On the day of our photo shoot, for example, Banhart, who looks likeRob Zombie with an Andre J. club-kid makeover (beard, cross-dressing andall), is multitasking, putting on bras and jamming in a side-projectband with Greg Rogrove from Priestbird. Then there's his all-harmoniumJoni Mitchell tribute band, Droney Mitchell. Glam, earnest, enigmatic,funny and entertaining, with a voice that sounds like a cross betweenNick Drake and Tim Buckley, Banhart is a driving force in L.A.'s musicscene, with its tattooed emo troubadours, sunlight-oblivious indie bandsand rock stars killing time between tours.
And the Texas-born, Venezuela-raised, Cali-bred Banhart knows how tochannel his talents--the breakout single from his latest record,Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, is a Jewish-Jamaican doo-wopsong about a lesbian love affair between a rabbi's daughter and a younglocal girl, replete with a "Who Wrote the Book of Job?" parody of "WhoWrote the Book of Love?"
Talk to Banhart for five minutes and he'll turn you on to theupside-down blues of Entrance, one of Banhart's favorite bands, whom hecame across after he moved from San Francisco and who became his firsttour mates. He can rattle off band names and forgotten records like thestoner who owned the cool record store you went to growing up, and manyan interviewer has found himself scrambling to keep track of the listsand family trees of bands that Banhart has either been in, sharedmembers with or just plain likes. Today it's Hecuba, which, saysBanhart, "sounds like Klaus Nomi hanging out with Wu-Tang doing thefuture's nostalgic reading of a high-school musical."
Banhart and co-producer Noah Georgeson, along with their revolvingcast of cohorts, have made living in L.A. its own musical project,hunkering down in a different scene and neighborhood for each recordthey've made here. This time out, for Smokey, the tribe decampedto Topanga Canyon to a house near where Neil Young recorded After theGoldrush and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Young andBanhart share the same manager). Tales of ordinary madness abounded:Mandolin players randomly hitchhiking cross-country arrived unannounced,showing up, as fate and the gods of rock 'n' roll folklore would haveit, on the very day a track needed a mandolin. Emphatic fans showed up,too, including a young woman who, getting no love from knocking on thedoor, just climbed through a window.
In the process, Banhart and his circus single-bandedly resurrectedthe raw hills-above-L.A. scene of the '70s, when Jim Morrison wouldhitchhike home from bars on the Strip, and James Taylor and Carole Kingquietly holed up to make West Coast folk-rock classics. In a town soindustry'd out that Rick Rubin rents out 15 drum kits ("just in case")to make the new Linkin Park record, Banhart and family evoke a moreinnocent time--a time when Behind the Music classic rock starsroamed the hills getting high and making music before they becamesubjects of Behind the Music. "We're like them--only without thefans or the hits," jokes Banhart. Which is just fine with him. "If I haddone my first show in front of a lot of people, it would have sucked,"he says of his slow, organic arc as an artist who can sell records.
Born in Houston, Banhart's first name was given to him by a guru hisparents followed. He later moved with his mom to Caracas after hisparents split, which was idyllic, recalls Banhart, until the violentmilitary coup of Hugo Chavez: "It was lush and beautiful, but it'sfucking dangerous. I remember two guys in masks with machine gunsbanging on people's doors." It was in Venezuela, however, that hediscovered music--not only did he and his friends start getting into punkand hip-hop, but while living in Caracas, Banhart saw a video withskater Keenan Milton featuring music by Jamaican ska-icon Desmond Dekkerthat also turned him on to calypso, hilife and mento.
As a teenager in L.A., Banhart would spelunk at tiny record stores."There were a lot more mom-and-pop stores back then," he recalls. "Eventhe Santa Monica Promenade had Penny Lane. And on a visit there you'dget hip to Alan Lomax's field recordings and that might lead you to SonHouse, then to Billie Holiday." After a short stint at the San FranciscoArt Institute, he hit the road, guitar in hand (he's played since he was12).
His first real record was little more than demos--Oh Me, OhMy... was released in 2002 by New York post-punk icon Michael Gira'sYoung God Records. That Banhart, with his flowing tresses and eyeliner,his world-music vibe and quivering falsetto vocals, comes to the sceneby way of the label descended from Swans, the New York art-damage O.G.s,is, on its own, pretty remarkable. A little background: Swans madebrutal, off-time churn under the thundering baritone of singer MichaelGira around the same time Sonic Youth started doing the same in theearly '80s, only to evolve over the last two decades into a sound andphilosophy that can only be described as existential folk under theYoung God Records umbrella. Now it's home to Gira's bluntly beautifulAngels of Light and yes, it's the birthplace of Devendra Banhart'srecording career. (Since his 2005 Rejoicing in the Hands he'sbeen signed to XL, which is also home to Sigur Rós, M.I.A. and RJD2.)
Before getting signed, Banhart mostly played songs into friends'answering machines and made crude jam-box recordings. He traveled a lotand played a lot, until Gira's wife, Siobhan Duffy, saw Banhart at asound check in San Francisco (he was opening for her band FluxInformation Sciences), and passed a demo on to her husband, Michael,who, says Banhart, "rescued me."
Gira was blown away. "I immediately knew that [Devendra] was thissort of demon-angel--one of a kind, extremely special. It was likefinding an old 78 [record] up in the attic, dusting it off and making adiscovery of something invaluable and hermetic," Gira says via e-mail."He is magical, in the true sense of the word. He really is a conduit.I'm not sure if he realizes this or not. He's one of those people whocan draw people to him--they gather round and want to access his energy.It's not intentional, I'm sure, it's just the way he is," Giracontinues. "I've never personally met anyone that had so much innatetalent. He's just inhabited by a force greater than himself--I picturehis body, his hands and fingers, quivering with it. It must be anelating experience to be that way, but also immensely intimidating andfrightening."
With the new record, Banhart's songs still have a boozy whimsy (see"Shabop Shalom"), but what safeguards Smokey against the risk ofbeing pigeonholed as freak-folk is its range. Spanish ballads like"Cristobal" and "Rosa" ebb and flow wistfully, while "Seahorse" pondersreincarnation in the album's rockin'-est cut: "Well I'm scared of beingborn again/ If it's in this form again..." Sure, Smokey has itsJethro Tull moments, but by the end of its 16 (!) tracks, Banhart'sgotten more and more comfortable with his songwriting and more charmingwith each cut, so that by the final "My Dearest Friend," parting issweet sorrow. Sigh. They just don't make them like this anymore--thankGod Devendra Banhart still does.
Loyal supporter Ariana Morgenstern, assistant music director andproducer of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, L.A.'s most powerful publicradio music program, introduced listeners to Banhart early on. "When Ifirst saw him, I knew I was hearing something very pure, and very real,"Morgenstern remembers.
Now, all Banhart and his gypsy-folk Wu-Tang Clan need to do is findnew digs. "Our M.O. is always to split," he says. They're out of theTopanga Canyon crib and looking for new digs anywhere in L.A."Everywhere you are, you're in L.A. It's one of the only places thatdoesn't force you to know it."
So, for L.A., the crazy jams will ensue, the side projects willsprout up, the stories will happen. But for the rest of the world andmusic as we know and live it, this may be just the beginning. At leastGira thinks so: "From the moment I heard his music, then getting to knowhim and subsequently working with him, I thought he had the potential toreach a huge amount of people," says Gira. "That here was thisperson who could make widely popular music that also meant something andhad inherent and long-term value along the lines of Dylan's best work,or Neil Young's best, or even comparable to Nick Drake's catalog."
Banhart looks at his life and the future of his music this way: "Youwant to be a beautiful, sad, poetic freak show. It isn't constant, butwho the fuck wants that?"
DEVENDRA BANHART'S FAVORITE L.A. SPOTS:
The Smell (247 S. Main St.) I played some of my first shows here. Unlikeall the other venues then, it felt like the people taking your money (ornot: Back then they would often have sliding-scale admissions) were thesame people doing sound, organizing and promoting shows, baking theseamazingly tasteless vegan oat cakes, and running the whole place.Basically, it was a punk-rock interdisciplinary venue run by awesomepeople, and luckily, it still is.
Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica) This was whereIsabelle Albuquerque (from the L.A. band Hecuba) and I demanded to begiven a show (we were still in high school). When the totallyout-of-a-movie lady gave us that "Get the hell out of here, you rattykids" look, we pasted titles all over the sewer holes and told everyonewe had a show up at Bergamot Station. We did end up doing a performancethere as part of [Isabelle's mother] Lita Albuquerque's show. We wereboth naked, covered in blue powder and Vaseline, pouring honey into ahuge vase and chanting a made-up New Age goobledygook mantra.
The [West] L.A. Courthouse (1633 Purdue Ave.) It used to be an amazing skate spotback in its heyday, and we went every weekend, religiously. This placemarks the first and only time I've ever been completely frozen in thepresence of celebrities: The Girl Skateboard team showed up oneafternoon and I melted into a fumbling stupor of disbelief.
Canter's Deli (419 N. Fairfax Ave.) I love the ceiling (which hassilk-screened autumn-colored leaves all across the lighting): 24 hoursof fall!
Market Editor: Amanda Owen * Assistantto Photographer: Josh Madson * Assistant to Stylist JonnyLozano * Hair and makeup by Amy Chance forSoloArtists.com