interview by Alexander Laurence
I met Devandra Banhart during his first national tour following the release of his debut album Oh Me Oh My... The Way the Day Goes by the Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. I first heard this record in early January on a cold day. I thought that I was listening to some transsexual junkie from Alabama. His strange voice pulled me into a surreal world where anything is possible. It was the most unique record I had heard in a while.
The world that Banhart creates in part blues and part acoustic folk. Impressed by his unique music, I wondered if I could talk to him and decided to book an interview. Maybe I could channel him through old jazz records? It was unsettling to find out that Devendra was twenty-one years old and had only been playing a few years. I found that he was born in Texas, but has lived all over (Venezuela, Los Angeles, and New York). He went to San Francisco Art Institute, (I went here too) where he first started playing and he even lived in Williamsburg for a while.
Banhart grew up loving the music of Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Karen Dalton and Fred Neil. He found some tape machines and recorded songs on his friend's tape machines as messages. After a while Devendra had over fifty songs. A tape was sent to M. Gira (of Swans and Young God Records fame). Devendra selected 22 songs for this debut record. He did all the artwork too.
I recently talked to Devendra at the Silverlake Lounge. He was wearing a leather hat and has long hair and a beard. He is tall and thin. He seemed very excited about talking to other people about his music. During his show he took off his hat and shoes and sat in a lotus position. A few dozen people in the audience did likewise. The bar was packed (due to the many positive articles which had appeared in some of the LA papers) was totally quiet. People were waiting in anticipation to hear his haunting voice.
AL: So, you moved to Williamsburg last summer?
Devendra: I found a place to live for free. It's not a fancy place. It's a shithole really. It was around Metropolitan Avenue. I spent a lot of time in Kellogg's. Some of my friends lived there. We used to get hassled by the cops who are always there sleeping on the job. There was some notorious drug dealer in the neighborhood who they kept confusing me with. I saw him once and I looked nothing like him.
AL: How long did it take to record this album?
Devendra: I think it started when I was eighteen. I recorded 24 songs. Then I recorded another 24 songs with the same title as the album. But it's all here and there. I am going to release an EP of nine songs called "The Black Babies." We are going to release it mainly for the UK. We are going to choose some of the 54 songs that didn't make it on the album.
AL: You formed a band called The Black Babies. What happened to that?
Devendra: It's still going on but everyone lives in different places. One of them lives in LA. He might show up. Last time I asked him to collaborate with me, he showed up and just stood there and stared at me. While I was playing someone started yelling "Shut up. Get the fuck offstage." He actually paid some Asian gangster three hundred dollars to heckle me.
AL: What did you record this album on?
Devendra: I had a four-track recorder. I would just call my friend's answering machine and that would be a song. Some of the songs I would record on a four-track and then I would play them on the phone on an answering machine. That sounded better than any four-track recording. I am not really into lo-fi recordings. I don't even know how to work them very well.
AL: There is a lot of hiss and tape noise on your record.
Devendra: That's what happens when you don't know what you are doing.
AL: At San Francisco Art Institute did you spend much time with George Kuchar?
Devendra: Yeah. He's a great guy. I was in one of his classes. I was in one of his films. I saw some of his films. They were great. But they got worse and worse because they were so censored. I would like to be in one of his films again. One day we'll have to collaborate and make a really great film that takes no prisoners. I did an interdisciplinary degree: every discipline like sound, sculpture, painting and drawing, and film.
AL: What were your first shows like?
Devendra: My first show was at a gay wedding. I did "How Great Thou Art" and "Love Me Tender." My next show was at an Ethiopian restaurant. I have played at Puerto Rican festivals. I get booked at all sorts of places because people are just fucking with me. My friends like to play jokes on me. For the Puerto Rican festival, someone asked Michael Gira to do it. He said "Give that to the kid."
AL: What is it like performing a full set rather than a few songs?
Devendra: I am shitting my pants less and less. I have played so many shows now. Now I can sleep before a show. Before I couldn't sleep at all before I had to do a gig.
AL: In your lyrics, are the words important, or are they just sounds first?
Devendra: I care everything about the words mean. That's all I care about. And a melody that I can feel. I care about both things completely. Nothing is arbitrary whatsoever. I don't pull words out of my ass or do stream of consciousness. It all has its place to mean something. I don't do any jamming and fish things out.
AL: Are songs like "Michigan State" story based?
Devendra: It's kinda like a story. People write songs that are start to finish: and it's a whole story. For me, each line is like a story. Sometimes my lines are related and sometimes they aren't. Sometimes the first line is related to the last line, or the middle line is related to the second to the last line. There is some chopping up. But I think it all gels together.
AL: How do you know when you have a song?
Devendra: I don't know. It's like having a baby I guess. I always have that post-coital syndrome. I always want to kill the kid.
AL: Are you a good guitar player?
Devendra: No I am terrible. The guitar in my music is what I have and what I like to play. It serves as a vehicle for the words and the melody. It's simple. I am not interested in learning chops and licks. I don't give a shit about that stuff. I know what works for me. That's all I want to know. It might take me a thousand years to get to be a good guitar player. I am one of the worst guitar players of all time.
AL: I heard a door shutting or a gunshot during one song.
Devendra: There's all kinds of things going on. None of that is coordinated. I was in a room and the window happened to be open, and a car went by. One day, it was Bastille Day in France, so there were fireworks going off. While I was playing I saw a guy walk up to a door, pull out a gun, knock on the door, go into a room, and then a gunshot went off. That was recorded because I was recording a song.
AL: Do you still do artwork?
Devendra: I am working on a book right now. I'll show you it. It's handmade so it's taking me a long time. There's drawing and there's a story.
AL: You drew the album cover. What do you think of Michael Gira putting these borders on it, so it looks like the other records he's done?
Devendra: I don't like it. It has my name and the title twice. I wasn't even thinking of that. That's why I put my name on it. I know that Michael's label and 4AD have their own look. I wish it wasn't like that. Those are my drawings. They are watercolors and they take a long time to do. They are monuments to whatever. The back cover drawing I did when I was 15. I didn't want that there. Michael really liked it. He has a very commanding presence and I buckled under that. I do drawing all the time.
AL: That idea of using words and pictures together is something that you have always done?
Devendra: Yeah. The idea of the book is to blend both of those things together.
AL: I think why people like your record is because it sounds like it could have been made 100 years ago or now. It seems like you have landed in one of those Joseph Cornell boxes and you are in this special world that is cut off from everything else.
Devendra: It seems futile to make a record that will make money, and that will allow me to get on a big label. That is totally hopeless to me. I don't listen to any rock music or mainstream music. It's all bullshit to me. This record wasn't made for a large audience. It was made for my friends and for me. It deals with things that I care about like animals. There's songs about me and my mom.
AL: This is your first big tour. There's about 30 shows. You are playing with Entrance. What is he like?
Devendra: Yeah. My friend Entrance is amazing. When I started playing shows, people would tell me, there's nobody doing this, but there's this one kid, Entrance, check it out. People told him about me too. Finally we met up. We actually had the same girlfriend at one point. The whole tour is with him: it's our tour. We have each other so it's okay. We have played with some cool people. Then we have played with some shitty bands who were Creed cover bands.
AL: Do you watch television?
Devendra: I don't watch TV regularly at all. I don't even have a place to live. All my stuff is in storage.
AL: Do you read a lot of books?
Devendra: Yeah. Right now I am reading one of the best books I have read in my life. It's called "Mulatta" by Miguel Ángel Asturias. He won the Nobel Prize recently. He is from Guatemala. He is amazing. I like African writers like Amos Tutuola. I have a lot of good friends and we all share things with each other.
AL: What is an average day like for you?
Devendra: I don't sleep a lot. When I wake up I just start working on the book. I have breakfast or lunch. I work on the book some more. Later I will drink some wine or whiskey. Right now, that's how my life is. I have been living in New York City for seven months. I don't have a place there anymore. All my stuff is in Michael Gira's basement. He lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I stay with him a lot.
AL: What do you think of some of the music that Gira has done?
Devendra: I love him very much. I love his music. I had offers from other labels. It's ironic. Michael sent me a letter and an Angels of Light CD. It was one of the best things I had ever heard. I got really excited.
AL: What about singer Karen Dalton?
Devendra: She one of my favorites. My friend Scott, who is in a psychedelic band Troll, made a tape for me. I like Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, and Fred Neil. I like Mississippi John Hurt and Mississippi Fred McDowell. I like Michael's music. I like my friend Entrance. I like this San Francisco band Vetiver. There is a woman in New York, Diane Cluck. She is incredible.
AL: Do you use computers?
Devendra: Yeah. I have an email address. I don't write or type a lot on the computer. It's an easy way to get ahold of people when you are on the road.
AL: What do your parents think of your music?
Devendra: I don't know. My mother is coming tonight. I am really nervous. I have to give her a call. I made a business card to be professional. It's a collage.
AL: What is the set like?
Devendra: It changes every night. I have a list of all the songs that I can remember. I just pick them at the time. I play some stuff that is on the record. I play a few new songs that haven't been recorded yet. I do one song by Fred Neil.
AL: Are you going to play in Europe soon?
Devendra: I am going there with Michael in March. The EP will be out by then. Also Mod Lang Records is going to release a thousand copies of Oh Me Oh My..... on vinyl. When I come back, I will start recording the new one.
AL: Do you read the Young God website?
Devendra: I used to when there was some nice things being written. With nice things there comes a lot of bullshit being written. People would say "You don't write your own songs, Michael writes your songs." There's a lot of assholes. Whenever I write something there it's always a mistake. I do read it sometimes when I have the time.
AL: When people come to see you live, what should they expect to see?
Devendra: A lot of pregnant people. There will be pregnancies. There will be babies. There will be little kids with big bellies. A lot of birthing and placentas. The floor will be one huge starry black placenta.