Devendra Banhart | Interview | Amanda Bristow

Devendra Banhart Fights Sammy Hagar at the Sushi Bar

I've been waiting a long time for someone like Devendra Banhart to come along, borne on a wave of amber, gypsy, lone mystique that is usually reserved for outsider artists or musicologist findings. My information on Devendra is patchy, but lore leads me to believe that he's a fledgling 22-year old Texas native who spent a goodly portion of his youth in Venezuela and somewhere along the way picked up a guitar. He moved back to the States, attended art school, and then abandoned art instruction to pursue the Holy Sound. Enter Michael Gira, ex-Swans vocalist and founder of Angels of Light, who happened upon Banhart and his homemade tape, and released the 22 tracks that comprise Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit on his Young God Records label late last year. The fact that a scrappy lad such as Devendra has reaped much oooing and ahhing from the usually smirking public is testament to the rough-finish beauty of his songs and to the honesty of his approach.

Recorded mostly on borrowed 4-tracks (some of them broken) and friends' answering machines, Oh Me Oh My lies somewhere in-between the realm of found sound and obscure 60s-era psychedelic folk ephemera, yet its immediate intimacy and raw spirit of experimentation renders it virtually unclassifiable. In addition, Devendra sings like a bird, warbling and trilling his way to comparisons with vocalists and songwriters such as Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan, and Tiny Tim, etc., and he's all of these, yet none of them at all. There are so many mood shifts on this recording and changes of pitch and tone that one feels Devendra is indeed, alone in a room, figuring out exactly how far he can take his voice. There is also the amusing effect of shoddily-layered vocal tracks, with Devendra sounding like he's both dueting and dueling with himself-maybe even singing up against other Devendras. Combine all this with various natural background noises (birdcalls, gunshots, church bells, music boxes, children), and you're left puzzled, beguiled, and listening again and again to see if you can root around and find anything else in the box that has been given you.

It's easy to latch onto a discussion of Devendra's voice alone, but he accompanies that voice with some beautiful guitar-playing; delicate, circular finger-picking take their cues not only from folk and blues traditions, but also from nursery-rhyme melody and story-telling. Devendra is indeed a storyteller, but rather than singing stories for story's sake, he sings stories for words' sake, delighting in off-rhymes, sibilance, and nonsense just for the beauty of pairing one word with another. (Read: "and thanks little bee think of me/here's four photographs just for laughs/my miss shipwreck sinks, yes she sings.") And if you've any doubt, seeing Devendra live is also proof that he's the real deal-he presents himself as a narrow slip of a fellow, delivering his 2-minute jewels with an energy that is palpably spirited.

Devendra and I had a little correspondence with me asking silly questions and Devendra lending responses that were poetic, whimsical, and very dear. Here below is our question and answer session-just as it was, and with indications of laughter.

Your songs convey a sense of personal closeness, with detailed, intimate observations. Homemade as they are, they sound as if they were recorded in a little room, tucked away somewhere completely unidentifiable. Describe the importance of "place" in your music. How did actual physical space influence these songs?

that's it!
you painted it perfectly,
in a room,
but in the woods so not alone,
with the animals and animal breezes,
or in a city,
but with the microphone balanced on the open window,
so with the city,
some songs were recorded on payphones,
walking around you get to thinking
and you get to singin' and then you go geeze!
i got a song worked out
so i'll leave it on the answering machine
and you find a payphone down the alley
and sing into a friends answering machine
and say hey man, please don't erase this till i come over with that shitty 4 track you let me borrow, there's also the very focused and secluded environments required for tunes like pumpkin seeds where i was in the woods on my own with the 2 or 3 or 4 track and somedays visiting my sister Izabelle.

I have some patchy info regarding your rather well-traveled background. Would the archetype of rootless, wandering songster generally fit into your description of yourself? Michigan State clearly conveys a geographical longing for an unknown home.

oh geeze, really, it's been three years since i've had my own place, because of financial and other reasons, now it's for good reasons, amazing! Now it's for music, i just got back from london last night, playing europe for a week, amazing to travel this way, but I'm used to the wandering, now it's focused, about that traveling, i have traveled a bit but not quite a bit, never been to africa, ethiopia, where the cheekbones ascend to the heavens!

So what was the scene like in Europe? How did the reception to your tunes differ from here to there?

it's funny, people always compare, they always have to compare, and here, there's access to a lot more music, so i get compared to 3 or 4 different, mostly obscure, musicians, that not being the case in brussels or amsterdam, people kept asking me if i knew who Jeff Buckley was. All the shows were good, very good, i was nostalgic for london though i have never been, also, Michael Gira has a lot of fans so i got a lot of very disappointed older noise/goth/industrial heads who couldn't believe they actually liked my music.

I notice you thank Vashti Bunyan in your liner notes. I've been completely obsessed with Vashti and wish I could have followed her into the Hebridean sun on a horse and cart of my own. Do you share that impulse? Describe your love of Vashti.

Vashti has been a friend for quite some time, she is the sole inspiration for me getting into performing my music, for sharing something deeply intimate and revealing, i love her music, when i was just beginning to play (2 years ago about) i sent her my music and said, "Vashti, should i do this or not, should i make this music?" she said ONWARD! DONT GIVE UP! and she dug it and it made any strange, or not so pleasant show situation ok because i knew that all the way over in the Hebridean mountains Vashti supported me.

What physical setting is best for songwriting? Winter or summer? Night or day? Tropics, desert, or arctic glacier? Empty belly or full? Hot or cold beverage?

warmth night for a certain type of song day for a bo diddley i wish i was type o song empty belly or else the bloats will come a rollin' and fuck up a tune, and wine is good, red wine is good, or a hot toddy, on tour it's a hot toddy.

Where is the strangest place you've ever played?

HA! L.A., los angeles, you flat satanic colon, all dry and clammy, ha, it was a sushi bar where the stage was not a stage so i had to balance on a little thing (piece of wall) sticking out of wall and sing over people trying to eat ther california rolls and at this time i was very angry and would scream my songs in an acapella style and Sammy Hagar was there and he put the juke box on and i understand now cause he just wanted to enjoy his sushi as did everyone else cause the person who set up the show just told me to play, that's it, they booked me as restaurant entertainment (unpaid!) he puts the juke box on to a van halen song and i spit on his food and then at his face and it missed but got someone at his table and we go at it and i'm a little guy so it musta looked funny, a big funny mess.

Your lyrics and melody are natural, organic, and seem to convey a more than keen appreciation for the natural world. If you were going out in the woods to find some animals, which animals would you most like to find?

animal is animal, it isn't specific, animal can be teeth or hands, animal is a shape and the shape is animal and you see it but can't hear it or you hear it but can't see it and it stays with you.

I hear you once attended art school. Do the visual arts impact or affect your songwriting at all? What other non-musical projects are you currently engaged in, if any? Please describe.

i went to the san francisco art institute because they offered me a scholarship, it was for interdisciplinary arts, all the disciplines, except for music, i dropped out, i thought i was a painter but not once did i paint a single goddamn thing at that school, and since i was an interdisciplinary major i tried everything they offered and they offered eveything, painting, sculpture, new genres, drawing, writing, performance, film, video, everything except music, ha! so i'd be ditching to go play a tune or two. i draw everyday of my life for at least 6 hours, i am in the process(ha!) of getting a book of drawings and writing published, it's called "Rejoicing in the Hands of The Golden Negress (and being watched by her floating beards)."

It's obvious from seeing you play not too long ago that you seem to be part of a very close-knit group of like-minded, yet diverse artists (which is so lovely to see). How do your musical friendships inform your sense of a burgeoning musical community? How would you describe that community without categorizing or labeling it?


Favorite writers/poets?

Anti bargain
Amos Tutuola
Miguel Angel Asturias

Favorite music/musicians old or new?

Ella Jenkins
Vashti Bunyan
Karen Dalton
Linda Perhacs
Elizabeth Cotten
Billie Holiday

What are you currently listening to?

Sun also rises
Willie Johnson
Swans/Angels of Light
Diane Cluck
John Hurt
Young People
Pere Ubu
Black Orpheus soundtrack

I can't help but notice that many of your influences or favorite songwriters/musicians are comprised of lots of female voices. I've often thought your own voice, throughout its various incarnations carries a strong sense of the fluid feminine spirit, and it's clear these women have taught you some lessons. What would you say "we" as musicians can learn from these songwriters about song itself, whether it be in the blues or folk (psychfolk) tradition?

My dad said something really beautiful the other day "art tells you what you know, religion tells you what you don't know" a lot of male music is egoistic posturing self-centered masquerading, it's the religion bit of that quote, These women are honest, revealing, and strong and soulful all at once, and they are SHARING something! it speaks to you. it's the art part.

What can people expect from you and the Angels of Light tour coming up-- any cross-collaboration involved? p

regnancy, we are bringing back that old Screamin' Jay Hawkins style!!! ha, well, there already is some cross-pollination occurring since i'm in the Angels of Light (i also sing on the new record), also, Michael is one of the only people (there are 3) that will be allowed to be present during the recording of the record i am going to make.

As far as next projects are concerned: are you planning on exploring a different recording approach? If you were to add additional instrumentation, what would you add?

simplicity is what i like in my songs, they are written just me and the guitar or just me, so on this next record, maybe we will sprinkle a piano part here and there, but not too much, then there will be songs you can dance to (i hope!), these bo diddley- inspired tunes might be a new direction where i get to sweat on stage.