David Meets Goliath: An Interview With Devendra Banhart
Devendra Banhart gladly dismantles any notions of relinquishing creative control to his new major label bosses, explores the biological evolution of mushrooms, and shares a surprising connection to Neil Young.
From afar, Devendra Banhart seems like a larger than life figure: a bohemian, mystifying caricature of a man who seems to be both leading and straying from the so-called "freak-folk" movement that has been so prominent in the first decade of the new millennium. When you get right down to it though, Banhart exhibits a surprising amount of humility and passion towards his work, showcasing a rare sort of optimism that has carried him from one successful endeavor to another. Yet the stakes have changed this time out: after years of working on independent imprints, Banhart's latest release, the critically-acclaimed What Will We Be, is on a major label, and -- as such -- Banhart finds himself in a much more competitive playing field.
Although his music may not the "major label model", we are talking about Warner Bros. here -- the same label to signed such indie warhorses like Built to Spill, The Flaming Lips, and their recent counterparts Stardeath and White Dwarfs. As for the general conception that major labels are slowly fading in stature, Devendra seems somewhat unfazed: "I'm aware that all my peers are not signing to major labels. They are going through their managers, going straight to distribution, etc. I'm aware [that] this is the new business model for now, and has been for the past couple of years. I think that what that's done has crippled the Goliath, and the major label is a lot humbler. The fact that Warner was even interested in me was fascinating."
The people Banhart associate with are also, large in part, the reason he finds himself in these places. His manager, Elliott Roberts, is also Neil Young's right hand man. Young, of course, has had a rather famous tenure on Reprise records, where he still holds a great deal of influence as one of the label's great success stories. "The reason why we went to Warner is because my manager is Elliott Roberts; he just manages me and Neil, and he's worked with Warner forever. He has a relationship with them. Essentially for me, it's so funny, because that business model of going through your manager as your label, essentially that's what I'm doing." We could even look at Devendra as a Neil Young figure for today -- maybe not in terms of artistic choices (unless Banhart decides to record a Rockabilly record somewhere down the road), but certainly in terms of unexpected career paths.
There has always been the alleged rumor floating around that the majors in some part have "creative control" over the recording of an album, but Banhart emphasizes that this is not the case. "[Creative control was] the only condition [that] I had. I brought this record to them. It wasn't like I signed to Warner then made this record." Banhart also commented on the current state of indies vs. majors: "I had meetings with indie labels and I had meetings with major labels and the indies' expectations of me -- their overall plan -- to me sounded like a major. When I met with Warner they were treating me like an indie. Also, indies and major are a lot more intimately involved. I don't think that there is such a distinct line as there was in the past."
What Will We Be is largely different from Devendra's previous recordings. In fact, it even sounds like a major label production -- sleek, fully-produced, and well-written -- in the best way possible. There are moments of Tropicalia sheen, Sabbath-style riffage, and grand balladry. If there is one thing noticeable on the album, is that the band is at the forefront with Devendra.
"There were entire moments that the band wrote. There is a bridge, things like that, [where] the entire band, the whole band, [is] writing and everyone [is] getting a writers credit." He also emphasizes on the pre-recording rituals the band took, and the things that are undeniably Devendra that ultimately influenced the approach to recording. "We all had a psychic wedlock ritual before the record. We read a lot of famous Tutoula, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the Palm-Wine Drinkard. We studied Mycology in Northern California, how mushrooms can help save the world. Nothing at all trippy or hippy, but literally just the amazing possibilities that these things came from other planets. They can survive on asteroids for thousands of years. So anyways, this kind of stuff -- we tried to dive into that. [It was] a lot of distraction but it was a different way to approach songwriting, for me at least."
With his relentless touring and ever-increasing media exposure, however, Banhart has made a considerable effort to try and bring lesser-known figures into the spotlight. Take Vashti Bunyan and Os Mutantes for example: both are cult artists that have benefited from the continual support of Banhart and his posse, so to speak. In particular, Banhart has an affinity for Latin American music (Brazilian specifically). Banhart explains:
"My interested in Brazilian music stemmed from wanting to find a musical identity other than the salsa and meringue that I was inundated with in Venezuela as a child. We have an indigenous form of music that is ubiquitous -- it's almost background music. I wanted to find something that was Latin American that I could connect with a little more. In that search I stumbled upon Luaka Bop. I have David Byrne to thank for that -- thanks to him, an American! I get hip to all the music in the southern regions of the country I'm from. Of course Brazil is another world. There is South America and there is Brazil. Then again, each Latin American country has its own Bob Dylan, or Caetano Veloso. From then on, I had a clue. Then this was before the Internet, and it turned into the search for this music."
There was a man in Brazil by the name of Rogerio Duprat, a hugely influential songwriters/producer from the late '60s. He just happened to be an early advocate of the Tropicalia movement, exposed through Caetano Veloso's book, Tropical Truth. Banhart has a great admiration for Duprat, describing him as "the George Martin of Brazilian music." He went on to say why he was formative in his Brazilian obsession, saying "he wasn't only selective, but whatever he worked on -- the best songwriters, he brought the best out of them -- the avant-garde, the art out of them. He was sort of this Harry Smith figure to a lot of people. Finding out what he worked on was a real helpful tool in discovering a lot of the main and minor players of the Brazilian musical landscape." Banhart could continue for hours on this conversation -- a beautiful testament to his passion for not only his own music, but also the music of others.
Although Devendra Banhart's journey through the music business has been filled with lots of surprises and much hard-earned respectability, Banhart's positivity -- for his own music, the music of other cultures, and art in general -- has manifested itself into a long-lasting career. Banhart may be in a much more competitive musical landscape now, but he's more than ready to prove himself all over again.