Two Music Geeks: RZA and Paul Banks Explain What the Hell They’re Doing with Banks & Steelz
The Wu-Tang Clan maestro and Interpol frontman teamed up to play chess and make music, and they ended up with a dope album, 'Anything But Words,' in the process.
Photo by Devin Sarno, courtesy of Banks & Steelz
Sitting across from me in an ink-black suit, the type usually adorned by chilly eyed villains in spy flicks, the RZA looks giddy.
The lanky Wu-Tang leader has a lot to be excited about; since early this morning, he’s been filming a music video with Interpol frontman Paul Banks, who’s also perched in front of me in shadowy formal attire, for their much-anticipated Banks & Steelz project, first announced back in 2013 and finally seeing the light of day later this summer with the release of the album Anything But Words on August 26. The duo tells me that the video is inspired by the dynamics of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, but to me it looks like a classic Shaolin production: Chess boards, smoke-filled backdrops and a beautiful woman holding back a snarly German Shepherd are all involved.
These things aren’t what the RZA is grinning ear to ear about, however. He’s cheesing because he just got back from a music shop in the neighborhood, where he snuck off in-between takes to purchase a shiny new trumpet—an instrument he has no idea how to play.
“Me and the owner [of the shop] just sat there for 30 minutes; he was trying to show me how to blow through the fucking mouthpiece,” he says, laughing. “He was farting with his mouth, ‘Brrrrhh.’ I’m farting with my mouth. Just two music geeks.”
“Two music geeks” would also be a fitting band name for RZA and Banks, who are constantly bonding through their love for the art, from the equipment used to make it (RZA says Banks has inspired him to buy thousands of dollars worth of guitar pedals since they first met) to its influence on the world. Being around them, you notice they talk to each other like two wishful teenagers jamming in one of their parents’ garage, always making references to lyrics they’ve written together or obscure pianists they both dig. As a result, RZA’s trumpet story has Banks both chuckling and shrugging his shoulders at me like, “Yeah, we do this kind of shit.”
It’s been this way since the pair first connected around 2011 as “buddies playing chess, making music together,” RZA says. Their first meeting took place at RZA’s favorite noodle shop in New York City’s Chinatown, a place supposedly run by a monk who was once featured on Stan Lee’s Superhumans TV show for having a punch that hurts more than getting hit by a car. From then on, the two have been making songs together, first as rough demos and then, after an A&R showed interest in releasing a project, as fully formed compositions. Banks, who grew up on hip-hop, was a huge fan of RZA’s before they met. (Conversely, RZA was only familiar with Interpol by name, a result of him having to play catch up after focusing on hip-hop for decades, he says). He wasn’t surprised, however, when the producer started sending him beat CDs that sounded nothing like the ominous grit of 36 Chambers or even the forward-thinking bounce of Bobby Digital. Instead, he was floored by how easily he related to the tracks as a vocalist.
“I quickly realized I was getting a lot of ideas,” he says. “Then the artistic propulsion happens where I’m not just over here as a fan; it’s like, ‘Oh, I can engage with that work.’”
The two noticed that they bonded not only artistically but also logistically; when one would be out on tour, the other would be diligently working on the project in the studio, keeping things moving. RZA is especially adamant on this point, stating that Banks and Steelz is one of the first projects he’s worked on where “the plane ain’t gonna crash” if he’s not there. One could assume he’s referring to his Wu brethren, whom he’s had a couple messy public spats with over the past few years. But he could also just be sharing his appreciation for having someone around who shares his vision, which is to create great music without parameters.
This approach lends itself to the blurring of genre lines, which, if you’re following what these guys are good at, means a merger of rock and hip-hop. Both musicians are fully aware of the stigmas that come with that (Interpol, after all, was formed around the time of the “rap-rock” rage) and made a point of merging their talents as organically as possible. Their project’s second single, “Giant, is an example of this, avoiding the sectioning of guitars and vocals by constructing a whirlpool of dramatic sounds. With no guidelines, these kinds of songs can appeal to fans of all types, RZA hopes. “[Our music] is like one of them seasonings… called ‘Flavor All’—you can put that shit on anything.”
Mass appeal is not really the objective here, though. Hearing the guys reminisce on special moments during the creative process, you realize that this record more than anything is about two accomplished musicians getting together to try something new.
Photo by Atiba Jefferson, courtesy of Banks & Steelz
Noisey: When did you guys start making music together?
Paul Banks: Must have been 2011, dude. I have a demo from 2011—the first vocal treatment I did on a RZA beat. I feel like that’s info we should probably be fudging, but I can’t take it back. I should have said it was 2013.
Banks: Well, the project just took us a long time. And at some point along the way, I started to feel bad that it was taking us a long time.
RZA: Yeah, but we wasn’t making a record. We hooked up as buddies playing chess, making music together. We didn’t decide to make a record together ‘til like a couple years later. To my memory, my manager had played the demo of me and Paul to an A&R guy, and the A&R guy heard it and was like, “What was that? I want more of that.” With Paul, I’m very comfortable making music with him. He’s a very capable musician and a talent within himself. One of the biggest things I like about working with Paul is that I can walk away, and the plane ain’t gonna crash.
What makes you two a good fit in the studio?
A lot of my issues with music talent over the years is that a lot of things have happened by myself. A lot of times if I go home, the party is over. That’s cool, but there’s something about, to me as a guy who’s been here for a while, having somebody else hold the other end of the stick for me. Holding that weight up. With some of the tracks, it’s not like I had to be there. He’ll go and zone out and maybe email me something. We recorded a lot of shit, like 30 records. We have that one song, “Love Your Life”…?
Banks: “Love Life.” That has my favorite lyrics on it, man. Everything has changed/the world is recorded… [starts singing a melody].
Banks: That was a great one.
RZA: Yeah so if he leaves, I’m engaged and will continue. And if I leave, he’s engaged and will continue. That’s a good dynamic for making music. But the coolest part about it is that there is no decision made where it’s like... Paul won’t go and do something and say, “This is what it is.” It’s always brought back. And for the first time in a long time, I was able to let myself be free. A lot of my performances on the album, “Giant” being an example, I was able to let Paul be like, “Nah, try that line again, Bobby, I like the energy of that.” Allow myself to be produced… that’s something that my personality wouldn't afford me early on, you know what I mean? It’s something I appreciate.
Photo by Devin Sarno, courtesy of Banks & Steelz
From a musical perspective, what made you two want to work together?
Banks: RZA’s guitar playing, piano playing and singing were all a surprise. Great singer; really fantastic singer. Very skilled piano player. There’s a track that also didn’t make it where you just played the guitar part… I wouldn’t have thought of those chords, and it’s a really sweet sound.
RZA: “Anything But Words.” We was learning songs that took us a long time to format. Paul added a bridge—I don’t know if you added it while you were in Panama?—and it was the missing element of it that made the song complete. You had put it later on in the song because you just let me rap, rap, rap. But it was actually that bridge that needed to come up in the front to make the song more melodic and have an extra layer of magic. The song evokes the world and evokes the life of a man, you know what I mean? That’s one of my favorite songs. Once the bridge comes in… what were the words to the bridge?
Banks: “We always fight blind the light of our lives.”
RZA: “We always fight blind the light of our lives.” Then I come in after that: “Sitting on the porch, smoking a stogie in the moonlight, rocking back and forth in my chair, contemplating my own life.” And I wrote that lyric thinking, “Wow, what’s going to happen when I reflect back on my shit?” When you’re an artist, I don’t think you ever look back. It’s something weird about us. We’re in it; it’s like we’re swimming. You’re going to the next shore. But with this song, I took a moment to reflect, “Was it a good life that I’ve been doing? What have I been doing with myself?”
Hip-hop and rock have a long history, from when Run-DMC and Aerosmith collaborated to Bambataa’s interactions with the downtown NYC punk scene. With that said, were you guys mindful at all of the stigmas that come with making a “rap-rock” record?
Banks: Rock and soul have an overlap, and soul and hip-hop have an overlap. So in that Venn diagram there’s kind of an organic place where the two things can have a more organic overlap than the Run-DMC with Aerosmith song, where I feel that’s just sort of like, “Now it’s this, now it’s that.” I mean the guitar riff kind of bridges the gap in that song pretty well, but I often feel that rock and hip-hop kind of just get stuck together, and I’m not interested in that kind of thing because I’m a big hip-hop fan, and I love hip-hop production. Ultimately as a singer what it comes down to is a chord progression that I can get ideas for as a vocalist. I look at it like where do I have ideas that are going to sound organic and how can I avoid any of those lame things that I’ve sensed in the past where the two genres were matched.
RZA: Let me paraphrase that for you: No, this is not a rock-hip-hop record. In the sense that I think Paul and I was conscious of it not being that. Now if you hear songs that remind you of it and take you to that world, that’s just cause we’re writing songs with no intention.
Paul, I read that Straight Outta Compton was the first record that you loved. RZA, being a little older, I bet that hip-hop wasn’t actually the first music you were into.
Banks: Thriller was the very first record. Then In Living Color was the first CD I bought with Cult Of Personality. First album that I got fully obsessed with top-to-bottom was Straight Outta Compton, yeah.
RZA: Basically my first years, from three and a half to seven years old, I lived down South with my uncle. “Country road take me home to the place where I belong…” that’s the shit that’s on the radio down there. I heard hip-hop first in the summer of 1976, OK? My family brought me back up to New York; my mother was ready for her children to come back. My cousin GZA lived in the building right down the street. He came and got me and took me to a block party. I got my ass whooped that night, aight? But I heard the DJ, I think he threw on “Apache,” one of them fuckin’ breakbeats, and the guys started rhyming. And yo, I was addicted from that moment on, and not other music really meant anything to me until maybe the year 2000. I went through the whole 80s and 90s anti-everybody, besides soul music. One of the great musicians to ever live is Prince. I didn’t catch Prince ‘til 2000. I’m glad I did catch him, though, but R&B made me nauseous. If I heard R&B while driving in the car, my stomach hurt.
So you weren’t really familiar with Interpol at all when they started to make it big?
RZA: The name was stronger in my world than their music. I have a few lady friends that was into them. I actually started studying Interpol more after meeting Paul. I was late, yo. I was so egotistically intermittent; I’m not shy to say that. But, Interpol wrote some great songs and will continue to write more great songs, of course. “The Scale” was the one that really got me into them. Also, as a guy that has a guitar now, I can just appreciate what they’re doing with it.
Photo by Devin Sarno, courtesy of Banks & Steelz
On our first song, “Protect Ya Neck,” if you remember GZA’s first rap, he says, “First of all, who’s your A&R? A mountain climber who plays the electric guitar? He don’t know the meaning of dope.” So that’s where we were at with rock, like, “Yo what is this shit? That shit ain’t our shit.” Because we didn’t understand it. Ol’Dirty had an older brother that played guitar, and he’s GZA’s guitarist on tour now.
Banks: I met him at Electric Lady Studios, and he told me the whole thing. In the bedroom next to ODB was this brother who was immersed in this whole other genre of music. It’s just like whoa, that’s crazy.
Beyond working together and being creative, did you two have any intentions with this project?
Banks: To share our music. You know, music is fun, and I’m drawn to do it. And I think you could never get through writing one song, let alone a whole record, unless you’re enjoying what you’re doing. I never really think of anything that deeply; I just want to make something that’s cool to me, and if the pull is always there, then I’m being fulfilled creatively. I can’t really say I had grand ambitions beyond saying, “Man that was fun and fulfilling and I learned a lot making music with RZA.”
RZA: I think I have a lyric that says, “I don’t write rhyme for salary.” I’m not motivated by what someone else is thinking about it; it’s actually just the living it out myself. Making this record and completing it—I do have a completion gene, you know what I mean? And after completing it, that’s when I feel accomplished. It’s like, “We did it, yo. We came together and put all this energy together.” Somebody may find it 10, 20, 100 years from now—who knows? Who cares? That shit is like, “Yeah, we did that.” That’s the capture of time and energy that we put together in the studio. Like I said, I learned a lot as well from Paul. I’m better at what I do because of this experience.
Reed Jackson is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.