Music  |  Features

Catching Up With... Devendra Banhart

October 26, 2009  |  6:00am
Catching Up With... Devendra Banhart

Today, Devendra Banhart is excited about carrot juice. On any other given day, he might focus his excitement on something else, like skateboarding, eyeglasses or the Wu Tang Clan. But, today, carrot juice. Calling from his rehearsal space in New York City where he is preparing for a secret show supporting Little Joy, he announces this quite matter-of-factly: "Today is the day I get stoked about carrot juice."

Banhart's tendency to get excited over the simplest parts of his day—waking up, eating breakfast, breathing—is a trait that often squirms into his music. While his earlier records captured him as an odd egg singing gorgeous acoustic balladry in a sea of more straightforward folk rock, lately he's expanded his stylistic palate to include reggae, Samba, jangly Spanish dance music, echoing chamber pop, Sunday morning jazz and twisted classic rock, all the while maintaining an air of mystery, a sense that there is more going on in this man's head than could possibly be expressed in songs, or entire albums.

It was no surprise, then, that Paste's recent conversation with Banhart—concerning his beautiful and genre-less new album, What We Will Be, out Oct. 27 on Warner Bros.—ran a Grand Canyon-sized gamut of topics: from God to GZA, from acid washed jeans to microtechnology and Banhart's first date with his new major label (hint: they both went home happy).

Paste: So are you just hanging out in the city until the show?
Devendra Banhart
: No, I’m here for 3 or 4 days afterwards. We’re going to try and shoot a little video while we’re here. We’re going for “Baby,” a little pop song. A simple, bubblegum pop song. Have you heard that song?

Paste: Yeah, I’ve been listening to the record for about a week now.
Banhart: No way. Awesome. Thanks for listening to it. That’s actually very masochistic. But I’m still glad, though I guess you enjoy hurting yourself. I guess everybody wins.

Paste: We’re now a few weeks away from the new record being released. Do you still get excited about a new album coming out?
Banhart
: I do get excited, but at the same time, it’s done. But yeah, of course I do. I’m excited about actually holding a copy of it—the little book of art that comes with it. I’ve never seen a single copy before.

Paste: It looks pretty good.
Banhart
: You actually have a copy?

Paste: Yeah!
Banhart
: What the fuck, man. I haven’t seen one. I mean, I’ve seen the cover—I drew the cover. But I haven’t actually seen a physical copy of the record. I don’t own a copy. So I look forward to holding a copy of the record. That’ll be exciting.

Paste: Where did you record the album?
Banhart
: In a little bucolic, sleepy, hippie town a couple hours north of San Francisco. A place where Richard Brautigan lived and died. And I love his writing. Somehow there was a picture of him up on a wall when I was writing the record, and I wondered, “Where are you, Richard?” So I found out where he was and we went and made the record there.

Paste: Were all the songs written before you went to that sleepy, bucolic town?
Banhart
: Half and half. I had half of them written and the other half—well, you just can’t force some parts. That’s when you start to get filler on your record. Those little holes, when you fill them just for filling’s sake, you get filler. So I left them open, and when we got to the town we filled them up with the band. It’s the first time that everyone in the band has a bit of writing.

Paste: Did the recording go pretty smoothly? Were there any hangups?
Banhart
: It was smooth as fucking… molasses. Which isn’t smooth, it’s sticky! So it was not as sticky as molasses, but it was smoother than… than …oh, Jesus Christ I’m not a very good rapper as you can see. My flow is not on point. I’m usually much better than this.

Paste: Well, we could always use the classic “smoother than velvet” or “smoother than silk.”
Banhart
: Oh, thank you. It was smoother than that. It was smoother than Captain Crunch in a dog’s… oh, no. See what I mean? I need more coffee. And I’m serious about that rapper thing. We just got a call from GZA asking to collaborate.

Paste: Wait, really?
Banhart
: Yeah—he heard “Baby” and apparently was freestyling over it and so I’m going to submit some soundscapes for him. I mean, I love the GZA. Liquid Swords was my formative album. He’s a legend. He’s untouchable; he’s an avatar, an iconoclast. You know, it’s the GZA. You can’t fuck with the GZA.

[Line goes dead]

Banhart: What happened? Was it you or me?

Paste: I don’t know. But it’s alright. It is what it is.
Banhart
: It is what it is.

Paste: And what it is—I guess we don’t know.
Banhart
: Nice. You’re right. That’s good. At least we know we don’t know. And the more we know the less we know. The more we learn...It’s all good. There’s a lot to learn out there. There’s a lot to learn. Every single step.

Paste: Before we got cut off, you were talking about some pretty exciting news. How did this project with GZA come about?
Banhart
: I DJ’d this guy Heathcliffe’s [Berru] birthday party. It was me and the RZA. So from that, I got to know Heathcliffe, their tour manager. Not everybody knows I’m a big fan of Wu Tang. I started making music thanks to skate videos. And a big part of skateboarding at the time was hip hop. I remember the first thing I ever did with a printer was print out the Wu Tang symbol—the W—just glue it on my skateboard. Make these janky ass stickers.

So GZA was not so much impressed, but he was obfuscated that I was such a fan of Wu. So he said, "Send me something." We played Coachella and lo and behold, I looked on the sidelines and there was GZA. I was stunned. So we hung out and talked—we talked about atomic energy and how the sun is powered. We talked about dark matter. Then I sent him my catalog. And he said, "Hey man, will you write some stuff? Let’s write together." So that’s where we’re at right now.

Paste: Have you worked together yet, or is this still in the "pick a place, pick a time" stage?
Banhart
: He has shared his new writing with me and I’ve sent a couple sketches. With his new work I can tailor the sketches I already had. We’re at the beginning stages.

Paste: Could this turn into a whole album?
Banhart
: I don’t know. Who knows? Yes, I think it could.

Paste: What We Will Be includes some of the most straightforward rock you've ever made. "Rats" almost sounds like Led Zeppelin. Where'd all the rock come from?
Banhart
: Where did the rock come from? That’s the million dollar question. From the Viper Room! The funny thing is, I wrote “Rats” five years ago with an acoustic guitar in the winter alone in the middle of fucking shit nowhere. In the woods. Alone. And I write this rock song. It’s not this new thing—it's really old. The oldest song on the record.

Paste: Why did you hold it for so long?
Banhart
: Well, I didn’t know how to rock. I had to learn the art. My pants were too baggy. I didn’t know how to ride the snake. I was sitting at the front of the bus. I wasn’t even blue at that point. I didn’t know that bleach was for more than just what it’s used for. I didn’t know you could make cool pants out of bleach, like George Michael. Bleach from Home Depot. Fuck Home Depot.

Paste: Now can you wear bleached pants?
Banhart
: Yes, yes. And also now I can take things further because I have a band that can have a conversation without talking. Musically we can have a really bad conversation or a good one or tell a stupid joke with our instruments. That’s a rarity and it’s a weird thing—worth holding on to. As the band approaches a decade of knowing each other and playing music—it’s taken that long to realize we’re all weirdly married to each other. How do you deal with a marriage? You rock!

I didn’t even know these people had nice handwriting. The reality of what’s holding us together is so tenuous, but at the moment it seems so fucking profoundly inseperable and impossible to circumvent around. But really it’s just a little sliver of an issue, like “I don’t think you have nice handwriting.” And in the end, the guy’s got great handwriting.

Paste: So bottom line, is the band better than it’s been ever?
Banhart
: The bottom line. Yes. And that’s not from getting closer, it’s happened from growing apart more. It’s happened due to Noah [Georgeson] taking on more production jobs and really sitting and writing his second record. From Luckey [Remington] really finishing his first solo record and first book of paintings. From Greg [Rogove] finishing the new
Priestbird record and about to finish his solo record of music. And Rodrigo [Amarante] working in Little Joy and giving himself fully from that. It’s happened from everyone pulling in different directions—it’s made us together a better band.

Paste: That makes sense—everyone can bring something new.
Banhart
: They can bring a little sea cucumber of sound. Whereas before it was not a Baby Ruth, but an actual turd. But now it’s a sea cucumber—it’s a metamorphosis. A triquetrous chemical transformation—from turd to Baby Ruth to sea cucumber. I mean, that idea is all in Sefer Yetzirah, one of the books of the Kabbalah. It talks about making a… a man made from earth and clay and dirt… what’s the word?… homunculus.

That’s not onomatopoeia. It’s a malapropism, because I’m using the word wrong. This guy is not humungous… it’s homunculus. Those are funny, malapropisms. You’re using words the wrong way and it takes a long time to figure out the real meaning of what things are. Everything is shifting, elusive. I can’t write a song if there’s a piece of paper and a guitar in front of me. I’m going to write a song when I’m on the subway and none of those things are available. It’s a very dark, twisted sense of humor that creativity has got. But who would have it any other way? Not me, man. I’m just lucky I get to listen to music. I’m not sure I’d listen to my music. But it’s an honor, and I’m glad you listen to my music. I’ve done a couple interviews and people have no idea—they’ve never heard the record. I find that so odd. What’s the point of doing an interview?

Paste: I think that’d be kind of offensive.
Banhart: Well, slightly, but I don’t take myself too seriously. But, yes, it is. Though I don’t take myself seriously, I do take my music seriously. It’s the only thing I take seriously. At the same time, the real benefit of doing an interview for me is talking about other bands that I like. You know, I’d read an interview that said “Hey, check out Pere Ubu.” And I did and my life was changed.

Paste: On “First Song for B,” [from What We Will Be] you sing  “I take everything as a sign from God,” and later “Please destroy me.” Are you a godfearing man?
Banhart
: No, it’s really about destroying the ego. I’m a godloving man. Not a godfearing man. I just respect that love a lot—the goal of my life is not to disrespect who I am. Really, the goal is to be conscious. The goal is to not be here in the now, but to know that now is here. That’s my mantra. Now is here. I think I’m going to put that on a t-shirt. At least in Topanga, and in various parts of New Mexico. That line is about destroying the old me, destroy the ego. That’s the cry of that song. It’s not ‘destroy me so I never see you again.’ It’s ‘destroy me because I want to join you.’

Paste: How did the idea to move to a major label come up initially?
Banhart
: We just said ‘Hey, whose got the worst idea in the room?’ And we came up with that one. It wasn’t about moving to a major, just a different label. We found ourselves making a record without a label at that point. We were free from the contract with XL. And we were open to every label. So we met with a series of majors and a series of indies. Weirdly enough, all the indies were treating us—their expectations, their goals—like I would’ve imagined a major would. Then when I met with three major labels—I think there only are three—and one of them was, straight up, the most cliché possible. They said, “We’ll sign you if we can get a crack team of songwriters to finish the damn songs. We’re going to make you a star!”

But Warner treated us like I would imagine the indie was supposed to treat me. They were the one label that treated us how we wanted. I liked it—I liked seeing behind the veil. It’s a veil that’s been implemented by the music industry losing so much money and being humbled by that loss. They’re rethinking their business model and who they sign. What I find even more interesting that they’re willing to give whatever modicum of bread and time into me, somebody who I don’t think is commercially viable or fruitful whatsoever.

Paste: Do you think that they think you are? That you have commercial potential?
Banhart
: I don’t think they can afford to think I am. They know what I am. Their whole pitch was letting me make the music I want to make. If you look at their roster, it’s full of bands that I love. It’s got Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Built to Spill, The Flaming Lips. And they’re stoked on all that. One thing they do is respect someone trying to make art. And they know that other things are commercial pop songs. One thing that has remained from their old business model is calling a spade a spade. No bullshit. I expected them to want to mold me into something commercially viable, to only peddle out soulless shit. They do that [with other artists], but they don’t have any pretense it’s something else.

This record was already made when we signed, so all I wanted was approval of things before they actually came out. My last label, they put out videos without me even seeing them. They weren’t even finished. So I’ve got these half-finished videos that break my heart. It’s so fucking embarrassing. People think I made some video—no, it’s supposed to be animation, not me walking around like a fucking idiot in Coney Island. The whole time, I’m thinking, "There’s supposed to be a floating pyramid there, right? A banana pyramid. And Anthony is supposed to by covered in this prism of light, blah blah blah, right? That’s in post-production, CGI, right?" And none of that happened. They put out the video when I was out on tour. So I said, please, just run things by me.

But, no, I don’t think they’re going to try to change my style or anything. But, we shall see. This is just the beginning of the relationship. It might go sour.

Paste: You’re still in the honeymoon phase.
Banhart
: It’s the beginning. We’re still infatuated with each other.

Paste: Sometimes that’s the most fun place to be.
Banhart
: Yeah, it is. I try to be infatuated with the day. Because by the nighttime I always end up breaking up.

Paste: Then you go home alone.
Banhart
: Then I go home alone and watch Home Alone and listen to McCauley Caulkin’s rap in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” and cut myself in the dark and masturbate till I cry. That’s the typical rock’n’roll fetish, of course.

Paste: Are you a Home Alone or Home Alone 2 fan?
Banhart
: Hm. I’m more of an Alien 3 kind of guy. Think outside of the box.

Paste: That was the darkest one.
Banhart
: Yes it was! I think if I ever get into acting and I get an audition, I’m only going to do scenes from Alien 3. No matter what the movie is about.

Paste: Even for a romantic comedy?
Banhart
: Of course. I’ll walk in and say "I’d like to do a scene from Alien 3 right before Sigourney gets raped by the alien." So that’s my backup plan, other than Starbucks, which, I will tell you, was my job before being a musician.

Paste: A few years ago I saw a modern dance performance using some of your songs - “Korean Dogwood" and “Woman.” It was really beautiful. You’ve also made some great videos—namely “Carmensita.” How important is it to you to intertwine music with other mediums?
Banhart
: I think I read about that [dance performance]. I was asked and I certainly approved, because I saw some of their work and found it really beautiful. My knowledge of dance…I’m a total tyro. It’s like being into comic books and only knowing about Alan Moore. Still, it was a total honor.

But, yes, it is important to me if it’s done right. It’s just a delicate, tenuous little fine line, my friend. To incorporate a multi-media thing can be beyond powerful. But also a really well-made song will give you visuals, will titillate each of your senses. Film is obviously that medium where you can get sounds and sights and everything combined into one. But drawing, too—a Rothko or Twombly or a Klein, where it’ll be just a fucking line, can be imbued with such soul that I’m hearing sounds and seeing different things, these weird internal landscapes. So you can make an interdisciplinary piece out of just a pencil and a piece of paper.

Paste: You sing a lot about children throughout your albums—my favorite is “Chinese Children.” In some ways, do you feel like you’re still a child?
Banhart
: I certainly don’t feel like I’m a grown up. But I’m not sure that I feel like a child. I’m somewhere. I hope I never feel like a grown up, but who knows? Who knows, my friend. Who knows?

Paste: What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed at night?
Banhart
: I give a hug to whoever’s around. And if no one is around, which is mostly the case, I try to give one to myself. Literally. It’s a nice way of winding down.

Paste: What was your first thought when you woke up this morning?
Banhart
: I thought about croissants and what they might be like in all the other versions of this possible universe. What if there’s this fucking croissant that has a tiny little horn on it—like a horn of an ibex. But a tiny ibex horn. And what if there’s this nanotechnology in the ibex horn that goes in the croissant, and I have no idea that I’m chewing on this nanotechnological ibex horn? And then I thought having my fillings removed—because I have 30, or 20, or 18 fillings; I have horrible teeth—what if I removed the fillings and put tiny ibex horns in my fillings. I’d have these horns in my teeth that nobody knew about.

That was the first thing. The next thing I thought about is how nice it is to have secrets. And memories. And the beginning of a day. How nice it is to remember to breathe.

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