It’s hard to tell if anyone in Ben Folds Five is completely serious at any given moment. Take, for example, drummer Darren Jessee’s offhand remark about a rumor that he and none other than Madonna have had an igneous affair. Sure, he admits with a poker face, that there’s no truth in the hearsay, but the question remains: Who exactly would even be tempted to invent such a fib about the unassuming and relatively obscure 26-year-old drummer?
And no, it’s not a quintet, it’s a trio. Why the Ben Folds Five? These guys like alliteration, and obviously, having a lot of fun. Jessee, along with pianist Ben Folds and bassist Robert Sledge, are bringing songwriting skill, chops, dynamics (evidenced by their current single “Brick”), and outright lunacy back to rock and roll.
Guitars? They don’t need no stinkin’ guitars! The stripped-down group is currently bowling over audiences and enlisting new fans through some of the country’s more interesting venues, dishing out songs from their current release, Whatever and Ever Amen, as well as their self-titled debut (they’ve also released an album of alternate takes and live recordings called Naked Baby Pictures). All without a single power chord.
Music critics have gone into contortions trying to describe the Folds Five sound. Their music has been mentioned in the same breath with Billy Joel, early and late Joe Jackson, Elton John, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Queen, and Elvis Costello. Still, none of these comparisons come close. Show tunes and thrash? Punk rock for sissies? Cole Porter meets Cannibal Corpse, perhaps – just without all that icky blood?
The live show boasts no live bats or raw meat, though Folds is known to throw drum thrones (the group ordered four for the next month and a half) and dive headfirst into the Steinway piano that he takes on tour. Jessee laughs: “The whole smashing the piano thing – he didn’t get wise to that until a couple years ago. We were playing a gig somewhere and he just threw his stool and saw a reaction. Now it’s kind of a trademark thing. He used to dive into it more, but he started hurting himself.”
Jessee grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and his first instrument wasn’t the drums. It was (surprise!) the guitar. “Everybody in my neighborhood was picking up the guitar around 12 or 13, and the drums actually came from a suggestion that my mom made,” Jesse says. “She said, ’Why don’t you consider playing the drums? Then it will be easier to find a band.’” In awe of his mom’s inescapably hip logic, Jessee scored a CB700 kit from the newspaper for a hundred and fifty bucks. It wasn’t long before the bug bit. “I just fell in love with it, and once I started doing it, I took off, which is a lot more than I can say for my guitar playing.”
His folks listened to early Motown and Stax records – not that it influenced Jessee much, at least back then. “They would call up the oldies stations,” he remembers. “I was 14, and you know, you really don’t accept too many things from your parents because you want to step out and do your own thing, and you think you know it all anyway. A lot of that stuff – Motown, Stax – I love it now. At the time I was definitely more into the ’70s stuff, rock and pop. My dad was a big Willie Nelson fan, but I wasn’t into him at 14. Now I love him. I think my parents have great taste.”
While he might not have been much of a Willie Nelson fan, the teenage Jessee did have some pretty sophisticated tastes. “Early on, I think I was more influenced by local jazz guys,” he says. “There was this guy in Charlotte – Donny Marshall. My dad would take me down to see him play, in a club that I wasn’t old enough to get into in the first place. I remember everybody just being really nice to me, letting me in to watch him play. They knew I was too young to be in there, but they let me in anyway.”
Even still, through most of his high school years, Jessee played primarily in rock bands, and admired a number of rock drumming heroes. “Stewart Copeland was one of the first drummers who I saw and really just went, ’Wow’ – jaw dropping open,” he says, “Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell – I had a big Mitch phase. Still do. I also liked a lot of the bands that came from the south, like R.E.M., but they don’t necessarily have that ’star drummer.’”
While still in high school, Jessee made up his mind to become a professional musician. “I would talk to my teachers who were musicians and say, ’This is what I want to do,’ and they would say, ’Okay,’ but try and get me to consider something else,” he remembers. “Which isn’t bad advice, but it burned me all the more to go out and do what I wanted.”
Determined to learn his craft, after graduating high school, he attended East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, where he majored in music and studied the classical repertoire, which included mallet literature. It wasn’t long, though, before he realized there was a conflict between his studies and his ambitions. “Honestly, I was just pretty determined to play drums in a rock and roll band,” he says. “It’s not that I had a problem with school. I just said, ’This is what I want to do.’ Besides, I was losing interest in the marimba really quickly. I was 19 years old and totally into drum set and rock and roll.
“I had been there for a year, and I had been playing drums with a band around town called In Limbo, which was started with a good friend who I grew up with. It was our first experience writing and arranging our own material and putting it all together. It was a fun rock and roll band, but it didn’t last long. Then around ’91 I decided to drop out of school and go back to the Chapel Hill area. There are more bands, and more happening there.”
Within two years, though, Jessee decided to move to Nashville to look for work. It was a fateful decision, because while there, he happened to meet Folds. “Ben was living there and playing with another group,” Jessee says. “When I saw him, I was pretty blown away. I loved the songs, which was the same kind of stuff he’s doing now, but it was more of a mature kind of thing. The way he acts now is much more radical than he was before.”