Interview: RZA on Banks & Steelz

You may not have heard of Banks & Steelz just yet, but you’ve certainly heard of the two men behind it. One is Paul Banks, frontman of one of the best rock bands New York City has ever produced in Interpol. The other, and the man we got the privilege of talking to today, was none other than a founding member of the immortal Wu-Tang Clan, the rapper, producer, actor and director, The Abbot, Robert Diggs but the man you know as the RZA.

Joining forces as Banks & Steelz in 2013, this unlikely duo have been steadily working on their debut album as partners and finding a natural chemistry in the studio. With that record, Anything But Words, due at the end of August, we had more than a few questions to ask RZA ahead of its release.

Hey RZA, how are you doing?

Hey James I’m all good!

Can I start off with the biggest news for you right now which is the release of Anything But Words in a couple of weeks time, that of course is your collaborative record as Banks & Steelz with Paul Banks of Interpol. How are you feeling leading up to that?

I’m feeling good man. I’m feeling great. We put a few songs out there already into the world you know Giant and Love And War and Speedway Sonora and there’s been a nice response from the fans out there. They’ve realised that there’s something very special about this collaboration and I think there’s something very interesting about it and so I’m just having fun.

We got some gigs coming up we gotta play. I think starting August 22nd we’re gonna hit the road and I’m excited yo.

Definitely. I have to admit, when I first heard that you and Paul Banks were collaborating I had no idea what to expect or what it would sound like. You guys have been working together as far back as 2013, was there a point in time where you realised that this was going to be a partnership that would work as well as it is?

I could say that. I could say that there was a point in time when I realised. We did a few jam sessions together at first and after doing the jam sessions we realised there was a certain energy and chemistry between us. I think after we got our record deal and we started going to the studio together, there’s something about the work ethic that was displayed to me that really kind of triggered me feeling very comfortable with what me and Paul was doing and part of that is that you’re looking at two very capable men who are capable of holding down their own square but have decided to combine squares. I think there’s something very cool about that.

You look at it like those classic buddy movies right, where you may see like… I’mma go to the 80s films and a movie called The Killer starring Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee together where one’s a cop and one’s a hitman but together they could take over the world. So it felt like that kind of energy.

So which one of you is the cop and which is the hitman?

*Laughs* I think that if either one of us was a hitman we’d be a hitman with a sense of justice and if either one of us was a cop we’d be a cop that goes and break the barriers of what a cop can do *laughs*. We wouldn’t be clean cops and we wouldn’t be clean hitmen, know what I mean?

Sounds like a movie we’d all love to see. So what goals did you set yourselves, if any, when you decided to record this album?

Well to be honest with you James, it wasn’t really like we set a goal. We didn’t say ‘we gotta do this, we gotta do that’, our approach was just we two cool dudes who are going to come together and produce some songs yo. I had a real interest in rock music, indie rock music and Paul’s a big hip-hop fan as well and I think just the musicality of each other it was like ‘yo let’s get together and write songs’.

Personally I was in the songwriting mode, not just write a rap verse and then dig through my crates for a hook. The music has grown me to where I’m composing and trying to actualise full ideas that are beyond hip-hop production and beyond pop production may I add. Yet hip-hop production will exist on it and you’ll hear that in a song like Sword In The Stone and you’ll hear pop production exist when you hear us collaborate with Andrew Wyatt on Giant or with Kid Harpoon on Wild Season.

Speaking of your collaborations on that record, it’s not just the pair of you by any means. There’s a huge list of guests on that record, talking about Kool Keith, some of your fellow Wu-Tang Clan members in Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Masta Killa, a lot of others including some of the production credits you just mentioned. What was their reaction when you first approached them about joining you on the record?

Well each person approached it differently. Kool Keith really happened because of Paul Banks. Paul Banks is a huge Kool Keith fan. Now me and Keith have always had conversations about us doing a song together but it never happened and Paul was like ‘yo, one of my favourite rappers is Kool Keith’. So we gave him a call to see if it would happen and Keith came through and iced it out.

As far as Ghostface Killah, you know he’s a fellow Wu member of course but when it came to the song Love And War, Paul had already laid down his vocal hook and I had already kind of skeletoned the track as far as what it was going to be and I thought the guy who would tell some of the best girl stories is Ghostface Killah! So I was thinking of songs he did in the past like Wildflower and I let him jump on it and do his thing and then I added my verse.

Method Man and Masta Killa well, me and Paul would have late sessions and friends would pop in. They came in, we had some weed, rolled up some blunts and went in there and did their thing. That’s what we do *laughs*

Sounds like a great environment.


I was also really intrigued by what Florence Welch has brought to the table on this. How did you get her on board?

I’ll thank Paul for that as well. We had talked about bringing in different vocalists and maybe five names came up but Florence was at the top of the list. We both had girls in mind but we talked about her a lot and Paul was actually a really big fan of her work. The story he told me was that she happened to be standing backstage at an Interpol concert and was a fan of his work. So they met each other and they talked and he mentioned Banks & Steelz to her and mentioned that we would really love her to participate and join us and she heard some of the music and joined it.

It’s cool because it was something that was talked about first and then it was actualised so that was really cool and she killed it.

I bet she did, she seems to kill it quite frequently. I read in another interview Banks & Steelz did that you wrote about 10-12 songs in just your first few days working together but that only maybe two or three of those songs actually made the final record. Was there any sort of criteria, whether formal or informal, for a particular song making the record or not.

Yeah I can say there was. Being professionals and knowing that we’re not just jamming, after a while we said to ourselves we got 22, 23 songs here that have potential and we’ve been putting a lot of time into this, let’s just focus ourselves now on what are the 12 songs that we should chase for completion. Also complete in a way that’s mixable. There’s a couple songs we did that are pretty edgy but until people get a chance to understand what we are they wouldn’t have understood what we were doing.

I think that this particular collection of songs together is a good reflection of our musicality, a good reflection of who we are as artists and a good reflection of the sound we generate together. I think we have a lot more and if the people accept it, as they say in my neighbourhood, if there’s a demand we’ll fill the supply. As we were finishing this record we went into the studio and hung out again and there were, to me, two potentially very big records with our sound and what we’ve developed here. We have a chemistry here but for this record we have to focus in and not just keep creating and jamming but focusing and making sure the songs have a certain structure that is professionally qualified for what a record label was like as well. You know, it is a music business too and we’re conscious of that.

Just touching on your sound there, I really like what you guys have brought to the album here sonically. There’s a lot of relentless energy and you can really feel it across the record and it seems to reflect that New York City sound that is a part of you both in different ways. Was it intentional to make a New York record like this or is it purely organic?

I think some of the tracks were intentionally New York sounding and there’s definitely a nice portion of this record that was recorded in New York. We used Electric Lady, the home of Jimi Hendrix in the Village and that’s the studio that Method Man popped up in. That’s the studio that Ghostface popped up in. That’s the studio where some of my actor friends would come in after and have drinks with me and party there, it was a real party spot and so you get that energy on the record.

We also recorded in Malibu and I think you’ll get that energy of driving down the Pacific Coast highway on a couple of the songs. We recorded at Record Plant in Hollywood and I think there are some elements where you’ll feel the prestige of that. So I think, as New York is definitely the bulk of what we do and where the bulk of our energy comes from, I think that we were able to catch a few other parts of the country in our vision. You’ll go like ‘wow, I feel like driving down in Malibu’ when you feel that vibe.

The whole record just feels like a unique experience, listening to it I just couldn’t really compare it to a lot of music that’s being released today. What do you think it is that sets Anything But Words apart from what anyone else is doing in pop, rock or hip-hop at the moment?

I can’t totally define it personally. I think that the collaboration between us as individuals is very unique. Nobody can tell me why peanut butter and jelly makes a great sandwich you know? It just works. I don’t know who was the first guy to put a slice of cheese on a burger, it’s just a cheeseburger and I don’t know who did that. These things happen and they just work you know like chocolate in peanut butter, these things just work in their own way.

There’s a lyric in my song Giant where I say on the second verse *raps* Fuck CNN, this is ghetto editorial, see me like milk and Oreos dipped inside the audio. See in America there’s this thing where you get a glass of milk and you get an Oreo and life is good.

Just dunk it straight in there

Yeah, and who was the first guy to dip this cookie into this milk? I don’t know, but it worked and I think that we have this same unique combination and that’s what makes this record sound so unique compared to some others out there right now.

Banks & Steelz: Musical milk and Oreos. You guys had your debut performance at the Roxy not even a month ago and you mentioned that you’ve got some more shows coming up. How has the transition from the studio to the stage been for you both?

Well Paul may have a different take on this, we definitely have different takes on things and different approaches to things, but for me it was kind of a little more nerve-wracking obvie because on the Banks & Steelz project I’m playing while I’m rapping and I don’t normally do that, I’m usually moving around the stage holding my nuts *laughs*. On here I’m actually performing, playing an instrument while performing and it was kind of nerve-wracking for me but Paul being a rock musician, that’s how he does it and he was very smart to tell me “look Bobby, we’re going to book 12 days of rehearsals and you’re going to have to carve it out in your schedule.” I said cool, I trust you so I came to rehearsal and according to the critics the first show went over well.

How I feel about it is that it can only get better. This felt cool, the time went fast and I wish we had another 10-15 minutes. Some of the songs really translated well in a live setting. Especially Anything But Words. That song and Can’t Hardly Feel along with Wild Season and Giant which we still have to polish a bit more, those songs really translated well in the live arena. They got good audience response so I think we’ll only get better and we’ve got a lot of rehearsals scheduled starting on August 16th and we’ll rehearse for six days before we go out on tour. I think the tour will only get our muscles stronger and stronger so by the time we get to festivals we’ll be a well-polished and well-oiled machine.

That’s a very encouraging sign for sure, any chance of getting Banks & Steelz down under at all?

Man, first thing I’ll say James is that I would love to and I’m definitely going to put my vote in for yes to the booking agent. It would take promoters out there to be into us, you guys have gotta invite us! But if the invitation comes out then I’m coming, send me the invitation baby!

That’s what we want to hear, we very much enjoyed seeing you out here last as part of the Wu-Tang Clan on your tour for A Better Tomorrow and it’d be great to get Banks & Steelz over. RZA I’ll let you go but it was an honour to chat to you today and all the best for the release of Anything But Words and your tour.

Thanks James, have a good one. Peace!

Anything But Words is out August 26th via Warner Bros.

Image: Pitchfork