Devendra Banhart at Tonic, NYC

‘Sup | by Catherine Despont

live Interview

I remember the first time I heard Devendra Banhart. It was one month to the day before this interview, January 16, sometime before 11AM, as I arrived at the ‘Sup office. Marisa had just gotten the album from Young God Records and was giving it a listen. It took me less than half a song to be swept away by it, because enjoying Devendra’s music is like reading a great book: It can carry you off and set you down in a different universe, but you need to be a reader. His music isn’t esoteric, but it is mysterious and requires that you be willing to follow his lead. Although it engulfed me immediately, I could also see why someone might not be taken up by it.

The album, Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, is an eccentric collection of hand clapping, guitar picking, whistles, and the sweetest singing followed by occasional shouts. The songs, conceived as demos, were recorded on warbling four-tracks and many of them die within 30 seconds. They could be compared to folk music the way Cat Power is folk, but I’d still prefer to compare them to a book. To a fable. Devendra’s music is a universe, like one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, that could have its encyclopedia written by Borges. Each song conjures up characters and places that create something closer to an esthetic than to a musical style per se.

His songs have heroes and villains and endless anthropomorphisms: limbs that laugh, animals that act, teeth that whistle. Words in general seem to take on different meanings after passing through his mouth. Even better than listening to Devendra is actually going to see him live. There’s a softness and an intimacy to his performance that’s hypnotic and enchanting. When I saw him at Tonic, the few times I let my gaze leave him was to notice the happy, almost delirious faces of the people around me. The album feels like a promising first chapter to a long and wonderful book, and like most great stories, the best way to get it is straight from the author’s mouth.

Devendra Banhart is 21 years old, was born in Texas (spent some time in Venezuela) and is quickly becoming very well known inside and outside of credible indie music circles. After recently wrapping up a huge U.S., tour Devendra is leaving again in the next few weeks for Paris, Brussels and London and then across the U.S. again.

I liked your drawing in Loyal magazine.
Oh yeah. Thanks. I lost that drawing in a store. It really bums me out.

How long have you been on tour?
Over a month. We’ve been on tour for like over six weeks.

How are you doing?
I don’t know, I think every night a bit of my brain goes out my ear. And the ones that are in there are totally scrambled.

Is it the end now? Are you going to be in New York?
This is the last night of the tour, yeah. And then another tour starts. It’s three shows in Europe with this guy Michael Gira, and then it’s a tour with his band and it’s the same thing I just did in America but it will be different.

Are you excited? Are you tired?
Yeah, I am, totally. Both.

Where are you going in Europe?
I think Brussels, Paris, and London.

Didn’t you spend time in Paris before?
Yeah, I spent a year there.

Where did you live?
Different places, with friends. Have you been?

Yeah, my dad’s French so I go there a lot. Where are you playing in Paris?
Have you ever heard of a place called Beteau Fare? It’s kind of famous for techno or something. But the people who own it own the boat next to it—it’s an old pirate boat and it can’t actually sail but it is authentic, and it sits on the Seine and there’s a stage and a restaurant. That’s where I played some really good shows because people weren’t there for the hype or because they were told to go; they were there just because they wanted to see music.

What were the other two cities again?
Brussels and London, and I haven’t been to either one. Have you been to both?

Just to London. I studied there last year.
What did you study?

Politics and Literature.
Did you graduate?

Yeah, in May.
With a degree in what?

Oh wow. That’s funny.

I have a lot of friends who are female who I tell to stay away from philosophy because they’re always assholes.

Yeah, well, they are assholes. Which is why I don’t really want to do anything else with it. But I’m glad I did it.
Yeah, no, sure. I have a completely uninformed asshole point of view (laughs).

Are you planning on staying in NY for a while? What are your projects?
Well, I live here. But all my things are in someone’s basement, so I’m going from couch to couch or whatever. Oh! I’m finishing this book that I’ve been writing. Here, I‘ll show the only copy. It’s called Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Negress and/or Being Watched by Floating Beings. And it’s about a town where God is a big golden woman who looks like Bessie Smith, or maybe an older Billie Holiday. And the people in the town are Indians and the only way things can be made is by hands getting pregnant with them. So you have to ask your hand, or a hand, any hand—I don’t know that you can own a hand, it’s just like any other person—if you’d like some chopsticks or if you’d like some cement or some grapes or whatever, and the hand has to get pregnant with it. You have to make a trade with the hand.

I had a dream about Billie Holiday. I was in a grocery waiting to get some butter and I was really frustrated and Billed Holiday walked out of the line. But she was an old fat white woman in a sweat suit. She sang a song and fell over into some vegetables.
That’s great. I wish I had more Billie Holiday dreams.

This book is really awesome!
The drawings also turn into the writing. The beards are how she watches people. She watches over you by these floating beards that are sort of calmly bobbing up and down through the air.

How long have you been working on this?
Just [since I’ve been on] tour, but I haven’t had much time to do it.

What was your favorite place on tour?
Every single place was totally different. America is fucking amazing. The Midwest is amazing and the East Coast and the West Coast. I understood why people move to LA. The weather is fucking amazing, but there’s no other reason to move there. It’s always fucked up. And plain and flat and non-city like. But the weather is really, really good. The South is a strange contradiction. Everyone’s got this attitude like (speaking with a Southern accent), “You’re gonna find that a lot of people in the South are not a bunch of hick and rednecks. The truth is, we’re a very cultured people.” And then they go and contradict that. We played shows in Birmingham, AL, with like a Creed cover band they didn’t even know who was playing and called me “Devandkey Bansart.” And then we played these really wonderful shows for like two or three people in the basement of a record store and everything was completely different. Every night was a crazy blended highlight. One night we turned into a collective mind. We had a lot of psychedelic drugs. It didn’t matter, it didn’t even affect us, but there was a shift in us as four people and we turned into one person. We were just answering each other and thinking together. It was incredible. But the one thing is, it’s not the smartest thing to tour in the winter.

Where did you stay?
We stayed in people’s houses. We stayed in the most fucked-up places, and we stayed in hotels. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza one night, in this really fancy hotel room that someone bought us. We stayed in the van, in beautiful tree houses, in hidden hippie-houses that you wouldn’t even know. And some nights we drove through the night.

How did you meet Young God Records?
Michael Gira wrote me a letter, and it was a really beautiful letter. Reall, really long. Five pages long in his sloppy cursive, with a copy of his record, and I decided to go with them.

Was that before or after you moved to New York?
That was before. I moved here because of it. The reason I live here right now is because of the label. It’s so grassroots. He only signed people for one record and I’m signed for two. The label is basically just Michael and Kerstin and a few people, and even if I wasn’t on the label I’d still want to be involved with it. There’s all this totally overlooked music, and I’m not talking about mine, but Michael’s and people he’s done in the past.

Do you have any ideas about your next record yet?
Yeah, I want to make it so bad, of course I do, totally. The record I put out is just demos for songs, and then there’s more demos and they turn into all these songs I want to record. I don’t know what it’s going to sound like, but hopefully just better quality, with pianos, and I’d like to get some people to sing with me.

What do you think you are first? A writer or a musician or an artist?
I don’t know. I think none of them. I don’t think I’m just a musician. The music and the melody are just a platform for the lyrics, because I’m totally anal about the lyrics. They’re so non-arbitrary.

So you write first and then come up with the music?
It’s different every time. I think it’s the same for everybody. It’s totally cheeseball, but Keith Richards has the best quote about it: He says the songs are all there and you have to choose them. It’s true, all the colors are there and all the words and letters and chords are there. You just have to choose them. I have no idea how it comes, and it’s always scary that it will stop coming, but it comes right now.

Where is your name from?
It’s an Indian name. My mom and dad didn’t name me, they brought me to an Indian teacher, a guide, and he named me. My mom gave me my middle name after Star Wars.

Obi (laughs).

What does Devendra mean?
It means a whole bunch of things and they’re all really flamboyant and, in a way, pretentious-sounding things to say, but the best one, when I asked an Indian guide he said, “It’s like Tom.” So it’s like Tom. It means Tom.