(1950-) Keyboard player and synthesist best known for his work with the progressive-rock band Genesis, with whom he spent most of his professional career. Banks is noted as having been a pioneer in the use of electronic keyboard technology in rock music, for his musical and lyrical compositional skills, and for his skills at the keyboard. He was one of several 1970s performers who blended traditional keyboard skills with use of electronics and non-traditional sounds.
Founding of GenesisEdit
In the mid-1960s, Banks attended Charterhouse School in England, a "public school" (what Americans would call a private high school), at which he met Peter Gabriel, and the two formed an amateur band. At the time Banks, who was classically trained on the piano, played only that instrument and had little interest in other keyboard instruments. Eventually Banks and Gabriel became acquainted with Anthony Phillips and Mike Rutherford, who were a year behind them at Charterhouse and had their own band, and the two bands merged. They did some demo tapes which caught the interest of pop singer Johnathan King, who signed them to a contract. It was King who suggested the name "Genesis" to the band.
Genesis recorded their first album, From Genesis to Revelation, in 1968. It was in the sessions for this album where Banks was introduced to the Hammond organ, which at first he couldn't figure out what to do with. However, he rapidly became acquainted with the instrument and began to explore its possibilities. In contrast to most rock and jazz Hammond players who prefer the B-3 model, Banks went for an L-122 spinet model. An atypical feature of the L-122 was that, unlike most tone wheel Hammond models, the L-122 has a self-starting motor. Banks explored the possibilities of that during the sessions for the band's second album, Trespass, where during some solos he turned the motor switch off and on to achieve pitch bend effects.
The 1970s: Creation of a LegendEdit
For the band's third album, Nursery Cryme, Banks took a dramatic step: he added a Mellotron Mark II to his keyboard arsenal, as well as a Hohner electric piano. With it, he pioneered the technique of playing dense block chords, as opposed to trying to duplicate traditional orchestration techniques, and by doing so he achieved a sound very unlike the orchestra sounds that the Mellotron was intended to reproduce. He also used the Mellotron's tuning adjustment as a pitch wheel during solos. One of the most famous keyboard passages in rock music is the introduction to "Watcher of the Skies" which Banks played on the Mark II. On the left hand, he used a bass accordion bank to play the bass part, and on the right hand he used the "three violins" bank. Banks has said that he chose the intro's chords based on which ones sounded most in tune on his Mark II, and that the song never sounded quite right when he later switched to a model 400.
During this period, Banks also occasionally contributed guitar. He developed a setup where all of his instruments, including the guitar, went into a mixing board and then the entire mix was run through a Leslie, producing a characteristic swirling sound on the electric piano and guitar (oddly, it seemed to have little effect on the Mellotron).
For Selling England By The Pound (1973), Banks added the band's first synthesizer, an ARP Pro Soloist. This was a small preset synthesizer, but it attracted Banks' attention because it was one of the few synths on the market at the time with aftertouch, and also because it was a synth he could afford. Banks milked the Pro Soloist to the hilt, figuring out how to do cutting solo sounds, filter sweeps, flute-like sounds, and even some atonal sound effects with the seemingly limited instrument. For The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), Banks worked on doing unconventional layering with the Mellotron, Hammond, and Pro Soloist.
Banks had also developed a technique (supposedly first tried during a 1971 period when the band was touring without a lead guitarist) of playing distorted, guitar-like solos by running his electric piano through a distortion box. When he replaced his Hohner piano with an RMI 368x in 1974, this had a feature called "organ mode" in which the note release time was greatly extended. Banks ran this through distortion and an MXR phaser to develop a unique sound, such as is heard in the intro to "Dance On a Volcano". He eventually had both effects physically built into the piano.
By 1975 Banks had become one of the most notable keyboard performers in rock, combining keyboard chops with skill at sound design. He was noted for playing the blazing 16th-note-filled solo from "In The Cage" live with one hand, while playing a rhythm part with the other, without seeming physical exertion or strain. He also had an unusual cross-hand technique in which the right hand would come over the left, with some right-hand fingers interlacing with the left hand and some fingers playing notes to the left of the left hand, producing unique arpeggiation effects. It was said that Banks didn't need a synth with an arpeggiator because he was an arpeggiator.
Through the mid-70s, Banks added more capable synths to his rig and greatly expanded his sound palette. An ARP 2600 first appeared on Trick of the Tail, and then he added a Polymoog for ...And Then There Were Three. Banks was also the band's main composer during this period (after Peter Gabriel left the band in 1975), creating tension within the band and particularly with guitarist Steve Hackett. As Banks added synths to his arsenal, he tended to eschew guitar sounds, leading Hackett to depart in 1977.
Banks topped off the decade by recording his first solo album, A Curious Feeling. Very much in the style of that era's Genesis except for possibly being even more orchestral, the concept album was recorded with vocalist Kim Beacon and drummer Chester Thompson, and Banks performing all other instruments including guitar and bass.
The 1980s: A Different RoleEdit
Genesis began to re-focus itself in 1980, with singer/drummer Phil Collins taking a larger role in the band. Banks, who always had a utilitarian approach towards keyboard technology, started to update and strip down his rig at this point, dumping the Mellotron and most of the existing synths. These were replaced by a Yamaha CS80 and an ARP Quadra. The band's compositional style was moving towards a more rhythm-driven sound. For its 1981 album Abacab, the band wanted to explore the early 1980s minimalist New Wave sound. This resulted in Banks' role as soloist and feature performer being greatly reduced. His new role became more of backing musician, synchronizer, and sort of on-stage producer. Banks is often credited with discovering the technique of using a short, fast-attack sound from a drum machine as a trigger signal; he used a hi-hat from a Linn drum machine as a trigger to drive the arpeggiator on the Quadra, thereby achieving a pre-MIDI mechanism of synchronizing the two, which Genesis would frequently use for bass tracks in its later efforts. Also, for Abacab, Banks ceased use of the Hammond organ, using a Prophet-10 to cover organ parts.
The decade of the '80s continued in this vein for Banks, with his role in Genesis becoming more anonymous as the band became more famous. After the 1984 album Genesis, the band slowed down its recording schedule. Banks' band mates Collins and Rutherford both had successful outside careers, Collins as a solo artist and actor, and Rutherford with his side project Mike + The Mechanics. Banks filled the time by delving into movie soundtracks and also attempting to put together his own pop music projects, with little success. He continued to change out technology, adopting a Synclavier, a Korg O1/W, and an E-mu Emulator II+ at various points, and he was briefly a Korg endorser.
The End of Genesis and Classical SuccessEdit
After the release of We Can't Dance in 1991, Collins decided to depart the band, leaving Banks and Rutherford as the only remaining members. They auditioned many musicians and eventually decided to hire singer Ray Wilson, while using hired drummers and performing all the other instruments themselves. However, the resulting album, Calling All Stations, sounded unfinished, and failed to appeal to either the "old school" or the Collins-era fans. Following a tour, Banks and Rutherford decided to call it a day for Genesis. The band has since released many remixes, and releases of previously recorded unused material (it turns out that the band was in the habit of recording far more material than they ever used on albums), but no further studio albums.
In 2004, Banks decided on a change of direction, returning to his first love, classical music. He composed Seven: A Suite for Orchestra. The London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded this (with Banks himself on piano), and the result received praise in the classical music world. In 2012, Banks' second compositional effort, Six Pieces for Orchestra, was performed and released by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. This has also been widely praised.
As of 2014, Banks is having some difficulty with arthritis in his hands, and as a result does not perform as much. He continues his compositional efforts and is working on another classical effort, plus pursuing movie soundtrack work.