Devendra Banhart: Can’t Help But Smiling

By Team JamBase Oct 27, 2009 4:02 pm PDT

By: Dennis Cook

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
One never knows where a conversation will begin, travel or end when speaking with Devendra Banhart. There’s a strong feeling of being in uncharted waters when one wades into his depths. To wit, our recent chat was set up to discuss his focused, lovely new album, What Will We Be (released October 27 on Warner Bros.), but instead we begin with an etymology discussion about onomatopoeia. “A word like ‘pulchritude’ doesn’t sound like beauty, but it is,” says Banhart, who’s a touch surprised at the elasticity of onomatopoeias. “I’ve been mislead… by the dictionary! Language is SO fun!”

Fun plays a major part in Banhart’s overall makeup. He delights in playing with ideas, sensibilities, his own predilections, and considerably more. He’s a serious cat who refuses to become calcified, and he shakes off stiffness and rote with a giggle and a grin. Like the Japanese, he delights in things that lend themselves to multiple meanings and interpretations.

“It keeps your mind a little more alert when you have more options and more possibilities. The natural cataloging of neural abilities is going to do that just processing input. I think the more possibilities there are the more you exercise that,” says Banhart. “Weird sponge unearths gold.”

Despite an ever-evolving relationship with Banhart, I still find myself caught flat-footed from time to time by his pronouncements. I can’t rightly tell you what ‘weird sponge unearths gold’ means but I do think it’s evocative as hell, a five-syllable fitness routine for those neural pathways he speaks of. And his music functions just the same. Linear isn’t a route he follows very often, and even in his simplest moments there floats wispy complications. While What Will We Be is filed in the rock section, it slips borders like a grifter with a briefcase full of passports. Banhart is a citizen of the world AND a citizen of no world, and his music increasingly sounds like he’s figured out what the Top 40 in his alternate universe sounds like. The new album carries one along in a seemingly effortless way, the gentle, love-bruised first half giving way to things more raucous and darkly sensual on Side B. 2009 is a crossroads year, a time when crucial choices in myriad realms must be addressed. And in its own subtle, slinky ways, What Will We Be tackles that zeitgeist head-on.

“I want it to be a question we all ask ourselves as individuals, as a species. And the way the title is written on the CD is important. It’s written ‘What Will’ and underneath that ‘We Be,’ so there’s two ways of reading it – there’s the question and the answer. The answer to ‘What Will We Be?’ is ‘What We Will Be.’ I think there’s something comforting about that,” offer Banhart. “That question is a new question for us, collectively, to ask, ‘What the fuck is going to happen?’ I hate to say 2012 but I’m afraid.”

Devendra Banhart at Coachella by Lauren Dukoff
It’s all fine and well to be a dreamer and an artist but present and looming circumstances necessitate action, if only to actively prod at our sore spots and see what we can do to heal them.

“No joke. I’m with you 100-percent, but it’s not all bleak. A time of change is exciting. Without destruction there’s no change,” Banhart observes. “What form that destruction will take is frightening because it’s unknown, but it can also be a beautiful thing.”

There’s a love song on What Will We Be that announces, “Please destroy me,” and so the cosmic truths we’re circling around also plant themselves in the personal in Banhart’s work. Here, love’s positive evisceration is acknowledged.

“I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not [laughs]. ‘Will you please destroy me.’ I have no problem with that,” says Banhart, who also manages to condense an entire love affair into two consecutive songs, “First Song for B” and “Last Song for B,” on the new album. “I was a little worried about that, whether I should do that or not. The way I write lyrics is just an editing process. I take 10 pages and try to edit them down to two lines. I want to cut as much as possible to get to the essence of what I’m trying to communicate, and infuse it with some sort of potency at the same time.”

“A work is finished when it takes on a life of its own and changes. I don’t think a work is done when it’s cemented, or when it petrifies, which is what happens eventually to a piece of music,” continues Banhart. “I think music is truly finished when it becomes some undulating light liquid of sound that’s not sedentary.”

If there’s one criticism of Banhart’s earlier albums it’s a tendency to run a little long, three or four songs over a comfortable listen. He admits that within his inner circle the one observation that continually comes up, usually when a friend is a little wasted, is, “Dude, too many songs.” What Will We Be rectifies this with well sequenced succinctness, two 25-minute halves that yin ‘n’ yang organically.

Devendra Banhart by Moses Berkson
“This time we didn’t have the distractions – we didn’t have the opportunity for distractions – and this time we emerged from a fog. That’s what comes to mind when I think of the last record [2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon], a physical place where I, and most of the other people involved to some degree, were when we made it. Comparing it to the new one, that record is covered in fog to me. A man in a fog is a little bit lost and knows that things are coming apart a bit,” says Banhart. “With [What Will We Be] we did shit like one hour vocal warm-ups before each take. That’s what [co-producer] Paul Butler [The Bees] brought to the record. He’d say, ‘You have to warm up your voice for an hour. We have to go over every note on the piano and go up and down a couple scales and match the piano note at different intervals. Once we do that for one hour then we can track.’ My condition for doing that was that we also do a take with the first thing that comes out when I open my mouth in the morning. I don’t come in saying, ‘What up, dog?’ or anything. The first take is the first utterance out of my mouth for that day. Then I’d do the vocal warm-up. I think that contrast helped create more interesting vocal dynamics.”

The primitive yelp and a more studied form of practice both have a place inside Banhart’s music, which thrives on variety, contradictions, and even conundrums. Somewhere in the middle of the maelstrom there’s a point of connection, and there you find Devendra Banhart.

“I’ve yet to find that person, but I keep lookin’ [laughs]. I don’t know except to say that last time there was an element of being lost that didn’t feel that way this time at all,” Banhart says. “Each record is where we were at that time. I’m not ashamed of it or bummed about it. It is what it is.”

Part of the solidity and flow of the new material may be a byproduct of several years of communing and gigging with the core band on What Will We BeNoah Georgeson (guitar, vocals), Greg Rogove (percussion, vocals), Luckey Remington (bass, vocals) and Rodrigo Amarante (guitar, vocals). Each has become adept at translating Banhart’s ideas into practice, as well as increasingly found a place for their own strong concepts and styles to shine somewhat within his schema.

“I’m very fortunate to know a lot of people in this band for as many as 12 years now, even before they started making music,” says Banhart. “Greg I’ve known for almost seven years now. I met him at the time we were dating the CocoRosie sisters. Rodrigo I met at an Os Mutantes show; the only other person there that was crying and having a heart attack freaking out about Os Mutantes. I knew that was a guy I could talk to about music!”

Continue reading for more on Devendra Banhart…

First off, what the fuck are these guys thinking? [laughs]. Have they listened to my music, which has the least commercial prospects in the world? My attitude is they’re this suffocating behemoth in its last days, but they seem interested.

Banhart on signing to Warner Bros.

Photo by: Neil Krug


Talk turns to icons we admire, spurred on talk of Mutantes’ recent moving Outside Lands performance.

“I’ve always loved Tony Bennett. He’s always just done his thing. He didn’t go through a ’80s phase where he made weird fuckin’ electro-pop. If you just stick to your thing it comes around eventually,” observes Banhart, who draws inspiration from individualistic artists like Bennett, Os Mutantes’ Sergio Dias, and major touchstone Caetano Veloso. “My definition of selling out is when you change what you do as a reaction to what people expect or don’t expect you to do, when you change the art you share with the world based on ANYTHING but the natural reality of the necessity for change. These artists are a reminder that one can live that natural reality and still thrive.”

Georgeson, Banhart, Rogove, Remington, Amarante
By Neil Krug
While Banhart is entirely comfortable with constant change, his audience has at times bristled at his endlessly evolutionary ways. Some still long for a return to the nursery rhyme simplicity of his early songs, missing out on the delicious layering that’s gone on in recent years on his own albums as well as his quality freak rock side project with Rogove, Megapuss. Jazz, doo wop, tone poems, and way more are given electrical charge and sculpted purpose in his more recent recordings, even as the childlike P.O.V. of “Little Yellow Spider” continues alongside the hard won wisdom he’s taken in lately. Still, there’s some fans that dream wistfully of his homeless days bouncing between couches and recording ditties on telephone answering machines.

“I’m so happy I’m not still fucking doing that six records in! At the same, I’ll be back at doing that again soon. Trust me, I have a Starbucks application always at hand. I can always return to that because I understand how that works,” says Banhart, one of those rare artists who rarely give their audience exactly what they expect. “I’m not trying to help along evolution, and I don’t think anyone can. I’m not trying to do anything. This is just how this thing works – time, life, music. It’s not like we say, ‘Well, we’re making a new record. It better be different than the last one!'”

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
“It’s happened to me, too, where I’ve liked a musician and I put on a new record and it doesn’t sound like the last one and I’m turned off. I’m like, ‘Oh man, where’s that other stuff? I liked that!’ And then a year later I’ll hear the new record again and I love it and realize I just needed to look at it for what it was in that moment and not judge it by the past,” observes Banhart. “It’s a good thing to foster, rather than the usual thing where the older you get the more closed off you are to new things and change. That’s really frightening.”

Another thing that initially put a lil’ scare into Banhart was signing with Warner Bros. Records after years of putting out his work on independent labels. However, now that the album is done and entering the world he’s more blasé about hitting the big leagues.

“First off, what the fuck are these guys thinking? [laughs]. Have they listened to my music, which has the least commercial prospects in the world? My attitude is they’re this suffocating behemoth in its last days, but they seem interested,” observes Banhart wryly.

One theory is the mainstream recording industry may be in a state of flux similar to the early 1970s, where a lot of interesting music was bankrolled by major labels simply because they had no real idea what would sell at that moment and wanted to throw as much up against the wall as they could. As aromatic abstract art goes, Banhart rates, and he’s developed a healthy following doing what he does, not so much oblivious of or consciously angled against the mainstream, but simply running along an entirely different groove. If the mega-labels once embraced hyper-weirdoes like Captain Beefheart, The Bonzo Dog Band, and Roy Harper, well, maybe they can find love in their hearts for a gentle iconoclast like Banhart. It also doesn’t hurt, from a major record label perspective, that Banhart’s profile in recent years makes him a cultural figure that’s known by some simply for his name and image without any connection to his music.

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
“Something that leaves a sour taste in my mouth is people who are well known but you have no idea why. It’s so strange how excited we are to be around a person that’s famous. Then later, hopefully we step back and ask, ‘Why are they known? Did they fuck a donkey on tape once?'” says Banhart, slicing to the heart of our vacuous star-fucker culture that’s sadly caught him in its slipstream. “Yes, but I’m not involved in that world. That’s why I stopped looking at reviews or articles about me of any kind, because there was this shift that occurred with the last record in the music world, where it went from actually talking about the music to making a bunch of presumptions about me.”

At heart, Devendra Banhart is an omnivorous lover of music that crafts new partners (i.e. songs) for us to canoodle with. His approach, attitude, and general countenance are a joyous, slightly troubled one. He seems nervous – and perhaps rightfully so – that beauty and simple truths offered without irony or subtext may not fit with the cynical, ironic age we find ourselves in. He is humble about his own talents and contributions, and gushing with praise for musicians he adores. He is kind and scattered and fabulously charismatic. These things are not presumptions but firsthand observations from the hours I’ve spent with him, and all these traits, in one way or another, surface on What Will We Be, whose creator is asking himself the same question that he poses to the listener. Only he’s cool (and wise) enough to descend into his reverie on the slinky heels of rich ancestors like Roxy Music, who get name checked on the new album with “16 & Valencia Roxy Music.”

“I had to put Roxy Music in the title, not only because we essentially ripped off the chorus from ‘Love Is The Drug,’ but also because it’s not really my kind of song. It’s a seriously ‘pop’ song, and I was a little embarrassed about it actually. But it captures the feeling of walking down 16th towards Valencia [in San Francisco], which is the apex of drugs and sex and salacious, seedy, tantalizing urchins. Whatever your kick is you’ll find it, at least that’s the invitation of this seductive, beguiling underbelly. It’s a crossroads,” says Banhart. “It’s so exciting as I approach it, and I think, ‘I’m gonna get high. I’m gonna get laid.’ And ‘Love Is The Drug’ or ‘In Every Dream House A Heartache’ is playing in my headphones, and of course, like every time I wander into this crossroads, I go home and I’m not high and I certainly haven’t gotten laid. I think it’s really funny, and that’s why that chorus ends with, ‘Ain’t gonna find a lover/ Ain’t gonna find a man.’ We so rarely come out the other side having gotten what we expected.”

Some footage of us while we were recording!!!!

Devendra Banhart tour dates available here.

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