Alternate/Beginnings: Lee Bannon's Career Reboot

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Lee Bannon

Out of the speakers, washes of sound swell ominously. Of the three people in the room, nobody speaks. I’m staring at a bass guitar propped on a stand in one corner of the sparsely decorated room. A woman’s voice comes into the mix, though what she’s saying is hard to make out. Then, suddenly audible, the voice exclaims: “I’m a MIRACLE!” As the music explodes into furious drum breaks, producer Lee Bannon immediately jumps back into the conversation, striding towards a bookshelf to grab a couple of vinyl LPs he’s been enjoying lately.

“I feel like a dickhead playing my own music sometimes,” he says then laughs.

We’re at Lee Bannon’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he’s playing me a string of as-yet-unreleased tracks, and I’m starting to get caught up in the rush. Bannon’s excitement is infectious–his debut album for long-standing UK imprint Ninja Tune, Alternate/Endings, hasn’t even come out yet, and he’s already pumped about what’s next. We’re talking about everything from his plans for the next year—an EP that will include contributions from New York hip hop group Ratking and select members of Chicago footwork crew Teklife, a collaborative EP with producer The Range under the name Digital Sands—to Brian Eno, to the polar vortex that’s currently raging outside.

Bannon, who describes himself as “a hermit,” has been playing me snippets from his new projects while we talk—he has about 50 tracks on his hard drive that were created since November.

“Before the end of this weekend, I’ll have the same amount of tracks done that there are on this album, so it becomes kind of a blur,” he admits.

He cranks up the volume, and a stray boarding pass, leftover from his recent New Year’s Eve gig with Jimmy Edgar in Montreal starts rattling against one of the speakers.

When I arrived, Bannon and a guy on the couch, who introduces himself as Drew, were listening to a Madonna album at a similarly high volume. Drew turns out to be Drew Lustman, aka fellow Ninja Tune artist FaltyDL, and the two are hanging out for the first time. Though he seems surprised to learn that he’s been thrown into the midst of an interview, Lustman ends up sticking around, playing solitaire on his phone and occasionally interjecting with a question or comment of his own.

Bannon proves to be an unflaggingly energetic presence—while Lustman and I take up residence on the couch, he spends most of our time together pacing a constant orbit around the computer, a hub where he pauses occasionally to play music or look up the name of a film.

Alternate/Endings has been finished since the summer, when Bannon posted break-heavy cut “NW/WB” online, attracting attention from labels like Warp, R&S, and Sacred Bones.

“Ultimately, they had the same vision as me,” he says of Ninja Tune, known for its catalogue of breakbeat and drum and bass releases, two key influences on Bannon’s recent work. “I definitely wanted it to be a wise pick, too, because I plan on staying. I just want to build a body of work and become a staple with a label.”

Prior to this, Bannon was mostly known as the go-to producer and in-house deejay for NYC-based hip hop collective Pro Era and its teenage figurehead, Joey Bada$$. It was a gig that allowed him to move to New York to work on music full-time, but it ultimately proved unsatisfying.

“When I was doing beats for people, or production for people, I was trying to make them happy, and changing the style to make them feel cool,” he explains. “This is the first album where I’ve made it for myself.”

He’s been an active solo artist for long enough to try on several different hats. Fantastic Plastic, a frenetic collection of stylistically divergent beats that came out on Plug Research in 2012, is evidence of how far he’s pushed his music away from hip hop in just a few years.

The earliest non-Pro Era music currently available on his Bandcamp page is Caligula Theme Music 2.7.5, the result of a burst of inspiration on a flight to SXSW that signaled a significant shift in Bannon’s tastes. More than once during our conversation, he refers to film composer Hans Zimmer, whose music has influenced Bannon’s recent affinity for darkly thematic scores. Place/Crusher and Never/Mind/the/Darkness/of/it, two mood-shifting EPs from the past year, are actually the only projects that Bannon would salvage from an already significant catalogue of solo releases.

“I’m not a fan of Fantastic Plastic. All that was like a training phase,” he says. “It’d be like if you took a pottery class in ninth grade but then you became an artist when you were 35, and then that stuff is still considered your Art. It’s like, that’s not even what I do.”

Bannon grew up in Sacramento, where his mother moved to attend medical school when he was around four, and says he was raised on Soul Assassins, DJ Muggs, and the RZA. He started making beats just before seventh grade, using a pirated copy of Cakewalk’s Project 5, and adopted the name “Lee Bannon” from the slang term for Long Beach (“Lebanon”) printed in RZA’s The Wu-Tang Manual. (Lee Bannon is a stage name; when I ask him his real name, he dodges the question, saying that “I gotta keep some of the mystery.” Later on he quips on the subject of assumed identities: “A lot of people don’t know that I’m Burial.”)

When Pro Era started taking off, Bannon moved to Williamsburg, and has been living there for around two years now (of the local nightlife, he remarks that it “got corny real fast.”) Now that he’s settled in, Bannon is more conscious than ever about what he puts out into the world.

“I don’t want to be prolific, I just want to make solid bodies of music,” he explains. “That’s part of the reason I stopped deejaying for Joey. The first project was really good, the rest is kind of disposable, like plastic forks. I wanted to make a clean split while it was somewhat credible, stop producing altogether for hip hop, and then do my thing.”

He also has a surprisingly bearish attitude towards the genre that helped him break through. Though there are a few artists he thinks are pushing hip hop forward, like fellow Sacramentans Death Grips, he blames his current lack of enthusiasm on the attitudes of young rappers.

“The life span of the average hip hop artist is not very long, which sucks,” he concedes. “But they just don’t really do their research. I mean, I wasn’t around when Public Enemy first went out, but around like 14, I started learning about ‘em. It seems to me that every other genre, people usually know some back-story. Like when I met Joey he didn’t know about a lot of people. And then I look weird for trying to explain how Death Grips are like a new Public Enemy and they’re like, ‘well, we know Public Enemy but we don’t know any of their songs.’ And it’s like a big fucking hole that I can’t get out of, because I’m having to teach.”

Even though its rapid-fire jungle sound signals a club atmosphere, Bannon sees Alternate/Endings as “more of an anti-social album. Without the drums on the album, it’s really an ambient, score type of thing.” He often folds field recordings and murky samples into his tracks—Alternate/Endings is full of Easter eggs for other avid consumers of pop culture, like audio from the Silent Hill OST and dialogue from Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream. Those samples are layered over a Roland SP-555, electric guitar, and, more surprisingly, a harmonica, which he pulls out of a pile of stuff on his desk, leaning across his home-made coffee table to show me.

From where I’m sitting, it’s obvious that he’s already in the midst of the next transition. While the electric bass has its own stand, the guitar is lying on the ground by the sofa.

“I don’t even have a stand for that!” he laughs. “And it’s still there. I’ve been slowly building up the lab for the newer projects.”

A train rattles by in the distance, and for a moment segues perfectly with the music, a bombastic number that Lustman likens to The Crystal Method. His new material sounds playful, spontaneous, exploratory. And Bannon hopes that Alternate/Endings will wipe the slate clean for whatever he decides to do next.

“It’s like a blank canvas, a new introduction to me instead of the old me. Just starting over, I guess.”