Gypsies, Tramps, and Devendra Banhart

Text by Adam Pollock
Photograph by Todd Cole

Add the title Musical Anthropologist to the already diverse resumé of freak-folk pioneer Devendra Banhart. For without this Texan-Venezualan Boho-about-town’s penchant for creating roving bands of “artistic families,” most of us would never have heard of Vashti Bunyan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Watts Prophets. “I get criticized for wanting to bring my friends forth,” Banhart says from his Los Angeles home. “I don’t know Caetano Veloso but I mention him in every fucking interview. I care for these people more than I do myself and I’m not going to rest for them, you know?”

Excitement and passion crackle down the phone line and his words tumble over themselves in a mad scramble. Banhart sounds as you’d expect from his singing, light and airy but with an undercurrent of steely determination that belies his young age.

With a schedule that has him in New York, London, Italy and France within the month, he has hardly settled down, but his days of couch surfing across Europe are behind him. Though his spirit might pine for the beauty of San Francisco where he spent much of his youth, the warmer LA clime and rollicking singer-songwriter history of Topanga Canyon, where he has lived the last two years, calls to his lost-in-time soul. “The big problem with San Francisco is that it’s so cold. I see people crucifying themselves on the beach and thinking they must be freezing but they’re probably on acid so that helps.” The names Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and especially Jim Morrison resonate like a psychic tuning fork for the young musician. “Driving through LA listening to ‘LA Woman,’ that’s the extent of my getting out,” he says.

Despite a growing hipster quotient, Banhart spends most of his time at home working. “I stay home all the time, and I lament that and I love that.” He adds, “I only leave home to get food and art supplies. I have to work on shit, on art all the time.” LA’s coconut distributors must be experiencing a boom in business since he lives on three or four a day. “I snack on coconuts and corn chips all day. I eat my first real meal at night.” These days he’s preparing for a June solo show of his art – including originals of his album covers – at a gallery in Modena, Italy. But before that happens, he’ll play shows in London, Paris, Toulouse, Lyon, North Carolina and Tennessee. “I throw all this extra work on myself, like I have to make a video and I want to make a DVD of the making of the next record and I want to score the whole three hours.” He doesn’t say it but he probably isn’t missing much by avoiding LA nightlife.
While still unknown to the majority of music consumers, in certain circles – the music intelligentsia and artsy college girls, for instance – Banhart’s rise to fame has been meteoric and has resulted in such rites of passage as being profiled by Lindsay Lohan in Interview magazine – and subsequently becoming tabloid fodder when she showed up at one of his shows – and grilled on Iron Maiden Rob Dickinson’s U.K. radio show.

His most recent album, Cripple Crow has sold 30,000 units, and while he never goes on MySpace, the profile put up by his record company has 14,000 friends. “I was on tour in Europe with the Bunnybrains and at each show, someone mentioned that they were friends with me on MySpace and I was like, ‘That’s cool.’” At that point, Banhart wasn’t exactly sure what MySpace was. “I thought they meant [it] in a spiritual, New Age way, so I said, ‘Oh, I’m in your space too!’ Then I figured out that my manager had put it up.”

Devendra takes these trappings of celebrity in stride but they are a far cry from his early days of transient wanderings and soul searching. His childhood in Texas and Venezuela and teenage travels through Europe, New York and California certainly prepared him for life on a tour bus. Encouraged by ‘60s Rolling Stones-acolyte Vashti Bunyan to pursue his muse, he dragged his acoustic guitar to every coffeehouse, smorgasbord and house party that would have him. He played at the wedding of friends Bob the Crippled Comedian and Jerry Elvis and beat up Sammy Hagar during a gig at a sushi bar before graduating to more established gigs.

At this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, Banhart was invited to curate and headline the last day of the event following Mudhoney Day and Yeah Yeah Yeahs Day. The lineup that he finally decided on displays a tremendous knowledge and interest in musicians who have existed under the radar for years but who can still lay claim to influencing modern music to an extent that the current crop of scenesters can only dream of. While hopes of luring his idols Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes out of South America for the gig didn’t pan out, he still managed to put together the most eclectic bill since the Smothers Brothers booked Jimi Hendrix. The show included the aforementioned Vashti Bunyan, 74-year-old cowboy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, seminal British folk guitarist Bert Jansch, the musical enigma Jandek, and radical ‘60s street poets the Watts Prophets.

But it was Banhart who closed the show and gave one of his largest audiences to date the chance to bathe in his dreamy falsetto and way left-of-center folk sensibilities. His music inspires exaltations of delight from critics and punters alike, yet can be a challenge to listen to. Traditional song structures give way to minute-long ditties about stewed bark, and just when you start getting into a groove, a yelp or a grunt will shock you back to (un)reality.
If Banhart wasn’t busy enough, there’s his new record label Gnomonsong that he is stocking with an eclectic roster of friends and collaborators. The first release will be Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom, the first full-length solo collection from Texas-based singer-songwriter Jana Hunter. The album, described as odd, roots-flavored and often bone-chilling, was written over a ten-year period and recorded by Hunter on two-tracks, four-tracks and computers, mostly without a backing band. And he mentioned something about having discovered 900 songs by unknown artists all written about the same spiritual leader that he needs to produce. “That’s going to take a hell of a lot of research,” he laments excitedly.

Idealism looks best on the young (Banhart turned 25 in May) and the energy it conveys can build empires. Banhart was rescued/discovered/encouraged by his hero Bunyan, and he’s determined to repay her positive vibes by creating and nurturing a loose family of likeminded souls. A cynic might think of it as a calculated maneuver, a Boho business plan, but despite numerous queries it seems genuine and amazingly instinctual. In an age where self-promotion is assumed, Banhart has taken the road less traveled and is distinguished by deflecting attention away from himself – fame through humility. And while time will tell whether the Banhart version of earnestness works, it’s certainly compelling. Besides, it’s tough not to like a guy who lives on coconuts and mead (fave drink) and who jokes that his favorite recipe involves breast milk.

When asked how he gauges his success Banhart says, “If I can sleep.” He adds, “I don’t think about how or if I have gained success. I don’t think about that word at all.”