Devendra Banhart: Folk gets its freak on
Ryan Summerlin May 2, 2013
Most every musician resists the idea of being squeezed into a narrow genre. Whether it’s newgrass or New Age, chillwave or math rock, genres are, by definition, limiting: Maybe the so-called grindcore artist wants his next album to be something closer to alt-country. And categories tend to negate a fundamental truth about art — that each artist is unique, and that the ultimate creative success is to make something that stands out not for what else is sounds like or looks like, but for the fact that it’s a new expression.
In this, Devendra Banhart is like most artists. Speaking of the label that is often applied to him and his music, a 31-year-old who sings and writes songs and plays numerous instruments and makes visual art and skateboards, has this to say: “It’s easy for me to discuss the people who are allotted that somewhat distasteful label. But I’m not sure what it has to do with me or my music.”
The label I had mentioned, one commonly applied to Banhart, is freak folk. Another genre often used in connection with him is New Weird America, and you can see a theme emerging and why Banhart might consider the labels offensive.
Truth is, Banhart is, from many different angles, an oddball. In a recent interview, Banhart used words that don’t come up in typical conversation, and they seemed to come naturally to Banhart: atavistic, entropic, semiotics. His publicity photos are offbeat: he looks alternately intense or suspicious; in one, his face is mostly hidden by an unidentifiable object. When I asked someone who has seen Banhart perform if his onstage presence is as unusual as one might expect, this person laughed knowingly, and said, “Wait till you see it.”
“I think it’s way more normal than a normal concert. I would think so. But I’d put that in much more sagacious hands than my own.”
I asked Banhart more or less the same question. He didn’t seem put off by the assumption contained therein — that he is something of a weirdo. But he didn’t seem to find anything particularly out of bounds about his performance style.
“I think it’s way more normal than a normal concert,” he said. “I would think so. But I’d put that in much more sagacious hands than my own.”
I get to see for myself, how normal or not Banhart might be onstage, an occasion I have been anticipating. He makes his Aspen debut Saturday at Belly Up, with a band of uncertain size. “It’s five and it’s six people,” Banhart said. “It’s morphing as it goes along.”
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The word that generally comes to mind when I listen to Banhart’s music — which I have been doing a lot of lately — is otherworldly. There is a quality to his recordings, dating back to his early albums, from the early ‘00s, that sounds faraway in both time and place. This quality seems only to have gotten more pronounced; on his latest album, “Mala,” released in March, Banhart’s voice is mostly hushed, and seems to be coming from a distance away, giving it a haunting tone.
Banhart’s music has become increasingly otherworldly in another sense — the instrumentation he uses, and the stylistic influences he draws from. Early on, his music seemed to come right out of the American folk tradition, with a strong connection to what might be considered the original Americana style — “The Basement Tapes,” by Bob Dylan & the Band. The production was minimal but clear; there was a heavy emphasis on acoustic guitar. Banhart’s voice was distinctive and his song titles tended to be even more original: “This Beard Is For Siobhan” and “Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry” are two of the tracks on his third album, 2004’s “Rejoicing in the Hands,” which was Banhart’s breakthrough, and ranked number 193 on the best albums of the ‘00s by the online magazine Pitchfork.
One hallmark of freak folk is the instrumental density. Where folk music of the early ‘60s could be practically naked — an acoustic guitar and voice, with maybe some banjo or mandolin — this newer wave of folk comes all dressed up with strings sections, percussion, bursts of electric guitar and more. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (who will perform this summer at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival) are often tagged as freak folk, despite being a 10-piece ensemble with piano, accordion and trumpet.
Banhart was born in Texas, but when he was 2 his mother, a native of Venezuela, brought him to South America, and Banhart grew up mostly in Caracas. (His first name comes from the Hindu king of gods; his middle name is Obi, after the “Star Wars” character Obi-Wan Kenobi.) Over the course of his recording career, Banhart’s albums have taken on more of a South American flavor, and the strongest stylistic forebear seems to have moved from Woodstock-era Dylan to post-Talking Heads David Byrne.
“I grew up in Venezuela, and the meringue, cumbia, a little salsa — you cannot avoid it. It becomes the architect of your protein, very familiar,” Banhart, who moved to Los Angeles when he was 14, said. But at home, his parents also listened to the African guitarist Ali Farke Touré, and Banhart learned to listen with open ears.
It was through skateboarding culture that Banhart came across Jamaican ska and mento, a discovery which he describes as having found “my own music.” And in ska, Banhart didn’t just hear something old; he heard artists looking forward. “Desmond Dekker’s ‘Shanty Town’ — that sounded like the most futuristic thing,” he said. “I didn’t have that feeling again till I heard Sun Ra” — the trumpeter and composer who claimed he was from Saturn — “this atavistic but also futuristic music.”
Venezuelan music has stuck with him, to a point. “I feel very Venezuelan — till I get to Venezuela,” he said. But he added that his music isn’t much of a reflection of where he has been. “My own music isn’t very autobiographical,” he said. “It’s not me. It’s just the scene that gets set.”
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Banhart attended art school in San Francisco, where his education was across the board: “Printmaking, drawing, sculpture, sound. Everything but music,” he said. “But you get exposed to John Cage, Steve Reich.”
A friend, Noah Georgeson, was studying music at Mills College. Georgeson, who has become a key creative colleague of Banhart’s, producing his albums and playing in his bands, had some recording equipment that Banhart wanted to borrow. Georgeson agreed, on one condition: “He said, Sure — but you’ve got to play me what you record,” Banhart said. “That put a certain weight and responsibility on me.”
Banhart recorded the songs, which would become his debut album, “The Charles C. Leary,” and gave a cassette tape to a club owner in Los Angeles. The cassette earned Banhart a gig, opening for the three-piece noise-rock band Flux Information Science. Banhart’s music was anything but noisy: “Half the set was a cappella,” he recalled. “I thought that was the most fun thing I could do. That was pretty bold of the promoter to let me do that.”
Banhart’s latest album, “Mala,” was recorded in Los Angeles, where he has made most of his albums. But “Mala” was mixed in New York City, where he lives, and Banhart believes the location shift was significant in the results.
“Mixing is where so much of the art is revealed and emerges and changes,” he said. “It can be completely changed, altered, distorted. Or brought into focus. That was done in New York, so I’m not sure if I can say the record has a geographical address.”
Similarly, Banhart isn’t sure he can be pinned down geographically. He lives near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, but figures he’ll be moving on soon. “I’ve moved somewhere different every few months for the last decade. I don’t know how long I’ll last here,” he said. Banhart believes the frequent moving from culture to culture has become an element in his music. “It’s definitely led me to feeling perpetually displaced.”
“Mala,” too, apart from its consistent hushed feel, is hard to nail down to one thing. Alongside the folkie elements there are modern electronic touches. There are influences of South America, Jamaica and old folk and blues. One song is inspired by the 12th century German writer St. Hildegard von Bingen, another by the late professional skateboarder Keenan Milton. Banhart occasionally sings in Spanish.
Banhart says that ‘mala’ is a “pretty word.” But the reason he chose it as a title was because it is a word in numerous languages. In Hindu, it is a string of prayer beads. To Banhart’s girlfriend, who is Serbian, it means small. In Spanish, it means bad — “And I’m Venezuelan, so I think of it in a negative context,” Banhart said.
And in German, ‘mala’ means table.
“I actually built a table while making this album,” Banhart said. “The worst table ever.”
As for Banhart’s plans for Saturday night’s show, they sound very normal.
“We’re going to play these songs. These very simple songs,” he said. “And play them as respectfully and as calmly as we can.”