By: Dennis Cook
Upstairs at the Rio Theatre in the coastal counter-culture enclave of Santa Cruz, CA, I lean in to hug Devendra Banhart, which causes him to yelp with pain. "My cock has been hurting me all day," he offers in explanation. With someone else I might ask but you get used to unusual pronouncements quickly with Banhart. He opens his shirt to show me his new tattoo, a primitive phallus, the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a cave painting. There is something orphically deep about the man, a richness of spirit that draws from multiple lifetimes. The new ink fits in perfectly with the array of eye-catching charms and colorful drawings already adorning his tall, lean frame. Bedecked with charms and symbols, Banhart is lanky mythology come to life in a sweet, soulful boy. Everything about him speaks to a more vibrant connection with the world, both literal and spiritual, than most of us will ever know.
| Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff|
"When Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon [his new album released September 25 on XL Recordings] was done I didn't have a title. Something in me was giving me instructions and I didn't totally follow them. I was worried in the end this wouldn't work out, and the instructions change every time. It's like the voice of the creative spirit," says Banhart. "The last time I heard, 'Look at every book. Look at all the lyrics. Reread Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Son of Old Man Hat, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions and Black Elk Speaks.' That's at least half of what Cripple Crow is about. But, as I searched in that direction the instructions told me the answer would come from the opposite direction. I was looking in the wrong direction on purpose, and as I did that the title Cripple Crow came to me slowly from the left side of my head while I focused on the right."
"On this trip, I knew I had to leave, to go to the desert and have some kind of encounter with a snake and then I'd know the title. But, I couldn't leave because we had to be here every single day to track, then work on the art and lyrics, then the website, the special book, finding someone to do a video and fighting with the label about them not hearing a song for radio," continues Banhart. "I thought, 'Fuck, I'm never going to get a title!' Then suddenly, I looked to my left and a branded king snake just slithered right on by. I took pictures of it. Then, at the top of my stairs there was a king lizard with a huge red spot, which I've never seen before where I live. I walk up to it and it walks up my arm. I took it downstairs and fed it a peach, which it ate right in front of me. Then, I look out the window and I see the guy I've been drawing, who I consider to be a smokey, and he approached the cactus I painted for the cover and did a strange dance with the cactus where he approached it four times, back and forth. He broke off a piece and took it with him. And it was a piece too small to be turned into stew to eat with his tortillas. He was doing a shamanistic ritual with this cactus that lives right next to us. At that moment, my mother calls and tells me, 'I'm sorry but your name doesn't mean what I told you it does your whole life.' I found out my name actually means 'Lord of rain and thunder.' All those things were beautiful. I felt the creative spirit cut me a little slack even though I didn't follow the instructions."
Thoughts Of Home And Family
Earlier this year, Banhart and a number of his creative sparring partners moved to Topanga Canyon in Southern California. A famous/infamous bit of rolling geography from the '70s where The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others who helped shape the face of popular music holed up. Close to the ocean and shining metropolises, a place of nature and civilization, if one thought about it Topanga seemed a logical landing place for a gypsy like Banhart, who'd been on the move since his teens. He's exuberant about finally finding a real home, one where he could build a studio and craft his most holistically together album yet.
"I think you're supposed to come from experience but approach music as a gift meant to be shared," Banhart offers. "The only song I didn't write in this house, in this Los Angeles canyon we'll call Thunder Canyon, was the beginning of the last song on the record ["My Dearest Friend," which begins mournfully, "I'm gonna die of loneliness"]. I wrote that in New York, and that was how I was feeling at that moment. I was really worried that would be the song, which is totally hopeless. Then I moved to L.A. and I felt hope and things did change and the rest of the song was written. And that is fuck, man, the best feeling when that happens."
Smokey Rolls fully represents Banhart's innate eclecticism, ranging freely but smoothly between English and Spanish, finger-snapping love hosannas and soaring, reflective musings, acoustic textures and electric outbursts. He skateboarded as a kid and has recently taken up surfing with drummer Greg Rogove (Priestbird), and says a lot of his initial exposure to music was through skateboarding pals and his father's diverse tastes.
"He's the one who turned me onto Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Farka Toure, Caetano Veloso and Neil Young. And skateboarding turned me onto Desmond Decker, David Bowie, Prince Buster, The Specials, even Frank Sinatra. The Specials are thought of as this British ska band but they blended a lot of styles together."
"I went through the worst breakup of my whole life that made it the worst year of my whole life. I didn't write a single song," explains Banhart. When he rediscovered his muse, a score of new tangents poured out for Smokey Rolls like Motown-esque hand-clapper "Lover," the sophisticated, slow unfolding of "Sea Horse" and a renewed passion for his native Spanish tongue. "On the last record all the English songs were more animistic, anthropomorphic and psychedelic lyrically, and the ones in Spanish were more poetic and symbolic, just straight up romantic songs. On [Smokey] it's this total, weird reversal."
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