The Sonic Artist

By
Photography Brian Higbee

Published December 16, 2014

ABOVE: LEE BANNON IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTOGRAPHY: BRIAN HIGBEE. STYLING: JESSI JACQ. GROOMING: STEFANIE WILLMANN FOR TOM FORD FOR MEN AT SEE MANAGEMENT.

By the time Lee Bannon started receiving mainstream buzz as a hip-hop producer—he appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with Joey Bada$$, one of his frequent collaborators, in November of 2012—beat-building had become a day job and he was ready to move onto something else.

So he did. Since then, he’s released a handful of EPs, including Main/Flex (Babygrande) last month, and one album, Alternate/Endings (Ninja Tune), last January. His newer releases explore a mix of ambient drum ‘n’ bass and abrasive, industrial soundscaping. They will never have the same broad appeal as his work with Bada$$, but that doesn’t matter; it’s music as art rather than music for mass consumption. “If you listen to my very first project and you listen to something now—or even Alternate/Endings—you’re going to be like, ‘Woah, this is completely different,'” Bannon explains. “It’d be like I was writing books then all of a sudden I wrote Catcher in the Rye.”

Bannon’s process has changed over the years, too: “I used to make a project, an entire album, in two days and put it out,” he says. “Now I think about it: what would my mom think if I was playing this for her? What would my friends in a punk band think if they heard this? What would a girl I’m seeing at the time think when I’m playing this? I sit on it for a while before I let it out.”

The 27-year-old musician is meticulous in his track selection; if a track isn’t up-to-scratch, he’s not going to release it. “I would hate to die and have somebody get my computer and go, ‘Oh, he has all this unreleased work!’ And put it out,” Bannon comments. “If it was meant to come out, the artist, in their life, would’ve been like, ‘I’ve got to get this out.’ “

In the upcoming year, Bannon has plans to release a secret project and a new album, and embark on a national tour. He’d also like to move somewhere more secluded (he’s considering the middle of the woods in Virginia).

AGE: 27

HOMETOWN: North Highlands, Sacramento County, California.

CURRENT LOCATION: Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

INTRODUCTION TO MUSIC: When was around 12, I had a friend who moved [to Sacramento] from Chicago. He exposed me to a bunch of music that I had never heard of—a lot of East Coast music. I really started getting into [music] heavily around that time.

FAMILY TIES: A lot of my family is from Louisiana. My uncles and some of my grandfather’s brothers sing in a choir, and I guess you can call that musical, but my mom’s a nurse and my dad does construction, so no music. [But they have] good taste in music—when I was really young my mom would be listening to Goldie. I remember that. You’ve got to be up on your music because that was pretty trendy in 1994 or whatever.

THE SACRAMENTO SCENE: When I got older I moved to the city [of Sacramento] and that’s when I met bands like Trash Talk and Death Grips and Chelsea Wolfe, who were all doing their thing and playing local clubs. I think we all have something in common with how dirty or lo-fi [our] music is. It kind of reminds me of Portishead and Massive Attack and Roni Size coming out of Bristol [in the ’90s]. It was a certain scene in the middle of nowhere. Sacramento’s like the middle of nowhere. It’s not really a place that you’d think a scene would pop off.

SIGNING TO NINJA TUNE: At the time I had been getting offers from Sacred Bones, Warp, and a few others, but Ninja Tune were willing to let me be 100% creative. They weren’t worried about me sounding like Flying Lotus or this person or that person —they were like, “Just be yourself and this will be your home to release stuff.” I like that. They’ve given me the freedom to create what I want to create, and not be in a box. A lot of people in the very beginning wanted me to just do beats because I was doing beats for a lot of rappers, but I was over that. By that time it became a day job: I was producing a beat and somebody was rapping over it. I wanted to do more—I guess explore other sounds I was interested in. Make something that reflected what I actually listen to, which is like Coil or Goldie, or something like that. 

THE NINJA TUNE ROSTER: I was really into Blockhead in the ninth/eighth grade, which was pretty weird music back then. Recently I found out that King Geedorah (2003), MF DOOM’s second album, was released through [Ninja Tune imprint] Big Dada. Blockhead’s pretty silly, but I listened to it at the time. I haven’t gotten to meet Blockhead. I’ve gotten to meet pretty much the immediate roster: Actress, Bonobo, Machinedrum. It’s pretty cool. For the most part I’m kind of reclusive. I just stay here, especially now that I’ve been working on a new project.

A MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST: I suck at piano. Guitar I suck at too, but for what I was trying to accomplish I’m good. I’ve had the guitar for a while and I read somewhere if you played the guitar everyday for two years, you’d be a pro. I do nothing but stay at home all day, especially when I’m in between projects or working on projects, so I was like, “I’ll just play every day and see if that’s true.” In three months I was able to harness it and play little things that I wanted to for the project. I hear certain notes that I want to use, or certain chords, and just play them out.

THE POINT: Lately, since I’ve started doing my own stuff, it’s pretty much been 90 percent for me—stuff creatively that I want to get out. Even if I worked at McDonalds [and] I wasn’t doing music as a career, I would still do it as a hobby. I’ll just be in a certain zone or mood. 

A MUSE… Doesn’t have to be a person. It could be anything—a surfing video or Silence of the Lambs.

UNFINISHED WORK: I play people [my] unfinished work all the time. I do it just to get opinions. Even though I’m not making the music to please anyone, I still care how it makes other people feel. A lot of it’s like a social thing. I’ll be so reclusive—not leaving the house, watching weird documentaries, on Wikipedia, and creating music—to where I’m loosing touch with people. Right now I feel kind of crazy like that. I’ve been working on a new project for six months. I stopped touring. I stopped doing a bunch of stuff just to finish this. When I do go out, it’s kind of hard to have regular conversations now because my head is just in such a different space. [But] sometimes I don’t play it at all, like Alternate/Endings—I didn’t play that for anyone. It was just for me.   

REFINING THE ALBUM: [For] the last album I had 180 tracks and I ended up only choosing 14. It’s a process for sure. It’s like sketches when you ball up the paper and go on to the next one. You can’t ball up an audio file. If you look at my iTunes library you’ll just see 50 gigs of “Untitled 1” “Untitled 2” all the way to, like, 300. It’s a catalog that will never come out.

SOCIAL INTERACTIONS: I’m very mellow most of the time, especially when I’m just by myself listening to music. When people are around, I’m like a Jack Russell Terrier—a lot of energy, moving around or whatever. People will be like, “Oh do you have ADD?” “No, I’ve just got energy.” It’s like when a dog’s been home all day and hasn’t seen any humans and a human comes home he get’s fucking warped up. I get like that sometimes.

For more from the 15 Faces of 2015, click here.