Twenty-six-year-old Devendra Banhart is part of the scene that has regrettably been termed “freak-folk” or “acid-folk.” Such labels don’t tell you anything useful about the many and diverse practitioners of the new, largely acoustic music, and they certainly don’t prepare you for Banhart’s stylistic whirlwind.
From the moment he emerged in 2002 as the enfant terrible of this minimalist folk movement, he has been devouring and exploding all attempts at categorization. His fifth album, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,” due Sept. 27, is his most accomplished, varied and label-defying work yet.
It offers the spirited, spiritual and frequently witty songcraft for which he has become known, but in musical settings that incorporate everything from samba to doo-wop to classic rock rave-ups, sung in five languages. (Born in Texas and raised in Venezuela, he didn’t learn English until he returned to the States as a teenager.) One song even sounds like Marc Bolan on a Jamaican vacation with the Jackson 5.
Location and setting always strongly imprint your recordings. Was it the same with this new album?
Totally. We tried to find a studio in California with a feel similar to the Bearsville Studio in Woodstock, without luck. We finally consulted a tarot reader for help. She came up with an address. We located it outside Los Angeles in Topanga Canyon, and there was a house for rent. It was exactly what we were looking for!
So instead of renting a studio, we bought equipment and built one ourselves. We scavenged parts from all over—a tape machine from Chick Corea’s guitarist, the spring reverb from Frank Sinatra’s home studio, one of only 12 Stanley Church microphones in the world, another mic from Czechoslovakia that had been used by Nikola Tesla. I wrote the album while the studio was being soldered together. We had an amazing view of Topanga, and you can feel the canyon in the music.
Has this changed the way you’ll make records in the future?
I’d like to do more location-based recording. Like going to Brazil and making a record with the older musicians as well as the younger cats we met when we went down there recently. Maybe move even more into samba or bossa nova, singing in Spanish or Portugese.
Then there’s the idea of doing something in Mali with one of my favorite bands, Tinariwen. They were all soldiers in Khadafi’s army who put down their machine guns and picked up guitars.
I see that your co producer, Noah Georgeson, is playing guitar with you on this tour. Hasn’t he been with you almost from the beginning?
He was there at the very beginning. Noah gave me a broken four-track to record my early attempts at songwriting on the condition that I share the tapes with him. When I was bumming around, he was the person I’d call from Paris or wherever I was, calling his answering machine and leaving the songs that became my first record. “Don’t erase this!”
Spontaneity has played a big part in what you do. Has this changed now that you have tour schedules, business structures and an audience with expectations?
Maybe, but it feels like part of a progression. The circle is widening, that’s all. I had a brief moment of claustrophobia around the time of my second album. I got overwhelmed by that thing that comes with suddenly being singled out. It passed quickly, thanks to this family that surrounds me. I’m with people I’ve known for years, since I came to America. I’ve known Noah and Andy forever. I knew Joanna Newsom before she played music. I knew Antony (Hegarty) before he put out the Antony & the Johnsons record. It’s like this beautiful community of people whose lives have intertwined for years. I’m kind of the runt of the pack.
What are you listening to on the bus these days?
Well, let’s start with Fred Neil and Karen Dalton. They’re the bedrock, the foundation. Recently I’ve been listening to Peter Walker’s “Rainy Day Raga” almost every morning. A lot of revolutionary South American music. And Matteah Baim, who was the singer and songwriter of the band Metallic Falcons. Her album “The Death of the Sun” is my favorite record of the last 10 years.
// Notes from the Road
"Powerful Chicago soul-singer dips into the '60s and '70s while dabbling in Urdu, Punjabi and Italian.READ the article