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.Continue reading