Before I can ask him a question, before I can even make it halfway through the pro forma expression of gratitude for his taking the time to speak with me, Devendra Banhart makes it clear that he has questions of his own, and the accompanying uncertainty seems to be putting him on edge.
“Yeah, yeah, like, where are you?” he asks, cutting me off and shooing my pleasantries aside. “Like, can you give me some background on where you are? What is your environment?”
Does he want me to describe the room that I’m sitting in?
“Yeah, like, where are you at this moment? You know.”
And so I tell him about the contours of my office, about my day job, about things that would not be of interest to you, but nevertheless appear to be blowing Banhart’s mind.
“Wow. But that is – I did not know that. But now I do,” he says, sounding sincerely in awe. And, for whatever reason, this transfer of information appears to put him at ease. “I’m embarrassed for asking that, but I’m glad that I did. As I get older, I kind of let go of the self-consciousness about those type of things.”
For his part, Banhart is strolling through Toronto at this moment. He has a performance later in the night, but for now, he’s content in his walk. “We are really just promenading, as they say,” he explains, declining to elaborate on who “they” may be.
Joining him on this promenade is bassist Josiah Steinbrick, a member of his touring band, and one of only two other people to contribute prominently to his most recent record, the understated and rewarding Mala. The exclusivity of this collaboration stands in stark contrast to his past three albums, which found him working with an increasingly swollen collection of musicians, a list that seemed to include anyone who happened to be within a thirty-mile radius of the studio on any given day. By the release of 2009’s schizophrenic What Will We Be, however, it had become clear that this approach was producing diminishing returns, something that Banhart acknowledges in our conversation. Mala, then, is an attempt to reassert control over his creative process. But if it’s a “return to form” record, it’s still one on his own terms: Aside from instrumental “The Ballad of Keenan Milton”, Banhart is still not interested in returning to the plaintive acoustic landscape of the twin 2004 records that put him on the map, the iconic Rejoicing in the Hands and the endearing, more colorful Niño Rojo.
Banhart has matched this pairing down with external gestures. Trimmed is the shamanistic mane and beard. Left behind is the West Coast and its starlet ex-girlfriends. Gone is his home on Warner Brothers’ Reprise Records. In fact, Banhart and Noah Georgeson – his longtime collaborator and co-producer – would record and complete Mala on their own dime before shopping the LP to its eventual distributor, Nonesuch Records. (A label also owned by Warner Brothers, but considered more of a boutique. See: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”.)
In conversation, Banhart is gregarious and engaged, even when his answers sometimes sputter out. He takes long pauses, which occasionally leads to us talking over each other, and then his apologizing to me, even as I assure him that as far these types of conversations go, he most assuredly has the right-of-way.
“No, sorry, I have logorrhoea,” he says as we untangle another pile-up. “I was just going to mumble on with harangued nonsense.”
Is it good promenading weather?
Yes, it’s perfect – perfect promenading weather. In fact, I don’t even regret having left my parasol at home.
You will not need any sort of outerwear in DC.
Is it, like, super hot? And is it stormy?
It’s certainly humid. It rained torrentially last night, and some again this morning.
Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. I’m so excited. I actually really love the kind of weather that DC is having at this moment. It makes me really nostalgic, because it’s so evocative of my childhood. It’s the closest thing that I’ve found living in America to Venezuela. It’s almost a tropical humidity. It’s something that is so evocative of my childhood and nostalgic for me and I love it. Plus, in DC, there’s a flight simulator in the Air and Space Museum that I’m really excited to check out. My aunt also lives there. And, anyway, we love DC deeply. Plus, I think that, you know, Ian Svenonius should run for president. [Laughs]
Your tour schedule seems to allow for a least one day off between stops. Is that so you can do things like go to the Air and Space Museum?
It is, and that’s a new implement, and it’s been a gradual thing, meaning that it’s not even as balanced now as I would like it to be. In the past, touring has really been about trying to minimize any time in the place that you’re at, which has its own sort of practicality or, at least, financial pragmatism. But, now, older as we are, we’re trying to balance it out. We can play and then spend time in the city! Because, otherwise, you travel to these places and you just know the venue, and that’s it. You end up having crossed he country forty times but only know Nice Guy Eddie’s on Houston, because it’s next to the Mercury Lounge. It’s ridiculous. So, for the first time, we’re trying to do it right.
It really is an age thing. It’s been over a decade that we’ve been touring, but I suppose that the world gets much bigger when you have the time to walk around and go to museums. These are kind of standard things and not really interesting. It’s straight up for the museums. [Laughs]
Has that extra time enabled any interesting encounters?
I should be able to rain you with anecdotes, but the only one that I can think of is that I have been told by four different people on four different occasions, in different cities, that their fathers came out to the new album, which has led me to conclude that this is the subtext of Mala, although it should have been very clear to me. They had heard the record and whatever happened, it was some sort of a catalyst, and they came out! It was latter on in life for them, obviously – the people telling me this were a little younger than I am, or around my age, and so their fathers would be much older. And I think that’s really special. Initially, I was saying that this album was the sound of the after-party to the party that no one was invited to, but now, I have something concrete. What is this album? How can I sum it up? Well, it’s an album for dads to come out to.
Are you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to Mala?
I haven’t, um – I don’t know. I don’t know. Yeah, I’ve been pretty… I guess I’m not totally… I’ve been trying to avoid knowing anything about it. But the things that I do know, I’m very grateful for. I’m super surprised. I guess ,really, though – I’ll give you an example… [Sighs] Ok, I’ve been, yeah… I don’t really know how to answer that. I’ve just got this thing: Even though I don’t know exactly what you mean, I think it’s been okay. [Pauses] Whew, that was rough. Sorry about that.
It’s a tough question. There are certainly some musicians that are more attuned to their clippings than others.
I just, um… Ok, here’s the thing, and it feels funny saying, but I can really identify with this quote from the guy who wrote Dharma Punx. He said that when his autobiography came out, he read the reviews on Amazon. There were a hundred reviews, and ninety-nine said, “This is just great,” and then right at the end, the last guy said, “This is the steamiest pile of shit that I have every smelled.” And that’s the only thing that he remembers. I can really identify with that, even though for me, it’s actually 99% of them usually do say, “This is the steamiest pile of shit I’ve ever heard,” and there will be only one or two good ones. I feel like I can not go actively searching for it, but I do know that… Yeah, I don’t know. At the same time, I just don’t know. But, at the same time, I am very grateful.
I just know that I shouldn’t have taken time before making the record. I shouldn’t have taken time between records. That’s really how I feel. And I also feel like this is more of a transitional record. But let’s just backtrack, and I let me say that, yes, I have been surprised that there has been any portion of a positive reaction. I’m grateful for it and super surprised by it.
I’ve seen you explain that the four years between records was, in part, the result of a decision to focus on visual arts. Don’t you think that you had to step away from music in order to come back and make a record like this?
I absolutely do. It’s partly something that obviously had to happen. Why? Because it did. At the same time, it’s a little bit of one of those situations where you tell me, “The fire is hot. Don’t put your hand it,” but I have to do that twenty times for me to figure that out. Being on a major label, for example – I wanted to try that out. This and that, I wanted to try out. And now that I’ve tried it, I’m glad that it’s done. It certainly had to happen for me to make the record that I did make, which I’m happy with, but it was certainly not a standard paradigm. It’s not a piece of architecture that I’m going to implement or process for the next record. Was it helpful? To help point the direction, absolutely, but it is certainly not one that I intend to apply in the future. I hope that makes sense.
In terms of putting your hand over the fire and trying different things –
Sorry, I want to interrupt you quickly. The act of putting one’s hand over the fire seems to imply some degree of courage, and even though you didn’t say that word, I want to eradicate any possibility that the metaphor implies courage with me. I want to replace that word with “stupidity.” That’s just very important with me.
There’s a thin line between courage and stupidity.
Oh, there certainly is a thin line, but I am far from it. I’m deep in the woods of stupidity. I am deep in the jungles. [Laughs]
As you look back, are there decisions that you regret having made?
Oh no. This is all synchronicity. This is all young synchronicity. Let’s play the Jungian card and just chalk it up synchronicity, each moment preparing us for the next.
Mala is a concise record, not only in terms of being shortest, but in terms of an economy of sound. What was driving that distillation? Was there a certain kind of album that you knew you wanted to make?
No, but this record has allowed for that occur. At the same time, every record is really a document of where the person is at that moment, and even though I don’t have an utterly clear idea for the next record, I certainly know what was lacking with this last one. That is going to become a focus on the next one. What is that? It’s a particular sensitivity to sound. It’s the desire to achieve a type of music that is more about the decay than the attack. This record is lacking that in many senses. What I do know is that some of that economy, or perhaps distillation, is something born from process. This is a transitional time for me, where I’m using less semiotics or metaphors or symbolism. I’m trying not to describe what the thing looks like, but more what it is, and, musically, do the same thing.
It’s also an inherent quality of an album that’s recorded with three people in a studio that they built. It was made without knowing if anyone was going to put it out. I paid for it, and I’m not rich. It was recorded half on an old tape machine and half on Pro Tools, in a very small space that we tried to soundproof ourselves, using two guitars and a little modular synth – I mean, very, very basic stuff. There is, of course, something very liberating in that. Some people may find that limiting, but for me, it was quite the opposite. It was returning to a place that was a little more standard.
Even in terms of square business practices, to not come to a label with this attitude of, “Don’t you know who I am? Here’s my track record! Pay for the record!” No, it was rather, “Here’s the product. Here’s the record. It’s done. Would you like to put it out?” It was very basic, and it gave me the sense of starting over. “Here’s the album. Would you like to put it out?” In a way, I feel like a new artist, but I’m also not, because I’ve been doing this for a while. All of these things are some of the ingredients that make this gumbo for fathers to come out to.
Was the decision to work primarily just with Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick driven by the economics of making a smaller, self-financed record, or was it also the product of having exhausted the open-door approach?
It was absolutely a bit of both. On the last record, there were just too many other people involved. It was passed around too much. It was all part of this trajectory: The first records are completely me and not another human being, then it’s just me and Michael Gira, then it’s me and Noah and Andy and Adam and Tom, and then it grows and grows. I could work in that way, of inviting everyone in, and the doors always being open, and saying “Everyone, come join us,” but on the last record, What Will We Be, I was in a particular place where out of arrogance and egoism and immaturity and irresponsibility, I wasn’t keep track of everything. I wasn’t keeping tabs on what was happening with the work. It made for – let’s say there was a sculpture, and when it was finally finished, I wasn’t the last person to have my hands on it. I don’t know how to explain it, because it was my sculpture and they’re my songs and I wrote them and I was obviously there, but there’s a particular arrogance that comes from youth and doing what you want to do. It just led to that kind of thing.
It was a combination. There was an economic concern, which was, you know, “What can we afford?” And there was also the thought of, “I would like things to return to a place where we can work methodically and take our time and focus. It’s not necessary to have this circus. Also, it’s a matter of moving from this aleatoric or entropic approach, something that’s open to chance and whatever may happen, like, “Open the windows and give the recordings a sense of time and space!” That’s something that I’ve always subscribed to, and now I’m moving towards a place of trying to control the environment more. I’m hoping to make the next record in a proper studio, which would be quite a ticket.
Despite getting back to the basics, you’ve continued your partnership with Georgeson. What is it about that collaboration that has proven so fruitful?
He cares just enough, and doesn’t care just enough. He really cares, and, at the other point, just doesn’t care at all. It’s the perfect combination of caring and not caring. That’s coming from someone who’s like a big brother. That’s one end, and one that’s even sentimental for me to think. But on the other end, he’s someone who actually studied music, can read music, went to Mills [College], grew up next to Teddy Riley, and is this kind of musician. I actually come from more of a visual art background. I studied visual art – well, interdisciplinary art, and sound was a part of that, but it was actually thanks to Noah that I discovered so much of the music that is profound and meaningful to me. He comes from this real, academic musician’s place and I come from a visual place, and somehow that combination seems to work. I’m going to put the word “work” in quotes, though.
You’re back living in New York now, and looking at old interviews, you haven’t always had the fondest of words about your past experience living there. How are you enjoying it now?
Oh no, I’m so sorry if that’s how I came across, but I’ve always loved New York very, very much. The circumstances that I lived in when I first moved there were very, very bleak. It was rough. That’s it – it had to do with circumstances. Now I live there again and it’s very nice. It’s even nicer to be there and sleeping in a bed that I bought, not found in the trash.
Why did I move to New York? A lot of it had to do with how seductive Tim Lawrence’s [Arthur Russell biography] Hold on to Your Dreams was. That’s it. That made me fell in love with New York again in a weird way, just reading about that scene. But DC is even more exciting for me at this moment.