SARASOTA, Fla. — From the beginning, Jack Berry said, the criterion for joining his band has been simple.
"You didn't have to be able to play an instrument to be in my band," Berry said. "You just had to build one."
That was four years ago, when Berry was 13. He had just built a one-string electric guitar out of a cereal box, a yardstick and electronics that he salvaged from a guitar that had melted in a fire.
Before long he had four friends who had made instruments. There was Evan Tucker's one-string bass, similar to Berry's guitar. Ollie Gray played a drum kit made from plastic tubs and garbage can lids. Austin Siegel played a marimba of glass bottles filled with water to make different pitches. Harrison Paparatto made a saxophone out of PVC pipe and one of those pull-toys that makes balls pop and bounce inside a dome.
Together, the five of them formed a band called the Garbage-Men.
They're still together, all now 17 years old, and all still living in the Sarasota area. The band with instruments made out of stuff they pulled out of trash bins has become one of the most popular acts in west central Florida.
"We played at Tropical Heatwave," said Berry, referring to the massive two-day music festival in Tampa. "We just played at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg in a Rolling Stones tribute concert."
The gig they most look forward to every year, though, is Snooty's birthday party at the South Florida Museum.
"Snooty's birthday is our favorite," Berry said, "We've been doing that every year since we started."
The Garbage-Men are strictly instrumental, he said, but there's a message to their music.
"We want to show people that there's more to recycling than just throwing stuff in a bin," Berry said. "You can be creative and find new ways to use things."
The band's environmental message is what first brought the Garbage-Men to the attention of the South Florida Museum, which likes to promote environmental awareness during Snooty's birthday celebrations.
"We love working with the Garbage-Men every year," said Jessica Schubick, the communications manager for the museum. "They're great examples for the young people as far as raising awareness of recycling and reusing. They've always been a lot of fun, and I think they've developed into really incredible musicians."
Berry also plays bass in a band called The Tracks that plays regularly around town, but most of the other Garbage-Men were musical novices when the band started.
"We've gotten a lot better," Berry said. "I think's it's not so much that we've improved individually, but we play better together and our instruments have gotten better."
The music and the environmental message work together, he said. Sometimes the band is asked to play at schools and museums where the whole point is to talk about recycling and sustainability. Other times they're hired to play music, and when people come up and ask about those weird instruments, the boys in the band get to talk about the importance of recycling.
When he talks about the band's music, Berry cites a lot of influences from the '60s and '70s: Zoot Horn Rollo, the guitarist from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band; The Shaggs; Portsmouth Sinfonia. He discovers the bands by buying inexpensive old albums from garage sales, which also feeds his passion for reusing and recycling.
When they first started out, he said, they played songs like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" that people could recognize from the rhythms, even if the notes weren't exactly on target.
"Lately, we've been doing more original, jam songs," he said. "Like Neil Young and Crazy Horse kind stuff."
The Garbage-Men have two albums, one from their very early days that's no longer available.
The newer one, simply titled "The Garbage-Men," is still for sale at the band's shows. It was mostly recorded in Berry's bedroom. He's continuously burning more copies, replacing old songs with new ones.
The band sells the CDs at shows, and 100 percent of the profits go to a non-profit called Heifer International.
That organization donates farm animals — goats, sheep chickens and the like — to poor people in underdeveloped countries. The recipients get to the benefit of the milk and eggs the animals produce for themselves, and then they have a source of income, and can help feed other people in their communities.
"We've sold more than 500 copies of the CD," Berry said. "So far we've given Heifer International about $5,000."