Devendra Banhart talks about a disco for babies, recording in a Japanese temple and the symphony of scents
"That fish in water is thirsty"
A conversation with Devendra Banhart, that musician who was a hipster before being a hipster was even a thing
Want a list of random facts about singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart? You already know of his Venezuelan roots, his former relationship with Natalie Portman and that his music, dubbed as freak folk, can provide a mental vacation like no other. Within minutes of the Spanish song 'Mi Negrita', you're transported to a palm tree-fringed beach, secluded from the masses. With 'Fig in Leather', you're clad in a glitter jacket, fringed bell-bottom jeans and grooving with bearded dudes you barely know.
But did you know that the 37-year-old is into Britpop band Suede and host David Attenborough? A Star Wars fan would appreciate Banhart's middle name, Obi, which was a tribute to the legendary Jedi master (a moment of silence for Sir Alec Guinness, please). Growing up in both Venezuela and Los Angeles, he experienced Hugo Chávez's attempted coup while living in the former. In his yearbook, he quoted Kabir, a 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint: "It makes me laugh. That fish in water is thirsty". The musician has romanticised experiences like walking around American pharmacy chain Walgreens at night, and has instrumentalised what it meant to go 'Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry'. Essentially, this man was a hipster before being a hipster was even a thing.
Armed with all these random facts, I entered the Blue Room cinema hall at The Projector to meet Banhart himself, hours before his first gig in Singapore. I was excited to peel apart the kooky layers of his exterior — a tall, lanky character with hints of grey in his beard — to unveil that soft, delicate centre you'd hear in his music. I wasn't disappointed. Though I had a list of questions in one hand, the conversation steered away from inspirations and creative processes to a recommendation of fragrances, Banhart's own version of Japonisme and name-dropping a certain Singapore band.
What does Devendra mean? It's something to do with the god of lightning and thunder. What does Adibah mean?
It sounds pretentious, but it means ‘cultured’. So do you feel an affinity with Thor? He is the God of thunder after all. No, I don't. But that's cool that you see the counterpart to it.
I mean, that's the only thing I can think of when I think of thunder. Yeah, that's where you went? What about culture? You just look in the mirror?
I see things... and smell? Smell is very cultured right? Ooh, I'm with you a 100%. The first thing I noticed too, one of the first things was how incredible you smell. You smell amazing.
Speaking of smells, I feel like when I remember things, I remember the smell more than what it looks like, especially when you look back. So looking back to the first record that you put out, The Charles C. Leary, 16 years ago, what did it smell like? What a nice question. I love that we are starting our topic on smell, a sense that is so underrated, underappreciated and really gets kicked to the curb when it is such a powerful, magical sense. Scent can really sneak up on you. I mean you can just recall something from being 4 years old, totally out of nowhere and it takes you right back. It could really be an emotional time travel. It's an incredible vehicle for that and doesn't get enough attention and love.
I know a perfumer [Brent Leonesio] who began as a painter and moved into making scents and perfumes. He made a perfume that is so sophisticated, and is so tiered that I have a tiny vial. Because it is so expensive, I could only afford this tiny little vial and on holidays and birthdays, if I have guests over — which is very rare because I live alone and I rarely have people over — I will bring out just a little dab and it is such a symphony of a scent that you just sit there, smell and it just travels. You go to a hospital, to a rainbow, to underwater, to getting buried in the earth and it's an incredible experience.
Anyway, for the first record, it probably smells like fire and... it's the smell of things being burned. That's all I can think about. Those metallic smells like copper but mixed with eucalyptus.
That's deep. Because when you mentioned burning, I immediately thought of marshmallows. What was the scent you mentioned before? It was actually called 'Exquisite Corpse'. He made a scent based on The Shining. There's a very scary scene where he opens the bathtub, there were vinyl curtains, and there was a dead body in there with the blood, so he actually put in vinyl curtains into the scent. There is an old carpet and it smells like an old haunted hotel so these are very esoteric and strange scents.
You wouldn't necessarily put this on to go out and impress somebody at a party. These are scents that you experience like you experience a painting. I went to the first scent festival at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles a couple of years ago and there were people who were making scents that you can wear, but many were not meant to be worn. They are just meant to be experienced, like a painting or a photograph. A photograph is a really good counterpart to scent, so I don't wear that one. What I wear typically is Hinoki or Palo Santo or... what do I wear? Yeah, mostly Hinoki.
Does it change as you mature? Yeah. I think I'm trying to eat things that make me smell better.
Pineapples! Oh, wait, no, that doesn't make you smell better, that makes, you know... My gay friend told me that. I don't know, I never tried it. I don't about that firsthand. Yeah, you took it to the best place to go, there's nowhere else to go after that.
Alright... It's been two years since you released Ape in Pink Marble. The whole aesthetic was about being in a hotel room in Japan. I read somewhere that you would like to record your next album in a temple in Kyoto? What's that about? We are going to record in a temple in Kyoto in a couple of days. It's Honen-In, one of the oldest temples in Kyoto that has a little gallery section where they have beautiful ceramics and things like that. They interact culturally with artists and they are the ones that will allow us to go inside and record before our show.
We began recording before we came on this tour. The reason why we stopped was because it was such a rare thing to be asked to play in Singapore, Thailand and China. So we thought we have to stop recording and see how this experience influences the new record. But for the most part it's this kind of disco music for babies. You know? I feel like that feels like the right place. A disco a baby can fall asleep to or something like that.
Is it because all your friends are getting married and having babies? That's my case. Exactly!
Yeah, it's all about babies on Facebook. Not that I don't like babies, but at one point it got too much — my friend posted a photo of an umbilical cord. Ooh, delicious. You put that in a little carrot cake, it's delicious. It's just like fried calamari. Well, me too. Everyone in my band is married, they all have kids or are having kids. So I'm surrounded by these babies and even while we are recording, there's a kid there. It's affecting the way that we write and record. Which I like.
I've always wanted to bring things into a more delicate, gentle and even quieter place. But that doesn't mean I want to make that kind of music, I just want to be able to put something delicate and gentle into something like a disco or dance song. How do you make a very delicate disco tune that a baby could fall asleep or dance to? Their presence is a good reminder to be gentle, and to be sensitive in a way. They are incredibly sensitive beings. I mean the real goal for me is to just be like them except I don't want to... to them they are the center of the world.
And they also don't want to deal with their own shit. I mean figuratively, maybe. But not actually — Well, I get that they wouldn't but I think we have to deal with their own shit. We have to be babies who deal with their own shit basically. Maybe that's my definition of adults: Babies who have to deal with their own shit. If you can do that, I think you're a real adult.
That's true. I've been told I have time for just one more question. Do you want to choose which question you want to answer? I wanted to ask you: What did you do today?
Yeah. And you're a journalist? Among other things?
Well, I wouldn't say journalist — I don't cover politics and stuff like that but I write for a living. It's still journalism! As a journalist who covers cultural events and is involved in the cultural scene of Singapore, what is the best band that people don't know about and they should? This is the last question and this is an important question.