Hotel Lights' Firecracker People and John Dee Holeman's You Got to Lose, You Can't Win All the Time are two wildly different expressions of Piedmont atmosphere: Hotel Lights' drifting, space-rich pop moves as if on the back of a Southern breeze, cooled by the humid wind. But Holeman's blues are charged and gritty, drenched and bent through defiance and deliberation.
Thing is, the backbone of both records—be it the light, shuffling rhythm of Hotel Lights or the insistent throb of Holeman—is the same. Bassist Jay Brown and drummer Zeke Hutchins, who also back Tift Merritt in the studio and on the road, comprise the rhythm section of both records. Hutchins toured with Hotel Lights after the band's 2006 self-titled debut, while he and Brown first played with Holeman at the N.C. Museum of Art in 2005, when Holeman opened for Merritt.
"Moving from a blues form to a more folk/ pop/ rock form, that's two extremely different forms," says Brown. "That's a great thing for me, just as a bass player, to examine different styles of music."
The recording processes for each could barely have been more different: For Holeman's record, a half-dozen musicians simply gathered in the studio and played for four hours, cutting a dozen or so tunes on first and second takes. Hutchins and session engineer Ryan Pickett—Durham natives and childhood friends who'd both long known about Holeman—spent hours editing and reworking the details of the sessions, building them slowly into an LP.
"We tried one day of pre-production with John, and that just did not work," remembers Hutchins from the New York apartment he shares with Merritt, his fiancée. "I was like, 'This is crazy.' I've played with John five or six times off and on throughout the years, and we just get up onstage, and we just do it. That's what we were going to have to do, and either we were going to get it, or we were not."
But that's not how the Hotel Lights record went. Instead, Firecracker People called for a classic studio approach. Jessee demoed the songs by himself, cutting simple versions on the cheap before mailing them out to the rest of the band. The quartet—Brown, Hutchins, Jessee, and producer and multi-instrumentalist Alan Weatherhead—met for a few days of rehearsals, then entered a studio in Madison, Wis., to track the tunes. They fleshed the tracks out at home.
Hutchins and Brown agree that the sessions, distinct as they might have been, each had their valuable lessons and obvious pleasures: "With John Dee, it was fun to have the thrill of trying to capture an immediate performance. With Darren, it was wonderful to participate in his artistic vision," says Brown. "With both of 'em from afar, I've loved their music. It was a privilege to record with them."