Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (Jan 2003)…
Our Dead Bodies are Like Honey to the Flies
Gabe Soria meets 21-year-old Devendra Banhart. Photography by Shawn Mortensen.
It’s a cold and gray afternoon in Brooklyn. I’m sitting in Devendra Banhart’s fourth floor walk-up apartment and we’re both slightly hungover. The furniture in the apartment is old and scrounged looking, full of ramshackle character. Devendra asks me if I want to hear a new song, something he wrote the evening before. Keep in mind that I’ve known the guy for a grand total of five minutes, and in those five minutes, we’ve already been witnesses to the aftermath of a car accident on a nearby street. It’s a good, we’re-unemployed-so-what-the-hell feeling, and there’s nothing to do but roll with it.
Of course, I say.
He begins to play me a lilting, sexy lullaby, something that sounds as if it could have been written in 1910. It’s gorgeous. Later I’ll learn it was partially inspired by a new girlfriend. But now, once he finishes playing, a little wobbly (there’s that hangover again) but unaffectedly so, Devendra announces that he “sucks” this morning. I assure him that that’s not the case, but he’s unconvinced.
A week later I will see him play for his record release party, and the song formerly known as “Sucks” will be polished to a rough sheen, so beautiful that the air at the show is almost palpable with the audience’s need to shed an appreciative tear. No one needs to be told that they’re witnessing something special. Everybody sips their drinks quietly and the room is hushed. Even the bartender looks sheepish when she has to go through a particularly noisy drink preparation. It’s not an affected pose though, this silence. It’s not the silence of pretentious jazz fans, or avant-garde indie kids who aren’t aware that their emperors of silent cool wear no clothes. This is the silence of a group of people in smiling awe of a genuinely talented and wonderfully strange kid, a young man whose charm is almost effortless, whose skill is obvious and whose soul is on his sleeve.
But that show is still a week in the future. Right now, we’re still slightly fuzzy from our respective previous evenings and are both in need of coffee. “Do you mind if I take a shower before we go? I stink real bad,” Devendra says.
Go right on ahead, I say.
He hops off to his bathroom, and I sit there in his apartment, staring at the walls. Everything I know about Devendra Banhart so far is from listening to his peculiar and beautiful debut record, Oh Me, Oh My The Way The Day Goes By The Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (on Michael Gira’s Young God Records). At first glance, he seems like a prime candidate to be dismissed as yet another in the long line of “weird white folkies” that cynical rock critics have been setting their watches by from Dylan to Oldham. He fits the racial profile: a kid with a patchy beard who’s studied his blues ‘n country licks. And there have been so many who reek of artifice and calculation. But when the real thing comes along…wow. It’s nutsy bananas. Devendra Banhart and Oh Me Oh My… are, without trying to sound like a super-happy hype machine, the real thing. His is the sound of a skeleton playing his blues on the front porch of a haunted house, banging out curiously hopeful cemetery songs with a celebratory, surreal zeal, singing out with a high, quavering voice that is at once bizarre, unearthly and old, yet completely inviting and totally ingratiating.
And he’s twenty-one, I think as I wait for him to finish getting ready. This kid’s got his entire creative career ahead of him. Jesus.
While I continue to wait, I wander around Devendra’s small room off of the apartment’s living room. He apparently likes picking up playing cards he finds on the sidewalk. A Queen of Spades, the 10 of Hearts and the 2 of Clubs share space among photographs of friends, torn pieces of artwork. The cluttered collage look seems to be a physical reflection of Devendra’s speech and attitude: It’s all a beautiful, soulful mess, full of unhidden love and fastidious, inscrutable detail.
Devendra emerges from the bathroom, scrubbed and ready to go. We hit the street, in search of food and caffeine. He begins reflecting on his as-of-yet ungentrified corner of Brooklyn.
“During the day this neighborhood is all families and kids, but at night… it’s all shadows. Walking shadows.” A group of youths pass by us, dragging baseball bats along the concrete behind themselves in an unconsciously threatening way, underscoring his point.
“The other day I found a piece of a guitar, just a fretboard, and I was carrying that around,” he says as we watch the kids recede into the distance. “I think that would be a great weapon. Just a fretboard. That’s what I’d fight with.”
After this, I just let him go on as we walk. His speech, like his music, is peppered with observational non-sequiturs. He’s one of those great free-associating story tellers that defy conventional structure and logic. Like so: “Why do bees make honey?” he asks. “Are they trying to make something else and honey is byproduct that we dig on? I don’t get it. Is it bee shit? What beautiful shit. That’s the best shit. We don’t… well, we kind of feed flies. Our dead bodies are like honey to the flies.”
Then: “One time I was in Paris, and they have this beer there, this whiskey flavored beer, and it tastes like a skunk’s ass. But I drank so much of this shit that I blacked out and I woke up and I was in an Ethiopian, a Jamaican… something. An all-black calypso bar and I’m dancing, man. This was the only time ever where I blacked-out and ended up somewhere else and I was moving. It was such a bizarre thing to wake up to. To wake up dancing in an all-black calypso bar. That was last summer.”
Or: “The first time I played in New York was like at a Puerto Rican rally, and the band before me were these Puerto Rican dudes, and they had this twelve-year old boy. ‘Here’s our grandson on the mic.’ And he’s like, ‘Mama, yo quiero…’ And I had to follow this, so when I get up, I’m like ‘¡Viva Caracas!” And everybody’s laughing, it was such a weird-ass show. There was this old Japanese dude who was rocking out. It was like a festival. It was bizarre.”
This is more of what I found out about Devendra Banhart on that walk:
Some of Devendra Banhart’s many loves:
-Corn :“Corn is magical. You ever been in a cornfield? It’s magical. I don’t know what it does to me. Sometimes I just want to disappear in a cornfield.”
-Fred Neil: “I couldn’t believe the obituary. It was just a little thing: ‘Fred Neil: Songwriter.’ That made me so sad when he died. I loved Fred Neil so much, so much.”
-Harry Smith: “He made such beautiful things. They make me want to do psychedelics in the park.”
-Churches: “I want to be a church janitor, man. Wouldn’t that be beautiful? I love churches, and just to be able to walk in when there’s no one there and polish things and just live there. I don’t know, there’s just something I like about that. But it sounds cheeseball, huh?”
-Mice: “When I first moved to Brooklyn I got this little mouse for a dollar twenty-five or a dollar seventy-five and his name was Mister Journey. I built him this big cardboard house with velvet and pictures, but he attracted all the rats. I had these huge rats stuck in my room. The walls were so cheap that they were eating through the walls. It made a hole big enough for its head, so I had to get rid of my mouse. I set him free in this forest, and the minute I set him free, ten rat heads popped up. Do rats eat mice? We don’t eat midgets. I just hope they didn’t eat my mouse. He was a quick motherfucker.”
-Dance offs: “I heard about this thing where these two girls were in the subway, and one of them was all like. “Aw, bitch, let’s fight,” and the other one was like, “No: I’m gonna dance you off,” and she starts dancing. A dance off! Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do that in real life? That’d be so cool.”
And some things that he does not love:
– Newspapers: “Anytime I want to get bummed out about my life, I just read the newspaper. It’s so fucked up. These are definitely the dark ages, man. These are definitely the dark ages.”
– Serious misuse of language: “When words like divine are used to describe ice cream, everything is fucked. Sacred words like that… I don’t know man.”
– Papayas: “I can’t stand papaya. My mom used to be the color of papaya. She ate it my whole life and she eats it everyday as much as she can, so she became papaya colored and I don’t know what that is. I love my mom but I hate papaya, man. But oh, I love mango. You can replace your girlfriend with a mango. I tell you, those things are so sexual. They’re just like sex. They’re these beautiful things. At my grandmother’s house in Caracas, if you walk outside there’s this tree and it’s just dripping with mangos, the biggest mangos. And they’re all over the floor, because mangos are everywhere. You can literally just walk out and grab a mango. It’s amazing.”
Devendra begins to explain his personal history to me as we sit down to tamales and cups of coffee in the back of a neighborhood Mexican grocery store/taqueria. He was born to a Venezuelan mother and a Texan father in Houston in 1981. In 1986, his parents split up, and he and his mother and his brother left Texas for his mother’s home country of Venezuela. “My mom moved back to Venezuela with me with I was five,” He pours a little jolt of whiskey into his cup and offers some to me. I shake my head and tell him that my New Year’s resolution for the coming year is to develop a taste for brown liquor. This amuses him, and he shakes his head. Whiskey is a treat to him – he pronounces the word “whiskey” with the same joy a child reserves for the words “candy” and “ice cream.”
“I lived [in Caracas] until I was twelve or thirteen,” he explains, “and then we moved [back to the States]. I never went anywhere, I never visited anywhere. Now I go back there as little as I can. I hate it. It’s just so fucking dangerous and corrupt. It’s like a reverse volcano, you know?”
He laughs, thinking. “I guess that’s what a valley is, huh?”
“There are mountains surrounding Caracas,” he continues, “but the mountains aren’t mountains. They’re just covered in shanties and the city’s in the middle part. No one’s really rich, but there’s no sense of pride in being working class or poor. Everybody’s just trying to fuck everybody else. It’s a really dangerous place. At eight o’clock, the streets just empty. I know people whose kids have been killed for wearing Air Jordans. They don’t even take ‘em and tell you to run. They’ll just shoot you and take it. It’s so fucked up.”
But when he hit his teens, his mother decided to leave Caracas behind and headed to California, settling in a small canyon community somewhere above Santa Monica. “It was beautiful, so beautiful. Then I went to college in San Francisco. I went to art school for interdisciplinary studies, like sculpture and film and all that, but I was like fuck, I just want to go home and play songs. I was working and studying everything except for what I love, which is music, so I dropped out. Then I just started playing in San Francisco. Then I went to L.A. I moved to New York five months ago. I came from L.A. I hate that place. It fucking sucks. I had to drive and I’d be driving drunk. You have to. It’s so flat and nothing.”
“I’m 21. I’m embarrassed. I feel like a baby, you know? I guess I’m nostalgic for eight. I feel like I remember too much already, but I don’t remember anything.” Devendra shakes his head, looks up at me… and apologizes. “I’m sorry if I fucking suck at this interview. I feel like a dork, man. I feel totally fucking stupid. This is only the second interview I’ve done.”
I assure him that he’s doing just fine, but by this time, we’ve finished our meals and we decide that that’s the end of the interview. It’s early evening now in Brooklyn, and we decide to walk to a neighborhood bar and have a few drinks. All the way there, we sing songs by the Monkees, make up fake band names and song titles and toast the fucked up beauty of the world.