Devendra Banhart Interview

Hazy musing from the Venezuelan sun child

For about five excruciating minutes, all seems lost. By the sound of things, Devendra Banhart is stoned. At least that’s what (we think) he wants us to think. Whether he actually is stoned is debatable. Maybe he just got up. Maybe he’s been brainwashed by transcendental meditation disciples in the Himalayas. Maybe he’s just from LA. Whatever the reason, we can’t seem to get a cohesive reply out of the Venezuelan sun child.

How’s it going?
One could say swimmingly.
You don’t sound convinced.
I’m fabulous. Everything is so fun acting.
Are you acting now?
No, not at all. It’s a great day – I’m trying to honour this great day by being myself. Like a bucket of old rags…and washed water? Water wash? Rag water? Yeah, that’s my all-time rockabilly band but they only do Sugar Ray covers. That’s what this is about, right?
No, we’re talking about your new record.
[Silence] Right.

We’d be lying if we said we weren’t panicking at this point, crossing out our diligent research on new record ‘What Will We Be’ and desperately trying to recall how the chorus to Sugar Ray’s 1997 one-hit-wonder ‘Fly’ goes, when the tide turns. The crazy fog lifts. It sounds very like Harry Nilsson. Was he an influence? I wouldn’t say that Nilsson was specifically an influence on this record, but I would certainly say that Nilsson is an overall ubiquitous presence in all the music that I make. ‘The Point!’ is one of my favourite pieces of cinema art storytelling, all expansive, inclusive artwork I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. For this record particularly, the influences would have to be Alice Coltrane, Baby D, Fleet Foxes of course, once in a while I go into Carole King/James Taylor territory – obviously The Bees…Or Chet Baker…

Track seven sounds uncannily like Chet Baker.
Cool, thanks. I think of that track as fusion jazz.

The following exchange – and consequent fifty minute interview – aptly sums up the divide that has stalked Devendra’s career since he finally got our attention with third album ‘Rejoicing In The Hands’ in 2005, alongside contemporary Joanna Newsom. Peter Pan Pied Piper or tie-dyed charlatan? Devendra seems to tightrope walk between the two with curious ease. Throughout the course of our chat, Banhart flits expertly between lucid awareness and spaced-out folly. Nine out of ten times we’re convinced he could charm the apron-pins off your mum whilst seducing your kid-sister, which makes us wonder who the real Devendra actually is. On the flip side, his enthusiasm for what he does, and the musicians he works with demonstrates a genuine love for the work he creates.

Speaking of The Bees, how did you and Paul Butler [Bees member and co-producer on ‘What Will We Be’] get together?
My bass player was working on his solo record and played me ‘Chicken Payback’ and I freaked out. I love their song writing, I love the whole band’s vibe. The sound was so good, I immediately started sending them love letters, hoping for a moderate degree of antipathy from him. And then, as that progressed, we started sharing songs, and I said, ‘Shit, want to come to California and maybe record this record with me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’, and came down from the Isle of Wight. What he really brought to the table was his musicality. For the first time ever he got me to do an hour-long vocal warm-up before every take. I think it adds more of a hotch potch.

Your voice sounds very different on this record. Is that to do with the vocal warm-ups?
Oh yeah, definitely. Without a doubt. It also has to do with being more comfortable with my voice – getting older, and… But, what do you think? Does it sound like a totally different person?
Not at all – you just sound more relaxed.
I agree with you. For me, it’s all about complimenting the lyrical meaning of the words and overall message that’s trying to be conveyed from song to song.

Mention the business of hippie-labels, and things get interesting. The protestations come thick and fast, yet Devendra still seems eager to stoke the psychedelic flames with peppered eccentricities that can’t help but contribute to the very thing he despises.

Doesn’t he find the Woodstock-tag annoying?
Do I find it annoying? Sure, but there are far more annoying things in the world. I mean: thought control. Is the government using microwaves to control me? Let’s talk about that.
You’ve been labelled psychedelic-folk, avant-folk, freak-folk…How would you describe yourself?
Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t use any of those. I think it transcends laziness. They think we play folk music and they watch a show where I play a synthesizer and electric instruments – playing garage rock and Brazilian samba, and it still ends up being folk. But let’s harken back to a time where you ask me a question and I actually answer it.
Okay: how would you describe yourself?
How about sapid samba for the hermaphroditic. How about that?
You know if we print that, it’s going to get printed again and again.
Don’t say that – that’s why people call you a hippy in the first place.
I know…
Do you practice yoga?
No, are you kidding me? Fuck that shit. I just wake up, drink some whiskey and eat some steak.

We believe you, Devendra… Now, onto that new record of yours…

Words by Kat Lister

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