Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Rejoice in the psychadelic sincerity of Devendra Banhart

It was in San Francisco that, according to record company legend, Banhart had an epiphany. While arguing over the lyrics to Street Fighting Man by the Stones, with his girlfriend, Devendra realised like a flash that if the Stones could make stuff up, so could he, and so his first songwriting efforts materialised.

At the age of 21, then homeless, and in his own words, a bum, Devendra was discovered by Michael Gira, former front man of legendary New York group Swans and owner of Young God Records. Gira had received a tape of crudely recorded songs, which he decided to release 'as is', and they became the album Oh Me Oh My, which was met by almost universal critical acclaim.

Gira claims that one of the things that drew him to Devendra's music was his persona, “He’s the most genuine, least cynical and calculated artist I’ve ever known, and he deserves every bit of the good things now coming his way”. And this sincerity, it seems, is something that is part of the artistic credo of Banhart. When asked what the role of the artist is, his response is “to be a pure instrument/channel/medium/tool”. In a cynical world this might have you reaching for the wretch bucket, but then, if that's the case, this simple, stripped back music is probably not for you. Banhart is clear where he stands in the post-modern culture: ”I hate irony. This is a cynical time, everything is a joke. Love, Peace, Strength, Beauty, Divinity – all jokes to people. It's the Darkages”.

And so, what is this simple, sincere music Banhart plays? The reference points are diverse, from Flamenco guitar to Nick Drake, though perhaps the Drake comparisons have been overplayed – as he in his own inimitable style explains: “I feel horribly embarrassed and I know I’m pissing people off, and I'm those people too , meaning , we all go to the church of Nick Drake. I'm a cockroach praying at an altar made rolling papers to him. So it's really, really absurd to compare the cock to Jesus”.

He's a remarkably generous artist, citing numerous musical influences in all his interviews, and running a one-man resurrection campaign for the career of Vashti Bunyan, the British folk singer, who he describes as “the greatest living person on the planet”. His listening tastes though are wide and varied, including Ali Farka Toure, Alicia Keys, Erase Eratta, and Brazilian Caetano Veloso.

He dislikes the term ‘psychedelic folk’ being used to describe his music (though to this listener's ears it seems perfect), and instead tells us that it's “Hoobla Goobla”. He's highly prolific, during the sessions for Rejoice in the hands for example, he recorded 16 other songs for the aforementioned Nina Roja album. How does he choose the songs for a particular album? Is there a theme running through the album for example? “Maybe a chaotic unity; no, there is always a thread (not a concept) that runs through the album.

And one of his ambitions with the music? An appropriately simple one, to get people to dance: “I'm always physical when I play, even if I don't always seem it, but to get other people to move ; WOW!!! that's a dream!!”.

Photo courtesy of Young God Records.© Alissa Anderson 2003

Artist home page at Young God Records

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