The Soundgenerator InterviewDevendra Banhart Suddenly everyone seems to be interested in you and your music - has it been a long journey for you - in terms of your musical journey?
Yeah it's been a strange one where I started feeling that I am not in control of my own life. Just because you can't actually be in the moment. You know I used to like to walk around until I got lost and then I would try and un lose myself and find out where the f*** I am. You know... just wander. But I can't do that now as I have to do a show and I've been on tour for two and a half years - straight. I have lost that ability. But now the joy in my life, in the present time is every time that I get to play.
So has that replaced that old joy getting of lost?
Yes exactly. It s just been like readjusting to it
And surely every musician's dream is for their music to be heard by as many people as possible, to be able to share it I kind of started off always sharing - like the reason why I started playing was because of Noah from The Pleased. He gave me his old four track. He said I am going to let you borrow this in exchange for the tapes you record. So I said "Oh cool man" and I started recording always with the intention and knowing that I was going to give it to my friend. So it just feels like an extension if I can share it with my friends. My dream wasn't so that I could have a thousands people hear it.
But suddenly it has gone from that to something very different. I saw you at Reading.
Oh yeah what a mess!
It was just you and a slide guitar. Quite a weird place to play.
What was weird about it was that two days before at Leeds, that was like the beginning of the Festival weekend...out in the country the first day everyone had just started taking their drugs and all starting to feel good and feel the vibes and it's like nice and warm. Not warm but dry and then towards the end of the last show everyone's coming down off the drugs and its all wet and muddy. When 50 Cent played Leeds everybody loved it. They sang along to every fu***** song, he played an amazing set. Then you get to Reading and he gets bottled.
I think they were just a bad bunch
But that's just an example of the difference.
What sort of reaction have you been getting when you have been playing - now that they are bigger audiences?
Well you know since I have a band now it is kind of weird because people are not expecting to hear reggae. Which is like my favorite kind of music. The highest form of folk music. So some sort of bewilderment you know and flabbergasted..mind quifs.
What I found with your shows and just generally that you can play different styles from just you on acoustic, very kind of intimate to the quite full on reggae thing but the underlying thread is your voice that just holds everything together that gives that uniqueness. Where have your influences come from? Did you just wake up and that's how you sang or did you move things into a certain way?
Well I began in the bathroom with the shower on, but with me not in the shower..you know with the door locked. This is really true and in my mother's dress to feel more comfortable with my voice because my testicles had not dropped enough and they are still dropping - my voice still breaks. I am still going through puberty. But I had a very high voice when I was eight or nine years old
I thought you were talking about recently! (Restrained laughter as Devendra insists it was much earlier)
Actually last night I was wearing my mothers dress.
You looked really dapper
Thanks you I feel very comfortable. So I never took lessons or nothing. I just started singing for myself in the shower. But influences aren't really the right word. Inspirations is the right word. People that really flipped and that I heard from an early age that made me kind of want to sing were Karen Dalton and Caetano Veloso. Yeah...And Van Morrison actually. But you can't even try to f*** with him man.
When you record do you do everything your self in the recording process? I know you have your band, but is it like something that you arrange, that you are in control of or do you feed off the other musicians?
The first record I did was just all me and I didn't have a drum set so I clapped, I didn't have a flute so I whistled. So now there is a flute player and there is a drummer.
So you are not doing that anymore?
But what I do is I say this is my idea and I'll sing the melody and I'll say we are going to do two takes. The first one is just like play what I have in my head. Try to get as close to it as possible. And then after that take now do anything you want. And then I choose.
You been to many countries and many cities in terms of living there - does that make a difference? Last nights gig (Shepherds Bushe Empire) seemed like it could have been Fillmore East or Woodstock with Country Joe and the Fish. It was so refreshing. So have the cities and the places you've lived in affected you in anyway?
Has that influenced you or inspired you?
What it has done is made me realize that people have different customs and different indigenous dishes, different languages - they are all trying to convey the same thing. We all talk a different language but we are all trying to say the same thing. So that's all I saw - the similarities existing between every place. The same wind that blows here blows in Africa. You know what I mean? But it just takes a while to get there. Same sun that shines same moon. That shows the similarities.
But if you are in London and it's a cold grey day it's a bit different to being in LA with the warmth or Delhi or Rajasthan or whatever
I wouldn't mind being here right now.
Have you played in India?
I was going to go in October, which is now, to Varanasi but it didn't happen. Next October I'll probably go. And maybe learn, well not learn the hardest instrument in the world, takes year. But buy a good set of tables and maybe learn how to play them and just hand out there.
You look like a Sikh today
Well this is my. ...(we get interrupted by the label to finish off in 3 mins)
See Devendra this is the control of your life now. Everything measured down to the minute
Yeah that's what I'm talking about ...everything is Fu**** up.
But you've got to balance things out
Yeah I'm not complaining about it but this is just the reality of it now. But about the way I am dressed at the moment and been dressed and the reason why I am wearing this turban, which I purchased, at the San Francisco General Hospital is sort of my personal political protest.
Why I say that is because I am kind of dressed like a Muslim person. And I especially dress this way when I go to the airport because I am so used to getting searched constantly because I look like I have drugs. The person who looks like they have drugs does not have them. It's the person that you never expect. Especially in a fu**** airport unless you are a total idiot.
So I dress like this when I go to the airport. They look at my passport, a weird name, they look at the way I look and they search every single bit of me and I can just stare at them in the eye and say "there you mother fu*** you cannot judge someone by the way they look". So that's why I am dressed like this.
What happens next? What's the next part of the journey?
Actually I went to jail for a little bit and the cops were so gonna beat the shit out of me. The scariest bit..
Was that in the states?
Yeah in Brooklyn. I am handcuffed and the cop looks at me and says "you know something you look like that mother f**cking Al Queda piece of shit John Walker" He was making a kind of face and I was trembling.
Why were you there?
For dumb ass reasons. Really really stupid reasons. So the shit I got from the cops not the inmates. The cops were the scary part. That really blew my mind that I am in jail with all these murderers and gangsters and I am scared of the cops.
So what does happen next for you? You say you've been on tour for almost two and a half years, so are you going to take a break? Well you have the album out now so it is full on. Or is your life one big tour?
Have you heard of a band called Vetiver? This band Vetiver he's the only person that I can write songs with, this guy in the band. Our friend Arto Lindsey is going to set up a little studio in Baia and we are going to make a record in Spanish and Portuguese. And it is all inspired by Caetano Veloso & Gal Costa record Domingo and that's the project.
And is that just off your own back or is there going to be a label for that?
Yeah hopefully this label. Hopefully this goddamn label.
XL is a good cutting edge label to be with Prodigy, Dizzee Rascal..
Yeah that's what's good about it like they have these huge artists and I don't fell any pressure. They don't make me feel like I should be the next dah dah dah...I am glad the pressure is on White Stripes. I definitely don't want to be that band at all.
So do you feel like even though you have moved onto a big label, you can just be yourself and that they have got you because of who you are?
If you go downstairs there are thousands of big posters of all the bands and there is one little poster of mine. And that is cool. Letting me do my own thing. A little bug on the label. Totally happy to be here.
Well since hearing your music and seeing you live it has been inspiring to me and alot of people
Thanks. Well I am kind of nervous you know, like what are the people expecting? But you can't just sell out and do the same thing.
But I think you can't play for an audience, you have to play for yourself and the audience will be there if they like it.
Yeah it's like collaboration but you also have to be respectful to them and you also have to be confident in what you are doing.