A-peeling music

Deep Banana Blackout still got the funk, but their sound has evolved

Until now, Deep Banana Blackout has been one of rock’s more successful do-it-yourself stories.

Formed in 1995 when members from two bands—Tongue & Groove from Connecticut and Pack of Matches from Long Island, N.Y.—joined forces, the group formed their own record label, Artkin Touchya Records, and their own merchandising operation. They began booking a heavy schedule of shows.

Over the course of those five years, the band released two CDs—a 1997 studio debut, Live in the Thousand Islands, and a 1999 double live CD, Rowdy Duty. A side band, On the Corner With Fuzz, which included many guest appearances from Deep Banana members, released a CD called B’Gock in 1999 as well. As these CDs were released, the group gradually built up to a national touring schedule and built a large enough audience to headline large clubs and theaters in many markets.

But the band’s guitarist, James “Fuzz” SanGiovanni, said the do-it-yourself days are over for this eight-person ensemble.

“There’s only so far you can go, and especially with a big band like we have. We have a lot of mouths to feed,” Fuzz said. “It just becomes a really complex operation. I think a lot of us want to get back to just really concerning ourselves with less of trying to run three or four different businesses.”

So early this year, they signed on with Flying Frog Records, a new label founded by Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. Their new CD, Feel the Peel, was released July 17.

Deep Banana Blackout has not only given Flying Frog the job of promoting and distributing their records, the band has also turned over merchandising to their managers. A key consideration in signing with a record label, Fuzz said, was to improve distribution of their records.

“We do tour nationally, but we don’t get into all the little corners where the CD is finally available to everybody,” he said. “We had it in a few stores ourselves, but not every store, and it was definitely not in any of the major chains. It was in more like the underground mom and pop stores, which are great, but it’s nice to have the chains, too, so everybody has access to it.”

Fuzz admits that the band hopes the move to Flying Frog will mean the group will make more money—but the profit motive isn’t a question of greed, so much as it is tied to the creative process.

“Yeah, it’s in the interest of making a little more money,” he said. “That way we can afford to keep doing this, because it costs money to operate a band. It’s not about being in it for the money.

“It’s just about saying we need a certain amount to survive, not only as people, as individuals, as human beings of the world, but we need money to survive as musicians, as creative musicians. Because there’s only so much time you have in a day, and if it’s all spent on just, like, trying to make the bucks from one week to the next, touring and just trying to run the business, where’s the time for creation? Where’s the time for the music?”

It makes sense that Deep Banana Blackout would want to focus more on writing music and developing their sound because last fall, the group made significant changes to the band’s lineup.

Lead singer Jen “Pipes” Durkin and trombonist/rhythm guitarist Volo left the band. In their place, the group recruited Hope Clayburn, who sings and plays alto sax and flute, and trombonist/singer Bryan Smith. They join the returning band members—Fuzz, Rob Somerville (tenor and soprano sax and vocals), Benj LeFevre (bass), Cyrus Madan (organ), Eric Kalb (drums) and Johnny Durkin (percussion).

The departure of Jen Durkin, whose powerhouse vocals were a key signature of the Deep Banana sound, is a particularly significant change. With Clayburn in place, the group’s vocals have shifted to more of an ensemble approach, with Somerville, Smith and Fuzz blending with Clayburn on vocals.

Fuzz described Clayburn as a really good singer with a unique voice. But he acknowledged that there are fans who prefer Jen Durkin’s style.

“I’m sure that there are people out there who have been into Deep Banana Blackout who may not be as into it anymore,” Fuzz said. “They don’t have the vocalist coming in there and singing way over the top. That’s a great thing that we had that. But it’s not the only formula that works. To me, like, I’m open-minded to always move in new directions. And I think having Hope in there, it creates more of a blend with all the voices. I think she’s a little more of a jazzy singer.”

The transition in Deep Banana’s sound, though, goes beyond the vocals, Fuzz said. In fact, the band’s whole approach to playing has shifted with the new members.

“I think there has been less emphasis on pushing every measure over the top and more emphasis on the importance of songwriting and hooks, and allowing some of the subtleties to come through as well,” he said. “Things don’t go blasting over the top as much. Although, as long as I’m in there, it’s still going to rock out. … But that doesn’t have to happen 10 out of 10 songs in the set. It’s nice that we’re trying some other new subtleties with some of the lighter Latin sounds, and we’ve got a couple of mellower grooves. And a lot of it is just more in-the-pocket kind of stuff.”

Despite these changes, many signatures of the original Deep Banana Blackout sound remain. The band retains the funky grooves that have always propelled much of its music. And as before, a myriad of other styles—including rock, jazz and world beat—are prominent ingredients in the group’s music.

But if new songs like “(That’s) What I’m Talking About,” “The Hassle” and “Listen To Yourself” are any indication, the band’s songwriting has taken a step up, and now the melodies command as much attention as the group’s accomplished playing.

“We have a lot of funk influence. Funk is the music that got this group of people together,” Fuzz said. “We’re still combining stuff in the medium of funk, which now I think just serves as a template. Like, a lot of styles get melded in with it, whether we’re talking about jazz, Latin, Afro-Cuban, world beat or pop music and rock music.”

Although the band hasn’t abandoned its funk roots, it wants to be free to evolve.

“I wouldn’t want people to think that we’re not aware of what funk is, because we are,” he said. “But we don’t feel the need to have to like carry the torch for that. We want to create our own sound and allow funk to always be a part.

“And it’s more so … like, the sound and the vibe of funk music, like, you’re coming out there with a lot of intensity, and it’s got a lot of character and a lot of wit to it. … It doesn’t play around, and it’s going to make an audience move. Those are the things, more than the cliché funk lines and drum beats, that we’re going to keep carrying on with."