Sunday, November 13, 2005

Devendra Banhart | Interview | The Believer

Over the last two weeks, I'm been listening a lot to Devendra Banhart's Cripple Crow. I was never a fan of his before hearing Cripple Crow playing in Buch Spieler back in October. It sounded good and my friend, Michael, there vouched for it's greatness. I was a bit leery because I wasn't enamored with the little bit I had heard from his earlier albums and, in general, haven't fallen for that new folk movement personified by him and Animal Collective. However, Cripple Crow has proven to be much more conventional and accessible than the stuff I had heard earlier. There's a full band supporting Banhart and the melodies, beat and chord progressions, while still sounding a bit hippy-ish, are more traditional than Animal Collective's and other freak-folk tunes. The album has really grown on me.

In a weird bit of timing, the November issue of The Believer arrived this week with an interview with Banhart. The interview isn't available online but there are a few interesting moments in the article.

BLVR: I heard you got into a fight with Sammy Hagar.

DB: Yeah. When I started out, I didn't have a booking agent or a good label or anything like that, and I was playing really shitty shows. A friend booked a show for me at a placein L.A. that's also a sushi restaurant. At the time, I was way into Patty Waters and Diamanda Galas and Yoko Ono. I liked their confrontational, screeching styles - using your voice as an instrument - and I would do a lot of a cappella singing. I would strum a chord and hold the guitar up and sing the song in that key. It's a lot of falsetto, and I'd hold that for as long as I could. And this is a sushi restaurant, so, like, nobody's having it. And Sammy Hagar and his posse are trying to eat their spider roll or whatever. He looks like a canned pickle, or beef jerky, and you can hear him talking and talking, and I'm just doing my thing. I'm in a kind of trance, and he asks them to put the jukebox on. "Put on some Van Halen!" he says. And they do. Really fucking loud. Of course, I'm aware of it, and I just start spitting in their sushi, and then the next one, and I'm frothing at the mouth and it's all landing right in their food. So Sammy gets up, and he's got this really nasty, curly blond hair, and I just grab it, sort of latch onto it. I'm pulling his hair and he's trying to grab me, and I end up on their table, and eventually we get pulled apart and I get asked to leave.

BLVR: Did you ever play there again.

DB: No, never. I would play there again though. Sammy, man, I'm waiting for the fucking rematch.


As much as I want to believe this story, I don't. It's too perfect. Hippy folkie fighting a cock-rocker; grabbing his glam-rock hair; spitting in their food. It sounds like a fantasy of Banhart's rather than a reality. It reminds me of the faux story that used to swirl around in the 90's about Scott Kannberg of Pavement beating up Jason Priestly on the set of Beverly Hills 90210. Never true but still a good story.

BLVR: Has performing live gotten easier?

DB: Well, in the beginning that sort of thing was really hard to swallow because it was so confrontational. And it wasn't intimate. It was exclusive. I wasn't including everybody. I played a show at the Knitting Factory in L.A. - and I used to drink so much before a show, man, o much - and I was doing the screeching and screaming, but with a little artsier crowd that was like, "Oh, it's so obscure, it's cool." My dad came to that show and afterwards he said to me, "Look, a perfromance needs to be respectful and confident, to yourself but also to the people, to the music, to life." And that really changed everything for me. I realized that I wasn't being respectful or confident. After that, I didn't get too many weird reactions from audiences. Every now and then I still do, just because it's hard for people to get that it's electric.


That is some fantastic advice his father gave him. The shows I've seen that have been really bad can usually fall into the bucket of the artist not being respectful of the audience and their music. Great advice.

BLVR: I read somewhere that you said you act more on instinct than intellect, that you're not calcualted. Does that apply to songwriting as well?

DB: Well, I only have one method for songwriting. I have these Mead composition books full of words. I'll go through them and I'll only get one line out of a whole book. So it's a process of reduction. It's such a bummer because before I record I'll have like ten or fifteen books full of writing, and I'm like, "Yeah, man, I'm gonna make twelve records out of this." And then I go through a whole book and I only get one line.


I'm calling bullshit here too. I don't doubt that he filters a lot of writing down to a few choice lines but to say that he boils an entire notebook down into one line means that over the 23 tracks on Cripple Crow, he would have gone through hundreds of those Mead composition books.

By the way, regarding the large amount of tracks on Cripple Crow (23 songs; 74 minutes), I think the album could be exhibit A in Mark Mothersbaugh's point, from the September issue of The Believer, about how the CD format has affected songwriters. His point was that when he only had 22 minutes per side on vinyl records, it forced him to be more acute in his songwriting and track selection. CDs, with their 80 minutes of available time, have led some artists to include everything they recorded which leads to albums with a more uneven feel and more low points. Cripple Crow is a really strong album but boiled down to eleven or twelve tracks would have given it a more concise powerful feeling.

By the way, in another odd coincidence, the keynote speaker at the recent Second Vermont Republic seccession convention, James Howard Kunstler, is also interviewed in this month's issue of The Believer.

Devendra Banhart - I Feel Just Like a Child
Devendra Banhart - Chinese Children
Devendra Banhart - Koreandogwood

1 comment:

Nico said...

To borrow an expression that I've only ever heard my friend Todd use, "He's bitchcakes crazy."

I finally picked up Cripple Crow over the weekend, but have only had time to listen to it once all the way through. I bought in a fit of post Alabama losing to Auburn depression.

Record buying always cheers me up when I'm down over insignificant things.