27 May Artist Interview – Alex Banks – “Beneath The Surface”
Sister Ray recently caught up with Alex ahead of the release of his second album due on June 6th via Mesh.
Over several Punk IPAs and a plate of sweet potato fries, Alex gave us the lowdown on his latest offering “Beneath The Surface“, with insight into his diverse influences and considerable excitement for his new live show.
SR: How would you describe your style?
AB: Someone wrote in an article a couple of years ago, atmospheric bass music from Brighton via Berlin. I thought that was a pretty good summary of my style. I guess it’s quite hard to pin point exactly what it is.
SR: Yeah, you clearly draw from a lot of influences.
AB: Yes, throughout my life I’ve listened to and played a lot of different styles of music. From listening to rock when I was a teenager to getting into trip hop and breakbeat in the mid to late 90s when Lamb and the Chemical Brothers and Orbital and that sort of stuff came about. I also listened to a lot of Drum & Bass and went out to a lot of Drum & Bass raves… but I think my style today really is a culmination of everything I’ve played or been inspired by ever since I started making music.
SR: When was that?
AB: I started playing guitar, drums and piano when I was 10. When I was 15 I discovered sequencing and electronic music and it all progressed from there.
SR: …and what or who would you say are your major influences?
AB: So, on this album in particular I would say that I’ve been influenced a lot by my live touring experiences over the last few years. The first show I did officially as Alex Banks was supporting Moderat in a disused coal mine in Katowice in Poland in front of 3500 people. There is one track on the album called “In The Silence” that is really inspired by that feeling of being on stage and being in a traditionally techno environment and being very connected to the audience. I remember playing one track from my last album called “Initiate” and during the breakdown, bringing all the sounds down and almost kind of pausing the track, I felt a real connection with the crowd and they were listening to my music with a real intensity. I feel moments and shows like that and playing in that sort of situation has encouraged me to, not necessarily shape my tracks for the dance-floor, but to take influence from that and consider that when structuring or writing. It encouraged me to be a bit more stripped back or a bit bolder in some aspects of the production through knowing how it’s going to work in that live environment.
SR: OK, so maybe less detail?
AB: Not necessarily less detail but being more judicious with where the detail is. Also, maybe less tangential in terms of composition and structure. With the last album, I finished the record, it was released and then I was touring it and I was remixing the tracks live and during that process I was able to change the structures of tracks and let them subtly evolve.
SR: So you were able to see what worked in a live situation?
AB: Exactly. You get that live feedback as to what works in certain situations. I feel like those experiences feedback when you’re off the tour and you’re back in the studio and you remember how it felt in the live situation.
Being back in the studio again, I surrounded myself with a lot more hardware that’s very hands on and that I could manipulate in a very live and free way. Although I’m making electronic music that’s supposed to sound very futuristic and there’s a lot of editing and post processing going on, the main objective was, for this album, about capturing the vibe and capturing performances of myself enjoying using and being excited by the equipment. I think it’s really important as an artist to have that excitement to fuel creativity. It’s like being a kid and having that new toy to play with. It’s about keeping it fresh!
“Beneath The Surface” Album artwork
SR: So that feeds in to the next question. “Beneath The Surface” is quite a departure from your last album, was that because of what you just said about your live experiences.
AB: Well, as an artist you always want to progress. I didn’t want to start a new album until I felt I’d developed enough through touring and collaborating and through life in general, to feel like I’d have something to say in a new record. It’s all about that balance of trying to do something new and exciting but also building on what I’ve done before. You’ll hear familiar sounds in the new album, I still use the Juno 106 and Moog Voyager. There are jungle influenced bass lines and some glitchy production and effects but also a bit more of a techno influence in there. Working with a male vocalist rather than a female, as on the last album, also adds a new colour to the palette and really helped it move forward.
SR: That brings us nicely to the next question. Ásgeir, the Icelandic vocalist that features on the album… how did that collaboration come about?
AB: I was DJing at Reworks festival in Thessaloniki, Greece and GusGus were on the same bill. It turned out Biggi Veira, one of the founding members of the group, is a fan of my music. We had a chat backstage and I told him I was working on a new album and I was looking for a new vocalist to work with. He told me to check out his favourite Icelandic singer, this guy Ásgeir, saying he’s got a really unique voice that he thought I’d really like. He sent me some links and I remember hearing Ásgeir covering Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box”. The first half was just him solo with a piano and his voice sounded really characterful and unique and I could really hear how it would work. So without really knowing how mega-famous or established he was, I sent him a link to some music I was working on and asked if he was interested in getting involved, which he was.
I already had some ideas for lyrics from this guy Simon Bramble who writes lyrics for Apparat and Moderat and who I’d met through Monkeytown (the label owned and run by Modeselektor). Simon sent me these kind of poems that hadn’t been shaped into songs yet. I took the words and matched them up to tracks I’d been working on, edited them down and sent them on to Ásgeir to see what he thought. He was really into the idea and sent me a demo back. He’d taken those lyrics and written all the melodies and phrasing and it worked really well. After a few revisions we nailed the first track and it sounded really fresh and very different. So then I asked if he’d be interested in working on another. The second track was called “Chasms” and it evolved in a very similar way. It’s pretty cool looking back that I got the lyrics from this Irish guy I met in Berlin and sent them to this singer in Iceland and finished the track in my studio in Brighton, UK. A truly international collaboration.
SR: So you’ve focused a lot more on the live aspect this time, tell us about that.
AB: Having done a lot of touring for the last record, I’ve realised how important the live show is in terms of really connecting with the fans. People don’t just want to see me standing there twiddling knobs. You want to feel as an artist that people that have made the effort to come and see you are going to get something they’re not going to see elsewhere, something that only exists in that moment. At the same time, you want to be playing the tracks that they want to hear. So building on the experience of touring my last album, I’ve expanded on that. I’ve bought more gear that I can use to effect the sounds live. I still have all my samples in Ableton Live but this time I’m using a lot more midi and outboard gear. I’ve got some modular Eurorack stuff, a Moog Mother and I’m using a Roland SE02 instead of the Moog Voyager because it has similar sounds but is much more portable. I’m trying to recreate some of the sounds I’ve made in the studio while also giving myself a lot of flexibility to experiment with the sounds live. Creating something that people will recognise as being the tracks they know but presented in a unique way, on the fly.
I’ve got a guy called Bertie at Immersive Me who has been making a bespoke visual package for me which is audio reactive and autonomous so it will run completely by itself. It listens and takes information from midi and audio data. As I’m manipulating the sound, it will manipulate the visuals in real time including this bespoke LED light structure that will be sitting in the front of the stage as well as projections behind me. I think visually it will look quite unique and it will be locked to the music so when you’re watching the performance, it will be a very cohesive package. Hopefully it will enhance the music and deepen the experience and the connection that the audience will have with it.
Having seen live shows by Mesh label head Max Cooper and Moderat, the visual aspect is so important in enhancing the message of the music. I wanted to make sure I had something unique and powerful that people can look at and enjoy when they see me play.
SR: Awesome, looking forward to seeing it! So beyond the album, what have you got coming up?
AB: I have a track on the “10 Years of Monkeytown” compilation that’ll be released soon after my album. There are some remixes in the pipeline too but nothing to announce yet so keep an eye out!
SR: Amazing. Thanks Alex!
- Moderat – Moderat
- Burial – Untrue
- Orbital – The Brown Album
- Four Tet – There Is Love In You
- Leftfield – Rhythm & Stealth
- Chemical Brothers – Surrender
- Massive Attack – Mezzanine
- John Hopkins – Immunity
- Bonobo – Black Sands
- Björk – Vespertine
For bookings – www.alexbanksmusic.co.uk/