An Interview With Devendra Banhart

Jersey Beat | Greg Matherly

Or: The Final Saga in the Adventures of Unlikely Light in Concreteville

It starts with the name: Devendra Banhart. Next, it’s the history: born in Texas, raised in Venezuela, lived in NoCal, SoCal, Paris, and always on the move. Devendra settled in Brooklyn a couple of years ago and in just a few short months the demo tape he had in tow accidentally became his first release, entitled, Oh Me Oh My… The Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (2002), on Michael Gira’s Young God Records. He does all of his own album art, and he is working on his first book: a collection of writings and surreal drawings, which somehow manage to resemble woodcuts of antiquity. All that sounds rather intriguing, given the songwriter has only made 22 trips around the sun. But then, there’s the music. Devendra has an incredibly unique angle on songwriting. His is a well-versed, poignant, and often times giddy amalgamation of the more humble elements of psychedelia, and the brashier elements of folk. Before you become tantalized with the world that Devendra doodles in your head, however, you are caught off guard by his voice. Take a handful of his songs and you will hear the paper whispers of secrets, a catalog of vibratic tremors, and a scad of glottal punctuations à la 1920s delta blues. His alien croon is an appropriate vehicle for his cartoon metaphysics, and along with his overall style and background, it has conjured an esoteric light around his shaggy mop. There have been many overused comparisons employed to familiarize (or situate) the listener with Devendra’s voice, but they all fall short. Devendra is unique, gifted, and wholly original. It is a sad critique on popular music today that he leaves us scratching our heads.

Recently, Devendra recorded enough songs for two new albums, an April release, and one to follow in September. The first of these, Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress, is a completely different animal than its predecessor, Oh Me Oh My…. The new record was recorded in the studio, but that isn’t the real sticking point; the production doesn’t sound like an old, reused cassette, but it is long way from being labeled “slick.” As Michael Gira explained, Devendra used a microphone to sing, had a couple for his acoustic guitar, and that was that. He sat and he played his songs. The material on Rejoicing in the Hands… is mature and honest. There are fanciful odes akin to the verse of his debut, but there are also somber and endearing melodies where Devendra shows the more personal implications of his thoughts. Rejoicing in the Hands… presents Devendra as a complex talent, and a very simple craftsman.

A few days before Devendra said his goodbye to New York City, I met him in the basement of Lit, an East Village dive where he was booked as a midnight DJ. Devendra drank whiskey, I had beer.

Jersey Beat: I was at your show at Tonic last week and it seems like your getting quite a bit of attention now. Before the show I talked to two guys out front who had seen you several times and had driven down from Rhode Island for the gig. During your set, I noticed I was standing beside Lou Reed, and a friend of mine says he saw Rik Ocasik about.
Devendra Banhart: Yeah, Rik’s a good friend of mine. I like Rik, I’m happy he was there. I like Rik’s music; Rik’s a cool cat. Rik is the Alice Cooper of vampires… of holy vampires. He’s “Holy Cooper the Vampiric Nurse.”
JB: So, what do you make of all the attention you’re getting now? How does it feel?
DB: I try not to think about it, you know what I mean? I’m still trying to figure out if I should play for more than 3 minutes. After 3 songs I still think, “I should stop now.” I’m still at that point. Just wait until I get inflated like a big donut.
JB: You’ll remember these humble words. Has it affected your day-to-day life in New York?
DB: I don’t leave my house, ever, so I don’t know. Really, this is a stretch.
JB: So you don’t DJ here regularly, this is just a one-off thing?
DB: Yeah.
JB: When did you first start writing songs?
DB: When I was 11.
JB: These were guitar and vocal?
DB: No, just vocal. For some reason, the first songs I ever wrote were all about plastic surgery. Maybe that’s what was surrounding me. I grew up in Venezuela. Actually, this all makes sense now. You just gave me a huge moment of clarity—big fucking enlightenment for me. Venezuela has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world.
JB: Why is that, do you know?
DB: The people there are quite beautiful and they want to keep it that way. Bad genes and. . .
JB: And good medicine.
DB: Yeah, wild doctors. So, it works out.
JB: Did you ever take voice lessons?
DB: No, did you?
JB: No.
DB: Who did, you know?
JB: How did you acquire your distinct vocal style? I’ve heard some of your professed influences and. . .
DB: I’ll tell you the biggest influence was coming across two insects fighting. It was a bee and a moth, and the sound that the bee and the moth made together, in unison—the dance of murder that they created together—was so high pitched and frantic that that kind of sparked a lot of the things. The first shows I ever played were more performance-based than song-based, so there was a lot of screeching and squealing and wailing. In terms of similar people that make music that is related to my early performances in that same organic, natural realm—mother nature’s nipple—yet in the world of CDs and purchasable products, I would say they are like: Patti Waters, early Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas, and Nina Simone at her most coked-out.
JB: When did you hear the insect sounds?
DB: 16.
JB: Speaking of influences, you’ve cited two really obscure folk artists as major influences on your work: Vashti Bunyan and Karen Dalton. How and when did you discover them? It does seem a bit extraordinary that someone your age would be influenced by them.
DB: Well, I discovered them thanks to burnable CDs and luckily falling in with a group of record collectors. People have turned me on to these musicians, other than Vashti. From the beginning I’ve been intuitively attracted, somehow, to Vashti’s music. It just got re-released, a few years ago, well maybe about 5 years ago, by the European label Spinney. I absolutely love her. She’s obscure and so is Karen, but that’s soon to be an obsolete observation because those people are going to be really well recognized in a few years. Vashti is about to release some new music, and her album is about to get released domestically. And Karen, hopefully Sub-Pop is going to do her records. People already know about it, but it’s in the process of getting exposed to the rest of the world.
JB: Do you think this has anything to do with you coming on the scene and drawing attention to these artists?
DB: I don’t know.
JB: So, you have corresponded with Vashti? Are you still in touch with her?
DB: Yes, she is a friend of mine. Actually, I got the absolute honor of writing a song for her that she sang on the new record: track 10, “Rejoicing in the Hands.” That’s her. She’s a good friend and a love of my life.
JB: Are there other genres besides blues and folk that really move you? That you really take into yourself?
DB: Yeah. I really love reggae and I really love fucking Van Morison. I love Them, I love The Pretty Things, I love The Lost Souls, I love the fucking Small Faces, I love Brazilian music like Os Mutantes, Cajun music, African music, and even contemporary African like Ali Farka Toure. I listen to a lot of Indian and Jamaican music, too.
JB: So, I guess as far as American rock, most of the stuff is older.
DB: Currituck County and White Magic are contemporary, but some contemporary bands that sound nothing like what I do that I like are: Erase Errata, Deerhoof, Hella, Xiu Xiu, The Young People, and lots more.
JB: That’s interesting. The reason I ask is that most of the interviews I’ve read with you just mention your obscure references and they paint you in an almost mythical light, insinuating that you are quite the recluse and the Luddite. It’s not overt, but it’s there, in lots of interviews.
DB: Well, it’s an inaccuracy just like anything you’d read in the press is an inaccuracy, unless people actually write what you say, but I don’t encounter that very often. I’ve read a lot of weird things about myself. I can’t really say they’re inaccuracies—most of it is true, but it’s one-dimensional. The press is really one-dimensional, you know. So anyway, no, I listen to a lot of news. I’m on Young God Records and also on XL Records and suddenly they’ve been sending me their music. So now I’m really familiar with all the people that are on this label that I’m on like the White Stripes, Lemon Jelly, Dizzee Rascal; I really like that music.
JB: What do you do when you’re not performing, writing, or drawing?
DB: Nothing.
JB: So it’s a weekend night and you’re not feeling too creative.
DB: Drink with my girlfriend. Really, we just sit around and drink. She does the same thing. She’s a musician and a visual artist.
JB: Do you mind if I ask who she is?
DB: Her name is Bianca Casady and she’s in a band called CocoRosie. Touch & Go is releasing their record. So if it’s that moment where we both don’t want to do anything creative, we order a lot of Mexican food and buy a lot of beer and we sit around and do this game where we don’t talk, and we try to guess what the other person is thinking. It lasts for hours because I always get it wrong, but she gets it right. She’s really good at it, it’s crazy. I’ll just be [thinking], “cheese covered splinter walrus,” and she knows that.
JB: You’ve stated more than once that your lyrics—that often get labeled surreal, Dadaist, and even goofy—really mean something to you, as if they come from a direct experience, or they’re an interpretation of a direct experience or feeling. How do your lyrics connect with you as a person?
DB: Well, that’s funny. Yes, the words certainly do mean a lot to me. One thing that they are not, is stream-of-consciousness or arbitrary. To me they’re symbolic or metaphorical. Not borrowing, but influenced heavily by animism and magical realism. So, it’s a domain or realm where objects take on a life or represent something that means something to me. It’s something where I would take 5 notebooks, and it’s all a process of reduction, to eliminate all the unnecessary words to get to something that has a power or magic to it. So, I don’t know what the question is, but that’s the process.
JB: I think you just answered it. Do you read a lot of magical realism?
DB: Well, the biggest thing, which I mention all the time, is Mulata by Miguel Ángel Asturia. From there I don’t know where to go; from there you just want to read it again. If you read the Bible, it’s kind of like magic realism to me because I’m not a Christian person. I’m not a Christian. I read that without any information or without any preface, so it becomes psychedelic. So, just about any spiritual, religious, or…
JB: Hyperreal?
DB: Yeah, there is a lot of that out there, you know what I mean? But the one I recommend is Mulata. The other one I recommend is The Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola.
JB: If you had to be a bit academically clinical for a moment and pontificate on the purpose of art, what would you say it was? I’m forcing you to be an art critic.
DB: Well, I’m going to just do a quote, and I’m not sure who said this. It might have been Prem Rawat Maharaji, who named me, or it might have been my father, but the quote is: “Religion tells you what isn’t; art tells you what is.” Very simply, it is that art is a derivative of truth, but this is nothing new and I’m not telling you anything weird, I’m just saying exactly what it is.
JB: It reminds me of the Goethe quote, “He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not, needs religion.” Your first album, Oh Me Oh My… was recorded on tattered home equipment and answering machines. The low-fidelity recording seems to carry as much weight as the songs. It complements the songs and contributes to the whole mood of the album by helping to reinforce a carnivalesque atmosphere, which is so not like the new record, “Rejoicing in the Hands. . . .” Did you want to record the latest record in the studio?
DB: You know, Oh Me Oh My… is unlistenable to me. I don’t listen to it at all. Not because of the texture of the 4-track or the roughness of it, but because since the time that that was made I have grown more comfortable with the way I sing and I’ve been able to develop the writing of full songs and not just sketches and ideas of songs. Although the songs on Oh Me Oh My… aren’t just sketches of songs, they’re just rushed because I was only using a four-track or an answering machine. Literally, I would call somebody up and say, “Please, don’t erase this,” and I would just record and that was the song, and it was all done. But the thing is, there is nowhere to go to. It’s not like, here’s the demo and now I’m going into the studio. So it was very simple. [Recording the new album] was just like: go in and record, but it’s still written for just guitar and voice. This isn’t much of an evolution, it’s just clarity of sound. There was no apprehension and there wasn’t much of a decision. It felt normal and natural.
JB: How much time passed between those first recordings and the time you went into the studio for Rejoicing in the Hands…?
DB: Maybe a year.
JB: Did you write songs that appear on Rejoicing in the Hands… while you were living here in New York?
DB: I wrote them all over the place. I wrote a lot of them on tour and I wrote a lot of them in New York, but living in different situations of my life. So, there were some written on tour, some living in a certain fucked-up place, and some written in a nice place.
JB: I noticed while listening to the new record that even the darkest songs, the songs that feel as if they are coming from, or leading to, a bad experience, always have an avenue of hope. And it seems to be the converse within the songs that are seemingly joyful on the surface. It’s as if there is a consistent “leveling-off” of good and bad, if you will.
DB: Well, who wants to hear a record that’s all just a bummer, or who wants to hear a record that’s all happy-happy, you know? That’s not very realistic, and I wouldn’t know how to write any other way than what’s in my experience. Our emotions are dual, so you feel good, you feel bad, things affect you or you feel things or you see things, or are aware of things that hit you on a high or on a low. Even though there are a lot of themes that thread the entire record together, it is a completely different feeling from song to song. And isn’t that the way that every record should be? Aren’t all records like that? Listen to a Beatles record, you know what I mean? You’ve got your high and then you got your low. I don’t know what happened—I’m not attacking you—but I don’t know what happened for you or someone to ask a question like that. Where it’s like, “What’s the deal with the high and low songs?” You know what I mean? That should just be a typical thing.
JB: No, it was more of a complimentary observation. I was thinking that within a single song that if there is something that feels negative, or wrong, there is always a way out, always some sense of hope.
DB: Oh, I see what you’re saying. There is some music that is perhaps ultra-cryptic, for me. When I approach a song that deals with something a little bit darker, I don’t feel like I’m writing it for someone. I am writing it for myself, yet it’s not like I’m not aware of other people listening to it, but personally, my goal is to arrive at a place where there is hope. So, you know, conclude with a spark.
JB: That’s your personality in the song.
DB: Right.
JB: Are you touring with the new album this year?
DB: In June, I tour with Vetiver, Carla Bozulich—who was in the The Geraldine Fibbers and she recently recorded Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album for the DiChristina Stair Builders label, and Willie plays on the album—and Joanna Newsom, who is a harp player and she sings.
JB: Nationwide?
DB: Nationwide and then Europe.
JB: Do you enjoy performing live?
DB: Very much.
JB: You sit cross-legged on a rug when you perform. Is this meditative for you?
DB: It’s just comfortable. I don’t have a guitar strap. Seriously. It’s like this: I don’t have a guitar strap, I never play standing up, and when I’m at home I play sitting down. When I sit in a chair and play, I start to sway—and this has happened a few times—and then I fall. That’s when I realize I’ve got to sit the fuck down so I don’t fall down. That turned into sitting cross-legged, and that’s how it is now.
JB: Why are you moving to San Francisco this weekend?
DB: Because there are a lot of trees there. There are also certain musicians that live there whom I absolutely love and am friends with and I want to be near them. In each town on the west coast there is someone like that. In Seattle there is Xiu Xiu and the wonderful people at Sub-Pop. The whole K Records scene is there, and I love Kyle [Field] from Little Wings, and I love the Microphones and that whole scene. In Portland there are also wonderful people like The Bird House, and Adam Forkner lives there from Yume Bitsu. In Santa Cruz, you got Ben Chasny from Six Organs of Admittance, who is my favorite fucking songwriter. In San Francisco you’ve got Vetiver and Joanna [Newsom], and it’s just a wonderful town. I’m sick of feeling like I’m on speed when I’m in this town, you know what I mean? Really, that’s how I feel.
JB: I know what you mean. That’s funny, I was going to ask you what you thought of New York. How long have you been here, 2 years?
DB: Yeah, 2 years. I moved here because, well, it’s wonderful. I walked into this place and Tuli from The Fugs was reading poetry. Everybody here has already made 10 records that I love, and things aren’t that way anywhere else. People are making stuff here and they come and do their thing because there is such a wonderful energy here. But also, like my father said, living in New York is like having a huge houseguest—all you can talk about is them. People that are in New York, if you ask them how they’ve been, they’re like, “Well, you know, New York. . . .” It’s hard to be alone here and that’s what I like to do the most.
JB: In closing, when is the book coming out?
DB: In October.
JB: You want to say something about it?
DB: There’s a lot to it. It’s a moralistic fairy tale about a real-life psychedelic cloud-world inhabited by red-skinned creatures made out of embryonic ovaries. It’s true.