In 2013, RZA had just gotten offstage at Los Angeles' Bedrocktoberfest when he first revealed he'd been working with Interpol lead singer Paul Banks on a collaborative project. Looking back on the moment during a recent chat with Rolling Stone, he admits he was "high, drunk, feeling good" when he stated that it would take the pair a year to complete an album.
Now, three years later, the unlikely duo sits on a leather couch in a private room in NeueHouse, a communal workspace in Hollywood, discussing Anything but Words, their debut as Banks and Steelz, finally releasing via Warner Bros. on August 26th.
While the cross-pollination of hip-hop luminary RZA and Banks, an artist known for moody early-2000s indie rock, suggests experiment for experiment's sake, their chemistry on record is palpable, blending Interpol's icy remove with RZA's disjointed flow. "We're both hard workers in the studio," explains RZA, who was first tipped off to Banks' work when his manager suggested they duet. They clocked more than 200 sessions and crafted ideas for around 40 songs, meticulously landscaping the sonic terrain. "If I was to say I met someone who works as hard as me in the studio, it would be this young man right here," RZA continues. "He'll do it over 30 times. To me, that's cool, because that's how some of the best records are made, some of the best films are made that way. I respect him as an entity."
The two artists will bring the record to life at a few festivals in early fall – FYF Festival, Life Is Beautiful, Austin City Limits – and have cleared their schedules for the rest of the year to focus on promoting the LP, which features guest appearances from Kool Keith, Florence Welch, Method Man, Masta Killa and Ghostface Killah, the latter of whom appears on lead single "Love + War." The pair explained to RS how Anything but Words came together, and why this won't be the last that you hear from them.
Why did this project take so long for you to finish?
RZA: I'll just say that we went from conception of the idea to working with what kind of music and songs that's going to formulate it. In the process, we're both capable, busy men in the worlds of what we do, so we would put months together, take a look, sit back and revisit it, almost how a real movie is done. You get the chance to develop it, to structure it.
Banks: There was that and also since , I wrote and did a world tour with Interpol and RZA put out two records and three films and a TV series.
What brought you together at this point in time, and why was now the right time to put this project out?
RZA: As far as 2016? We actually wanted to put it out last year. We thought we were finished, but we didn't finish. So that was another glitch. It was, like, wanting to aim it at a time, but at the same time, not meeting that deadline based on creative decisions and, do we have this package and how we want it to be?
Banks: "Speedway Sonora" was taking a long time.
RZA: So some of the songs went through their evolution. Even "Giant," which is basically the single, still had to get a revisit as early as six weeks ago.
You come from very different musical worlds. How did you meet in the middle?
Banks: I'll point out that RZA plays piano and guitar and is a great singer, and I think he has some musical interests that are more diverse than what you may traditionally know from him. I'm a huge fan of hip-hop as a genre and RZA's work and I feel like there's just an overlap where it feels natural to me. Even if it's just a straight hip-hop song, you need a chorus, and if it's a hip-hop song with a chord progression that I can get a vocal idea around, because we're collaborators, we just wouldn't work on anything that I couldn't see any contribution. So much of the songs are based around a RZA beat, because he's in his element, and I think as a team of collaborators, we can explore, like, "RZA, why don't you try singing or different sorts of instrumentation?" And if I'm layering live rock instrumentation on a beat that RZA's generated, then that's our taste dictating whether or not that works or how much of this or that will work.
Paul, what are your earlier memories of Wu-Tang Clan? Were you a fan growing up?
Banks: Uh, yes. The W and Wu-Tang Forever I got before I went and studied Enter the 36 Chambers.
You pedaled backwards.
Banks: I don't know why that was. Maybe that was because "Gravel Pit" came out. I go back to high school with Wu-Tang, but the first time I remember studying Enter was after I'd gotten into The W. I could tell you so many songs and pieces of RZA's catalog that have spoken to me and influenced me. There were moments on GZA's Liquid Swords: "Swordsman" was one of the greatest atmospheric pieces of production, in a similar vein to [Wu-Tang's] "Can It All Be So Simple" where there's this horror-movie-meets-martial-arts-meets-alternate-dimension, kind of murky, grimy edginess to it. I also really loved Lou Barlow's solo shit, like when he did the Kids soundtrack – this very murky, ominous, dreamy production thing. That's an element of RZA's production that's always spoken to me. I could always listen to Wu instrumentals. Then you start factoring in that you've got fuckin' Rae and Ghost and RZA, the GZA slaying it lyrically. But on the production side of things, that's what I would study.
RZA, what about you? When did you first hear of Paul and Interpol?
RZA: I'd heard of Interpol by name, just being in New York and seeing the new indie-rock scene growing. I didn't get deep into the music until after we met, and the album I got mostly into was this 2007 album and the song that sticks with me the most is "The Scale," in a sense of ... As a guy who started his career antagonistic against rock and guitars and all that, you hear GZA's first lyric, "First of all, who's your A&R/A mountain climber who plays the electric guitar." We shunned ODB's brother who was into rock and Prince. We wasn't into that, nothing. We was into hip-hop. To a guy who discovers later on that I actually was loving rock. You hear it in my sample choices, you hear it on Liquid Swords' "4th Chamber." When I heard "The Scale," that's where I want to be as a musician. I want to be able to do that myself, and by saying that, beyond Paul's voice, I love his voice and his cadence and his idea of wordplay and choices of words in his songwriting, I also have a couple of dreams of my own. And some of those dreams are to be able to record certain songs in a certain way and be able to do it myself. I haven't reached that yet. I'm getting there, but Interpol's music, especially "The Scale," it's like if RZA had been born in the rock world, I would have.
"Interpol's music ... it's like if RZA had been born in the rock world." —RZA
There are a few guests on this album, and one that sticks out is Florence Welch. How did you get her on "Wild Season?"
RZA: Paul mentioned about three different singers he thought would be good to collaborate on "Wild Season." I deferred to Paul on who that could be. But I guess he was on tour and he ran into Florence and they talked about it and [to Paul] you asked me about it and I was like, "Yeah, great." Everyone is a big fan of hers and she's a fan of Paul, so she made the connection.
Banks: We spoke and she was watching Interpol at the side of the stage at a festival we'd done. That was the first time I'd met her, but she had come up in conversation with this record. So when I saw her checking out Interpol's last show, I was like, "We should be in touch because I want to talk about this thing." I sent her a couple of tracks and "Wild Season" is the one that spoke to her. We'd done it where RZA had both verses and the song was good to go, but we felt this was a good one to have the female perspective in the song. So she liked the track and we discussed what she would do lyrically, but it was all over e-mail and then her sending me stuff. It was really as cool and effortless as any other collaboration I've had with another writer. I was really surprised by that. It was just so easy to work with her and get dialed in on the same page and get the themes worked out.
Of the 12 songs that ended up on the project and the amount you did record, who else did you work with that didn't make the cut?
RZA: As far as other artists, we didn't work with other artists. In my opinion, we're the other artists to each other. We're those elements that's not normal. We took this project, also, like what's meant to be. Paul's a big fan of Kool Keith, one of his favorite MCs, and me and Keith had always promised to do a song together. I didn't know that he was a fan of his or that he even knew him or connected to him. But when I mentioned him, it was like, "Shit." Me and Keith talked about it; let's live it out, beyond any politics of collaborations. Because collaborations are a political game. There was only one artist I wanted on this record personally that didn't get on this record. We had a chance to talk about it. During that conversation, I totally understand why he's not on this record. And that's Andre 3000. It had nothing to do with where we're at. It's just where he's at with his life right now.
RZA, last time you mentioned this project with Paul, you said you'd written two films, One Spoon of Chocolate and Sting of the Scorpion. What's the status of those?
RZA: Scorpion was manipulated as Iron Fists 2. Got that out. And [Spoon] is still in the zeitgeist of the movie business, my night job, my other job. That film will still see the light of day.
And Coco is coming out this year?
RZA: Coco is done. It's in Lionsgate's hands. Movie companies have to figure out the best time to put their movies out. So I don't know if it'll be this year or next year. But I finished my movie. It took me a fuckin' year for that movie.
Anything brewing in the Wu-Tang realm?
RZA: Right now, there's nothing brewing, to be real. I'm not cooking. I don't know if the other guys are brewing something. I'm not cooking anything. We got festivals coming up, we're going to really treat this record seriously. The fans will let us know if they enjoy this or they want some meat or vegetarian shit; they'll let us know. The kind of guy I am and the kind of guy Paul is, we want to take our time, put our energy forward to get this collaboration the fair chance it deserves. I'm proud of this collaboration. I think we got some really cool songs.
Paul, the last Interpol record came out in 2014. Have you talked about doing anything since then?
Banks: We're going to get back together and jam, but that's the extent of the plans.
What about another solo record?
Banks: Yeah, the material is almost done. So that's closer. I don't know if that will come out before an Interpol thing, but there's music. So it will come out.
I know you're probably focused solely on this record right now, but you mentioned a second installment. Any idea when that would come?
Banks: I would love to hit the studio right now. Even insofar as finishing the tracks that are almost there that we have, the other 28 songs.
RZA: I just made two songs that he reminded me of. "Beast out of Water" and "Offering." The sonics of those songs and the vibe that they invoke, very different from what you got from us. But something about this shit was that, maybe they were too soon. Maybe we didn't finish them either. They would go fucking good in a library of music. You ever listen to music sometimes and the song will change your whole fucking psyche? They both do that for me.
Banks: But the thing about those songs is that you make one record, and if you listen to a record you've loved 100 times, "Beast out of Water" and "Offering," they'd be tracks eight and nine that they became your favorites after 100 listens. When your goal is to make your first debut record, you're thinking about singles and having a variety and a range, and those tracks eight and nine, no matter how much you love them, they sometimes can't be a priority. Because sometimes the world isn't looking for a record full of tracks eight and nine. I wish they would, because then we'd have a quadruple record right now.