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Art Articles

The High Tides of Brandon Banks

Jan 9, 2019

The High Tides of Brandon Banks


“I’m feeling mad official right now,” says 24-year-old singer/songwriter Brandon Banks, as he shifts into a more comfortable recline on his bed. Facing him are a photographer and producer, instructing him under the dim, fuschia light that illuminates his bedroom. It’s a scenario the L.A. native knows well: Brandon supports himself as a part-time model for brands like Nike and Adidas. Except this time, he’s in front the camera to tell his story as a musician. Brandon’s debut EP, Tides, is a dreamy, moody, and sensual collection of R&B songs that find him singing and rapping about complex emotions and visceral memories.

Brandon was born in Inglewood, California and spent the majority of his childhood in Gardena at his grandmother’s house. He’s quiet and reserved, yet forthright as he recounts a tumultuous early life of gang violence, family dysfunction, and a difficult resettlement in Louisiana. There are some minor gaps in his memory—he can’t remember how he got his first keyboard or whether he was in preschool or Kindergarten when he first became interested in the guitar. But, his recollection is vivid when he describes his interactions with others, from the intensity of his first relationship to a confusing conversation with his Sunday school teacher.

It’s hard not to acknowledge the range of creative artifacts in the Los Angeles apartment Brandon shares with his close friends. On one wall hangs a print from George Condo’s Entrance To The Void exhibition, above a velvet forest green couch are Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton posters, and there’s a Beatles mini guitar novelty item sitting on the kitchen counter. It’s unclear which belongs to whom, but what is glaring is that Brandon has made a home for himself that is markedly different from the ones he grew up in—environments he says, “weren’t conducive” to his making music. As his career as an artist blossoms, Brandon is learning just how much his efforts to protect his music are saving his life in return.

What was your childhood like? How did you start getting into music?

When I was a kid, there was a guy that would come to my Kindergarten or preschool class once a month and play guitar and sing to us. I was always intrigued about that. I remember I was always really into guitar, but I didn’t start playing until I was a sophomore in high school. I started writing poetry in the 4th grade. I would read a lot of poetry—a lot of Langston Hughes and Mark Twain. I wrote my first song in the 6th grade.


What was it called? Do you remember what it was about?

My first girlfriend. My 6th grade relationship was probably more intense than most of my relationships. I still remember that. It was my first relationship. We were just so young and pure, and all we had was our love at the moment. She broke up with me, but it wasn’t my fault. I was hurt and then I wrote a song and I sang it to her. Her name was Ruth. She actually destroyed my whole life. I’ve never been the same. Nah, I’m just joking. The first love is hard. I feel like I recovered a couple years ago.


You lived in Louisiana for a while. Why were you there?

Well, my dad’s originally from Louisiana. He has family that lives out here.


There’s a lot of black people in L.A. who have roots in Louisiana.

Well, if you think about it, the bulk of slavery was like Louisiana, Mississippi, those states. A lot of those people would dip to the east and west coasts. My family out there was owned by the Dutch, and then my great grandpa bought the land.

My dad worked for this environmental company and he oversaw a lot of job sites they were building to stop the water. He would be out there for six months at a time, then be in LA for a month or two, then be out there for six months again. Eventually, he was like, “Yo, we should just move out there.” I was 14-15. I stayed there up until I was 19 and then I moved back out to LA.


What brought you back to LA?

I never really like the south- It feels like you’re going back in time, socially. I feel like I was always weird or different. The things that I would talk about or find interesting—a lot of people just didn’t really rock with me. When I was growing up it wasn’t cool to watch anime and every science channel—NASA, National Geographic. I would read all my text books. I just didn’t have anything to do at the crib because I was in the middle of the woods.

I played sports. In high school I played all the sports but then in college I ran track. I went to the University of Louisiana. I hated the whole environment of the South and I knew I could get a track scholarship at another school, so I transferred out to Santa Monica College. I went there for a semester and was about to transfer to USC but I dropped out to do my art.

Music was always something I would do in secret in my room.

What did you listen to growing up?

When I listen to other people’s stories about how they came up in music, a lot of people were put into it by their parents or in school for it. But my environment wasn’t really that conducive to my music. Music was always something I would do in secret in my room.


What did you use to make music?

At first I would find little beats online or listen to songs that I liked. The first song I wrote was to the beat of that Mario song “Let Me Love You.”

Growing up I had issues in school and would fight a lot, but I was playing sports and also cool with the artsy weird kids, the scruffy white dudes who wore goth clothes, them and the anime dudes. But I wasn’t from Louisiana so people didn’t like me that much out there. You know when you’re in school and kids try to bully you because you’re different? I was wearing Vans in Louisiana back then- two years after that they started wearing Vans, the South catches on to everything really late. My dad was a professional kick boxer back in the day and had been training me and my brother since we were like 8. That made me isolate myself more from people.

There was this one dude who had a guitar and he started bringing his guitar to school. I would kick it with him at lunch and play his guitar. People called us weird but I was like I don’t care this is cool. Eventually, I started learning. Then the pastor at my church gave me one of his son’s guitars.

Did you grow up going to church?

Yeah, since I was young. We grew up in the Baptist church—a strong christian household. At a young age I was so inquisitive about if I would always be conflicted because I had questions. But when you’re a kid and you ask questions, especially if you’re in a traditional type of household or traditional church, people reprimand you for asking questions.


What kinds of questions were you asking?

I remember when I was ten the Sunday school teacher was telling us that you have to believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus died for your sins. I had just watched a special on Animal Planet about the Amazon and I saw that we made contact with Amazonian people for the first time. They’d never seen people out of their tribe before they’d just been living in the middle of the Amazon so I asked, “what about those people?” She was like, “Well, it’s our job to bring them to God.”

I was just thinking about how long we’ve been a society and how long it took us to find those people. I remember thinking I would never be able to find those people in my lifetime. I was really stressed out about that, she was like, “I don’t know. Ask your pastor.” I would always feel bad about that because you’re not supposed to question God. But I’m 10 years old so I’m just trying to figure it out. But yeah I grew up in the church and I was in the choir.


I was going to ask if you were in the choir.

Yeah but I was never confident about my voice. I always felt like I had a weird voice. People in the choir at my church were like the people that would be in like Tyler Perry movies. I never had a lead role in the choir I would just be part of it. I felt like my voice sounded different.

When you’re a young black man, there’s unnecessary pressures put on us emotionally. I have to suppress everything I can. It’s not okay to feel. You can’t talk about your feelings at all because you’re soft. Or if you do express yourself, you might be too angry or got problems.

When did you start taking your music seriously?

I had always been writing music but it was more of a secret thing. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time because I would just be writing in my room. It was kind of like a mental escape for me. I would make little mixtape CDs and stare at the sky a lot. I was just alone a lot, thinking.

I have three brothers. Two are my mom’s sons and one is my dad’s son—both of my parents were married before they met each other. I’m the only one from both of them and the youngest. Only one of my brothers came with me to Louisiana and he only stayed out there for like a year. Once he dipped I was just there in the middle of the woods by myself. I wanted to take music serious but I didn’t know how. I would just make little cover videos in my room with songs I liked. I guess when I started playing guitar is when I started taking it more serious.


Did you teach yourself guitar?

I did. I always wanted to do something big. I remember when I was younger I would always tell people that I would have a sold out show at Madison Square Garden.

You mentioned that your environment wasn’t really conducive to making music. Can you talk more about that?

There was just a lot of turmoil, family drama. The way I would explain growing up is everything was aggressive. When you’re around people that are gang banging that’s an aggressive environment. There was a whole black vs. Mexican war going on when I was younger. Anytime me and my brothers left the house, we would be fighting people. And then my environment at home, [there was] family turmoil—Dad’s not around, Mom’s on drugs type stuff. It was very turbulent. That affected me. I feel like that stuff made me more creative, but you internalize everything when you’re younger.

When you’re a young black man, there’s unnecessary pressures put on us emotionally. I have to suppress everything I can. It’s not okay to feel. You can’t talk about your feelings at all because you’re soft. Or if you do express yourself, you might be too angry or got problems.

After suppressing everything and not having a release, it would come out as anger. That flipped when I got a guitar and I was able to channel all that into something. I got to a breaking point mentally in my life where I really felt like I was losing my shit-  one of those points where I was about to just explode.

I don’t want to be famous, I don’t want to be poppin’ or have followers or any of that stuff. I just want to be really good at music. I want to be able to express myself. When I started being able to express myself, it changed my life.

When did you feel like you were losing your shit?

Four years ago my little cousin who was thirteen got killed in Compton- he got shot. Then his big brother who was my age, died a couple years later. He had a brain aneurysm, they say he grieved himself to death because he blamed himself. That was really tough, just looking at that.

Then, my brother went to jail. All that stuff was happening around the same time and it was fucking me up. A couple years past and I was in college and my other cousin died and I was like, I can’t just sit here and not do what I want anymore. I just had a real conversation with myself and asked, What’s the one thing in my life that if it was taken out, I’d feel like I would die? It was music. I repeat that a lot to myself just reminding me why I do what I do.

I don’t want to be famous, I don’t want to be poppin’ or have followers or any of that stuff. I just want to be really good at music. I want to be able to express myself. When I started being able to express myself, it changed my life.


How did you make that change?

I had no idea. I was full-time student living at my grandma’s crib in Gardena. I was working at Best Buy and running track. I had no free time, I didn’t sleep at all for years. I would wake up 5AM and go to sleep at like 2AM everyday. I felt empty and there was just so much conflict. So I dropped out and I just dived all the way in. I didn’t know what to do so I just went to some open mic nights. All I knew how to do was sing and play guitar. I started meeting people through that.

I met this guy named Marshall who’s a producer. He heard me sing and then he was like, “Yo man come to the studio.” He was pitching songs to different artists so I started going there and writing songs with him. Nothing ever got placed but we made a bunch of demos.


Did you work with anyone on the TIDES EP?

I worked with these guys from Maryland named Kojo and Nicky. My manager Jeremy met a guy—a producer—that he was trying to get me to work with. This producer heard my music and liked it, but he was like “Yo, I don’t think my style would work with his, but this guy Kojo probably would.” We hopped in the studio and the first day we met we made something tight.


There’s a lot of imagery of the sea on your EP, Tides and also song called Castaway. Why the sea?

Since I was young I’ve always loved the ocean. My favorite specials on the National Geographic channels were Blue Planet or the ones about the ocean. I’ve always had an appreciation for the water. It was always a peaceful, mental escape. It’s relaxing. It’s just so vast. It’s crazy that something so powerful and peaceful just exists right in front of us, you know? I would just sit at the ocean and think. My biggest inspiration comes from the ocean.

On Van Ness you’re singing about bad decisions. What are you referencing in that song?

I tell stories that are linked to me a lot, but that aren’t directly or necessarily completely all me in the situation. On that song, my brother called me one day when I was in the studio and [I started recording]. He’s in prison. He got arrested when he was 18 or 19. It was just gang stuff. He was in the Crip gang out there. He was in a situation and everybody in the gang got charged the same charges. He got a lot of time, too. You know they have gang enhancement laws, so if you’re in the gang you get extra years, whether you did something or not.

This is my brother and I love him. He just wants to be successful and wants to do something with his life, but people make bad decisions sometimes. Gang banging isn’t always the best decision, but growing up, you’re in close proximity with these people. These are people I see everyday. That’s how it starts out. Then it starts to get progressively worse, [and] then people started dying. We were gang banging thinking it’s cool. When my brother got locked up, that was really tough. My grandma’s house has a lot of memories. All of my best and worst memories are at that house. When I’m over there it hurts, but it’s nice to reminisce.


When did you write the songs?

All the songs that are on Tides I wrote in 2017. I recorded them all in L.A. I would say my music describes a mood, a feeling or a moment. It’s immersive. I don’t know what it is I tap into when I’m in the studio, but when I hear a chord that hits me… Different chords trigger different emotions, so I’ll just write about what starts to hit me at the moment. I just create the song and then we’ll build all the production right there.


What are some goals that you have?

It was interesting trying to figure out my next goal, because I spent the past two and a half years just only focusing on TIDES. I put it out and then I got to a point where I’m like, what do I do now? I feel like the one thing that I did with it is just seeing something from the beginning to the end, no matter what. Through all the bullshit that I’ve dealt with, that was really cool. I guess I’m just going to do it again, just better this time. Everybody that helped on the project was really invested and really cared about it. We all just wanted to make it the best we could. We overthink everything, me, Jeremy and Alex—all the way down to every shoot. I don’t want to put out any music until I can really get my point across, and I feel like I was able to. I guess now my next goal is I want to do some shows and go on tour. I want to work with some people. I need to get in the studio with Lil Baby and Gunna.