must simply realize that Devendra Banhart is a slyly yet openheartedly mystical
and magical kind of fellow, one who happens to play a wicked clever acoustic
guitar and sing in a purplish florid way these dense, multisided songs
about the human heart, brain and spirit in all their confusingly complex
but ultimately hopeful (yes) facets. His most recent album is called Smokey
Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, and while it's his most madly eclectic set yet, it's the
deepest-cutting, too –– it's startling stuff, musically speaking. Eavesdrop
quietly now as Devendra decodes the making of Smokey, the album's higher aims,
and related items pertaining to levels of consciousness, love and loss,
crystal power, elephantitus and so forth and etc., etc.
BANHART: Are you in Los Angeles right now?
day. Warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky.
new album is great, your best yet by far, in my opinion.
you. You share that opinion with my mom, and that's about it. [Laughs]
wonder about people sometimes. I myself like these kinds of albums where
musicians really push themselves in new directions. Smokey hangs together,
too, it isn't just all over the place. Give it some time, is what I say.
how music should be. I don't see how you could betray the reality of the
emotions that you go through in a day.
album spans a wide range of emotions and personas –– actually, faces of the
The record was made in a couple of months, you know, and in a month you go
through certain emotions.
you recorded at your place in Topanga Canyon?
right, but it's not my space anymore. It's been inaccurately written that I
have purchased the place; we're simply renting it out, and now have been
forced to move.
house apparently has quite a history, what with all these '60s-'70s rock
luminaries having passed through its portals –– Neil
Joni Mitchell, the Doors, Mick Fleetwood…
love Topanga; that's what Topanga's about. It's a pretty good story as to
why we have to move.
do you have to move?
people that are camped out in front and around the house; we have friends
that are housesitting, and our girlfriends are housesitting, and we
recently had something very unfriendly –– not meant to be, but a couple of
unnerving incidents occurred at the house. For a while, you know, strangers
were showing up and we were very happy with it. A lot of 'em ended up
playing on the record, but it got to a point of…it was uncomfortable
…a dangerous point…but I won't get into the story...
all those sundry aforementioned rock gods and goddesses hung out, recorded
and generally let their hair down at that house. Obviously I must ask, did
their sort of lingering vibe affect the music you made there?
don't think that affected it anymore than if I recorded it anywhere else, 'cause
I listen to those artists; I didn't start listening to Neil Young, Joni
Mitchell and John Philips or Woody Guthrie once I moved to Topanga, you
know? I've been listening to them for years, so they would have been a part
of what I was.
just like imagining their ghosts emanating from the woodwork, soaking into
you and your guitar…
we choose places based on what sort of energy is stored in the
architecture, in the actual physical materials that are used to build the
house. I mean, I went on my intuition for guidance, and we even had some
exterior help from a couple psychic friends that we know that are members
of a band we're really into called Death Groove.
We even had the Tarot read
for the house, and this medium actually pinpointed the actual address. We
ended up with 800 hours of film –– we thought we'd put a little movie
together, but in the end there was nothing really there, except the
reading, which we felt was more like evidences than something that we wanna
put out. And then we just put tiny little snippets of it together and put
it to "Sea Horse," just to have something on the website. But it
wasn't gonna be a video or anything.
But anyways, yeah, when you
consider objects like crystals or stones, rocks and wood to be these sort
of batteries, and are they charged up or aren't they? The specific location
of the house, the architecture, the wood, there some's incredible energy at
work stored in there that was comparable. And then we also had these
artifacts that had belonged to the aforementioned California musicians
that, I don't know if the record would sound any different, but we could
cards did the Tarot reader throw?
don't know, exactly. The Fool was in there at the beginning of the journey.
My favorite card.
you remember having any particularly vivid dreams while sleeping in that
although there's an owl that perches outside of my window every single
night. That is the only thing I can recall. I'm not a dream person, I have
a dream maybe once a month.
assume that the ambience or energy field or whatever up there in Topanga
feels conducive to creativity.
feels open. It's easy to be present in a place that isn't obsessed with its
past. Topanga has an incredible history. So does Woodstock –– unbelievable
history. Yet in Woodstock they're holding on to that history. You walk into
most bars or restaurants there, there'll be a picture of Bob Dylan and the
Band, etc. There's this holding on there to the past. Topanga is a place
that's very friendly; it has a rich lineage and history, but there's not an
exclusive sense; there's an acceptance going on for the past. And there
aren't relics surrounding the place.
you don't feel like you're in a time warp?
it doesn't feel that way. I mean, the reason I chose Bearsville to record
the Cripple Crow album was because basically we were listening to Bobby
Charles' record, the first record, constantly, and we knew at least half of
it was recorded at Bearsville. And we walked in and it was just all wood
and, like, a Persian rug, and there weren't pictures of Eagles records and
all that stuff; it was just that all the information, that history, was all
just stored in the wood, and that gave us a beautiful springboard to do our
when you were in Woodstock, did you ever happen to run into Ed Sanders?
you say Ed Sanders?
unbelievable. Okay, the two guests that I wanted to have on that record
were Dee Brown [author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ] and Ed Sanders [ex-Fugs singer;
magnificent wiping-the-floor-with-Bukowski poet and, as the author of Tales
of Beatnik Glory ,
the greatest rock critic who ever strode this earth]. I'm a huge Fugs fan,
and I'm a huge fan of his poetry. I ran into him at a supermarket, and he
was grumpy and kind of like put off, and he was trying to shop. I
understand, I didn't want to be a pain in the ass. I just gave him a quick
little spiel, gave him my number, and he ended up giving me a ring. I was
so honored, but I could feel that it was a bit of a chore for him. He's a
busy guy, and I just thought, I won't bother this guy. I was just so happy
to run into him at the supermarket.
is the greatest. My favorite writer.
I know, he's unbelievable. I was also gonna try and get [Fug] Tuli Kupferberg;
unfortunately we couldn't get ahold of him, and extremely unfortunately Dee
Brown passed away a couple months before I managed to get some information
that would lead me to him.
think something could happen in the future, with you and Tuli and Ed?
maybe, maybe. I'd be honored. Those dirty old men…
back to the new album. The first thing I noticed is that your singing is
deeper and even warblier, more daringly, what, Ferry-esque than ever. Or maybe
it's that guy in Simple Minds. Well, all these different ways you're using
your voice, like a musical instrument, it's a thrill. Have you been
training, or what?
know, it's funny, because when you called, Greg Rogove, who's in the band
Priestbird –– he's also our drummer, sings with us and he's a songwriter ––
he was just showing me a photograph of a group of African men with
elephantitus of the scrotum, and they are just the size of baby elephants,
But why I brought that up is
because I think something that's happened as I've grown older is that my
nutsack has slowly begun to descend. I'm a very late bloomer, and I've
discovered that my range has opened up.
I haven't been in training,
but I would tell you I did start taking tai chi lessons while we were
building the studio, for a couple weeks, and that, with the breathing
exercises, the focus, it was actually incredible. I can't imagine that
anything could be more helpful than that.
singing's almost athletic on this new record.
reason I started tai chi is I wanted to have something to warm up my body
and do a little exercise while I'm on tour. I'm not a gym person or do
extra pushups or anything, so that seemed like a wonderful exercise. And
what I didn't know at the time is that it's an incredible tool for warming
up your voice and for expanding your range.
see that actor Gael Garcia Bernal guest vocalizes on the first track,
appearance on the record happened in such an organic way, it was not
premeditated or preplanned in any way. Gael does happen to be one my
favorite actors, hands down, and I've always felt a strange connection with
him –– this is from a distance, of course, just someone that you're a fan
of. I am a fan of his.
But he reached out to me to
write a song that would conclude his first film that he's written and
directed. And the main character's name happened to be my cousin's name,
and I could relate to the story, and we ended up talking about our personal
lives, and we were equally traumatized by having mothers who were models.
We had a lot in common and we really got along and kind of instantly liked
And I wrote the song, trying
to create this nostalgic, well ... there's a key moment in the film when an
insult is given to someone, and the insult is: You Indian. And it's the
harshest thing you can say to somebody in Mexico. And that was so heavy to
me, and it was a mixture of my emotions and my cerebral approach to why
that is such an insulting thing.
And at the same time, it was
putting myself in the shoes of me when I was eight and my grandmother had
to watch her soap opera, and listening to that soap opera music. I wrote
the flute part to sound like –– dadadadadadada –– it's romantic soap opera
music from I suppose the '80s in there, but really in my mind it's a
Anyways, Gael was doing the
Oscars, so he called me up, he's in L.A. He says, "You wanna hang
out?" I say, "Come out to the house in Topanga." So he's
just sitting on the couch –– actually, which happens to be Jim Morrison's ––
and he's just singing along to the song. I kind of gave him a look, and we
pressed Record. He just did it; there's no direction whatsoever; this is
all his own, he was just singing. Then I went over and did another vocal
track that wrapped around his first take that we kept. We didn't get into
"do this and this and that" –– he had to be at the Oscars by like
5, you know?
over the record, you're laying out very elaborate structures and
arrangements. "Sea Horse," for example, is an epic undertaking.
I like the most about that song is that it was written in order; it wasn't
like there were three different songs and I just strung them together. The
first part of the song was written, and I didn't feel completely satisfied
with it –– that song was written after a very difficult physical experience,
but I knew it wasn't the end of it. The next part of the song, it was very
obvious that it was about levels of consciousness; the second part came
after a series of events happened, and it made a lot of sense that the
subconscious part would have these…desires... and I would take it an
extra step, that this person singing it would want something impossible,
wanting to be a sea horse, something unattainable. So within this initial
narrative of absolute contentment, buried beneath that is an unattainable
desire. And buried even beneath that, I'd been messing around with that
lick every soundcheck, and that was born from a jam that I had with Greg
Rogove, who's sitting to my right, showing me these elephantitus photos…
I started thinking of this
song as like a trinity of levels: of consciousness, of deeper
consciousness, and subconsciousness, unconsciousness –– I guess the trinity
of life, death, birth; the mother, the father, the holy ghost; Brahma,
Vishnu, Shiva; Earth, heaven and hell. At the same time, Greg and I were
reading this book about astral projection, and I started thinking about how
the third part of the narrative should be sung: According to the Tibetan
monks, there's like 16 months until you're reincarnated. My idea was
singing from this perspective; it's during those 16 months, and "I'm
scared, I've never been born again."
then the eagle comes out. "I want to know how, where and when."
And then finally, the last line is a sentiment of love, of some sort of
compassion and love: "I want to see you be the bright night sky, I
want you to come back as the light." I've decided to let go of how
I'll come back or what's gonna happen to me –– and shoot that out to you.
the last section is more electric and aggressive and ––
like to add that that is me soloing at the end; it's my first solo that I'm
very proud of.
"Sea Horse" is an interesting song for the way you establish distinct
perspectives on yourself; you're seeing things from different angles, and
the song progresses along those lines. It's surprising, too, when you break
into a "modern jazz" segment somewhere in between. I guess that
makes a kind of sense…
won't lie to you, "Take 5" was an influence. Brubeck was floating
around my stereo for a while. I just felt like a jazz dirge needs to be
either floating or bobbing, and I think that was appropriate to the oceanic
fact, you combine so many different approaches in your music that that
hoary old "freak folk" sticky tag must be very, very boring for
you right about now.
was old before I even heard it. After making Cripple Crow, I sat once at the offices of
Beggar's for 12 hours doing interviews, and they'd bring people in, and
every person for every interview would say, "Hey, by the way" ––
with the tape machine off –– "you know, I'm the one that coined `freak
folk,' I'm the one who made that up." All proud of himself. And I just
thought it was hilarious.
Especially when they mention,
say, Joanna Newsom as being some variation of such a tacky label, whatever
they call it –– "Weird America," all these very, very inaccurate
and tacky labels –– when they'd refer to her like that, I would get angry
with that. But I also would always say that you'll see by her next record,
and if not, by her third record, it'll be gone, and she'll just be Joanna
Newsom. 'Cause that's what she is. She's Joanna Newsom. I mean, Joni
Mitchell's Joni Mitchell, she makes Joni Mitchell music. Joanna Newsom
should be under the "Joanna Newsom" section.
last song in particular, "My Dearest Friend," with its theme of
loneliness underlying or overt, is very touching. So simple, so beautiful.
I was just thinking that you shouldn't need to feel loneliness, in a way,
since anyone hearing that song will carry you in their hearts for as long
as they remember that song.
a songwriting perspective, there is an interesting thing about that last song.
The beginning, "I'm gonna die of loneliness, I know," that was
written in Brooklyn in the wintertime, and the song ended with "I
know." That's it, that was the song. And we still hadn't moved to
California and begun our search for the house and hidden pieces of
equipment that we ended up using for this record. So for a whole while I
was like, I've got a basis for this song, and it's sort of a bummer;
there's no hope in it, but this is how it is, I'm not just gonna tack on
"no no" or something, you know? I had to be true to how it is in
the real world, that's how it goes, that was the song.
And then once we moved into
this house in Topanga and had begun building the studio, and finding the
parts and writing the record, the end came. Suddenly I heard the music and
the lyrics, and this other voice, "My dearest friend/you'll soon
begin/to love again."
And the hope came, and it fit
right in at the end. That was one of the most profound experiences I've
ever had writing a song.