When you think “Odd Couple,” you might think of this (and the theme song will probably get stuck in your head, so, sorry). Or, you might think of your parents. OR, you might think of a musical duo comprised of musicians from very different bands: Indie rockers Interpol and hip hop’s legendary Wu-Tang Clan, for instance. That last one, specifically, is this week’s New Music Friday feature: Banks and Steelz, otherwise known as Interpol’s Paul Banks and Wu-Tang’s RZA.
But here’s the thing: it’s actually not that odd. If you listen to the album, which combines the best parts of Interpol and Wu-Tang, it makes a lot of sense. Though it took a while to get to a truly solid collaboration, they bonded as “chess buddies.” They’ve both gone by cool aliases, and they’re both “music geeks” who obsessively collect new instruments and ideas. And though their styles as individual musicians may have seemed disparate at first, they combine into something pretty awesome. The album is equal parts fun, dark, danceable, and hypnotic. It blends electronic beats with acoustic instruments, RZA’s hard-hitting rap with Banks’ smooth vocals. Basically, it’s great. But it’s got a harshness to it.
RZA told Noisey: “[Our music] is like one of them seasonings … called ‘Flavor All;’ you can put that shit on anything.”
We should note here that, though New Music Friday is usually dedicated to local acts that are currently based in Brooklyn, we really focus on artists that represent New York City. Banks and Steelz are definitely that, and their new album, Anything But Words, drops today via Warner Brothers Records.
RZA is what one might call a jack of all trades. He’s a world-renowned hip hop producer and lyricist, known especially for his work with Wu-Tang Clan members GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but he’s also had some other collaborators along the way: as a filmmaker, he’s worked with Quentin Tarantino; he’s acted alongside Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. He’s acted on television, and made a brief foray into financial advisement. He’s all about exploring new things, new art, new knowledge, in addition to being the rapper we all know him to be, RZA is also a pianist, guitarist and singer.
RZA told Rolling Stone of expressing his art through different forms: “A scientist could be a scientist of amphibians, a scientist could be an anthropologist, you could go into the study of fossils or microbiology. The scientific mind has a way of deciphering things, you know what I mean? I think an artist is the same. A musician is the same. At first I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that the artistic wavelength can be expressed from a low frequency to a high frequency.”
To that end, he’s collaborated on a lot of really great stuff with a lot of really great people. His work with Paul Banks actually seems like a pretty logical step. And Banks himself has experimented with different forms of art: he had always been into hip hop, as opposed to RZA, who had only known Interpol by name. He’s a guitarist, singer and lyricist, but before joining Interpol, he attended NYU for English and worked as a writer for mags like Gotham and Interview. And after Interpol, he performed under the moniker Julian Plenti. Using an alias is another thing Banks and RZA have in common: born Robert Diggs, RZA has also been known as Bobby Digital, Prince Rakeem, The RZArector, and Bobby Steels (thus, the “Steelz”).
So like we said earlier, Banks and Steelz are not technically a Brooklyn band, but theirs is a very New York story. Paul Banks formed Interpol while at NYU, and they became one of the bigger bands to come out of New York City’s indie scene circa the early 2000s. RZA had already been pretty busy, releasing the legendary Enter The Wu-Tang 36 Chambers in 1993. They met years later, in 2011, in a Chinatown noodle shop that was allegedly owned by a Shaolin monk who had been featured on Stan Lee’s Superhumans for having a “killer punch.” Seems like an appropriate meeting place for a guy who is so into Kung Fu movies that he includes clips in his music, gave this interview on his favorite Kung Fu films, AND has written his own.
Anyway, the two met up, and presumably did not get punched by the aforementioned Super Noodle Monk, on account of they’re both still alive (but hey, what do I know. Maybe they’re superhumans, too). They basically bonded immediately over their mutual status as “music geeks.” Hanging came first, collaboration came a bit later.
RZA told Noisey: “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.”
That friendship remains very, very strong, and both musicians say that their main motivation to do this project is that music is “fun.” Music IS fun. As a musician myself, I find it really encouraging to hear about people as wildly successful as Banks and Steelz still doing music because it’s fun.
Banks and Steelz definitely blend rock and hip hop, and it’s easy to hear the influence/presence of both Banks’ and RZA’s earlier projects. But it’s not exactly what one would call “rap rock.” At least, it’s super not the “rap rock” that was big when Interpol started coming up. “Giant,” for example, is danceable with a driving rock beat. Banks’ vocals on the chorus are straight out of an indie/alternative rock song (which, I guess, makes sense). But on the verses, RZA’s lightning fast, hard-hitting rhymes add a whole other dimension to the song. And throughout the album, they bring in different styles, beats, instruments and collaborators (including Ghostface Killah, Florence Welch, and Kool Keith). It speaks to their mutual interest (obsession, really) with musical exploration: RZA told Noisey that he had spent thousands of dollars on guitar pedals, as per Banks’ suggestion, and had just purchased a shiny new trumpet, because, why not?
And going back to their New York roots, Banks told Esquire: “New York City accounts for the grit … It’s a tough city. You have to have a real thick skin to live here and stay here. It happened to relatives of mine, where they came here and gave it the fucking college try. But then it was like it drained their will to live. It’s a lonely, cold city where you can feel really alone even though you’re constantly surrounded by all these people. But if you can take that, I think you develop a survivalist mode.”
That grit is definitely there, as one would expect from RZA, but it’s present in a very new way. Banks and Steelz’ first studio album, Anything But Words, drops today via Warner Brothers Records and is available everywhere.
Lilly Vanek is the music editor for Brokelyn. For more on local music and what New York eateries may or may not be owned by superhumans, follow her on Twitter. And to pitch Lilly for New Music Friday, email her at lilly [at] brokelyn [dot] com.