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Paul Banks talks about Muzz, RZA and Leonard Cohen

Paul Banks has been the lead singer of the band Interpol since he formed the band in 1997. But Interpol hasn't been his only passion. He's released a solo rap album, "Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be." And he's collaborated with friend RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan for a project called Banks & Steelz (when RZA came to 88Nine for an interview in 2018 he said he had to change flights in the morning because he was out celebrating the release of the new Interpol record with Banks the night before. We get into that in the interview.)

Now Banks has teamed up with Josh Kaufman, who Banks has been friends with since they were 15 years old, and Matt Barrick, who has been a touring drummer for The Walkmen and Fleet Foxes. Together they have started a new band called Muzz, and, for me, it's probably my favorite thing Banks has ever done. It's more toned down than Interpol and has more heart than I've heard from Banks before. The album is set to be out on June 5, and it is excellent. Let's get into it with Paul Banks who called us from a park in Edinburg, Scotland.

What brought you to Edinburg, Scotland? 

I was over here visiting my girlfriend and then I was going to go to Spain to see my mom and basically on my flight over, is when they announced all the travel bans. So I just said, I'll stick around. I have a UK passport, so I'm kind of good to hang and it's really not a bad place to be. 

That’s good. How are things, how's everyone handling it right now?

You're allowed to go outside, I think it's an hour a day, for exercise. And to be honest, nobody's gonna check when you left home. So I've been good for exercise since I've been here, which is kind of like the key to my sanity. I get three runs in and doing a lot of exercise to be honest with you. And I feel extremely fortunate cause I know my mom wasn't allowed to leave the house for like seven weeks. I have another friend in Barcelona, same deal, and I cannot imagine that. I cannot imagine being stuck indoors. I just find myself to be very fortunate. Couldn’t really pick a better place for this kind of event. 

In your life being, being who you are, things move twice or three times as fast. So now, everything has slowed down. How has your world changed or how have you felt about things slowing down? 

To be honest, when I'm not touring, I'm really a creature of habit and a homebody and if anything, I would probably beat myself up normally for not going out at all. So, to not have to make an excuse why I'm not going out is actually kind of comfortable for me. I stay home and watch movies and make music and that's really my lifestyle when I'm not on the road, as well. I mean I also feel like being a touring musician does prep you a little bit in the sense that I don't really follow a fixed schedule anyway. Weekends don't matter, holidays don't matter. Nothing really matters when you're on tour. To me, my whole world isn't so turned upside down by this. I think that's just another aspect of why I would count myself one of the really lucky ones. 

I love Muzz. It is such a great project and a great record. One of the things that I've loved about your career is you just following your passions and going into being able to do what you want to do and you've done several different sounding things and so now we're on Muzz. I feel like each one probably reflects something differently about you or where you're at, or whatever it is. What does this sound and this project reflect in you and in your life? 

I think it reflects musical tastes that I've cherished since the beginning of my career. In the spirit of sort of like folk music and artists like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which are all kinds of touchstones for this band. I also feel like it marks a point in my life where I was really ready for this particular collaboration and in spite having known Josh for most of my life and having worked with him in the past, I think outside of Interpol, I wasn't really equipped or ready for collaborations. I think I was kind of honed in on doing my solo projects and it just kind of came at a point in my life where I was working with Matt, the drummer, already on some solo stuff. And he had worked with my old pal Josh on other projects and he said, why don't we bring Josh in on this? So for me also, I think it kind of reflects just this wonderful timing in my life, where it was like, “I'm absolutely open and ready to a rock collaboration.” And what a better way to do it than with an old friend who's someone that I love and has been basically a guitar mentor for me since we were 15. I moved to New York and joined Interpol and he was upstate studying composition at SUNY. Our paths diverged at that point and although we stayed in touch and jammed from time to time, this was really the first time where it seemed kind of possible to actually do something or just kind of came up right at a moment where it felt like a great idea.

I'm sure that people come up to you with great ideas all the time and are like, “We should work together on this thing.” What is the story of this coming together? 

Josh and I knew each other from high school and Matt was my drummer with RZA for Banks and Steelz and Matt and Josh have done session work and known each other through that. So it was when I was jamming with Matt and he mentioned Josh and then we did one rehearsal together, and we're working on one of my songs, and it just kinda felt like that old familiar, “Oh yeah, Josh can just kind of make everything better.” And then simultaneously to that, when we were talking about just playing together, Josh had done a recording with Matt a few years prior, which became Knuckleduster. And so he sent that to me and I was like, “This is amazing. I could definitely work on that.” And Josh also had a couple other compositions he's done by himself. I had compositions I'd done and we just put them all in this pool of songs and realized that there was something that felt cohesive that could come of it. And I felt like I really liked the vocals that I'm writing to the songs that Josh has submitted. So we kind of knew early on that it would work. And then when we went to the studio, every time we went to the studio, we sort of unlocked a new dimension or refined what our sound would be a little bit more. So over the course of it, we probably recorded like 30 songs. It was a process of figuring out how should Muzz sound and which songs make the Muzz sound as opposed to which songs need to find some home elsewhere. 

How did you know what that direction was? Did you know coming in that you wanted to make something that had kind of like a Neil Young or Leonard Cohen background?

That was kind of through conversation about things that we love. Josh and I have shared a passion for Leonard Cohen since we were kids and Dylan as well. I kind of discovered Dylan with Josh. So that came from conversation, but then also, to be honest with you when it's the music that Josh had written with Matt, it just was awesome regardless of genre and the music that he submitted to the collaborations at the beginning, to me, was like awesome and compelling and I had vocal ideas so it's not so much like, I want to do something only if it's like this. It's kind of like the music and the chemistry sort of dictates how motivated I am and what the sound is going to be. And that was something that just kind of came organically over time. And then through a process of filtering what we don't like, like there were certain vocal posturing or vocal styles that I would try and put or lyrics that didn't work from us where the guys kind of said, I'm not really feeling this one moment or this approach. And then we'd rework it. And that kind of filtering out of what isn't right, also helped us to define what was right and that was all just fun. So it just kind of happens by itself. 

So you've known Josh forever, when you're that young and you meet someone, there kind of like has to be something that sticks out about them to you at the time. What was that for you and Josh?

He was funny. We cracked each other up a lot in English class, disruptively so. That sense of humor for me has always been a real bonding aspect. He's a funny guy. He's a very sensitive and intelligent dude and he was back then and very funny. And then he performed at the school talent show, he'd only been there for a few months, I think. And he was a far superior guitarist than I was at that time and that became another thing. I had a lovely period of my life, at that time in Spain. So I was kind of set and very happy, but I didn't have anybody else that was following a path of becoming a musician. And so suddenly appears this guy who's way better than me and also cool. So it was sort of like the gravitation then kind of went to let's play guitar together and let's like make music. 

What’s his sense of humor?

It's absurd. We have a lot of running jokes. I mean, one of the things that just kills me, I mean Matt is actually probably the funniest guy in the crew, but the two of them are such talented musicians.

We have something on our Instagram where they're kind of butchering classic rock riffs and it tickles me to no end. The idea that these sort of masters of their craft and their instruments would take the time to become good enough to play AC/DC, only to play it wrong for the tiny little gag of the let down of the person who wants to hear the hook played right and then they play it wrong. And it's such a petty, absurd concept that requires years and years of training to even be able to execute that show. And the fact that they do that, just kills me. Things like that is real, real silly stuff.

That is such a good bit because it's not really silly. It is silly. But there's so much that goes into the tiny joke that that is.

Josh said one of the nuances is that you have to be really confident while you're doing it. Like, ”Oh, I got this” and then just butcher it.

That is brilliant. I was talking to RZA because he came into Milwaukee. He was doing a soundtrack to a movie as it was up and he was late to the plane or I think they had changed, he was supposed to leave out of LaGuardia and he ended up leaving out of New Jersey cause he said that he was at the party for your album release. What is that relationship like? 

Oh yeah, maybe that was the Marauder album release that he was at. He's a really special human being. The reputation or how do you say it, he kind of is what the aura that's projected about him is. Which is this kind of like enlightened sort of the Abbott, and he really is that. He's sort of someone who has clearly spent a lot of time in spiritual examination and meditation and he's super bright and lives a very positive creative life and was kind of a big brother to me and someone that I really admire and look up to. And I think I learned a lot from him.

One of those things is just that, that dude is always positive. I've never heard him speak ill of anyone ever once. And I feel like even that is like such a rare and beautiful trait. 

That is great. What are you reading right now?

Good question. You know, the answer is " Sapiens" or whatever it's called, that book that everybody's read. I mean, everybody's read it and that made me want to poopoo it, but then I forgot a book and bought it at the airport and then my girlfriend's sister got me another copy for my birthday. So that's what I'm reading, and I like it. I like this kind of stuff. So, it’s good.

You had also mentioned Leonard Cohen and I love Leonard Cohen. I own like every Leonard Cohen album and I think he was one of the greatest songwriters ever. What is your favorite Leonard Cohen song?

Historically, I’m going to say “ Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Why is that? 

It was really speaking to me when I was finishing high school about to go to college and making the decision to move to New York city.

"It's four in the morning, the end of December

I'm writing you now just to see if you're better

New York is cold, but I like where I'm living

There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening"

All of that imagery and stuff was just kind of on blast in my mind as I was ending high school. Just a very special moment in my life. Such a good song. 

Did that help push you to move there? 

It did, yeah. I was actually applying to a lot of schools in a lot of places and as soon as I set foot in New York at NYU, I was like, okay, this is the place. And I think, it would have factored in kind of just knowing his work at the Chelsea Hotel and there was a lot of mystique to New York for me back then. 

The first time I went to New York, the first place I went was Chelsea Hotel. What does Leonard Cohen, what is that special thing that he does for you? 

I think he's a sensualist and I think that kind of resonates with me. I think he's just an insanely good poet and a great guitarist. It is the first time I've used that, but yeah, he's not a lot of artists bring sexuality into their work and I feel like it's this big facet of his work and it just kinda speaks to me. He's like someone I would have liked to have hung out with, and also the words are just so beautiful. Probably “ Suzanne” was the first one I ever heard and I mean, come on. He's so good. 

One of my favorite examples of that is on “Death of a Ladies’ Man” where there's a big ramp up to the chorus and the chorus is, “Won't you let me see your naked body.”

I listened to that song like an hour ago, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I went up to the tallest, blondest woman in the room and I said, baby, let me see.