Perfect Sound Forever

Devendra Banhart

interview by Keith Wallace
(September 2005)

Devendra Banhart is sitting beside me claiming to have written the Da Vinci Code and telling stories about hanging out with Donovan, while Sir Richard Bishop from the Sun City Girls tunes up in the background. Touring in support of his new record Cripple Crowwith his bearded band of brothers "The Hairy Fairies," Banhart is every inch the musical gypsy: esoteric tattoos decorate his upper arms, he is virtually barefoot and hoopy earrings gleam beneath long black curtains of hair. Initially evasive, Devendra warms to the questions and emphasises each point he makes by waving his red velvet slipper through the air...

PSF: How would you describe your music?

Sort of like twinkly restaurant music I guess, an Ethiopian restaurant with a bird, y'know, the soundtrack to the universal bussing of tables. Restaurant things other than eating, maybe cooking...

PSF: What about the "Freak folk" tag?

Awww, I dunno I never heard that before... (giggles) you're the first to mention it... I don't know anything about it y'know, we always felt more new age than folky of hippy, but 'freak folk,' I don't really know anything about it. I didn't think of it, I didn't say it, I don't know anybody who calls themselves that, it's something that will pass. It's nothing, y'know what I mean? It doesn't mean anything.

PSF: You are influenced by old music though?

A lot of the music I'm influenced by is by musicians who have been making records for a long time but a lot of them are alive and a lot of them are really young in their own way and I like a lot of musician's who have only made one record I like musicians who have only written one song, so I wouldn't say that I'm some nostalgic. I like old music, I like new music.

PSF: Was curating the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation an avenue for you to put out the music you like?

That was like a big honour to have Arthur magazine to ask me to do that. Jay Babcock who runs the magazine is a friend of mine and I used to make him mix cd's of new stuff I'd been digging and he was like "why don't we just put it out?" – simple as that if I'd had a chance to fit everything I wanted on there there woulda been Animal Collective and M Ward and Sun City Girls, Sunburned Hand of The Man and so many more people. It all happened very naturally.

PSF: Do you feel a sense of community with these other artists?

With Golden Apples, when we did that I had to write something about everybody and I realized that everyone on there knows each other so I had everybody write about each other, so there is that sense we're all friends we've all know each other before. Like I've known Joanna [Newsom] for many, many years before I knew she wrote songs or before I wrote songs. Noah, who's playing guitar tonight, produced and engineered her album The Milk Eyed Mender. She was supposed to be on this record but she was off touring, but we're gonna start a band. Noah also has all the answering machine tapes [the origin of the songs on Oh Me Oh My], he's the one I would call from different parts of the world and say "don't erase this!", and then we just put a mike to that. It was all by mistake I wasn't like "this stuff is valuable or this is good or anything"...

PSF: Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" wafts through the venue...

This is the most romantic song ever written! Aw this is the best song ever!! (Devendra sings along...)

PSF: How did you hook up with Michael Gira and Young God Records?

I played a show with a band called Flux Information Sciences that was on Young God, and the drummer Siobhan Duffy bought one of my CD's called The Charles C. Leary which was pre-Oh Me Oh My stuff. She sent it to Michael and he sent back a beautiful ten page letter, 'cause he's a really good writer, and his records like The Angels of Light... I freaked out they were so good. So I moved to New York and he released the music. He saved my life in so many ways it's unbelievable. I can't repay everything he's done for me, I really can't.

PSF: Does your move from Young God to XL mean that there's more pressure on you?

Oh no, not at all. The good thing about it is that they have much bigger musicians to put the pressure on (laughs). They just lemme do what I want and that's cool y'know.

PSF: You're also starting your own label?

I have a label with Andy Cabic from the band Vetiver called Gnomensong and we're gonna be releasing some records from the past and some records from new musicians. Right now, our number one person is Jana Hunter who I met in Houston Texas and now she lives in New York and she's the closest thing to Iggy Pop I've ever heard, in her own way, y'know what I mean? She's a very, very good songwriter and really beautiful singer and lyricist.

PSF: Will you be reissuing records too? Digging up older stuff?

It's harder than I thought cause a lot of record labels sit on tapes thinking they're gonna get a shitload of money and once someones interested, and they've been sitting on it for so long that they're like "well now we cant get rid of it, give us 50,000 dollars!" So it's a little harder than we thought but that's what we'd like to do, release old stuff that didn't either sell upon release and got put away in the vaults or was never released. Some of the greatest records of all time never sold, Skip Spence's Oar is the lowest selling record in the Columbia catalogue and it's a masterpiece man, it's a classic record.

PSF: Like Gary Higgins' Red Hash?

He's amazing! I saw him play at Tonic. His music is very sexy. Zach Cowie from Drag City and Ben Chasney just put all their spirits together and just researched and searched and found him. Good music lives on: history makes sure that the good stuff stays.

PSF: What was it like recording Cripple Crow at Bearsville studios in Woodstock?

We settled on that place because of the wood. I wanted a studio that was covered in old wood that stored good energy, and that was the place man, the best vibes. Woodstock is a really groovy kinda old hippy town, we lived there for a couple of months and made the record. The only thing that wasn't relaxed was that we had to record 45 songs, so we recorded 45 and then thought 'fuck, I don't wanna release a double record,' so we got rid of a couple and it turned into 35 and then got rid of some and had 22. So 45 songs in a month was not so relaxed, but it was very relaxing to just be surrounded by our families and having different bands like the Metallic Falcons and Tarantula and Feathers and Cocorosie and Currituck County and the Espers and the Bunnybrains all floating in and out and playing on the record.

PSF: The album seems looser and groovier than your others?

Sometimes you get very cold and all you can do is chicken dance your way into a warm place, so we were freezing out there in the wintertime so we wanted to make something that would get us chicken dancing, really! And I like all kinds of music y'know, as long as anyone writes anything about the records I make, the word "folk" will be mentioned in there, but I like all kinds of music, but folk is all kinds of music.

PSF: Tell me about working with Vashti Bunyan.

Vashti's one of the greatest songwriters, one of the greatest singers too. I was just in London and dropped by where she was recording the new record and it's better than the old record! And that never happens, but it's better, it never happens but it happened! I just was lucky enough to hear Just Another Diamond Day and to share it with my friends. Gary who runs Revolver and has his own label called Dicristina Stair Builders is the person who released it. He's been a huge Vashti fan for years and years and he jumped at the opportunity y'know, he's sort of our musical guru, Gary. And y'know it's such an honor to just know Vashti, it's such an honour just to hear her music. I wrote to Vashti before anything happened with Young God, I was barely recording y'know. It was when I decided I'm just going to play music, all I've ever had is shit jobs so why don't I just go and play music wherever I can. I knew I was getting into an intense scene because I didn't have a booking agent or nothing, it'll just be me showing up "can I play?" and I'd play for free all the time. But before I do this I'm gonna to see if someone who I admire more than anyone digs what I do, and then it'll be OK, whatever happens is alright. And I wrote to her and sent her a tape and she said "please continue," so every weird horribly fucked-up show that I almost would get stabbed or whatever would happen, I didn't care 'cause Vashti digs it y'know. It's a blessing.

PSF: Was it fun recording with her?

Oh! (momentarily tongue-tied) Fun isn't the word, more like religiously ecstasy-inducing, but in the purest way, and she is a very divine person, her presence is very, very glowing. There's no world, around Vashti everything becomes musical and I can't talk. In London I played on her record so now we've actually recorded together together [following a transatlantic duet on the title track of Rejoicing in the Hands]. Her music is very pure, it's not attached to any time or any thing, it's like a pure essence of something, and you take an essence and then you dilute it with different things but hers is still in that little bottle.

PSF: Both you and Vashti appear on the VoodooEros compilation The Enlightened Family

Bianca from Coco Rosie who runs the label has a collection of obscure songs and she had one of my old things before Oh Me Oh My, and she's putting out one of Vashti's old ones from way back that no ones heard ("Song of a Wishwanderer").

PSF: You tour a lot so what's it like when you get back to the U.S. and experience the current political climate? "Heard Somebody Say" seems pretty political?

I think of America as home, I think of California as home that's the truth. And I don't know anybody who doesn't feel the way I do about the political state of the world, except that there's a billion people that feel totally differently than I do and they all live in the center of America. I don't make specific references to the current American administration – it's very vague cause it's not that I oppose this war, I oppose every war. So I wanted to make something as vague as possible if I was gonna touch on something that could possibly... although the sentiment might be right on often with music it can be really cheesy, and this might have a touch of cornball it might have a couple of sprinkles of parmesan y'know. Also the whole thing of preaching to the converted. At the same time I know it's not that subtle: "We don't wanna kill" – oh I wanted to kill earlier but yeah I guess we don't wanna!

PSF: What are you currently listening to?

Metallic Falcons, a lot of Simon Díaz from Venezuela, Currituck County, a lot of Caetano Veloso, the Ali Farka Toure collection, Jamie Lidell, Marissa Nadler, Sir Richard Bishop, Espers, Clive Palmer, Syd Barrett...

PSF: Hopes and dreams?

I'd like to fly... I think my biggest hope is to have a dog and a desk. I always dream about having a desk and not having to move. I see dogs around, I kidnapped a dog once but I felt bad about it and I returned it.

PSF: One last thing: the song "Little Boys" has been attracting some speculation...

It's about a few things: I'm driving with my friend Dan Bunny from the band Bunnybrains and he says "y'know your new record man, they're gonna play that in Starbucks," and I said well I'm gonna write something that for sure will guarantee that it's not played at Starbucks! At the same time, I was thinking about writing a song about a schizophrenic hermaphrodite, someone who not only has the physical characteristics of a man and a woman but also has the mind of a man and a woman, so the first half is the male and the second half is the female. So please write that on the internet and spread the word…

Recommended Recordings:

Vashti Bunyan Just Another Diamond Day, Lookaftering
Karen Dalton It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best: "She's one of the greatest singers of all time, hands down."
Donovan Barabajagal - "it's like a circular record that's got everything."
Gary Higgins Red Hash
Skip Spence Oar
Various Artists The Golden Apples of the Sun -
VoodooEros The Enlightened Family -

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