Devendra Banhart :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

When Devendra Banhart sat down with Aquarium Drunkard founder Justin Gage for the most recent episode of the Transmissions podcast, he articulated a love evident on his new album, Ma: “I love music that is referential in a subtle and nuanced way, in a way that creates its own genre, really.” Since the early 2000s, Banhart has worked hard to establish “Devendra Banhart albums” as their own genre, tying together strands of psychedelic folk, rock, funk, experimental pop, and Latin rhythms, and unifying them with his distinctive voice.

But Ma eschews much of the stylistic hopping around. Instead, it finds Banhart relaxed and natural. Alongside guests—like Cate Le Bon and Banhart’s mentor and friend Vashti Bunyan—he settles into an easy stroll, singing in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, referencing Carole King and Haruomi Hosono, and focusing on maternal love and beauty. It’s one of Banhart’s finest works to date, and he joined us to dive into its themes, taking characteristically Banhartian detours along the way.

Aquarium Drunkard: Ma sounds like you’re approaching these songs through the lens of maternal relationships. Is that a fair way to characterize what you’re doing on this record? How does that play out in the songs?

Devendra Banhart: The subjects are actually quite varied, but it’s all through that lens. It’s not only about the relationship between parents and children—it’s an expression of gratitude to the mothering, maternal power of art and music. And then are songs that are strictly about Venezuela, and there are songs about being in this new environment where I’m surrounded by little kids—my band has kids, and I get to be the auntie I’ve always wanted to be. The subjects are all quite different, but it’s all through that lens of “maternity” to some degree.

AD: Did the songs reveal that theme to you?

Devendra Banhart: I think the other way around. Our environment will always manifest itself in our work. Sometimes we make work and completely change our environment and block out our environment or entire a completely different world. I get that. But still our environment’s gonna be present to some degree and for me it’s so obvious what my world is at the moment of whatever it is I’m writing.

Basically, my socializing consists of being around my fellow musicians and people I play music with. I’ve known them since they were kids. Now I see them with their kids. So that becomes part of the record, and then at the same time, I’m constantly talking to my family, and they’re in a really horrific, horrific, horrific frightening situation where an entire country is being held hostage basically. Everyone’s holding their breath, hoping that something will change. Knowing that something has to change, but scared of how it will change. My brothers there, aunts, uncles, cousins. So that’s definitely a part of the record too, because that’s a daily part of my life. That’s going to entire into the writing.

I think as you get older, it’s more and more surprising the way you still turn to music and art to be comforted. I think that that definitely made it into the record. I realized that like 25 years ago, when I was feeling lonely and heartbroken or even physically cold or hungry, I just would listen to Vashti Bunyan’s records. I would listen to Just Another Diamond Day, and that really provided this kind of motherly, maternal comfort. I still see that to this day, not just with that record, but with all of her records. Carole King is also someone whose music I turn to, and so she’s mentioned on the record. You know, Haruomi Hosono, who’s referenced on “Kantori Ongaku.” They’re all people I turn to as well, so they get referenced on the record as well. That was a part of it too. Like wow…I still turn to art to make a very lonely situation suddenly much more manageable and agreeable or a very beautiful situation even more ecstatic, even more beautiful. 

AD: You sing “It’s better to understand than to be understood” in “Is This Nice?” How does the idea tie into the maternal theme?

Devendra Banhart: I think a good parent tries to communicate that it’s okay not to know. It’s a life-long teaching: how to step out of the way and let go of everything. Eventually, we have to let go of everything. That’s kind of a big part of this existence. All of your physical things, and then your body. The whole thing. So “better to understand than to be understood” felt like very direct advice. That song, in particular, is really me singing to this imaginary child that I may or may not have.

So much of the record is that. Maybe I won’t have a kid. I don’t have one, and I’m pretty old. It’s okay if I don’t have a child, but maybe this record is everything I’d want to say to my kid, regardless if I have one or not. That’s advice that I’m still trying to give myself. It’s a daily practice of course. You don’t always [achieve the state of] “Oh, I stepped out of the way and didn’t let my ego rule my decisions.”

I’m talking about the difference between responding, which is something conscious, and reacting, which is something more unconscious. It’s the practice though. We naturally want to react. Naturally we want to just jump to it, but if we can respond, and really smooth things out, it makes things a little bit easier for everybody. 

AD: So many of the artists you’ve cited are, like yourself, not beholden to one particular style. There’s a willingness to switch up genre to match the idea.

Devendra Banhart: You let the subject of the song dictate what kind of song it’s gonna be and what genre it’s gonna be, as opposed to just trying to fit it into something that may not be its thing.

AD: You’ve written some great records, but they often jump around more stylistically than Ma does. Were you surprised at the end to realize that you had made a record that kind of adheres to a specific zone? Something that lands somewhere in that Carole King’s Tapestry space?

Devendra Banhart: Well, that’s very nice of you to say. I’m sure Carole would not appreciate it, but I certainly do. It’s possible that sustaining a particular mood—certainly way more than in the past where it was just really jumping around from song to song—is born from two things. One might be that there aren’t really any character songs. Every record, three or four of the songs on every record I’ve made, or even more than that, they’re just characters. Like I’m going to embody some inanimate object. I’m gonna sing from the perspective of a toilet or some other person. When you’re singing as all these different characters, you have this jumping around of genre thing. On this record, there aren’t any characters. The subjects are different, but the person singing is really often me, and that may be how I sustain some kind of ambiance and mood.

The other thing was the environment. We started in Kyoto in a Buddhist temple and continued to record the record along the California coast, overlooking the Pacific. Whereas on the last record there was maybe one acoustic guitar, everything was synthesizers, on this record, instead of just transcribing a string part to a synth, we really had an actual cello and an actual violin and an actual piano. I think being in such a natural environment made it obvious to go for a more organic sound.

AD: That naturalism makes for a very gentle listen, but there are dark corners in these songs too. In “Kantori Ongaku” you sing “The death in my house/makes it easy to shop online.” What are you getting at there?

Devendra Banhart: It’s kind of about how we really do live this double life. One is our avatar online and the other one is our real self. We kind of pretend like there’s no consequence to how we behave in that digital domain, but there really is. At the same time, it can also help us loosen up a little bit and not take ourselves so seriously in a way. Ideally, you’re constantly conscious that none of these objects and items that you own are going to last—you don’t get to keep them. Eventually, someone else will be buying your clothes from the thrift store, so why not give it away while you can? Everyone’s so conscious of materialism, but at the same time, we seem to just purchase shit in such an evil way. I don’t know. I hate that you asked me about that because I don’t want to talk about that line. I think I’m gonna ruin it by talking about it. 

AD: One of the things that I’ve always found very interesting about your work is how abundant your attraction to humanity seems. But here you sing about liking specific people but “fearing” humanity. You seem like a guy who really loves humanity.

Devendra Banhart: Oh wow that could not be further from the truth! As much as I love individuals, which is really what makes up humanity, I guess that’s the joke of that line. That I really do love individuals and a good party is just you and me hanging out. Really, the best party ever, no one’s there. When I’m not home, that’s the time that I’m having a real party at my house.

AD: When you’re not there?

Devendra Banhart: Yeah, no one’s home, that’s a good party for me. But other than that, I love individuals. I guess that’s the stupid irony of that line. Collectively, that’s what makes humanity, but humanity as a whole is a very frightening thing. Read any article about climate change and about the inevitability of humans destroying their own planet and it will kind of make it hard to not fear humanity as a whole. But it also might make you want to tell the people you love you love them while you can. I’m not a misanthrope, but…I prefer to just be in a cave. 

AD: In the lead up to this record, you mentioned recording at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. What was it like being there? Was it just you and producer Noah Georgeson?

Devendra Banhart: Yeah, it was just Noah and I having this window of one hour. A friend of ours is a calligraphy teacher at the University of Kyoto, and she’s friends with all these people at Buddhist temples. I asked, “Is there any chance that we could record in one of them?” and it was kind of kidding, but then she got back to us and said “Yeah there’s a chance,” and she’d arranged for us to have one hour to record in a temple. So, it was crazy. It was crazy. We showed up, set up the mic and got some vocals for a song that we’d already tracked the piano to. It’s actually a song that didn’t make it on the record. But the experience was the best thing in the universe. There’s really no distinction between outside and inside. That’s so poetic and beautiful. You can see the bamboo. You can hear the leaves blowing in the wind. Every maybe 15 minutes, there’s a sculpture that’s built next to this little, small stream that’s flowing, and slowly this wooden box would fill up, and as it fills up, it releases a wooden lever that makes a clack. Like a “BAH” sound. Of course, that’s just designed to sort of bring you back to the moment. To bring your attention back to now, and to remind us of how often our thoughts are just jumping ahead. “Woah! Hold on, I’m back here in my body. I was really drifting off thinking about what I want to do later. Okay, this brings me back to now.”

It’s really beautiful. You’re hearing that clack every 15 minutes or so, and we’re tracking this song. It’s just beautiful, and I have my eyes closed, and then I halfway open them, and standing there is the head priest of that temple. Just standing there watching. It’s just me singing this song for one person about devotion. I start crying and I’m sweating and I’m nervous, but I’m also so overwhelmed by the emotion of it that I’m crying. It was a beautiful experience, and we’re done. Then he’s gone. No words are exchanged.

The next day, we brought a big bottle of sake, and a small donation, just to say thanks. We come back, thinking alright we’ll give them the bottle of sake and the envelope, and one of the monks says “Oh, actually one second. Come into this room.” We’ are led to this room. It’s just me and Noah. Nothing in the room. Three chairs and one scroll. We just sit there. We’re excited, we’re nervous. What’s gonna happen? And then some times go by, and nothing’s happening. We’re wondering what’s going on. More time goes by. Finally, the head priest walks in and just sits down next to us and doesn’t say anything! So we’re just all sitting there. Finally, I’m like, “What does that say? The scroll?” He just says, “Pure light” then gets up and leaves. It’s like the most beautiful, zen moment I’ve ever had in my life.

That was a good party. That was a great conversation. I think once the Kyoto experience had happened, even though we didn’t utilize the song, it made it very clear that we wanted to make the record that wasn’t going to shut the rest of the world out, the same way that that temple was really open to the environment. Where do you want to make a record where you can hear everything? It seemed pretty obvious to do that in a natural place, a natural environment. This maternal theme begins emerging. What is the primordial mother? The ocean! So it made it very obvious to us that we were going to California, and we wanted to find a place that had a cliff or some sort of proximity to the Pacific ocean. And we did. We got to [Anderson Canyon in Big Sur] and recorded the ocean for 24 hours. Every song on this record has a track of the ocean. You can’t hear it because that would maybe distract from the song, but it’s all in there.

AD: I want to ask about another mothering figure, Vashti Bunyan, who appears on this record. You’ve played a large role in helping more people discover her work. What’s it’s been like getting to know her? Developing this relationship in which you not only collaborate but have a friendship with someone whose records means so much to you?

Devendra Banhart: Well, it’s really strange because I can’t believe I sustained something beautiful for this long. It began in a very general way with me writing to her. I got her email by reaching out to Spinney Records. They put out a reissue of Just Another Diamond Day. I wrote them a long letter saying, “I’m not asking for Vashti’s email, but can you just pass this along to her? It’s really just I want to say thank you. It’s the greatest record in the world, and it’s helped me through so much.” I heard back from Vashti, ‘thank you for writing me a letter it was very nice.’ And then I wrote back, she said, “I can’t believe I’m hearing from you. Thank you!”

I was in Paris, trying to have a career, or at least have someone hear my music. I’m trying to play shows and I’m really just annoying people, hanging out outside of venues. I was sending cassettes to labels. Of course, nobody ever wrote back. I’d go to different venues and say is there any chance of opening up a show? Of course not. I don’t have a fucking agent. I don’t have a label, a manager. It’s crazy. I’m a crazy person. And I’m emailing with Vashti in an internet café in Paris saying, “Thank you so much. I love your music. I’ve been trying to do this music thing. I was wondering if I could send you my music and see what you thought?” She said sure. And then she wrote back, “Thanks so much for sending me it. I like it.” Through the rejection that followed the next many years, Vashti’s saying “I don’t mind this music” really was the thing that kept me going.

Then, I guess when the first record came out and the cassette got to Michael Gira and we started working together, I got to ask Vashti to sing on the record. Since then we’ve just been friends. She’s still writing music. She is truly that person. She is this gentle, loving, very calm, very delicate, but somebody who embodies strength and nobility. A very honest person. Definitely doesn’t change her personality depending on who she’s around, meaning she’s so grounded in herself. That’s a very rare thing to see. A very honest and real person. Those are the kind of people that you want to ask for advice. Those are the kind of people that you want to turn to, but also those people are rare. This is somebody who really embodies their art. You’re not disappointed in any way. She’s a very real person like that. She’s a reflection of her music and her work. 

AD: Does being around her make you want to deeper embody and reflect your authentic self in your own music as well?

Devendra Banhart: Yeah, absolutely because I think my natural inclination is to put up walls in terms of how I interact with the world. It’s a natural thing to want to put up walls. That makes it difficult to communicate. It’s like you’re constantly scared of being attacked; it’s like a natural state. When you’re around somebody who has removed those walls—someone who’s so naked to the world—it’s totally inspiring. It’s frightening, but it’s inspiring. You’re not altering what you do to bring people in. You’re just doing what you do, focusing on that openness and that honesty, and that brings people in. You’re not yelling at anybody, not trying to flash a bunch of lights to get people’s attention. It’s simple: I’m going to inhabit this space and my ground in a respectful way and that’ll bring people in. Her shows become these very church-like environments. She really brings a temple to the venue, to the club. That’s an incredible feat. I mean it’s all so very rare, to have somebody that grounded in themselves. words/j woodbury

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