Pop Artist: A Q&A With Devendra Banhart

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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“Hello, my name is Devendra,” says the voice from the other line. Then, he’s gone. Dropped call. It could have been the perfect Zen interview for Devendra Banhart — the one where nothing happens— but soon I have him back on the line, citing my editorial concern for an interview with no text. “The hierarchy of journalist and editor, owner and publisher,” he scoffs.

On Banhart’s eighth studio album, Mala, the Venezuela-bred songwriter explores more stripped-down arrangements than the jammy Cripple Crow or Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain. It’s less polished than his 2009 outing, the retro rock opus What Will We Be, his last record for major label Warner Bros. The new album is at times a lo-fi, electronic homage to Arthur Russell. At other times, it’s a full-blown dance record, as on the Euro Club middle section of “Petting Duck,” in which Banhart duets with his fiancée, the artist Ana Kras. In a way, Mala feels like a return to Banhart’s earliest solo recordings. We’re still not sure if he agrees.

What happened after What Will We Be? Do you feel like that record was misunderstood?

There’s enough distance now that I’m happy to talk about it. But there isn’t enough distance that I have anything to say about it.

I love that record.

You’re the first person who’s ever wanted to talk about that album. There are songs that I really like. There are also songs that due to irresponsibility and egoism I allowed to be put out that I really don’t like.

You wanted to strip things down on this record. Your early records were definitely very minimal. Are you more of a minimalist now than when you recorded Cripple Crow or Smokey?

As I get older, I’m interested in less work, less shit, on the album. If I could make an album that was just decay, where there was no attack, where everything was quieter and quieter, that would be amazing.

Those two records I just mentioned were part of your “hairy fairy” period. Were there things you were reading or listening to at the time that influenced that direction?

My weird young man vibe. It had a lot to do with the influence of The Cockettes and performance art, I guess. Drag shows. Living in San Francisco and that scene. My “lost-my-bar-of-soap” period.

Why do you think Arthur Russell’s music and story resonate with you at this point in your life?

I’ve always loved his music. It’s really the perfect music. I feel a particular empathy towards him. I’ve never heard somebody merge into their instrument so seamlessly. I don’t know where the cello is playing and when he’s singing sometimes. He had a pure, true art. It’s something that makes sense as I get a little older.

I thought “A Gain” was kind of an homage to Russell.

It really should be called “A Loss.” To me it’s really like a blues song. When I was a kid and making my first records, in my head it sounds like a Faust record. At the same time, in my head I’m thinking Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, Bo Carter, Son House. Those are also my heroes. But I’ve really never written a blues song. So this is my first attempt.

I was surprised when I found out you were influenced by blues musicians. When you were describing Arthur Russell earlier, though, I was thinking how you could have been describing Charley Patton.

Charley Patton is a big one. There are lots of little lines we can draw. If I’m into John Fahey, I’m into Charley Patton. I got into Arthur Russell thanks to Harry Smith. Harry was like this weird glue at this time. Arthur is like a Harry Smith-esque person. Arthur’s involved with Talking Heads, with the disco scene, the correlation between pop music and art.

That’s a great comparison between Arthur Russell and Harry Smith. You would love this animation of Harry Smith by Drew Christie.

I’m writing that down right now.

Some Crazy Magic: Meeting Harry Smith from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

How would you describe your intercommunication or interaction with Noah Georgeson in the studio?

That’s a nice question. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get creative with the question. I don’t even want to give an answer. It’s like a water park with no water.

I will say this: I look up to him, like an older brother. He talks down to me like a little brother. I admire him so much as someone who is really erudite. He went to Mills [College] and grew up next to Terry Riley. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of new music and also classical music. He studied flamenco guitar and was teaching it when he was 15.

Working with him is amazing because he cares just enough and doesn’t care just enough. He can give me good perspective, as objective as you can get coming from someone who’s really a member of my family and I’ve known longer than anyone else besides my mom or dad.

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