Ten years ago, Devendra Banhart was the talk of the New York City freak-folk scene. But what followed was a rollercoaster of a career, with some ups and downs, newfound fame and movie star friends, but records that seemed to fall a bit short of his initial promise (as he says below). Banhart is back now with Mala, his eighth studio album and one of his best efforts in a long time. Hive caught up with Banhart in Austin, Texas at SXSW, where we got to the bottom of what he's been up to the last four years and why he has dinner parties on his mind.
Let’s talk about your music a little bit, because it’s been a while, and you’re doing music again. What were you doing in the four years from the last record until right now?
…Just living my life.
Really just working on a lot of visual art. That’s something that it’s been congruent with having a musical career. But I just wanted to take more time to do visual work, and it didn’t work out. I didn’t like that too much. I like to balance the year out. Half visual, half music. They both end up informing each other in a way that’s important for both of them to kind of progress in their own way. Separately, but they both inform each other. So taking that moment from music didn’t actually benefit the visual work, and it didn’t benefit the music, but it was a lesson learned. And I needed to take that time because the record before this one – it was sort of, personally, marred by my own irresponsibility and arrogance and egoism and lack of clarity and lack of conscience in many ways. Those things are a reality. There’s a lot of irresponsibility, egoism, and arrogance. Your work being marred by those qualities results in subpar work, and it results in decisions that you might not have made, or that you didn’t make. And work that didn’t return to you after other people had shaped it, and it results in regret. I took some time to kind of reflect on that, and figure out what the fuck I am doing. I wouldn’t even say that this record is a testament to having some newfound clarity, but it certainly is a transitional phase. But I can’t really take that little break. It didn’t work out for me.
It would be really interesting for me, as a writer who’s going to write a story about you, to say, “Well, he’s got a haircut, he’s got a new album, he took some time off and now he’s coming back!” Would I be imposing that reality onto you, or would it be accurate to say that this is kind of a new start?
Sure, you can impose all you want. Impose all you want, my dear.
Will I be lying to people if I say that?
No, I definitely did get a haircut. [Pauses.] This is a new start. I’m with a label that I’ve been trying to get in the room with these people for, like, a decade. This is a dream label for me. They put out my favorite musicians. This label has put out, like, Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Cayetano Velosa, Brian Eno, and David Byrne, John Adams. To be in the same room means a lot. I also try to do things in a square way, which is record the record, and if you like it, put it out. I look different just because I’ve been doing this for ten years. You look different than you did ten years ago. Changing is nice. My fiancée says, “What happened to you? Who’s this Barbados grandpa, or dad waiter, or lesbian librarian?” But those three are three pretty good labels. That’s a good style. I like that style. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I was born in Texas, you know. I was born in Houston. I immediately moved to Venezuela. I’m 31 years old. You go through different kind of interests and styles. Right now, it’s okay. This is how I dressed when I was really young. And I’m still wearing turquoise bell bottoms under these pants, don’t worry about it. Don’t you worry about a thing, honey. But again, impose all you want. I think imposing is accurate. It’s accurate. Of course! You’re worried about imposing the perspective that this is a fresh start, or a new start?
Before you talked to Nonesuch ...
I begged. I begged to get in. My manager did a good job, and he got us a meeting. Halfway through, I said, “Look, you guys, you don’t want to put this music out. Just thanks for being in the same room as us. I love you guys.” These guys are my heroes, so I just said, “It’s nice meeting you, you don’t want to put out my record.” I kind of tried to quit before they could fire me. Somehow I didn’t think they were going to like it.
Why didn’t you think they were going to like it?
I ... I don’t know. I thought it was … I was trying to … I don’t know. Because they’ve got good taste?
Was there a part of you that wondered before you had these meetings set up if anyone was going to care?
Yeah, sure. I mean, yeah. All of me. Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. I also didn’t want to approach labels in this “Do you want to put this out without hearing it” or “Do you know who I am” way. I mean, this is the most classic way, to me – “Here’s the music, would you like to put it out?” Let’s forget any of this past stuff. In a way, it saves you from the concern that no one is going to care. Because that isn’t why I do things. I don’t know how to put it. There is that feeling – I guess it’s not even a concern. I’m pretty sure no one cares. So what do you have to lose? “Here’s the music, would you like to put it out?” I’m still hoping I can get keys to everyone on the label’s house. I have this vision that we’re all going to have dinner once a week. I think this is the label that this might happen. It’s already happened with a couple people. I’ve had dinner with a couple people on this label! It’s what I’ve always wanted. We had dinner with Caetano. At the end of the dinner, Ana, my fiancée, said, “Since Devendra won’t write a song about me, would you?”
What are your tour plans for this album?
May 3rd, the tour begins in the US. Then there’s a little break and we’re going to do Europe. It’s Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbeck, and Todd “Cadillac Slim” Dahlhoff, and [The Strokes’] Fab Moretti, actually, playing drums. And Rodrigo Morente is going to be playing with us and also playing in his band. And when we do Europe, it’ll be the same setup, but I think a different drummer, because the Strokes record will be out by then. Old and new stuff, and maybe, like, a cover. I don’t know yet! I’m thinking about ... I don’t know.
Let me recommend a Leonard Cohen song.
A Lenny song? Let me do something … I’ve wanted to do “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” for such a long time. That’s my favorite Lenny song. But I would never do that. It’s too good of a song. Not a lot of people can do covers. Psychic TV could do a cover. Leave it to Jen to do a cover. He could do a cover. Anyways. Sorry for wasting your time.
Devendra Banhart's new album, Mala, is out now on Nonesuch.