Mike Watt ain't playing Banyan's San Diego show. Generally, hearing that a scab is sitting in for the legendary bassist behind the Minutemen and fIREHOSE at a show you've got tickets for is cause for a full-on riot. But for Banyan fans, it's cool. It'll just add some extra weirdness to the already really frickin' weird show.
"We'll have Tony Franklin on bass, so we won't really play any of our ditties," says Banyan's founding guitarist and current Wilco member Nels Cline. "That will be kind of liberating because Franklin and [drummer Stephen] Perkins will get into these amazing pile-driving, freight-train-through-your-head grooves and then [trumpeter] Willie [Waldman] and I will make some stuff up."
Making stuff up as they go (read: free jazz) over pile-driving rhythms (read: whacked punk-metal-tribal free jazz) is pretty much the only thing Banyan does well. They're shitty at touring beyond the West Coast (basically never), worse at putting out albums (three in 10 years), but they shine at making stuff up as they go.
Banyan began in 1997 after Watt briefly joined Porno for Pyros and realized he and Perkins were musical kindred spirits.
"Porno for Pyros was a great band, but our work ethic was for shit," says Perkins. "We should have toured more, but we didn't, so Mike and I started Banyan."
Eventually, Perkins, who spent a lot of time at the Beastie Boys' Glendale studio, brought Beastie producer and keyboardist Money Mark to the table. Watt responded by asking free-jazz shredder Cline to join. Then somehow-neither Perkins nor Cline remembers exactly how-the quartet ended up at the Dust Brothers' L.A. house trying to improvise over Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
It wasn't a bad idea if you're into that virtuosos-spontaneously-jamming-on-Russian-ballets type of thing. But, as Cline recalls, he was the only guy who knew the piece. No matter, these four were too talented not to spin a bad idea into some freaky-ass jams. And because you just can't keep freaky-ass jams from all the freaky-ass jammers in L.A., Banyan began to attract plenty of hangers on.
"There was never really a solid personnel when we started gigging," says Cline. "The core band was me and Watt and Stephen and Money Mark, but it wasn't always just us. Sometimes people would show up unannounced like friends of Stephen's who would do belly dancing or play didgeridoo or some god-awful thing like that."
Beyond the didgeridoo (which is under no circumstances cool), Banyan has had some great, heaving hitting collaborators. Throughout the last decade, the band has gigged or recorded with Thurston Moore, Flea, Jon Frusciante, Rob Wasserman, DJ Logic, Buckethead and dozens more. Mark eventually dropped out, but the weirdness only increased as Banyan added trumpeter Willie Waldman (whose credits include recordings with Salt & Pepa, Wu Tang and Snoop Dogg) and painter Norton Wisdom.
Yeah, Banyan's got a painter. So while the four-plus musicians wail away on unrehearsed space-punk-jazz freakouts, a 59-year-old dude stands behind them and paints 8-foot canvases.
"We put the drums up front for Banyan, so there was always room in the back," Perkins says. "Nels knew this cat Norton Wisdom, and when I saw his paintings, I said, "Yeah, man, this could work.' He does a great job steering the visuals of the show."
If you're just hearing about Banyan now, it might be because Perkins has never made the group his No. 1 priority. Since Porno's demise, he spent most of his time with his old band, Jane's Addiction, and his new band, Panic Channel. You see, Banyan isn't what's considered "commercial music"-meaning it doesn't help with car payments or rent or any of that life-essentials crap. Even when big names like Mike Watt and Stephen Perkins collaborate on free jazz, it just ain't a genre you can sell to the kids.
Of course, Jane's, Porno and Panic have kept Perkins' wallet fat, so making bank on Banyan isn't necessary.
"I've been in, like, four bands at a time since I was 15, [and] all I care about is approaching each band... from a different musical angle," he says. "With Panic or Jane's, it was all about big, fat drum beats and carving songs over a month. Banyan is about small drums and quicker response. It's about creating a song in the moment."
Banyan's future is as solid as its past. The next gig could be the last, or it could be the beginning of a new album, DVD or tour (the latter being the least likely, with Cline about to spend a year on the road with Wilco). But Perkins isn't really attached to what happens or who stays in the band or when another record is released. As the leader of an instrumental improvisational outfit, he really has only one goal.
"I never wanted to be the fastest drummer; I just wanted to be the drummer who got people dancing the fastest," he says with a laugh. "And that's the challenge of Banyan-get 'em dancing to something they've never heard or will hear again."
Banyan plays with Soul Camp at Winston's on Saturday, March 17. Doors open at 8 p.m. $12. 619-222-6822.