Not Just for Kids: an Interview with the Banana Slug String Band
After 25 years you must have many peak experiences with the Banana Slug String Band. Can you tell me one of your favorite shows?
Doug: We had the blessing of being able to tour Jamaica. We were in Mobay and we had worked with these five ladies on a trade. We would get to come and play and they would set up everything—but no money switched hands. We did a tour of Flankers which was a very rough ghetto school—it literally looked like a prison. The principal was like an army sergeant: “You will not talk, you will not sing and you will not move.” She was a smaller woman but stern.
That was the introduction to the band?
Doug: I tried to tell her we were interactive—but she reprimanded us as well and said, “If it gets out of hand I will stop the show.” By the middle of the show there was this feeling of upliftment, where it was obvious we could handle it and there wasn’t going to be a riot—we were doing raps, Larry was going off, just crazy and everyone was having a great time. She was so moved that she came up to the microphone and did this rap and blew everyone’s mind. Afterwards she came up and said, “If these people are ever back in Jamaica, we welcome them to tour school with open arms.”
Larry: That might have been the first time there was ever white people in that school. We’ve done thousands of shows. One of my favorites is our 20th anniversary show at the Rio Theatre (in Santa Cruz). We put together a 12-piece band with a horn section and Joe Craven on violin, Sambada was our percussion section—we even had stilt walkers. I don’t know if we will ever match that but it was an amazing show.
Steve: There was an environmental movement of the early 80s and musicians were singing about the environment, but it was a real downer message about the world falling apart. We’ve always tried to stay positive. Kids do not need to hear that, they need to remain excited about nature not dismayed. We believe you have to love it before you want to take care of it. We talk about the love and we sneak in the caretaker aspects.
You’ve had a great run focusing on kids, community and the plight of the planet. Is there a particular issue that you are most concerned with? Is positive change happening?
Larry: I think there is an evolution of consciousness happening. I see a nice contingency of our population evolving. We travel the festival circuit during the summer and we see hundreds of thousands of freaks, hippies, and positive people across the country putting out amazing positive messages. Our new album is all about the ocean, but we’re touring all the schools of San Mateo County and teaching them about watersheds.
Doug: As well as storm drains and pollution. We’re trying to get kids to be responsible in the schools and at home to do their part to not add to anything that will flow down the drain. We were hired for two years to go into every municipality in San Mateo County to create a show that brings home that message.
Larry: It almost doesn’t matter what we sing about as long as the way we sing about it uplifts the kids. In the end if they can only remember that they saw a bunch of guys who love the earth, are authentic and believe in what they are singing—it’s successful.
The Banana Slug String Band is like the Anti-Wiggles.
Doug: Kids know. They know how fun it is to run through the fields, getting in a river, throwing a ball around outside, whatever. So we’re talking to the choir, for sure. We hope to ignite a fire in them, and their parents about how great the planet is. And then, kid by kid, family by family we gain a coalition. I know worldwide everyone wants their families to be safe, have healthy food, have an education for their children—so it’s just a matter of joining like-minded coalitions together. This two-year program we are a part of called Ocean Literacy stemmed from the scientists finding the island of floating plastic garbage that’s twice the size of Texas. At that point it was decided that ocean education has to be a part of the curriculum in schools because it was noted that not one state had marine biology or oceanography as part of their K-12 curriculum framework. We were at a conference, performing in Maui when the 7 principles or pillars were introduced and presented that would become mandatory in the US school system. We proposed that you cannot have a successful ocean education program without music and they hired us. So, this new album, Only One Ocean was our longest gestation making a CD.
It seems while you were in the studio wood shedding the CD—the Gulf Spill happened.
Doug: Right smack dab in the middle of it. The most important wetlands in the country were severely impacted by a terrible, horrible spill. We knew that our CD and our message of raising awareness of the ocean were arriving at a crucial time. We got some of the most famous musicians that are eco-conscious to play with us: Victor Wooten, Michael Doucet of Beausoleil, George Winston, Brett Dennen, Zach Gill from ALO, Tim Carbone the violinist from Railroad Earth. And the reason they all said yes is because they care.
Mark: That is an incredible phenomenon. Here we are a little kid’s band, playing our songs, playing our music and our fans who have seen us at festivals for 25 years—they go on to become famous musicians and their children become our fans. They love the music whether they have kids or not and we made incredible connections over years with people who believe in the message, in the mission and are willing to play on our albums.
You all had roots as naturalists, how did that transform into the Banana Slug String Band?
Steve: It was a natural extension. We were already working with kids and writing songs that went along with the curriculum and our teaching. It all just flowed along.
At what point did the campfire songs become a band that toured the world?
Mark: It did happen organically, but it didn’t happen like most bands. We were playing at outdoor education programs and the director of one of the programs so much that he got his father to donate $2500 to the organization. His father thought the money was for kids scholarships, but it was really to record the first album. As the album got heard by we were invited other places to play. The music carried the band. The band didn’t decide to become a band and be famous—the music got us known.
Did the bigger names volunteer their time to be on the album?
Steve: We paid people minimal—whenever we have collaborations people love to play with us. They like the spirit of the music.
It seems to me that, unfortunately, the world has caught up with you. 25 years ago you were fringe dwellers, singing about the unpopular world of nature. Now, even children know about the Gulf Spill, ice caps melting, global warming—you’ve become commentators on widespread issues.
Mark: My two kids started out on stage. My one daughter feels like it was meant to be. She’s a banana slug at UCSC, plays oboe in the wind ensemble and is a marine biologist. My son is a piano player and percussionist and yeah it’s the greatest gift to be able to give the music to our family and kids and be able to raise them on it.
Steve: I think all our kids are very open to all kinds of music—they have a large repertoire of likes.
Children’s music is an interesting niche. You normally do not see crossover to adults—but I keep thinking while listening to your new CD that if I could remember the lyrics, I’d be a lot smarter.
Steve: So would we. We’re getting kind of old.
Steve: We got to get one of them. What were we talking about?
DNA is a stand-up comic in Northern California who can be contacted through his website www.votedna.com