What a long, fun trip for laid-back rocker Banhart

Chicago Tribune | by Joshua Klein

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With two strong, strange records released this year--"Rejoicing in the Hands" and "Nino Rojo"--a lot of people are talking about the mysterious Devendra Banhart, one of the leaders of a new wave of anachronistic psychedelic folk. In fact, one of the few people less than excited about talking about Banhart is Banhart himself.

"I hate talking about myself," he declares, politely. "But I love talking about the people that . . . not influenced me but inspired me, the musicians where I don't even care if I ever write a song again or sing again, as long as I can listen to their music."

So bring up any of the artists Banhart reveres, and he'll talk a mile a minute, sharing his enthusiasm for the likes of Vashti Bunyan, John Martyn, John Cale, the Incredible String Band and many other acts he was exposed to via a not-so-linear progression that began with his childhood.

"I was born in Texas," he starts. "Go to Caracas, Venezuela, and no music but salsa and merengue. But Mom and Dad start playing Caetano Veloso and Neil Young, and that I gravitate towards more than anything else. So Dad goes to London, comes back with Nick Drake's `Way to Blue,' since he knows I like acoustic records, but it was a used record, and when I opened it up it had Radiohead's `The Bends' in it. So I go to a little record store in search of Nick Drake and it has a blues section that instead of Robert Cray and B.B. King has Mississippi John Hurt. And so on. I came to reggae--which is my favorite music right now--through skateboarding, since a skateboard video used a Desmond Dekker song."

Banhart is somewhat humbled by the notion that many are coming to his music by following a similarly convoluted path, especially since he shirks the usual trappings of ego. "From the beginning, I made music for my friends," he says. "It was always meant to be shared. I never looked at it like I was making music that might some day be heard, you know? I always knew it would be heard, just by my five or 10 friends. [The music] doesn't even feel like mine. It feels like theirs."

Is playing live, then, the apotheosis of that philosophy? "For sure," Banhart exclaims. "It's like you're a painter, but instead of just hanging the painting, you have to repaint the painting for the people. On records, you write the song, record it, and get it done. Live, you improvise. You're vibing off the communal vibration. It is a collaboration with everybody's vibe at the moment, so if people are up, or people are down, it's going to affect the way the song comes out. It's a collaboration with the moment, and with how everybody's feeling."

Given his modesty and his respect for similarly inclined friends such as fellow neo-folkies Joanna Newsom and Vetiver, Banhart gets most excited about the prospect of live collaborations. "We have this ESP communication, where we just nod at each other, and we have the same relationship with music, so we become one creature," he explains. "It's like one brain or one part communicating with the other."

For players like Vetiver's Andy Cabic, who will perform with Banhart on his Chicago date, gigging with Banhart provides something his own band can't. "We're not as improvy as some of the other people are, because I have arrangements with string players," he admits.

As for the affable Banhart, he views touring as just another way of expanding his circle of friends.

"I look at it like the group grew in numbers," he says of his audience, thinking back to his start writing music for buddies. "Any person I get to meet who's interested in hearing the next record, I get their address and send it to them, for free. I know there are people paying for it, but I don't look at it like I've got this product that people are waiting to consume. I'm just writing my songs to share with people. Which may be naive, but I'd rather be naive than have it be some ego trip."