Exclusive: Stream the Ninja Tune artist's frenetic new track, sampling an NYC cabbie trying to buy cocaine
Lee Bannon is a multi-directional, perpetual motion machine. Thoughts invade his consciousness, possess him, then blast outward until he’s onto the next idea or point of conversation. When I meet Bannon in Brooklyn, he takes me on a quick ride to pick up a record player so he can listen to a vinyl pressing of his debut album, Alternate/Endings. En route, he cycles through dozens of thoughts on music, Brooklyn, and his hometown, Sacramento, before interrogating me on my favorite new music. He wants to be fed more music just as a computer drinks in data – as if failure to absorb and share every thought and sound might result in the complete loss of ideas. Which, of course, is part of his charm as an artist. Alternate/Endings is Bannon's new album, released January 13 and his first for Ninja Tune. We’ve got the premiere of “Value 10”, a simultaneously smooth and frenetic jungle expedition that features a field recording of a New York cabbie trying to seal a cocaine deal.
Dazed Digital: You’re premiering “Value 10”. What was the germination of that track?
Lee Bannon: I sort of started with a melody that was moving, going up the same way the tempo of a hi-hat would go to 1/16th or whatever. There was a certain vibe outside, so I created the track to that vibe. The name comes from the volume level we were playing it at the entire time I was writing it.
DD: How did you settle on this track as the first official single?
Lee Bannon: Well, this album is not really a singles album. I love the whole thing, whether it’s the Japanese bonus tracks or the others. The whole album is like a single for me. Ultimately, a single is a commercial for the album, and I think any track could have done that.
DD: Are you making the Japanese bonus tracks available digitally, or do fans have to get their hands on the Japanese import?
Lee Bannon: To get the Japanese bonus tracks you’ll have to buy the Japanese vinyl version of the album. Which is kind of cool because it’s limited and it could become collectable. I made the bonus tracks awhile ago, and I wish I’d included them on the album. Even so, the American album is cohesive.
DD: You said you record a lot with the iPhone Voice Memos app. Any method to that madness?
Lee Bannon: I do field recordings. I just leave it on for twelve or fifteen minutes and see what it picks up. These samples don’t always make it onto songs, though.
DD: What is the weirdest field recording that made it onto Alternate/Endings?
Lee Bannon: The one that actually made the album was when I was riding in a taxi with some friends. I had the phone recording for ten or fifteen minutes before we even got in the cab. Once we got in, the taxi driver basically tried to sell us coke for the next ten minutes until we got to our destination. (laughs) So, that recording made it on “Value 10”.
DD: What did the cabbie say exactly?
Lee Bannon: If you listen to it, you can kind of pick it up. It’s not too direct, but I suppose you could understand some drug-related slang if you really listen.
DD: When I first listened to Alternate/Endings, I felt that it had something of a textural affinity to Rustie. That sort of controlled tumbling through various tones and genres.
Lee Bannon: I agree. Like Rustie, I do aim to have the same level of cohesiveness within the tracks even though they’re different genres. It would be like looking at a bunch of different makes and models of cars but they’re all the same color. That shade of color makes them consistent. With a track, it could be drum ‘n bass, r&b, or punk, but there will still be that same tonal overlay.
DD: Jungle and drum ‘n bass were early influences that you’ve now fused with hip-hop and other genres. How did you originally get into those genres?
Lee Bannon: I grew up in Sacramento. That part of the world, Northern California, is a very weird landscape. The scene is quite different. Nobody knows about scenes in Sacramento or other weird places like Nevada. It’s almost like there isn’t a scene. Not to be corny, but Sacramento was a weird melting pot of sounds. So, I heard a lot of jungle and drum ‘n bass, which was big in the city. It was always in my head, or in my ear, even though I liked hip-hop more at the time. As I got older, my tastes changed a bit and I returned to jungle and dnb. It’s like a comfort food. It’s kind of like hummus—I didn’t like that when I was 12, but now I understand it. It’s the same with music. My taste developed. It’s more complex. Jungle and drum ‘n bass had more complex drum patterns than hip-hop, which I can appreciate. So, I flex that muscle more now in my own music.
DD: In the ‘90s jungle and dnb were known for having really futuristic vibes, especially with Goldie’s Platimum Breakz 2. Do you feel like you’re now making something futuristic in a way?
Lee Bannon: Well, think about when the guitar was made, and how old it was when Elvis started making music, or when people started playing blues. The guitar wasn’t used like that originally. With me, the technique is similar. My music still has fundamentals of jungle that sound kind of old school, but I’m just trying to use sequencers, synthesizers, and drum machines in new ways. In that way, it’s kind of futuristic.
“If there was no money in music, 90% of the people wouldn’t be making music”
DD: Since you’ve produced hip-hop, do you have any idea why producers haven’t sampled the likes of Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher? It seems that an enterprising producer and emcee could create great pastiches with that music.
Lee Bannon: I think hip-hop producers and rappers have never been properly introduced to this music. They’re really fickle. They don’t know, or care to know, who those artists are. And all of the names they know, especially ones from the past, would never sample Boards of Canada. That is what is different with my music. It could be on Dazed or Gorilla vs. Bear one day and then on The Source the next. I’m trying to bridge those worlds a little bit. If an artist can do that these days, then they can be a tad bit more successful than their contemporaries. Kendrick Lamar, for example, can get on both of those wavelengths. Whereas another artist of the same caliber, who is only focusing on one sound, is closing a bunch of other doors. Most of the time, people keep getting exposed to the same things over and over again in hip-hop. The people who do get exposed to something like Boards of Canada become sort of leftfield, and won’t really get accepted.
DD: That’s interesting given that hip-hop started out as a such an experimental musical force that pulled from multiple genres.
Lee Bannon: Yeah, hip-hop was originally really progressive. Again, I don’t even think people know about this.
DD: A whole generation is unaware of hip-hop history?
Lee Bannon: They don’t even know the origins. Hip-hop still has hints of this progressive production today, but I think it’s in a frozen state right now. I don’t want to say that it’s bad or whack or anything like that, it’s just in a cookie cutter state where you can predict the entire outline of an album. If I tell you Gucci Mane is dropping an album this week, you kind of already know the formula, and you probably already know what it sounds like because I said the name. There are people like Kanye, with his new album, and other people in hip-hop who are pushing the envelope hardcore, though.
DD: It’s interesting that you bring up Kanye. Earlier, when we were listening to My Bloody Valentine’s “Wonder 2”, we were talking about how Kevin Shields fused jungle and shoegaze, and then how industrial and hip-hop both used sampling in their early days, but in vastly different ways.
Lee Bannon: Exactly. Again, this goes back to the drum machine, synthesizer, or sequencer being the new guitar. Different types of musicians can use it, but they’ll use it in different ways.
DD: Right, and Kanye says he was influenced by industrial music, Chicago drill, and other genres. So, we’re seeing hip-hop getting pulled in different directions right now.
Lee Bannon: I’ve definitely been inspired by the Chicago scene, especially TEKLIFE. I’m friends with a lot of them. It’s an interesting scene because it’s sort of like, “Where did that come from?” It came out of the blue. They look like Chief Keef’s camp, but they’re all basically making dnb. They call it juke or footwork music. It’s kind of random and you’d never expect it. I think it’s good to mix things up and not have one race of people make just one or two genres of music. I feel like there is a reason that it’s happening. If a bunch of people are doing the same style of music at one time, but they don’t know about each other, and the music is pretty obscure, that says something right there. There is a reason for that evolution.
DD: Do you think it’s important that someone like Kanye West is pulling from underground forms of music and essentially seeding those ideas into the mainstream, even though they’re not really his ideas in the first place?
Lee Bannon: I think that it’s so amazing that Kanye did that, because hip-hop goes through a formula. If there was no money in music, 90% of the people wouldn’t be making music. Kanye might be part of that 10% that would make music anyway, whether he had money or not. The same goes for me. I’ve been making music since I was in 8th grade, but only started making money from my music about a year ago. When you do it like that, you really become more of an artist instead of a person making a product to be sold. The fact that Kanye is an artist means he has his ear to the ground of what’s going on. He knows how it’s moving, and was able to forecast the art right now and adapt to it.
DD: You played me four tracks from a possible ambient album. When might that see the light of day?
Lee Bannon: Eventually I will create a complete body of work that is ambient. I want it to sort of be inspired by those albums that have nature sounds on them. It will be something I do when I’m older and more mature, because I don’t want to be tempted to put drums on those recordings. I want that album to be pure.