Devendra Banhart lets his freak flag fly
In Los Angeles you can take your pick of popular-music’s sacred sites, from Central Avenue near downtown to Laurel Canyon, Whittier Boulevard on the Eastside to the Sunset Strip. But from the wooden deck of his Topanga Canyon house, Devendra Banhart can drink in his own special dose of rock history. ¶ “You see that red house there, it’s got the triangle beams, right there,” he says, pointing toward a distant ridge. “That’s where Neil [Young] recorded ‘After the Gold Rush’ and ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’ ¶ “And as you know, 10 minutes up the road is the remains of the Roadhouse, where the Doors wrote ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and where Crazy Horse was the house band. Woody Guthrie was one of the first artists that lived in Topanga.” ¶ All those artists figure strongly in Banhart’s music, and maybe someday the red, wood-frame house that he rents with his guitarist, Noah Georgeson, will be referenced by future students of local music lore. ¶ Unkempt and minimally landscaped, this ramshackle Xanadu is the nerve center of the international, experimental folk-music community that’s congealed around the charismatic singer-songwriter over the last five years. Banhart squirms when it’s framed that way, but he can’t easily deny that his music and his moves attract attention from like-minded musicians and a growing network of fans.
So this house, where he and Georgeson built a recording studio in the large main room on the upper story and where he wrote the songs for the album he and his band recorded here, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,” has seen a lot of action since they moved in, encouraged by a friend’s tarot reading, earlier this year
“At one point we’ve had 12 people living here at once,” says Banhart, rolling a cigarette on a large, round table. “We’ve had people show up, sometimes in the middle of the night. Somebody tried to crawl through my window. . . . It was harmless, but it was weird. It’s not like I sleep with a knife by my side. It was a cute hippie chick, to tell you the truth. I guess there’s worse things than that. . . . It’s still a little unnerving.”
Banhart’s fifth album, which comes out Sept. 25 on XL Recordings, is another major step beyond the quirky, minimalist folk songs that attracted his initial cult following in 2002. The music ranges from sambas to doo-wop to Jackson 5-like pop, and there’s a heavy dose of the ‘60s rock whose ghost permeates Topanga.
That ‘60s presence is no surprise. Banhart has made an impact in his corner of the indie-rock world not just as a musical force but also as an advocate of that decade’s cultural spirit. A shaman-like attunement to his surroundings and a fetish-like regard for the relics of the religion of rock are driving attributes in his makeup.
One item in the studio, he says, is a spring reverb -- a device that enhances a vocal with reverberations -- from Frank Sinatra’s home studio. Some of the funky furniture in the cluttered downstairs living room is from Jim Morrison’s estate, and he reverently displays a gift he plans to give his doctor this afternoon: One of Bob Dylan’s Traveling Wilburys guitar picks. Even his manager is something of an icon -- Neil Young’s longtime representative Elliot Roberts.
The album reflects the nature of this setting in more ways than one. With the studio literally adjoining their bedrooms, co-producers Banhart and Georgeson were able to develop ideas as they occurred. The “open-door” policy resulted in unplanned participation by the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson and actor Gael Garcia Bernal.
And there’s a case of pure serendipity. One morning at the cafe where he gets his coffee every day, Banhart was approached by a young man named Nathan Pelkey.
“He says, ‘I hitchhiked here from Austin to play you a song on my kalimba.’ . . . He plays me a song, and it’s a killer song. And it just so happened that we needed a kalimba on the end of this one song, ‘Samba Vexillographica,’ and so he came up and he tracked it, and he plays the accordion and the piano. . . . And now fast forward, and our bass player [Luckey] Remington is his manager, he just went on a U.S. tour.
“So that was a beautiful thing out of him somehow finding out that we live here. The other side of that is people I don’t know crawling in through my window.”
Accidental style points
It’s uncharacteristically quiet at the house on this summer afternoon. In a few days it will be crawling with band members and managers rehearsing and making final preparations to head off for a European tour, but right now it’s just Banhart, pulling off his thin T-shirt to get some sun after being studio bound for months.
A packet of tobacco and a pack of rolling papers sit on the table next to a bottle of Mount Gay rum. An antique Royal typewriter occupies the center.
“It’s a reminder. It yells at me, ‘Come on, get to work,’ ” says Banhart, looking at the machine and reflecting on his progress from vagabond outsider to something of a star.
He’s actually come almost full circle. He spent his teenage years with his family in nearby Encinal Canyon, after growing up in Texas and his mother’s native Venezuela. He started writing songs and recording and performing while attending the San Francisco Art Institute, where fellow student Georgeson lent him a gimpy four-track recorder.
“I don’t even know if I feel like a lot’s changed,” says Banhart, 26. “It’s the most unsteady job there is. It’s a weird job too. It’s kind of a constant job, and it’s weird that it’s something you’d be doing no matter what.”
Though Banhart has been a tireless champion of the vintage artists who inspired him and of contemporary performers he feels a kinship with -- including Joanna Newsom, Lavender Diamond and Vashti Bunyan, for starters -- he resists the idea that he’s somehow presiding over a scene that’s been media-tagged “freak-folk,” to the dismay of Banhart and his peers.
“I don’t know. Things might have been different if the scene had a better name. All these horrible names for it. . . . So many ridiculously superficial and shallow things.”
He’s also coping with the media’s reduction of his mission to something like a fashion statement.
“Is this a hairdo?” he says, indicating the makeshift topknot that conspires with his unruly beard to suggest a mountain warlord or maybe a crackpot prophet.
“I mean, I don’t do nothin’, and this is how it ends up looking. . . . But I have some look?. . . I’m not on some trip about it. I don’t want to shave or cut my hair off because I don’t think it looks good. There’s not some manifesto behind it, it isn’t some dogma.”
Still, it’s hard not to see him as this music’s primary catalyst. He and guitarist Andy Cabic from the band Vetiver run a label, Gnomonsong, that puts out music by Texas singer Jana Hunter, offbeat-folk patriarch Michael Hurley and others. Last year Banhart played curator, booking acts for a five-night festival at the El Cid club in Silver Lake. When he tours he always takes a favored artist along to open the show; when he plays the Orpheum Theatre on Oct. 13, it will be the Los Angeles group Hecuba.
Banhart’s encouragement and energy are valued in that community, says Los Angeles singer Becky Stark, whose Lavender Diamond has become one of the scene’s most successful bands.
“His presence totally made me feel electrified,” she says. “When I first met Devendra I had to run around the block. . . . I think a person’s charisma comes from a certain truthfulness, a relation between what they believe and who they are and how they live. He’s very truthful. . . . It just feels really healing to be in his presence.”
Musician, heal thyself
There’s healing and then there’s healing. Nestled among the tattoos on Banhart’s chest is a medicinal patch, to help with spasms and seizures he experienced in the exhaustion of recording the album.
He rolls a cigarette, picks up the bottle from the table and takes a swig. “Would you like some rum? Tiny little hit?”
Banhart seems to run on a finely calibrated flow of nervous energy. He never just sits still and speaks. For a while he picks at his acoustic guitar. Then he’s rolling another cigarette or igniting a bundle of dried sage to scent the area with pungent smoke.
It’s hard to leave a visit with Banhart without an armload of items, and he periodically runs into the house to add something to a pile of vinyl LPs, a book of poems, a DVD about the Indian spiritual teacher who gave him his name (which means “lord of rain and thunder”).
There are flashes of annoyance about what he regards as his record company’s tight purse strings, keeping him from executing some of his concepts in the album packaging, but for the most part he’s as enthusiastic and unaffected as his free-spirit image suggests.
That image sometimes obscures that his music has matured substantially over the years. “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” retains some of the essential Banhart whimsy but adds a fully developed band dynamic, and while his image is that of a naive natural, layers of sub- tle craft and noble lineage animate the best songs.
The lighthearted “My Shabop Shalom Baby,” for instance, about a Jamaican youth courting a rabbi’s daughter, has a novelty, oldies tinge, but there’s more to it than that.
“That was a sort of a homage to all the doo wop,” says Banhart. “And Hoagy Carmichael’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time. He tells great stories and funny stories too. And he’s also very exploitative -- almost all of Hoagy’s songs are about black culture. ‘Washboard Blues,’ ‘Lazy Bones,’ you know what I mean?
“And I’m not saying I’m exploiting anything, but I’m not some young Jamaican kid. But I also happen to love mento, and I love bluebeat and ska and reggae. . . . And we had fun with it, referencing the first Rastafarian commune, Pinnacle, referencing patois -- ‘I’m livicated to you.’ Instead of ‘dedicated’ they say ‘livicated.’ Instead of ‘I understand you,’ they say ‘I overstand you.’
“There’s a lot of beautiful things like that in that language, and that’s totally the kind of wordplay I enjoy. . . . .And it’s a funny song. Especially funny recording it through Frank Sinatra’s old spring reverb.”
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