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A Room of His Own

Creepy, Brooding, and Cool, Underground Sensation Devendra Banhart Lives in His Brain and Likes it That Way

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/1/2003

Jumpy, jocose, and garrulous, Devendra Banhart answers the phone at his family's home in Encinal Canyon, Calif., outside Los Angeles, and instantly injures himself. "I just poked myself with my fucking thumb in my eye," he says, his craggy, nasal voice sounding even more pinched in his wince. "Actually I'm bleeding a little in my left eye. I'm shocked actually. I'm just like, 'What the fuck?' Did I just--it's because my nail is long and I have bad motor skills. I kind of just woke up and my hair is kind of a mess and I was like, 'I'm going to get the hair out of my face,' and then poke."

It's the sort of off-kilter, elliptical anecdote that you'd expect from a young musician who is currently being branded an overnight underground sensation/savant kook. The 21-year-old Banhart appeared mysteriously last October when his debut, a collection of four-track and answering-machine recordings called Oh Me Oh My . . . the Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, was fast-track released by Young God Records honcho Michael Gira. Since, Banhart's enigmatically entrancing no-fi folk--specific yet surreal, catchy yet abrasive, soft yet dark--has earned the precocious songwriter comparisons to Tyrannosaurus Rex-era Marc Bolan, Skip Spence, Daniel Johnston, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, and Karen Dalton. And Banhart's young life comes across like a romantic myth hatched in an absinthe reverie--stories of growing up in Venezuela, attending art school in San Francisco, busking around Paris, returning to the States to bounce between the coasts, squatting in New York, hanging out in Los Angeles. He has been painted as a blend of backwoods folk mysticism, psychedelic irreverence, and outsider naïveté.

Despite the genuine oddity of his eerie music and Howard Finster-esque artwork (which graces Oh Me Oh My's booklet), Banhart isn't a freak show. He's just a young man with more wild-hair interests and creative energy than he knows what to do with. In other words, he really couldn't care about becoming an overnight underground sensation. His mind is too occupied with all of its own fixations--writing and artwork and Miguel Angel Asturias' Mulatta and music. And then little things, like a place to live.

"I definitely haven't had a home for about two years, going here and there," Banhart says. "And I always end up in the worst fucking places. And getting evicted or going to squats or something like that, 'cause I just don't ever, I can never keep a job that's like--I always have the worst jobs. Bussing tables and shit like that. So I can never just find a good place that I like. Like, right now I live in New York but I don't have a home--just have all my stuff in Michael Gira's basement."

The catch about the still-nascent Banhart myth espoused by his label and perpetuated by the likes of Mojo magazine is that it isn't too far from the truth. Banhart was raised in Caracas, Venezuela, from 4 to 14. ("It's a terrible place," he says. "But it's a weird place.") He is a self-taught musician. ("I took two lessons when I was like 13 or 14 or something--the guy taught me the solo for 'Hotel California,' which was terrible.") For 21, he is familiar with a wide range of little-known musical outposts ("I listen to all kinds of music. I love African music like Ali Farke Toure, and I love Brazilian music like Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and João Gilberto, or whatever the fuck his name is, and, like, Gal Costa and all that stuff. And I love even some Venezuelan folk music and obviously British music, you know what I mean?") and cultural signposts ("I love mail art and I love Ray Johnson and Wallace Berman and this book called Mulatta by Miguel Angel Asturias, and it's really blowing my mind. I open it and I freak out and then I close it and then I stare at it and then I open it. It's amazing.")

Yet Banhart is more than the sum of his constituent interests. His brooding sound and falsetto howl definitely have their precedents (see: Jandek), but Oh Me Oh My skirts mere derivativeness with an anxious whimsy that is all Banhart. It's a devilish mix of childish glee and young-adult awareness that creates sincere tenderness for a place in "Michigan State," merges the blues with Lemony Snicket spookiness in "Roots," and turns the playground sing-a-long love ditty of "Tell Me Something"--"tell me something, do you love him?"--into creepy blue material in one line: "I know nature is beside me, when he's inside you."

Banhart's still-developing signatures--wicked mood shifts, ridiculously simple plucked guitar lines for melody, nervous desire--are all over Oh Me Oh My. From the artwork to the lyrics to the bare, personal sound, it is as if it were Banhart's debut album, novel, and one-person show all rolled into one surprise opportunity. He starts 2003 with his first tour ever, on-and-off for four months leading into a tentative studio date to record his sophomore album in Brooklyn in early summer. He says his head is awash in thinking about that--in arrangements, other instruments, other sounds, all the possibilities that an actual studio makes possible. But right now he just wants to get through the tour, see if he can write while on the road, and draw in a book that he's bringing along with him as his break from performing. He just hopes he's not asking for much.

"I'd love to have a room," he says. "That's it, really. Just to be able to keep making music and have a room and not wash dishes and bus tables."

Devendra Banhart plays Talking Head Jan. 5 with Entrance, Jack Rose, Espers, and PG Six.

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All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper

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