If I start this article by telling you that Lee Bannon doesn't make easy music, I'm going to have to explain what the term 'easy music' means. So here's an easily parsed explanation of what easy music is: easy music is immediate, easy music slips down like Coke on an August afternoon, easy music is Saturday afternoon on Radio 2. Lee Bannon doesn't make easy music. What does he make, then? Well, it turns out that that's harder to define than the aforementioned easy music is.
Bannon's latest album, released on Ninja Tune, is about as removed from the concept of an easy listen as it's possible to get without becoming a committed scraper of the Outer Reaches column in the Wire and spunking any disposable income you've got on field recordings of weevils mixed with the clang and clank of grain silos. Pattern of Excel is a demanding, difficult, brilliant, infuriating listen. It's a drone record, an avant garde record, an ambient record, a hypnogogic pop record. It's disquieting and disturbing and definitely not easy.
A colleague of mine described Bannon's output as "serious music for serious people." I put that to Bannon over the phone. "Well, if he feels like that, then maybe I should too," he says. "I do take things seriously. I don't do it [music] in a half-arsed way but I don't want to take myself too seriously. When you do that, you become a certain kind of person. In America we call them an asshole."
While he might not take himself too seriously, the New York based producer's body of work demands to be held in high esteem. Bannon's proven capable of hopping from project to project, producing beat tapes and working with Joey Bada$ while burrowing into his own richly, overwhelmingly detailed world of experimentation at the same time. There's a misconception that there was no overlap between these approaches to music making, a constructed narrative that sees a "difficult" producer emerge from nowhere. Bannon stresses that that idea is a fabrication. "I've been doing it since 2011. The hip hop tracks were ones that I'd made right after high school and they became popular. They became the staple, the thing people knew about it." All the while he was carving out his own niche, under wraps. "So if it appears I'm just doing this kind of stuff now, it's not the case. I'm not," he says.
Bannon's breakthrough, or rather, the record that marked his transformation from being known primarily as one of Bada
"After Alternate/Endings, I guess the proof is in the pudding as it were. I don't feel like I have to justify myself too much," he says. "To have the attention of people feels odd. I mean, this album [Pattern of Excel] is niche. People want Jamie xx and I'm dropping this drone thing."
I prod him again about the "serious" tag. "I'd think of "serious music" as Bob Dylan, someone like that. An institution." I push him further. I think serious music is the music you read about in the back of the Wire. That's serious music. Stockhausen. Oliveros. Xenakis. That kind of stuff. "Oh, right. I guess I'm serious in that Xenakis way. I'm working with modular synths, buying certain bits of gear."
Pattern of Excel uncoils itself with repeated listens. It isn't immediate, isn't a sugar rush or a hasily scoffed aural-Big Mac. It requires your patience and understanding. Eventually it seeps in, it starts to click, it starts to rumble round your head late at night. "I was trying hard to incorporate elements of things I was into, things that were relevant, but not letting myself be too out there," he says. The things he was taking in — the KLF, the Orb, Talk Talk, Ride, GAS — "ran through my system and came out as the album. I make music based off how I felt in a certain period of time, or a feeling."
The feeling I get from tracks like "Suffer Gene" or "DAW in the Sky for Pigs" is one of isolation, loneliness. I wondered if that was a fair take on the record. "Yeah!" Bannon says. "It's something to play low. You have your own personal connection to it. When I listen to it at midday it sounds like there's a weird summery vibe element to it. Put it on at night and there's more of a score feel." Part of me dreads to think what it'd soundtrack. Part of me has never wanted to see anything more.
Talk turns, as it often does with artists, to contemporaries. When I mention Dan Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never, Bannon doesn't immediately agree that the fit is as tight as I supposed. "It could the same gear, using the same sounds, similar to the way that Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares used Renoise," he tells me. Certain bits of hardware, or software, will, obviously, have sonic signatures. I mention Lopatin's much-professed love of his Juno-60. "It's funny you mention that," he starts, "I have an INTEGRA-7, which is all the Roland sounds in one box, so I use the Juno sounds on there too. The whole album changed once I was able to afford it." It was clearly money well spent. "I was more of a gearhead a while ago. I like software stuff now. I have to turn my computer off to stop myself making music. I can keep going for months. But there's a point where it becomes too much. You realise you've made four albums before one has come out. You've got too much content!"
With content comes packaging. I cautiously mention the notion of genre, aware that the majority of writing about Lee Bannon ends up focusing on his ability to flip from laidback hip-hop to MaxMSP-made noisen'n'drone at the drop of a hat. Does he embrace the concept of genre? Is is relevant to discourse around music in the boundary-free digital world of 2015? "It's helpful to me, yeah," he says. "If I'm on a plane and I'm travelling and I'm like, "I wanna listen to blues" I can find blues. If I wanted to listen to that and hip hop came on I'd be bummed out. But there's an evil side to it too. They can become a curse. You cant escape them."
Another thing you can't escape, another thing that defines us and our relationship to the world is language. I'd long been intrigued by Bannon's relationship to it. His song titles — "Bent/Sequence", "Lord Gnarlon" "Paofex" — are oblique strategies that deny any conventional reading. Were, I wondered, the titles on Pattern of Excel, deliberately obtuse? "They were saved as 'patterns 1, 2,3" when I was working on it, but I wanted certain names and certain vibes. They were important," he says. "The title of the album is a reference to the things you have to do in life to excel, whether its stealing or quitting school to get a certain job."
I ask Bannon what his favourite title ever is. He responds immediately. "Music Has the Right to Children."__ Why? "It's a cool title. It's a statement and it worked with the album." Is it true? "I guess, yeah, music does have the right to children!"
Pattern of Excel is out now on Ninja Tune.