Devendra Banhart’s sense of humor has been well-documented. But I laughed out loud when, while listening to his new album Ape in Pink Marble, I read a short interview he did for a fashion spread in GQ Style. Asked what he was working on, he replied, “A tour, a book of poems and a book of photographs.” And how was it all going? “The tour's up in the air, the poems just sit there, the camera broke … so, very well indeed!”
Now 35, Banhart has been making music since 2002, and with nine studio albums and a large collection of collaborative albums, singles and EPs to his credit, it’s safe to say he has a niche and an understanding of his craft. But in conversation via phone, Banhart admits that his music is a never-ending process, and he tries not to get caught up in specific goals.
Ape in Pink Marble is a soothing, subtle album, reflecting a calmness in Banhart himself that seems to be a result of his growing maturity and life experience. He explains the softer tones of his new album and why he’s not angry at artist Dev Hynes, who recently tweeted that Banhart's music was “so insufferable I feel sorry for the entirety of Los Angeles, you deserve better.”
Ape in Pink Marble is a bit more subtle than your last album, Mala, even though your worked with the same producers. How did the process this time create this subtler record?
Well, we’re older. That’s pretty much why it’s like that. The goal and the hope is to create a kind of music that is more subtle, and with each record, you try to get closer and closer to that. You try to get deeper into trying to “soften the blow,” so to speak.
You’ve maintained a sustainable independent career. What do you owe your longevity to?
The work is the most important thing, and the work is a practice. It’s kind of like you keep chipping away at it and practicing. And there’s no end goal. I am not trying to get ahead; I am just trying to practice my work, and in that discipline there’s a lot of freedom and not a lot of space to exploit and take advantage of people who I am working with. I come from a school of artists, the Mission School in San Francisco, and there are a lot of artists I look up to. Their whole ethos was, “If I have a show, you have a show.” I always maintained that, believed in that and operated in that way.
But truly, there’s just no goal. I am trying to get to a certain place. And another answer is, “Moisturize and hydrate!”
There’s a young artist name Dev Hynes who seems to be a little upset with you. Do you have any basis of understanding why he got a little tiffed by your music?
I really respect his music very much. I think he’s a wonderful artist, and I don’t know the guy. And I agree with him. [Laughs]
I think the disappointing thing about it is that you two have a lot of similarities. You’re in the same pool of great independent artists. How do you get through negative comments and press?
Well, geez Louise. There’s a quote that says, “Whatever people say about me is not my business.” I really like that quote.
I’ve read that Ape in Pink Marble is an album about loss and mourning.
This is not a mourning album. But while we were recording the album, I lost my biological father and many close friends. The album was informed by the experiences, but the album is not about processing the shock of loss, though I will say it did inform the somber tone.
What is the album about?
It beats me what the album is about. It’s a game that has no instructions.
Walk me through the tone and aesthetic of the album.
We had imagined guidelines that surrounded the mysterious Orient. We used a traditional Japanese harp and synths, working with a nostalgia for an imaginary location. The theme and the content change song by song. We looked at making this album as an adventure, and we had a lot of discussion about what we wanted to do.
Most of the time was spent tuning instruments we didn’t know how to play. We tried to record synths right before their batteries died. There’s a distinct sound that a synth gives off right before the battery dies.
Is your music experimental?
I can’t imagine anyone approaching art without the joy of experimentation. The joy of it is inherent … and that is how you flow with the reality of change.
Devendra Banhart plays Beach Goth at the Observatory in Santa Ana on Sunday, Oct. 23.