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Devendra Banhart Curls Up in Your Hand

{mosimage}By now you surely realize that Devendra Banhart is a slyly yet openheartedly mystical and magical kind of fellow, one who happens to play a wickedly clever acoustic guitar and sing in a purplishly florid way these densely multifaceted songs about the human heart, brain and spirit in all their confusingly complex but ultimately hopeful (yes) facets. He’s just done a new album called Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, his most madly eclectic set yet, the deepest-cutting, too – and it’s quite startling stuff, musically speaking. He’s playing at the Orpheum Theatre downtown on October 13, you don’t want to miss that.

Eavesdrop quietly now as Devendra decodes the making of Smokey, the album’s higher aims and related items pertaining to levels of consciousness, love and loss, crystal power, elephantitus and so forth and etc., etc.

DEVENDRA BANHART: Are you in Los Angeles right now?


LA WEEKLY: Yeah, I am.

All right.

Beautiful day. Warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky.

Right on.
 

The new album is great, your best yet by far, in my opinion.

Thank you. You share that opinion with my mom, and that’s about it. [laughs]

Really?

Yeah. So thank you.

I wonder about people sometimes. I myself like these kinds of albums where musicians really push themselves in new directions. Smokey hangs together, too, it isn’t just all over the place. Give it some time, is what I say.

That’s how music should be. I don’t see how you could betray the reality of the emotions that you go through in a day.


This album spans a wide range of emotions and personas – actually, facets of the persona. Agreed?

Exactly. The record was made in a couple of months, you know, and in a month you go through certain emotions.

So you recorded at your place in Topanga Canyon?

That’s right, but it’s not my space anymore. It’s been inaccurately written that I have purchased the place; we’re simply renting it out, and now have been forced to move.


That place apparently has quite a history, what with all these ‘60s-‘70s rock luminaries having passed through its portals -- Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Doors, Mick Fleetwood...

I love Topanga; that’s what Topanga’s about. It’s a pretty good story as to why we have to move.


Why do you have to move?

There’s people that are camped out in front and around the house; we have friends that are housesitting, and our girlfriends are housesitting, and we recently had something very unfriendly – not meant to be, but a couple of unnerving incidents occurred at the house. For a while, you know, strangers were showing up and we were very happy with it. A lot of ‘em ended up playing on the record, but it got to a point of... it was uncomfortable... a dangerous point... but I won’t get into the story…

Nevertheless, all those sundry aforementioned rock gods and goddesses hung out, recorded and generally let their hair down at that house. Obviously I must ask, did their sort of lingering vibe affect the music you made there?

I don’t think that affected it anymore than if I recorded it anywhere else, ‘cause I listen to those artists; I didn’t start listening to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and John Philips or Woody Guthrie once I moved to Topanga, you know? I’ve been listening to them for years, so they would have been a part of what I was.


I just like imagining their ghosts emanating from the woodwork, soaking into you and your guitar...

Well, we choose places based on what sort of energy is stored in the architecture, in the actual physical materials that are used to build the house. I mean, I went on my inner tuition and guidance, and we even had some exterior help from a couple psychic friends that we know that are members of a band we’re really into called Death Groove.

We even had the Tarot read for the house, and this medium actually pinpointed the actual address. We ended up with 800 hours of film -- we thought we’d put a little movie together, but in the end there was nothing really there, except the reading, which we felt was more like evidences than something that we wanna put out. And then we just put tiny little snippets of it together and put it to “Sea Horse,” just to have something on the website. But it wasn’t gonna be a video or anything.

But anyways, yeah, when you consider objects like crystals or stones, rocks and wood to be these sort of batteries, and are they charged up or aren’t they? The specific location of the house, the architecture, the wood, there some’s incredible energy at work stored in there that was comparable. And then we also had these artifacts that had belonged to the aforementioned California musicians that, I don’t know if the record would sound any different, but we could feel it.

Which cards did the Tarot reader throw?

 

I don’t know, exactly. The Fool was in there at the beginning of the journey. My favorite card.

Do you remember having any particularly vivid dreams while sleeping in that house?

No, although there’s an owl that perches outside of my window every single night. That is the only thing I can recall. I’m not a dream person, I have a dream maybe once a month.

I assume that the ambience or energy field or whatever up there in Topanga feels conducive to creativity.

It feels open. It’s easy to be present in a place that isn’t obsessed with its past. Topanga has an incredible history. So does Woodstock -- unbelievable history. Yet in Woodstock they’re holding on to that history. You walk into most bars or restaurants there, there’ll be a picture of Bob Dylan and the Band, etc. There’s this holding on there to the past. Topanga is a place that’s very friendly; it has a rich lineage and history, but there’s not an exclusive sense; there’s an acceptance going on for the past. And there aren’t relics surrounding the place.

So you don’t feel like you’re in a time warp?

Yeah, it doesn’t feel that way. I mean, the reason I chose Bearsville to record the Cripple Crow album was because basically we were listening to Bobby Charles’ record, the first record, constantly, and we knew at least half of it was recorded at Bearsville. And we walked in and it was just all wood and, like, a Persian rug, and there weren’t pictures of Eagles records and all that stuff; it was just that all the information, that history, was all just stored in the wood, and that gave us a beautiful springboard to do our thing.

Say, when you were in Woodstock, did you ever happen to run into Ed Sanders?

Did you say Ed Sanders?


Yeah.

That’s unbelievable. Okay, the two guests that I wanted to have on that record were Dee Brown [author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee] and Ed Sanders [ex-Fugs singer; magnificent wiping-the-floor-with-Bukowski poet and, as the author of Tales of Beatnik Glory, the greatest rock critic who ever strode this earth]. I’m a huge Fugs fan, and I’m a huge fan of his poetry. I ran into him at a supermarket, and he was grumpy and kind of like put off, and he was trying to shop. I understand, I didn’t want to be a pain in the ass. I just gave him a quick little spiel, gave him my number, and he ended up giving me a ring. I was so honored, but I could feel that it was a bit of a chore for him. He’s a busy guy, and I just thought, I won’t bother this guy. I was just so happy to run into him at the supermarket.


He is the greatest. My favorite writer.

Oh, I know, he’s unbelievable. I was also gonna try and get [Fug] Tuli Kupferberg; unfortunately we couldn’t get ahold of him, and extremely unfortunately Dee Brown passed away a couple months before I managed to get some information that would lead me to him.


You think something could happen in the future, with you and Tuli and Ed?

Yeah, maybe, maybe. I’d be honored. Those dirty old men . . .


Now, back to the new album. The first thing I noticed is that your singing is deeper and even warblier, more daringly, what, Ferry-esque than ever. Or maybe it’s that guy in Simple Minds. Well, all these different ways you’re using your voice, like a musical instrument, it’s a thrill. Have you been training, or what?

You know, it’s funny, because when you called, Greg Rogove, who’s in the band Priestbird -- he’s also our drummer, sings with us and he’s a songwriter -- he was just showing me a photograph of a group of African men with elephantitus of the scrotum, and they are just the size of baby elephants, it’s unbelievable.

But why I brought that up is because I think something that’s happened as I’ve grown older is that my nutsack has slowly begun to descend. I’m a very late bloomer, and I’ve discovered that my range has opened up.

I haven’t been in training, but I would tell you I did start taking tai chi lessons while we were building the studio, for a couple weeks, and that, with the breathing exercises, the focus, it was actually incredible. I can’t imagine that anything could be more helpful than that.


Your singing’s almost athletic on this new record.

 

The reason I started tai chi is I wanted to have something to warm up my body and do a little exercise while I’m on tour. I’m not a gym person or do extra pushups or anything,  so that seemed like a wonderful exercise. And what I didn’t know at the time is that it’s an incredible tool for warming up your voice and for expanding your range.


I see that actor Gael Garcia Bernal guest vocalizes on the first track, “Cristobal.”

His appearance on the record happened in such an organic way, it was not premeditated or preplanned in any way. Gael does happen to be one my favorite actors, hands down, and I’ve always felt a strange connection with him – this is from a distance, of course, just someone that you’re a fan of. I am a fan of his.

But he reached out to me write a song that would conclude his first film that he’s written and directed. And the main character’s name happened to be my cousin’s name, and I could relate to the story, and we ended up talking about our personal lives, and we were equally traumatized by having mothers who were models. We had a lot in common and we really got along and kind of instantly liked each other.

And I wrote the song, trying to create this nostalgic, well … there’s a key moment in the film when an insult is given to someone, and the insult is: You Indian. And it’s the harshest thing you can say to somebody in Mexico. And that was so heavy to me, and it was a mixture of my emotions and my cerebral approach to why that is such an insulting thing.

And at the same time, it was putting myself in the shoes of me when I was eight and my grandmother had to watch her soap opera, and listening to that soap opera music. I wrote the flute part to sound like – dadadadadadada – it’s romantic soap opera music from I suppose the ‘80s in there, but really in my mind it’s a different thing.

Anyways, Gael was doing the Oscars, so he called me up, he’s in L.A. He says, “You wanna hang out?” I say, “Come out to the house in Topanga.” So he’s just sitting on the couch – actually, which happens to be Jim Morrison’s – and he’s just singing along to the song. I kind of gave him a look, and we pressed Record. He just did it; there’s no direction whatsoever; this is all his own, he was just singing. Then I went over and did another vocal track that wrapped around his first take that we kept. We didn’t get into “do this and this and that” – he had to be at the Oscars by like 5, you know?

 

(Photos by Lauren Dukoff)

All over the record, you’re laying out very elaborate structures and arrangements. “Sea Horse,” for example, is an epic undertaking.

What I like the most about that song is that it was written in order; it wasn’t like there were three different songs and I just strung them together. The first part of the song was written, and I didn’t feel completely satisfied with it – that song was written after a very difficult physical experience, but I knew it wasn’t the end of it. The next part of the song, it was very obvious that it was about levels of consciousness; the second part came after a series of events happened, and it made a lot of sense that the subconscious part would have these... desires... and I would take it an extra step, that this person singing it would want something impossible, wanting to be a sea horse, something unattainable.


So within this initial narrative of absolute contentment, buried beneath that is an unattainable desire. And buried even beneath that, I’d been messing around with that lick every soundcheck, and that was born from a jam that I had with Greg Rogove, who’s sitting to my right, showing me these elephantitus photos...

I started thinking of this song as like a trinity of levels: of consciousness, of deeper consciousness, and subconsciousness, unconsciousness – I guess the trinity of life, death, birth; the mother, the father, the holy ghost; Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Earth, heaven and hell. At the same time, Greg and I were reading this book about astral projection, and I started thinking about how the third part of the narrative should be sung: According to the Tibetan monks, there’s like 16 months until you’re reincarnated. My idea was singing from this perspective; it’s during those 16 months, and “I’m scared, I’ve never been born again.”

And then the eagle comes out. “I want to know how, where and when.” And then finally, the last line is a sentiment of love, of some sort of compassion and love: “I want to see you be the bright night sky, I want you to come back as the light.” I’ve decided to let go of how I’ll come back or what’s gonna happen to me – and shoot that out to you.


But the last section is more electric and aggressive and –

I’d like to add that that is me soloing at the end; it’s my first solo that I’m very proud of ...


Structurally, “Sea Horse” is an interesting song for the way you establish distinct perspectives on yourself; you’re seeing things from different angles, and the song progresses along those lines. It’s surprising, too, when you break into a “modern jazz” segment somewhere in between. I guess that makes a kind of sense…

I won’t lie to you, “Take 5” was an influence. Brubeck was floating around my stereo for a while. I just felt like a jazz dirge needs to be either floating or bobbing, and I think that was appropriate to the oceanic imagery.


In fact, you combine so many different approaches in your music that that hoary old “freak folk” sticky tag must be yawningly boring for you right about now.

 

That was old before I even heard it. After making Cripple Crow, I sat once at the offices of Beggar’s for 12 hours doing interviews, and they’d bring people in, and every person for every interview would say, “Hey, by the way” – with the tape machine off – “you know, I’m the one that coined 'freak folk,’ I’m the one who made that up.” All proud of himself. And I just thought it was hilarious.

Especially when they mention, say, Joanna Newsom as being some variation of such a tacky label, whatever they call it – “Weird America,” all these very, very inaccurate and tacky labels -- when they’d refer to her like that, I would get angry with that. But I also would always say that you’ll see by her next record, and if not, by her third record, it’ll be gone, and she’ll just be Joanna Newsom. ‘Cause that’s what she is. She’s Joanna Newsom. I mean, Joni Mitchell’s Joni Mitchell, she makes Joni Mitchell music. Joanna Newsom should be under the “Joanna Newsom” section.
 

Smokey’s last song in particular, “My Dearest Friend,” with its theme underlying or overt of loneliness, is very touching. So simple, so beautiful. I was just thinking that you shouldn’t need to feel loneliness, in a way, since anyone hearing that song will carry you in their hearts for as long as they remember that song.

From a songwriting perspective, there is an interesting thing about that last song. The beginning, “I’m gonna die of loneliness, I know,” that was written in Brooklyn in the wintertime, and the song ended with “I know.” That’s it, that was the song. And we still hadn’t moved to California and begun our search for the house and hidden pieces of equipment that we ended up using for this record. So for a whole while I was like, I’ve got a basis for this song, and it’s sort of a bummer; there’s no hope in it, but this is how it is, I’m not just gonna tack on “no no” or something, you know? I had to be true to how it is in the real world, that’s how it goes, that was the song.

And then once we moved into this house in Topanga and had begun building the studio, and finding the parts and writing the record, the end came. Suddenly I heard the music and the lyrics, and this other voice, “My dearest friend/you’ll soon begin/to love again.”

And the hope came, and it fit right in at the end. That was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had writing a song.


I’ll let you go now, Devendra. Thank you.

I’m so envious that you’re in Los Angeles. I love, I love California. I love L.A.

 

Devendra Banhart performs at the Orpheum Theatre, Saturday, October 13 with Hecuba.


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