The Wire

In Writing

Mike Banks interview

Unedited transcript of Mark Fisher's interview with Underground Resistance's Mike Banks, which formed the basis of November 2007 issue's cover feature

Wire: Have Galaxy 2 Galaxy permanently changed their name to Universe 2 Universe?

Mike: Galaxy 2 Galaxy was one era of High Tech jazz and now, with the addition of a couple of new members of the band, De'Sean Jones and Jon Dixon, I decided that Galaxy was what it was the Universe is what it is right now. And their 19 years old and 23 years old perspective is different, young, and brings really new energy, so I think the band has moved on.

Wire: That brings me onto the next question. How do you get new artists? Do they come to you, or do you search them out?

Mike: Kinda both. I'm just happy that I've been blessed not to DJ. And by me saying that I mean I'm at home a lot more. Now that Cornelius is our manager, we've been travelling more than I did early in my career. The thing with UR is by me not DJing, I'm home all the time, so whereas maybe the other guys are always on the road out DJing, I'm there. I hear all of the new crazy freaky stuff.

I heard Drexciya, and I thought it was some of the weirdest space shit I ever heard. I was proud to be able to introduce the world to Drexciya. I was there for a number of artists coming through there - Gerald Mitchell, Robert Hood. I mean, Rob pretty much invented minimal music as far I'm concerned, I feel pretty good to be attached to that. And I was even there when 4 Hero were Manix. Me and the guys, Dego and Mark, we were good friends, we went out and had some good theoretical talks about electronic music. They were young, I knew the game, so I could help guide some of these guys. I was just really glad that UR was there, so sometimes they search us out, and sometimes I hear about someone like Rolando. A friend of mine, who I'd originally asked to be our DJ, said, 'hey man, I've got a wife and kid, I can't do it, but I know this kid that's DJing over in this little spot for fifty dollars a night'. And we saw his ability and his skill, and me some of the guys went to check him out, and Rolando was really tight. So that's a guy that we went out, heard about, went to see him, and he was really impressive, and I'm just glad that I could introduce an artist of that calibre off the label.

Wire: What are the conditions like in Detroit at the moment, economically and musically?

Mike: I think there's a real similarity between the music and the economics of it. At one time Detroit was the only place in the world where cars were made in that kind of abundance, like Detroit was the only place that made Techno back in the mid 80s all the way through the 90s but, like with the auto industry, we face more competition now. Obviously it's a more global game and it's the same with the Detroit auto makers. First there were three car companies and now they face really stiff competition from great auto makers from all over the world, just like we face competition from great electronic music producers all over the world. So what used to be your territory only, now is shared by many.

I learnt from the auto makers. Every year in Detroit they'd have a car show, have cars covered with a veil. They snatched the veil off when they introduced the car, it's pretty much the same how we record. I'm not so keen on any and everybody seeing recording techniques because, maybe in Europe it's not a competitive thing, but for the way we were brought up, it certainly was competitive. So music is an art but sometimes in our situation, in our environment, it is extremely competitive. That's why I think the DJs are so good. They used to compete with each other, Derick against Chicago, and us and plus 8, we compete, it's like friendly competition. We are quite secretive with how we do things.
[page break]
Wire: UR is one of the powerful brands in music. It's interesting how you use capitalist techniques for anti-capitalist purposes.

Mike: The records were designed to inspire. There are certain conditions and situations that obviously we don't like. It's in our creed. The sound can change things. I think people can feel that in the music. There are no instructions given and I think that when you say this is one of the strongest brands I appreciate it but truthfully it's the people that bought our crazy looking shirts. I think they support the concept of what it is and it inspires their imagination. I was really blessed to travel late. In fact I travelled to Europe so late that the people from Europe had already come to Detroit way before I got to travel, and I was blessed with people were coming saying, "I was in drug rehab and a guy in there was playing 'Hi-Tech Jazz' and it really raised my spirits and changed my life." A guy came over, and I remember him real specific, because he had a drug problem, and he was a recovering drug addict and he said that that particular track was his shit, and it really gave him strength. And the blessing was, that when I made it, I really didn't know why I was making it, I was just making it because it needed to get made. I liked it, but I certainly wasn't thinking about drug rehab or nothing.

So, if someone was to say 'Hey man, Why did you make Hi-Tech Jazz?' and I described why I did it, because I did have something I was thinking of, if I was to do that I would have fucked up his vision of why he listened to it. So I learned not to describe anything and just leave it like water, clear, with no shape and no form. I think that's what people really enjoy about UR, they get to paint their own picture. We might just make the canvas for them, with the record, and in their mind they paint the picture and that's one of the reasons we sold for so long. We just went faceless, there was no reason for you to know what we look like, you just concentrate more on what the sound was. Unfortunately, people need a face all the time, and for many years I didn't give em any face. But now - internet, cell phone - people take pictures of me, the shit's all over the internet. I figure well, hopefully the people will still have some honour and honour my wish not to be seen in front of my music.

I don't go in front of the music. I believe that if you put your ego in front of the music, and place it in front of the speaker, then the people trying to listen to the music can't hear your music, they just listen to your ego. So I really ask the people who do have pictures of me to be honourable and just leave me out of it, man. There's been time when I've made music like 'Hi- Tech Jazz'. Man, when I made that track I can't remember anything, it was a two week blur. The spirit was moving through me, and when I got through, it was 'Hi-Tech Jazz'. Many, many times as a musician, if you're really in tune, like you're playing in church... As a keyboard player, or guitar player, or bass player, I'm decent at what I do, but there's times when people in church get into it, and the feeling comes, and the spirit comes, and you can play way beyond your ability. In fact, you know the bass pedal on the organ? I always have trouble with it. I have to look down and play the bass, it's difficult but when the spirit comes you don't have to look down, your foot be moving, so at the point you realise that I ain't really playing this organ. So it's the same with a track. If the spirit come when you make a track, the question then becomes 'Is it really you making the track?' So again, it's difficult to take credit for some of this stuff, some of the time.

Wire: it's the same with writing. If it's good, you're just chasing the words.

Mike: I've talked to a lot of artists, painters and they say that the point comes when they get it, and they just start doing it. Many times we say 'I did this, I did that', we all slip and say it, but the truth of the matter is why should you put yourself in front of your music? As a human being, people got a lot of faults - a guy might like girls too young, or smoking, gambling, drinking. As a human being, you've got faults, but your work, or your art, or whatever passes through you, your contribution, it lasts way longer than the human does. To me, Beethoven and Bach, their music has outlived their physical being, so they would have been a fool to put their self in front of it, because as a man you're frail, but your work can stay in humanity forever, like the Egyptians. That shit is so deep, it's still there, people are still putting their hands on work that was done who knows how long ago. There's a number of reasons for the masks, but that was one of the bigger reasons.
[page break]
Wire: Isn't UR like Marvel comics, in that it is a consistent universe, with characters that people can combine in their own ways? That's what we used to do as kids with Marvel comics, make up our own adventures.

Mike: Abdul Haqq he's a real big part of UR, he's a conceptualist, he's a futurist, he's an artist, and I think a lot of the time he looked at us as a bunch of characters, so different, but maybe united, by this weird, strange music. I like Silver Surfer. I watched the movie, Silver Surfer was my guy, because he didn't talk a lot, he just did what he did, he was real smooth. Other characters like Bruce Lee, when he was the Green Hornet, I was like, 'fuck the Green Hornet, I like Kato', because he was my hero.

With artwork, Abdul Haqq really added a great strength to what we were trying to do, a great spirit, and I always wish Abdul the best with his adventures.

With art, our early influences from Marvel comics, old progressive rock albums too, Rush, Yes, they always went on an adventure musically. Lenny White and the Astro Pirates, many people aren't hip to them, but if I could recommend some music for people to listen to. Jean-Luc Ponty, you know. Their records were kind of like in opera movements, there'd be the overture, and this and that, it was a journey, a journey of the turtle to the sea. These were great records, because they took you on a musical journey. Return to Forever always did that, the Romantic Warrior... these are fusion records I'm talking about, the Romantic Warrior was sweet, Chick Corea Return to Forever...

Wire: UR are a dream for white geeks. You took things like comics and synthpop which had been thought of as geeky and made them cool.

Mike: We were blessed. The guy who really laid the blueprint for Detroit Techno, you know him many times he's been mentioned - in fact a woman in France, Jacqueline Caux did a movie about this guy. His name was Electrifying Mojo. Mojo was a Vietnam war veteran, he was a radio man in Vietnam, he did DJing for the troops, and that's where he learned all the different types of music from around the world, and when he got back from Vietnam, he brought that to Detroit, that perspective, so we got to hear progressive rock up next to Falco, Euro synth pop. Of course he introduced Kraftwerk, which for Detroit was huge, he introduced Prince, George Clinton, all these great synth artists that used synthesizers for bass lines and stuff. 'Flashlight' was first played, I'm sure, in Detroit, because Mojo would break the records for the artists. He broke Juan [Atkins'] early records, Juan's early Model 500, Cybotron stuff. We were really blessed with that wide perspective. I thought it was happening all over the country, because Mojo was so huge, but of course it wasn't, it was only happening in Detroit. So I think he really opened up the ears, and the inspiration, and the minds of young Detroit kids, and I think that's where the whole concept for Detroit techno came from, from Mojo.

We listened to music that I guess in other places would be considered geeky music, or dorky, or whatever. I think personally, and I never got to say this in the interview that I did for the movie for him, I think he ended gang warfare in Detroit with one band. A lot of guys will know what I'm talking about. That summer, the gang warfare was at a height, and Mojo would get on the radio and ask for peace, pray for peace, and then drop the B52s, man. 'Rock Lobster'. You know it. Truthfully, you can't be too much of a tough guy while doing the rock lobster. The whole vibe of being mean.

The gang thing was deep in 78 and 79, it had to be early 80s when he dropped that, that shit ended it. It was the B52s and cocaine, because once cocaine came, a lot of the gangs started selling the drugs. But the B52s had a huge influence, I don't why, but cats wouldn't fight off that record. You know, when you play Funkadelic, that's fighting music, 'Flashlight' was a fighting song, 'One Nation Under a Groove' was a skating song, but B52s had a calming effect.

I saw a band last night that was so good, Ebony Bones, they're from London, it reminded me, it gave me a feeling like when I saw the B52s way back in the day. Great energy. Lot of love, just love, fun and love, and that's what the B52s did. I like Ebony Bones, and I hope they be successful. The girls in the band were really great, it was a small crowd but everybody there got lifted. If Mojo was still on the radio, he'd have dropped Ebony Bones.

Mark: I've read you speaking positively about the Detroit Morgue tour. Can you explain a little about that?

It's kind of deep, it's hard to explain in words, because our radio has got real stagnant. In my opinion, and in a lot of my boys' opinion, it's fucked up, so the kids are coming up with this blingy, bally, party by the pool buck naked look on life. Nothing wrong with that, but you need a little balance. But Slum Village, they never even get on the radio in Detroit, even though they had the biggest record in the world and Detroit radio wouldn't even play it, they didn't even know who they were. They were huge in London, but nobody had ever heard of them in Detroit. So ridiculous shit like that still occurs. So somebody in the Detroit public schools must have figured that the kids need to see some real shit, so they have these Morgue tours, where the class go down, and they get to see all the fresh kills, for the kids who have that blingy, bally approach, that shit wakes up real quick.

I coach high school baseball, and it's one of the few things that I notice that they remember, is seeing that. It really affects them, it slows them down and makes them think a little bit. I don't know who came up with that, but I know that's effective, because it's one of the few things from school I ever hear the kids talk about. When they come back, they're like, 'yeah, man that was deep'... It's the first time you hear em say that word, 'deep'. Usually it happens in the street, when you see somebody get fucked up. But they're so good at scooping the bodies up that they don't be there long, so the effect ain't the same. It's kind of quick, not everyone gets to see it, the body's gone real quick. When you're just standing there and they gut them, they pull them out of the bag, gut them, put the number on them, and rebag em up. It's pretty effective for people to see that young. It's a good effect for the youngsters. It's hard to reach em. They respect that, and guys from prison. This is the only thing they respect: something that can physically dominate them or scare them, because they ain't too scared of anything, because of the environment, because they've seen it all. Everything is done in front of them, so the only thing they respect is a guy who's been in prison and survived, and come out and tell them the real deal. Or the Morgue tour. I got friends who've been in prison twenty years and I notice they get respect. Me, I just been in and out of jail for various little stuff, crime, racing cars, whatever I get put up for. But some of boys did some really hard time and I always asked em to come and talk to my kids about what they're going to be facing and at least that can physically prepare them. If you're going to be a bad guy, you've got to be physically prepared to deal with the rest of the bad guys. But sometime they're just so young that they can't deal with the treachery of an old man, an old man is a bad thing.

Some of the kids make it, and some of them don't. I lose some of them to the war. Some of my baseball players, they're young, they're full of testosterone, they want to prove themselves, so some of them join the Marine corps. One of my favourite players, man, he joined the Marine corps. I was so sad, because I thought he could have made it in baseball. But the recruiters, like in that Michael Moore movie, they're on their ass, they're challenging these boys, almost like challenging their manhood. It's a kid, and of course he's going to step up and defend his manhood, so they end up joining. It's tough. I lose some of them to that, I lose some of them to the street, some of them start selling drugs, that drug life is so appealing to them, cos of the money. Some of them carry on with baseball. It's like slavery. You lose two thirds of them on the trip. I'm thinking about not continuing coaching, because you lose so many of them.
[page break]
Wire: UR shows the power of myths, music, fictions, the way they can change people's lives.

Mike: Like on this trip here, we brought the sax player who is 19, one of the keyboard players is 22, the two dancers, one of the dancers never flew on an airplane before. So with us man, what UR has been in the city, is a hope, and the young people, it's a great opportunity for them, it's hope for them, ... I introduce a lot of young people to this stuff, mostly I lose em, I lose em to Europe, to Japan, to DJing, booking agents I lose em to, but it's a good loss, because they get a career in music, maybe they get some pretty wife from Europe. But for us at UR we're still there, and I've got four new ones coming with me now, and their eyes are wide open and they're enjoying this trip immensely. I always thank the promoters for bringing all these assholes with us, because it's way more than a performance for us, because all these guys go back, and they tell stories to kids. 'What's Norway like? What's Holland like? What's Japan like?' Here's this flow of information from guys that's really been there, and now the dope man ain't so powerful.

I always challenge some of my friends that sell drugs. They're all like 'man, I'm making money, I'm doing this, I'm doing that', I just hold up my passport, and I tell em 'yeah, you're doing this, and you're doing that, but motherfucker when they come after your ass, you can't even get out of the country, shut the fuck up'. And they see the stamps, and they be like 'damn', it shuts em down. So to the kids, I'm much more powerful than some drug dealer, and to the kids these guys talk to, yeah, they might know the local drug dealer but my man right there he just back from Norway, you ain't even been to Colombia where they make the cocaine. It diminishes their power, and gives someone doing something positive more power. And that's a good thing. So, when these guys bring us over, it's much more than a performance and getting paid, it's an experience.

I even made a recommendation to the ex-mayor of Detroit, because my man was telling us he's going to make a world class city. I said, 'Sir, I hope you don't take this the wrong way,' I said it very humbly, I said 'we're never gonna have a world class city until we get mass transit in the city'. The idea that a car is going to be the dominant mode of transportation, it's so outdated, it's so played out, it's so from the fifties, man, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver shit.

We're so behind, because the former administrations were governed by the auto companies, and in the auto company mind, Detroit was going to be the model city for people to own cars with, and it is: our freeway system is so extensive, you can get from the suburbs fifty miles out, it take you twenty minutes to get downtown, but it take my mother, who lives in the city, an hour and a half on the bus to get down town. I can see that we're way behind world class cities, and I had to tell the mayor that. I understood it, I travelled more than he did. Of course he couldn't do anything about it, but hopefully one of these administrations will get in there and make an effort to make transportation affordable for poor people in the city, because right now, if you don't own a car and have insurance, or you can't afford the gas, then you can't move. So we got a landlocked city man, and it's deteriorating.

Wire: What motivated the move into live music?

Mike: Me and Jeff did it, way back in the day, we played at the Limelight or was it the Tresor club? The way Jeff DJed, he's so good as a DJ, he can actually make it an instrument - because I play instruments, I don't DJ - and Jeff would say, 'Mike, run some shit on the sequencer, and I'll blend in with it.' Or he would play drum beats and then I'd play 303 and basslines, and he controlled my sequencer with a 909, it was crazy what we were doing, back in the early 90s. There was pressure, 'will you come and play live, will you do this, will you do that,' and Jeff eventually got me up off my ass, and he said, 'come on, man, let's do this', let's play in Germany at the Tresor club. He had a relationship with Dmitri [Hegemann], and we did it, and it was a success.

The only bad part was that the Customs would tear up my equipment, the 303 they'd take it apart, the 909. They wouldn't take it apart heavy but they would always disassemble the shit, so I got kind of tired of that, man, because it was fucking up my studio gear. So, when Jeff went on to New York to DJ, I just quit playing live, I was like, 'shit, I'm glad that's over, because now I can make some records', because they were tearing my gear up.

Later, Cornelius came into our world, and he saw the need for strong management and booking. Because he and me both agreed that a lot of times the booking agents from Europe were quite relentless in keeping these guys on booking, booking them a year in advance, and by us being there in Detroit, we noticed that the records weren't flowing any more. My distributorship, right now there's no reason for me to press these guys' records, most of the labels don't make records any more. All of them are out DJing. And it's the booking agents, the artist loses the perspective, and the artist starts to feel that they work for the booking agent, and instead of telling the booking agent, 'look, from November to February, I'm not going out, I gotta do my craft', they just constantly stay out.

And Cornelius felt the need, and I kind of pressured him, because I felt he would be a good manager and a booking agent, because he cares about the music too. And he cares about the primary reason anybody loves any of these guys any way, their records: it wasn't their DJing, it was their records that people were first introduced to. And Cornelius felt that that perspective had been lost. Right now, he's on Juan's ass about making a new album, he's like, Juan, 'you're not going to lay down, you're going to get in that studio.' You know, because a lot of people feel like he should roll with the old hits. But why should you give up at forty years old? Kraftwerk is a great inspiration. I don't know how old they are. They don't even seem to have an age, they seem like some sweet-ass aliens that don't age, because they still tour, they still make records. And I think that's a great future for electronic music, because it isn't as physical as some of the other musics, it's a more cerebral thing, so you don't have to be twenty-five years old, doing your hip hop thing. I don't know, hip hop artists ain't reached the fifties or the sixties yet, but I don't want see some of them guys at that age doing the things they used to do. Maybe it'll be great, I hope some of those brothers make it and can deliver, but reality is reality, man. Mick Jagger is amazing, Keith Richards is amazing, that they kick it like that. But not all the old guys can do it. But I think Kraftwerk were great pioneers in the beginning and now they act as great inspirations, because I've seen them play live many, many times but I've never heard anyone talk about their age. Never. To their credit, I always say great things about them, because in the early days, I never heard anybody say anything about their race. They weren't Germans, they weren't white, in fact we thought they were robots. For the longest, we thought they were robots. We had no idea they were human beings till we saw their show. They played in Nitro's in Detroit way back in the day.

But Cornelius, to get back to it, Cornelius is staying on some of the older guys to continue to pursue the art and the craft of making vinyl DJ records. I like what Cornelius is doing, I support him, and I think he was one of the main reasons - and Jeff too, Jeff Mills called me, and Jeff, with that world perspective, he could see he's like, 'Mike you all got to get out there and do something because people are forgetting you'... I don't know, I just do my thing, play baseball, but Jeff was like, 'you need to get out there and school these guys, man, because there's people with way less talent making huge money, and I know y'all could get out there and do it.' So he inspired us a lot, too, so it was a combination of people that got me to do it. And I'm glad they did now. It is hard work, but I appreciate it. It's good to know people are still out there with the crazy UR shirts on.
[page break]
Wire: Just keeping going is an inspiration in itself.

Well, they inspire us. Sometimes when you get writer's block, when you get flat... We got a wall in the basement, in our basement, in our building in the store, sometimes you know, life would be kicking your ass, you can't pay the bills, you don't know where you're gonna go, because this music shit... I made more money racing cars by far. Illegal money was way better than this music business, it just didn't have the travel. The only travel you got was going to jail. But sometimes it gets so bad, you can't do for the people you love, for my sister and my daughters, you want to do shit, and you don't have nothing.

And sometimes I go down to the wall, and I look at all names from different parts of the world where people have signed it, and that keeps me going. That, or John Williams, Billeebob, he come by with his new track, and I look at these guys with different eyes. I might come from the basement, and they've got this big smile and this CD of their new shit, just like Drexciya did, just like Rob Hood did, just like Rolando, and I think I get energy from it. I say 'well, damn, that's some bad shit, come on man, let's get that shit out', and we go to work. That's kind of how we make records. It ain't no plan, it's just whenever someone finds the time in their life to focus and they do it, and they bring it. They have a lot of respect for my ear. They say, 'Mike, what do you think, how's the EQ?', is it playable?, what do you think, can a DJ get with this?' and I think, yeah, we can drop with that on the label, it fits the qualifications, let's go.

For the brief period of time I get depressed with it, there's always somebody coming along to pick me up, whether it's somebody visiting from overseas, or one of my friends, locally, who says, 'hey man, stay up, do your shit.' You know, like Mojo says, tie a knot, hang on. Or it could be guys on my baseball team, some of the kids. 'Hey, coach Banks when you going back out of town?' Because I get tired sometimes, but a lot of inspiration comes from the people, and the environment. I'm just blessed, man, the people come from all over the world. I learned this: you don't have to travel nowhere to get no love, it's already there at your home. People will travel many, many miles to give you some love, and all the people who take the journey to our store, I really take my hat off to them, because they're quite adventurous, they beat back a lot of stereotypes, and they come right on into the centre of Detroit. They ring the doorbell any time of night, crazy motherfuckers, and next thing you know, we're down in the basement listening to techno for three or four hours, man. That's the best shit. Can't beat that. Believe me, all the money I've made playing live or selling records, it went to paying bills for what's in that building. When the people come to the building, they're standing in their own records they bought, and it's the weird thing, they know it. They're like, 'damn, I helped build this place, didn't I?' and I'm like, 'yeah you did'. What can I tell them? Every dime we make goes into records and into that building and try to keep it going. Believe me, man, it's a fucking struggle. We don't get any help. People try to get us grants. I got a museum in there. I made a little bullshit museum, you know, I got Juan's sequencers, Kevin Saunderson's keyboards, I got guys that donated shit to the museum, and people come to see this museum, and we don't get grants, we don't get no love. I know I better pay those bills, or they gonna take it. So every month is a struggle, but some kind of way we squeak it out, and keep going, and it's very hard. So I say, 'come on down', order from, support the retailers. We're still making cutting edge shit, man, it's wild shit, man, it's raw, I love that ghetto perspective on space and time and the future, because it's warped like a motherfucker, and as long as they're making it, I'll put it out.

haha oh my what an insightful interview, truly blessed to have seen it!

How paternal is Mad Mike? Can see how he's built this whole family and he keeps it strong, and he keeps it strong. Love it!

to be honest a lot of interviews with musicians I read go in one ear and out the other - too many clichés and weak answers to tired questions... this was different, an interview with substance - Mike gives intelligent answers and has a good take on the state of both electronic music and the wider social context / state of the world.... a pleasure to read, thanks to The Wire for going that bit deeper as usual................ Albert

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