In the last year and a half, indie-folk troubadour Devendra Banhart has worked with everyone from bandmate Greg Rogove, on the duo’s Megapuss project, to Oasis, who personally commissioned Banhart to remix a track for them, to Beck, who corralled Banhart and a small army of indie-rock luminaries to work with him in his Record Club. He also completed his first movie role, a small part in Peter Sollett’s musical love letter, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and he’s already had two museum exhibitions showcasing his drawings. Many would credit Banhart as the ambassador to the “New Weird America,” the wild-eyed, post-millennial American folk resurgence, but his own style is too shiftless and unpredictable to sit too comfortably underneath that banner. Banhart recently graduated from U.K. indie XL Recordings to the majors. Here, he talks about his new album, What Will We Be, his new label, and stalking the White Stripes.
Earlier this year you shaved your trademark beard. Do you miss it at all?
I just got tired of it being a “thing,” and I also forgot what I looked like without it. Now that I know, I’m throwing my razor away. Also, it’s fun sporting the creepy biological-father-at-a-fondue-party-in-1972 look I’m currently flopping.
You’ve been working with Beck on his ambitious Record Club project, where a group of musicians get together and re-record a classic album in one day. How hard is it to record a whole album in a day?
Very easy, when it’s with musicians as adroit as Beck and his bandmates, MGMT, Binki Shapiro from Little Joy, and Andrew Stockdale from Wolfmother. I was the only exception to an otherwise truly talented phalanx of musicians. Oh, and they are all first takes, which helped with getting it all done.
You guys did some pretty wild things with Songs of Leonard Cohen. Your “Master Song” rap is one of the more radical cover versions in recent memory. Did you ever worry about taking liberties with the classics?
The goal was to have fun, to play for playing’s sake and to do it through an album and songwriter that we, and I think everybody, loves. And, yes, I would rather hear a radical reworking of a tune than hear someone trying to recreate a song I love. Do you want to hear a cover of George Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” with the exact same instrumentation at the exact same tempo but with a different singer trying to sound like George? Would you rather hear a ska version of it? Maybe not, but one is fundamentally — although it may not seem to be — more respectful in that it acknowledges the sacrosanct nature of the song.
Was Record Club’s anything-goes ethos in keeping with your own recording process at all?
I felt right at home…
After two albums with XL Recordings, you recently moved to Warner Bros. Records. Other than a presumed increase in circulation, what does Warner Bros. offer that XL didn’t?
I was on Young God, then the White Stripes signed with XL. A year or so later I signed with XL. And then they signed with Warner. I just follow the White Stripes around!
Do you expect to get any flak for “selling out”? How would you address criticism of that nature?
Selling out, to me, is this: when you change based on anything other than you. When you change what you do based on anything but the inherent necessity, the inherent must, that change is. Perception begets change. Honesty begets change. Destruction begets creation, which, in turn, begets change. Shit, mang, humanity begets change. My point is that signing to a major is not selling out to me. Selling out is changing what you do to surprise people, to please people, to fit in or fit out, to be weird or to conform, to be anything other than you, to do anything that ain’t your thing, or looking for your thing. That’s selling out. Besides, Warner Bros. Records has an amazing roster: The Flaming Lips, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Built to Spill, Paris Hilton.
After self-producing your last few albums with your band, you went with Paul Butler [A Band of Bees] this time. What did he bring to the project?
A couple things. After having worked with a pretty steady crew of folks for quite a while, having an outside perspective brought just that: perspective. Paul being one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, and me being one of the worst — if not the worst — singers to walk the earth, he made me do something I’ve never ever done: warm up my voice before singing. Of course, I acquiesced, under the condition that we also do a take first thing in the morning — the first time I speak all day. Trust me, the band was relieved not to have to hear me whine all morning. He brought a new musical touch to the band. In many respects, he was a new member of the band. He’s an amazing guitarist, bass player, trombone player, piano player, conker, and a singer of the highest echelons of singer-dom. Also, he brought his heart.
What Will We Be, your new album, comes out later this month. What Will We Be is noticeably shorter than Smokey Rolls and Cripple Crow. Was that a conscious decision, or did it turn out that way on its own?
It’s funny: Earlier I’m ineloquently sockin’ my selling-out harangue at you, and as hypocritical as it is, I gotta admit that it was partly because after every record, a buddy of mine (I’m looking at you, Zach Cowie) would say, “Dude, too long.” [Laughs.] But mostly it was that out of 48 tunes, these felt done, these felt ready. Sort of.
The new-album tracks currently making rounds on the Net have a relaxed, rustic feel to them. What kinds of sounds can we expect from the rest of the album?
The same. And a little fifth-generation ska bingbangblop, pangolin poofter polka bop, crapulous crunk plop, third-generation electroclash Akashic pop, a little bit of nothing for everyone and a whole lot of something for no one.
You’ve contributed a remix of “Rome” to Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix remix project. Is that something you’d like to get into more in the future? Who else would you like to rework?
Oh, it’s not that I think I can do it, but it’s just so fun to do and a crazy honor — a crazy, crazy, crazy-ass honor. It’s stultifying, dizzying. Anywho, who else would I like to rework? Well, I am a big R. Kelly fan…
Of course, you recently announced that you’ve been working with the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA. When can we expect to hear the fruits of that collaboration?
Who knows? It’s the most exciting thing in my life, just getting to meet a true hero, avatar, paragon, iconoclast, the man. Liquid Swords had a huge impact on me. There are a couple of lines in that album that literally changed the way I saw the world. For example, from the song of the same title, he says, “lowkey like seashells.” That seriously fucked me up. Just the title, those two words: Liquid Swords. That’s alchemy! But all his albums — Pro Tools, Words from the Genius, Legend of the Liquid Sword, Beneath the Surface — and all his appearances on various projects — have you heard his track with Mando Diao? Holy shit! — have been huge, inspiring and humbling. So we shall see, but I certainly won’t be rapping. (You’re welcome, everyone.)
Is anything else looming on the horizon for you?
The record comes out pretty soon, and I really loved when the band had a name. We’re messing around with a couple new ones. So far, “the Adelitas” is winning. Also, the project with Greg Rogove and Fab Moretti [of the Strokes and Little Joy] — we’re also going to change that project’s name — is gonna start recording through the tour this year. I’ve got an ultimate-fighting match with the artist Keegan McHargue and a two-man show with Beck at Iguapop gallery in Spain. I’m trying to learn how to cook anything other than ice cubes, to shave without cutting myself every time, and other little things here and there.
And may I say, in all honesty, it’s been an absolute pleasure wasting your time.