Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)
So Righteous to Love
Devendra Banhart is here and he plays folk music. Trinie Dalton finds out where he’s coming from. Photographs by Melanie Pullen.
A few months ago I hiked high on mushrooms in the Redwoods, and Devendra Banhart’s first album served as my bridge between fantasy and reality. His music isn’t about tripping out on drugs—I’m not belittling it that way—but its soothing quality makes one feel peaceful in any state of mind. As I interviewed him over the phone in late February about a myriad of topics, Devendra often returned to talking about folk music’s universality, about how one of its most noble purposes is to make listeners feel comfortable.
Hearing 23-year-old Devendra talk like this reminded me of how closely related late-1960s psychedelic rock bands were, in spirit and sense of idealism, to the folk singers Devendra loves so much from the same period: their considerations for listening to and hearing music were at the forefront of their playing. But Devendra’s tastes extend into the present, and there appears to be just as many neo-psychedelic musicians playing today as there are neo-folk rockers. Is it due to the current abominable political state? I don’t know. I didn’t care to discuss politics with Devendra because I was more fascinated by his reverence for nature—by his belief that music can bring one closer to not only self-understanding but also learning about one’s place in the environment, whether it be forested or urban.
Devendra’s new album Rejoicing in the Hands cultivates this respect for life under the auspices of yet another new hybrid-Banhart sound, this time combining old-time blues with the troubadour-ish balladry, psychedelic rock and acoustic guitar traditions of folk. The sound of this record is both familiar and absolutely unique, although Banhart’s singing does gets compared in the press to Marc Bolan’s and Billie Holiday’s to an unfortunate, almost annoying degree. Rejoicing in the Hands is perhaps his best work—it’s hard to say that, cuz they’re all so great—in that the guitar playing achieves more complexity, at times becoming as strong a force as the vocals. Not that his first two releases, 2002’s Oh Me Oh My album (Young God), and 2003’s The Black Babies EP (Young God), didn’t feature some fantastic guitar sounds, but until Rejoicing, I’d heard Devendra’s guitar as more a complement to his vocals than having its own individual drive.
I figured this increased guitar-playing skill must mean his shows are getting better and better, so I started our talk by asking him about performing live. His speaking voice became more melodic and animated when he talked of things he felt passionately about. When he began to talk about his favorite types of venues to play, things got interesting…
Arthur: You prefer to play galleries and churches…
Trinie Dalton: I try…I don’t entirely like playing rock clubs and bars because it doesn’t lend itself too well to the kind of music we’re playing. When I play a church, the acoustics are so wonderful. You have to play an environment that suits what you’re doing, and churches are built to have incredible acoustics. Some Aztec churches, the acoustics are built so wildly, they’re so psychedelically manipulative, that if you clap into a certain passageway, it responds like the sound of a sacred bird that the Aztecs worshipped. They really thought about it. It makes sense for people who play non-electric music, or quieter music to play in a place that augments that instead of in a place that drowns it completely out. Those people that are used to dealing with 8000 amps and four drum sets, the whole building [a rock club] is built to suck in the sound.
It gives your music a richer sound, or has a more spiritual atmosphere or something…or there’s more than just sound going on, with the other senses too.
There’s a vibe.
I think of your music as a mixture of folk and psychedelic. I read up on your big influences, but you didn’t mention psychedelic bands, more of the folky psychedelic rock, like Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention. Do you listen to that kind of music?
I really do. “Psychedelic,” to me, just means a sharp awareness of your surroundings, and a heightened aesthetic sense, and a sensitivity…it’s like this ultra-sensual state. Psychedelic words bring out that state in objects that might be considered mundane. Usually they’re in nature, because usually you’re not going to find psychedelic qualities in a stapler, you know? But a tree, you feel it. It’s like a magic spell, or alchemy, using certain words to bring out the psychedelic life and energy, the core, god’s vein, the blood of the gods.
Back to the music, I’m so easily influenced and affected by music. I love Incredible String Band. But I’m not as big a fan of them as I am Clive Palmer, the guy who started them. He played on the first record. The real song to me, on that one, is Clive’s song… “You know my ____ friends/ Singing baby…” [starts singing it] I like Robin Williamson’s solo records, they’re incredible, and I like Mike Heron’s solo records. It’s unbelievable to think that they’re both fucking Scientologists now. Some of these records are just getting re-released, so they won’t just be available on bootleg anymore. Like Clive’s Original Band, and Clive’s Famous Jug Band. As far as British psychedelic stuff, Fairport Convention has never been too psychedelic, they’re more like rock-folk. Then there’s Trader Horne…Currently, I’ve been getting into more current psychedelic stuff, via my friend, Steve Krakow, who goes by the name Plastic Crimewave. He has a magazine devoted to all things psychedelic, that he hand draws and hand writes, called Galactic Zoo Dossier. He also has a band called Plastic Crimewave…he’s a scholar of the psychedelic ways, he’s an incredible person. It’s a good road to go down. A band that I recently saw that was the awesomest epitome of bar psychedelia, is Comets on Fire, they get everybody grooving.
The whole reason I started associating that music with yours is through your lyrics. Some of the songs on your new album are so bluesy, but then the lyrics are super-psychedelic…cool rhymes, the senses are all mixed up. It seems like something you think about a lot. What is your lyric writing process?
I spend so much time on the lyrics, to then talk about the lyrics, I’m never prepared for that…one thing, if I could have the chance to say, is that, it’s not…what’s it called when you just make shit up?
Free association? You’re not just channeling lyrics or something…
No, it isn’t that, it’s thought out, and systematic, but not industrial. It’s inspired but it’s a lot of work. I think of it as real writing, as a craft, like cooking. It’s inspired by animism, magic realism, and my definition of psychedelia, nature. A lot of people conclude that there’s a relationship between everything, and that’s why you can mix it all up.
You mean mix up the senses or the genres of creativity, like writing, music, art?
The senses. I mean every physical thing and every spiritual thing, to me, are intertwined. I derive all that from this one truth, that every single thing surrounding me is derived from nature. I mean this telephone, at some point, was a derivative of something manmade, and we’re all manmade. How natural it is for all of us to just die and become soil…when I put my mind in focus on that way of looking at everything, then things bleed into each other. And so I can describe a person’s eyelashes as being roots, and their hair as being insect wings…it all becomes interlinked.
What’s great about blues music is that it takes a sad sound and turns it positive or something–there are all these emotions mixed up. I love how you do that in your songs too. Like you’ll have a sad bluesy lick or finger picking pattern, then you put these cheerful lyrics over it. What do you love about those old blues songs?
It’s what you’re saying…I mean joy isn’t something we’re not to suffer for. But unfortunately, and maybe in a way I do play the blues, but the word “blues” has always been a no-no for me for some reason. I don’t know why. Maybe my songs are blues, my own version of them, but I would never call a song “something-something blues.” But I guess that’s the whole point, I mean, to sing them away. I hate hearing self-conscious music or ironic music or music that wallows in its own misery, or music that wants to bring you into it, or share its own misery with you. It’s unpleasant. I don’t understand why anyone wants that.
Like goth music?
I don’t know, there’s probably good, happy goth music…I’m talking about the kind of stuff, it’s like somebody putting dogshit in your mouth, and they have dogshit too, and it’s like, “I have dogshit too, let’s go make out.” But the blues aren’t interested in that. They’re not meant to bum you out.
That’s true. The Carter Family is my favorite band, and they get all into tragic stuff, the murder ballads, couples getting separated, dying of diseases, getting lost at sea…it’s great because it’s so moody.
For me, the Carter Family…I grew up on this one food that my mother used to give me, called Familia, Family, kind of like pudding or porridge. As I got older, once in a while she’d give it to me, and I’d feel so good, just to remember the taste of it. It was so soothing, like feeding off this emotional nipple. My point is…I was in upstate New York with my friend who had done a bag of mushrooms and there was some old hippie cats who had given him some acid, so he was on a pretty heavy dose of psychedelics. He was starting to freak out a bit. We went into this room, and there was a Carter Family record there, and he ran at it, put in on, and was calmed, that was the equivalent to him. It’s really comforting is what it is. However morose the lyrics may be, they’re not a bummer.
You’re right…their music taps into something deeper–it reminds one of growing up, for example. You probably get sick of people trying to pinpoint your music or saying, it sounds like this or it sounds like that. I’m not trying to do that at all because your sound is so unique. But at the same time, I hear people calling your music “classic” or “timeless” and maybe that’s what it has to do with. It has a sound that tries to tap into that comfort. Do you think so?
It’s certainly not the product of any trend. I do feel that what I do is quite natural, I mean everyone should make music that’s natural to them. It’s not a product of trying to jump on someone else’s bandwagon.
A CD I was thinking about related to this, and as far as the whole folk revival thing, is the Moldy Peaches CD. I loved that when it came out, but now it sounds dated in some way. Did you like that CD?
I can’t listen to it now…I’m moving to San Francisco at the end of the month. It’s something that I could give a long speech about, but every time I go on tour I realize that the magical land that calls to me, where, I keep saying this, where nature feeds on its own nipple, is the west coast…also the southwest. But New York, and what you’re talking about, I mean, I don’t know if I should talk about this, but I have no association with the anti-folk scene. That’s a totally different bag. There’s a few people who have been classified as anti-folk, that I don’t think there’s really that claim, one of them is Diane Cluck, who I’m going to put on the comp I‘m doing. [Golden Apples of the Sun, available on Arthur’s Bastet imprint, via arthurmag.com]. She’s a really non-careerist person who just started playing with friends and plays those kinds of shows. I think Adam Green [of the Moldy Peaches] is really funny and I like listening to him, and I know him, but generally, I think the perspective of anti-folk, their awareness of folk is like, James Taylor, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Tori Amos…John Denver. So if that’s your awareness of folk, naturally you’d be anti-folk…so they can say things like pee pee poo poo caa caa and get away with it. I don’t think you’d consider yourself anti-folk if you knew about Nick Drake, Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, and Donovan even. Syd Barrett.
Do you listen to Elizabeth Cotten much?
Oh, I absolutely love Elizabeth Cotten.
I was reading about how you were into Mississippi John Hurt, and then thinking about Elizabeth Cotten…When I play guitar, I just listen to those two and try to figure out what they’re doing. Do you do that? How do you study the people you love? Do you try to copy their songs or just internalize the sound and then make up your own songs?
The guitar players that I love so much are so good that it seems futile to try to play like them. My favorite folk guitar player, of all the people I know, is this guy Kevin Barker, who has this band Currituck County. And then my favorite classical guitar player is Noah Georgeson, who’s also in a rock band called The Pleased. He’s Joanna Newsom’s boyfriend. And then my favorite electric guitar player is Nick, from Planaria and Quixotic, but old school people…I have to find heroes. I just recently turned into a person who loved guitars, instead of approaching it as some weird, Dadaist shape. I used to be like, What the hell is this thing that I’m playing? In the earlier shows I’d only play guitars for maybe 25% of it, the rest I’d hold the guitar up and sing a cappella.
Is that because you didn’t know how to play guitar as well as you do now?
I don’t know, I think I was approaching it more as a performance in a different, arty-farty kind of way. That was right after art school. You could ask the people at the Silverlake Lounge in Los Angeles, they could be testament to the kinds of shows I used to play. But, guitar people… Elizabeth Cotten invented her own style, and I love her guitar playing, but I can’t even try it. Maybe my favorite guitar player is Caetano Veloso, he’s unbelievable. There’s a song on Rejoicing called “Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artists and Mimicry,” which is an instrumental song, and it’s for John Fahey. On the inside of the sleeve it says, For John Fahey and the guitarist of Canned Heat. I didn’t try to play a John Fahey song, I just felt inspired by him. So the title is like, I’m in the temple of artists and mimicry, and he’s a real artist, a temple, and I’m just tit smoking.
That’s a really good point: if you can’t directly imitate someone you can absorb their greatness and then give back what you can, instead of trying to do cover songs or something. Do you ever cover songs?
I do cover songs, selectively. I just recorded a cover of an Ella Jenkins song, she’s a big inspiration to me. I just played a show, and I did a Townes Van Zandt song, I do one Johnny Thunder song, and I do a Fred Neil song, one Elizabeth Cotten song, a John Hurt song, but that’s about all the covers I’ve ever done. I have a side project called Abra that I do in drag. I shave, my name is Honey Brown, there’s a percussionist named Charlie Feathers, and a piano player called Captain Catanip. We’re just a cover band, we do Linda Perhacs, we do a Tim Hardin song, a Nina Simone song, a Robert Johnson song…
What about glam? A lot of people compare you to Marc Bolan, and I read that you never heard him before you recorded your first record. Are you into that scene? Maybe not Gary Glitter, but the earlier stuff, like Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Gary Glitter has his place. The world would be a lot darker without the glitter. I love Tyrannosaurus Rex so much, it’s so easy to love, so righteous to love, and so natural to love, I can’t imagine anyone not liking it. What I was saying in that quote was that I was so relieved to never had heard it before I started writing songs, it was a fucking relief. I wrote maybe eighteen songs, put them on a tape, gave the tapes to some friends, and then someone said, Whoa, you have to hear this! If there were any artist I could say has influenced my style of singing it would be Karen Dalton. I love her so much, and felt influenced by her, but not by Marc Bolan.
The Redwoods always remind me of those Tyrannosaurus Rex albums. I like unicorns, so I always think of stuff like that when I’m up there. Do you have any mythological creatures in your songs?
I feel like I do. I suppose the creatures that I sing and write about could be categorized under mythological, but I don’t think they’re direct references to past mythological things like unicorns, elves, fairies, and trolls. I love them though, and I grew up hearing up about them when I’d go to the woods in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the gnomes and trolls are all green, and you’re supposed to leave a space in your bed for them. I always think about that when I go to sleep, I say, I need to leave a little space. To this day, I leave a space.
Are there lots of mushrooms there too? Did you used to go mushroom hunting?
Not that I remember. But maybe I was too high on mushrooms to remember.
There are a lot of them in the Redwoods. You must know a lot about that if you lived in San Francisco…
I can’t wait to take trips up there. I have so many friends up there…Ben Chasny, from Six Organs of Admittance, he spends a lot of time up there. He’s the big daddy. I don’t know what word to choose for him yet. He’s been around for a long time, he’s released a lot of records, and he’s maybe the king of psych folk. He’s one of the most prolific songwriters and one of the best guitar players, the whole thing. He’s been releasing records on the Holy Mountain label, and on Ba Da Bing!, and he’s also in Comets on Fire. He’s a hero, that’s what he is. He’s a guitar god. He’s like a furry alligator.
Okay, now, wasn’t Karen Dalton into that New York early 60’s folk Greenwich Village scene, like with Dylan and The Fugs?
Yeah, she was part of that scene, she actually sang on the Holy Modal Rounders record. Fred Neil discovered her, and on her record she covers his songs, and people like Dino Valente, she does one of his songs, and she makes it her own, the way Jimi Hendrix made “All Along the Watchtower” his own…she was probably friends with Tim Hardin-I love that whole period. I’ve been listening to those records quite frequently.
Did you move to New York to study and to trace that?
I moved to New York for three reasons. One was because Young God Records wanted to release these recordings, and I wanted to release them with Young God. And then because Damo Suzuki was playing a show at Tonic, and because of The Fugs—I heard Tuli Kupferberg was hanging around. And he was! I walked right into the Bowery Poetry club and he was doing his weird versions of Beatles songs. [starts reciting “Nowhere Man”]
Don’t you have an album coming out that’s all in Spanish?
That’s going to take a little time, because I want to record it right. My best friend and the only person I can write music with is Andy Cabic, from Vetiver, they have a record coming out in March. He’s the inheritor of the Neil Young canon. We’ve already written the songs but we want to record it in Brazil. It’s inspired by “Domingo,” by Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa. I’m trying to get help from people like Arto Linsday to find a studio. It’ll be in Spanish and Portuguese.
Do you alphabetize the records you own?
No, I just try to keep it all good. I keep a few little cubbies of favorites.
Talking about listening to music…do you find an album you love, like your favorite Karen Dalton, and just listen to it over and over and over for days, or do put on a variety of things throughout the day?
I’ve learned that what constitutes a record I’m going to listen to constantly is if I can draw to it. If I can draw to it, it’s a good record. If it can exist in that realm, as good ambient background music but also as full frontal, subconscious and conscious, that’s a record.
How did you get your name? Is it Indian?
Yes. I was named by a teacher named Prem Rawat, a guru, someone who shared knowledge in the same vein as Kabir, and Rumi. [My parents] asked him to name me…my middle name is Obi, after Star Wars. That was my mom’s doing.
Does “Devendra” mean anything?
Yes, but it has so many, to me, what sounds crazy, over the top definitions, that I like to just say it means Tom, because it’s the equivalent of Tom in India, there are so many people in India named Devendra. But its definition is King Of Gods.
That’s pretty serious.
I know. When I was a kid, I used to stare at the ocean and be like, I want a tidal wave, man! And it coincided with my first psychedelic experience, which was that I stepped on a fish that had a spike in its head, its called a horny toad fish that digs itself in the sand and just leaves the spike-I stepped on it, and they have to give me a medication, but it is Venezuela in the mid-eighties, so everything is kind of back, so it’s probably medication from the seventies…needless to say, it had a very strange effect on me, and the ocean turned vertically. I thought, careful what you wish for.
I’d like to collect psychedelic water stories. There seem to be a lot of similarities. I’ve seen water catching on fire, but I’ve never heard of it turning vertical. That’s crazy.
I wonder if it has to do with water’s constant motion? The way its motion influences the stillness in the mind, and the movement creates some kind of inertia, or domino effect in your mind. You start moving with it, and it starts moving things in your mind.
Also, it’s one of the four elements, so it’s just a hardcore, powerful thing.
And you envisioned it with one of the other elements…
And then seeing something turn vertical from horizontal, that seems to be based on your actual vision, the cones and rods in your eyes. It’s based on physical chemistry. That’s pretty cool.
That is pretty cool. That can be our conclusion.