An Interview with Devendra Banhart
Devendra Banhart, whose name was given to him by an Indian guru his parents followed (“nothing cultish,” he says), was born in Texas in 1981, but spent most of his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela. He later moved to Southern California, where he petitioned unsuccessfully for a skate park to be built near his home. After high school he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, dropped out a couple of years later, and started recording songs on a 4-track lent to him by a friend.
What he came up with was a cobbled mix of acoustic guitar, singing, mumbling, clapping, stomping, and hissing tape. Some songs came to him so spontaneously that they had to be retrieved from friends’ answering machines. The ultimate result was the rambling and beautiful Oh Me Oh My… The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, released in 2002. He has since put aside the solo stuff and started playing with a full band, the Queens of Sheeba, with whom he’s been making music he calls “space reggae.”
Banhart is a gifted and prolific songwriter (he released two full-length albums last year, Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, despite an uninterrupted two-and-a-half year tour) who plays in a range of styles, having drawn comparisons to Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, William Blake, Tiny Tim, Marc Bolan, Beck, and Billie Holiday. Listening to his records or seeing him perform live, it’s easy to feel like Banhart is channeling just about every musical genre imaginable. But what he’d really like you to pay attention to are the stories in his songs.
His latest album, Cripple Crow, was released in September.
I. SAMMY HAGAR’S SUSHI
THE BELIEVER:You’ve been on the road for a couple of years now.What’s that been like?
DEVENDRA BANHART: Well, I toured with no break for two and a half years, and toward the end I was like a junkie looking for a vein in his dick.That’s a horrible, sad, depressing metaphor, but that’s the way I felt. I really burned out. I lost the sense of where home is. Then I realized that home is anywhere I am, and I made it all right to tour like that. But in the end it wasn’t healthy. I couldn’t write anything.
BLVR: Did it affect your playing?
DB: No,but I did just want to get through it. It’s funny— I’ve just now been thinking about some of the reactions of people on this tour. Every night someone would yell, “Your band sucks!” I’ve never had to deal with that before. I mean, I’ve had to deal with not being folk enough for the folk purists, but on this tour I got so much hate. I got some love, too. But a lot of people came with the idea that it was just going to be a nice, quiet folk night. I started playing with a full band on this tour and doing new songs that are more musical, and more influenced by Brazilian and African and Jamaican music. It wasn’t what anyone expected, and it created a lot of tension and hate. It divided people.And that was hard, to take that beating every night.When people come prepared for something and you don’t give it to them—regardless of whether it’s good or bad—it’s hard for them to accept.
BLVR: It seems as if people tend to react viscerally to your music.
DB: It’s funny because the people that react the most negatively are songwriters, dudes that play the guitar and record songs.The folk purists, the Pete Seeger cats, they fucking hate me, but at the same time they know a lot about me. These are the people that bring poisonfilled eggs to my shows to share with me. And it’s not like I start playing and suddenly they realize they hate me. They come with that in mind. I’ve read this whole list of things to call me, like Devendra Fakeheart, Devendra Badheart, De-fake-ra.The funny thing is that I should be an example for those people, because I suck. I don’t know how to play the guitar and I don’t know how to sing and I don’t know how to write. So I should be an example, because I’ve gotten this far without knowing how to do any of those things.
BLVR: I heard you got into a fight with Sammy Hagar.
DB: Yeah.When I started out, I didn’t have a booking agent or a good label or anything like that, and I was playing really shitty shows.A friend booked a show for me at a place in L.A. that’s also a sushi restaurant.At the time, I was way into Patty Waters and Diamanda Galás and Yoko Ono. I liked their confrontational, screeching styles—using your voice as an instrument—and I would do a lot of a cappella singing. I would strum a chord and hold the guitar up and sing the song in that key. It’s a lot of falsetto, and I’d hold that for as long as I could. And this is a sushi restaurant, so, like, nobody’s having it. And Sammy Hagar and his posse are trying to eat their spider roll or whatever. He looks like a canned pickle, or beef jerky, and you can hear him talking and talking, and I’m just doing my thing. I’m in a kind of trance, and he asks them to put the jukebox on. “Put on some Van Halen!” he says.And they do. Really fucking loud. Of course I’m aware of it, and I just start spitting in their sushi [phlegmy hacking sounds], and then the next one [more phlegmy hacking sounds], and I’m frothing at the mouth and it’s all landing right in their food. So Sammy gets up, and he’s got this really nasty, curly blond hair, and I just grab it, sort of latch onto it. I’m pulling his hair and he’s trying to grab me, and I end up on their table, and eventually we get pulled apart and I get asked to leave.
BLVR: Did you ever play there again?
DB: No, never. I would play there again though. Sammy, man, I’m waiting for the fucking rematch.
BLVR: Has performing live gotten easier?
DB:Well, in the beginning that sort of thing was really hard to swallow because it was so confrontational. And it wasn’t intimate. It was exclusive. I wasn’t including everybody. I played a show at the Knitting Factory in L.A.—and I used to drink so much before a show, man, so much—and I was doing the screeching and screaming, but with a little artsier crowd that was like, “Oh, it’s so obscure, it’s cool.” My dad came to that show and afterwards he said to me, “Look, a performance needs to be respectful and confident, to yourself but also to people, to the music, to life.” And that really changed everything for me. I realized that I wasn’t being respectful or confident. After that, I didn’t get too many weird reactions from audiences. Every now and then I still do, just because it’s hard for people to get that it’s electric.
II. LOCAL AS A MOTHERFUCKER
BLVR: You listened to a lot of blues when you were a kid.
DB: I started playing music because of the blues, because of John Hurt and Son House and Blind Willie Johnson.All of my first songs were with bluesy chords. But then I started getting sick of it, I guess. I return to it sometimes, like it’s this old friend kind of thing. But I’m not a bluesman. I also grew up listening to reggae, before I ever listened to blues or folk, mostly because of skateboarding. I used to skateboard all day, and I heard the Desmond Dekker song “Shanty Town” in a skateboarding video and I flipped. I started calling myself a rude boy. I wore suits to high school. The ska revival was happening in L.A. then and I went to a lot of ska shows, too. But after a while I realized it was so closed-minded, so restricted. The same thing with the hippie movement. I don’t think of myself as a hippie. I really think of myself as New Age. Maybe not in the sense of what it’s become, but rather with the essence of taking a little bit from everything. New Age religion is a little bit of every religion, and the seed of every religion is always the same, so you might as well take the best from each one. I think of music as a religion. It’s the same thing.
BLVR: How do you feel about the terms “freak folk” and “new folk”?
DB:You know, the whole “folk” thing is funny because I never, ever said I’m “folk” or this is “folk music.” It’s not folk. I hung out with Sam Beam (of Iron & Wine) when he played in San Francisco, and he played so motherfucking good, I just cried. I never wanted to play again after that. And he’s not folk. He’s just this guy who’s an amazing songwriter. Every line is so sweet, so well put together. He’s a real writer. In the same way that Neil Young isn’t “folk.” He isn’t anything. He’s just Neil Young. Bob Dylan is just Bob Dylan. We’ve gotten used to this music being categorized, but we just laugh about it because none of us ever said it or stood by it. It gets portrayed as something we stand by, like it’s a movement. But it’s really just songwriting, and I don’t think there’s been much songwriting lately. This really isn’t a new thing at all. I wonder sometimes if I made a dub record with turntables and I rapped in Hebrew, would it still be folk? Would it be like,“Oh, the folkster does it again?” The best quote ever is from Miles Davis: “You’ve gotta change. If you don’t, you’re gonna end up like folk singers, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker.”And that’s so right on.
BLVR: You said it’s not a new thing, but it seems to me like a different direction in music, at least. If it’s not new, why do you think so many people are paying attention to it all of a sudden?
DB: Well, I think it’s just that, and I’m going to exclude myself from this, but Sam Beam and Andy Cabic and Joanna Newsom and CocoRosie, they’re all just really good songwriters.
BLVR: You’re friends with those people, all of whom you also included on Golden Apples of the Sun [a compilation Banhart assembled in 2004].What would you say connects you to them, musically speaking?
DB: Well, you know, as I was putting that record together, I started realizing that we all knew each other. I’ve known Andy Cabic from Vetiver for seven years. I knew him as this dude who worked at the bookstore and he knew me as this dude who worked at the Castro Theatre who could get him into movies for free. I knew Joanna for five years, way before I knew she even played songs. We were just buddies. And one day I was like, “Hey, here’s my music.” And she said, “Well, hey, here’s my music.” We had no idea that we were each recording songs. I’ve known CocoRosie for thirteen years. So we all knew each other way before we started playing. That’s how it got put together, and now it’s perceived as the “new folk” or whatever, but it was just the music that I liked. It’s an actual community made up of friends.We call it “the family.”
BLVR: You said that you make music mostly for your friends, but that it’s also meant to be shared. As time goes on and your audience grows, does this aspect of making music change for you?
DB: I do wonder about that. Like, is U2 thinking,“Man, this is going out to bazillions of people”? I don’t know. I’ll write a song about, say, a leaf, or about my mom, or my friends. When I’m recording it, I’m just singing to them, or to that thing. That’s all. Maybe it would sound different if I thought I was writing to this huge thing, to a huge audience. But the things I write about are things that I feel I have intimate relationships with.The way I started recording songs was that my friend Noah gave me a 4-track and said,“I’m gonna let you borrow this in exchange for the tape that you record.”And I did that. So it was always meant to be shared. I’m aware now that maybe more people know about it, but it just feels like I’m sharing it with more friends.
BLVR: Has the recording process changed?
DB: Well, when it’s just you and the 4-track, you don’t have to think about anybody else. It’s whatever you want to do. But when things get bigger and you have a label and more people get involved, more suggestions get thrown at you. More control is put in other peoples’ hands. That’s when people make shitty records. When I went looking around for a new label, Sony said they’d sign me if they could hire a team of songwriters to help me finish the songs.
BLVR: Like the Matrix people who wrote Liz Phair’s record?
DB: Yeah, something like that.Where somebody would say, “Alright, you could use a bridge right here.” That kind of thing. And that’s when it starts changing. It loses its intimacy. But I’m on a label that doesn’t give a shit what I do, and what I present to them is still going to be the same as if I’m recording alone on a 4-track.And in a way, I’m still recording alone on a 4-track. It’s just a bigger 4-track.
BLVR: So you don’t feel pressure with a bigger audience?
DB: What would the pressure be? The only time you sell out is when you start reacting to what people think you’re going to do and not doing that because you want to second-guess and surprise people. It worries me when people say I write so much about body parts and nature. For a minute I’ll be like,“Well, shit, then I’m gonna write songs that aren’t about that.” But that’s selling out. I can’t help that I write songs about nature and body parts. When you start trying to change, then you’re selling out.
III. PURE XYLOPHONE
BLVR: How has playing with a band changed things for you?
DB: I’ve got songs now that are real songs, and I want to make a record that’s more musical.Making a record is like cooking. My first record, Oh Me, Oh My..., was done on a 4-track, and it was like cooking with a few old chicken feathers from Chinatown, some duct tape, a couple of rusty nails, and some hair, and I made this weird meal out of it. And then on the last two records, Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, there was no cooking at all. It was just the recipes, just the voice and the melody.And now I want to make a record that’s a little bit more like cooking.A little spice here, a little horn there.
BLVR: I read somewhere that you said you act more on instinct than intellect, that you’re not calculated. Does that apply to songwriting as well?
DB: Well, I only have one method for songwriting. I have these Mead composition books full of words. I’ll go through them and I’ll only get one line out of a whole book. So it’s a process of reduction. It’s such a bummer because before I make a record I’ll have like ten or fifteen of these books full of writing, and I’m like,“Yeah, man, I’m gonna make twelve records out of this.” And then I go through a whole book and I only get one line. Creating a song is a weird alchemical process for me, as I think it is for everybody unless they view it as a nine-to-five job. I have to create a particular environment with physical objects around me and be in the right place mentally and physically. That doesn’t mean I’m just going to start creating, either. First you create it and then you have to wait.That’s the alchemical part. It’s a weird little combination that sparks it. I’ll be mixing in the parts, I’ll have all I need, and then you wait. And it’s always the minute you’re not looking that something happens. It’s almost like some spirit telling you that you can’t control it. It’s humbling and magical and it’s always exciting. And sometimes it all just falls in your lap, too.
BLVR: Are your songs ever improvised?
DB: There was one moment during the recording of Rejoicing and Niño where we had a couple of hours to kill, we were drunk and tired, and “Be Kind” and “The Good Red Road” were written on the spot. “The Good Red Road” is obvious because you can hear me ad-libbing. But with “Be Kind,” what you hear on the record is the exact moment of creation. There was no premeditation at all. We went back and added the drums and bass and guitar, but the bone of it is the actual, original moment of creation.
BLVR: I’ve heard you’re writing a book. What is it?
DB: It’s fiction. It’s inspired by a book called Mulata by Miguel Angel Asturias.That book flipped my shit, totally destroyed me. The concepts behind Rejoicing and Niño Rojo are distant relatives to the story in Mulata. The idea is that the first record, Rejoicing, is written from the perspective of a mother singing to her child, and the next record, Niño, is written from the perspective of the child. The first song of Rejoicing is “This Is the Way,” which is the pregnant mother talking to her unborn child. The last song is called “Autumn Child,” which is the mother singing to the newborn. On Niño, the song “Aye Mama” is the child’s first words: “Mother you don’t have to cry, I’m going off into the world.” Then the last song is “Electric Heart,” which is the child going off onto the open road. So the whole narrative of those two records is the pregnant mother, who’s then singing to her newborn child, and then the child says its first words and goes off into the world.
BLVR: Both albums were written and recorded at the same time?
DB: Exactly the same time, and in the exact order in which the songs appear, from “This Is the Way” to “Electric Heart.” I planned it like that, though I didn’t plan the recording to be as rushed, and I didn’t plan them to be as unmusical as they are.
BLVR: What do you mean by unmusical?
DB: Those records are just blueprints. They’re just the melody and lyrics. I don’t think they’re very musical.
BLVR: Why not?
DB: Well, we only had two weeks to make two records, and I didn’t know it was going to be so much “time is money” kind of shit.They should have all been songs that you can listen to. In the end it turned into this folky document, which was a big disappointment. But I also can’t go back and change it.I know it’s a sign that I have to keep doing what I’m doing, because even if I’m on tour and people are saying “Your band sucks,” it still doesn’t make me want to stop writing music or change the way I write. If someone said to me, “You gotta just use pure xylophone, man, that’s where it’s at,” I wouldn’t want to do that. As disappointing as I think some of it is, I still can’t go back. I look back on those albums, Rejoicing and Niño, in two ways. One is with dread and sorrow that it wasn’t done the way I wanted to do it. Plus, it was recorded by a guy who didn’t give a shit about my music.But it also feels amazing because it happened exactly the way I think it was supposed to. I mean, for the state I was in at the time, and what I’d done before,it makes perfect sense.And there was a lot of magic that wasn’t erased. There were some weird spirits floating around during the recording. I really believe that. And we didn’t try to exclude them, so I’m happy in the end, but I still lament it, too.
BLVR: I’ve seen your songs described as “surreal” and “mystical” and “stream-of-consciousness,” but they don’t seem so arbitrary or stream-of-consciousness to me.
DB: They aren’t at all, and I always wonder about that. It’s not stream-of-consciousness or pulled out of my ass. Its origin may have been, but the final product never is, because it’s been edited so much. I’ve worked on it so much to get it to this essential space. Maybe it seems stream-of-consciousness because it skips around a lot. Narrative is hard for me to maintain. I’m really bad at narrative. I’m writing a book right now and it’s taken me so long. I’ve been writing it for three years and in that time I’ve gotten maybe one page. I have the rest of it somewhere, it’s floating around, but it’s taken me three years to get almost nothing.
BLVR: It’s weird that you say you’re bad at narrative because I see your songs essentially as very short stories.
DB: Yeah, they are like stories, little ditties, little jinglejangles. And I feel like they’re the simplest things ever. They’ve been whittled down to the barest little pieces. The trunk has been whittled down to a little toothpick. I don’t play 75 percent of my songs live because it’s embarrassing that they’re all, like, three seconds long. But I don’t try to make them longer and give them bulk. Maybe I should. But I like to take the bacon, the little pieces of flesh, and cut off the fat. Fat’s good for you. Maybe I should leave some of it on. Maybe I should eat it raw, like sushi. Sushi’s good for you, too. But you don’t want to eat it with bacon.