When WNYU decided to feature a musician artist in its first issue in many years, Devendra Banhart came to mind almost immediately. He has a unique visual style, which lends itself very well to his music. It is no surprise that he illustrates all of his releases himself since it appears that his interest in drawing and his musical compositions go hand in hand. Mr. Banhart has thus far released three albums in the U.S., and it's been amazing seeing his career take off as much as it has. Devendra has been getting an inordinate amount of attention both stateside and abroad. By many accounts, Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo were two of the best records of 2004. Devendra's songs, like his drawings, are organic, subtle, mysterious, weird, and full of vitality. On the night of March 2nd, 2005, a night that will live in infamy as the seventh anniversary of the Halftime Show's undergound hip-hop behemoth, WNYU called Devendra at his upstate New York home to discuss his background as an artist, the inspiration for his work, and the relationship between the visual and the musical sides of his creative life. “'Tis all?”, we hear you ask. Not to worry… We also discuss spittoons, baptisms and Devendra's next album.
All of Devendra Banhart's drawings published in Static were taken from an exhibition held this winter at Roth Horowitz Gallery on the Upper East Side. The interviewer and the interviewee share the same initials and as much fun as we thought it might be for you to figure out who's doing the talking, we decided to mercifully use first names.
Daniel Blumin: How long have you been drawing?
Devendra Banhart: I started drawing at the same time that I started playing music. I was always doing one or the other. When I felt I'd exhausted the music in me for the day, I would turn to drawing.
Daniel: What are some of your earliest memories associated with drawing?
Devendra: Just drawing my family -just drawing faces. And then I would draw monkey faces. I remember a lot of monkey faces and family faces and leaves and pyramids. And… I think I'd draw the sun with a hat and a smiley face a lot.
Daniel: [laughs] I hope that the family didn't take it wrong when you went from the family faces to the monkey faces…
Devendra: I'm sure they were offended! They were just as offended by my singing - I wouldn't be surprised.
Daniel: [laughs] Did you ever stop drawing, or did you just keep on going from childhood on?
Devendra: I stopped. I went through a weird point in my life when I was about 13 to 16 when I was into skateboarding and girls and reggae. It was all I did and then I went back to drawing. I think I started drawing for the pleasure of it. It was so much fun and then I got involved in experiencing life - whatever the hell you do when you're young. And then I returned to drawing, but this time it wasn't for the pleasure of it. It was because I was getting all the anxiety of that age out in it. So it began as this joy - I make the sun and it has a face and it's saying hi - [and changed] to this way of kind of…releasing teen angst. Then I went through this really artsy fartsy as hell period where I was like drawing “raw emotions of pain” [laughs] and drawing with my blood and all that. Very artsy fartsy!
Daniel: But isn't that what you're supposed to do in art school? [Laughs]
Devendra: This was before art school though. I ended up going to the San Francisco Art Institute because to my surprise and to the surprise of my family and anyone who knew me, I got a scholarship there. Art school was not very supportive of my drawing at all. No one really took it seriously, or I don't think anyone liked it because it was drawing. Everyone there wanted to be a big painter first off, and my drawings were really always simple. And also the school didn't like that I was set on my own style.
Daniel: So how did you spend your time there?
Devendra: I went to the library a lot and I went for interdisciplinary arts which was printmaking, sculpture, performance, new genres, which was just video noodling artsy fartsy central, and drawing, painting and some other things. Everything but music; there was even a sound class. I wanted to try everything… I did that for two years and then I left. The second year I really didn't go that much. There was only one teacher that meant anything to me and that supported me in any way and that was of any interest to me and that was a man named Bill Berkson, who was this poet who'd hung out with Jack Kerouac and Frank O'Hara and Joe Brainard and is still around. He's really groovy -the first person that said, “Hey, we're doing a reading; you should come by and read some of your stuff” or “you should write” or “do whatever you want” or “turn that into a song” or “I dig what you do.”
Daniel: You just dropped out… You didn't finish any degrees, right?
Devendra: Oh no, not at all! Although now they do advertise that I went to that school, which is very funny. I don't think I told anyone I was dropping out. I just didn't go to school one day.
Daniel: What precipitated the final break?
Devendra: I just wasn't learning anything. Literally a second ago, I was reading an interview with Joanna Newsom, and she was talking about how it's funny that you can lose sleep and get yourself in this little box in order to write about life, but then you're not actually experiencing anything, you know? I just didn't feel like I was seeing anything and I feel like…as human beings, we have such an opportunity to get a perspective on ourselves by traveling and experiencing other cultures and seeing how different everyone is and then seeing how similar everybody is, and I wanted to see all of that and I didn't think being chained to a school was the way to do it. And I also didn't feel like the school was teaching me anything because all I was using it for was the support of peers, which existed a bit, and then my teachers - and there was only one of those… I don't need someone to throw a bunch of things at me. I was always actively looking for artists that I liked by going to the library and talking to people and by going to shows and going to openings, so I was doing that independently of the school. I didn't see the point of actually going to school. I just feel like I'm in school right now, you know? I didn't give a shit about getting a degree or anything, you know? plus the school was interested in propagating that you'd never make it… The attitude of the school system was, “you're not going to make it in art; you need to learn how to design websites…” That was really weird because it was like this two-faced thing. One face would say, “Yes, this is the school for art; art is alive - just paint your heart away and that's all you need to do - just paint, paint, and paint and put your soul into it,” and then the other face would say, “You'll never ever make it. You've got to learn this technology and practical art making and commercialize your art.”
Daniel: Do you have some general thoughts about art education and the way that you would have liked to see it conducted?
Devendra: I feel like the minute I left school I put it all away, and I didn't actually think about it too much. I almost keep it in my memory as an experience that I'm going to return to and have some conclusions about and have some suggestions for how that could have been a better experience. It's very strange. I feel like you need to learn how to draw before you can do your own thing. I mean you need the building blocks for it, right? But I didn't give a shit about learning the building blocks in their way. I just felt like I was teaching myself. I felt bad for all the kids that were spending so much money. You're supposed to be in school to learn, to figure out what you want to do, but when you already know, it's just a tool. I still look back at it as a good tool but it was more of a social tool or something. It was strange. I don't really have any enlightening conclusions about that experience or suggestions or any ideas as to why it failed me in a way, but I will some day. Why don't we continue this interview in twenty years?
Devendra: And then I'll have some sort of epiphany regarding art school.
Daniel: In a way you did have some kind of epiphany. If you hadn't gone, you would've never known what it was like, so you went and you realized it wasn't the right thing to do at the time…
Devendra: Yeah, exactly! And you know, I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I'm not in debt because of it, as well.Daniel: Could you talk about the process of drawing versus the process of songwriting? How do you approach the two? What are some of the distinctions you can draw between them and what are the similarities in terms of how you approach them?
Devendra: It seems that it all comes from one source, and it isn't an image or a sound as it comes. This one point comes, this one… thing, this one type of…spark comes. This spirit comes that isn't a song or isn't a sound or isn't an image or a word or anything. It comes and then it tells you where it goes. It comes and then it is either a song and, slowly, as you observe it, stare at it, it becomes a sound or an image, or it becomes both, so you cater it to whatever it reveals itself as. And so this nameless thing comes; this wordless, soundless thing comes and then you fit it to what it reveals itself as – into either a song or a drawing -and then sometimes the drawings cannot be ended with a drawing; they're ended with a song. Sometimes the song can't be ended as a song but is ended as a drawing. That didn't used to happen, but then it happened recently and that's why the European version of Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojocame with a book called Light Alignsthat was really essential to that album. It came out [that way] only in Europe, which is why I'm on a different label now, because the American label couldn't do that and I thought that was such an integral part of the record - not only that it had a visual accompaniment but that it had the visual endings or beginnings of all the songs.
Daniel: How does the process work? Do you sit down and start drawing or start writing songs or…
Devendra: All I know is that when I say, “this one thing,” and I know that sounds cryptic, but it's because I can barely describe it… I know only two things about when it comes. It comes in states of meditation, not literally me sitting down and meditating but in whatever state of meditation… I slip in and out of them, and whenever I find myself in one and I'm not even aware of being in one, that's when it comes. I also know that it always comes at the worst time possible -when I don't have a pen around or a tape recorder or a paper.
Daniel: So, something that could start out on a piece of paper as a drawing could potentially end up as a song, and something that starts out as a song could lead to a drawing?
Devendra: Definitely! It isn't always the case though. I do sometimes have a blank piece of paper, and I know that I'm going to draw, so I sit there and either of two things happen - One is that, I just look at the page and nothing happens so I begin to draw. It's mysterious to me and I don't know where it's going to end up, and it's very exciting when that happens. I just start drawing and eventually the piece is finished. But then the other thing that happens, which is a bummer, is I stare at the page and then an image appears. Then I have to just draw it…I know what it is already, you know? This is why I don't have any sketch books. I don't sketch for anything because either I didn't know what the drawing was going to be and there it is! Or, I knew what it was and I drew it.
Daniel: So, are you saying that when you know what it is, it's kind of less exciting?
Devendra: Well, no, I do it because it feels like I have to because… it came, you know? It's like I feel really lucky like, “Wow, I have this image, which appeared to me to draw,” and I feel like I have to do my part in it now, but it also is exciting because those…those are always the faces…like the spirit images of the people. The spirits are always the ones that appear on the page before they're drawn. And then the plant life images usually are the ones that don't appear that I just start drawing and they end up being very natural, organic plant creatures to me, and I like that because the way I draw them is the way that they grow, which is really fucking slow. [laughs] It takes me so long to draw anything… But yeah, it is a bit of a bummer, but it isn't always like, “Damn! I have to do it now!”
Devendra: Yeah. I…I just fear… This is like that sticker on the CD or whatever. This is like my advisory. I just know that friends of Harry Smith and weird old historians know so much more and can just talk and talk and talk and talk. And I don't exactly track down where everything I draw comes from because I really like that it's mysterious to me because I'll always be interested in it if it's mysterious to me. Some of the things are impossible for me to decode, but then some of the things are easy and they come drectly from Native American culture. The Hopi have the six point cloud people, and I draw my image of them; I draw the kachina dolls, the buffalo spirits, the ghost dance costumes and outfits, the luiseno baskets, Navajo blankets and patterns and then Tibetan clouds and dragons, icicles. Magic is a very general thing. I can't just say I draw magic. [laughs] But…it is magic. You know Harry Smith's drawing of the Tree of Life? Like that…Like I'm drawing the seed of it or the fallen branch of it.
Daniel: Have you spent any time with the Hopi or the Navajo? Or is that just coming from looking at the artifacts in books?
Devendra: No, I haven't yet spent time on reservations although my fiance is half Cherokee, and her mother is Cherokee, and I've spent lots of time with her. I've spent time not with images of Native American things, not with books of their drawings or books of crafts but more with literature like Lame Deerisions and Bury My Heart, Seeker of Wounded Knee and Spider Vat Woman and God is Red and Custer Died for Your Sins and The Book of Hopi… and just a bunch of Native American writings and literature.
Daniel: And the drawings you made, related to the Navajo and the Hopi, were a reaction to… the knowledge you received from reading those books? Had the drawings been different before?
Devendra: Well, the earlier drawings were more like on the cover of the first album I ever made called Oh Me Oh My… The Way The Day Goes By [laughs]The Sun is Setting, the Dogs are Dreaming Love Songs of the Christmas Spirit. On that album, I'd been drawing these structures. And, they were drawn with a four-haired watercolor brush using red watercolor. And they were these structures that would just begin with a line and then another line and then another line and then a small line, then a small line, and I would do that for about four hours and eventually get a structure. That drawing on the cover is the actual size that it is. Then, at the top, I would have the name who that structure was in honor of, and I did a whole bunch of those structures for friends, for songs, and for people I didn't know…for Townes Van Zandt, Nina Simone, and then ones for unborn children. Then when I read , Seeker of VLame Deerisions, I looked at my left hand and there was a red sun pattern on it and I drew it. I started drawing it in red ink and I started drawing it everyday until I got it tattooed on my hand and it is also the cover of the last album I made, Nino Rojo, which means “red sun”, but I titled it in Spanish so when you translate it, you can just say “red sun”. You don't have to settle on the “u” or an “o” it could be “sun” in the sky or “son”, your child. And then from there, all those images and songs all blend into each other. For Rejoicing in the Hands, I just started drawing hands…hands, hands, hands and they were this metaphor for life in two ways. In the way that you have your hands and make things with ʻem, like I'm drawing with my hand…I'm playing guitar with my hand…I'm touching someone with my hand… But then also with the folk tale that I'm writing that I can't finish because it's taking me so long to get to even the first page. I'm writing this folk story/tale where there's hands, and they are characters in the story. They're just floating hands; they're not on a body, and there are many of them and they're in a village. And the way that anyone gets anything from them if they need a toothbrush, a refrigerator, or some money or a spoon, they ask the hands for it. And people have to give them something for it and then the hands have the power to get pregnant with whatever thing you want. That's also how the hands were a metaphor for life except you won't know that unless you've read this story, which hasn't been written! [laughs]
Daniel: I don't think the drawings that we're showing in the magazine have any titles. I was told they were “mosquito drawings”.
Devendra: Yeah, the reason most of those don't have titles is because they were all done in one place in this town called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is a town at the southernmost tip of France and it's the Gypsy Mecca where Gypsies from all around the world travel to once a year to worship their Gypsy saint, Saint Sarah, the Black Madonna, who's buried there…with, they say, Mary of Magda-lene's bones as well. And I was in that town when I drew all of those drawings, and I put them in the category of either energy or mosquitoes. That's why I couldn't title them piece for piece because they really all were one big piece…
Daniel: I noticed a lot of your drawings seem to be on pieces of paper that are not of the real tidy bought-in-a-store variety. It seems like a lot of the drawings are on paper that's ripped out, for example. The paper seems to be kind of just stuff that was lying around at the time…
Devendra: The way I began drawing was never spending any money on it, so I would borrow just any piece of paper lying around from my mom, and I realized that all the books I owned or my parents owned started off with blank pages. So, I go, “I've got paper now,” you know? I would just go and take every blank page from every book and no one noticed…
Devendra: I wasn't even interested in the really new, nice books. All the old books had this paper that was so nice! And all the new books, their blank pages had this gloss on them that the ink wouldn't even stay on, you know? It'd rub off immediately. So, the old paper really absorbed the ink so well, sometimes blotched it really nice, and I just began like that taking those pages off and ignoring the new ones and then, I went, ”Ok, I'm going to art school now; I've got to get nice paper.” So, I buy nice white paper and I draw on it and it felt cold, man! It just felt like the image was cold there! It wasn't happy; it was just like throwing somebody into cold water. It just had no spirit using this white paper. I still use white paper but those are the drawings that take the longest time ʻcause those are the ones that sit on my desk. I put a piece of the white paper I'm going to be drawing on and then, on top of that, I put all the other pages, so when I spill anything, it will fall on it. Or my coffee or my tea is sitting on there and that's going to add a stain or something, or I'll empty my tea bag and just leave it there, or spit onto it or use it as a spittoon ʻcause I chew tobacco and that's a little brown. And I just keep building on it and adding…adding some life to it, you know? I like that because it's half purposeful…It's on purpose, but it's all by mistake. I spilled everything on it by mistake, but I knew it was going to happen because of where I placed the paper…
Daniel: Many of your drawings contain images of nature or nature re-imagined or transformed in some way; there are hybrids, something that almost looks like a tree trunk with a human face and then things that look like ventricles… Do you know the image I'm talking about?
Devendra: Yeah. I like… nature and I like… the relationship that every natural thing has with each other and, sometimes, it's really obvious. Umm…skin looking like parts of the desert, and a fish's chin looking like a pine tree. And I like animism - giving life to inanimate objects. I also think, let's say giving the tree a face, it's a really obvious exaggeration of a life that already lives within that tree, you know?
Daniel: There's a sense of spirituality both in your music and in your drawings that refers back to ancient pagan cultures and also to modern religions. Has religion always been an interest of yours?
Devendra: My only experience with Christianity was my getting baptized. My grandmother's Christian; she wanted to make sure that I was baptized, so when I was about twelve, they went to baptize me and the priest said, “What's the kid's name?” They were like, “Devendra.” He said, “Well…we can't… we can't baptize him under that name.”
Daniel: [laughing] Devendra?! What kind of name is that? What's God supposed to do with that? Come on now! Aren't there only sev-enty-eight names that have been officially approved?
Devendra: That's right – seventy-six, I think!
Devendra: So, he baptizes me under William without telling anybody.
Daniel: So, it's going to be really confusing when you move on to the next world where…
Devendra: Yeah, I know! They're like, “Name?” -“Devendra”, and then I'd remember as I'm heading down to hell…I'll yell, “Noooooo, it's William!”
Devendra: That's my only experience with Christianity. At the same time, I grew up around Kabir and Rumi and Sufi poetry…but Sufi poetry not like Sufism, you know what I mean? I was named by this guy, Maharaji Prem Rawat. He was an Indian man and there's no religion that he propagates. Umm… It's simply listening to Kabir and Rumi - “the beauty of life” and “heaven is within,” -simple things like that. And I grew up listening to that and my parents being into that and then music being a way of praising that life and the joy of creation! So, that's the religion I grew up around. Then later, on my own account, I got into the Jewish religion and Buddhism and Confucianism and Islam and Christianity and just saw that the seedof them is pretty much the same, but it's the peoplethat go and ruin it. And so my religion, in the end, turns out to be like a new-age religion, which is like this amalgamation of allthe religions.
Daniel: There's a whole world of spirituality you're talking about here. But, somehow, the term “spiritual music” or “spirituality” is often the province of “Christian music” or Christianity in this country. So, whenever somebody brings up the theme of spirituality, it's …
Devendra: Yeah, it's funny. It's very funny because since I think my music has a little bit of spirituality…I mean, you know, that sounds so weird! I've never thought my music has spirituality in it, but I'm not going to fight if someone says it. I mean I do feel like it does have… Ok, so you said it, but I'll agree! [ laughs] And I think it's funny because you're right. Spiritual music is considered “Christian music”, right? So, the music that I make, since it isn't “Christian”, it's considered psychedelic or hippie because the hippie movement was, at one point, open to all these other cultures and religions. And, of course, in the end, hippies were just as conformist, and they were just as elite and fucked up as the people that they were against. But, people call the music I make now hippie and psychedelic…and I don't even see why it is “psychedelic” or “hippie”. I feel like it's just really simple… I feel like it's simple music!
Daniel: Well, I think that music might be called something --“psychedelic music” or “folk music” or whatever to define or identify it or to market it. perhaps people are calling it psychedelic in your case just because the images are quite rich, and they come from disparate sources and you're not saying, “I was sitting in my room/ using my broom/ to clean my house!”
Devendra: [laughs] Hey, that's a good line! That's pretty direct and to the point. I like that!
Daniel: [laughs] But, just because someone does it in a different way than that doesn't necessarily make it any less direct.
Devendra: That's exactly right because the whole point of the lyrics…It's like I have… Let's say I have ten books full of lyrics. I'll get three lines out of those motherfucking books and it's a bummer because I think, “Damn, I've got ten books full of lyrics…I have a whole album in there!” But, it turns out that I only have three lines out of the whole thing because all I'm striving to do with writing lyrics is get to some sort of essence… to be direct and boil it down to an essence.And so it's just a process of editing all these books, and books, and books. I just get one line that condenses the entire page or the entire book, so it's short and sweet and just direct. I don't like poetry that's really long. I like it short and direct. And you were talking about how people need to label it and that it has to be called a certain thing. The only thing that's weird to meis that I don't know anyone who calls themselves any of the things that they are being called, you know?
Daniel: Well, I think It'd be kind of funny if somebody said that, “I'm a grunge artist!” Or “We're post-punk!”
Devendra: Yeah. [laughs] Well, I'm post-punk, hip-hop, man! I should just say I'm hip-hop; it really doesn't matter because I do say that I'm not folk and I even give people something to call it other than avant-folk or any of the things they've called it. But…
Daniel: Avant-folk! [laughing] Avant-folk to me is almost as funny as I.D.M – Intelligent Dance Music! It's so condescending! [laughs] Avant-folk! It's like, “We're some kind of a vanguard.” I mean what is that all about?
Devendra: I don't know! It's just ridiculous because it's also an insult to the people who inspired the people making the music!
Daniel: Exactly! In fact, it's saying, “We're avant! You silly old folksters!”
Devendra: It's funny because none of us have said, “Hey, thank you for giving us a name for our ʻmove-ment.'” I just feel like these musicians, this group of people, no one is like, “Now, yes, now we have a name; we have an identity!” I don't fight it because it'll all move on and it'll blow over, and we'll keep making music regardless of people's interest because it began with it being made for our friends. And our friends are the ones that make it and we share it with each other. I'm gonna still wanna hear my friends' music and I hope my friends are gonna still wanna hear mine. But the point is that we're still gonna make it. And also, none of us have made that many records and, in time, it'll be clear that this isn't a folk thing.
Daniel: I know that you're in the process of recording a new album. Is there anything where you feel like you must react to what you've already recorded and then try to change it in anyway?
Devendra: Well, it worries me because it isgonnabe very different. It worries me that anyone would think that it's me reacting to what people have said Iambecause that's really the essence of selling out when you start changing what you do in order to second-guess the critics that have said you write about a certain thing. “He writes about toasters, toasters, and ham”… and so I go, “Fuck it! I'm going to write about microwaves and baloney”, you know what I mean? Then you're selling out. But the thing is, it might be perceived that way because this album… The funny part about it is that I've been really depressed, but it came out really happy! It's a really happy, poppy album. [laughs] Really fucking poppy and simple and I think there's band songs and almost reggaish, Fela Kuti kind of songs and Spanish songs and like almost rock ʻn roll songs and I feel like it is a well-rounded record like my favorite records like Donovan's Barabajagal,which is him and an acoustic guitar and then a whole full band song and then just piano and guitar and there's all kinds of songs. And this record is shaping to be like that, but it will be perceived as maybe trying to kind of escape what I've been pinned down as. But, it really isn't that at all; it is just me listening to the music and what comes out regardless of if I like it or not. And so again, it's like, you don't even know where it's going to take you.
Daniel: How far along are you in the record?
Devendra: We start actually going into the studio in four days…and so right now, it's like this very strange period where I have to finish writing the songs. There are so many left…So many open spaces and gaps and I'm not… I'm not looking at that like a fun experience. I'm just finishing everything and then we're recording in the house. So far, we've recorded just two songs.
Daniel: Can you record the whole album in the house? Are you set up for that?
Devendra: We've gotten set up for that just recently because my friend Noah, who is also the engineer on the record, has all the equipment, but we're going to record in the studio, a really nice studio called Bearsville, up here.
Daniel: So, you're just going to be demo-ing things and then recording some of the stuff in the studio and some of it you're just going to keep as home recordings?
Devendra: That's right, yeah!
Daniel: It'll be out on XL Recordings, your new label, but there's obviously no release date scheduled.
Devendra: No, not at all. The only thing that there is, is an idea of what the theme of the record is. Would you like to know?
Devendra: It's about pre-Columbus North America and present-day South America.
Daniel:There's a lot of ground to cover there. [laughs]
Devendra: Yeah, we'll see… We'll see...
Daniel: Do you have any other art shows in the works?
Devendra: There's my first solo European show in Modeno, Italy in late May. And then there's a show in Japan and then a show in paris I'm curating that I'm really excited about. I get to put Keegan McHargue, my favorite living artist in the whole word, in it!
Daniel: What's his stuff like?
Devendra: It's prophetic. It's like the eye of oblivion. It's like… pure, cosmic light; it's the images of pure enlightenment or something. There's no one like Keegan!
Daniel: I'll have to check it out… Good luck with all the recordings, Devendra! Good talking to you.
Devendra: Yeah, it's been very groovy. I'll talk to you later, my friend. Have a really groovy time at the hip-hop party!
Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo are out now on Young God Records. For more info visit www.young-godrecords.com
Devendra is represented by Roth Horowitz Gallery - http://www.rothhorowitz.com/
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