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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Paste: Why did you hold it for so
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
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 man made from earth and clay and dirt
what’s the word?
That’s not onomatopoeia. It’s a malapropism, because I’m using the word wrong. This guy is not humungous
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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