Man of La Mantra

SF Weekly | by Garrett Kamps

The psychedelic folk of wandering minstrel Devendra Banhart

It's a bright, blustery December day in Santa Monica, and Devendra Banhart is sitting on the steps of the California Heritage Museum, a rustic building that houses historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surrounded by million-dollar beachfront condos, hip coffee joints, and a Gap outlet, the museum doesn't exactly fit into its landscape. For that matter, neither does Banhart.

The singer/songwriter sports a white button-down shirt, a patterned vest, and a tattered black sport coat; his dark, shoulder-length hair conspires with wispy facial scruff to hide a young, wonder-struck face. Thin and scraggly, he wears his clothes like a scarecrow.

Banhart's lengthily titled debut record, Oh Me Oh My...The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, is equally out of step. Using little more than an old steel-string guitar and his arresting, alienlike voice, Banhart creates a surreal kind of folk music, full of odd symbols and cracked mantras. Recorded sporadically on lo-fi equipment, the songs feel like fragmentary sketches -- they often consist of only a few chords or notes, plucked in trance-inducing succession. Taken at face value, the album paints a picture of a crazy person, the kind of artist who might show up to an interview high on heroin, spouting vague, pretentious aphorisms.

But as Banhart speaks softly to the museum's geriatric curator, whom he's befriended in a matter of seconds despite his shaggy appearance, it becomes clear that he's far from certifiable. As a matter of fact, he seems downright benevolent.

Whereas many of Banhart's peers are ironic, this 21-year-old is utterly sincere. Where they are transfixed by bombast and bling bling, Banhart is humble and gracious; where they are dispassionate and reserved, Banhart is invigorated. Such differences are what make Oh Me Oh My so riveting, causing numerous critics to liken Banhart to '60s stars Syd Barrett and Marc Bolan. In a world of cynicism and angst, Banhart's plaintive backwoods jingles stick out like flares. While Oh Me Oh My may be challenging at times, Banhart's music -- along with his life and worldview -- makes a sore thumb like the Heritage Museum seem like just another Starbucks.

"The people of the town are these Indians," says Banhart about his work in progress, a book of poems and illustrations called The Thumbs Touch Too Much, in between sips of an Irish coffee at a small pub. "And the goddess of the town is this golden Negress -- which is like a big old black lady -- and the way she watches you is like a floating beard will come see you. So there's all these floating beards everywhere. And there's the ocean, and it gets into that whole thing. It'll be fun."

This is Banhart at his best, when he's just spilling his ideas out, a mile a minute. He refers to such images as "psychedelic jokes," valued both for their symbolic weight and their indefinite meaning. Such contradictions can make Banhart a tough nut to crack.

Banhart was born in Texas in 1981, and named by an Indian mystic whom his parents followed. When his folks divorced two years later, he moved with his mom to Caracas, Venezuela, where he was raised amidst the shanties and sweatshops. Though his family had enough money to stay above the poverty line, life wasn't easy.

"Venezuela was insane," says Banhart. "You don't go out after 8 because it's too dangerous. You don't wear nice sneakers because, while here you may get assaulted, there you just get killed."

When Banhart's mother remarried, his stepfather moved the family to Los Angeles. In the fall of 1998, having written songs since he was 12, Banhart left home to begin school at the San Francisco Art Institute, with a hefty scholarship. Though he was instantly disillusioned with the constraints of academic art, his environs took him in more productive directions.

Living in the lower Castro, he was tapped by his roommates -- a gay couple whom Banhart refers to as "Bob the Crippled Comic and Jerry Elvis" -- to play two classic songs at their wedding: the gospel hymn "How Great Thou Art" and Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender." Touched by the request, Banhart found himself newly inspired.

Shortly thereafter, he had a second epiphany. While vacationing in Bish Bash Falls, a state park in Massachusetts, Banhart and his girlfriend were quarreling about the Rolling Stones.

"The argument was about [the song] 'Street Fighting Man,'" he says. "And I'm like, 'That's bullshit. Mick Jagger wasn't fighting nobody.' And she was like, 'Well, how do you know? Maybe they just made it up.' And I was like, 'Well, I can make up a song about something!' And it turned out to be this little song ..."

Banhart proceeds to sing, limerick-style: "There once was a man who really loved salt/ So he tied his nose to the sea/ And then God came down from his silver throne/ And said, 'Honey, that water ain't free.'"

"That's when I realized I could write about anything I wanted," he adds casually. "It was like being constipated and then taking a suppository."

Thus began Banhart's days as a wandering minstrel. When he returned to San Francisco, he began playing anywhere that would have him, be it an Ethiopian restaurant, an Irish pub, or Du Nord's weekly "Monday Night Hoot."

"We had to pretend like he was just helping us with equipment and then sneak him in," says Eric Shea, host of the "Hoot." "He was too young to get into the club."

In the summer of 2000, Banhart dropped out of art school and moved to Paris. There, he was discovered by the owner of a small club, who chose him to open shows for indie rock bands. All the while he was recording songs, both on a borrowed four-track and on a friend's answering machine.

Moving back to the United States in the fall, Banhart bounced between San Francisco and Los Angeles. At a gig at the Fold in L.A., Banhart was doing a sound check when Siobhan Duffy overheard his set. A lover of old bluegrass and folk music, Duffy is also a close personal friend of Michael Gira, the one-time frontman for New York gloom-rock legends Swans and current owner of Young God Records.

"She couldn't believe it," says Gira of Duffy's reaction. "So [Banhart] gave her a CD-R, and I listened to it and had the same response. His voice is so unique, his songwriting is just amazing."

After deciding to sign the young singer, Gira sifted through Banhart's 70 home recordings in an attempt to shape one cohesive album. "It was just a nightmare 'cause [the songs are] all so good, they're all so distinct," says Gira. "So I just tried to make something that had some dynamics, some variation."

Clocking in at just over 50 minutes, Oh Me Oh My is like 22 pieces of a giant puzzle -- profound yet elusive glimpses of a truly odd mind.

Each song features Banhart and his guitar, with the occasional handclap or sound of a car driving by outside. Brief numbers like "Make It Easier" and "Tell Me Something" are like haiku, whereas four-minute songs like "Michigan State" and "Pumpkin Seeds" feel more like sonnets.

Banhart's rickety voice doesn't so much appear on the record as haunt it. He can reduce it down to a terry-cloth whisper on "The Charles C. Leary," or jack it up to a banshee screech for "Certainly Are Nice People." On "Lend Me Your Teeth" he makes his vocals dance implike around a pagan campfire fanned by his fiery finger-picking.

What makes this collection an X-ray where others like it are mere Polaroids is the rawness of the recordings. Banhart throws his uncensored thoughts and feelings onto tape like they're hot potatoes. Recurring symbols such as body parts and snails mean something, it's just never really clear what -- and Banhart doesn't feel as if he has to explain.

"I don't even know how to start talking about it," he says. "I don't even think I should, because I wrote a song so that I wouldn't have to."

Everything's up for interpretation, such as the lyrics, "The steps to the temple/ Are the breasts made of puddles," from the song "The Thumbs Touch Too Much," or lines like, "Well if my snail has my favorite slow/ Then my cold has my favorite snow," from "Michigan State." Yet Banhart insists that he doesn't just pull this stuff out of his ass, something he's often accused of.

"It's not stream of conscious at all," he says. "I've got piles and piles of [journals], and I just go through them and go through them, and I'll get maybe two lines out of the whole fucking thing, but they'll be two good lines that mean something to me and maybe they mean something to someone else."

Banhart is most often associated with volatile singer/songwriters like the aforementioned Bolan and Barrett, as well as Karen Dalton and Daniel Johnston. In other words, listeners place him in that category of "crazy musician," the kind of person who warrants an R-rated biopic. These assessments are not entirely unfounded -- in addition to his lyrics, he's also known for his inspired, improvisational performances, during which he often slips into a trance -- but they only serve to obscure the beauty that Banhart achieves. Like such great past steel-string guitarists as John Fahey and Robbie Basho, Banhart is a psychedelic alchemist capable of turning a simple arpeggio and a few disjointed sentences into something alive with feeling. The only reason his music seems strange is because it's so damn rare.

"He's not preoccupied with dressing his music up to make it sound like a crazy person," says Eric Shea. "He's just doing what he knows how to do."

What Banhart knows how to do is make artful music worth mulling over and arguing about with your friends, music that you can rediscover each time you listen. Like two of his idols, Delta blues legend Mississippi John Hurt and British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, Banhart simply shares his vision in as unadulterated a way as possible. It's as if he were receiving transmissions from some other world -- a world in which he fits just right -- and he's turning up the volume for all to hear.