A Band's Dissolve
The boys in Banana Blender Surprise have the gift of self-awareness and perspective, a decidedly precocious gift for a bunch of twentysomethings. These guys know who they are. They're a group of post-collegiate kids -- and a pre-collegiate one -- from rather well-to-do Houston families, a pack of still-living-with-the-folks white guys who realize they have neither the experience nor the wisdom to make great pronouncements in three-minute spurts. So they sing about food instead.
Or at least they used to sing about food. And maybe in the future they'll sing about food again. Who knows? Banana Blender Surprise is nothing if not open about their future, even as half the sextet's members admit that, for the moment at least, that future deals with things other than being part of Banana Blender. After two years of road-heavy performing, the band has called it quits, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not. Lead guitartist Jason Barker has started his first year at the Baylor College of Medicine; drummer Conrad Choucroun is starting his first year at the University of Texas; lead singer and band manager David Beebe is going on tour with Austin's Ugly Americans, as that group's road manager. Rhythm guitarist Gerard Choucroun, bassist Allen Hill and part-time percussionist Shannon Brown haven't announced particular plans, but half a group does not a Banana Blender Surprise make. But then again, as Gerard Choucroun says, tongue firmly in cheek, "It's really an accident that we've been together this long. It's just an excuse for us to drink RC."
That RC is for RC Cola, a pillar of a shtick that has identified Banana Blender as much as its music has. Formed while its members were sophomores at St. John's School, a private bastion of proper dress and honor codes, the Bananas felt they were in no position to make music about teen angst. So they did something else instead: they created their own myth. For better or worse, the Bananas will forever be linked to RC, Moon Pies and other assorted foods that wreak havoc on the digestive system.
Last month, while cracking wise with his fellow Bananas at Lucky Burger, a dull, gray barrel of a fast-food joint that has become the band's spiritual/comic meeting place over the years, Beebe proudly displayed his encyclopedic knowledge of RC Cola. He reeled off facts about RC's manufacturer, its distributor, its availability within certain markets, its profit margins. The guy even admitted to reading trade journals on cola. Barker, who's served as the band's treasurer, said the Bananas spent $800 on RC last year alone.
Also last year, the Bananas wrote a promotional tune for RC's ad agency, hoping to make the link between band and cola even more prominent; the tune was ultimately rejected. Still, the RC emphasis has helped Banana Blender Surprise create a uniquely warped personality. The band has been all about humor, irony and Gulf Coast roots music (which the group molds and shapes with unfailing craft). Original tunes have included "Barbecue" ("Can't you see? / This plate in front of me / Is calling me?") as well as the band's theme song, "Royal Crown and a Moon Pie," the chorus of which Beebe sings with an ironic, exaggerated passion, as if he were making some grand statement on life.
You could argue that this wise-guy attitude has been nothing but a device to deflect criticism about the Bananas' pampered upbringing. After all, it's a bit difficult to pass judgment on a band that doesn't have anything serious to say. But the irony about this irony-heavy band has been that the Bananas' considerable intelligence was hidden within an organizational structure that should be the envy of every band in town. The Bananas created their own company to handle payroll, social security and sales taxes, among other things, and also created their own label, Secret Ingredient Records, which has released three Banana Blender CDs and two singles. All the band's earning have been funneled into the company, which in turn has forked out 50 percent of the proceeds for band members' salaries. The rest funded the group's recording projects, manufacturing costs, promotion expenses, transportation, insurance and, of course, RC Cola.
This organizational structure has afforded the Bananas a degree of independence that has been hard to surrender. Earlier this year, the band was approached by Atlantic Records about a potential deal, but the Bananas' interest was mostly theoretical. The guys knew a major-label deal wasn't in their best interests. "If you're not going to make any money when you're selling 500,000 copies [on a major label], why bother?" Beebe asks. "We figured, 'Why not be happy selling 2,000 copies and learning about what you're doing?'"
Back in 1993, the Bananas figured they'd push the band hard for 24 months, partly to see if they were interested in pursuing music full-time and partly to see if the band would take off. And now, though the group has definitely attracted a loyal following on the Texas circuit, nearly every member agrees that a career in music isn't crucially important to them. Gerard Choucroun, a 1993 psychology graduate from Connecticut College, says there's a law of diminishing returns in music. Just because you dig performing in front of a fawning audience one night a week doesn't mean you'll like it seven times as much if you do it every night of the week.
"I can't do that for the rest of my life," adds Beebe. "I wouldn't survive. My voice wouldn't survive. My brain wouldn't survive. I think I'd go crazy."
Barker has a more philosophical take on the situation. For him, music could never be as important as medicine -- but he had to discover that for himself, going on the road to learn that the adolescent dream of being a rock star wasn't where his heart was at. "For me, these past two years have put everything in perspective," he says. "I knew I would go to med school. I knew I didn't want to be a professional musician. I wanted to be a doctor."
Still, none of the Bananas are writing off the band completely, even if none of them knows for certain when the band will perform next. Scheduling is the problem. With Barker in med school, Conrad Choucroun in college and Beebe on the road with the Ugly Americans, mutual open dates are going to be difficult to pin down. But Barker insists he wants to maintain a little rock and roll playfulness in his life. He says a professor has told him it's important not to allow medicine to consume your every waking hour. "You can take it with you," he quips.
Though few will argue that a great musical voice is being silenced with Banana Blender Surprise's hiatus, one could easily argue that the Houston scene's humor, perhaps even its performance-art, quotient will drop precipitously with the band's absence. After all, the Bananas have been known for, among other things, their Moon Pie carving contests, angry sarcasm (the band once played a string of Neil Diamond tunes at a Dallas club because the venue's operators treated the guys so shabbily) and willingness to scarf down junk food for your amusement -- and sometimes to puke it right back up. The guys never aspired to be more than entertaining. But to them, that's what pop music is about.
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