Let us now praise semi-famous outliers. Those seemingly real-gone creators carving avenues both staticky and surreal through popular music. Difficult, shock-of-the-weird sounds that with curiosity and focus nudge music in new directions.
The kind like Black Bananas' new "Electric Brick Wall," which in mixed company will likely draw baffled guffaws from conservative listeners while gleefully striking the ears of those bored with the retro-fueled stasis that's overtaken rock.
Black Bananas are a Sunset Beach-based rock-pop-experimental noise band best known for its co-founder and lead singer Jennifer Herrema, whose scratchy, fearless yowl has come to define her groups Royal Trux and RTX. "Electric Brick Wall" was just released by her longtime label Drag City, and it's an odd, curiously magnificent record unlike anything else you'll hear this year.
Rife with old-school synthetic beats, squiggles of analog synth tones, rap beats time-traveled from 1984, wailing, distorted guitar solos courtesy Brian McKinley, and a fearless way of beaming pop and rock music tropes through kaleidoscopes of hiss and aural graffiti, "Electric Brick Wall" is a record that takes work to translate. "Physical Emotions" is a cockeyed, strange funk song that has the feel of Rick James — except it sounds oblong, confused. "Dig Deep" is a stumper of a sex song, but once it clicks, it's captivating.
Herrema is best known to fashion followers for a series of heroin-chic ads for Calvin Klein when the imprint was flying high in the '90s. As one-half of noise-rock band Royal Trux, her tattered bell-bottoms and mussed-up long hair became the band's visual calling card. (That aesthetic helped land Black Bananas a performance slot at the 2013 MOCA Gala.)
For others, she's admired for a great artistic coup that this year celebrates its 20th anniversary: She and former partner Neil Michael Hagerty were on the receiving end of a million-dollar, three-album recording contract with Virgin Records during a post-Nirvana signing frenzy as major labels searched for all things hip and grunge.
Each album was utterly strange, uniquely Truxian and recorded at inexpensive studios for maximum profit. They never stood a chance in a market buzzing on Offspring and Green Day platinum.
That cash, though, is still generating dividends. After the duo broke up (both musically and as a couple), Herrema sold the Virginia farm where they created their music and headed west, where she bought a place in the sleepy Sunset Beach community along the Pacific Coast Highway.
"I scrape by, but that was one of the things of having a business manager, when I had money for a minute, was having enough to buy a house outright," she said during a recent conversation at downtown Los Angeles' Grand Central Market. Black Bananas work and record in the band's own Costa Mesa studio not far from Volcom, a clothing and lifestyle brand that caters to surfers and skaters, where Herrema serves in the role of "brand ambassador" and for whom she's designed three clothing lines. Multi-instrumentalist Kurt Midness works for the company too.
Herrema looks the part of rock singer. She wears her long bangs hanging over reflective aviator glasses to create a kind of half mask. It's off-putting in a rock-star kind of way, but once she removes the shades and makes eye contact, an artist jumps out of the caricature and starts talking about the fluidity of their creative process.
She calls the work around the studio casually communal. Because they have access to the space whenever they want, the vibe, says Herrema, is as much clubhouse as professional studio. They all come and go as they please, adding and tweaking sounds on works in progress.
"Kurt will come over after work, and Brian and I will have stuff up that we've recorded throughout the day, whether it's good or not," she says. "We'll play it for him, and then he'll pick up. It's that whole luxury of time, where you can be indulgent. And then there's the huge edit."
Absent is the normal rock band cycle: record an album, tour to promote it and then repeat the process as you ascend the hierarchy. Herrema's been through that, and such indifference to the "career in rock" vibe has resulted in a freedom to follow the music without concern for gold records. Except for a tour with electronic rock group Sleigh Bells, they've passed on many invitations to share bills with acclaimed bands.
She's quick to say, however, that this philosophy has more to do with creative freedom than with ambivalence or any sense of entitlement from her status as an underground icon.
"Ego is negative," she says. "You have to care about yourself, and do things you believe in in order to feel good about yourself, and stand for that. Other than that, who's better than anybody else? None of it is real. It's all perception and money and different things. Experiences I don't think are doled out in any kind of pecking order."