Just as fortunetellers have their little fishing expeditions to crack a sucker's psyche, so, too, rock writers have their shortcuts on deconstructing a band's sound without using the dreaded catch-all phrase "eclectic" (which, in truth, we've already exhausted in this article's headline). Here's the laziest methodology: Just ask the band members how they describe their sound to their prospective employers, club owners, and go from there. A fair question for Banana Gun, a quintet who's stopped for an afternoon drink at the Swizzle Inn before trucking to play an untried venue in Sedona, land of crystals, clairvoyants, clairsentients, and clairaudients. How did they sell Banana Gun to that club owner?
"I told them we're a zydeco/funk/ambient psychedelic jam band," laughs singer/guitarist Kevin Loyd. "Naw, I just tell them we're rock 'n' roll band — that's probably the easiest explanation. That covers a lot of ground."
Yes, rock 'n' roll, that vague catch-all phrase bands shied away from for years, a phrase meaning anything from Slayer to Leo Sayer. Perhaps the much-abused term has fallen far enough into disuse to be operable again. If so, Banana Gun fits the bill. They cover enough musical terrain on their first full-length, The Elephant in the Room, to give a typical A&R man pause for concern. "Attic," the song that the band agrees upon as the signpost of where Banana Gun's sound is heading next, incorporates good-timey folk, Cookie Monster metal, and punk jumbled together in one headspace. At the same time, they are capable of "Blue Sky," an effortlessly laid-back R&B folk groove, the kind that John Mellencamp has been chasing since people stopped calling him "The Coog" and that could make Kid Rock untold millions if he sampled it and called it something else.
"Just be one of those kinds of bands," you can imagine Mr. A&R saying. Would it make for a more easily marketable band? Undoubtedly. But that band wouldn't be Banana Gun, and that would be too bad.
Watching the band set up for a typical show at the Sail Inn or Long Wong's underscores the inexplicable style of the band. Have the dual lead guitarists warming up tricked you into imagining Thin Lizzy (or maybe Molly Hatchet)? Does the skronking sax player have you primed for free jazz or jumpin' R&B? How about the singer with dreadlocks halfway down his back switching from his ax to a banjo? Is this band insane or simply impossibly scatterbrained?
"I think that's a good thing," says saxophonist Kyle Scarborough of the potentially puzzling vibes. "[People] think one thing, and it gets us through the door."
Loyd agrees: "Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music — good and bad. I just love that."
Three years ago, Loyd's band Ghost of America fell apart at the same time Bad Rabbit, a band that included drummer Ian Breslin, guitarist Nic Dehaan, and bassist Ross Troost, was about to break up. "Bad Rabbit and Ghosts of America — we used to play Joe's Grotto all the time," says Troost. "And they were the only bands there that didn't play metal, so we got along great."
"It was either join them or move to California, and I didn't want to move to California," Loyd adds.
"Our two bands were very focused-sounding hard rock bands at the time," says Troost. But that slowly changed.
"When we got the banjo, and it was getting into the country shit, well, none of us had ever played that kind of music before, so it was a bit of a challenge," Dehaan says. "We needed somewhere to jump off of, so the song 'Light On' was it. We were trying to find our way."
Also confused was future reed player Scarborough, who'd moved to Phoenix from Rochester, New York, and answered an ad on Craigslist. "I had been touring for nine years in an R&B band and didn't know anybody here," says Scarborough. "I needed to be in a band. I thought it was going to be stoner rock, but then it's country, too?"
"We got together with the idea that it's not gonna be the type of band where there's one singer," says Breslin. "We soon realized that Kevin was the singer. He was so shy when he came in — all he wanted to do was play guitar."
"It was nice to have the confidence that everyone was behind me. I could let loose. Proving that most artists have huge egos and little self-esteem," Loyd chuckles. "And some people have to feed that in order for me to do good."
"Then Kyle came in and she said, 'I can sing, too.' And I said I bet you can!"
Loyd raises his eyebrow for comic effect. Perhaps more eyebrow-raising was Loyd's predilection for inviting anyone who could play an instrument to join the new band, as well. It wasn't as bad as having every douchebag with a didgeridoo crashing your show, but it did lead to some drum-circle nightmare moments. At their most padded, Banana Gun was firing on nine cylinders.
"You think you want to have the band as big as you can possibly have it," says Loyd, noting that they employed extra reeds, trumpets, an auxiliary drummer, and a Dave Matthews Band-covering "Viking." Like it or not, paring down became necessary "[when] you've got someone onstage dancing around like a leprechaun when he has nothing to do."
The band did retain the services of organ player Travis Engler for the record and invited Mikel Lander from the Sugar Thieves to add a bluesy dobro coda to "Trouble," a track that also features background vocals from their friends in Future Loves Past.
"We were blessed by a lot of music fairies, I guess you could say," beams Dehaan. "Mikel let us use his father's banjo, we had the pedal steel technician for Robert Randolph, [and] John Ricker, who came in and did two tracks in 45 minutes, and then did a third one because we paid him for an hour."
"And Curtis Grippe, our producer, played percussion all over the record," says Loyd before remarking, "It takes a village to make an album."
After making a seven-song EP in 2010, Banana Gun was champing at the bit to do an album but debated the wisdom of doing so in an era when everyone has a phone with them at all times and would be lucky to be able to hear two songs without interruption. The band's lineup woes informed some hesitation to create a 15-cut album; after all, the less you hear everything else, the more you can hear what's there. But the band's affection for the LP format won out in the end.
"It was going to be a dozen songs, but Kevin came with three songs during the two weeks we set aside for recording," says Dehaan. "And how could we leave off a song like 'Devil's Daughter'?"
Indeed, if albums are done for, you might as well cram variety in your repertoire just to show that rare breed of person who hears one of your MP3s and wants to see if you have the goods to back it up. All it takes is overhearing one song at a happenstance show or a clicking a YouTube video to jump-start that.
Well, maybe not a video where you mash up your folk song "Light On" with a Sesame Street skit. "Now," says Dehaan, "people think we're the fuckin' Wiggles."