loose and we’re having a lot of fun. The tours I was on for the first Hotel Lights record were more band tours and rock clubs, a lot more detail involved.

Your record was very well received, how do you respond to such praise?

Thanks! I think that it touches a few people and I think that the record was respectable. It was a record I actually made myself and put out, it was an independent record and then Bar None Records picked it up later and released it nationally. It’s really just me wanting to put out a record.

How did you find the transition from drummer to singer/songwriter?

It’s been fine. It’s a whole other sort of thing to tackle. It requires different sensibilities. I always kind of enjoyed writing but I was never very ambitious with it. Then, when Ben Folds Five split up I just decided to make a record. And then, once people were excited about it I decided to really give it a go. So now I’m out here in Chicago playing shows. I just got pulled into it, I don’t know. I don’t want to say it’s difficult, I think it’s just a matter of being excited about it and putting your heart into it, being open to the ideas coming to you. It’s a craft like anything else and you get better at it if you’re patient.

You’ve been described as “ethereal,” what does that even mean for you? Is it just another word in the dictionary?

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to talk about my music like that. I think Hotel Lights is interesting because it’s kind of an indie band but there’s also this, sort of, seventies singer/songwriter element to it. It’s out on its own and I think when we were first talking to some record labels the comments we got back were, “we’re not sure who this record is for” and, “who’s going to listen to this kind of stuff?”

Are there other bands comparable to Hotel Lights?

Oh yeah, Queensryche maybe (laughs)…Depeche Mode and definitely M.C. Hammer in his heyday. I do think there is a movement for people writing just mellow folks songs right now. I’d say there are a lot of bands that are similar, but I’m not too sure.

Are there any Chapel Hill bands you can see emerging soon?

Yes. Chapel Hill bands are going to own the pavement soon. Bands like The Rosebuds and The Comas. There are so many. Also, Erie Choir and Schooner, they’re great. I’ve been out of touch since I moved to New York.

How do you feel about marketing on social networking sites?

I think it works fine and helps get your message out there. It’s just happening so everyone is excited about it, working with it. The record labels are scrambling to figure out how to control it a bit. I love the Internet, it’s a great tool.

Speaking of record labels, what do you seek when searching for one?

Lots of money (laughs), unfortunately that did not work out. Ultimately I look for someone that is really excited about the music, someone that will fight for me. Generally they just put it out and then they’re on to the next thing. So, if you find someone that really loves what you’re doing and they have some distribution that’s probably the best route for an indie band.

Have you ever been to Wilmington, North Carolina?

Yeah, I really liked a few bands from there like Summerset and Rodeo Boy. Wilmington’s pretty, I like to spend the day walking around down there, going into CD Alley. We played at the Soapbox once.

Have you ever been paired with opening acts that are of opposite genres, or at a location completely out of your element?

We’ve been to places that turn out to be more coffee shop than club and I think the tendency with most bands is to roll their eyes and wonder how they’re going to get through it. But I think that’s part of being a musician and so you kind of have to man up and do it to have fun. Do your own thing and shine in your own way. I can see why it’d be frustrating but it’s part of the journey.

The chatting stopped there as they had to perform. The crowd was plentiful and the show magnificent. Afterward I thanked the band in the only way I truly knew, with a straight shot of Jameson. I never said I knew how to order it; just that I knew men drank that sort of thing. (I wound up having to ask for some ice…apparently it’s better that way).

-Holly Jones, Editor, On Tour Magazine