Darren Jessee Of Ben Folds Five

darren jessee

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.

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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.”

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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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As we said, way back at the beginning of this story, the Ben Folds Five guys like to goof around, not only in interviews, but also on stage and in the studio. But just as their absurdity begins to bubble over the top, and fracture into inextricable bedlam, one – or all – of them manages to whip out an astounding lick, or texture, or style, or sentiment that, in its utter incongruity, lends complete credibility to their sound, elevating them miles above other “jokey” bands, like, say, the Presidents of the United States of America (remember them?).

Chemistry is paramount to the creative process. “Robert and I are very competitive,” Jessee says. “It may not always be apparent, but if any of us get a chance to show off or stick our head out, we’ll do it. We get along great, he’s a great friend, an amazing musician. I was a much lighter player before I met Robert, he really got me to rock out more. He plays with a lot of distortion sometimes, and fills in a lot of areas. The lack of guitar makes it so he can come in with the fuzz bass and vocal so you hear that high-end thing. Sometimes the sizzliness of a cymbal can get into that high-to-mid range and we’ll back off a bit.”

And what of Mr. Folds himself, the chair-throwing, headfirst-diving pianist/ songwriter/lead vocalist? “Ben’s a fantastic drummer,” Jessee concedes, “He more or less is a piano player to me, because he writes songs and performs on the piano. He doesn’t really practice on any instrument. I think piano is what he’s best at because it’s what he’s been doing for four years. But when I first met him, I would have thought he was as good a bass player or drummer as he was a piano player.”

We’re sitting backstage at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Jessee is due to go on stage in a couple of hours to play the headlining spot. A drag on his cigarette, and he ponders, “It’s really exciting thinking about the third record, because we are really coming together as a band. I think it’s going to be our best record yet.”

This time, it’s fairly obvious that he isn’t kidding.