The birthday boy
Devendra Banhart swims with Dylan
Devendra Banhart drives through Southern California's Topanga Canyon with Matteah Baim, a member of the gothic, haunting Brooklyn duo Metallic Falcons (which just released its debut album, Desert Doughnuts). Today is Devendra's 25th birthday, and he and Baim are going to Bob Dylan's beachfront property.
"He lives in Point Dume, so we're heading over there to go swimming, and see if he's up for some iced tea," says Banhart. "What can you say about him? He's the man. ... I'm not working with him, just talking about old records, pretty much."
How did a young, critically acclaimed musician like Banhart meet one of the greatest songwriters in American history? "I don't really want to talk about it," says Banhart. "I can tell you what I get more out of. The point is that I get more out of being in California and being by the ocean than I do from any given being. The ocean's got feelings, too, man! You get a warm feeling, a maternity feeling."
This seemingly idyllic afternoon is a brief respite before Banhart heads back out on tour in support of his most recent album, Cripple Crow. Released last September, it drew as much praise as its predecessors, 2004's Niño Rojo and Rejoicing in the Hands. With his backing band Hairy Fairy, he performs a mixture of literal and fantastical songs like "Hey Mama Wolf" and "I Feel Just Like a Child" in a quavering voice that lowers to a mellow drone and rises to a high-pitched yelp. The tone throughout is unpredictable and psychedelic.
By the way, what does "Hey Mama Wolf" mean? "That song's for a mother who is a wolf," he answers helpfully. "It's like, 'Heeeey, mama wolf!' Like hi, mother who's a wolf! It's not a metaphor. It's quite literal."
Suddenly, Banhart switches from an expository to an inquisitive tone. "I'm not answering these questions well because they're very strange questions," he says. "Do you really want to know what 'Hey Mama Wolf' means? What are you trying to get to the bottom of?" It goes on like that for several minutes.
"All this is just me trying to kill time because I don't have any answers," he says. Then, with some finality, he asks, "Anyways, what are some other questions?"
Well, uh, where do you get your songs from? "First off, that question isn't asked to real musicians and real songwriters and incredible legendary musicians who don't have an answer," he says, offering a critique of the question. "I make very simple little songs. I shouldn't be asked that question, because if those heroes of ours don't answer it, how am I supposed to?"
Why should anyone care what Banhart thinks? Many music aficionados consider him an important underground artist, a primary influence on a movement that includes Joanna Newsom, Jana Hunter, CocoRosie and many other idiosyncratic performers. Incongruously, several celebrity tabloids, including People magazine, allege he is dating Hollywood actress Linsday Lohan; the two conducted a flirtatious interview for Interview magazine's April 2006 issue. Unfortunately, this interview is far from flirtatious. To ask about Lohan would be a provocation, potentially upsetting the conversation's respectful banter.
"It's simple. I'm going to the ocean right now, and that's going to be music. That'll be part of making music," says Banhart. For him, all of life's experiences inspire him, not just a single incident or muse.
Finally, Banhart's mood softens, and he tells a story about the time he visited the Clermont Lounge, the notorious strip club on Ponce de Leon Avenue. "Every time [I come to Atlanta], I end up there getting in some kind of trouble," he says. "I love that place, too, you know? Last time I was there, I did karaoke. We did Metallica's 'One' with this guy, who got in a fight later on. I got slapped in the face by Blondie. She slapped the spit out of my face with her tits! That was a trip! What else can you do with that experience? For me, it felt natural.
"Some people might want to bake a cake about getting slapped by Blondie's tits. Some people might want to make a dress. Some people might want to make a film. I just wanted to write a song about it."