The Bananas’ fast and furiously catchy punk legacy
After 25 years, the Sacramento band still takes goofing off very seriously
It was February and local punk band the Bananas was playing Phono Select Records when singer-guitarist Mike Cinciripino made a joke about how the band’s performance was so bad, the crowd should ask for its $5 back.
That wasn’t his only funny bit. In fact, he and drummer Scott Miller did a lot of kidding around that night. The show even turned into a spontaneous question-and-answer session with the audience and at one point, when Cinciripino missed a guitar solo, the rest of the band and the audience egged him on into redoing the song just so he could take another stab at the part.
But in-between all the show banter, the group did play some music—fun, weirdo, lo-fi punk rock. The tempos always felt a little too fast, like the musicians were on the verge of coming apart at the seams at any moment. No one was complaining, however—this is what Bananas fans have come to expect. Indeed, the show was packed. Not bad for a group that formed nearly 25 years ago in July of 1992.
In that quarter of a century, they’ve released two EPs, four full-lengths and have toured the U.S. a handful of times, and Japan once. And for the most part, the band remains the same, holding on to its original lineup except for its bassist.
Over the years the Bananas have maintained a loyal cult following—not just locally, but internationally as well. That’s due, at least in part, to the fact that underneath all the goofing off and ridiculously fast tempos, the Bananas write some pretty sophisticated songs.
There’s also the band members’ undeniable camaraderie and chemistry.
“It’s friends getting together and drinking and playing music. Hopefully we play more music than we talk—it’s fucking amateur hour right?” Cinciripino says.
It goes deeper, though, he adds.
“There’s an element under the cacophony and chaos, there’s a melancholy there,” Cinciripino says.
It’s been a good year for the band. In March, its entire discography was reissued as a cassette box set by the Fullerton-based Burger Records. The group is also at work on its fifth album, and has been playing live a lot—more so than in recent years.
The Bananas’ breed of punk rock is fast, distorted and barely stitched together, bringing to mind the childlike exuberance of Beat Happening. Rather than sounding aggressive in any capacity whatsoever, like so many punk-rock bands, the music is fun and joyous with from-the-gut drunken sing-alongs. The lyrics, which are depressing and catastrophic, contrast brilliantly with the upbeat melodies.
What’s not immediately apparent is how complicated the songs actually are. Cinciripino writes the music, subsequently bringing the tunes to Miller and bassist Marie Davenport. The three then spend an enormous amount of time picking the songs apart and working on all the details of each section, often including little details that most listeners probably wouldn’t even notice.
Cinciripino credits his songwriting style to myriad very nonpunk sources: bossa nova records, Henry Mancini, Bruce Springsteen and ’60s girl groups like the Ronettes.
“It’s a lot of minor sevenths, a lot of weird chords in there. If you’re listening casually, you don’t catch that,” Mike says. “Maybe it’s working on some subconscious level on the sad clown inside you.”
It must be working on many levels, actually. The band’s loyal cult fan base is particularly impressive because the Bananas have only toured a few times and always released their music on small indie labels (Plan-It-X, Recess Records). Oh, and their albums are nearly impossible to find in stores. But the folks who do find them are die-hards. They send letters and drive long distances to see the band. Several have even been inked with Bananas tattoos.
Some of the Bananas’ biggest supporters, however are the folks at Burger Records.
Even before the label formed, its founders were super-fans. Co-founder Lee Rickard was 15 when he discovered the Bananas via a record comp. He bought anything he could find by them. He even once got a crew together to drive up from Anaheim to the Gilman in Berkeley to see them play, assuming they’d never come to Southern California. Miller dubbed Rickard and his group of Southern Californian friends Bananaheim. The name stuck.
To this day, Rickard still considers the Bananas to be one of the best bands of all time.
“[The band’s first full-length] Forbidden Fruit is up there with the Weezer blue album as far as pop rock perfection goes,” Rickard says. “They simply just sounded fucking cool, and neurotic. I guess I could relate.”
But, the band almost didn’t happen. When they formed in 1992, Miller was playing in the local band Nar. Cinciripino’s group, the Horny Mormons, had just broken up. Nar was scheduled to play Old Ironsides. When the club’s booker, in a push to bring more diversity to the venue, asked Miller if he could find another band to add to the bill, Miller instead decided to form another band.
He asked Cinciripino, with whom he’d worked with at Tower Records, and Cinciripino’s then-girlfriend Lisa Branum to throw together a band. To make it official, they flipped open a dictionary and randomly selected the word “bananas” for their name. A week before their first official show, they ended up playing a friend’s house.
Initially, the band didn’t think it would last beyond that Old I show.
“The plan was to play one time, which obviously didn’t work. We started off with a failure,” Cinciripino says.
No one’s sure exactly why they continued to play shows after that gig. Miller thinks maybe it happened because Nar and Horny Mormons were known in the scene, word got around that they had a new band, and folks offered them shows locally and in the Bay Area.
Either way, Miller adds, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to continue.
“I didn’t really like it when it first started. Then Mike came up with a batch of songs that I was like, ’Oh, these are really cool,’” Miller says.
There’s this take on it, too: “We joke about it, but the liner notes of one of the records said how we were too lazy to break up,” Miller says. “I think each of us thought the other one would be like, ’OK, OK. Stop.’”
But nobody did.
In short, nearly everything they’ve done has defied typical band convention.
“It’s really unlike any other bands I’ve ever played with,” Davenport says. “It’s pretty rare that everybody is as engaged as they are in this band. It’s just a special sort of chemistry that we have between the three of us.”
Over the years, they released two EPs: Bad Banana Rising (1993) and the Peel Sessions (1995). Branum stayed in the band through its first two full lengths, Forbidden Fruit (1998) and A Slippery Subject (2001), with Davenport joining in 2002 and subsequently playing on Nautical Rock ’N’ Roll (2003) and New Animals (2008).
Before Davenport joined the Bananas, she was a hardcore fan. Cinciripino and Miller still have fan letters she wrote them when she was 16. When Davenport was older, the three became friends and after Cinciripino and Miller learned she was a skilled bass player, she seemed like the obvious choice when Branum quit.
These days, the trio clicks—not just as friends, but as a group of people who are equally devoted to the band.
For most of the past decade, no one had much time to play—Cinciripino and Davenport each have kids—and although Cinciripino wrote the material for the next album eight years ago, they didn’t get around to turning it all into songs until late last year.
Now, spending more time on getting their forthcoming album ready has motivated—and recharged—the Bananas. As much crazy, goofy fun as they have playing live, just getting together and making new music brings them infinite joy.
“The music comes first. I always joke that we’re in it for the long haul. It doesn’t really matter how long it takes to make each record because, once they’re out there, they exist and it doesn’t really matter when it happened,” Davenport says. “Nothing’s rushed. No one’s ever accused the Bananas of rushing things.”