DEVENDRA BANHART: Psychotic Moonchild or Zygotic Psych-child?

Music Features
DEVENDRA BANHART: Psychotic Moonchild or Zygotic Psych-child?
Jun 14, 2003, 05:20

Devendra Banhart - Rejoicing in the Hands

Folk songs aren't always soothing ditties about puffy clouds and saving the whales. Sometimes, as in the case of Charles Manson's recordings, Roky Erickson's mental hospital tapes, Nick Drake's dejected whimpers, and the debut album by Devendra Banhart, a solitary acoustic guitar and voice can carry immense power, tragedy and terror. In fact, Banhart's lengthy 22-song CD, Oh Me Oh My… The Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (Young God Records) is such a haunting musical hall-of-mirrors that many listeners consider it too creepy sounding to appreciate. The 21-year-old troubadour's sinister warbling voice echoes Marc Bolan's folkadelic riddles on early Tyrannosaurus Rex songs. When Banhart whispers and wails in an unhinged, witchy falsetto, “you certainly are nice people” it sounds like a chanted hex of death. His fingers calmly pluck ominous chord progressions while mysterious noises of gunshots, doors closing, and dogs barking filter through in the background.

Even when Banhart sounds plucky and pleasant—singing about snails, pumpkin seeds, and “gentle souls”—the eerie midrange tone to these four-track recordings that have traveled with the singer from San Francisco to Paris to LA to New York seems unsettling. However, those who can get past the album's spooky mood will enjoy the compelling and confounding stroll through the quivering muse of a twisted and talented mind.

I spoke to Banhart via telephone during a break in the songwriter's travels in November 2002. Devendra loves to wander off the subject, and seemed to find amazing anecdotal connecting points from one thing to another, so this interview has been condensed from a much longer, rambling discussion that involved his and my coincidentally shared experiences and friends.

YF: It's strange how so many people react to your music as scary—a friend of mine called it “Helter Skelter stuff.” How do you feel about that kind of reaction?

D: I don't know. I used to think that anyone who told me anything about my music was the worst person ever. I'd think, “you like my music? You must be a fucking idiot”—because I was so insecure about it. But, I dunno…I'm scared of it. I'm scared of music. I'm scared of the E chord. That's the scariest chord, you know? What is it about that chord?

Well, it has a big, open sound that resonates with the lowest and highest strings…just an ominous sound, really.

Yeah, like you don't need anything else. All of my songs are just one or two chords. Anything else would just… kill you or something.

That's what I like about your music. It's simple and has the feeling of being an antique style of songwriting. They sound like weird campfire songs passed down through the years.

That's cool. I don't write universal songs, like “girl, you and me…” something that everyone can relate to, you know? I think my songs are very specific and personal, but that people can relate to it is really interesting.

Already, this being your first record, the reaction that people have is that it's so strange and unique and powerful that, over time, you might need to be more deliberate and play some sort of role. Does the reaction to your music make sense to you?

I'm not really aware of what the fuck is going on. I'm a total space cadet, you know? I don't even have electricity… it's been shut off for four days. I'm not thinking about what other people are saying about it or anything, I'm working on my life and the most important thing for me is making music.

Well, a lot of writers, and even your own label, are describing your songs by suggesting that it's a very strange, twisted psychodrama with surreal lyrics…almost implying that it's so-called “outsider music.”

Are they implying that I have a rotten mental state?

I don't know exactly.

Because that's so cheesy, man. Like, (in a mocking, sarcastic tone) “I'm a musician and I'm fucking crazy.” You know? I don't know. I hate reading about people that say that they're nuts.

Right. If someone is pretending to be crazy, then it would be pretty apparent. But, if I were in your position, sort of setting myself up for a career for people to judge me as…basically an idiot savant, I think it would be really annoying. How does it make you feel about what you're creating?

I don't know. It's not going to make me change the way that I write songs at all… and I have, like, 70 more new songs. Everyone gets different images, and I get certain images that I sing about, so it's like a mental suppository. It's really simple for me—if that makes any sense. It's…just…my work. I don't have to do too much.

How exactly did you record these songs? Obviously, judging by the strange sounds and lo-fi elements, it's done mainly on the fly. Did you have just a four-track and bring it all over the place with you? What exactly went on?

Different songs were recorded on different equipment. So, some of it was recorded on a four-track a friend sold me that only had three working tracks. Then that broke, so I borrowed a few four-tracks. But when I went to Europe, I brought one but I didn't have the right plug so I couldn't use it. So, I ended up calling the answering machine at my apartment and when I got back I recorded it direct from the machine to four-track. I had stuff assembled on all this scattered, broken and different equipment. Like, I'd call a friend on the phone and ask them, “please don't erase what I'm recording” and then I'd play a song and they'd keep it on their answering machine, thank god!

It's weird how it all worked out. Maybe the next record will be like a Yes record, and it'll be all freaked out with 18,000 tracks.

Do you want to do something in a more traditional studio set-up?

I don't know. What would be ideal would be having more options. I'd like to use a piano and maybe… a zither or something. Just to be able to use something more than just a guitar would be good. It wouldn't sound so different from the last record, but there wouldn't be any tape hiss and there would be more instruments. It would stay the same, but be a little more developed. I had no idea that these recordings would be released. Sometimes I get dizzy with fear that people are actually listening to these, because they don't sound the same as I hear them in my head, you know what I mean? It's just like a sketch.

Your lyrics seem like a stream of consciousness. What goes into them? They seem to go into a spiral.

But, I really think about this stuff. I don't think that I'm a good singer or I'm a good guitar player. The focus is always on the writing. It is intuitive, because it's based on what I really, really feel. The most important thing is the words. They're not at all arbitrary.

From a young age you've moved around a lot, right?

Yeah, I was born in Texas, then I moved to Venezuela. I grew up there and I traveled around Venezuela and it's like, really beautiful, but it's really horrible—don't ever go. Then, since I went to college in the U.S. and dropped out, I just moved around a lot. I'm still in that moving stage. I don't really like where I am right now (in Brooklyn) but I don't know how to get out of it. I would like to just live on tour. I'm so used to not having a home that I think I could do it. I just want to move to a home in a very secluded place.

I've been told that some strange things have happened while you were recording these songs…like some gun shots and so forth. Can you elaborate about those?

Oh yeah, that's the “Cosmos and Demos” song. I was recording that in Paris, and it was near the Rue Pagale, which is the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. I got mugged there a few times. Actually, one time I was mugged and they couldn't take my Walkman because my pants were too tight… that's a bit of advice there. But, anyway, it was Bastille Day and fireworks were going off and it was beautiful. I was recording with all those fireworks going off and I had a view down on an alleyway and I see this cat get out of his car and he pulls out his gun. So, he's looking at his gun and he opens the door and goes inside… and I'm recording and playing while watching this, and you hear the gun go off during the song—pow—it's different, it doesn't sound like the fireworks. And, I don't know… the next night there were all these French kids drunk in the alleyway singing “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” It was really crazy.

You don't know what happened with that guy do you?

No, it was so strange though.

So, overall, the album has a mass of collected sounds in the background from all these different places that you've been traveling. How long have you been working on the record?

Some of the songs I wrote when I was 18 and recorded it really shitty. It's the culmination of, like, two different records worth of stuff and we chose from 54 songs for the album. Those were all just accumulated over about a two-year period. A lot of the songs were written over two weeks out in the woods.

So, do you just have an accumulation of songs piling up now?

Yeah, I feel doomed, man. I'm gonna die and they're all going to disappear.

You'd better get them recorded.

Yeah, but for now, the plan is just to tour a bunch in support of this record. I'm trying to arrange this psychedelic egg reptile cabaret. The title is Saturday Furnace and the Ovarian Mist. But, after that I'm going into the studio with Michael (Gira, of Angels of Light and Young God records). I trust him so much…have you heard Angels of Light? It's so inspiring that he's making such music. We don't have a date for when that will happen though.




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