Banks & Steelz At The El Rey Theater, Monday April 17th 2017
Banks and Steelz, Interpol with the Wu-Tang Clan, may have seemed an intriguing combination when RZA revealed in 2013 that he was working with Paul Banks on a collaborative project, but they did release an album last year and have been playing it all over the world since. The duo was even part of the ‘motherfucker’ festival (as RZA put it) aka as Coachella, and between their two date weekends, they stopped by the El Rey Theatre, and played songs from their ‘Anything But Words’ album in front of a very enthusiastic crowd.
I already have had a glimpse of their music last year at the FYF fest, but, at the time, it didn’t really click as it did last night, festivals are an awful way to discover new music, you are always rushing from one stage to the next from fear of missing out, and as a result you don’t take the time to appreciate anything new. Mixing rap with pop and rock is nothing new, but this is a bit different, we are talking about two respective masterminds behind two great and very successful musical acts, who put on hold their bands to try something else,… and for people who may say this is another white guy attempting rap to stay relevant, I would answer that, Paul Banks doesn’t even attempt to rap (obviously) and that he has always been a huge hip hop fan, and has even released a rap mixtape titled Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be. RZA and Paul Banks’ collaborative work never felt forced or contrived and flowed as easily as RZA’s stream of words.
The two men rarely harmonized together, rather they dialogued through music, and the result was a fluid collage of RZA’s aggressive hip hop delivery with Banks’ dark vocals, RZA’s famous talent for beats wrapped around Banks’ melancholic layers of indie rock.
But you wouldn’t imagine two more opposed personalities than these two on stage, they were a bit like ice against fire, Banks didn’t move much with his guitar, he stayed very quiet and somber all night long, sketching a smile at some points, while RZA was standing at the opposite side of the stage, but erupted a few times from behind his keyboard to better energize the crowd… And the best parts involved alcohol, as he brought a Moët & Chandon bottle – it may have been during ‘Sword in the Stone’… which starts with the line ‘The stars are bright/So let the wine flow’ – and began a bubbly eruption, spraying everyone standing in the front rows. There was another even funnier episode, when he poured a whole bottle of Grey Goose vodka into the plastic cups he had passed around, mimicking the line ‘Pass me a cup of the Goose/In the club with the juice and the bud, getting bent out’ of their single, ‘Giant’. This kind of extravagant behavior brought a taste of festive celebration to the show, and people could hardly contain their enthusiasm, while Banks was quietly smiling in the back
While Banks’ soothing voice was singing choruses that brought back memories of Interpol’s dark beauty, the most killer lines obviously belonged to RZA, ‘Fuck CNN, this is ghetto editorial,’ he threw during ‘Giant’, as the tone of many songs seemed to be politically charged, when they were not inspired by relationships (‘Love and War’), heavier subjects, or simply a ride on the Pacific Coast Highway ‘Speedway Sonora’.
Songs like ‘Wild Season’ or ‘Anything But Words’, which started with Banks’ familiar croon… ‘I stay alone skipped a stone’, could have been forgotten Interpol songs (Florence Welch has even a part on the album version of ‘Wild Season’), until RZA’s rap part abruptly was shaking up the glacial calm with a riotous hip hop stream, that far from overwhelming Paul Banks’ icy falsetto brought a tempest in the middle of the song.
The songs sounded like true collaborations, not rap songs with rock add-ons, and in case you would ever doubt about this, here are two things: in an interview, RZA confessed his connection with Interpol music as he told Rolling Stone that ‘Interpol’s music … it’s like if RZA had been born in the rock world’, while the song ‘One by One’ – which portrays a war battlefield in freezing trenches – was written by Banks years before their collaborative project, which means that Banks writes rap songs without really revealing it? RZA applied a very dark tone to this track, and, in an interview, he surprisingly admitted to have found inspiration into Leonard Cohen for this one,… which once again divulges the many directions that a pop-rock-hip-hop hybridization can take.
A Banks chorus/ RZA verse pattern could have felt repetitive after a while (and it may be more true on record), but nobody ever got bored, and the dynamic of the show got infectious, especially after all this alcohol spraying, which did light up the doom-filled lyrics of certain songs. Of course the appeal of a Banks & Steelz show relied a lot on both men’s stardom, they are both icons in two worlds and the crowd was well aware of this, but why would icons take such risk? Why colliding two worlds that the public doesn’t necessarily connect together? Not that pop-rock-rap collaborations and genre-bending experiences haven’t been tried before, there are plenty of examples, but the complicity between both men was real on stage, even though they stood far apart most of the time, they were truly in synch, enjoying themselves. The stage was their playground, the rhymes were RZA’s and the evening was anything but Banks & Steelz’ words.