Angel of Mercy
Topanga's Hippest Hippie Devendra Banhart
By Hobey Echlin
Photographed by Dan Monick
On the day of our photo shoot, for example, Banhart, who looks like Rob Zombie with an Andre J. club-kid makeover (beard, cross-dressing and all), is multitasking, putting on bras and jamming in a side-project band with Greg Rogrove from Priestbird. Then there's his all-harmonium Joni Mitchell tribute band, Droney Mitchell. Glam, earnest, enigmatic, funny and entertaining, with a voice that sounds like a cross between Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, Banhart is a driving force in L.A.'s music scene, with its tattooed emo troubadours, sunlight-oblivious indie bands and rock stars killing time between tours.
And the Texas-born, Venezuela-raised, Cali-bred Banhart knows how to channel his talents--the breakout single from his latest record, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, is a Jewish-Jamaican doo-wop song about a lesbian love affair between a rabbi's daughter and a young local girl, replete with a "Who Wrote the Book of Job?" parody of "Who Wrote the Book of Love?"
Talk to Banhart for five minutes and he'll turn you on to the
upside-down blues of Entrance, one of Banhart's favorite bands, whom he
came across after he moved from San Francisco and who became his first
tour mates. He can rattle off band names and forgotten records like the
stoner who owned the cool record store you went to growing up, and many
an interviewer has found himself scrambling to keep track of the lists
and family trees of bands that Banhart has either been in, shared
members with or just plain likes. Today it's Hecuba, which, says
Banhart, "sounds like Klaus Nomi hanging out with Wu-Tang doing the
future's nostalgic reading of a high-school musical."
Banhart and co-producer Noah Georgeson, along with their revolving
cast of cohorts, have made living in L.A. its own musical project,
hunkering down in a different scene and neighborhood for each record
they've made here. This time out, for Smokey, the tribe decamped
to Topanga Canyon to a house near where Neil Young recorded After the
Goldrush and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Young and
Banhart 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 have
it, 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 the
door, just climbed through a window.
In the process, Banhart and his circus single-bandedly resurrected the raw hills-above-L.A. scene of the '70s, when Jim Morrison would hitchhike home from bars on the Strip, and James Taylor and Carole King quietly holed up to make West Coast folk-rock classics. In a town so industry'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 more innocent time--a time when Behind the Music classic rock stars roamed the hills getting high and making music before they became subjects of Behind the Music. "We're like them--only without the fans or the hits," jokes Banhart. Which is just fine with him. "If I had done 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 his
parents followed. He later moved with his mom to Caracas after his
parents split, which was idyllic, recalls Banhart, until the violent
military coup of Hugo Chavez: "It was lush and beautiful, but it's
fucking dangerous. I remember two guys in masks with machine guns
banging on people's doors." It was in Venezuela, however, that he
discovered music--not only did he and his friends start getting into punk
and hip-hop, but while living in Caracas, Banhart saw a video with
skater Keenan Milton featuring music by Jamaican ska-icon Desmond Dekker
that 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. "Even the Santa Monica Promenade had Penny Lane. And on a visit there you'd get hip to Alan Lomax's field recordings and that might lead you to Son House, then to Billie Holiday." After a short stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, he hit the road, guitar in hand (he's played since he was 12).
His first real record was little more than demos--Oh Me, Oh My... was released in 2002 by New York post-punk icon Michael Gira's Young God Records. That Banhart, with his flowing tresses and eyeliner, his world-music vibe and quivering falsetto vocals, comes to the scene by 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 made brutal, off-time churn under the thundering baritone of singer Michael Gira around the same time Sonic Youth started doing the same in the early '80s, only to evolve over the last two decades into a sound and philosophy that can only be described as existential folk under the Young God Records umbrella. Now it's home to Gira's bluntly beautiful Angels of Light and yes, it's the birthplace of Devendra Banhart's recording career. (Since his 2005 Rejoicing in the Hands he's been 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 lot
and played a lot, until Gira's wife, Siobhan Duffy, saw Banhart at a
sound check in San Francisco (he was opening for her band Flux
Information 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 this sort of demon-angel--one of a kind, extremely special. It was like finding an old 78 [record] up in the attic, dusting it off and making a discovery 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 who can 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," Gira continues. "I've never personally met anyone that had so much innate talent. He's just inhabited by a force greater than himself--I picture his body, his hands and fingers, quivering with it. It must be an elating experience to be that way, but also immensely intimidating and frightening."
With the new record, Banhart's songs still have a boozy whimsy (see "Shabop Shalom"), but what safeguards Smokey against the risk of being pigeonholed as freak-folk is its range. Spanish ballads like "Cristobal" and "Rosa" ebb and flow wistfully, while "Seahorse" ponders reincarnation in the album's rockin'-est cut: "Well I'm scared of being born again/ If it's in this form again..." Sure, Smokey has its Jethro Tull moments, but by the end of its 16 (!) tracks, Banhart's gotten more and more comfortable with his songwriting and more charming with each cut, so that by the final "My Dearest Friend," parting is sweet sorrow. Sigh. They just don't make them like this anymore--thank God Devendra Banhart still does.
Loyal supporter Ariana Morgenstern, assistant music director and producer of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, L.A.'s most powerful public radio music program, introduced listeners to Banhart early on. "When I first 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 find new digs. "Our M.O. is always to split," he says. They're out of the Topanga 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 that doesn't force you to know it."
So, for L.A., the crazy jams will ensue, the side projects will sprout up, the stories will happen. But for the rest of the world and music as we know and live it, this may be just the beginning. At least Gira thinks so: "From the moment I heard his music, then getting to know him and subsequently working with him, I thought he had the potential to reach a huge amount of people," says Gira. "That here was this person who could make widely popular music that also meant something and had 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: "You
want to be a beautiful, sad, poetic freak show. It isn't constant, but
who 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. Unlike all the other venues then, it felt like the people taking your money (or not: Back then they would often have sliding-scale admissions) were the same people doing sound, organizing and promoting shows, baking these amazingly tasteless vegan oat cakes, and running the whole place. Basically, it was a punk-rock interdisciplinary venue run by awesome people, and luckily, it still is.
Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica) This was where Isabelle Albuquerque (from the L.A. band Hecuba) and I demanded to be given a show (we were still in high school). When the totally out-of-a-movie lady gave us that "Get the hell out of here, you ratty kids" look, we pasted titles all over the sewer holes and told everyone we had a show up at Bergamot Station. We did end up doing a performance there as part of [Isabelle's mother] Lita Albuquerque's show. We were both naked, covered in blue powder and Vaseline, pouring honey into a huge 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 spot back in its heyday, and we went every weekend, religiously. This place marks the first and only time I've ever been completely frozen in the presence of celebrities: The Girl Skateboard team showed up one afternoon and I melted into a fumbling stupor of disbelief.
Canter's Deli (419 N. Fairfax Ave.) I love the ceiling (which has silk-screened autumn-colored leaves all across the lighting): 24 hours of fall!
Market Editor: Amanda Owen * Assistant to Photographer: Josh Madson * Assistant to Stylist Jonny Lozano * Hair and makeup by Amy Chance for SoloArtists.com