Culling the Demons

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By Stephen Ribuffo Photos by Manny Espinoza

Home to the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Carmel Bach Festival, hundreds of galleries, and award-winning theatrical performances, the Monterey Bay Area is—not surprisingly—home to a myriad talented artists, from writers to musicians. Among them is Mark Banks.

Humble beginnings as a child on his father’s ranch in Hesperia of Southern California enabled Banks to appreciate fresh air and hard work. These were not rare commodities, nor were heaping shovels of steaming horse manure. Between responsibilities, Banks enjoyed leisurely drives with his mother and father while listening to music. Following the separation of his partents, “Sweet Love” by Anita Baker never failed to bring a tear to his eye. He was put at ease by contemplating his faith with his mother as they sung along with Christian worship artists like Amy Grant. This not only laid the foundations for Banks’ future musical profession, but it also gave him a sense of love and security in spite of darker times.

mark banks family

His dark era was a maelstrom of fear and shame lasting longer than any one person should endure. The weight of embarrassment from being abused felt impossibly difficult to hide, but Banks managed. Church always had a place in his life, but it would not be the conduit Banks would use to find the connection he desperately needed.

Jazz and gospel would always have a place for Mark, yet it was the ominous world of hip-hop and grunge music to which Mark was drawn. Artists like Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain reached Mark profoundly. Their music told a story that Mark felt paralleled his struggles and pain, “I understand hard living way too well…”

As a teenager living in Monterey County, life differed greatly from his younger days. Dealing with his parents’ divorce and inner demons while living with four sisters, a brother, and a single mother in poverty, Banks found himself drawn to a world of violence and drug use. Eventually, it caught up with him, leading to his incarceration for brandishing a weapon. What caused the altercation was not as important as how Banks turned his life around.

How does a person come back from falling down that rabbit hole? Listening to the album Extended Play One, a person might never guess the artist climbed out of a dark past. Uplifting and soulful, the album could be a goulash born from ingredients prepared by Ben Harper, Sting, and Phil Collins. Yet, Banks says the song “Just Fine” from the album Catharsis gets the most feedback. Ironically, Catharsis, an album that spawned from more of Banks’ challenging experiences, came after Extended Play One. “I thought it was going to kill me going through it,” admits Banks.

Where does one go from here? Forward.

Reaching catharsis required navigating a road wrought with strife. As Banks traveled down that road, the path became smoother. The line between hope and despair thickened. With his music, Banks wants “to help bring peace to people’s lives—to take people out of their everyday struggles. Music has the power to do that.”

Though the ambition of international stardom has faded, Banks’ determination to hone his chops hasn’t. When he’s not ripping his Harley Road King down Big Sur, he’s ripping through chords on his guitar. After playing international gigs in Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines, Mark prefers to play locally where he can be close to his wife and newborn son. It was a rough road for Mark Banks, but after a journey like that, the only way to go is up.

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