The late ’90s into the early 2000s was a bizarre time for music. Artists, nostalgic of sounds from previous decades, coalesced genres to form fresh combinations: some of which, like post-grunge, we could have done without (we’re looking at you, Nickelback).
Yet, there was one culture that maintained a forward-looking mindset: the jam band scene. Focusing on innovation through improvisation, groups like Phish and the Disco Biscuits forged infectiously danceable soundscapes from traditional genres and unexplored harmonies, setting the stage for a new culture of their own.
Enter Deep Banana Blackout: an eclectic funk band that, in commemorating the 20th anniversary of their first album Live in the Thousand Islands at The Capitol Theatre this month with opener Percy Hill, are celebrating a sound as wacky, trippy, and downright funky as the members themselves. Their colorfully improvised performances are high-energy and dance-inducing, and on the rare occasion they “put the boot down,” things get pretty real.
In anticipation of their March 31 show, we chatted with founding member and guitarist James “Fuzz” San Giovanni for an inside look at some memories from the band’s 20-year career.
What comes to mind when you realize it’s been 20 years since Live on the Thousand Islands was released?
Thousand Islands sort of marks a pretty significant change in our whole career; at that time our lives were so different. From ’95 to ’97 we were more or less a bar band, but I got a little bored with playing the sort of pop/rock music of the time, so we were excited to do something totally different. I remember playing Black by Pearl Jam, and, running on a couple hours of sleep because that’s what you do in your early 20s, nodded off in the middle of the song. That was a wake-up call for me to do something that keeps me a little more interested.
When we would play Deep Banana we’d see people dancing and grooving out to the music. I dug that; it was more exciting for me. And by the time Thousand Islands was released in the summer of 1997, people were so excited to get this album, and that was the beginning of a new phase of Deep Banana Blackout. A few weeks later we played the very first Gathering of the Vibes in Croton-on-Hudson.
This was all happening during the early days of the jam band scene. Where did you guys fit in?
I think the passing of Jerry [Garcia] and the emergence of Phish was what started the first wave of the jam scene. At that point, there was this jam-rock thing going on and the resurgence of this kind of neo-hippy, and we kind of caught the wave of it.
We were just trying to make fun music that we would enjoy playing, but of course other people enjoyed it in the process. Within six months, we went from bar band to original touring act. We were no longer Deep Banana Blackout, the bar band. We all of a sudden became a new thing. And the following summer, we were recording our next album in Port Chester at 7 Willow St. That became our first real, happening venue.
Out of your four albums, where does Thousand Islands stand in your heart?
That’s still my favorite one. I think we performed better, musically, on other albums and the Rowdy Duty live album that followed it a year later was probably our peak performance. But Thousand Islands is really the beginning of the band’s early inspirations, excitement, and camaraderie as far as creativity and writing. We still play a lot of those songs. People like them and they’re our staple tunes, and I feel they’re still what defines DBB.
We actually lived in the studio for two weeks, it was totally insane. We would hangout and have mics set up to record random stuff. We were just capturing moments, and it made [the album] timeless. It’s a trip, it really is.
Deep Banana Blackout at The Capitol Theatre
â€‹Photo by Scott Harris
It’s probably one of the reasons the jam scene took us on pretty quickly: We were a funk band, but we were a crazy, wacky funk band. I didn’t want to just sound like James Brown or The Meters; we did our own thing and made it colorful and creative. We looked crazy, acted crazy, and did crazy stuff (sometimes I’d take my pants off on stage).
For us, it was just being ourselves and having fun, and that fun gets contagious and makes people feel like they’re seeing something really unique.
What are your thoughts on The Cap, in terms of their acoustics or overall grooviness in general?
That’s the spot. It’s legendary, it’s been around forever, and that’s why we keep coming back to it.
Everything about it is just top-notch. The whole lighting system, the sound system, and the layout: it’s hard to have a bad show there. You’d have to really screw up.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Percy Hill?
Having Percy Hill on the bill is definitely nostalgic for us; they were essentially coming up at the same time as us. We got to know them through one of the things we ran at Wetlands, called Organic Grooves, where we teamed up with one or two organ players. Organ was a pretty happening thing at the time; every jam band had to have an organ.
So we had Nate Wilson of Percy Hill join us, Aron [Magner] from the Disco Biscuits, and Rob [Barraco] from, at the time, Zen Tricksters (I think he may be with Dark Star now).
We got to know Percy Hill around then, and did a tour with them at some point. We connected with Percy Hill very early on.
Will the boot be down on that Friday night?
I don’t want to say yes, if it’s not definitely going to happen, but there’s a good chance. We’re going to do the Thousand Islands from start to finish as the set, I’m sure it’ll easily be an hour and a half, closer to two hours as the set, and we’ll come out and do a long encore. I’m hoping Percy Hill will be okay with sticking around that long; we want to have them come out to do some songs with us and maybe we’ll close out with a big bang like the boot. We haven’t done it in a couple years, I think it might be time to bust that one out.