Interview with Devendra Banhart

Jaded Times | by Sarah Stedman

Devendra Banhart's new album, Niño Rojo, was recently released by Young God Records

Devendra Banhart is one enigmatic dude. Officially, he is a folk singer who has just released his second full-length record entitled Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress, the studio-recorded follow-up to an album laid down at home and a European EP with The Black Babies. Unofficially, the talk about Banhart sounds more like folklore. In preparation for this interview, I asked my friends what they had heard about him that intrigued them and the responses varied from, "I heard he is a squatter", to "I think he only plays atop tables without shoes", to "I saw him curled up on a park bench once", to "He is so nice!" Needless to say, I had no idea what to expect and was more than slightly nervous when I knocked on the back door of Berbati's Pan on the evening of June 4th. So here it is: my slightly awkward, but thoroughly enjoyable, chat with Young Gods recording artist Devendra Banhart.

SARAH STEDMAN: So what is your favorite kind of muffin?


SS: Do you like to bake poppy seed muffins?

DB: I never have, but if I did, I would love it.

SS: So... you're... drawing a shirt?

DB: Yes.

SS: Do you do this often?

DB: Yeah, I do. For family members... uh, my girlfriend wears a lot of clothes so I keep making things for her and uh, I sell these as well. I think of myself more as a clothing designer than a musician.

SS: You went to art school in San Francisco, right?

DB: Yeah.

SS: Did you study music there at all or just art?

DB: Just art.

SS: And you create all of your own artwork for your albums?

DB: That is correct. No computers either, it's all watercolor.

SS: Do you prefer watercolors to sharpies?

DB: They both have their, uh, interesting qualities, but I prefer sharpies for clothing.

SS: Have you ever watercolored a piece of clothing?

DB: Never. Have you?

SS: No. But it sounds like fun, though it would be pretty hard to wash.

DB: Well yeah, it would be hard to wash... I don't wash that much so it would work out though, so I should try that.

SS: Let me know how that works out. When you make the artwork for an album are they totally separate or do you try to incorporate some of the musical aspects into the artwork, or vice-versa?

DB: They are completely intertwined: songs start off as drawings or end off as drawings and vice-versa, start off as songs and end as drawings.

SS: Do you think of yourself as an artist first and then a musician?

DB: I don't think of myself as either one of those things. I just think of myself as a new age dude trying to bring the new age to the young and the old, but none of the in-between; there's enough music for the kids in-between, ya know? I make music for the eight-year-olds and the eighty-year-olds, ya know? The strollers and the walkers.

SS: You just put out a compilation for Arthur Magazine?

DB: Yeah, the Golden Apples of the Sun.

SS: How did you pick which songs you would include? Did it start out as being artists you like and songs you like, or friends of yours, or...?

DB: I just started off with just my favorite songs that I had heard by contemporary people and then I realized that I knew them all and I got really happy and jumped for joy and I called them all up or e-mailed them and put it together, you know, getting all the information and everything. But it was really... I didn't start off with, "I know these cats," it was just like, "What's my favorite stuff?"

SS: Cool; you put my favorite Little Wings song on it.

DB: Aww man; are you kidding me? I fucking love Kyle [Field, of Little Wings]. He... He is a Saint: Saint Kyle.

SS: Are you looking to do any collaborations in the near future? For example you play on the Vetiver record.

DB: Well, Vetiver is Andy [Cabic] and I play with Andy and he is the only person I can write songs with. But, then, uh, obviously some more stuff with Vashti Bunyan, and um there's people like Warren Kellar... you know, Josephine Foster is like one of my favorite singers and I sing with her and I'm on Anthony's new record. But it wasn't a collaboration, he just told me what to do, but it was an honor to be told what to do by him. But yeah, you never know. Maybe something with Ziggy Marley or Phil Collins.

SS: Is there any music that you are into listening to that people might find to be surprising or unlikely if they found out that you liked it?

DB: Um, what do you think would be unlikely that I liked? And then I'll tell you if I like it.

SS: Um... [struggles...] Something like death metal...?

DB: Let's see the closest to death metal would be like stoner metal rock like Sleep, or, ya know, Iron Fire. I think people wouldn't think I was really into Sleep but I really like that record.

SS: Do-

DB: (interrupting) Oh! You know what I do really like? EMF. Remember EMF? I am a big fan of their's. And I am a huge fan in INXS and a lot of people wouldn't think that. Hey, I am being totally serious. I think Mike Hutchence is a genius.

SS: When you sing, your vocal styling makes for a pretty unique sound... how did that come about?

DB: Um, singing in private because my parents/my family wouldn't let me sing in public since an early age, so I never listened to other people I just sang completely alone, I never sang for people, ever. But, you know, I have no answer to that question, really, is the real answer.

SS: Why wouldn't your family let you sing?

DB: Because the first songs I wrote were about the family and they were very, like, personal. It was like telling everyone's secrets; I was like nine years old and they were all acapella and I invited the family to have a rehearsal, I was like, "I'm gonna sing a song, songs I wrote," before I was even into music, I just knew that I wanted to sing songs and I sang about, like, Grandpa is cheating on Auntie, oh wait whatever, Grandma, and Auntie is like doing some weird drug and Auntie passed out and bled. You know what I mean? Like all these really weird little songs about stuff that no one, people... I suppose I understand now about it, but then I was confused about. So I was told to not sing again.

SS: Where did you grow up?

DB: In South America; Caracas, Venezuela.

SS: Did you listen to a lot of music as a kid?

DB: Well, the first things that I remember hearing were, like I said before, EMF. I really... the Milli Vanilli record was huge there is the truth. Um, Garth Brooks was very big, um Menudo very big, Billy Ocean very big. What else?... Velvet Duvou, ABC, Boyz II Men, and Nirvana... those were the biggest bands.

SS: So where did you guys get your touring van from?

DB: We got it from the church [First Baptist Church _ San Bruno]! We went to the pastor and we said, "this is our predicament, we need a van to travel in," and he said, "well, what kind of music do you play?" and we gave him our music and he just felt it out and he said, "you may travel with our van."

SS: Did you purchase it from them or just borrow it?

DB: Borrowed from the church! Have you heard the Vetiver record?

SS: Yeah, I just heard it today.

DB: You can see how a church would dig it.

SS: Yeah... You have another solo album coming out by the end of the year, is that right?

DB: Yeah, in September.

SS: Is it done yet?

DB: It's totally done.

SS: How is it different from Rejoicing [in the Hands of the Golden Empress]?

DB: It is the same except that it is a lot more exuberant and um a lot more... a lot less melancholy. And Rejoicing was written from the perspective of an old woman, or the Sun, from a woman, anyways, from an older woman who has already experienced things and is only observing them, telling stories about her observations. And the second one, called Niña Rojo, is written from the perspective of a son, of a child, a young, a young child who is experiencing things, not just, who is participating, not observing. So therefore they're more exuberant, like more physical. You know what I mean?

SS: Were they recorded at the same time, then?

DB: Yes, but in the order that they are going to appear. We did "Rejoicing" first and then we did "Niña Rojo."

SS: Oh Me Oh My [...the Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit] was done with home recordings and you did the whole studio thing on Rejoicing... How did you feel about the difference in the recording process between Oh Me Oh My and Rejoicing?

DB: Well, first off Michael had to, like, take me to a hypnotist that he went to to quit smoking, and it worked for him, so they took me to one to kind of get me cool around the big equipment. And so then we went into this house that had studio equipment, it wasn't like a studio, it was just a house with studio equipment and the whole time I just thought we were recording on little handhelds, like that [points to my tape recorder]. But it was actually nice big equipment.

SS: You are typically uneasy around the large machines and had to be hypnotized?

DB: Yeah... We tried at first and it was kind of a meltdown.

SS: So are you still working with the Black Babies?

DB: That's always happening. You know, members of Vetiver are in it, some of the people live in LA, some live in Paris, some live in Helsinki, which is in Sweden, some live in New York, some live in Chicago, so it's growing. It grows, but we haven't recorded anything.

SS: Do you have plans to?

DB: Yeah, but we're not in any rush.

SS: So you mentioned Care Bears earlier, what do you have to say about them?

DB: [long pause] It is important to care.