Interview

Devendrah Banhart

Devendrah Banhart

By Natalie Finnigan

Tuesday 12th March, 2013 2:15PM

Devendra Banhart has been labeled many things, from ‘hippie-leaning screwball’ to ‘freak-folk genius’, though neither description really works for him. Banhart prefers to describe his work as ‘un-popular pop music’, an apt description for his music which is in many ways indescribable. His eighth studio album, Mala, reflects the constant evolution of his aesthetic and abilities as a songwriter.

A softly spoken, deeply introspective artist, when Banhart talks about himself and his work, you feel as though somehow, you can hear his brain working. There is this sense of a brilliant mind overflowing in front of you, and the same can be said for his music.

I caught up with Banhart at home in New York ahead of the release of Mala this Friday, and talked about art, doing away with metaphors and the difference between influence and inspiration.

Thank you for talking with me.

Thank you for talking to me.

How are you?

Neither here nor there.

Have you had a long line of interviews today?

Yeah I have, but you know…

I’m always interested in how artists feel talking about their work so much – does it get hard to stay fresh and feel like you want to keep talking about it?

No, I think the more the better really. Then each conversation is like a contraction of the last interview, like ‘actually this is what I meant and this is what it was like.’ It can be a pleasure.

Lets get started then - would you mind describing the space you were in when you began recording the album and what you were striving for creatively?

Well, there’s this band, and I’m not even sure if they’re from Australia or New Zealand – actually I have a computer in front of me so I think it might be worth looking it up. For a really long time I’ve been inspired by, beguiled by, seduced by them, partly because they’re mysterious and I know so little about them. They’re a band called the Lost Souls… let’s see… Oh, I guess they’re Australian. They’re a really, really special band – 1960s garage band - Uh, that’s not much of an answer though is it, and I can’t remember, what was the question again?

What kind of space were you in when you recorded the album…

Oh, what kind of space. Well actually, we recorded in an old house in Los Angeles where I was living at the time. We try to get to a different space for each record depending on where we’re at, try to change it up every time. I’ve made records in different studios, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple other musicians, sometimes with many options and many instruments. Once we rented a house and built the studio there, another time we built a studio in a house we all lived in… this time, we wanted to all be able to go home at the end of the day so we built this little studio down the back of the property which we sound proofed ourselves.

A lot of people play on the record, but the core group was me, Noah (Georgeson, guitarist and long-time collaborator) and Josiah Steinbrick. We had Ana Gras (Banhart’s fiancé) sing on a song, Greg Rogove played drums on a couple songs, Bram Inscore played cello on a couple songs, Rodrigo Amarante played guitar on a couple songs, but the core group of people was just me, Noah and Jo. Everybody going about their lives in the morning and at night, but during the day we’d just be making this album.

And my process in not one of… I wasn’t sitting around writing, not since the last record anyway, which was many years ago…

I’m going to go for a walk…

Yeah, so I was working on visual art and stuff like that, and then when I wanted to make the record I spent about two months prior writing, and of course that time informs what you end up producing, but I wasn’t writing up until that point.

That isn’t really the way I want to work in the future. I don’t really like taking those kinds of breaks – it didn’t really work out. But I’ve never really done it before and I wanted to try it. It did allow me to focus on my visual art, which was good, but I wouldn’t say I benefitted from it - the work didn’t really move forward… or maybe it did, I don’t know. I don’t think I want to try that again.

Is music your primary focus, or is it one of a number of creative outlets for you?

They’ve always parallel – I had my first solo art show the same year my first record came out. After the last record, I did have about three and half years with touring and other stuff which meant I didn’t focus on my art as much I probably should have. They can be very complementary of one another if you can divide your time between both.

How do the two things complement one another?

I’m not sure – I think maybe in a way they do though. John Cage is a good example – I actually knew about his artwork before I knew about his music – Henry Flynt – I knew about his music before I knew about his installations, so those people, I don’t know if they’re influences but they’re certainly inspirations. That’s something that Andy Cabic from Vetiver always used to say – I played a lot with him and we’d do interviews while on tour - when people asked him about his influences that’s what he’d say, ‘I don’t know about influences but I know about inspiration,’ and I feel the same way.

Well, actually I guess the thing is you can approach music from a visual place, and that made a lot more sense when I was younger, these days it doesn’t really so much. I’m intentionally not working so much with metaphors and semiotics and symbolism. My writing has changed: it used to be so much about metaphors and so much about what I couldn’t see, but these days, for whatever reason, I like to try and write about what a thing is.

‘It is a chair’ – I don’t want to describe the chair. I’m done describing. That’s where I am at. And for this album that was the ambition too… (loud distortion on line)

Are you there??

Aaaahhh it’s so windy. Sorry, it just rained in my face. But go ahead, I can hear you….

Okay, who are you listening to right now – any new artists who are surprising or inspiring you?

There’s a band called Helado Negro from Brooklyn that I really love , there’s a piano player called Akira Kosemura, there’s a piano player named Harold Budd, a piano player named Nils Frahm, and a composer called Olafur Arnalds and I love Nick Cave’s new album, and I love Steve Kilby from The Church – Cornucopia is one of my favourite songs of all time  – I like Orange Juice – Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice , I like a band called Flap Happy. Loren Mazzacane Connors is my favourite guitar player. Linda Perhacs actually has a new album that I’m really liking.

Obviously you’re listening to a lot of music…

To my fiance’s annoyance, yes.

I love the new album, and it’s interesting how you were saying earlier that your writing had changed, because I definitely feel like I could hear the influence of your love of poetry, and some of the songs are like Haikus - beautifully simple and they give you time to really feel the music rather than think about it…

Wow, thank you, that means so much. One of my favourite Haiku is this one: ‘New Years Eve, Stars in the Sky, Vomit in the Streets.’ Isn’t that a good one?

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