Darren Jessee Of Ben Folds Five

But after seven months of struggling to find work in Music City, Jessee decided to move back to Chapel Hill. “I left because I didn’t see a lot going on [in Nashville] as far as rock and roll and pop music at the time,” he says. “All the people I knew who were working there were in their forties, and it just didn’t seem like a place where a young guy could make a living at music.”

darren jessee

Jessee’s Setup

Drums: Leedy Black Oyster
1. 24" x 14" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5" Ludwig Supraphonic Snare Drum
3. 13" x 9" Tom
4. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
5. 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 14" A Hi-Hats
B. 22" Sizzle Cymbals
C. 24" K Ride
D. 20" A Crash/Ride

Darren Jessee also claims to use a 2,000-foot riser. We kind of doubt it.

Destiny couldn’t have taken a more fortunate turn, because after returning home, Jessee ran into Folds at a Chapel Hill coffee shop. “I asked him what he was doing and he said he was moving back to Chapel Hill,” Jessee remembers. “He wasn’t doing everything he wanted to do in Nashville. He wanted to form a band, and I immediately said I’d love to do it.” Folds’ brother recommended Sledge, and, “The three of us got together a week later, and we were a band, like that.”

Their first rehearsal took place in Jessee’s Chapel Hill apartment in January of ’94. “Rob brought his bass and amp in. Ben had to rent a little keyboard to bring, it was just really weenie, but it’s all we could do,” he says. “We just started playing and singing and dove right into it. We basically worked on songs that Ben had written and made arrangements – playing parts, constructing vocal parts. Then there’s instrumental stuff we just make up, that’s a big part of what we like to do. About a month later we were playing gigs.”

With six months of gigging, writing and rehearsing under their belts, the band went into the studio to cut its first album, which received some critical acclaim and a healthy dose of underground success. “The first record, in my opinion, is our best record,” Jessee says. “It’s the most concise picture of the band. We did it for $5,000 and recorded it in five or six days. We just flew through it, and it captured a spirit of the band that really helped define us.”

Following the release of Ben Folds Five, the band toured nonstop for a full year, building a solid groundwork for their follow-up album, which, it turned out, they only had a month to write and record. Jessee laughs, “I don’t know who said it: ’You have a lifetime to write your first record, and two weeks to write your second.’ It’s really true.”

Naturally, they followed the most unorthodox course available. Rather than booking a studio, they went home to Chapel Hill. “We had a lot of work to do in that month, so we decided to record in our house,” Jessee says. “Not really technically correct or anything recording-wise, but when you’re in a place where you’re comfortable, like home, it’s bound to come out in the playing. So we took the money from the record company and rented and bought equipment, and basically camped out in the house. We wrote and recorded everything at our leisure, in privacy.”

Their gamble worked. Whatever and Ever Amen brought the Ben Folds Five to the attention of the listening public. “Recording your second record with only a month to do it in is really scary, especially since our first record was received so well by everybody,” Jessee confesses, “It was on a lot of critics’ Top 10 lists, so we had a lot of pressure going into it. But it worked out really well. ’Selfless, Cold and Composed’ [see Ex. 1] and a couple other songs we were really proud of how they turned out. I think Whatever and Ever Amen has songs on it that truly stand out as better songs than anything we had done before.”

Jessee graduated from his own school of drumming, where he mixes street wisdom with a polished, academic technique that is at once silky-smooth and flashy. “Once I got out there and started playing, before I met Ben or Robert, everything was really about learning off-the-cuff playing,” he says. “I think that [having an ear] is something you can’t learn in school. The street musician things that you really need, they saved my ass a lot more than the circle of fifths.”

Playing with a loose, traditional grip, Jessee’s vocabulary ranges from lilting jazz waltzes to funky second-line marches to pure punk rock bashing. And not to stop there – he also sings. “I’d always sung a little in bands. It’s never really scared me, I guess because I’ve never really considered myself a singer,” he laughs. “It [playing and singing] certainly isn’t effortless. It’s very frustrating sometimes. Like on ’Steven’s Last Night in Town’ [see Ex. 2], I’m doing this Gene Krupa—type beat on the floor toms and swinging my head around and singing this radically different vocal part, and Ben’s playing and Robert’s got his fuzz bass going, and it’s difficult to find my pitch. I have to say, though, I enjoy it when I don’t have to sing because I can concentrate on my playing more and just have more freedom. Sometimes I do think I play less because of the vocal part.”

Take a look at Jessee’s setup to the right, and you’ll see a classic five-piece kit that has more in common with Gene Krupa than Stewart Copeland. And that’s because, in his own way, Jessee is a traditionalist. “I love the sound of warm drums,” he says. “I’m not hung up on vintage gear. I like new stuff, but when I go to the music store and close my eyes, I always find that I like the Slingerland or Ludwig kits from the ’60s, you know, just the way they talk.”

And while we’re on the subject of drums, what about endorsements? “I’ve talked to different people about endorsing, but it’s kind of a weird thing, because my ear always changes, you know? I like something for a few weeks, then I want to switch, and I’ll go back. My first real drum kit was a Tama kit. It was great. They’re really versatile, and they’re not all teched-out like DW drums.

“I have all different cymbals, they’re all Zildjian As and Ks. My favorite is this 24" K ride. It’s really old. I don’t know when it was made. I got it at a pawn shop years ago. It just has a beautiful sound. I have an old set of 14" and 15" A hi-hats. I have a lot of crashes.” He begins to rethink the “not hung up on vintage gear” statement he made earlier. “Okay, I’m sort of a cymbal freak. I have an endorsement with Zildjian, but most of the stuff I like to use I’ve had for years.”

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