“Do you know where ‘red herring’ comes from?” Devendra Banhart asks me.
“No, do you?” I ask back, a little too sharply.
“Yeah. I guess escaped criminals used to have a red herring trailing them, to throw off bloodhounds from their scent, so they couldn’t be tracked.”
This is not exactly true. While Banhart’s explanation is a variation of a long-believed etymology of the idiom, a more widespread tale says that the fish were used to train the bloodhounds, distracting the pups so they might learn to avoid other tempting scents. Recently, though, these stories have been discredited, and the term was discovered to be coined by a 19th century British journalist who also created the fake explination about the dog training. Of course, the fun in this trivia is in the indentification of various levels in which the red herring tool is employed.
On his new album, Mala, Banhart sets a mood in the first two songs that is abandoned and not indicative of the collection. “Golden Girls,” despite its innocuous title, is all tension, both through the audible limitations of using a Tascam Recorder and in Banhart’s repeated lyrical order to “get on the dance floor.” This shifts into the nostalgic dream-state of “Daniel,” evoking the all-American ‘50s suburbs, sepia-toned in Sunday’s best, combining with the previous song to feel Lynchian. But this subtle darkness never returns; it’s a red herring for what Mala has in store.
There isn’t much about Devendra Banhart that is as it seems, extending to his current press materials, which explain “mala” as “small” in Serbian, a common pet name that his fiancé, photographer and artist Ana Kras, had engraved on a ring for him.
“I did not choose the title because of a pet name,” Banhart says, exasperated. “I chose that word because it is used in so many different languages. It happens to be that in Serbian, but it also means something in Maltese, in German, Esperanto, and in Spanish of course, in Gaelic. That’s what I liked about it. And, it’s also such a pretty word.
“But, that fucking press release,” Banhart finishes, also refuting the use of the Tascam recorder on the whole album as the bio claims, noting “half the record was made on Protools.”
Things were simpler in 2004, when Banhart’s third LP, Rejoicing In The Hands, received high acclaim from publications on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to a slow entry into the consciousness of independent music fans. Helping him in getting noticed was his appearance, looking like a man stepping directly out of a California redwood forest and into a civilization for the first time, barefoot, mangey and androgynously attired—either a man whose enlightenment far surpasses ours, or a man who might be leading his fans to an eventual suicide pact. Essentially, he looked like a guy named Devendra Obi Banhart.
“I’m not actually a hippie,” he deadpans, “but that image became a caricature of me and I started to work with it. If you look at my first press shot, it’s me in little girl’s underwear with hearts on them. For me, that was coming from a performance place. I was in college at the San Francisco Art Institute and in studying the history of the area when I came across that concept and for me it was really inspiring. I used to go see Heklina at The Trannyshack and see performances. Divine was my hero, and still is in many ways. Paris Is Burning is my favorite documentary of all time. Leigh Bowery is one of the great iconoclasts. I just deeply admire all of these and am greatly inspired by them.”
“So I was coming from that place,” he continues, “and, because my name was Eastern European and because of the hair, and sure, because I’m in the woods half the time singing about anthropomorphic beings, I preferred to focus on that image, but really I was coming from a different place.”
Rather than combat the misdirection that his appearance caused, he has slowly let his music exist apart from it, aided by living less publicly and taking nearly four years to release Mala. Musically, Banhart is more of a free spirit than when he looked like a freeloader, and the lack of pressure that his time away has afforded him has resulted in Banhart using that opportunity to make a mature and eclectic album, with genre-hopping that would seem to stem from the long period of inactivity.
“I was not writing any music during that time,” says Banhart, squashing my theory. “I started writing the album about two months before I recorded it. The way I work is I start with the page, with the lyrics, because that’s the most important thing. And, around those lyrics I make notes on what I want it to sound like. I work with Noah Georgeson and we just make it happen, but I wan’t sitting around writing. I kind of wish I was, but that sounds like it would be tough.”
Banhart even demonstrates his “descriptive textural notes” say, digressing into a stream-of-consiousness riff where he mentions “Kool Keith, Julee Cruise and Grace Jones,” along with something difficult to make sense of about “cocaine.” His scholastic approach to music shows when he names influences, and it goes beyond simply listening to albums.
“I read everything when I was younger, like Mojo, Rolling Stone, Paste,” Banhart tells me, considerately including the publication interviewing him. “When my access to the internet came solely from the library, over a decade ago, my access to the music world—new albums, old albums, reissues, interviews with bands, live pictures—it was only from magazines, and I read every one. I haven’t had the interest to do that in a long time, but, recently I was in Europe for a press tour and it kind of reawakened that. It was fun again.”
“I would make notes and go to the record store and buy the music,” he continues, spoken like he was the first man to ever go record shopping, akin to Rob Lowe’s Chris on Parks & Rec. “Of course, Tower Records was great then because you could listen to the music in the store. Today, it’s a lot more practical to go online and sample it. The process is altered, but not too much; it’s just a balance of convenience and ritual. I’m someone who would like those two things to be married. I still walk to Other Music and buy something based solely on the cover. And, then I balance that with listening to shit for free online.”
Mala is all the better for Banhart’s music consumption habits, but Banhart is more skeptical about location’s place in the writing process. Born in Texas, his life has been punctuated by significant setting changes, including a childhood in Venezuela, high school years in Malibu and college at San Francisco’s Art Institute. Even this album couldn’t call one city home, with Banhart doing his initial writing and recording in L.A. and then moving to New York, where he mixed and mastered.
“I wish there was a conscious desire to be peripatetic,” Banhart explains, “and to then do so, and continue it for over a decade. I really wish that was my thing. But, it’s all been so circumstantial. Which is a shame because it has been frustrating, and I long for my own place. Yet, I’ve never really had one. I’ve never owned my own place, and I move every six months and maybe it’s what I’ve grown accustomed to, but it is still sad.”
“I’ve never felt like my music or art is shaped by me moving around so much,” he says, “although it is shaped by the actual space it was created. For example, all my visual art is very small, because I’ve always had a small desk and I’ve never had my own art studio. I write more in Spanish when I’m playing shows in South America or visiting my family in Caracas.”
“So, the minute we finished recording this record I moved to New York. I have lived here before, but under very different circumstances. Starting three months ago, I have an art studio for the first time. I share it with my fiancé. And, the physical spaces and the architecture affects the way I think, but not the work. Architecture is just unbelievably important. And, I’ve always been in conflict with that because I’ve been in such shitty little places for so long.“
This art studio has already birthed a significant work in Mala’s album art, a joint project with his fiancé, about which Banhart notes, “You learn what each other’s boundaries are through the conflict, and you end up gaining respect for each other. But, it’s not always a pleasurable experience.”
Noting the extended period away from music to work on visual art and the importance of having an art studio to him, it’s not a surprise that Banhart reveals a complicated relationship with his own music, quoting John Cage’s “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it” as his personal philosophy and claiming not to write for catharsis.
“It used to be that I’d hate the music I made and I hated making it,” Banhart claims. “Then it moved into not really liking the music I made but certainly liking making it, and now I can say I don’t mind the music I make, but I certainly love making it.”
Banhart has said this line before, and it’s spoken with chuckle on his part, as if he has a small bit of pride when he says statements so succinct and convoluted. It also feels carefully considered, though, and the line between where it is self-depreciating and where it is revealing is blurry and possibly not there at all.
“I’m critical of myself,” he explains, attempting to reconcile his opinions on his own music. “It comes from a rational place. Am I too hard on myself sometimes? Absolutely. There’s a balance there. It can be unhealthy, and you can feel like you are in hell, torturing yourself with your own criticism. Finding that balance is an important thing. If a guitar’s strings are too tight, they break, but if they are too loose, you can’t play it. So, it just has to be a healthy amount of disappointment, shame, frustration and conflict. That’s my ultimate goal, to find the right amount of self-loathing.”
Again he laughs, but with Devendra Banhart, you just can’t tell. For all the words written about him over the past decade, most take some liberty to judge him by his appearance, try to associate him with a movement—or with a current collaborator or with a lover—and treat him as either a psychotic or drug fiend. And, in allowing this, Banhart has been able to work in peace for his entire career, as his music has always seemed tame in comparison to the character followed by media hounds.
“Like anything, there are many different facets of who we are,” Banhart says. “Only one of those facets was really shown to the world, and I never really cared enough to fight it. That seems like a hopeless and ridiculous thing to do.”
“At the same time,” he concludes, “maybe I shouldn’t have played with that caricature so much. Keep in mind, I was 23 years old, so, shit happens.”