Blacked Out Funk: Deep Banana Blackout Guitarist James “Fuzz” Sangiovanni On 20 Years Of DBB & More
Words by: Ryan Dembinsky
While 1995 reflects a somber time in jam band lore as the year Jerry Garcia passed away, in a lot of ways it also served as the catalyst for the rebirth of the scene. The second half of the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s by many accounts were the most prolific in terms of the emergence of quality new acts and new fans alike. It was also during that period that the actual music branched away from the psychedelic fare of the Grateful Dead in favor of all sorts of more modern styles. Phish brought their complex frenetic fugues to the table. Bands like moe. and God Street Wine introduced more energetic rock jams to the scene. The String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon pushed bluegrass in new improvisational directions. And Deep Banana Blackout brought the funk.
The scene was thriving and everybody seemed to support just about every band that came to town. There was little of the “my band is better than your band” nonsense that you often see today. It was a more unified scene as seemingly everybody was just out to have a good time. On March 31, Deep Banana Blackout is headlining The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York to celebrate those glory days with the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Live In The Thousand Islands. And in true throwback fashion, another classic groove band from the era and longtime Deep Banana Blackout friends, Percy Hill, will serve as the opening act.
To gear up for the show, I caught up with founding member James “Fuzz” Sangiovanni to talk about everything from the band’s beginnings, to what new covers they are working on, and even to Fuzz’s tryout for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Have a read below and check out DBB and Percy Hill at The Cap on March 31st.
JAMBASE: To start us off, could you give some background on the state of Deep Banana Blackout these days? I know some of the guys have other projects like Kung Fu and Caravan Of Thieves. Is the band viewing this as something that you want to get back to being more active or is this more just having fun and playing runs of shows whenever everyone’s schedules align?
FUZZ: It’s hard to say, right now doing a show or a short run of shows every few months and just having fun with it is working for us all, and since everyone is pretty busy outside of DBB, I’m not sure to what extent it can pick up going forward. But no one ever knows from one day to the next how things will change. Lives change, industries, trends, socks … all change daily. So perhaps we will expand and develop DBB in its second, or third, or whichever life we are up to at this point, that’s certainly not out of the question, and even comes up from time to time in friendly, casual conversation way down in Bananaland.
JAMBASE: Obviously, the jam scene has evolved in several ways since the late ‘90s, which many would argue was the renaissance for improvised based music. What are some of the biggest differences you notice playing today versus back when you guys were just getting started?
FUZZ: As a guy like me sees it, the jam scene, which clearly thrives in the live setting, was bound to get more dance and groove friendly since those styles usually make for a pretty festive night out. There’s been a surge in new funk music over the past decade by some great new artists, as well as the veteran acts doing some of their best work today. And the improvisational element is what sets the jam scene apart from mainstream dance and R&B, furthering that unique experience you can only attain from being at a concert.
DBB has been pretty consistent since we first got together in 1995. We’ve all shared a love for classic R&B, funk and dance music and we’re not afraid to rock it from time to time. Nope, not afraid. And though we all continue to grow and venture out individually, this is the common ground we all still share today. How we interpret it evolves each year alongside the changing musical landscape, and as we continue to take performance liberties, improvise throughout our show and occasionally steer the car off the road.
JAMBASE: When you guys started out, you were really focusing on funk and R&B, but not necessarily the jam component. It seemed like things changed when you came to embrace the longer form versions of the material with improvised components. What prompted the band to head in that direction? Were you getting feedback from fans asking for it?
FUZZ: Because we all shared a love for jazz as well as funk, we started to gradually include some of those improvisational elements into the music. This was starting to happen around the same time people from the jam scene were taking notice of what we were doing, so I don’t recall which was the cause and effect, it’s possible one fed the other, back and forth, little by little. We may have had a few early “Funk Mobsters” request bigger and longer improvisational moments but the real motivation came each night after we received a healthy dose of positive reinforcement whenever we did let loose on stage and the audience went, well, bananas. That encouragement certainly perpetuated the extended improvs.
JAMBASE: In reading through some old interviews, I came across a great nugget of information. I read that you interviewed to play guitar for the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they were doing open interviews to replace John Frusciante. Would you mind providing some color on how that went down, what you played, and any feedback you may have received?
FUZZ: [laughs] Oh yes that nugget, that was interesting. I was in college still but got word the Chili Peppers were doing auditions, so I flew out to L.A. for the adventure and potential shot at being an overnight rock star. Anthony, Flea and Chad weren’t even present for the initial audition, it was crew or some other guys who I played with at first, just a quick funk jam. But it went well as far as I could tell and I got the call back.
The second audition was very different. All three of them were there and at first, we just hung out for a while talking about the early ‘90s NYC underground jazz scene, cars, etc., and then we got up and played for a while. No songs, just funk grooves and heavy rock riffs that they let me lead on and they seemed to be having a blast playing with me, especially Chad and Flea.
This was all pretty exciting stuff for a young fella like myself, so I definitely had no problem jumping to the conclusion that I might actually get the gig. And since news travels, and distorts pretty quickly, everyone from my home town was convinced I was the new guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers before I even made it back to New York. Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig, but I was happy they went with Dave Navarro, as I was also a big Jane’s fan at the time.
JAMBASE: Your history with Percy Hill goes way back to the beginning, so that’s very cool that they are playing with you at The Capitol Theatre show. Do you remember when you all first met and how you came to be such closely aligned bands over the years. Do you expect to do any collaborations at the show?
FUZZ: I don’t remember exactly when or how we met Percy Hill, but my guess is that it was at the Gathering Of The Vibes 1997 or 1998 backstage or maybe when we crashed a golf cart into their stage while they were playing Vibes? OK, that’s out there now. Well, I know for sure we played with Nate Wilson at a series we hosted at The Wetlands in early 1998 called “Organic Grooves” which featured organ players from different bands who were just emerging onto the scene like us, bands like Disco Biscuits, Schleigho, Percy Hill, etc.
Nate also played on an album I made in 1999 with most of the DBB crew and other special guests called B’gocK! In the years that followed we did several shows and runs together sharing the bill, hung out a bunch and always had a blast with them. Great people and great musicians. And yes, though we haven’t actually spoken about it yet, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t join us in our set for a sit-in or two.
JAMBASE: Does Deep Banana Blackout continue to write new material? Also, are there any new covers in the mix these days?
FUZZ: Unfortunately, we haven’t written much as a band in a while. We have done some writing in different configurations outside DBB, like in Big Fuzz, which followed DBB in 2003 and most of us were in that. We still do some of that material in the DBB shows. A few of us continue to compose individually in our respective projects, and have improved as writers and musicians over the years, so maybe one day new material can find its way back into the mix with DBB.
In the meantime, we’re always adding new cover songs, both obscure and popular, just like we did when we first started the band. For the past few shows, we added “Funky Mule” by Ike Turner, “What Do I Have to Do” by Marva Whitney, “Funkifize” by Tower Of Power, stuff like that. You know, funky stuff!
JAMBASE: What else are you finding interesting these days in general be it newer jam bands, other music in general, television shows, books, or anything really?
FUZZ: Hmmmm, lots of stuff, so let’s see. Recently Carrie and I went to see Marina Abramovic do a great talk at 92Y in NYC which was very interesting and inspiring. Picked up her latest book there. I’ve also been getting into some of ODESZA’s music lately and have been listening to Fela Kuti again in the morning as my musical caffeine. There are tons of great science and philosophy lectures on YouTube by Robert Sapolsky, Noam Chomsky, Alan Watts and folks like that I dig into almost daily, while balancing it out with a little Louis CK or Slayer, depending on whether I need a laugh or a thrash, or both.