Vital Signs 

Black Rock Revival breathes life back into the idea of a black rock band.

At first glance, the journey of Black Rock Revival frontman Sebastian Banks into the rock-and-roll profession seems an unlikely one.

After all, just over four years ago he was preparing for a career in law enforcement as a new recruit in the Memphis Police Academy and dabbling in hip-hop music ("mostly freestyle, street-corner rap battles, nothing serious," Banks says) on the side. But then his father introduced him to rock.

"He introduced me to stuff like Pink Floyd, Three Dog Night, Hendrix, and Love, and I really got into it," Banks says. "Rock-and-roll has so much freedom, musically and lyrically. It's not as controlled as hip-hop. There are no limits. Rock music is the ultimate freakout."

Banks' first foray into playing rock was lead-singing with a heavy-metal cover band. But he eventually felt the need to write and perform his own material and also grew weary of depending on others to provide the musical component of the band. So he picked up the guitar and started brainstorming a bold musical concept that would eventually become Black Rock Revival.

"Basically, I want to revive rock-and-roll music and give it back to black people," Banks says. "When I was younger, I didn't even know black people ever did play rock music, even though they were the original ones to do it. I want to breathe life back into the idea of a black rock band."

Initially, however, Banks struggled to find the right musicians to carry out his concept, and early incarnations of the band failed to pick up steam or find an audience.

"I wanted to find guys with more of a rock background, but most of the people I knew were gospel musicians, so it was a struggle at first," Banks says. "Don't get me wrong. They were good musicians, but it wasn't the feel I wanted. These were guys who had only played church music, which has different rhythm and timing. It just wasn't right."

He then adds, wearily, "In those early days, we couldn't even get a free show."

There is no avoiding some discussion of race with Black Rock Revival. The unfortunate reality is that pop/rock music has produced very few recent examples of successful black rock bands that weren't thought of on some level as a "novelty" act. (King's X or Living Color, anyone?) Even the underground rock scene in a city with a large black population like Memphis is, let's face it, mostly white. Neither of these points is lost on Banks.

"It's not a black-vs.-white issue to me, necessarily. It's just about music. But it was definitely hard, at first, to find an audience, get gigs, make connections. People didn't know how to respond. I hope eventually the music will take over, because that's all that really matters to me. If anything, I think we've found a way to take advantage of the situation."

After two years of playing with various musicians and refining his sound, Banks finally found the right rhythm section for Black Rock Revival, thus solidifying the direction of the project. Enter bassist Percy Blue and drummer Hype.

Blue is a 20-year veteran of the music industry. Most notably, his band Barefoot Son provided the theme music for NBC's Fear Factor. The dynamic Hype, meanwhile, is a former member of the local punk band 1057 Walker.

According to Banks, things have started to come easier for the band since the pair's arrival.

"I finally found some musicians with the right background, the right sensibilities. Black Rock Revival wasn't truly a band until Percy and Hype joined up. It was more of a solo project with hired guns. They just add so much."

With a suitable rhythm section in place, Black Rock Revival began to think about making a record. About six months ago, the band started tracking in Banks' home studio. The result of those sessions is Keep It Together, the debut CD that the band will release this week.

The record is a challenging listen at times due to its lo-fi, digital recording methods and the use of synthesized, rather than acoustic, drum sounds (a necessity of having to keep the noise down due to neighbors' complaints). But undeniably, Keep It Together shows promise that Banks & Co. have the ability to do something special.

"We looked at professional studios at first but had a hard time getting engineers to take us seriously, so we decided to save our money," Banks says. "Now, I wouldn't want to do it any other way, even if the band really takes off. I got to do things you can't do in a studio and keep my own hours, which was liberating."

Moving forward, Banks says the main goal of the band will be to expand the fan base beyond its hometown, with the ultimate goal of taking the project overseas.

"I think the European audience will appreciate what we do a lot more," Banks says. "Frankly, I'm surprised that people in Memphis seem to like it at all."

Black Rock Revival CD-release show With the Sheriffs of Nottingham, Grace Askew, Christopher (of Electric Nobody), and Devoted New Daisy Theatre, Friday, May 7th, 9 p.m. $11 cover, all-ages

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