interview by Alexander Laurence
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.
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
AL: You formed a band called The Black Babies. What happened
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
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
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
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
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.
Feb. 1 Saturday BLOOMINGTON, IN - Space 101
Feb. 3 Monday LOUISVILLE, KY - Aslans How Gallery
Feb. 5 Wednesday AKRON, OH - Lime Spider
Feb. 6 Thursday, PITTSBURGH, PA - Quiet Storm
Feb. 9 Sunday, EASTHAMPTON, MA - Flywheel
Feb. 10 Monday, NEW YORK, NY - Tonic
More on Devendra Banhart: www.younggodrecords.com