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C'mon Over and Let's Make a Record: An Interview with Devendra Banhart

Jennifer Kelly
Photos by Lauren Dukoff

How the pied piper of psych folk and his ever growing band of followers holed up in a Topanga Canyon house, broke out a boxload of exotic instruments and kicked out the jams of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.

Devendra Banhart

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

Label: XL
US Release Date: 2007-09-25
UK Release Date: 2007-09-24

If you ever get invited to Devendra Banhart's house, wherever it is at the moment, you should not be surprised if you end up on one of his records.

That's what happened to actor Gael Garcia Bernal, the Academy-Award nominated star of such movies as The Science of Sleep and Amores Perros. Bernal was in LA for the Oscars, and he stopped by to hang with Banhart, who was scoring a film for him. Banhart had been working on "Cristobal", the first song on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, for the movie, and he wanted to see what Bernal thought about it.

"I wanted to play him the tune and the lyrics were up on the little music stand, and he started singing along," Banhart recalled. "So I said, 'Fuck it, let's press record.'" You can hear Bernal singing softly in the verse, his voice intertwined with Banhart's more famous, vibrato-laced tones, not a trained voice or a loud one, but rather sweet and emotionally affecting. Bernal must have been as surprised as anyone to have this casual jam released on a record; Banhart says he had never sung the song before.

Those sorts of unpremeditated collaborations are all over Banhart's fifth full-length album. The Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, who lived just down the street from Banhart, sat in on charango, a South American native instrument that is traditionally made from an armadillo's shell. Two of Banhart's longtime muses -- Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs -- sang ethereal harmonies. Brazilian artist Rodrigo Amarante (of Los Hermanos) came to stay at Banhart's house for a weeklong visit and ended up a permanent member of the band.

"That was one of the benefits of working at your house," said Banhart. "It allows for a more spontaneous and comfortable environment." He added, "There are plenty of cons to it as well. Losing your mind is one of them. But one of the pros is that if you have a friend come over, they're sitting in the living room, and the living room is also the tracking room. So we can just sit and have a jam and record it so casually and half of it ends up on the record."

Give me that sweet soul music

The house in question was a small structure built into a mountainside at the top of a canyon. Situated in a relatively wild area, the house drew a constant stream of animal vistors -- squirrels, raccoons, king snakes, lizards, hawks, owls, and even the occasional bobcat. Human visitors made tracks to the Topanga Canyon residence as well, among them, a neighbor named Chris Robinson, also the frontman and main songwriter for 1990s blues-rockers the Black Crowes.

Banhart said that Robinson came to one of his shows years ago, and they struck up a friendship. Asked how his own fragile folk melds with the dirtier, more electrific sound of the Black Crowes, Banhart said, "I don't think it's that far of a stretch. They've got a country/soul thing going on, California scruffy band thing happening. We all like the same music. But he's a Topanga Canyon man, and he ends up hanging out, playing the charango."

Robinson also brought in a trio of soul singers, sisters Maxine and Julie Waters and Mona Lisa Young, who can be heard on Banhart's very gospel-ish "Saved". "They came in and just fucking ripped it up," said Banhart.

"For a long time, soul music was maybe one of my favorite kinds of music," he said. "It's a perfect kind of fusion of pop catchiness, harmony, bad-ass kind of oomph, and pain." He added, "It's the idea that so much pain shall be overcome. That we'll sing our woes out, which also relates to the blues, which also relates to any kind of rock, really. It's extremely personal music, but it's always ... a soul singer is always singing to their crowd. They're always singing about their woes to you. And I really appreciate that when a singer is making you feel ... when they're directing it at me. When they're including me."

He admitted that he's toyed with the genre in the past. "I did have a song on the last record that, in a way, might have been messing with it a little bit, which was about a bipolar schizophrenic hermaphrodite..." he recalled, referring to "Little Boys" from Cripple Crow. But with this one, he said, he felt he was taking soul music on its own terms. "I really thought that I was doing something that was as straightforward as I possibly could. It's actually serious. It's that I ... musically, I was sticking to the archetype. It's like a soul progression," he said. "And even lyrically, I also think I'm sticking to an archetype. You left me ... and I was out, but I was saved."

Latin heat, exotic instruments

But it's not just about soul. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon also has a pronounced Latin feel to it, a vibe that reaches from the high mandolin-like sounds of charango in "Cristobal" through the sensual shuffle of "Samba Vexillographica" all the way to the fuzz-box psychedelia of "Carmencita". Yet asked if this is his Tropicalia album, Banhart hesitates.

"At one point our plan to go to an island called Hibiscus Island or to go down to Brazil to Bahia or Rio and record with just local musicians and basically our friends from Brazil or Hibiscus Islands," he said. "I think if we had done that, you could have said that was the Tropicalia album."

As it stands, though, Banhart is reluctant to categorize his new CD has belonging to a single genre. In fact, the main characteristic that Smokey Rolls shares with Tropicalia may be its willingness to incorporate multiple genres.

"I think there's Tropicalia in some of the songs, but Tropicalia is ... basically an embracing of the every single culture, of world culture, of everything. Yet with a central focus on your roots," Banhart added. "Tropicalia was born in Brazil and therefore their roots were Brazilian. There's this very Brazilian element there, yet there are also Eastern and European influences. I think there's some of that on the record, but I don't know if I'd say that this is the Tropicalia record."

That's despite the fact that Banhart connected with his newest band member, Rodrigo Amarante at Os Mutantes' historic reunion concert at the Barbican in London in 2006. Banhart and Noah Georgeson returned backstage after singing an emotionally-laden "Bat Macumba". "It was a really special night because they'd been through so much, so much physical and so many emotional problems and so many years have gone by since they've performed," said Banhart. "Not a dry eye in the room."

Amarante, a member of the hugely popular Brazilian band Los Hermanos, was a stranger up to that point. Still with emotions running high, a connection was made. "I could have ran into anyone's arms, and his were open, and we both understood the significance of the night," said Banhart. "From then on we just kept hanging out and talking and he let me know he was coming to California. I offered my place, and he was going to stay for a week, but we ended up having such a wonderful time together that he stayed for the entire recording of the record and is now basically a member of the band."

Part of the Latin feel to Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon comes from its instrumentation. The first cut, "Cristobal" incorporates two South American instruments, the small, mandolin-like charango and the slightly larger cuatro from Banhart's onetime home of Venezuela.

Banhart says that the charango was first devised by the indigenous peoples of Latin America, using an armadillo shell as the body of the instrument and catgut as its strings. "It sounds like a mandolin, but it wasn't made to be a version of a mandolin. It was made that size because that's how big armadillos are."

The cuatro is somewhat bigger, about the size of a ukulele, and variants of this instrument exist all over Latin America. They were an integral part of the culture in Venezuela, where Banhart lived until he was 13, an almost unavoidable feature of life. "At some point in your life, if you live in Venezuela, you come across or own a cuatro," said Banhart. "Either at school, either at camp, either at a friend's house, at a birthday or Christmas or bar mitzvah, you end up with a cuatro. It's like a must."

Psych epics and seahorses

The centerpiece of the album, though, is neither soul nor Latin, but an all-out trippy psychedelic extravaganza called "Seahorse." A video for "Seahorse" has been floating around on the Internet, but Banhart cautioned that this was not a sanctioned music video, just some film that he and some friends had shot during the recording process. That the video has taken on a life of its own is sort of ironic ... given that the song is all about the permutations of life, death, and reincarnation.

Running just over eight minutes long, the song is divided into three separate sections, each with its own tempo, lyrical content and mood. You could almost look at the song as a peeling back of subconscious layers. In the first section, the narrator sings about an almost Buddhist contentment, with no desires for the next 1000 lives. Yet a short instrumental break takes the tension up a notch, and you hear Banhart singing in another, sort of voice. "That's their subconscious kicking in," said Banhart. "They just start this ghostly 'I want to be a sea horse.'"

Finally, an even deeper subconscious breaks out, one that is scared of being born again, and the music takes on a darker, more menacing trippiness. "There's something somewhat Blakean about it, I think," said Banhart. "But musically, it's the best thing I've ever ... it's the thing I'm most proud of."

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