Around two decades ago, funk rock was seeing an awesome revival, mingling itself with the momentum of the larger jamband revitalization, and introducing a classic state of grooving to a whole new era of fans.
At the heart of that revival was a little band that would soon be known, far and wide, as Deep Banana Blackout. Forming in 1995, DBB started by playing the best stuff around, delving into motown, deep seventies funk, and infusing it with a totally amped up sense of energy, and also playing it better than anybody else around. Almost immediately, they had won the hearts and minds of many different crowds, and were playing incredible performances across the entire country.
While Deep Banana, all these years later, are no longer a fully touring band, their members are still very much formidable soldiers of funk, both rocking their own new projects and whom you also wouldn’t be surprised to see sitting in and joining tours of some of the best jammers today. Every once in awhile, DBB gets back together, and their reunion gigs are not something to miss.
On March 31, Deep Banana Blackout will be bringing it back to the Capitol Theatre, where they’ll be throwing it back to their musical halcyon days of playing at legendary NYC club, The Wetlands. The band will be performing their breakout album, Live In The Thousand Islands, in full, and have also invited longtime funky friends Percy Hill to help make it a truly explosive night.
In fervent anticipation of this date, The Poke Around sat down with Deep Banana co-founder and lead guitarist James “Fuzz” San Giovanni, and had a cool look into the one-of-a-kind history that was the beginnings of Deep Banana Blackout.
The Poke Around: So, you guys started as a group doing covers pretty much? What was the process of moving to your own music like, and really becoming Deep Banana?
Fuzz: Yeah, when we started the band, it was a cover band, and that was our only intention for Deep Banana Blackout, because Eric Kalb and I had an original band, that was where we were focusing our energy, actually. And the sax player, Pete, was also a bass player. So the three of us had a rock trio, and we were playing gigs, and had all this original music. And we were doing the gigs around the greater New York City area, had label interests, it was all starting to pick up a little steam, and that’s when we started Deep Banana Blackout.
And as anybody knows, it’s a lot of work to get something like that off the ground, you’re starting from nowhere. As we started Deep Banana, because the music was so fun and different for the time–we’re talking like 1995 now–we were all just out of college and trying to figure out what thing we were going to do with our lives. Some of us were older, and they were happy to just get a band together and make some money on the weekends, because we were enjoying the music we really liked which was anything from the motown era…And we could do that while we pursued our original thing.
About a year into it, there was a following for Deep Banana Blackout, and we were like, “hmm okay?” We didn’t even do any original music and we had followers who were coming to see us, and not like showing up at the bar and being like, “Oh there’s a band, playing cover songs? I like it.” You know they were actually coming out to see Deep Banana Blackout. And I think some of them didn’t even know the music, like you’d recognize a KC and the Sunshine Band or a Jackson 5, but if we pulled out something just a little bit obscure, they might’ve thought it was our music…because funk music wasn’t really known at the time, most people didn’t even know the basic stuff, and so we were in a way kind of bringing it back.
And at some point during this time period, we said well maybe we should be doing our own music because we have followers already and they love us just as a cover band, imagine if we had original music. But because the most important thing was, and still is to this day, this has always been the motto for Deep Banana, is to have it be a fun, entertaining, lively dance party kind of show.
So we had to focus in, and my thinking was well, if we’re gonna do original music, it has to fit right in the set between songs that are going to be really funk and dance oriented, so the original music needs to be funk and dance oriented. And we would literally bait people in, in this way. I remember writing the setlists for this shows, and I remember we never used to stop. We would go right through, every song going right from the next one to the next one, it was like a DJ. We would just play, and play, and play. So, we would literally sandwich between, say, “Sex Machine” and “I Want You Back,” we would sandwich in one of our songs. And I would remember watching the dance floor, and people would be dancing. It was always strategic, you know, the people are pumped up to a song they know, they’re dancing, and pow, we’d throw in an original song, and they wouldn’t know it, I could tell watching their facial expressions, something like, “I don’t know this one, but it’s got a good beat, so let’s keep going!” And they would keep them on the dance floor, and before you know it, after about six months of doing this, about five or six of our songs had been worked into the setlist, that people got to know, because they were showing up as much as the cover songs, and because they were so compatible with any given funk, R&B, disco thing, we were able to integrate the music into the setlist and into people’s minds, and they’d be asking for our songs.
And within a year from that, in 1997 we released the first album. And that was when the band changed completely, not as far as musically, but in how people viewed it. We were no longer a bar and cover band, we were an original band. And within that time we went from that to playing, you know, Gathering of the Vibes as an original band, playing the Wetlands. Within two or three plays we went from opener to second opener to headline. Once those few things happened, and the word got out that there was a new band on the scene known as Deep Banana Blackout, we completely shed that skin as a cover band.
So it worked, and we went on, we became national within about a year from that. So by ‘98 into ‘99 we were playing across the country. We started getting some good gigs, you know, we opened up for Maceo Parker, at the Globe early on, we opened up for B.B King, at the Stanford Palace. Because the people knew that the band was kind of on a rise, and that it was a hot thing, because the excitement around the shows, you know, again it had mostly to do with our cover origins.
As far as the jam scene goes, none of us had any knowledge or any affiliation to it (laughs)…some of us were a little more familiar with the Dead and Phish, I personally wasn’t, so I got to become more attuned to it, and not just knowing but enjoying a lot of that music. But we just somehow got accepted onto the scene, and I think the same way we had worked our way onto the bar scene, because it was popular and different, we were just different than the other bands. We were coming from a completely different place, all we wanted to do was recreate motown. And you know, bands have come out since then and done it more verbatim, and more true to the form, like the Dap Kings, and Amy Winehouse, you know those acts really nailed it. We liked the music, and wanted to emulate it, but in the end, once we became an original band it was about being original, and so our songs tend to be different and unique in their own way because we were trying to not just sound like The Meters, or sound like James Brown, and it would’ve been easy to do that. And we wanted our music to stand apart from those legendary acts, as much as we love them and want to pay homage to them, we wanted our music to be it’s own thing.
Speaking of the jam scene, can you tell me about working with Butch Trucks, on one of your albums, and playing with him and others from that time?
Yeah, you know that came out of our Wetlands time period. There was a certain point early on where Wetlands and all of our folks working for us were like, “Okay, the people on the jam scene do like these guys, let’s work this.” So we ran two different series at The Wetlands, one was called Organic Grooves, and we had different organ players…that was actually how we got to know Percy Hill, Nate Wilson had joined us for one of these Organic Grooves and he was my personal favorite out of all of them. Musically, it was great, but crowds weren’t coming out in big numbers.
It did fine enough to want to do a second one, which was the big one, our “Boot Camp” series. And that’s when we started having heavy hitters down, we had Clyde Stubblefield, and Butch Trucks. That was one night, actually, were we had Butch and Clyde, these, you know, two very different drummers on the gig. We had some other really great players, like Fred Wesley. We basically got to play with a lot of our idols (laughs).
But Butch was a guy who we connected with, and he really liked Deep Banana. We didn’t know how to read him at first because he was Butch from the Allman Brothers, this whacky dude, fun and funny but also kind of a little crazy and so we were like we have to figure out how this guy’s gonna fit into our lives, and it took a few years, actually not until Jen left the band, when we had our second lineup of people.
So, during that time period, about 2000 to 2002 basically, Butch finally got with us on wanting to do something and he loved that second lineup that we had and contacted us sort of very aggressively to do a record with him and we said let’s do it, this’ll be great. We went to his studio, it was under his label, we got to work with some great producers, like Tom Dowd, we caught him at the very end of his life, and working with him was huge.
And because of all the connection with Butch and the Allmans we wound up getting on a few different tours with them and supporting the Allmans in their show, which was great. You know, we got up on like three songs…and that’s for me, definitely some of my musical highlights because that was the first time I had been on a stage with a crowd that big. Deep Banana has drawn some big crowds, at the time we were known for drawing 1500 people to a show…But that was about 20,000 people concentrated in front of you, and they all scream at you, that’s a thing I hadn’t experience up until that point. I was like, “Oh this is what’s it’s like to be a rock star” (laughs). And it was fun, it was a really fun collaborative thing to do, and we’d also done stuff with Gov’t Mule and we just got really tied in with that family of musicians. They were all really amazing players, like Oteil and Derek…but they were also some of the nicest people, we just loved hanging out with them. Like, long before it became popular they introduced us to Tenacious D (laughs). We were having a blast.
It was funny, too, because when I used to come up with The Allmans, like in the beginning of the tour,I’d get up and play a song, and Derek would leave. And I’d be like, “Alright, that’s fine, I’ll be the other guitar.” But then after like two times, he was like, “Uh, I’m not missing out on this stuff (laughs),” so it was the three of us playing guitar. Things like that were fun. Warren and Butch were the only two that really knew us, you know, Derek was still just getting to know us, but by the third or fourth show it was a lot more collaboration and admiration going back and forth. As it went on, it got really fun, and everybody was happy to have us. So that was a great time in our little run as Deep Banana.
So when you guys do these shows now, every once in awhile, do you guys get the same vibe and energy going?
Imagine it’s just like…if you’ve gotten together with some old friends you haven’t seen in a long time. I remember even having this feeling when I was in my late twenties, like if I got together with old high school friends, we would just act like we were in high school. And funny thing, we still do that now. And so that’s what it’s like with Deep Banana. It’s amazing, you separate us out one by one, everybody becomes such a normal adult (laughs).
Eric and I have known each other almost our whole lives, we really just go back to acting like we’re fifteen. And there’s…a very unique chemistry with Deep Banana Blackout. Everyone might say that about their own band, but it really is. The same chemistry that causes it to implode or explode, you know it’s a volatile substance, like uranium or something. You can get a lot out of it, but watch out for it, because it’s gonna blow up in your face, too. And this is the thing that has been both our saving grace and our downfall. But the energy that happens when you get all of us in a room together…we don’t even have to put an instrument on, just hanging out. Put the eight of us in a room together, it’s just chaos. But it’s this amazing chaos that resulted in a lot of creativity, a lot of positive energy, and a lot of fun. I’ve had some of the most side-splitting, hysterical moments hanging out with this group, and I’ve had some of the most agonizing, stressful moments as well, because it’s like extremes with this group.
So, when we get together now, it’s all positive, which is great. And it also all gets channeled into the music. So I feel like some of our best moments on stage have been in the last ten years. We’re so intuitive, even if we haven’t practiced a song, or we haven’t played something in a while, we don’t need much of a roadmap, we just know it. There’s a lot that happens between me and Eric and Ben as a rhythm section, a lot that happens between me, Jen and Rob as vocalists, there’s a lot that happens between the horns. There’s a lot of stuff going on that just doesn’t even require much tending to, it just sort of happens.
And I’ve seen things happen on stage, even in the last gig, where I just think, “Wow! That was amazing, don’t know where that came from!” And every time we get a gig, I’m amazed throughout the show in what we can accomplish. You know, everybody’s sort of gone in different directions, but when we come back together, when our formula comes together, it’s a pretty incredible thing. And I’m fascinated by just that part of it alone, let alone the actual music that comes out of it. As a little bit of a psychology nerd, I’m really amazed just at the way these personalities blend and mix, and create something really special.
I know I don’t feel any less energized to do a show, and it seems to me that’s the case with everybody else, too. But, we may not be quite as insane as we were twenty years ago, there were times where we were just completely off the wall….we were definitely the punk rock band on the jam scene (laughs). But, the thing is, we’re a little less crazy, but the music I think has actually gotten better, because everybody’s a more sophisticated, mature player. We may not be vying as much for independent attention so much as trying to make the groove just sound good as a whole. And so, I think there’s a lot of maturity happening here that compensates for any DBB insanity….it’s maybe a little bit more about the music now and less about the antics, and if anything it’s better, I think, as far as that goes.
Well I think the first time that I saw you guys was only five or so years ago, at a Vibes set, a late night on the Green Vibes stage. And I remember it being a super fun, super energized show. Vibes taking a break now must be hitting you guys hard, especially?
Oh yeah, well we’ve done it every time, actually. There hasn’t been one Gathering of the Vibes that we didn’t play. And not only have we not missed a Vibes as Deep Banana Blackout, but we’ve all played there in many different formations, I’ve played there with every band that I’ve had.
But the reality is, Gathering of the Vibes was always on the brink of destruction…there were a couple of times where Deep Banana played a benefit to save the Vibes. There was year that they were not going to have the Vibes, I want to say it was like 2004…Festivals are really hard to sustain. Unless there’s, like, huge corporate sponsors, which everybody always hates the festivals with corporate sponsors. But it’s like any other business, and unfortunately, the bigger businesses take over the little businesses, and knock them out of the playing field.
I think Ken just needed a mental break for awhile. It’s like, you know, he’s provided a good time for a lot of people, for so many years, maybe he needs a little break. And that’s why I was almost a little bit relieved, because I was thinking it seems like a little bit of a heavy weight on a lot of these folks that now don’t have to deal with that.
On the surface, it’s like anything else. You’re having a great time, but you don’t know what kind of crazy drama is going on underneath the hood. But behind the scenes, it’s a lot of people biting their nails, going “Uh, are we going to lose money this year or not?” So, in their defense, I’m happy that they maybe got to break free of that a little bit, and not be stressing the whole year. So I don’t know, I hope it comes back, because I liked playing it. It’s been the northeast festival, I think, and it’s given a lot of musicians a place…for me, it was almost like summer camp, you’d see people you haven’t seen since the last Gathering of the Vibes, you know, staff, musicians, it was nice in that. But at the end of the day, it is just another gig, and so we’ll do something else instead.
As far as you guys getting a place: can you tell me about the significance of Port Chester to Deep Banana? You recorded your live album there?
Yeah, well Port Chester was one of the places we started to play, once we started graduating out of our bar band phase. And the venue was 7 Willow St, which was a bar, like Toads Place or something like that, but it was clearly not the neighborhood pub, you know? It was a concert hall, and so we were excited to play Willow St, and the fact that we could fill it up was even more exciting. So when it came time to make a live album, we were like, we have to do it here. It was also because it was in Westchester, and not Connecticut, a lot of people from New York were coming to the show, a lot of people from Long Island, some of them were my friends… that’s how it was in the beginning, we had a lot of friends coming out to the shows.
So, we had a very concentrated audience in Port Chester, and because of that it was a very exciting meeting spot. The live album we recorded from there, called Rowdy Duty, we recorded twice, two sets of the same show, and what a wrong move that was. Deep Banana relied on this energy and enthusiasm between the people, it makes up for more than half of what you hear, and so when the energy drops a little bit, the whole thing starts to go out the window. When you play two sets of the same show, in a row, the second one just does not have the same energy as the first one. And we came out on fire in that first set, that’s the one that’s on the album. The second one was all throw away, we threw it all away.
But that was what was cool about it. Some bands record over the course of a few weeks, or a tour, and they hodgepodge the best moments. We just nailed it in one night. That was the point that Deep Banana was at back in ‘98. So, there’s a real significance to Port Chester with that.
And the Theatre, I think this is our third or fourth time playing the Capitol Theatre as a headliner. At first, it seemed like it might be a little big for us, but we were like, “Nah, we can do it!” And the guy who runs it all, Pete Shapiro, we know well because of The Wetlands, and that really is another significant tie-in for us, and it’s been really fun. We wanted to throw it all back, bring Percy Hill, and what better place to do it than The Capitol Theatre, right here in Port Chester. And we’re hoping to see a lot of people that would’ve been coming to our shows back then, and it’s like, we could be back in ‘98 Port Chester all over again, and that would be a really fun night. So we’re happy to be doing this, and to see as many old faces as new ones. There’ve been younger people in their twenties who are just as excited to see Deep Banana for the first time, and that’s what’s been great for us, that it can generate new interest.
I can’t imagine it not being a fun show. That what’s always been at the heart of Deep Banana since day one: come out and spend the night with us, and let’s have some fun. There’s some good musicianship in there, there’s some good writing, and we like to be as entertaining as we can, but really at the end of the day, it’s just that release, having a good time.
Written by Miles Hurley