Devendra Banhart is a disarmingly charming interviewee. “I mean, I don’t know, if that’s something that’s delegated by someone other than us, I don’t know how much time we have, but if it’s up to me, it’s til you’re satisfied, or too annoyed to go on, which means it’ll be very short,” was Banhart’s endearingly self-deprecating answer to my question of, “How much time do I have?”
The folk singer-songwriter, as well known for being a “Long Haired Child” as for his sweet harmonies — the catchy “Can’t Help But Smiling” the rollicking “Carmensita,” and the much more understated but no less beautiful “Inaniel” are a few standouts — seems to have asked the same question when contacted to perform at the Berkeley Art Museum in conjunction with the Barry McGee mid-career retrospective show. “The minute that I was asked, it was ‘Of course I’ll go!’ and it was an incredible honor,” he said. “Barry — geez, I don’t know, it’s hard to describe — I was asked to write a little bit about him at some point. I think I wrote, ‘This is like trying to get some sort of discourse on the significance of The Beatles on pop culture, you know what I mean?’”
It’s clear that Banhart, who will be performing at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive L@te: Friday Nights program this Friday with two San Francisco food artists, Justin Hoover and Chris Treggiari, is a Barry McGee fan. Is it any surprise? Not when considering Banhart’s own San Francisco roots.
“I went to the San Francisco Art Institute and Barry, along with Margaret Kilgallen and Alicia McCarthy and Chris Johanson, and more, a lot of other people — they were the ones that we followed around. I would skate around San Francisco looking for Ray Fong or P. Kin or Twist, of course, and be like ‘Twisto! OK, that’s a new twist on Twist!’ His work was already ubiquitous when I moved to San Francisco,” Banhart says of McGee, who started out as a graffiti writer and branched out over the decades into other art mediums, eventually breaking into the established art world.
Banhart is bringing his own art — that is, his music, though he is a visual artist in his own right — to the cavernous BAM. It’s the perfect environment for a performer like Banhart, though he disagrees profusely. “It isn’t that I think that it doesn’t belong in a gallery space — I don’t think it belongs anywhere, but I’m still happy to play,” Banhart maintains. (The sold-out show begs to differ on that point.) This sort of self-effacing humility colors Banhart’s speech. There’s a mild reticence on making any hard-and-fast calls on his own music. “I finished a record. It’s going to be put out by Nonesuch Records. And I didn’t know that until today actually. It’s kind of my dream label. So I’m really happy about that. The record is finished,” he reiterates, but what does that mean for Banhart?
A completed record is not necessarily a “finished” one, as evidenced by the recent claim made by Michael Gira of Swans fame that his band’s opus, The Seer, was “unfinished.” The allusion is not random — Gira is somewhat responsible for Banhart’s rise to the ranks of folk celebrity, as it was he who released Banhart’s first material on his label Young God Records.
2002’s Oh Me Oh My was, in itself, not necessarily a polished album. For the most part, it was a collection of Banhart’s whimsical recordings culled from the demos Banhart made for his friends.
Not much has changed on that front. Banhart is still making music for, and with, his friends. Since 2009, Banhart has remixed Oasis and Phoenix, collaborated on Beck’s cover album of Songs of Leonard Cohen, contributed to an album whose proceeds are directed towards fighting AIDS and HIV and was featured with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy in an audiovisual project in a D.C. museum.
Banhart attributes much of his growth to such collaborative artistic work. “If I work alone for too long, which is most of the time, I can get into a state of, I guess, confidence, and thinking that I have a rigorous and sedulous work ethic. And then once I collaborate with someone, it really just shatters that; it’s very humbling,” he said. It’s with a certain sort of awe that Banhart describes the process. “For example, Beck can just record. He can just get into the booth and not move for nine hours and just play and he’ll go through every song, he’ll do as many takes as he needs to and play as many instruments and it’s just completely focused.”
Banhart himself is relatively prolific, releasing five albums in a matter of seven years. Each release brings something new while retaining the style that attracted us in the first place. From diamond-in-the-rough Oh Me Oh My to major label endeavor, What Will We Be, Banhart has gone from short, quirky tracks to songs like “16th & Valencia Roxy Music” (a nod to the Mission district, of which both Banhart and McGee are fond, to put it lightly). “16th & Valencia Roxy Music” is more synth rock than folk lo-fi, foreshadowing the future. In an interview with Papermag, Banhart said, “There’s more electronic stuff than before” on the new album.
“Will it be good? Probably not, but I continue. Maybe that’s kind of the impetus to continue, too. Still haven’t been satisfied with a drawing or a song. I think that might be one of the big draws behind it,” said Banhart of his new record. “Half the time I don’t even like [it], and more than half the time I’m not satisfied with what I make. But I really enjoy making it.”