A Family Tree

Though rooted in some legendary punk and rock bands, Banyan's free-form style extends far into the future.

As anyone who's ever suffered through a band audition can confirm, good musical help is hard to find. Players who are tolerable in confined spaces like tour vans and recording studios are scarce enough, never mind details like the compatibility of musical visions and styles. Of course, if you are the former drummer of a nearly mythic L.A. rock band such as Jane's Addiction -- like Stephen Perkins is -- the search becomes a tad easier. You just narrow the world of musicians to a small group of accomplished players-- also known as your friends-- and start playing.

If this all sounds too simple, well, it is. But its the story of Banyan, Perkins's latest project, wherein the curly-locked skinsman and his peers -- among them, Mike Watt, ex-Geraldine Fibbers guitarist Nels Cline, longtime Lou Reed bassist Rob Wasserman, Flea, John Frusciante, Buckethead and trumpeter Willy Waldman -- create an evolving sound that borders on fusion. Like the East Indian fig tree (for which the band is named) whose exposed roots intertwine with its branches, Perkins and company weave jazz, funk, tribal percussion, fusion and rock roots into a wholly organic sound that has little in common with any of the players' individual projects, past or present. Rather, the group's essence lies in its impromptu collaborations between musicians who feed off one another's ideas like bacteria in a petri dish.

"Basically, everyone has a blank canvas when we play together," Perkins says from his home in Los Angeles, where he also does time in Hellride with Watt and Methods of Mayhem with Tommy Lee. "If they have ideas they're working on, we can try those and see how it plays out. Or if they just want to spontaneously exchange musical ideas, we'll do that too."

Players in Zen: Stephen Perkins (second from right) with one incarnation of Banyan.
Players in Zen: Stephen Perkins (second from right) with one incarnation of Banyan.

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Banyan began as a sort of goof project for Perkins -- a way to burn off some creative energy before the launch of the Jane's Addiction relapse (er, reunion) tour in 1997. He invited a dozen or so friends to come over to his house and play -- and maybe throw a few tracks down for kicks. Following the first couple of jams, though, Perkins had a sense that something special was happening among the cast of characters, many of whom had never played together or experimented with combining their respective forms. The sessions, he says, were inspired (often all-night) affairs that found the players tinkering around in every corner of the Perkins property; at one point, he and Buckethead composed a song in the Jacuzzi -- Perkins played softly on the water and the guitarist laid down a cool backdrop of acoustic sounds.

Perkins began recording the sessions in his home studio, and after spending the entire summer of 1997 at work on the project, he and the Dust Brothers mixed down Banyan's first release, an eponymous, eight-song platter that meanders around a stylistic universe unbound by the rules of conventional songwriting. Following the release -- which enlisted a fairly stable lineup of Perkins, Watt, Cline and Beastie Boys collaborator the Freeway Keyboardist -- Perkins brought in more and more musicians to add color and different sonic personalities. During the summer of 1998, Perkins hosted nearly 25 musicians at his home studio for the recording of a follow-up effort, Anytime at All.

"Basically, Anytime at All was recorded out of backyard party jams at my house," says Perkins. "I'd just have some friends come over and we'd throw down some jams, head outside and throw on some barbecue, drink a beer and sometimes blow a joint and then head back down to jam some more. It was so easy. Everyone wanted to jam. All these guys love to play. I'd call Mike Watt and ask if he wanted to jam around noon. 'Sure,' he'd say. And at noon, Watt was there and we were playing. Everyone was like that. It was unbelievable."

Anytime at All was released on Higher Octave Music in the spring of 1999. Whereas the self-titled release seems sporadic and unruly at times -- mostly because it covers a large (perhaps too large) number of genres -- Anytime at All is more cohesive and listenable. Although Perkins and friends still make pilgrimages to an inexhaustible number of styles, from free-form jazz to funk to traditional punk, the foundation of each track is more realized. Below the sonic collisions taking place on the surface, there are detectable melodies and themes at work. The summertime, good-times vibe shared by the players is perceptible throughout the album: "Justine" is a primer for layers of funky backbeats and hospital-clean guitar solos; "La Sirena," one of three tunes with lyrics, has an uplifting Caribbean rhythm that's complimented by Waldman's trumpet and a pretty, lilting guitar that recalls white beaches, bikinis and coconut rum.

The album is not all brews and bowls, however. Banyan summons the spirits of other great players on "The Apple and the Seed," a wild, jazzy journey that recalls 13 Pictures-era Charles Mingus and Miles Davis's Live Evil. The nearly fifteen-minute track begins with birds chirping and a gentle hymn, but it takes off when Perkins's sweltering rock tempo is complemented by Willy Waldman's modal trumpet playing and Wasserman's strutting bass. It's possibly the most diverse and intriguing track on the record; you can hear the musical telepathy between the players as the groove moves and develops, then recedes. The ideas build, expand and collapse, finally emerging as a cohesive composition. For those interested in the science of songwriting, it's a window into the laboratory.

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