Bassist and songwriter Mike Bankhead has “always been fascinated with music”. Blame it on his upbringing in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio, one overflowing with sound, where his former drummer dad spun rock and roll on turntables and his mom played a soundtrack of easy-listening tunes. In high school, he made friends with the band kids a natural progression in his path to musician that saw him watching friends practice in their garages and commiserating with them over the newest rock tracks. Eventually, he got sick of watching from the sidelines and decided to make some music of his own. “Even before I could, I knew I wanted to play music,” Bankhead says of that driving desire to express himself. Though his household playlist consisted of greats like Chicago and Stevie Wonder, when he finally had the cash to purchase cassettes of his own Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots made the cut. Gleaning inspiration from the grunge and grit of those records, combined with his love for “two distorted guitars and a bass” and an unshakable propensity for poetry and art, pushed him closer to the path he was meant to be on. “I didn’t have the tools to say what I wanted to say but once I acquired music as a tool that was the next step,” he says. “I knew it was going to be the creative outlet for expressing myself and dealing with life’s issues.”
Fast forward to 2017, and his curiosity and love for music led to the release of his debut album Echo in the Crevices. The two-year trek it took to create the album was gratifying for Bankhead who was relieved to finally have tangible evidence of his craft, sharing that the album “turned out better than I imaged”. Released when he was nearly 40 years old, it became a testament to decades of sadness, dripping with shoegaze-influences, songs in Spanish and French, and even emulations of Superdrag and folk music. For Bankhead, it was proof that he could make art without limitations and that expansion can be heard on album closer “Ever”, an eight-minute-long odyssey. In 2019, Bankhead shared Defacing the Moon, a project he calls “the best kind of happy accident”. The songs were recorded during the tracking process of his sophomore album and bolstered by his effort to put together new music for a local event. The songs feature acoustic strumming and synth, but his signature distorted electric guitars are scarce. Many of the album’s tracks were written in first person, an early warning of the musical direction he was heading in. The album’s songs are brimming with melancholy, dissolution and instrumentals that generate a sense of intimacy. Bankhead released his second full-length solo album Anxious Inventions & Fictions in 2020, a collection of songs inspired by “inner monologue, dark thoughts, depression and observations about life”. The album saw him lean into the “power pop” side of his sound with tighter, more focused songs as a result of him condensing what he wanted to say musically.
His latest offering, I Am Experienced, is more than just a collection of songs, but a series of vulnerable and open vignettes that form a concept album. For Bankhead, the lockdown was not just a time of shuttered venues and days spent inside wondering when “uncertain times” would end, but a time where awareness of racial injustices reached a fever pitch and the murders of Black Americans like himself became a central focus for society. He took his own experiences and the ones he witnessed to form a sonic dissertation on the brutality and beauty of the Black experience. Each of the six tracks making up his I Am Experienced have their roots in different genres but share roots in Black music. That devotion to transmuting experience into art is also why all personnel involved in the album, from the mastering engineer to mixers, art directors and musicians are Black creatives. He worked with Columbus, Ohio engineer Rizo to bring the project to life and although many of his clients skew towards pop and hip-hop, he was thrilled to work on Bankhead’s guitar songs. “As vulnerable as these songs are, this project would not have worked if I wasn’t comfortable with him and he didn’t believe in it,” he says of their relationship in the studio.
The album opens with “Latent”, a track with punk rock sensibilities and a danceable tempo. The upbeat melodies of the song hide a deeper meaning, however, outlining the dissonant experience of racism and how the increase of hate crimes in the media reflect an insidious hatred that may have seemed dormant but was there all along. The next track is “Plantation” which features accomplished banjo player Hannah Mayree, who founded The Black Banjo Reclamation project, to educate people on the history and heritage of the instrument. The song hits on how plantations in this country were the backdrop of generations of people being tortured, bred and killed for capitalism while some people who aren’t descendants of Black enslaved people see it as an idealistic wedding venue. The arrangements of the track, sinister at points, reflect the contrast of how Black Americans experience plantations compared to revelers who see it as the perfect place to exchange vows and set up an open bar. The collection then shifts to “Good Times” a colorful ode to Dayton’s rich history of funk, overflowing with tambourines and rhythmic clapping. The track is a respite in the collection, shining a light on the joy that shines out from even the most challenging moments of the Black experience.
“We Are the Broken” was inspired by the Bible, with lyrics from the book of Psalms and Isaiah. The Gospel-infused track features Bankhead singing in different harmonies backed by the keys of an organ as well and pays homage to the songs you’d hear at Black church with percussion that mirrors the stomps and claps you’d hear behind a hymnal. The next track, "Hey Baby Take the Keys" was inspired by a harrowing experience Bankhead underwent of being racially profiled, harassed and put in handcuffs by a police officer for the simple act of driving while Black. The blues song was composed with the help of BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone" chord progression as a skeleton. The song features intricate keyboard playing, guitar solos, and saxophone to pay homage to the timeless genre. The last track on I Am Experienced is an Americana song called “Chameleon Skin” written in response to Jason Isabell’s “White Man’s World”. The track’s thesis is summed up in the chorus, “I ain’t got chameleon skin / I won’t change”. The lyrics of “Chameleon Skin” focus on how something as simple as skin color can filter the way the world interacts with you, a theme that runs throughout the album.
Through tough commentary on the Black experience and an appreciation of Black artistry from everyone involved in the project as well as the soundscapes and genres that inspire each track, I Am Experienced gives a vulnerable and riveting deep dive into a purview few get to live through first-hand. The album asks the listener to step into someone else’s shoes in a way that’s inviting but also staggering, building catharsis from songs that are at moments disillusioning but at other times hopeful.
Outside of the record’s six tracks, Bankhead has created an entire world around I Am Experienced, with CD versions set to include a sixteen-page booklet with lyrics and essays commissioned by Black writers with deeper context around each song. The release will also allow listeners to access a website with demos, artwork, photos from the studio, unabridged essays and behind-the-scenes videos. “It’s cliché to say that the latest thing you’ve made is your best work,” Bankhead says of I Am Experienced, “but this project as a whole cohesive artistic statement is absolutely the best thing I’ve done so far.”
- Erica Campbell