Rocking, Instrumentally, in the Free World

Stephen Perkins, the be-mohawked drummer, has rocked South Coast houses many times throughout the years—houses like the Arlington Theatre, the Bowl, and Ventura Theatre, where Jane’s Addiction, Porno for Pyros, and Love and Rockets have landed. This Thursday night, he scales it down while stretching out at SOhO, with his experimental side project, Banyan. Also in the ranks of this texture-surfing instrumental unit are Nels Cline, the longtime L.A. guitar hero whose latest gig is with Wilco, bassist Mike Watt (Firehose, Minutemen), trumpeter Willie Waldman and live, improvisatory painter Norton Wisdom.

Needless to say, this is not a band you’ll catch on “modern rock” airwaves. As heard on Banyan’s third and latest album, Live at Perkins’ Palace (Sanctuary), it has lots of ideas and collective energy on its side. Formed by Perkins in 1996 as a loose rock-punk-jazz organism, Banyan has solidified as of late. Last September, the band played the Monterey Jazz Festival, pushing the boundaries of jazz. With Waldman in the band, the connection to mid-’70s Miles Davis is strong, but with more rock in its veins. The SOhO show—the band’s Santa Barbara debut—promises to be a potent and painterly sonic force. Perkins, on the phone from home in L.A., gave us a heads up for what to expect.

Banyan’s music lives somewhere in the vague zone between jazz and rock, but maybe this could be called rock-jazz rather than jazz-rock. Is that fair to say?

That’s true. In attitude and in the flavor, it’s got more rock and punk to it. In philosophy, it’s very much jazz. Everyone gets to take a solo and everyone has something to say, musically. Every moment matters in terms of the dynamics and the nuances, because there are no vocals so there are ways to say things lyrically with your instrument—even if it’s a drum.

We played the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, where they had Sonny Rollins and Tony Bennett. Someone there asked, “Are you going to give them what they want?” I said, “Fuck no; we’re going to give them what they need. They need some punk rock attitude. They’re going to get 30 or 40 hours of traditional jazz this whole weekend.” But at the same time, I think a jazz purist could appreciate what’s happening onstage.

The core players are in rock bands, almost like “day gigs,” with defined roles. Does Banyan give you a forum to let loose some energies?

It’s a different avenue. There’s a certain type of playing I—and Watt and Nels and Willie—can do in Banyan that we can’t do in a situation that is more “normal,” if that’s the word. If I had to lose Banyan and its freedom for a rock band with carved, edited songs every night, I would definitely lose some of my personality.

Is there a new mutant audience willing to cross these different genre lines with you?

Yeah. People who like a nice hip-hop beat might also like the Dave Matthews sound. People in the business are scrambling and trying to figure out how to make music and squeeze the juice out of songs now, because people aren’t buying CDs. But people will still buy tickets if you put on a good live show and you’re honest up there. The energy is mostly infectious with Banyan. It’s not about the punk or the funk or the abstract moment or the ambient moment in the show. It’s about the live experience.

4·1·1 Banyan plays SOhO, Thursday, February 9, at 9 p.m. Call 962-7776.

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