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A Family Tree

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

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."

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.

"All of those ideas were spontaneous," Perkins says after noting that both of the band's recordings are full of off-the-cuff experiments that can't be replicated in a live setting. "Sometimes we'd listen back and try to craft an idea, but every part can be dissected and played differently. That's what's great about playing this stuff live because we never know what we're going to play, and it's different and spontaneous every night.

"The best part about Banyan is that it expands your musical horizons as a player," he adds. "But that's also the greatest challenge of playing and performing in a band like this. You really have to learn how to communicate with different instruments. You really have to open your ears."

If an audience is expecting a reincarnation of any of the various bands these guys were once in, they will also have to open their ears and accept where the players are now. That is, Banyan is not Jane's, or fIREHOSE, or the Chili Peppers; rather Banyan is a musical think camp where players react to one another's moods, traverse styles like fashion models and make it up as they go along.

For Perkins, the methodology is a welcome change from his days of traditional gigging with Jane's Addiction, when night after night, show after show, the sets were more or less the same. "Songs lose their meaning after playing them over and over," he says. "The only thing that kept me going was the hope that there was one kid out there who hadn't heard us live and that when he heard a song he liked, he would be excited."

With Banyan, Perkins knows that kind of redundancy isn't a possibility, especially when the lineup itself changes throughout a tour. (During Banyan's stops in Denver and Boulder, Perkins will be joined by Wasserman, Waldman and guitarist Clint Wagner. Watt, present for the first leg of Banyan travel, has joined J. Mascis's tour.) "Each night's show is completely different from any other we've played, or ever will play, because we take the environment we're in and put it back into the music. Everything that happens to us throughout the day -- whether it's our conversation in the van or if one of us received good or bad news -- shows up during our shows. If I get good news, you'll hear it in my drumming. If someone is having a bad day, you'll hear darkness in his playing."

On a basic level, improvisation is an intellectual and emotional interaction between individuals. Perkins seems to thrive on such exchanges. "The best thing [for the players] to do is to use their personalities," he says. "That's why I want to play with these guys. You know anyone can play notes on a bass, but when you hear someone like Watt, Wasserman, Flea or Les Claypool play the bass, man, they play it with personality.

"Sometimes we don't even discuss what we're going to play on any given night," he adds. "And that's the toughest part, because these guys are so good that you have to be on your mark. When we're up there playing, it's the ultimate freedom, but it's also nerve-wracking because all the guys in the band are waiting for you to say something, and you can't hold back."

Perkins is aware that the unpredictability of Banyan's live shows may lead listeners to wonder if the band is a self-indulgent supergroup simply showing off its chops. "It's true that we do get to display our talent, but we're not doing fusion here that's going to leave the audience out in left field. That's one of the scariest things about playing in an all-improv band: It is the most musically honest because we have nothing to fall back on."

That is, they have nothing to fall back on except one another.

"We all have to be on the same path because we try to paint a picture for people. The music is a blank canvas and we're just the painters throwing spontaneous colors onto it. To do that, we all have to open our ears and eyes to come up with something cohesive each night. I just close my eyes and try to capture the other players' brainwaves and think to myself, 'How do I want to present this? How do I want to make people feel?'"

 

Guess that all depends on what happens the moment Perkins and his mates set foot on stage.


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