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Lee Bannon on ‘chair music,’ his name change, and sonic link to Keith Richards

If there’s one thing you can expect hip-hop jungle producer-cum-ambient soundscape master Lee Bannon to do next, it’s something that’s unexpected — as his new über-adventurous album Pattern of Excel proves with a capital P. “The whole concept for the album was definitely like a surf and IDM mashup,” Bannon explains. “Those are my two favorite worlds.”

Pattern of Excel — out today from Ninja Tune on various formats — finds Pro Era/Joey Bada$$ producer Bannon twisting the cosmic knob of a futuristic radio station parked on the edge of an experimental ambient universe where bass and beats have been replaced by reverb-drenched intergalactic axe scrapings. From the space-odyssey burblings of Paofex to the off-kilter guitar noodlings of Disneµ Girls to the mop-up wash of Towels, Bannon takes Excel headlong into the new frontier. It’s also a clear-cut contender for Album of the Year.

“I made a lot of this album with the window down, and I would pick up outside noises that blended in with it so well.”

“I’m thinking more about times and moods when it comes to listening to this album,” Bannon observes. “This may sound kind of funny, but I recommend you listen to it on ‘normal people’ speakers — or even laptop speakers, played really low. It’s for the better that way.”

Bannon wanted the sonic palette of Excel to reflect his creative environment in as many ways as possible. “I made a lot of this album with the window down, and I would pick up outside noises that blended in with it so well,” he notes. “Outside ambient things like people walking, the birds, and the train are all mixed in with the record.” (Just cue up the back third of Artificial Stasis to literally catch art mirroring life.)

Digital Trends called Bannon while he was hanging out on his home turf in Brooklyn to discuss the sonic ambitions of Excel, his potential new “guitar hero” status, and his artistic name change. “I’m calling this John Cage furniture music,” Bannon clarifies. “It’s not danceable music. It’s chair music.” To borrow/remix a line from Towels, it’s like catching time in a vacuum.

Digital Trends: Well, first, I gotta say, I just can’t stop playing this album. You may have to retitle it Pattern of Excellence.

Lee Bannon: Yeah, oh, nice! It was originally titled Pattern of Accelerant — because I’m going above and beyond what people may expect of me. I was evolving certain things in my sound.

In a way, what you did with the sound of Alternate/Endings (2014) set people up for where you wound up going with Pattern of Excel. This is one awesomely progressive audio palette we have here.

That was my goal. I’m from California originally, so I wanted to make it more aquatic, more ambient, and more peaceful than Alternate/Endings was.

Tell me about the gear you used to make this record.

I used the newer Logic Pro, which is a lot cleaner and has more potent sounds and sharper sounds. Alternate/Endings was more of a headphones album, and this one you can play aloud. It’s more crisp and clean, with not as much dust and dirt and crackling on it. I went a lot more digital on this record.

I do love the buzz and hum you have going on in DAW in the Sky for Pigs.

That’s all thanks to Kara-Lis Coverdale — are you familiar with her? K-LC, she saved the album in a lot of ways. Kara came down form Montreal, and we spent literally three days cutting the album down from the 87 tracks I did for it. She helped the shaping of it, and she basically wrote the music for DAW in the Sky for Pigs. We put it through a modular synth I have for a reverb effect, a thing called the [Make Noise] Mysteron. It made it sound really dirty, like that really crunchy piano in it. DAW in the Sky for Pigs is basically saying, no matter what your motives are, anyone can make music. There are workstations all around you — on your phone, anywhere.

You know, I like the idea of putting out songs like DAW and Disneµ Girls as singles, because nobody is expecting that. They are just normal compositions, you know? People are taken aback that they’re so stripped down and don’t involve 808s or heavy drums. They’re very minimal. Personally, as long as the music sounds good to me in a setting like my room or in a car, I’m happy with it. I made this album to sound good being played really, really low.

I know what you mean — it’s got that cool, 2 a.m., late-night vibe to it.

Yeah! That, and the poolside vibe that you get in the middle of it and toward the end. Memory 6 and Disneµ Girls have very aquatic, indoor-pool vibes.

Oh yeah, it’s almost like you’re drowning in those two tracks. To me, Disneµ Girls feels like postmodern Pink Floyd.

Yeah, it’s something like that — or Twin Peaks! Or Chris Isaak. One day I found out he was from my neighborhood and I thought, “Oh man, that’s amazing!” In the beginning, his sound was the reference for that track.

What kind of guitar are you playing on Excel? That’s a new thing for you.

It’s a Les Paul, with an Aphex Twin sticker on the back. (chuckles) I think that says it all, really.

OK, that’s pretty cool. When did you first start playing guitar?

About a year and a half ago is when I started getting serious with it. I asked some of the guys working in a music store, “If I practiced a lot, how long would it take me to be the best at guitar?” They were kind of teasing me about it, but on the way out, the owner of the shop said, “If you play this guitar every day for two years, you’ll be the best guitarist around — if you have that kind of free time.” I thought, “Really? Two years, every day? I don’t have much else to do except create this album, so why not?”

“I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’m not into getting too big or famous for three years. I’d rather be more underground and famous for 30 years.”

Well, I didn’t play every day religiously, but I played enough to where I found my own playing style. I didn’t look at any YouTube tutorials or take any lessons. But six months into it, for some reason, the sixth string broke, and I took it off — and found I could play much better with that sixth string missing. I can now bend the strings all the way down.

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones did something similar. He’s known for having removed the low string on some of his guitars to play them in open G tuning.

Oh wow! I didn’t know that. As soon as that string disappeared, I was able to control the chords, and the notes started making sense.

You’ve sometimes got that pedal-steel swirl thing going on, like you do on Disneµ Girls.

Yeah — there’s like a twangy, surf-music quality to it. A lot of people have been asking, “Wow, have you been taking lessons?” And I’m kind of shocked, because it’s very simple, what I’m doing. I’m playing more like in a blues, B.B. King kind of way, hitting the same strings throughout multiple songs.

Do you have any other guitar heroes?

The ultimate one is B.B. King, rest in peace. I definitely like the more bluesy style of playing. He’s someone who’s going to get one of those big biopics. Actually, I want to be him in a biopic. Let everyone know that.

And I don’t know if you can call it guitar music, but I’m a real big fan of Martin Rev and Suicide. I played a couple of shows with him. My favorite song of theirs is called American Mean [from 1988’s American Supreme]. For the most part, I’m pretty green when it comes to the guitar, and I kind of like that. It’s more organic, you know?

Many of the guitar players who we call “original” aren’t schooled; they just picked it up on their own. Even Jimi Hendrix — he just picked the guitar up left-handed and figured it out.

Oh yeah? I never played along to any songs, I just developed on my own. Once I learned how to tune it, stuff just came out. I just noodled around for hours and hours on songs like Disneµ Girls and Shallowness is the root of all evil.

There’s a lot of good guitar work on SDM too.

Yeah yeah, that’s more of a slowed-down, Righteous Brothers kind of ballad. Unless you know me personally, you wouldn’t know I listen to stuff like Dirty Beaches, Nick Cave, or old stuff like The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. Everything from the cover to the sound of it are the influences I would normally be hesitant to put in my music, but they’re on this album.

As a producer, Brian Wilson is unschooled too. He’s also deaf in one ear, yet he can tell a formally educated string section exactly what to play.

That’s insane! You only get producers like that coming around every so often — producers like Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and Brian Eno. The thing is, I want to dive into playing the Brian Eno vibe, to where he started out with a lot of the pop stuff with Roxy Music, and then moved on. I started out with punk stuff and Joey Bada$$, producing six of his first singles, and now I’m going off and doing what most people would consider odd, weird music.

I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’m not into getting too big or famous for three years. I’d rather be more underground and famous for 30 years. Brian Eno did that, and then he got lucky with the David Bowie thing [collaborating on what’s known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” — Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979)]. Well, I guess I wouldn’t call it lucky — he was being so original, like when he was a producer for U2, with The Joshua Tree (1987). He was just providing the stuff that nobody else was able to do. It was more of an art thing — an innovative, experimental thing.

Would you like to collaborate with some modern rock band and be their Brian Eno?

People come along all the time — some big names, some small names — asking, “Would you be interested in producing us?” Most of the times I’m not, because it involves me doing a beat. I’m not a big fan of making a beat so someone can record on it and do who knows what to it.

I prefer to work in person, communicating some way to get across some kind of emotion that I can translate into something sonically. A lot of people, especially rappers and pop people, will contact me and ask, “We want something like the Joey Bada$$ stuff.” But I’ve already done that. And what they don’t realize is that I was in the room with Joey, actually tweaking stuff to his liking and his vocals, telling him where to come in on certain parts.

What’s the best example of you and Joey working together to make a track sound better?

There’s a song he wound up calling Hilary $wank [on 2013’s Summer Nights]. It was crafted as we were writing at the same time, bouncing off of each other. I would hear him come up with the lyrics, and he would hear me add some drums. It was basically us communicating without words. Him getting excited about it would let me know it was working. It’s more organic. It takes something like that to make it a little bit bigger and better, you know? There are certain notes you can’t say with words at all. You literally have to play them or show them.

“There are certain notes you can’t say with words at all. You literally have to play them or show them.”

I actually look at what I’m doing now as being my early period. Right now, I feel like I’m finishing my earlier stuff, like early Genesis, and now I want to dive into my Peter Gabriel period, just really come out and produce someone. Not be really flashy, like, “Oh, it’s produced by Lee Bannon,” but I do want it to be produced and arranged. They don’t even have to mention my name; it could be deep in the credits.

I like that idea. I could even see you going the progressive route, maybe working with a longstanding band like Yes.

Oh yeah, Yes — they have an album called Fragile (1972) that I just love.

There’s a surround-sound mix of Fragile coming out soon that’ll blow your mind.

Wow! I have this Roland Integra [sound module] I don’t know to use yet, but you can make a track where the snare sounds like it’s coming from behind you.

You have to do an album in surround. Excel is prime for 5.1, like that echo vocal on Suffer Gene. You could totally move that from channel to channel.

That would be amazing. Maybe on the next record, whenever that’ll be. But you can say I’m working on a soundtrack for some Japanese manga anime. That will definitely be in surround.

I can’t wait to hear that. Hey, tell me about your name change as an artist. Is it something that’s pronounceable, or is it like that symbol Prince once used for his name?

The symbol is Command-Alt-L, then B. The time just came where I had to separate those two worlds. If I had a choice, I’d just be coming out now. This album would be my first works, you know? Stuff like this comes out and some people really don’t understand or have a reference to it. It’s weird. It’s kind of like, “What is this?” at times.

The symbol is curating it wherever everything put out under it is going to make sense. What will now come up when you type that name into Pandora and Spotify will sound like what I’ve become. I’m just now reaching a sound for myself. In a perfect world, I would have come out with Alternate/Endings and this album in the same blender together. The hip-hop stuff, how can I explain it — have you see the Everything Is a Remix series? It’s basically saying every artist copies something else and is derivative before becoming their own thing. And that’s what I feel I did when I was younger, from age 17 to 23: “Oh, I’m trying to sound like Pete Rock.” I was learning all those techniques by copying him and other people.

That’s all part of the evolution of an artist. You borrow and adapt before coming into your own.

Right, like Al Green coming out sounding like Nat King Cole. But in today’s world, it sticks with you. Everything is on record. Now I’m starting fresh with this new symbol, which will curate my work digitally.

It’s the symbol for you moving on to another phase — and the soundtrack to your ascension.

There you go. It’s Walmart ethereal. It’s like Brian Wilson in the hospital bed, inventing the genre. He couldn’t even hear the music, it was so faint. I love that feeling and the acoustics that come with it — like you’re hearing it down the hall, getting the low end that way because the doors are closed. This new album is like a luau, saying goodbye to all that. It’s almost like a burial record, and now I can go into my new zone as an artist.