April 16 2013 04:48 PM

California band is a twisted rock ’n’ roll free-for-all

From left: Brian McKinley, Jennifer Herrema and Kurt Midness
Photo by Steve Perilloux

In his 1977 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, French scholar Jacques Attali argues that since the dawn of humanity, music has passed through four unique stages, each representing a different economic and cultural role it plays in society.

In the first period, which he calls "Sacrificing," music is an oral tradition, a way for ancient peoples to make sense of the world. In the second period, "Representing," it becomes a specialized art with a bourgeois support system, as printed notation and fancy recitals allow visionary composers to flourish.

In the third period, "Repeating," music turns into a mechanized industry; recording technology fosters the creation of giant record labels that profit off cookie-cutter pop stars. And in the fourth period, "Composing," further advances in technology ultimately bring us to the kind of dialed-up, plugged-in music free-for-all we see today. 

Unlike in the past, modern-day music-makers are free to borrow ideas from whomever they like in the pursuit of making whatever they like for whatever economic goals they may have in mind. And thus, the long march of history inevitably leads us to a wild, crazy rock band called Black Bananas.

Fronted by veteran rocker Jennifer Herrema, Black Bananas thrives on a collagist, anything-goes approach. Their 2012 album, Rad Times Xpress IV, is a runaway choo-choo train of butt-rock riffage, electro-funk groove, bruising snarl and bong-hitting humor. The whole aesthetic is glued together with thick, grimy effects, plus the occasional Auto-Tuned vocal part.

"It's just my philosophy that I've always had," Herrema says about the album's aesthetic. "Take all the stuff I like, and then just fuck around with it and experiment. And then you kind of hear it when it clicks."

Even in this age of media overload, Rad Times Xpress (which came out on Drag City) is an overwhelming listen—it's sometimes hard to figure out what the hell is going on. But that hasn't stopped many fans and critics from climbing aboard: There's something irresistible about delirious, feel-good funk / rock / hip-hop tracks with titles like "It's Cool" and "Rad Times." 

Herrema, who used to play in the influential noise-rock duo Royal Trux, started Black Bananas last year as a way to infuse some new life into her band RTX (short for "Rad Times Xpress"). The two entities are pretty much the same, but Black Bananas, which also includes Brian McKinley and Kurt Midness, expands greatly on RTX's gnarly, self-aware take on hair metal.

When Herrema started playing with RTX after Royal Trux broke up in the early '00s, she says she and her new bandmates bonded over a love for bands like RATT and Mötley Crüe. As they got to know each other better, they branched out to new sounds. Switching to Black Bananas, they bought the music software Ableton and brought in synths and electronics, taking cues from funk bands like Zapp and Funkadelic.

Some might bristle at metal crossing paths with funk. But Herrema gets a similar feeling from both genres.

"There's an immediate rush. There's something so sweet about an anthemic song," she says. "It just makes you feel the same way, whether it be Zapp or Mötley Crüe. It's the way it makes you feel, and you kind of know when you hit it."

Still, Herrema maintains that Black Bananas isn't some cheap pastiche. Borrowing liberally from a wide array of sounds, styles and disciplines—Herrema has also dabbled in fashion and film and has been surfing for years—they actually create something a bit artsy, an aesthetic that reflects these twisted, post-post-modern times.

That may explain why they've attracted the attention of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, which is having the band play the museum's upcoming gala.

"I just got an email from Jeffrey Deitch about an hour ago," Herrema says, referring to MOCA's director. "He's a huge fan."

Lately, Black Bananas have been working on a new album, Electric Brick Wall, which Herrema hopes to have out on Drag City by the fall. In a development that may delight the duo's fans, she co-wrote two of the album's tracks with Neil Hagerty, her ex-husband and former Royal Trux bandmate.

Herrema says they worked on the songs via email, and though they haven't communicated regularly for years, it was an organic collaboration. They even tossed around the idea of writing more songs together, but she doesn't want to revive Royal Trux to play their old songs again, even though she has fond memories of their 14-year run. 

"I look back on it and be like, 'Yeah, that was great. That was a great time,'" she says. "But I don't look back and be like, 'Oh, I wish it was like that again,' because I certainly wouldn't want to do that again. Not because it was bad, but because, like, who wants to do the same thing over and over?"

In the long march of history, as music evolves and new epochs arise, it seems this rock 'n' roll locomotive will keep on chugging toward the horizonóready to embrace whatever rad times lay ahead.

Black Bananas play with VAMPIRE and Skrapez at Soda Bar on Tuesday, April 23. 

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.