The abbot and the soul surferOn the eve of a new collaboration with the RZA, the lead singer of Interpol talks about the power of positive thinking.
Beyond the balcony of the Soho House, the gleam of Los Angeles shoots out in an impenetrable matrix of beige and gray baking under the spring sun.
As his Camel cigarette smoke wafts, Paul Banks, his hair close-cropped with strands plastered along his forehead, looks outward upon the metropolis. As the earnest lead singer of the band Interpol he crafted thoughtful, poetic lyrics over brooding guitar sounds. He would seethe at the sharp barbs of critics and internalize their words.
But time, and maybe the sun and the surf, seem to have mellowed him. Banks & Steelz, his new collaboration with RZA, embraces hip-hop’s mark on our current music firmament while recalling the indie rock that made him and his band the object of devotion for legions of fans in the U.S. and Europe.
The coffee comes as he thinks out loud about his artistic risk-taking, the lessons he learned from the Wu-Tang Clan’s Abbot, and the sport that taught him the importance of failure.
THE RED BULLETIN: You just said you got into hip-hop when you were a kid and circled back to it only later, in college. What happened in between?
PAUL BANKS: Nirvana happened and that’s when I made my life choice. I think anybody who has a calling, the calling probably arrives some time in adolescence. I was already gravitating to playing music but I realized it was my calling when I witnessed Kurt Cobain. I always felt very blessed because I knew family members and peers who were like, “I don’t know what to do.” In 10th grade, I told my guidance counselor I wanted to be a rock star. That was half tongue-in-cheek, half the realization that you’ve got to dare to dream. How’s it going to happen if you don’t want it, and if you can’t own what you want? I was very clear what I wanted out of life when I was 15, and I felt very lucky.
Beyond Interpol, you’ve done a number of solo albums. What made you cross over into hip-hop with RZA?
I don’t see things in terms of genre when I’m working on music or art. It’s just cool. Sometimes it’s cool and it doesn’t give me ideas, sometimes it’s cool and it gives me ideas. And once I have an idea, I’m like a dog with a bone. When you play me a bit and I hear a vocal, it’s like, “Pass me the mic, hit record and let’s do this.” I’ve always likened working on a song to an archaeological dig. You see some femur sticking out of the ground. First you were standing on acres of land and didn’t know what was going on, and then you see it. You know there’s something underneath the ground where that bone is poking out. You’re not going to lose it now—it’s just the process of unearthing it.
banks & Steelz
A collaboration several years in the making, Banks & Steelz’s debut is a perfect mishmash of hip-hop and indie rock.
Over ranging guitar hooks, RZA and a few guest artists drop bars that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Wu-Tang album.
Banks’s choruses over “Love + War” make it a song suitable for radio, and the video accompanying it gives him the chance to indulge in some acting, a hobby he says he’s planning to pursue in earnest.
Do you think about whether your fans will like it?
I don’t care. All you have as an artist is your own navigation. If you lose that then you’re super f*cked. If you work by committee of what people want from you, then you’re going to lose track of your gauge, your orientation. As long as you’re following your true path, you’re serving everyone best that way.
Where did that confidence come from?
Part of my DNA is defiance. Growing up I shat on pop culture, so any of those metrics of pop culture are what I would rail against. And I think that’s the way it is for lots of artists, like Tyler the Creator, or the Beastie Boys when they started. There is an aggression towards what is popular.
Is it tough to sustain that aggression?
It depends on how much fuel you have in the tank. If you blew your load as an artist early on, then you think “F*ck it, I’ll just chase success.” But artists are like a biological machine. Things come in and they turn around inside you and that has to get processed and released. As long as the world tweaks my senses, is unsatisfying to me or frustrating or inspiring to me, then I’m always going to have work to put out. It hasn’t been hard for me, but I also haven’t reached mainstream success. I can still always be an outsider up until this point because I’m not mainstream. I still have that thing to oppose.
You’ve released three solo albums. Are there creative projects you do just for yourself?
I remember a few years ago I would have debates: Why am I, as an artist, going to bother putting this out? I like to paint, but I don’t put it out. On my solo records, I debated whether I should put it out in the world if I don’t really want people’s grimy fingerprints analyzing it. It’s really nothing more than a biological function of my life—that I have to do it. I’m going to keep doing it. I don’t see how it’s going to pay my rent, so why share it? When you’re around other artists who don’t seem to have those questions—they just make art and put it out—then that’s very inspirational. It’s not like they have the answer, it’s that they don’t have the question. They just are artists. And it’s difficult for me to take myself as seriously as I should as an artist. In some ways I think I take myself too seriously; in other ways I always feel that that true artist mentality is a little pretentious and self-indulgent and people can go too far with it and those are the wankers. RZA just does, and I think a lot of great artists just do. I’d like that to rub off on me.
What else did you get from your collaboration with him?
I remember telling my friends—he’s a nicer person than me. He’s a friendlier, more outgoing person than I am, and he seems to enjoy other people. I’m more of an introvert. People tax me. He showed me the power of positivity, and I’ve learned I tend to be kind of negative.
What do you want the record to do?
The fact that it exists is a big triumph for me. With every record I’ve ever done, I’d like it to be the biggest record in the world. But on the low end of the spectrum, my hope is that we make another one.
But what about not caring what people think?
I care in the sense that I’ve been sensitive about bad reviews. I don’t need that in my life around something that brings me joy. But I think that’s a young mentality. I read the criticism and internalized it. I was young, so I had a bad relationship with the press for the majority of my career.
So what does the painting do for you?
It’s therapeutic and it brings me joy. But when you put it out there you are asking people to evaluate it. And when they evaluate it, you’re running the risk of diminishing your own attitude to what you do. But if you’re a commercial artist, you’ve got to get over it, and that’s what I would like to tell my earlier self.
You don’t have that with your other passion, surfing. What does it give you?
Surfing made me understand the importance of sucking at things again. Most of the time you suck at stuff until your early 20s, and then you figure out something you’re good at and you stay in that zone. You protect the zone of being comfortable and competent. When you’re older, I think what keeps you young is when you relive the experience of sucking badly at something but you don’t walk away from it. Those weeks of paddling and years of coming out at low tide and getting slammed—but you don’t give up. You just keep doing it, and that’s what keeps you young, because that’s what you did in your youth. Youth was about persisting until you became good. It revealed to me how rejuvenating it is to be humble enough to be bad at stuff again.