She’s Got The Funk: Jen Durkin of Deep Banana Blackout
One of the rising bands within the jam band scene is Connecticut’s Deep Banana Blackout. Indeed, the group took top honors in the Jambands.com new band of the year category. At present the octet is thawing out audiences in Colorado. Then the group returns east for a Thursday night residency at the Wetlands in April, which promises to offer the band performing along with some special guests. Meanwhile, fans of the group are hailing the arrival of Deep Banana Blackout’s second release, a two CD live set entitled Rowdy Duty. Vocalist Jen Durkin spoke to Jambands.com from the road…
DB- I would imagine that most of our readers have just started to hear about Deep Banana Blackout, although certainly the word is getting out rather quickly. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the history of the band.
JD- We essentially started off in a cover band that did primarily James Brown, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, P-Funk, Sly and the Family Stone r&b, funk covers. Actually not all of us, just myself, our drummer, sax player and bass player. So we learned a huge body of material, more than a hundred songs. We had a number of people in the band and we were doing quite well at it but some of us really wanted to work on original music. So one by one we became disenchanted and we all left at different points. Then many of us reformed as Deep Banana Blackout. It took us about two years to find each other again. Rob the sax player had moved out to the west coast, and we all had kept in touch as friends. That was about four years ago this month.
DB- At its peak, that original group Tongue and Groove had quite a reputation as a ripping party band. I’m curious though, how did you people hook up with Fuzz, your guitar player/vocalist because he wasn’t in that group.
JD- The drummer, Erik Kalb had gone to school with him, and they had played together all through high school. When Erik left Tongue and Groove, he and Fuzzy started working on original music together in a trio. I would go and see them quite often in the city. From there we all started palling around together and then it started evolving into me being a part of what they were doing creatively, and things just took off from there.
DB- I would imagine the band has progressed quite a bit from that point, moving from a trio to an eight piece.
JD- Absolutely and we’re constantly working at it. We record live to DAT every night, and we listen to every tape to examine our music. At this point we’re even looking at videos of ourselves and thinking a bit more about our visual style. We’d like to make the whole live experience more of a show. As we play nicer places where people come out to see us and don’t just come out to a bar to have a beer, we’ve become more interested in what our show looks like. Of course all along we’ve been concerned with what we sound like, really listening critically to each show after the fact, but now we’re thinking about the visual side as well.
DB- With eight players, how does the band create and work through new material?
JD- It’s very different for each song. There’s some things that come about totally on stage, and later we’ll listen to the tape and decide to flesh that out. We’ll sit around as a group and talk about how we can do that. Usually the music comes first and then the lyrics. Sometimes we’ll just be in rehearsal and if we hear something we like we’ll talk about it, “Let’s take it here, let’s take it there.” And Fuzzy will sometimes bring a finished song to the band and we basically put our spin on it but we pretty much learn the song the way he wrote it. So we have a number of ways, but it’s most often a collective thing.
DB- With all that listening to yourselves, it sounds like being in the band is quite a all-consuming experience, because your live shows are often in the three hour range.
JD- Absolutely. But when you have that many cooks in the kitchen it’s really necessary. We’d lose a lot of wonderful moments if we didn’t tape everything. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, where we need to stop listening to ourselves and start listening to some other music to refresh us. We schedule regular vacations, one every three months where we take ten days off and everybody really tries to stay away from listening to our music, so that when we come back we’re fresh. But the rest of the time we’re pretty much 24-7 listening to tapes in the van when we’re riding to shows or listening at home. We’re pretty immersed in it.
DB- What music do you throw on during those breaks?
JD- My favorites are Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Etta James. I come from a real gospel and blues background. In terms of modern stuff, I’m interested in all sorts of music, everything from classical, jazz, rock, soul, funk, r&b, a really wide variety. The band also listens to the Beastie Boys a lot. There’s a local band Fro we like as well.
DB- In terms of your own music, you’ve just released Rowdy Duty. Why did the group decide to put out a double live disc?
JD- It was our fans. They have told us that they love the studio record but that it’s nothing like seeing us live. So we wanted to capture that, and I think we did. In fact not only am I happy with our performances but another thing that I’m proud of is that it captures the intensity of the crowd involvement at our shows. It’s really got a great feel. The performances are great musically but what I think you can sense on the disc is the interaction of the crowd which really hypes up the musicians. We were going for that and I think we really got it.
DB- You have a three week residency at the Wetlands in April. What expectations do you have?
JD- I’m quite excited. We’re asking a series of pretty heavy duty players to come out and join us. Both some legendary figures and some people you would say are more in our peer group. It would be lovely to have them all come, but I’m sure many of them are busy so I don’t want to get my hopes up too high. But we do have quite a list of musicians that we would love to play with.
DB- And players will just walk onto the stage and step right in?
JD- Sort of. Hopefully we’ll have time to talk with the musicians before we go on. I like the improvisation on stage to be very free but I don’t want a lot of people to spend time up there wondering what are we going to do because I want it to be entertaining for people who come out. They’re there to see a show. I want it to flow smoothly and be really entertaining.
DB- What are you most proud of in terms of the group?
JD- The way that we work together. We really try to incorporate everyone’s ideas about being a musician and a performer, so that no one thinks that their thoughts aren’t getting heard. It can be a challenge but I think the people in this band are mellow enough to relax, back off if everything isn’t exactly how they might want it to be so that we can get at the larger goal.
DB- Final question, do you have any personal favorite gigs?
JD- I’d have to say my number one highlight was when we played at the Bayou Blues Festival and we played in between Taj Majal and P-Funk. Our show went off seamlessly, and I could see the members of P-Funk sitting in the audience enjoying what we were doing. They came up to us after our set and expressed how much they enjoyed our show. And then I had the intense honor, which I wasn’t quite ready for, of actually singing on stage with George Clinton and P-Funk. I had been listening to their records and going to see them since I was a little kid, so it was a pretty heavy experience and probably one of the greatest days of my life.
But in general I’m real happy with what’s happening these days. We’re enjoying ourselves and our music. It’s contagious. We feel lucky.