Banks & Steelz | Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Unlocking the Chamber With Banks & Steelz

The superduo on playing chess, musical evolution and Las Vegas

Paul Banks and RZA are masters of their own worlds. The former helped usher in the early 2000s’ post-punk revival as the frontman and guitarist of Interpol; the latter revolutionized hip-hop as a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan. So when the two collaborate, something beautiful is bound to come out of it. Enter Banks & Steelz. They started creating dynamic, progressive music for the project in 2011, and finally released Anything But Words late last month.

How did you end up collaborating?

RZA: Our current manager, Tyler Childs, made an arrangement for me and Paul to meet at some tequila bar. We were cool with each other right away, and discovered we both played chess. So we convened over a few games. Then the executives at Warner Bros. brought up the idea of us making a record together.

Who had the most wins?

Banks: RZA had the most wins. Definitely. That’s how it stands so far, but I plan to make a strong comeback.

RZA: Yeah, man, I’m getting nervous. (laughs) We get a few games in here and there. When we recorded [the album], there was a lot of chess-playing going on. Paul’s a very focused dude in the studio, but we’d take chess breaks every now and then. Still, he’d want to focus all of his creative energy into making these songs right. He wanted to have the right instrumentation, the right breaks, the right pauses, the right bridges …

Banks: The best game we had was a lovely lunch match in Copenhagen. You won all of them, but that was one of the closer ones.

RZA: Yeah, that one was close. Mingus can do some damage. You kept me under pressure. Keep doin’ that! (laughs)

What’s the songwriting process like?

Banks: A lot of the songs come from what RZA’s working on. He’ll send me stuff—ideas for some new songs—and we’ll come together and pick them out. Every track, every idea we came up with, we kept saying, “Let’s pursue this one!” Sometimes I’ll drop a vocal riff, and the song will move along if RZA likes that idea.

It’s all very collaborative, from [determining] what we’re gonna write about [to] what we proceed with—the song structure and the music.

That being said, there are so many ideas we’ve yet to fully explore; all those seeds have already been planted. We’ve got a good dynamic, as far as inspiring each other, and vibing on individual tracks.

Besides each other, who are your major influences for B&S?

Banks: I think our direct influences are insular. This is a collaborative project, so we’re vibing with each other, always.

Film is a huge influence, too; we’re both very passionate about that. If you watch our music videos, you’ll notice that right away. We also share some favorite artists—Leonard Cohen, The Doors, Elton John, Stevie Wonder … we vibe on those together. I think the collaboration has been successful so far, since we have such similar interests and vibes.

RZA: Yeah, our interests are prominent, in the artists and films we enjoy, but we mainly riff off each other. We’re two guys! Look at us—we’re two capable, self-sustaining men who came together to write songs. That’s an influence within itself. [Banks and Steelz] is not competitive in any way. We’re trying to be better for each other. And we hope to make tasteful music fans can enjoy.

Who’s in the live band?

RZA: It’s open. We’ve had MCs such as Kool Keith, Ghostface [Killah], Method Man, Florence from Florence and the Machine, and other musicians join the party. You never know who’s gonna pop up where. It’s sort of a mystery we created on purpose. There are no expectations, no walls, and we try to translate it from studio to stage smoothly.

Banks & SteelzAtiba Jefferson

What can we expect at Life Is Beautiful?

Banks: Something fascinating. We’ve invented something new in the studio—a new genre that’s hard to put a finger on. And live, the songs come off in their own light. We can simply re-create the record, or we [can] do much more. We can do these songs as a three piece, and that’ll bring in some new characteristics. Banks & Steelz changes with each given show. We’re evolving! People will get to see new interpretations of the songs further down the road, and that’s what I love about it.

RZA: The way I perform, is holding onto the mic with one hand, holding my dick in the other, and jumping out there. I didn’t expect [Banks & Steelz] to come out that way. I wanted to create something new and open up new chambers. I think the audience will have fun exploring new tracks. This project is like a movie—you just don’t know what’s gonna happen. You can try to predict and follow along, but ultimately, you don’t know.

You both have been to Vegas numerous times. What do you like about it?

Banks: I love, love, love Las Vegas.

RZA: I gotta say it: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Banks: It’s a grown-up playground.

RZA: You can’t lose.

Banks: I’ve been to, and played, a bunch of shows at House of Blues. I love being there for the weather, the vibe, the boxing gyms, the boxing history … the hotels are great.

RZA: I’m a hotel hopper. I make sure I do it big every time I’m in town. I live on the West Coast, but Vegas is different. Vegas is a place where I go to be artistically assimilated. I’ve watched these shows … I’ve seen Jersey Boys a couple of times; I like the Cirque [du Soleil] shows—I’ve seen three times. Vegas is dope! I’ve got my boy coming to Vegas. He’s 10 now, so we’re seeing Michael Jackson [ONE], The Beatles [LOVE] … that type of stuff.

Who are you excited to see at the fest?

RZA: I didn’t know J. Cole was rockin’, so I gotta see him. Mumford & Sons are my boys. We’ve played two or three shows together, so I’m excited to see what they bring.

What are you doing after?

Banks: Easy—Blackjack.

RZA: Nah, man. We’re gonna blow money at the strip club!

Banks: Also that. We’re not coming home with money.

Banks & Steelz perform at 8:10 p.m. on Friday, September 23, on the Ambassador Stage.