Devendra Banhart has been making music for who knows how long, but he has been releasing records since The Charles C Leary was released in 2002. How to describe it? Folksy, eclectic, ever-evolving, cross-discipline…
His paintings and drawings have been exhibited as widely as his music. He’s shown at Art Basel Miami Beach, at MOCA in LA, etc., etc. He’s collaborated with Doug Aitken, Beck and on Yoko Ono’s second “Water Piece” project—to name drop, for those who aren’t familiar with his work.
In which case, you’re in for a treat.
Among all that—perhaps at the heart of that—he’s a poet. His first book of poems, “Weeping Gang Bliss Void Yab-Yum,” was released earlier this year.
This year being 2019, the same year he released Ma, the album Pitchfork has declared “his most cohesive album in more than a decade.”
He’s multifaceted and multilingual: splitting his childhood between Venezuela and the warmer parts of the U.S..
He’s a storyteller, whose lives travels are woven through his work.
And he’s humble and gracious and was generous enough to find time for an interview during a short break between tours.
Mr. Banhart spoke to us over the telephone from his home in LA to talk amateur dentistry, tie-dye, and his upcoming show at Museum of Contemporary Art, Saturday, November 30th.
CV HENRIETTE: WHEN MEETING SOMEONE FOR THE FIRST TIME, HOW DO YOU INTRODUCE YOURSELF?
Devendra Banhart: I don’t. I don’t really do that. Ever. I maybe don’t say anything.
CVh: IF SOMEONE SAYS HELLO?…OR YOU BUMP INTO SOMEONE? YOU DON’T RESPOND?
DB: No, I just run—as fast and as far as I can. I have a sign that says “In Silence. Please, I’d rather not talk.” So that’s helpful, but it doesn’t really work so much at the airport. At the airport, I just say I’m an amateur dentist.
CVh: OH. HOW DO PEOPLE RESPOND TO THAT?
DB: Well, they run away., As opposed to me running away.
CVh: GOOD TECHNIQUE.
DB: Thank you.
CVh: YOU’RE WELCOME…NEXT QUESTION! HOW HAS YOUR WORK EVOLVED?
DB: A series of failures and an inability to get a clue.
CVh: AN INABILITY TO GIVE UP?
CVh: WE’RE TALKING ABOUT YOUR MUSICAL CAREER. ARE THESE PUBLIC FAILURES. HOW DOES THAT FEEL?
DB: Not musical failures. Every record you try to get close to something—and it doesn’t really quite make the mark, so you keep making music.
And then, of course, you’re writing about what’s happening around you. A record is the culmination of time you spent between two records. That’s at least been my process and trajectory, having done this for maybe 20 years or so.
It’s really this accumulation of experiences and observations accrued between the last record and the one you’re making at that moment, and musically you’re trying to quote these observations and things you’d like to express—and always falling short, always falling short…
I’m putting that in a negative light. The other way of presenting that is it’s just a practice, and I don’t think I’ll ever be happy with it. And that’s fine. There needs to be some acceptance, that you’re just trying…
I’m a very bad clothing designer.
These words—you’d think I got dressed in the dark, you know? But I’m trying, I’m trying. I definitely know that I’m trying.
CVh: HOW DOES THE PRACTICE OF MAKING AN ALBUM FIT INTO YOUR EVERYDAY EXISTENCE?
DB: It’s the second most important thing in my life. It’s a daily practice. I don’t actually have other things I prefer to do. Or like hobbies or anything, you know? I’m very fortunate in that this is actually what I want to do.
Only this is strange. Having this conversation—’cause I’m talking out loud, and we’re talking…I really should be quiet and disappearing and just observing. That’s what I do.
This element of what I do is the odd time—the odd part, the odd aspect—but I’m grateful you’re taking the time to talk. I’m not saying I don’t like this—it’s great. But it’s a weird part of the gig.
When we’re done talking on the phone, other than some administrative work, either writing or painting is going to be what I’m doing, And not because I have to. It has to be a daily practice because there is no arrival.
It’s a new precipice with each moment of thinking you’ve arrived somewhere. You just look down and think, “there’s a lot to explore here.”
The mystery simply deepens.
CVh: YOU SAID THIS IS THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR LIFE. WHAT’S THE FIRST?
DB: Probably meditation. Having some sort of contemplative practice—something that someone has taught you: a contemplative meditative practice. That word has some baggage. For me, it’s having a contemplative, meditative practice—otherwise known as, the very loaded word, meditation.
This is the most important thing in my life.
And then the second most important thing is any kind of activity that is meditative.
Those things happen to be making art. When you’re drawing, when you’re composing, when you’re painting, when you’re writing, you’re very present, in the moment. You’re not jumping ahead. You’re not jumping into the past. You’re certainly visiting those places for materiel, to some degree, but the activity itself—in particular, drawing—you’re really just there, just present.
But those aren’t meditations. They’re simply meditative.
That’s what my work is—but, at the same time, there are far more important things, far more important things…
I’m not so sure if making art is that important now.
“Every record you try to get close to something—and it doesn’t really quite make the mark, so you keep making music.”
ASIDE FROM MAKING ART, DO YOU HAVE ANY DAILY RITUALS OR ROUTINES THAT KEEP YOU GROUNDED?
DB: After meditation, it’s coffee. That’s a pretty boring answer, but very true. What else? I don’t know…
Lately, I’ve been tie-dying. It’s been a really nice activity. Right now I only have about four days until I go on tour. Something about sitting in the sun tie-dying—I don’t have a garden. I think my alternative to having a garden is tie-dying everything I can find in the house.
CVh: DO YOU KNOW EDGAR. HE’S A PAINTER. YOU’VE BEEN IN SHOWS TOGETHER. I CAN’T REMEMBER ANYONE’S LAST NAME. HE LOVES TO TIE DYE.
DB: He does? And his name is Edgar. Doesn’t ring a bell. Yes, say hello to my dear friend, Edgar.
CVh: YOU CAN MEET HIM AND COME TIE DYE TOGETHER IN DETROIT.
DB: I’m planning on it. I’m planning on bringing the Amateur Tie Dye Dental Parade. Because that’s what I’m really working on. It’s not clothes. It’s teeth. I want to tie-dye teeth.
CVh: INTERESTING. WILL YOU REMOVE THEM FIRST?
DB: Oh. No. Absolutely not. But don’t you worry, I’ve got a system that goes through the gums. Between the gum and the teeth—I put in this little…like a bee’s tongue…beep!…it goes right in there, and the dye gets injected. And you look super cool.
CVh: YOU MIGHT BE ONTO SOMETHING…
DB: I think so. In early Feudal Japan, they believed one of the most attractive attributes of the geishas was to have these dark, dark, black teeth. Which I still think is quite beautiful, and we’re updating that to the tie-dye.
CVh: I HAD NO IDEA.
DB: Yes, look it up. It’s quite fascinating. I’m not sure if it was ever good for the teeth, but it’s fascinating to think of these things—that are considered terribly attractive, but it’s totally subjective.
‘Black teeth. Oh, wow! That’s so hot to me!” Yet it would be considered frightening in many other parts of the world. Isn’t that funny?
CVh: IT IS! HAVE YOU EVER DYED YOUR TEETH?
DB: Well, yes. I’m dying my teeth right now. Indigo blue. With a little bit of pink. And lots of coffee—yellow. Which is actually what I mean. I’m color blind. Brown and yellow.
CVh: YOU’RE SOMEWHAT OF A RARITY IN THAT YOU HAVE A SUCCESSFUL MUSIC CAREER AND ART CAREER, THAT SEEM TO RUN IN TANDEM, NOT NECESSARILY TIED TO EACH OTHER. HOW HAVE THEY FED EACH OTHER? IS IT PART OF THE SAME PROCESS?
DB: A bit of both. They definitely inform each other, but they don’t really intersect until a record is done.
When a record is done, and it’s time to represent a record visually, I try to either create a drawing, or in the case of this album, a painting, that reflects the music inside. Other than that, they’re not intersecting. When I’m writing, I’m just in that writing mode.
When that period is over, and it exhausts itself naturally to some degree, you balance it out by focusing on the other discipline. For me, it’s music—writing and composing—and then going into visual work.
In between, I’ll take a break from both of those. Like tie-dying teeth and shit like that. Buying amateur dental gear on eBay.
I’ve got a reason for this whole teeth thing. I remembered it. And then I forgot about it. I remembered it yesterday. So, I’m so sorry. But, just so you know, there is a reason for this whole teeth thing. I can’t think of it, but it made a lot of sense yesterday…
Yeah, I do one discipline and then the other one. Not at the same time, so you can have a little bit of space from each one. You can kind of approach each one in a fresh way after taking that break…
Do I understand anything about it? Have I gotten good at it? Not in the least bit! That’s what I meant by many, many failures that ultimately lead to acceptance.
CVh: GOING BACK TO TEETH. DO YOU DREAM ABOUT TEETH OFTEN?
DB: I have. Teeth have been weird throughout my whole career.
CVh: HOW? TALK TO ME ABOUT TEETH.
DB: I don’t know. I’m sure there’s some Freudian dream interpretation, Jungian psychology, it means this and that—
But for me, it’s this strange feeling that they’re all these anthropomorphic beings lining my mouth. At night, they come out, and have their own little lives. This is how I’ve felt for a long time. Each one is its own personality.
And I think about that all the time.
When I’m not looking, they all pop out of my gums, and go live their lives.
CVh: HAVE YOU EVER HAD ANY OF THEM REMOVED?
DB: I’ve had four. I’ve had the ones you’re supposed to have removed, but I think I’ve had one removed that you’re not supposed to have removed when I was very young.
It was a gesture. I wanted to make a necklace for a girlfriend—and, yeah, that didn’t really work out. In every respect.
CVh: DID YOU REMOVE IT YOURSELF?
DB: Oh, no. I had an amateur dentist remove it in San Francisco. It was a horrible experience. I highly recommend it.
CVh: MOVING ON FROM TEETH, FIRST THOUGHTS THAT COME TO MIND. GENERAL INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS?
DB: OK. General influences and inspirations?
DB: Since you’re a Detroit-based publication, I’m going to say Funkadelic. Then, after that, Caetano Veloso, Vashti Bunyan, Lori Anderson, and anything you hear at the spa pretty much. Or a waiting room at…you guessed it! The dentist’s office…
I also want to give a shout out to R Carlos Nakai, a Native American new-age superhero. His albums are really, really, wonderful. R Carlos Nakai—I’ve been feeling him lately.
CVh: DETROIT. HAVE YOU SPENT TIME HERE?
DB: I’ve been there for a very short amount of time for many, many years.
That means I’ve never really gotten a sense of really getting to know Detroit, and really getting to explore it, since it hasn’t been more than one or two days.
But, in the other sense, having been such a long period of time, I’ve actually seen a transformation, that, perhaps somebody who has lived there the entire time, hasn’t seen. It’s an interesting way of experiencing or knowing a place.
It’s like if you see someone just for a drink over a period of twenty years. You see them change—their style change, their physical appearance change. They don’t necessarily see that, and neither do their closest friends. I’ve gotten to see that with Detroit.
The last time I was there was the most dramatic. I thought the change was for the best—it felt, really, really beautiful. It also felt like it was concentrated in downtown. Like ‘New Downtown,’ and I was just hoping that’s been spreading—in the subsequent two years since I’ve been there—to the parts that actually need it, where people actually live.
Because that’s usually how a city works—you want to impress all the tourists first, then you deal with where actual human beings live.
Hopefully, that’s been happening. I don’t know. You tell me.
CVh: THERE ARE A LOT OF SCOOTERS DOWNTOWN. BUT I BELIEVE YOU ALSO HAVE A LOT OF SCOOTERS IN LA. YOU TRAVEL A LOT. WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THIS SCOOTER MOVEMENT? HOW DO YOU SEE IT?
DB: I see it as fast as my scooter can take me, through where I am, because I am a serious scooter-er.
DB: I love it…and I guess we’re not mentioning the brand of scooter—because there’s a variety.
CVh: DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE?
DB: Basically Bird because it’s the most ubiquitous one, the one you can find everywhere. I was just in Mexico City, and I scootered the whole city! It was such a new way of exploring the city. It’s something I’ve always wished I had.
The only thing is it’s quite dangerous. That’s the only thing I don’t totally approve of—is how explicitly dangerous it is.
But! If you’re in the bike lane, it’s an electric vehicle, it’s not giving off emissions—and you’re getting to see the city in a new way.
I go to these places for one day, and I have one minute to run around, and with a scooter, I can cover a lot of ground and get to know the city.
I even feel that way about where I live. I don’t have a car, and I haven’t needed one for a while. At first, I thought ‘I’m not going to ride a scooter until I see like Tom Waits on a scooter. Then it’s fine. Maybe Patti Smith on a scooter. Then it’s fine. I can somehow justify it.’
Then I said ‘Well fuck it, I’m never going to see any of these people on a scooter, I’ll just do it, who gives a shit.’
And now I’m all about it. I love it. I scooter unnecessarily. I scooter just to ride. Sometimes I just ride.
Devendra Banhart will be playing at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit with Black Belt Eagle Scout Saturday, November 30th. One dollar from every ticket sold will go to World Central Kitchen’s effort to provide hot, nutritious meals to Venezuelan refugees. Tickets may be purchased here.