The first thing I noticed about Devendra Banhart after he greeted me with a big hug when I interviewed him in Los Angeles a few years ago is how much smaller he was than I expected. Oddly enough, it was something like the first time I saw Jack Nicklaus play golf in person back in the ’60s. He could hit the ball 100 yards farther than you, even though he was only 5-foot-10. Photos of Banhart in exotic dress, heavily applied facial makeup, flowing hair and long beard make him look like he’s a giant among normal men. Like the young Nicklaus, the 28-year-old Banhart—who just released major-label debut What Will We Be (Warner Bros.)—has the potential to be one of his generation’s major players. His voice, with its careening vibrato and fuse-blowing intensity, sounds something like Marc Bolan’s, but his repertoire may be more all over the map than anyone making records today. He combines a love of arcane folk music with hard-rocking psychedelia and an ability to sing beautifully in English or Spanish, a skill he learned growing up in Caracas, Venezuela. He refers to himself, jokingly, as a “fake hippie” in our interview. But he appears to be the real thing, a refreshing return to the revolutionary thinking that once seemed capable of changing the course of human events. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen again? MAGNET’s chat with Banhart, from a friend’s home in Los Angeles, begins with him being an hour late for the slotted interview. “I’m so sorry,” says Banhart. “Anyway, here we are on this asteroid.” Banhart will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
MAGNET: I flew down to L.A. to interview you about three years ago when you were living in a house on the side of a hill in Silver Lake and finishing up (2005’s) Cripple Crow.
Banhart: Of course. I remember when you said to me, “Your Joanna Newsom was our Grace Slick.” You think I’m bullshitting you? Of course I remember you.
Well, you’ve talked to a lot of people since then. So, that makes you this generation’s Marty Balin? Who do you think you are?
The Carrot Top of yesterday. I’ll be Queen Latifah.
How do you feel about guest editing the MAGNET website for a week?
It’s been torture, but it is such an honor. Let me start off by saying it was an honor to be tortured by you. Thank you for torturing me, so thoroughly, so assiduously. There are so many things I wanted to include. I wanted to include a badly written poem about each one of my choices. There’s so much shit that I wanted to get out there. New things happen every day, and that’s where the torture comes in.
So, tell me how it feels to record for Warner Bros. after the so-called collapse of the record industry, in the post-apocalyptic era.
We recorded that album not knowing we were on Warners. But, yeah, we are living proof that the previous structure has collapsed. It’s only because of that crippling collapse that we are even on this label.
The Cripple Crow effect.
That’s correct. The humble horse. So far, they’ve delivered on the one thing I required of them: to do what I wanted to do. But there are little aspects that I wish I had. I don’t have the wherewithal, nor do I have the time or the means, to have every finger in. We had to do all the fan photos in one day. But so far, all the fuck-ups have been my fault. But that’s how it’s been working with Warners. They’ve been great, very hands on. There are two people at Warners that I hang out with. They’re aware that vinyl is back, and it’s worth having a band that doesn’t make them any money. Well, I don’t know if there’s worth to that, but somehow we fuckin’ slipped through the cracks, and they signed somebody who’s not gonna make them any money. That’s still confusing to me.
I think you’ll do well. I think your stuff is good enough that it’ll sell very well. That’s my guess.
Thanks, I feel that there’s a lot of moms out there, and I kinda make moms’ music nowadays.
How do you figure?
Well, when I first started out there were the kids, and it was, “Hey, man, I like the record,” and I’d say, “Thanks.” Now it’s those same kids saying, “Hey, my mom really likes your record.” It’s the new demographic.
Well, you probably have a pretty hip mom, from all you’ve told me about your family.
She’s much cooler than I am.
I don’t know how that’s possible. You’re about as cool as it gets, Devendra.
Oh, my man. You know what to say to a girl.
I think you’ve achieved the goal of timelessness. If somebody heard this new album in 2059, they’d have no fucking idea when it was recorded.
Holy shamoly, thank you. I think that’s a good thing. That’s very kind of you, thanks. I think it’s got the expiration date of already-expired cheese.
I loved the way you used the sound of Junior Murvin‘s “Police And Thieves.”
Yeah, that’s my most-proud production moment.
I interviewed Andy Cabic of Vetiver recently in San Francisco at his place on Sixth Avenue, where you lived for a while. And there’s this record and book shop around the corner on Clement called Green Apple. I could feel your ghost in there. I’ll bet you logged a lot of time in that place.
Oh yeah. Definitely a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of trade going on there. That’s where I still get my mail, at Andy’s, but I get it in spurts because I’m rarely there.
I thought maybe I could get your cell number from Andy this afternoon when I couldn’t get hold of you.
I was probably hiding in the bathroom, crying. I’m still jumping around in L.A. Right now I’m in the Los Feliz/Silver Lake area. But I don’t have a car, so I’m really stuck at a friend’s house. I was in Topanga for a while, but [2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon] was finished so I had to move. That’s how we always do it.
Do you see Joanna Newsom these days?
Yeah, I do. Joanna’s part of our family. I haven’t seen her for a while. She’s been so busy writing, recording and touring. And that’s how it is. We haven’t gotten to see each other. But when we do, it’s the best.
A few years back, I saw you play at Bimbo’s in San Francisco, and I looked over at the table next to ours and there was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Did you know he was there?
Holy shit, yeah. I got to play with Ramblin’ Jack. When we had the honor of curating one of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals, he was one of the first people we asked to play. We asked Jandek, Bat For Lashes, Metallic Falcons. Yeah, man, I couldn’t believe we had Jandek on that show.
What I really like about music these days is that nobody, and I mean nobody, can know it all. I could probably tell you about 100 jazz artists you don’t know.
Exactly. I’d love to hear you make me a mix called The Saddest Jazz Artists. I like sad jazz, not these up artists. I like Don Cherry. He’s my favorite jazz musician.
I go to a lot of movies, and recently I’ve heard people who have tried to imitate your voice on film soundtracks. Have you heard any of that?
For their sake, jeez, I hope it’s a horror movie. I actually have done some soundtrack work. I just did a song for Todd Solondz‘s new movie. He’s one of my top directors of all time. Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes and Welcome To The Dollhouse are some of my favorite films. He asked me to sing a song he’d written the lyrics to, and I changed a few chords around and recorded it with Beck for (Solondz’s movie) Life During Wartime, which is coming out in a couple months.
Every time I see you mentioned in the British music press, they refer to you as a “bearded eccentric.” Does that bug you?
That’s funny because I’m actually a clean-shaven epitome of normality, the most boring, normal person you’ll ever meet. That’s the way it is, appearances. Go fuckin’ figure! I’m not sure how to ameliorate this misconception. The last show we did, I played electric guitar on almost every song, and yet the review was we bring our “brand of folk music” to this venue. Real hippies hate me, and I’m the only person who’s interested in being a fake one.
Been back to Caracas lately?
I went over there last Christmas and took a little stock. My cousin was getting married. I saw some old friends, trying to get their music out to the world. It’s much easier now. It’s funny because they can’t play anywhere there, but they’ve got all these blogs and websites they can send their music to. But it still doesn’t help them play shows in a country that’s so corrupt, an entire infrastructure built so you don’t want to be an individual, you don’t want to enjoy your life. I’ve got young friends who are architects who are aware that revolution starts with architecture. Somebody will realize that if I build a building beautifully then someone’s going to feel good about it and want to do something beautiful in it. Isn’t that crazy, that a cultural movement begins with architecture? You need somewhere to meet.
There’s a great keyboard kind-of sound on the tune “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” on What Will We Be, something like a steel drum but under water. What is that?
That’s this hybrid, weird-ass instrument that Noah Georgeson made. It’s an mbira, an African thumb piano, and it’s on top of a charango, and he plays both at the same time. He can manipulate the strings while he plays them, and that’s what gives it that crazy sound.
I love “Rats,” probably my favorite song on the album. Is that dedicated to anybody in particular?
That’s the oldest song on the album. I had that song right after Cripple Crow. It’s dedicated to you—how about that?