“Whatever I want it to be”:
An interview with Darren Jessee of Hotel Lights

Darren Jessee (photo by Deborah Francis)

Darren Jessee is the singer, songwriter and guitarist of Hotel Lights whose second album “Firecracker People” was released in the USA in late August. He was kind enough to answer our questions via email:

Let’s start with the obvious: there’s a sticker on the CD case of “Firecracker People” saying that Hotel Lights is the new band of the former Ben Folds Five drummer. Ben Folds Five disbanded eight years ago, that’s more time than they ever existed. In how far do you like or dislike being referred to as the “former drummer of Ben Folds Five”?

I don’t mind. I’ve accepted all that. Hotel Lights also has many young fans who never listened to Ben Folds Five. But people don’t talk about that very much.

One song on the new record is “Amelia Bright”, a song that became famous as one of the last three new songs by Ben Folds Five in 2000. Why did it take so long for the song to reappear? Is it as special to you as it is to many Ben Folds Five fans?

When I first started doing Hotel Lights I didn’t want to appear that I was just trying to get by on my connection with Ben Folds Five. It was important to me to make my first album without any older songs. After some time I was able to re-visit “Amelia Bright” and realize I really wanted to record that song for myself. When I wrote it, I had no idea Ben was going to sing it a few times.

I’m not sure there are lots of people out there who are sitting around thinking “Amelia Bright” is a Ben Folds Five song. I don’t think so. It’s a Darren Jessee song, and I’m happy people are excited about it, but I’m not trying to please Ben Folds Five fans by recording it. I just wanted to sing the song that I wrote for my new album.

Your picture is on the album cover. Are you Hotel Lights? Who else is Hotel Lights?

Hotel Lights is whatever I want it to be. I’m just having fun and doing what is exciting to me. Right now I’m joined by Al Weatherhead of Sparklehorse, Mike Cruz of the Wilco side project Autumn Defense, and Jay Brown and Zeke Hutchins of Tift Merritt’s band.

Darren Jessee (photo by Deborah Francis)“Firecracker People” is the second long player, you released a six-track-EP in the meantime. Are there any other formats you might come up with?

I have some ideas for different sounding albums. I like surprising people. But in the end I just want to be true to myself and write the songs in my head. Should I do a double album?

What are your musical influences, what kind of music are you listening to today?

I have too many to list here. I like so many things. Some of my current favorites are James Yorkston and Richard Hawley.

In the title track you sing “We’re all firecracker people / Going off all the time”. What are firecracker people?

I’m not sure exactly. I liked the way the words sounded together. But I think Firecracker People are all of us. Whatever you are starting today, is that much closer to being finished tomorrow. Plus the idea of people losing their temper or following a whim that alters their life forever, it happens every day. This life is so wonderful and mysterious.

You use Hotel Light’s MySpace site instead of a home page, anyone who wants to can write you an email. In how far has the Internet changed your way to communicate with fans?

I’m happy to talk to fans. I think it’s good for independent artists. I’m not as good at emailing as some bands, but that’s because I don’t like to sit at my computer all day. It’s also another way for me to spread the word about my albums.

The record companies are complaining a lot about their decreasing sales these days. You have experienced the golden days at a major record company in the 1990’s, Hotel Lights release their CDs on a smaller indie label. In how far do you experience the changes inside the music industry?

Well, my albums aren’t released in Europe. I really wish they were. I’d like to tour more, and there just isn’t a lot of money at bar/none records to market my music. It’s frustrating, but I hope to keep writing and maybe one day I’ll find a label in Germany too!

So is there a chance you might play a few concerts in Germany one day?

I’d really love to. I really would like that.