As we walked through the small entrance that led into the intimate artist’s trailer with a somewhat professional plaque that read in bold black letters “Banks & Steelz,” we were greeting immediately by two men, one extraordinarily tall, and the another extraordinarily calm, each equal in the high caliber presence they were subconsciously emanating outwards within the cramped confines of said trailer. The taller of the two still had his shades on, and with his unmistakable look and stupor, there was no denying that we were in fact standing face-to-face with one of the greatest hip hop artists still living today: The RZA, and original member of the mythical Wu Tang Clan. The other, almost pensive yet incredibly attentive and seemingly wise beyond measure was Paul Banks, the frontman for one of America’s greatest cult rock band Interpol.
While each had their own definitive legacies to their names, together they were something entirely different. From wardrobe to brand aesthetic to the very music they made, together they were Banks & Steelz, a complete collaboration of rock and rap and everything between and then some. With Paul on melody (with RZA helping out a bit here an there), and Bobby spitting fire, the two have emerged as a stone cold presence that’s not to be ignored. With each member bringing their plethora of experience in music making, Banks & Steelz is a project that offers the exercise in experimentation and fun that has produced some pretty fucking amazing songs—that’s honestly the best way to put it. Have a listen and see for yourself.
I think the most interesting feedback is that somebody said it didn’t sound like either one of us.
Through the grace of someone in management, we were allowed to stand, as detailed earlier, before the two, to pick at their brains on how the concept of Banks & Steelz came about, delving in deep on what it truly offers each musician, how it plays into their comfort zones and what unique challenges it brings, and much more. We even had the fortune of listening to an unreleased sample of a track for their upcoming sophomore album, and I walked away having had RZA freestyle at me right there and then—I gained levels in life after that. While that’s something I’ll be taking to the grave, what we can share with you is the in-depth interview we had with the two that will explain exactly why we music in general needs more collaborations just like this.
To kick things off, what’s been the most interesting feedback that both of you have received so far from the project Banks & Steelz?
RZA: That’s a good one. I think the most interesting feedback is that somebody said it didn’t sound like either one of us— songs didn’t sound like either one of our bands, but it showed a culmination of both bands.
Paul Banks: I had a buddy who’s interpretation of our song “One by One” was that RZA’s verse was like my inner monologue. I was singing, and then when he kicked in, it was like another voice in my head.
Paul, when you came about with project, and you shared the concept with the other fellas at Interpol, what did they think?
They know my passion for hip hop and for Wu Tang, and the RZA’s work, so they were just really happy for me. When I told them I was gonna work with RZA, they were like “dope! Good for you!”
So no surprises or anything like that?
Oh, those are the guys that know that all I listen to is hip hop. They’re very familiar with my interests musically. So yeah, no surprises.
And how about you RZA with letting the Wu know?
I didn’t tell Wu shit! (laughs) Until we were already deep in, so I didn’t really have that conversation. When the project was already finished, I had a few show days with Wu Tang in Australia, and I played them around two or three songs, and they were like “yo that shit sounds incredible.” Ghostface was like, “this sounds big! This sounds big, son!”
Obviously this is something new to what you typically put out to your individual audiences. Are you now at a point in your lives—your careers—where you want to challenge yourself with this new experience?
RZA: It’s like this, I like to have fun making music. I have fun making music with Paul. I’m a little egotistic when it comes to making music also, but I kind of hide it – I feel like my music is like something helpful, or like medicine. I think my music is medicinal. I think this album, in it’s own way, is madicinal because it’s unique. But the challenge of it for me though is the performing it. I don’t think I had a heavy challenge creating it. The challenge is performing it because we’re using our own live representation. We’re not relying heavily on playback. We’re actually participating with the music. And that’s something that as an artist I haven’t been doing in my career. I normally make the music, have my DJ play it, grab the mic, hold my dick and do my shit. Know what I mean? It works. So that’s the challenge. You never know when your pinky may slip off the keys or what’s going to happen, so it’s a little nerve wracking, but it’s still fun.
PB: I think for me, as I’ve gone on in my career, I haven’t changed really in my interests as a musician. It’s really more about learning how to express different facets. What I couldn’t express in Interpol, I started going solo to express that, and then with my solo stuff, there’s kind of no limit to how I express myself. So I did a mixtape, records, and then working with RZA, it all kind of… it’s more a matter of learning how to… it’s the ‘how’ to express myself, not the ‘what am I going to express.’ What I’ve wanted to express though has been the same actually. You just have to go about learning how to do it, and that’s taken me a lot of years.
It’s that we’re friends, we’re peers, collaborators, we respect each others.
So in a way, this is another step for you to be able to explore how you approach your music?
PB: It’s another form of my creativity, and I think at the very beginning of my career, I didn’t know how to do it.
Have you guys learned anything new from each other by performing on stage together?
PB: I think that’s what makes the collaboration work. It’s that we’re friends, we’re peers, collaborators, we respect each others. So as with the case between any kind of good friend, you pick up things, you get a little influenced by them, you learn things from their experiences and the way they handle things. So that has translated for me personally and also as an artist.
RZA: I got those same words. You know… they say that steel sharpens steel, and I just see myself getting sharper and sharper, know what I mean?
So RZA, is it safe to say that you’re experiencing things in the same way as Paul in terms of learning how to express yourself?
Yeah! I mean, if you watch us live, you might see me doing some background vocals on some of the stuff. And I don’t mean ad libbing, I mean like singing a few notes here and there, adding that energy. And that’s something that I probably wouldn’t normally do, you know? Or something that I’m kinda shy to do if anything. Even playing in front of an audience—I’m shy about that. You know, I play in front of my woman at home and that sort of shit, but I don’t play in front of other people like that. And working with Paul, I’ve been able to overcome that. Mainly because he’s a dude that’s like “yo, we rehearse 20 days in a row before we even fuckin’ hit our first show. You know? With Wu Tang, we might not be together for three months, and then they all fly in from different cities and we all end up on stage and do that shit! But now we’re rehearsing, so therefor we found ways to express these song that made sense to amplify the recording. So for me, I’m learning that, I’m becoming cooler at it.
Lastly, I wanted to now talk about the overall style with you guys. Obviously you’ve got the new music with Banks & Steelz, but looking at the artwork you guys have put out, looking at the website, you guys are obviously very conscious of the aesthetic that you’re packaging Banks & Steelz in. How did that come about?
PB: I mean I think that we both have a bunch of ideas. We don’t look to someone and say “what do you think? How should are logo look, or how should we present that. We have ideas that we flesh, so I feel like it should feel kind of custom tailored, because we were involved in that. And I think it’s just an extension of being an artist, of having a vision. If you have a product or a project that’s going to have a brand outside of just the music, then I’ve always tried to pay a lot of attention to how that’s all done.
RZA: And it’s the same for me. I’ve always been conscious of branding, and when we talked about this brand—the band and the brand—we definitely wanted to make sure that it had a niche to it that was different to the worlds that we come from, yet have some elements that were complementary to who we are. There’s one inspiration that I pulled from, there’s a movie called The Killer by John Woo and starring Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee. And both guys are from two different worlds: one’s a cop and one’s a criminal hitman, but when you put those two together, they looked real cool. And I showed that to Paul and I was like, ‘in a way we’re like these two cool motherfuckers! If I leave the room right now you’ll still have a cool motherfucker here. If he leaves the room there’ll still be a cool motherfucker here. No what I’m saying? And when you got two cool motherfuckers in here. And it’s like, do you want the brass knuckles or the dagger? Either way you’re going to get fucked up.