Devendra Banhart: The Essence of Things

By: Dennis Cook

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
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.

"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

Devendra Banhart & Andy Cabic :: Santa Cruz
09.06 :: By Alissa Anderson
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."

Continue reading for more on Devendra Banhart...

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.

-Devendra Banhart

Photo by Lauren Dukoff

The Dreaded Freak Folk

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
One of the challenges with Devendra Banhart is describing his music to others. For those who get it, no black and white definitions are necessary but the slippery, evolving character of his music makes it tough to wrestle into words. Sadly, the term "freak folk" has caught on in reference to his work and anyone associated with him or those prone to quiet, often acoustic flavored exploration.

"It's inescapable for anyone who appeared on Golden Apples [i.e. The Golden Apples of the Sun, a landmark compilation put together by Banhart in 2004 for Arthur Magazine] or who's working with any aspect of that stuff," says Jana Hunter, who's released albums on Gnomonsong, the fiercely indie label run by Banhart and longtime pal Andy Cabic (Vetiver). "[That phrase] is absolutely degrading. It's a write-off of somebody's music from the beginning. It's frustrating to me because a lot of my songs are coming from a completely different space. When I started I didn't know anything about folk music and these aren't even folk songs, let alone any sort of freakish tweak on folk. I understand with the proliferation of music in the past few years where people try to find a descriptor for things. But, of course, it's always frustrating from the vantage point of someone making music and believes in it to try and sum it up in five words or less."

"The whole assumption that it's classifiable as folk – unless you're using my definition, which is music made by and for the people – is ridiculous. Most of the time I just say, 'Fuck it,' and don't get involved with definitions," says Banhart. "With [Smokey Rolls], it's the first time I've gotten a lot of bad, confused, even angry reviews. It's a new thing but you gotta deal with it sometime [laughs]."

Other musical fellow travelers are equally effusive about Banhart's infectious spark. Matteah Baim and Rio en Medio, whose 2007 releases, Death of the Sun and The Bride of Dynamite, respectively, JamBase praised to high heaven, have only nice things to say about their connection with him.

"I think we feel entirely natural around each other, so that the moments become full of possibility and always new," says Baim. "It's like the conversations become songs and the songs become us and we walk home and drink coffee."

Devendra Banhart
"He has always been remarkably supportive of my music. He was one of the first people who heard it, and without his and Andy's enthusiasm I would likely have kept it only within a small circle of friends," offers Rio en Medio. "We haven't made any music together yet, so I can only imagine what he is like to collaborate with. But, I'd guess he manages very well in a delicate balance of give and take, vision and spontaneity."

One aspect Banhart and his peers share is an embrace of stillness and subtlety. Often, their work doesn't immediately reach out and grab you. Instead, one is welcomed into a quiet world we don't have to find entry into.

"That's just kinda my speed," chuckles Hunter. "Modern pop music plays to shorter attention spans, but then again, I write songs that are two minutes long [laughs]. I'm a quiet person when I'm writing. It's intimate music made in an intimate fashion to be enjoyed intimately because it's intimate subject matter. That does set it apart from modern pop music, which tends to avoid intimacy all together."

"Dynamics are everything. Without it, music is mud," observes Greg Rogove, who drummed on Smokey Rolls and has taken on an increasingly larger role in Banhart's touring band, Spiritual Bonerz, where Rogove handles a number of spoken story sections live. "Music, in the end, tells a story. You're not always using spoken language all the time, when you play guitar or whatever, but to get up there and have a moment where you get to tell a story like that makes a concert more of an entity, more of a full performance experience. There's a bit of theatre to it."

Despite being painted as cosmic hippies, this is no a flesh and blood retro exercise. Andy Cabic has gotten used to it, saying, "When people maybe don't get the histories right or they're skewed to some other perception, I figure those things will get untangled with time. It doesn't frustrate or upset me when things aren't represented as they are."

For the most part, Banhart is equally blasé about wrongheaded interpretations of his work but now and again someone goes too far.

"We played the World Café [syndicated radio show]," relates Banhart. "We did 'So Long Old Bean,' which I sing in a lower register. At the end of the song, the guy says, 'I guess I see where some of the Tiny Tim comparisons come from in that song.' And I feel like no matter what I played he had that comment and wanted to use it. First off, have you ever heard Tiny Tim? Where the comparison lies I have no idea! Do I sit and talk about Elizabeth Taylor for four hours? No! He wrote a song called 'Santa Claus Got The A.I.D.S.' I think that's a pretty funny title but I would never joke about that. We're playing an A.I.D.S. benefit at the end of this tour. I don't know anything I have in common with Tiny Tim. It's one of the few comparisons I was actually shocked by."

Continue reading for more on Devendra Banhart...

My definition of selling out involving artistic integrity is essentially when you start premeditating shit that shouldn't be premeditated. There's a lot of things that should be done with discipline and focus but there's a lot of things you can't try and plan. When those two things get switched then that's selling out. That hasn't happened.

-Devendra Banhart

Photo by Lauren Dukoff

Stardom And Creation

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
Besides the recent move to SoCal, Banhart signed on last year with Elliot Roberts, Neil Young's longtime manager, who's been instrumental in getting the word out about his new client. Banhart played last year's prestigious Bridge School Benefit Concert and you'd be hard pressed to visit a newsstand this Fall and not see his bearded mug on the cover of every remotely hip music magazine. Banhart largely takes it all in stride and is adamant that he's actually more free to create as the mood strikes him than ever before. Still, there are bad days, like when we spoke hours before the current tour began.

"Right now I'm under a giant turd. I just need a little bit of time to get it together," says Banhart. But in the next breath he adds, "I don't feel I'm in the spotlight. I don't feel any pressure. It isn't like Axl Rose, who has people around him who to make sure he never reads bad reviews. It isn't that I'm in some bubble, where I'm living this weird, enclosed little world with myself at the center of it. I feel like the same ratty pain-in-the-ass I've always been."

To those who think he's grown more commercial since his simple four-track beginnings, he offers, "My definition of selling out involving artistic integrity is essentially when you start premeditating shit that shouldn't be premeditated. There's a lot of things that should be done with discipline and focus but there's a lot of things you can't try and plan. When those two things get switched then that's selling out. That hasn't happened."

For clear evidence of the immediacy and juicy zing in Banhart's music today one need only speak to his collaborators like '70s folk-rocker Linda Perhacs, who returned to making music partially because of Banhart. After releasing a single beloved album in 1970, Parallelograms, she's got two new albums in the can including one with Banhart. Perhacs says, "When Devendra asked me if I could add some of my 'otherworldly harmonies' to his new CD, my answer was an immediate YES! All of us who know him, love him as a brother and just sharing time and creating music with him is pure high vibe! Because of this, when we experience Devendra's music and his artwork and live performances, as well as the delight of recording with him and all his closest friends and musicians, what all of us are really experiencing is the total ambiance of his soul, that is both deep and sensitive with a generosity of spirit to all that is very unusual. The composite of all these textures is what draws people to him. And it is genuinely deserved by him for he is truly unique!"

"Music is like raw cedar and you chip at it until you get the form you want. Sometimes you mostly work elaborate, long lines in the surface or you chip at it until there's just a splinter left. You're guiding AND you're guided. And you're unveiling but you never unveil all the way. And you know it comes from a space outside of yourself and your job is to collaborate with that space, not excluding the interior or the exterior," says Banhart. "At the beginning and now, it's meant to be given as a gift. I've written a song for you, whoever you may be. The only way I ever got a four-track in the first place was Noah [Georgeson, bandmate and co-producer of Smokey Rolls] saying I want to hear what you do. It was always meant to be shared. But, when it came to recording Rejoicing In The Hands and Niño Rojo, it was done under circumstances that were the most affordable. Essentially, there wasn't enough time or money and this is what came out. In the end, I had to get each track down by the fourth or fifth take because we had a completely unworkable deadline. There was no flexibility, and overdubs in that world were a complete luxury. I've never had an aesthetic that was minimalist. I try for a distillation that gets to the essence of a song by either adding and adding or by stripping away as much as possible. The goal in the end is the essence of the words and music."

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Treetophigh Fri 11/2/2007 06:19AM
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what a freaker

emgriffi Fri 11/2/2007 09:26AM
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daverosenheim starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/2/2007 10:07AM
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I was enchanted by the artwork accompanying Smokey Rolls--the CD comes with a booklet of individual drawings and watercolors by Devandra's hand. The pieces are fun, mystical and musical, and I wanted to learn more about his visual art.

A week or two later I learned that the art from Smokey Rolls is actually on exhibit at the SF MOMA, so I checked it out. It's a really cool exhibit featuring Devandra's work alongside that of Paul Klee, whose work I've long loved. Interestingly, Paul was also a musician (a classically trained violinist, I think), and his visual art was often an exploration of musical themes. Supposedly he did a bunch of writing on the symbiotic relationship between the two forms. The juxtaposition between Devandra and Klee's work was really cool- there is actually a lot of similarity, perhaps even a dialog between the two. Highly recommended.

HOPEFULPHAN Fri 11/2/2007 11:00AM
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DrownedInSound starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/2/2007 11:14AM
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Really cool article on one of most interesting artists out there. I've been reading a lot of articles about him (he's on the cover of every major music mag it seems), really cool how Neil Young's manager (and Young himself) wanted to work with Banhart, gotta love legends picking up the new breed. I love how Banhart mixes sound from all the places he's lived. He's a charismatic person and a true original... we need more musicians like Banhart. Oh, and Dennis Cook is the shit!

snappy Fri 11/2/2007 11:24AM
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A note about the 2006 Bonnaroo performance: Devendra was unknowingly dosed by some jackass just before their set. The shit kicked in during the show and he was really disoriented the rest of the day. That band and performance bears zero resemblance to the band today, which is pretty disciplined and rehearsed. I spent time before two gigs with them in September and no one partied beyond a single glass of wine or beer before shows.

snappy Fri 11/2/2007 11:26AM
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I also wrote the cover story on Devendra for the upcoming Winter issue of Signal To Noise magazine, which i think will hit newsstands in December. It's considerably longer than this piece and features completely different quotes, insights and stories. That concludes my shameless self-promotion. Thanks for good word to those who offered one on my work...

roberto767 starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/2/2007 11:59AM
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21mmer Fri 11/2/2007 03:24PM
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just out of curiosity....what is the source for this acid story? it seems to me that this is a man who could pull a performance together while being a little out of it....or a lot out of it.

as a much heralded artist, i've tried to get into this guy but i just can't pick up on his vibe. i'm all about freaks, and folk, and weirdness, and combinations of those but devandra's mix just doesn't do it for me. is it my fault? anyone?

rulosa01 starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/2/2007 03:34PM
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Well, I just can't get enough Devendra in my life. A real original cat, and I find his music to be rather inspired and always quite interesting. I guess it is cool to hate on folks just trying to express themselves.

snappy Fri 11/2/2007 03:51PM
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The source is the man himself, and it wasn't acid. It was an unknown substance that just messed with his system. The random things that came out of him at the Sonic Stage later that day spoke to the power of whatever it was.

roberto767 Fri 11/2/2007 08:16PM
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Snappy, you said "he was dosed by some jackass..." So Wots Uh the Deal?

All Loving Liberal White Guy Sat 11/3/2007 11:43AM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

emgriffi, your thoughtless and ingnorant but funny as balls. i was laughing my ass just from reading it.

manjotar starstarstarstar Sat 11/3/2007 11:53AM
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i dig devendra. he makes me smile and his music is good on seven seperate levels that i don't even know about.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstar Mon 11/5/2007 09:30AM
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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

I will be listening to his album real soon.

Only because I have to :P we shall see how it goes, I have no idea what to expect, which is cool, because I will listen to it with-out bias. peace.

roberto767 Mon 11/5/2007 10:59AM
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This poor guy ate way too much acid for his own good.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Tue 11/6/2007 04:35AM
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I am not a fan of drag. whats up with that anyway? just his way of being different? I would not pay to see any performing man dressed in drag.

I just think its too weird for me.

jimmy row Tue 11/6/2007 07:25AM
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so he said he got "dosed with something" and thats his excuse for a less than steller show? Sounds pretty weak to me

snappy Tue 11/6/2007 07:44AM
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I'm continually amazed at how folks get caught up in a single moment like one bad show or a surface detail like the drag photos. That most of the discussion here has centered on that stuff rather than his broad, wildly eclectic music or richness of spirit, both as a human being and an artistic collaborator, is kinda sad. I write about music and go to see it live because I love music. I mean that in the archetypal sense, something bigger than the tiny details. When I encounter someone who channels that greater spirit I'm happy to celebrate it. Devendra does this with alarming regularity and I could care less if he's a little off one show or wears ladies clothing from time to time. Besides, I think he's pretty cute for a bearded lady...

aquariumdrunk Tue 11/6/2007 08:12AM
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"...too weird for me."

Once again, JamBase members show their open minds! Are you really getting on the fact that he's too "out there?!" Would you be more accepting if he was sporting ratty dreads, a poncho, and a mouthful of rotting teeth?

21mmer Tue 11/6/2007 09:04AM
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nice one aquariumdrunk!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstar Tue 11/6/2007 09:29AM
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I do not care what hair style, poncho, or kinda teeth he has.

the drag photo is down right creepy.

If you like it, then you are more freaky than I am :P

aquariumdrunk Tue 11/6/2007 09:33AM
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Well I guess I don't LIKE IT -- in that I wouldn't hunt down pictures of Devendra in little dresses, but I guess I'm not sure why someone would go out of their way in a very open forum such as this to point out why it's "too weird." I'm not trying to start an argument, just pointing out that I find the "too weird" comment to be a little weird in and of itself! :)

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstar Tue 11/6/2007 09:38AM
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haha! then it fits perfectly :)

besides I was only commenting from my perspective. which in and of itself maybe just as strange as mr banhart himself. now I have no idea what to think. perhaps I will throw the towel in on this one and give up :)

aquariumdrunk Tue 11/6/2007 10:27AM
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RothburyWithCheese starstarstarstarstar Tue 11/6/2007 02:45PM
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This guy kicks ass. Nuff said.

sunnbear Tue 11/6/2007 03:12PM
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Alot of people thought that Marc Bolin and David Bowie were too "weird". They hated them because of the way that they looked and presented themselves. "FREAKS!" they said. Now, where would we be without them? What do you think many, many people thought about Frank Zappa? Now don't get me wrong...I'm not comparing Devendra to Zappa or even Bowie or Bolin, but you get the point. To quote Popeye, "IYAMWHATIYAM!!!"

manjotar starstarstarstar Wed 11/7/2007 04:45PM
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he doesn't usually perform in drag, i've only seen one instance of that a couple years back. he was singing these amazing old jazz and blues songs with a piano player backing him up. a very small show too.

to quote the man himself,

"i love that man, when he's onstage,

i'd hit that thing, in a good way..."

canoftunapudding Thu 11/8/2007 03:51PM
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What kind of random things did this man-woman say on the Sonic Stage at Bonnaroo? I'm all about unknown substances.

Hayle Fri 11/9/2007 08:30AM
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All the freaky people make the beauty of the world . . .

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstar Fri 11/16/2007 09:35AM
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I heard the album. Meh. :)