Frankie Banali | Renowned Drummer Battles Cancer The Only Way He Knows How: Loudly & Artistically

Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali is battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and he’ll be the first to tell you that his prognosis is bleak. Still, it hasn’t stopped him from playing drums and scheduling future tour engagements for the band, plans that he is expecting to be a part of. On a day to day basis however, it’s being able to create his own brand of minimalist and visually textured art that sustains him the most.

In this conversation Frankie speaks candidly about his
current health situation, offers glimpses into his childhood, reflects on the accomplishments of Quiet Riot, describes his relationship with the late Kevin Dubrow, and introduces us to his latest artistic collection, Spirits I-VIII.

Robert Ferraro: Frankie, above all else, how are you feeling?

Frankie Banali: Well, I was originally diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, which has now metastasized to my liver, back in April of 2019. At that point, you know, the prognosis was that I would probably die by October of last year. I basically had a six month window left. So when you consider the fact that we are here talking to each other in June of 2020, it means I’ve managed to make it past the one year line. Listen, I’m still very conscious of the fact that I’m at Stage 4 with one of the deadliest cancers there is. My prognosis to survive one to five years is only 10%. So, I just continue to fight the good fight. Even as we’re chatting now, I’m hooked up to an IV that I have to do 18 hours every day at the moment.

Robert: That sounds like you might not have much mobility. Can you go out and about?

Frankie: The reason this treatment takes 18 hours is because of it’s huge amount of volume. I mean, this is the biggest IV bag I’ve ever seen. So it has to be monitored with a digital pump because it only can be administered a little bit at a time. I have mobility if I want to carry the pack around, but for the most part, I’m pretty much tethered to this thing.

Robert: One of the things that strikes me about your demeanor throughout this chapter of your life, is that you appear to be very comfortable acknowledging that yours is a fatal diagnosis. You’re very pragmatic about it.

Frankie: I think that’s always been a part of my DNA, my psychological makeup. I’ve always told people that I am not an optimist or a pessimist. I’m a realist. I look at the facts as they’re presented to me and try to vet that information as much as possible because even with all the advances that have been made in medicine regarding cancer, there haven’t been many advances in regard to pancreatic cancer. So I’m a realist about it and I try to make the most of every day. I find some sort of joy in everything I look at. And we’re all gonna go some time, right? There is just no question as to what will eventually kill me. The only question really is when will it happen?

Robert: You’ve experienced a good deal of loss in your life that we don’t need to tread over, but I think it’s noteworthy that you lost your father to the same disease.

Frankie: Right, he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1974. Like me, he was given six months to live at the time, but he lasted only six weeks.

Robert: Almost half a century later, despite the lack of advances you mentioned, I assume you are receiving far superior treatment than was available to him at that time?

Frankie: I think they’ve made some advances in the chemo aspect of it. Actually, I just started round 21 of chemo this past Tuesday and the side effects are…well, I recommend these side effects to no one. They are very difficult. I just have to deal with them as best I can because I’m still taking care of the business of Quiet Riot. As a matter of fact, I just got off the phone a little while ago with my agents, and we were rescheduling some dates that were postponed because of the Corona virus situation, as well as accepting dates for 2021 which, you know…

Robert: Unfortunately I do.

Frankie: Right. Who knows if I’m going to be around in 2021? Or Christmas? Or my next birthday in November? It’s impossible to know.

Robert: One of the ways you’ve vowed to live your best life, is to create art every day you possibly can. The fruits of those efforts are displayed in this collection of minimalist art you are now sharing with the public, entitled Spirits I – VIII. I’m sure it required a lot of creative energy. At this point, can creating art be taxing on you as well?

Frankie: The fascinating thing is that the only time I’m not aware that I have cancer, is when I’m sleeping, playing my drums, or creating my art. For some reason, when I’m doing those particular activities, cancer doesn’t exist in my life. So, those activities are still almost a daily thing for me. My art is a very rewarding thing. I do almost all of it outdoors in my garden – I just have to make sure that I’m hydrating myself. And just like with my music, there are so many things in my mind that I really feel the need to get out there now – to put down on paper. So, I just do it. And it’s not forced – it’s not like I go out there and say, “Okay, what am I going to do today?” I usually have a general idea of four or five things I want to do, based on really minimal sketches that I create whenever an idea comes to mind. And then I get to it. I really enjoy it.

Robert: If you met someone who had never listened to Quiet Riot and they asked you about the band’s music, I think we would have a pretty good idea of how you might describe it. What about someone who has never seen your art? How would you explain it?

Frankie: Above all other things, my art is an extension of who I am and how I see life. Some of my pieces could be a combination of four or five different experiences that I’ve had combined into the one image. The thing with me is that my parents would always take me to museums and galleries when I was a kid, so that has always been a part of my life alongside being a musician. Even in the notorious eighties, I was as comfortable in a museum or a gallery, as I was in some roadside bar. There’s no distinction between one and the other. They’re both who I am.

Robert: Thinking all the way back to when you were growing up on Long Island and a pure beginner on drums, what came easier for you – becoming a competent drummer, or a competent artist?

Frankie: Well, both have definitely been works in progress. I always say that I am very fortunate. I may be older than dirt now, but I was really fortunate to be alive when I was, able to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on a Sunday at my parents’ house in New York. Until then, my life revolved around playing hockey – I was a goalie, go figure. [laughs] And playing baseball – I was a catcher, go figure. [laughs]

Robert: Nearly every famous musician of a certain age seems to have their own Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment.

Frankie: When the Beatles came into my life that night I traded the hockey stick and baseball bat for a pair of drumsticks, literally the next day. And I never looked back. As far as art, I’ve been doing it for almost 15 years. But I can remember as a kid, I always had a notebook with me and was always sketching little things. I remember walking to school and somebody or something would catch my eye and I would just put everything down, sit on the curb, and do a really quick sketch, you know? Just while I was on my way to school. It’s always been a part of my life.

Robert: Your skills as an artist have since advanced to create what we see in this collection, and I think one piece that might jump out for many people is ‘Technicolor Zen’. You use color beautifully there.

Frankie: Oh, thank you, and yes, it’s one of my favorite pieces. It’s the only piece in this particular collection that I did on canvas with acrylics. How that came about is I’ve always enjoyed doing my art on Japanese handmade Washi paper, while using Sumi inks. Washi paper is very unforgiving. If you strike it too hard, it’s going to react like a drum head that’s going to take it. It’ll rip. And if it saturates too much, it’s going to rip. I’ve really had to learn how to control it so that I could get some dimension and some texture out of it, which is easier to obtain when you’re working with acrylics on a canvas.

Technicolor Zen –  Banali crafted the original work on canvas, using colorful acrylics.

Robert: You’re a heavy hitter behind the kit, but your style of art demands subtlety.

Frankie: Yes. For example, there are certain things I want to use one of my large Japanese brushes for, to achieve the hit, but it’s always a question of if you can get enough pressure behind it. If you do, and you have the right saturation of the brush and the correct angle of the brush – not too much, not too little – you can get happy surprises that occur once the hit is done and moves on it’s own to different areas of the paper. You know, sometimes it’s a fiasco. [laughs] But sometimes you get these happy surprises.

Robert: In something like abstract art your ability to express emotion would be wide open. You could feel angry or sad and clearly express all of that in what you’re doing. Your art is much more minimalist. When you set out to create, are you able to blindly paint what you feel? Or do you need to have a plan?

Frankie: I’ll usually have a plan – a thumbnail sketch either in my notebook or in my head, because a lot of stuff comes into my mind just before I fall asleep for some reason. I either have to sketch it down real quick, or hope that my memory the next morning will be the same, which for me, fortunately, it usually is. And a lot of my minimalist style comes from my interest in most things Japanese and Japanese art. They like to leave a lot of negative space and let the viewer interpret the whole from their perspective. For me, that part of it is really gratifying. I was recently posting little bits of my art on my Facebook – just little sections of things – and the amount of comments I received was overwhelming. The really rewarding part was to read what it meant to each person. One person would see the lines, another would notice the colors, etc. For me, that’s wonderful. So, if I make it minimalist, it makes it possible for other people to appreciate and contribute to the art and feel a part of it.

Robert: Stewart Copeland. Rick Allen. Chad Smith. Sheila E. Bill Ward, etc. And of course, yourself. All drummers. All creating skillful and interesting showroom art. Do you have any idea why that may be? Is there a correlation between drumming and art?

Frankie: That is a good question. Putting the drumming aspect aside for a second, simply as a musician, you should be very open minded and accustomed to being a creative person. I think drummers may be even more open to it, because art is a very rhythmic thing. If you look at any of the drummers that you mentioned and you watch a video of each one of their playing styles, their technique will be very different in their strokes – how they strike the drums and symbols. For me, everything in my art has to have a rhythm and a flow, and I’m sure it’s the same for them.

Lotus Seed And Bamboo – Banali’s Japanese influenced study in perspective

Robert: Your artistry is very unique to you, Frankie Banali, and as a drummer you have always stood out as well. Outside of earning lifelong praise with Quiet Riot you’ve been a part of other bands ranging from Steppenwolf to WASP, you quite famously played on Billy Idol’s studio version of ‘Mony Mony’, you’ve been a favorite of other drummers and popular at industry shows, etc. Why do you think your playing has been able to distinguish itself?

Frankie: My approach has always been to be a supportive drummer and a supportive member of the band, while also not taking a back seat. I have always tried to drive every song I’ve ever played to the highest peak that I could, without interfering with the song. So, instead of playing extra drum fills that don’t need to be there, I’m simply adding an extra color or an extra stroke to make it interesting. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a piece of art. I was talking to a fan at a show that we did last May, and he made an interesting comment. He said, “You play drums as if you’re a lead singer.” And I said, “First, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment. Secondly, I know what you mean.” [laughs] And he said, “You’re so active and so expressive and so explosive. The only thing that’s missing is the fact that you’re not up front and mobile.” I thanked him sincerely for that – I consider that a huge compliment.

Robert: From Ginger Baker to Keith Moon to Animal of the Muppet show, drummers can often be seen as loose cannons. You aren’t cut from the same cloth, but you are a very large presence on Quiet Riot records and most especially on stage, where you have always played ‘big’.

Frankie: I look at it as I’m not the lead singer, I’m not the lead guitar player, and I’m not taking drum solos twice in every song or anything like that. [laughs] And I shouldn’t be, unless I’m playing 70’s progressive music, which I love but is a whole different story altogether. But I’ve always wanted the people in the front and the people in the very back of a venue to get the same show. So, if I need to make something big or over the top so that someone way in the back can see it and feel it, then I have always been more than happy to do it.

Robert: Quiet Riot has sold over 10 million copies worldwide of just the Metal Health album alone. The band has been name-checked in songs by artists ranging from Weezer to Ben Folds, has had songs appear in several major movies and the ‘Rock of Ages’ musical, and had a very funny turn on the Simpsons. This is your baby, Frankie. You co-founded this band, have been it’s drummer since Day One, and have managed it for decades. Do you have the same appreciation for all of the above while hearing it, as I did just saying it?

Frankie: Absolutely. I really do. The first thing I’m always conscious about is the fact that if the fans hadn’t supported us in the beginning and continuing on to this day, Quiet Riot would not exist at all. I’m very aware and appreciative of the support that we’ve received from fans for over three and a half decades now. The band is something that I’ve spent more than half of my life at when you consider I started working with Kevin (Dubrow, Quiet Riot lead singer) in 1980. So, it’s obviously been very important to me to make sure that whoever is in Quiet Riot at any given time gives the audiences exactly what they came to hear. I never phoned it in, I never took it for granted, and I won’t allow anyone else in the band to do that either. I’m very appreciative for every single day that I have had to continue doing what I do.

The Metal Health album, released in March of 1983, became the first Heavy Metal LP to go to #1 on the Billboard charts. It has sold in excess of 10 million albums worldwide

Robert: Some glimpses into that mindset were portrayed in ‘Well Now You’re Here, There’s No Way Back’, a documentary you released in 2015, directed and produced by your wife, Regina Russell Banali. It was notable for being not just about the band’s past, but very much about it’s present and future as well. Running alongside all of that, was the story of the relationship between you and your friend, lead singer Kevin Dubrow.

Frankie: Definitely. Listen, Kevin was a handful. I mean, he was the most alive person I’ve ever known, and I haven’t met anyone like him since. It was great to be with him some days, but on others it was very frustrating to deal with him. But, I’m a very loyal person and best friends are best friends. Even during the period of time when the band had to ask him to no longer participate because of his drug use – which was a very, very difficult decision that had to be made – we were, by and large, still friends. After the dust settled and we were able to get the band back together, our friendship was actually much better and stronger than it was previously to when we parted ways.

Robert: Kevin passed away 13 years ago, and you’ve acknowledged that you think about him at times. When does he come to mind the most?

Frankie: When it’s time for me to get up on stage. I used to always go out on stage with Kevin – the other two members of the band would walk out on one side of the stage, and Kevin and I would walk out on the same side together. And for 27 years, the only person I ever saw in front of me when I was playing, was Kevin. That was a bitter pill to swallow, and it is something that I’m always aware of. Even with all of his craziness, I really miss him a lot.

Robert: I mentioned your practicality earlier, but how about sentimentality? Have you been looking back more since you received this diagnosis?

Frankie: I have been. I think what has happened is, between spending weeks at the hospital and having to be in bed with these different IVs and infusions, it has given me a lot of time to look back and reflect. A lot of memories have started to flow back into my mind that I’ve been sharing with my wife. It’s an interesting process and there’s a lot of laughter involved in these things that I am remembering, but there are some tears involved with some of them as well.

Banali and his late bandmate, singer Kevin Dubrow, during the band’s early 80’s heyday

Robert: Considering the circumstances, is there anything that you might try to tackle, health permitting, that you haven’t tried before?

Frankie: Not knowing what the future might hold, the things that are important to me are making sure that when I do sit behind the drums my level of performance and enthusiasm are what they have always been. Because if I ever feel it slip, and I’m not able to do it at a level that I expect from myself? I’ll have to make some decisions. But to be honest with you, one of the most amazing things about this cancer that’s running through my body is that when I sit behind a drum set it feels like nothing has changed. My energy hasn’t changed, my playing hasn’t changed, my concentration hasn’t changed. So, you know…so far so good. I’m very grateful for that. As far as art is concerned, I can’t wait until I get unhooked from these IV’s so I can get myself cleaned up and head out into the garden to get to work on these pieces. The ideas are flooding my mind.

Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, comedian Gary Gulman and model Bobbie Brown.

Preview and purchase Frankie’s art here:

Frankie’s artwork is sold through SceneFour. Learn more about them here: SceneFour

Visit Quiet Riot’s website here:

Follow Frankie on Twitter: @FrankieBanali

Follow Frankie on Facebook: Frankie Banali

See more of Robert’s interviews here:

Follow Robert on Facebook: @OfPersonalInterest

See Robert’s stories and interviews with charitable artists here:

Cover photo credit to Christopher Ameruoso Photography for Frontiers Records

Video credit to Regina Russell Banali