Across eight albums, Devendra Banhart has explored all corners of folk and esoteric pop music with both authenticity and free-form eccentricity. He’s played it straight and pure, joyous and playful; all the while pushing the boundaries, from instrumental ragas to songs with artfully obtuse titles such as ‘Tit Smoking In The Temple Of Artesan Mimicry’. Now, on his latest album Ape In Pink Marble, he’s reined in some of his quirks and produced one of most concise and focused albums.
When Banhart takes my call he’s in Paris, en-route to Italy. With his propensity for travel and three years since his last album, it prompts me to ask what his creative life is comprised of, once the promotion and touring of an album has finished.
“There’s a year of touring each record and over that time you really get to know the songs. In one sense by the time it comes out, the record is very old but the places the songs can go is still very new and exciting. There’s a lot of space for us to improvise within each song and that can be very subtle or we can make a big space in the middle of the song and make it improvised and different every night and you can see the song change and evolve,” Banhart explains, before going on to explain his other creative passion. “Between the last record and this one I put out two books of art. One was a spontaneous and collaborative book and the other was a compendium of work from the last decade called I Left My Noodle On Ramen Street. That was like making a record and took up a full year.”
Ape In Pink Marble isn’t a concept album per se but “we had aesthetic guidelines for the album” explains Banhart. “This would be music that would be played in a crummy hotel in a sad and dilapidated prefecture in Japan in the late 80s. I pictured some lady with a cigarette called Jackie at reception and fat old businessmen in the corner, with these songs being played in that lobby.”
If I hadn’t already heard the album I might have thought Banhart was pulling my leg but it’s a scenario that he, Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick have captured very effectively. An integral element of creating that feel and “evoking that Eastern feeling” was their decision to rent a koto (plucked ,13 string national instrument of Japan). “Why did this album take so fucking long? Because none of us knew how to play a koto!” laughs Barnhart. “I’d wake up, start tuning the koto and then give up late morning. The others showed up and we’d all spend an hour tuning the koto after I’d failed. Then we’d sit around translating a guitar part for the koto. That was a full day. Three idiots trying to play an instrument we didn’t know! We could have got in somebody who knew how to play it but when we figured things out it was so satisfying so we kept going.”
With a fascinating life that involved a childhood in Venezuela and years spent either on the road or in cities like New York and Paris for short periods of time, I was curious to know how much influence his surroundings and place of residence has on his songwriting.
“As a professional musician I started touring at 21 and didn’t stop until I was 30. I never lived anywhere for more than 6 months at a time. Now I live in Echo Park in Los Angeles and I don’t feel like this is the best place I ever want to live but it’s where I am now. In hotels I have my own little routines and know what to do but when I get home it feels totally alien and it’s a new adjustment. I don’t think moving around helps how I write. I write on the road in spite of being on the road. It is inspiring and I see a lot of images that I want to write about because of traveling but it isn’t the main impetus of my work and my work isn’t beholden to moving around.”
this interview was first published in Rhythms magazine