Devendra Banhart | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, September 26th, 2020  

Devendra Banhart

Tangled in Tongues

Oct 01, 2007 Fall 2007 - Beirut Photography by Alissa Anderson Bookmark and Share


I'm under the impression that it isn't nearly as eclectic as it could have been if we had included the Arabic song, the Yiddish song, the other Portuguese song, and another song..." Devendra Banhart pauses as he searches his mental rolodex for the Native American tribe whose language he adopted for another of the songs that was left off his fifth full-length release, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. Sitting backstage at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, CA, Banhart acknowledges no grand design in the sprawling mix of Spanish folk variants, acoustic ballads, '50s pop, and hairy rockers that compose his latest opus. Add in a little French and Portuguese, and you have an album that reflects the citizen of the world status Banhart has cultivated through years of travels. He has little concern that the album won't communicate with English-only speakers.

“Two of my favorite musicians in the world-Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Farka Touré-I have no fucking idea what they're saying, but I do at the same time," he says. "I can feel it. So I don't think it really matters. Let's use the example Caetano Veloso," he continues, mentioning the Brazilian pop icon. "I don't speak fluent Portuguese, so I listen to one of his songs, and first I just feel it, much the same way anyone listens to a song that is in a language that they don't understand that touches them. I feel what it's about, and I get it. I keep that in me, and then I go and listen to the song again, and I try to translate it word for word. When I compare the attempt at feeling it to the attempt at actual word translation-when I see the actual translated lyrics-I'm always so far off the mark of the word-for-word translations. But when it's the felt translation, it's always right on, which is really beautiful."

Though he made his reputation making music largely in a solo setting, since 2005's Cripple Crow Banhart has been translating his music into a band setting. "It all took shape in the house where we recorded it," he says of the cabin in the mountains of Santa Monica where he went to write the entirety of Smokey Rolls Down. "Instead of putting bread into a studio, we put it into a house where we purchased all of the equipment from here and there....And I was writing the record in the studio, in the little studio next to the main room. The bedroom is the vocal booth. The living room is the drum and general tracking room. The kitchen is the amp and electric guitar room. The environment made all of the contributions of the record. All those contributions, all the other players, everybody-including ourselves-it gave it a very different feeling."

And if chaos leads to eclecticism, the house was the perfect setting for an album that never stays in one gear for very long. "At one point, there were about 16 people in a very small two-story house," he says. "It's sort of a barn, built into the mountains. We had a lot of blow-up beds, and at one point, Beau [Beauraymond Fletcher, engineer] bought a circus tent that he put up in the back, and there's a porch where we had another tent with sleeping bags. A lot of five-people-a-room kind of thing."

Banhart managed to find a room where he could be by himself, and the songs began to pour out of him with little overt design. "None of it was premeditated. It was a document of what it is to have friends just come over to your house and hang out. For example, Chris Robinson," he says, mentioning the Black Crowes guitarist. "He lives just five houses down from us, and he comes over and just starts jamming on the charango while we're playing a song, and it sounds perfect. And I just give Beau a little look, and he pressed record, and right there it happened. It's on tape. And it gives it a sense of now, a sense of spontaneity, just because a lot of them are first takes. It gives it a strange sense of authenticity for a carnival sounding song, which is meant to be played live."

It's the kind of place where friends just dropped by unannounced and left having played on the record. Even friends who weren't musicians, like actor Gael García Bernal [The Motorcycle Diaries, The Science of Sleep]. "He's my favorite actor, and he asked me to write a song for the first film that he wrote and directed [Déficit], and he was doing the Oscars, so he came over and was hanging out," Banhart recalls. "And we started playing back a song [album opener "Cristobal"], and the lyric sheet was out, and he started singing along. So we just said, 'Fuck it,' just like it was with Chris [Robinson], and we pressed record. That's why his vocals are so low, because it was his first time ever singing. But we've known each other for a while, just from having similar family history and stuff like that."

Banhart's gift for translating musical and literal languages even extends to his songwriting themes, as he transcends gender and writes from a female perspective on "Bad Girl" and "The Other Woman." "That's my perspective," he says, getting a bit defensive. "I began singing from that side of me, from the feminine side of me....Think of it in Spanish: 'el Sol,' 'la Luna.' 'El' is male. The sun is male. The moon is feminine. These feminine attributes and male attributes, both of them are found within each thing....It's really like a split. Your left eye and your right eye. Male and female. And, of course, the soul becomes the trinity, the triple moon goddess. The soul becomes the hermaphrodite."

Far from the stereotypical self-obsessed artist, Banhart is taking increased measures to make his creative process more open and accessible, more collaborative and cohesive, ultimately opening the translation process to whoever wants to participate.

“I've been trying to steer away from my name and just have a band name in there. Nowadays we go by Spiritual Bonerz [with a silent 'z'], but who knows what it will be tomorrow," he says. “If there's enough unity, the steering wheel disappears, and it steers itself. If there's enough unity, even if there is one steering wheel, everybody has got a hand on it. There isn't this, 'I am the bandleader. You guys do other stuff, but when you're in this band...you're focusing on this,'" he says, recognizing the fact that all of his bandmates are involved in their own projects by having them perform one of their songs at every live performance. "It's not like this at all. And I've also been in that position, and it has also taken some time to find the right people," he says, turning sober for a moment. “But when you have the right people in the band, it's a very precious thing.”



Comments

Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published

URL

Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

amutha
August 31st 2010
10:51am

I talk about one line. Because each line, of course, means different things to different people, millions of interpretations. With me, I always see two sides. I just see things split into two…

Front Wheel Hub