Devendra Banhart makes me incredibly jealous. Why couldn’t I be an artist, a writer, have three solo albums and be friends with cool people like ex-Swans front man, Michael Gira? He’s done all these things, and he’s two years younger than I am. A lot of musicians that I admire wrote all their best material as young’uns, but that was in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when people had longer attention spans and were generally smarter (so I’d like to think). But now that I know that this particular fellow exists, I have no excuses and I both loathe and admire him for this.
He’s been hyped as a sort of Renaissance man and/or beatnik. He was born in Texas but lived in Venezuela as a kid. His hippy parents had an Indian mystic give him his first name, which would be the equivalent of, say, "John" in English. A true bohemian, even before being discovered by Michael Gira, he had bummed around in LA, San Francisco, New York and even Paris. In San Francisco he had a scholarship at the San Francisco Art Institute but dropped out and relocated to Paris, where he recorded his first album on a four-track and even an answering machine. These are the recordings that were on his Oh Me Oh My… album released two years ago on Gira’s Young God Records label. Gira himself says of the recordings: "We released these recordings on YGR because we’d never heard anything quite like them, ever. His voice – a quivering high-tension wire, sounded like it could have been recorded 70 years ago – these songs could have been sitting in someone’s attic, left there since the 1930s."
As for his music, if you haven’t heard it, eat a bunch of pizza or some other rich food item right before hitting the sack. Leave your bedroom window open to let in the cold November night, maybe even leave a weird movie on in the background like "Suspiria" or "The Wicker Man." Then see what kind of spooky and kooky dreams you have. That’s what it’s like listening to Devendra Banhart’s music.
One of the most unique things about the music is his voice. In all the articles I’ve read about him, mention of other low-fi and folk singers seems mandatory. I could, like many writers say he’s Donovan doing Daniel Johnston doing Marc Bolan doing Tiny Tim. I do find comparisons to Bolan’s stuff as Tyrannosaurus Rex quite apt though. If Tyrannosaurus Rex is to be listened to in the spring, Banhart is fall. It also reminds me of David Sedaris’ impression of Billie Holiday. Had Sedaris concentrated on music instead of writing and done more acid, he could’ve beat Banhart to the punch.
His physical resemblance to Syd Barrett is ironic as he is considered to be at the forefront of the neo-psych movement. This movement includes his friend Andy Cabic’s band Vetiver which released a record last year, and for which Banhart is also featured, as well as harpist and unicorn enthusiast Johanna Newsome, with whom he’s toured. He has also been known to play with Michael Gira’s post-Swans project, the Angels of Light. He has also compiled a record for Arthur Magazine, which includes various obscure psychedelic recordings, including the almighty Michael Yonkers.
He’s released three more albums since Oh Me Oh My… including Black Babies, Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo of which, the latter two, were recorded in an actual studio on the Alabama/Georgia border – apparently owned by Barry White. He recorded 57 tracks in all divided between the two albums.
Due to some inherent snobbery, it’s really hard for me to get into an artist that’s been hyped in the way that Banhart has. He’s been featured on NPR and even opened for the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, which to me is bizarre. But I go by my gut and not hype, and I can safely say I dig the world of Devendra.
Devendra Banhart plays TODAY, Nov. 17 with Scout Niblett at Berbati’s Pan, 10 S.W. Third Ave, tickets are $12 and the show is 21+