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You Can't Fake the Funk:

A Conversation with Fuzz of Deep Banana Blackout

By Brian L. Knight

 

"We are forced to be energetic -–you can't fake the funk.". These were the words spoken by Deep Banana Blackout’s guitarist Fuzz. His comment derives from his belief that no matter how tired a band member may be, they possess an inherent passion for the funk. Once these groove porters take the stage, very little can stop the band from putting on a high-energy performance. For three nights this weekend at Mount Snow’s Snow Barn, there will be no artificial vibes occurring. From the opening chords on Thursday night to the closing riffs on Saturday night, Deep Banana Blackout will provide the fans of the 2000 Winter X games with 100% Grade A Funk.

"I think the thing is that our music generates a lot of energy, and even if we were 50 year olds trying up there trying to produce this music, it would carry itself. It comes across as energetic," Fuzz continues, "even if we are not as energetic as we could be, the music pushes us. It is kind of second nature too. One of us has to go on autopilot to get us through the night that is possible. I think we have done it so much."

Fuzz, born James Sangiovanni, is just one component in the overall sound known as Deep Banana Blackout. This Connecticut based octet draws on every type of funk available to the human ears – the ensemble grooves of George Clinton’s Mothership, the show stopping performances of James Brown and Maceo Parker, the powerful, soulful gospel influence of Chaka Khan or Irma Thomas, the party till you drop New Orleans spirit of the Rebirth Brass Band or Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the headhunting textures of Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk and House of Pain’s hip-hop dancehall oomph. Fuzz is joined by Jennifer Durkin on vocals, Rob Somerville on tenor and soprano saxophone & vocals, Rob Volo on trombone, guitar & vocals, Benji LeFevre on bass, Cyrus Madan on organ, Johnny Durkin on percussion and Eric Kalb on drums. Together the draw on their collective influences to create one of the hottest live shows to be heard in the northeast.

"There are nights, especially when we are on the road, there is at least on of us that is not putting out the energy that is expected. Since there is so many people in the band, it can be really carried by everybody else. When I am not having a good night, I can really feel it. I always feel like it is really obvious, but people come to me and say ‘You guys kick ass.’"

Since forming during the Simmer of 1995, Deep Banana Blackout has released two albums (1997’s live album Rowdy Duty and their debut CD Live in the Thousand Islands), and has toured endlessly throughout the United States. Every step of the way, thanks to live tapes and word of mouth, Deep Banana Blackout has developed a huge fan base known as the "Funk Mob" who come out night after night to get down and dirty with the band.

 

On the Corner………….Blacking Out

In addition to the two Deep Banana Blackout albums, Fuzz recently released a solo album named B’Gock. His band for this album, known as "On the Corner with Fuzz", originally came together as a jazz trio consisting of Fuzz, drummer Dave Shuman and bassist Marc Balling but it quickly mutated into something much larger. Fuzz comments: "The band is a trio; but as far as what is on the disc, there is a horn arrangement on pretty much every tune, keyboards on just about every tune, there is a lot of percussion and a lot of turntable work." B’Gock features guest musicians such as part-time Medeski, Martin and Wood member DJ Logic (turntables), Sun Ra and Kool and the Gang alumnus Michael Ray (trumpet), keyboardist Nate Wilson of Percy Hill and Dean Bowman of the Screaming Headless Torsos. The album is also supported by Deep Banana Blackout members Rob Somerville (sax), Rob Volo (trombone), Cyrus Madan (keyboard) and Jen Durkin (vocals). Fuzz quips: "It is all very in-bread". In comparison to the hard driving funk of Deep Banana Blackout’s albums and live shows, B’Gock has a slightly jazzier flare to it. This fact is highlighted by covers of songs by legendary jazz artists like Charlie Parker ("Bloomdido"), Charlie Christian ("Seven Comes Eleven") and Wes Montgomery ("Four On Six"). To complement the jazzy tracks, there is also some "traditional" Deep Banana Blackout songs such as the title track as well as some New Orleans grooves such as "Good For Nothin’".

If one thing needs to be made certain, it is that the sounds of both B’Gock! and Deep Banana Blackout is the sum of many. Fuzz may be the focus of this article, but we cannot forget that he partakes in ensemble projects. With Deep Banana Blackout, his guitar playing and singing is a vital part of their sound but far from the dominating aspect of the band. Jen Durkin’s voice, the fantastic horn arrangements (including an occasional tuba) and the tight rhythm section are all essential facets of the Deep Banana Blackout phenomenon. The same thing can be said about B’Gock! Fuzz explains, "We didn’t even know what to call the album. I wasn’t going to call it Fuzz. The other two guys that I did with were just as much a part of it as I was. I took the reigns on a lot of stuff in planning it, composing it and arranging it. It was the three of us who got together with the original concept so I wanted to include them in as much as possible." Before the creation of the album, Shuman and Balling were in a band called "On the Corner". The band played jazz and fusion, so the association to Miles Davis is most likely accurate. "Since they called themselves "On The Corner" and I am Fuzz, it seamed pretty logical to call it "On the Corner with Fuzz". It made sense. It was the most diplomatic and sensible thing to do."

During the weeks leading up to Deep Banana Blackout’s three-night stand at the Snow Barn, the band experienced some well-deserved and rare vacation time. At least that is what their publicist said. In reality, Fuzz as well as the other band members have been pretty busy. "I wish I could actually take a vacation. I think the only way that I could actually take a vacation is to go away." In addition to answering a long list of phone messages, Fuzz has been busy playing with his B’Gock band as well as playing with DJ’ Logic’s Project Logic and another side band known as the Sugar Porn Cops (with members of the Ominous Seapods and Moe). Even though he is busy with these side projects, Fuzz never loses sight of his musical aims. "I try to work on new music for Deep Banana Blackout. There is a lot that needs to be done there. I can’t keep my eyes off the ball."

The music from B’Gock and the music of Deep Banana Blackout are not two separate entities. Besides the fact that there is quite a personnel crossover between the two groups, the songs from B’Gock make into the Deep Banana Blackout repertoire. As aforementioned, B’Gock has a jazzy feel to it, but Fuzz can never escape the funk. "I always feel like that everything effects everything else. We (Deep Banana Blackout) actually plays one of the songs from the album – the title track. We play that regularly. The album is considered a jazz album but it is pretty funky too. That is the one song on the album that is straight-ahead funk-rock. It has a P-Funk edge. At this point, the more that some of us do outside the group, we can pull that in and influence the band. That is a good thing because I think we want to be keeping it always fresh for the audience. I like to think whatever we do, whether it be "some of us" or "one of us" or "all of us", it is always going to be good and entertaining for audience."

On stage, Fuzz is quite a sight. Evoking both the musical grooves and visual imagery of George Clinton’s Funkadelic, one can usually find a shirtless Fuzz laying down vicious riffs with his big hair serving as a beacon of funk joie de vivre. With this look, the initial reaction is that Fuzz’s nickname arrived through associations with his hairstyle or the sounds emanating from his guitar. In reality, the nickname came to be when Fuzz was eight years old. "I had been playing street hockey on the block with a couple of kids. On of the kid’s older brothers, who was 12 or 13, used to hang out and antagonize us. He made up all of these nicknames for us but mine was the one that stuck for life." Fuzz adds, "By the time I got out of high school, there was nobody that was calling me James. Except for my mother." As for playing with a fuzz box or fuzz pedals, Fuzz keeps his guitar antics traditional: "…I never used the fuzz sound. I never liked the sound of a distortion box. My distortion comes right from the amp."

 

Groove Inspiration

Fuzz’s youth activities were only a playing hockey. When listening to either a smooth jazz solo on B’Gock or a pounding chord at a Deep Banana Blackout concert, it is more than obvious that the guitar is his true love. As with any talented musician, Fuzz is a man of influences. Through both Deep Banana Blackout and B’Gock, it is east to hear that Fuzz derives his playing style from a diversity of inspirations. Here is what Fuzz has to say about some select musicians:

 

New York City turntable guru, DJ Logic

"Wonderful guy. That is the first thing that comes to mind. He is one of nicest people that I have ever met. He is also great to work with. He is there to enjoy the music and have a good time. And what he is doing musically is pretty amazing. He has a great sense of rhythm. He knows exactly what to put in. He has great sense of what fits with the music. He is like having a keyboard player on stage who has great ears that could fall in any place and know where the music is heading. He has good great insight and instinct."

 

Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

"He is one of the best guitar players of the century. At his worst, he was still flowing with musical ideas. First of all, he had a totally unique style of playing - his approach to playing guitar with his thumb and octaves. Regardless of that, like any other jazz musician, he sense of melodic phrasing and sentencing is just amazing. His solos seems to have a big picture and then little individual pictures. They work as a whole thing."

 

Eclectic guitarist Dave "Fuze" Fuiczynski of the Screaming Headless Torsos

"I am not as familiar with his style as I would be with Wes Montgomery’s only because I never studied him. I did get to work with him though. He is very intense guitar player. I like what he is doing in the sense he is trying to push things in a new direction. His sense of harmony is pretty amazing. He doesn’t jus play your usual major and minor triads. He has very complex atonal harmonics. He has great technique. He is like Steve Vai meets Stravinsky."

 

Los Angeles funk meisters, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"I actually got to jam with the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I auditioned for them one time. When they were in one of their "I don’t have a guitar player phases." I think they are great. Flea is a superb musician. I will start with that. The other guys are great to. Chad (drummer) is real solid and he has a great backbeat. Getting to play with those guys was pretty amazing. Especially at the time because I was really young. They had real energy. What they are doing for funk is real good. I am not as into what they have done recently with their last two albums as I am with The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Majik. They took funk to another level. The grooves are great and guitar is great. John Frusciante. I think he was a real unique guitar player. He knew his funk and he head this whole other psychedelic side to him. Anthony Kiedis doesn’t blow me away. I think he is great front man and he has great lyrics. I don’t think he is much of a vocalist but he has a good vibe. His voce sounds cool for a rap. I guess the problem is that lately he is trying to sing more. I don’t think that is what he is cut out for. I think he is much better for a crazy punkish rap kind of thing."

 

Composer, guitarist and satirist Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa is thrown in as one of the century’s important composers and artists – Lennon Ellington, Stravinsky. Here is guy that was putting a joke on the world. He was saying that ‘I can do everything. If I want to be goofy and silly at times, I can do that. If I want to be complex, dark and serious, I can do that.’ He had an amazing sense of orchestration. He had a very satirical side of things too. His compositions were almost schizophrenic "I’m here, now I’m here, now I’m here" He had too many musical ideas at once. He had a hard time containing it all because it wanted to put it all into one composition.

 

A Vermont Blackout?

The life of a live band in the northeast is a long and arduous journey. From playing dives to a handful of people to selling out New York City’s Wetland Preserve, Deep Banana Blackout has enjoyed a steady rise from local buzz to regional favorite. Although the big cities tend to be the main draw for Deep Banana Blackout, the band still likes to play near the mountains. Fuzz comments: "I like playing the ski areas, but it used to be different. One of the first times we played at a ski area, lets say the Wobbly Barn (Killington), we played to a bare crowd. Sometimes they are not into what we are doing because some of ski crowds are just there to party. They want to hear familiar covers or they want to hear Top 40. In a club in a city, they go out to just hear the music."

Fuzz believes that the music of Deep Banana Blackout is for everyone. "In a ski town, the people are there to ski. You don’t know if they are at the bar to hear music or just go out and party. I like to think that we are a band for both occasions. We are a good band that you can go and check out or simply party to. Which is fine by me. I want everybody to party to our music. As long as they are into the music, I am fine." In recent years, playing the ski areas have been increasingly enjoyable for the band. As they have become more popular, their fans make the journey with the band. As a result, what started off as a gig at a remote bar, turns into a whole gala affair. Fans and musicians alike hit the slopes, enjoy music and party all weekend long. "In a lot ways, playing ski areas is better because our friends and fans come up to make a weekend out of it, " Fuzz adds, "the party never ends."

Even though Deep Banana Blackout is lumped into a very large musical category known as "Jam Music", their music surpasses the genre’s stereotype. Their music covers a large range of styles that vary from soft and melodic to cacophonous and hard driving (but always funky!). For many 2000 Winter X game fans, who may have penchant for the sounds of Limp Bizkit, Korn or 311, they should not be detracted by the "Jam Band" stereotype, for Deep Banana Blackout can incite any crowd to a dance frenzy. "We have so many different styles which is good because we usually rise to the occasion………We can make our set a little harder rocking or heavy than it would be like, lets say jazzy or Latin. When we are at the X Games, we will probably be geared towards some more of our hard rocking stuff than we would at Jazz Fest."

"I could go all night just rocking out. Here I am talking about Wes (Montgomery) and (Frank) Zappa, two guys that were flowing with musical ideas. That is something I look up to and try to achieve. I like to always, on the spot, to have a new thing to come up with. Ben, our bass player, has gotten really good at latching on to new ideas. I could bust into a riff that sounds like a Rage Against The Machine type thing or a P-Funk thing and he will be right there with me. He will jump on it and we will get on it. That can happen at an given moment – in the middle of a song or in the middle of a solo session." Fuzz adds, "Just as much as I like to the jazz stuff, I was a Black Sabbath fan. I can do all that to. They (the audience) are not going disappointed. Whatever we do, they will happy with it."

If I were you I would take Fuzz’s words of wisdom as the gospel and make it over to the Snow Barn. Once the games are over, give B’Gock or the two Deep Banana Blackout CDs a listen. You can find them at www.deepbananablackout.com.