In Conversation: Jacob Banks – ‘Sink or Swim’
All images courtesy of Mabdulle.
“‘In Conversation’ is born out of a love for documentary, a series intent on capturing artists at a juncture in their career. It’s an open conversation and a space to bridge the gap between artist and supporter. I hope you enjoy.”
On one anonymous afternoon in mid-March, early spring cloaked the capital, pouring muffled sunlight over gentrified East London, and with it, Jacob Banks, whose languid 6’4″ frame scuffed crooked pavement on a busy town road and then shuffled into a cafe not too far from Old Street Station. This seasonal changing of the guard, that had this year arrived a week early, held a hypnotic pull over most, tugging sweet smiles from stern jaws, easing hurried strides to gentle canters.
But not for Londoners, who paid little notice to spring’s shrivelling clouds, nor its balmy sunlight, and who continued to furiously burrow away with a zombie-like hang-up. Jacob, who had withdrawn from the capital some time ago, had by now rattled loose from this rambling case of tunnel vision. His mornings were restful and usually began at home in Hertfordshire, where the seclusion of a hedged market town kept him out of reach, sealed off from taxing day-break meetings and late-night industry gatherings. Moated somewhere of the M1, his fort kept him beyond the clotting smog that infects most city dwellers with an eternal, involuntary haste, an urge to “chase something, no matter what it is.”
This castle, his shelter, a sanctuary for the spirit, was not totally detached, and when needed he could be in London in just over an hour. Then, after winding through country A roads and flat-plan motorways, he was in it, at the very centre, on hectic high streets, dragging his feet past battered strip clubs and greasy fried chicken joints, scanning for rare parking spots, hunting for good food.
These trips were, more often than not, reserved for meetings and studio sessions, or other less regular engagements, like one occasion, on this first unofficial Monday of spring, where he sat with a writer at a café near Old Street. He had ordered a mug of tea which he, when it arrived, sipped at sparingly before setting it aside, instead drifting gracefully towards a bench by a ping pong table.
There were photographers, his press lady and a writer; and, gathered by the window, a group of young actors, who he waved too as he passed. And now, attention fell on him. Then he sat, and began talking and thinking, about how he had, for a few years, having migrated down from The Midlands, been a rambling Londoner, endlessly fussing, like a staffie after its own tail. With a pride, perhaps forged from his own resilience, he spoke some more, about how he now lived on his own terms, answering to no soul besides his two cats.
“It gets you out of everything,” he said, thinking of home, miles from here. “You do stuff at your own pace. I don’t want to meet you at nine in the morning, I can’t. I can’t get to London for nine in the morning. It’s too much traffic. Midday? That’s cool.”
“I’m used to culture shifts. I was born in Nigeria then I moved to Birmingham when I was 13, and then I was there till I was 21. I’ve been going through culture shifts, it’s all whatever. The change from Birmingham to London was massive in the sense that you’re only as good as what surrounds you. Growing up in Birmingham was all about open mics, pubs and scruffy places. That’s how we grew up.
Moving to London, I was seeing how people work here and it was all studio studio. It’s more about getting a body of work together. Ed Sheeran isn’t from London so he has that same mentality. If you’re not from London you don’t have the same access to the studios, so you earn your perks by being on a stage and perfecting your craft in a live setting. In London I’d do a show and everybody would be like ‘where can I hear some stuff?’ But in Birmingham it would be ‘where can I catch you next?’”
Which do you prefer?
“I’m accustomed to both but I wish I could stay on the road a lot longer, that’s more me. I just want to get to a stage where I can do shows constantly; that’s where you learn what works. Being in the studio, you’re making new music and putting them out before a crowd has heard them.
That affects the little stuff, like your track listing, it affects how you layer the songs, stuff like that gets taken away from you because you’re [in the] studio. You don’t even know what people are vibing too, which is fine; I like to have my back against the wall. That’s part of it. I think London has kind of died out. When I first moved to London there were lots of shows. But I think everyone’s kind of disbanded and moved onto different things.”
Is it a compromise, then? Do you have to go through the studio sessions so you can get to the live arena?
“It works both ways. If you have enough material it only improves your catalogue. Most acts perform the same song for the most part of their career, so the more music you have out, the more fun your shows are. It works in your favour if you like being on stage to have more material.”
Why do you make music, then?
“I make music to empower people. I think the days are long, I think we’re all just living to get by. It’s quite sad; we’re the only species of animal that pay to be alive. We’re the only ones that have to give something. Everything costs. Buy a TV, then you have to pay for a TV licence. It’s like, fucking hell, I just bought the TV, now I have to pay to use it?
I think the days are long and people work so hard; mothers, sons. I just want to be that battery in your back to help you get through that day man and come out on the other side.”
Has it always been that way?
“I think it was a recent discovery man. Just a year ago going through what I went through with music and stuff, I just realised that everything I was writing about was triumph. Even if it was a sad song I would always write it in a triumphant way. I would use big drums. I wanted…I just wanted people to go and achieve anything you set out to do.”
“Very much so; I’ve been a one man army for a while. Most people don’t know but I haven’t had management for the best part of a year. The EP that everyone saw? [The Paradox] I did everything myself. I did all the sessions, the production, mixing, mastering, I sourced out the artwork.
The world won’t wait for you, anything that happens in the world, the world always finds the courage to keep spinning. Somehow. Someone could die, the world will just keep going. So you just have to be at it for yourself. And I want to help all of those people that are by themselves too man, at least they feel like they have a clan somewhere.”
Did you enjoy going through that process by yourself?
“Loved it. I literally just cut off everyone. I said to my label that I wanted to leave, fortunately they were nice about it and let me go; then I let go of my management. Everyone was like ‘are you sure?’ But I was making music that I loved and every time I was always left with the choice of taking their word for it or taking mine.
I started to realise it’s hard to make music if the gatekeepers of the music aren’t really fans of that genre. These people are hip hop fans and grime fans so, no offence, but you can’t really call shots on a soul act. It doesn’t make sense. Most of these guys have never had a Herbie Hancock CD before. They’ll have the Wiley album, though. It’s not out of hatred or anything, I just believe we served different purposes, and our agendas were different.
So going through the process of making ‘The Paradox’ I loved it, I think I had so much to prove. All my life I’m one of those people where I don’t get lucky. You and a few others could rob a bank and you guys would come out with a mill and it would all be successful. But if I go down the shop and rob a pack of MAOAM’s there would be a SWAT team outside. My luck is fucked. All my life, I don’t get lucky. I’ve always had to take, and I love that.
When you’re going through that it affects everything. It affects the type of relationships you want to have, the type of woman you want in your life, the type of friends you want. It just puts everything into perspective. The way you want to wake up, the type of TV shows you want to watch. I just got to learn so much about myself; how I spend my time, who I spend my time with, who I want to be with. I’m so glad it happened because it changed my whole scope on life. Before that I was just kind of going through the motions, kind of shooting in the dark and hoping for the best. It’s hard as an artist. It’s really tough.”
In what way?
“To keep banging your head against a wall and hoping for a different reaction. It’s a brave thing to be an artist in London or in the UK because Americans have this whole American dream sold to them from the start. We don’t have that. Here, you have to be crazy to be an artist.
It’s not seen as…when I go to America, people always say to me ‘you look like you could play basketball’ or ‘you look like you could play in the NFL’. But here, you know, it’s ‘you look like you could be in a bank or something’. We don’t have that dream.
Our dream here is work, get a house, feed your kids; die. That’s it, so to be an artist you’re breaking every mould. And for some reason it just doesn’t seem to break that glass ceiling because you have to…no matter how good you are at some point you have to answer to middle England. That’s always the ultimate question. Cool, you’re sick but will middle England buy your stuff? It goes back to the people who are in charge liking what they like, and it’s just unfortunate. I don’t think anyone’s out to kill anyone, it’s just unfortunate.”
Is it frustrating having to balance business with art and your need to create?
“You have to create your own lane. It’s not ideal because no one else is doing it. The easiest way to sell anything to someone is to create a demand for it, so we’ll just have to keep knocking at the door. My job with my music may just be to create the door for someone else. We all need to understand that we’re all just contributing, we’re just chiselling away one person at a time. I do my bit, everyone else does their bit, in the end someone is gonna come.
If you look at grime, that’s exactly what’s happened. Guys have been chipping away for ages and now someone comes in. We might have to just come to the understanding that this is the job we’re here to do. And there’s no shame in that. It’s just unfortunate. We might just be paving the way; we have to understand that it’s going to be a long game, it’s not going to be as easy as it seems for others. It’s going to be a long, very long game.”
How does that make you feel? That you might put in plenty of work and not see the benefits? We see that happening in grime now.
“I haven’t reached such levels but I imagine it would be quite fucking annoying. I think one thing that I’ve done for myself is that I exist outside of…being an artist is just one of the things I do. I’m a musician first so I do scoring for films, I’ve had songs on ‘Empire’, I’ve had songs on ‘Suits’.
I try to exist outside of just being an artist. An artist is just one of the things I do. I think you just can’t put all of your eggs in one basket, but you need to have, you need to know what the end goal is. You need to have an end game. You can’t just be dilly dallying.
In the end I would like to be an artist, but I understand [that] it’s a long game. I think what I would say to everyone is to live to your full capacity. I think that’s the only way to get through it. The biggest part of me is an artist, but it’s not the only part of me. My brand is to do other things to keep myself a float.”
It’s a weird space where you see the decisions people made at younger ages now starting to manifest. Are you happy with the decisions you’ve made so far?
“Erm…yes. There’s nothing I would change. There’s some things I wouldn’t do again but there’s nothing I would change. I think life is short and it usually takes something to be taken away from you to realise that, which is kind of sad. I had to watch someone close to me pass for me to realise that before I was like ‘fuck it, I’m going to do what I want.’
Because you can die today, and then what now? It’s all gone. Everything you worked for. Life is supposed to be lived and I don’t think I could, for that reason, I don’t think I could allow myself to regret a decision. If I fuck up, cool, I’ll fuck up again. I fuck up all the time, it’s cool. I don’t think there’s anything I regret at all.”
It’s fine to fuck up as well.
“Yeah, it’s kind of fun…well no…at times. My saying is ‘I hope it’s going to be a good story to tell somebody’, and that’s all it is. Try and make it as fun as you can.”
On that thought, do you think if you had stayed in that major label system you would have still had these stories to tell?
“No. Most of that EP was born out of the turmoil of my heart when I parted with Atlantic. It’s helped me realise…you can’t bullshit me anymore. Like I’ll email people and they’ll be like ‘oh I need two weeks.’ You don’t rudeboy, I’ve done this in an hour. Don’t lie to me g.
It helped me understand my intention. I have new management, it’s a blessing to have them, but they know the show will go on without them. I let everyone know that I’m more than happy to have you here but tomorrow if you decide you don’t want to play no more, it’s cool. I’ll play. I’ll be there by myself.
So I think it’s been so necessary for me to go through that. But it’s not something I regret. If anything it empowered me to understand myself again, to know what kind of music I wanted to make, who I wanted to speak too, who I cared about.”
Leaving a label sounds mentally tough and some artists suffer from losing that validation in their craft. Was it like that for you?
“Nah. Being signed ain’t shit. I think that’s what I realised. Being signed felt good but coming out of it…I think it just depends on how you move. If you get dropped it’s different. If you get dropped I imagine it would be hard to take but I asked to leave. I don’t think I struggled with leaving a label, I struggled with the idea that no one cared during the time when I was with them. I was with them for two years and didn’t really put a record out. To see all of the gas from the start just fade away over the months, I was like, you know what, I need to leave.”
Does being an independent artist ride on who you surround yourself with?
“I surrounded myself with me. For ‘The Paradox’ I did the PR myself, I did all the radio plugging myself. I could have had help but I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy. That sounds mad, but I had to be sure that I wasn’t completely batshit.”
In what way?
“I was adamant that this was good music. This shit is dope [laughs]. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do this, that I could be here and that I could rub my shoulders with the best of them, because I’m a competitive person by nature. I just wanted to prove to myself that I deserved to be here, and that the stuff that I believed in was true.”
So I just surrounded myself with myself, then I got two cats. I love cats; they don’t talk back, nothing, no opinions. It was [one of the reasons] why I moved out of London, I moved to Hertfordshire and I really created a space for the man I wanted to be. I got myself cats; I got myself stuff for my garden; I chilled with my cats and I watched Cartoon Network all day. I was for me. I worked for me, whatever I wanted to do. I managed to create a space around me that allowed me to be the head, and having cats meant I had to come home. A sense of responsibility, I couldn’t just leave them because they need to be fed.
I’m saying it like it was some elaborate plan but it wasn’t. It’s just looking back I can see that. At the time it was happening, it just felt like decisions. But looking back I was so secluded from most things, I didn’t have to deal with most of the bullshit people deal with. It creates a space where you work for you. I think that’s what I did, I just surrounded myself with me and just slowly the right people start showing themselves.”
Was ‘Sink Or Swim’ a reflection of where you were at at the time?
“It was. One of the lyrics was ‘head first in the deep I may sink or swim.’ That’s it. I left the label, I left management, I left everyone, I left my girlfriend at the time. Everyone who I felt wasn’t serving me in the way I wanted to be served or who I couldn’t contribute to their lives the way I wanted too.
I had to choose me for a while. All my life I had chosen everybody else and I had to choose me. ‘Sink or Swim’ embodies that whole thing. I can’t explain it further than that. It was that whole process: ‘This is it. This is my ace. This is my shot in the dark.’”
Now you’ve pulled through the other end, do you think you sank or do you think you swam?
“I’m swimming my g [laughs]. I’m flying, fuck swimming. I’m cool man, we’re good over here. Me and my two cats we’re blessed. I always had in the back of my mind that I would [swim]. I’m not easily broken. Music isn’t something I can stop doing, there’s always going to be something. I’m always going to be tapping away, singing while I’m sweeping. You can’t take it away from me, I’m always going to swim. It may not be fast, it may not be pretty but I’ll swim somehow.”
Music, and just art in general, is one of those fields where there is no retirement. I feel like I’m going to be writing when I’m ninety.
“That’s what it is. You can’t just plug it away from you. In some way shape or form the art will always show. That part of us you know, it’s in all of us and it comes out in different ways. It’s something that you just can’t take away from someone. You just can’t, it’s going to shine some way. It’s going to be here forever in all of us.”
Are you beginning to look at the next stages of life now?
“I am. I feel like I’m getting old. Not by age but the stuff I want from life. I’m going into stuff like property. Ninety percent of the world’s wealth is passed down; there’s only an Oprah or a Bill Gates once every blue moon.
Most kids that you know as rich have been rich. Wealth’s been passed down, so what do I leave behind for the kids that I may have? And it’s going to be wealth. It gives them a head start you know. Future-wise, that’s where I see myself, I just started thinking about life and the man that I want to be when these years come.”
Do you think about legacy at all?
“Yeah I think about legacy. Not in the sense of what I leave behind, but what I’m remembered for. And it’s not to the world, it’s to my loved ones and to my family. That’s all I really care about. I don’t give two shits about the world in the sense of what they think about me. I care about the world as an entity. But as far as what people think about me I don’t really care too much. But my family, I want everyone around me to know I cared for them and I loved them dearly. That’s the legacy I care about.”
Find Jacob on Twitter – @MrJacobBanks
Interview by Aniefiok Ekpoudom