An interview with Devendra Banhart

· Sunday July 10, 2011

In 2002 when Young God Records released 21-year-old Devendra Banhart’s Oh Me Oh My… The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit the silly long title wasn’t the only thing striking about the debut. A dizzying audio pastiche of antiquated musical styles, natural songwriting, surreal imagery and wordplay, Oh Me Oh My sounded unlike anything happening at the time. Or ever really.

Several albums, some international art exhibitions, and a famous relationship later, the once-homeless, U.S.-born, Venezuala-raised muso is flying to Oz for shows in Sydney and Melbourne. On the phone he sounds as excitable as a ten-year-old, as intelligent as a post-grad, and as disorganised as all your wastrel friends.

Wilfred Brandt: Hey Devendra!

Devendra Banhart: Hey Wilfred!

WB: How are you?

DB: I’m really good. I just walked by a record store and it looked pretty good. But it made me lament the fact that I have all my records in storage. Y’know the beauty of having a room, a living room, maybe your own room, maybe just a flat, just one room for everything, where one of the walls is just all VINYL! Remember that? I mean, I remember that! And that sounds so nice to me, to be like, “Oh, what do I feel like?” Rodrigo [Amarente], from [Brazilian band] Los Hermanos, he’s got this amazing record collection and he just puts on a record and it’s just – incredible.

WB: Why’s all your stuff in storage?

DB: I haven’t lived in any one place for over a decade.

WB: I thought you were more settled now in Los Angeles?

DB: I’m not settled. But I have a girlfriend that I wanna settle with. We decided, “We’ll move to L.A. as the place to figure out where to move.” She’s Serbian, and we’re thinking maybe somewhere outside of Belgrade. We’re going to Australia soon, so maybe Australia. I went to Adelaide – and I thought it was beautiful in Adelaide! I love Adelaide. And there’s a lot of Australia I don’t know so maybe this time we can look at that. And then after that we’re in Japan, and [my girlfriend] loves Japan so maybe Japan. My job doesn’t really require me to be in one single place, and hers doesn’t either - she’s a photographer and a furniture designer and a painter. So we live in L.A. – the place to figure out where to live – we gave our notice thinking we’d find a place. We didn’t, so we moved our stuff into storage. I’m actually standing on the street in Los Angeles right now waiting to see if I can… stay on someone’s couch (both laugh).

But it’s cool! Because that’s the exact place where I wanted to make this record. This record that I’m working on; it’s just me and Noah Georgeson – Noah plays guitar with me, he recorded Joanna Newsom’s first record and mixed the last Strokes record. He’s my guy I work with, y’know? The last record I didn’t in order to get some perspective, and now it’s very clear to me I should always work with Noah. But this new record I wanted to come from that back-to-basics kinda place where it’s just me and the guitar or me and a piano and then some fucked up sounds that are gonna work well with that.

WB: I know your early stuff, a lot of it was recorded on the go, or even over the phone like we’re doing now. Did you have a hard time moving into a studio?

DB: The only studio that I’ve ever really recorded in is Bearsville in Woodstock, which was incredible. That studio doesn’t exist anymore, and if there’s a studio to record in, for me that was the one. It didn’t have a bunch of pictures of all the people that had recorded there in the past – which to me cheeses out the studio and fucks the vibe. But I knew the path. The path was that The Band had recorded a lot there, The Fog had recorded a lot there, Bobby Charles had recorded a lot there – a lot of our heroes. Levon Helm lives up the street, one of the guys from Bad Brains lived down the other street. And that right there is my musical taste - a guy from Bad Brains and a guy from The Band. So I knew the history, and that studio itself not trying to sell you what’s happened in the past was very beautiful.

Recording the way I did that first record, on this phone? That literally was like that. I’d call Noah, “Please don’t erase this, I’m going to go to your house and then I’m going to put a microphone to your phone and put it on to this broken little four track,” and that’s how I made that record. Since then, we’d find a location and we’d build a little studio in the house where we’d also live. Everyone being a grown-ass man now, that isn’t gonna work. Everyone’s got girlfriends, and that’s where we were when we were kids. It was so fun, we were all sleeping on top of each other really.

Before I started making this record, the first instinct I had was just, nobody else is gonna be on this record, it’s just me and the guitar. Now it’s changed, I’d like it to be a hodgepodge. A farrago – which is beautiful, that word, because it means ‘a confused mixture’ (laughs). Oh man, sorry, I am wandering around – ANNA!

(Devendra starts yelling to get his friend’s attention)

Sorry. So yeah, a confused mixture I think is the place to be. I am only satisfied with myself literally if I look in the mirror if that’s what I see, a confused mixture (both laugh).

WB: I wanted to ask you about your art. How do you approach making a new work? Do you have an image in your head and you’re trying to capture that on paper? Or is it more spontaneous and instinctive?

DB: Either it appears before it’s painted and it’s the kind of pain-in-the-ass part where you have to make it happen, or it is much more fun when you just start and see where it will take you. But that usually… ends up not being a piece I ever show and end up throwing away (laughs). But both are necessary. Just like if you are a songwriter who writes everything really structured - verse, verse, chorus, back to verse – if from the get go you’re trying to structure it, at some point, it’s really healthy to put a pen to paper and just shit out your thoughts. The same goes for if [you write unstructured songs normally] at some point it’s good to just try from the get go keep a definitive structure.

WB: And with songwriting, how much reworking do you do?

DB: There are songs that are written right on the spot, and changing them, even tweaking them a little bit deflates them of any little modicum of life they may of ever had. And then there are songs, for example, on the last record there’s a song called ‘Maria Lionza’ where I start to look into the story of Maria Lionza, this deity, folk tale, saint - y’know, she’s a variety of things to different people. That song is a structured, conceptual thing. There’s instrumental segments which represent Maria responding to a prayer - ‘cuz there’s no way I’m gonna try and be the voice of a deity here. The closest thing I’ve ever heard in music that comes to holy music is Alice Coltrane. So Maria’s response has an Alice Coltrane kind of vibe. And then in the song - in my experiences, after a moment of profound clarity or sort of spiritual revelation, just like a dream that I’m trying to hold onto and remember, it just gets more and more oblique and dissipates like a fog. So the song ends with this really mundane pop moment where the lyrics are, “Who do you love? / The lover you can’t forget” – I mean really dumb, kinda trite stuff.

WB: You’ve talked about with this new album you’re going for a kind of regression, and you’ve talked about John Cage’s ideas about spontaneity. And I wondered – not just for you, but any artist – if it’s difficult to try for a certain kind of purity, because if you ‘try’ for it, you make it impure?

DB: Yeah, that’s the whole thing, the dance with the entropic, the chaotic, the ‘who knows?’. I feel like literally, and I guess in a way metaphorically, symbolically – always make sure that the studio has a window that you can open. Y’know when things start to get a little too sterile, a little too, um… what’s the fucking word?

WB: Myopic?

DB: Ah well, myopic’s my thing though man, fuck! (both laugh) If I can just open the lens a hair that’s a victory for me. The word I’m looking for is… oh fuck…

WB: Insular?

DB: No no – just give me thirty seconds here. (long pause) What the fuck, the word is… (pause) Oh fuck, it’s like in my face, I can see it, it looks greek! The word is… oh god I’m gonna have to call you back and tell you what this stupid word is. It’s not even the point, I can just use another word but now this word is hanging in my face like a little hangnail… well when things get a little too ‘routine’ – and that wasn’t the word – then you can open that window. That window is there always to open. You don’t always have to keep it open, but you’ll open it because that’s when true collaboration happens.

I think that was the thing about John Cage that I loved, for him it was this dance with chaos, this collaboration with the ‘who knows?’, with the moment really. And that’s something else that Michael Gira [Young God owner] always said to me: it’s important that each recording has its sense of place and time. And the way you get that is by making sure that that place and time are included in the recording. So the next two records I made after the first one, you can hear the cicadas and it’s a hot southern night on the Georgia - Alabama state line. Those are just part of the recordings, and they give it a sense of place and time.

“Perfunctory!” That was the word. When things get perfunctory you can open that window in the studio.

WB: I’m really glad you thought of that.

DB: What’s beautiful is that it was clear to [John Cage] that there’s an obvious relationship between books of divination like the I Ching and composing music. Where it’s a collaboration again between the known and the unknown. His music to me, it’s like - I can appreciate it once I understand the conceptual intent. And some of it I can appreciate on its own; same with his drawings, I love his drawings. He also inspires me just seeing footage of him foraging for mushrooms. The approach that he takes to being an amateur mycologist to me is just like a weird composer. I feel like for him, everything became composing.

WB: No matter what medium it was in.

DB: Exactly. I love that. And I love how he talks about how he’s just been banging his head against the wall, that’s his whole career (both laugh). I can relate to that.