Somewhere in Los Angeles, Devendra Banhart answers his phone. “I’m glad I finally got to reach you!” I tease, referencing the fact that I keep losing Devendra to studio time. He answers in a soft and friendly voice. “Well I’m totally glad and relieved, but I think we both agree that part of us wants this to go on for years (laughs). Wouldn’t that be so funny?” It’s exciting to hear that the Venezuelan-American jack-of-all-trades is back in the studio working on a new album, his ninth since making his debut with the beautiful and incredibly different The Charles C. Leary.
But fans of the musician will know that he’s also a visual artist, having created incredible pieces to accompany his albums. Banhart has made booklets of his work, as well as standalone shows in incredible places like the SFMOMA. It is art we’re here to talk about, as Devendra has recently released I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street, a book that, according to Banhart, is “kind of a small introduction to work that spans a pretty good amount of time at this point.” But it’s hard to stick to one topic with a guy who is as diverse as the songs he’s written, which range from surrealist folkloric tunes, to Spanish rock, German pop-ballads, and even reggae inspired songs. Soon we’re talking about cross-dressing, plastic surgery, and trash can art.
Your art is very well known – you’ve used it as your album artwork, as well as in residencies and gallery and museum shows. How is I Left my Noodle in Ramen Street different from what you’ve done before?
I haven’t had the opportunity to put all of the work that spans over a decade into a cohesive book… and this isn’t all the work. I’ve been doing art shows, but then the pieces are gone and I don’t really get a chance to share it with anyone past the opening. It sucks to edit over ten years of work in a book, so half of the experience was editing and choosing what goes in. In the end you always want to share something that feels friendly and playful and approachable, so it wasn’t so much about ‘here’s all the work I’ve ever done.’ It was just, ‘here’s kind of a small introduction to work that spans a pretty good amount of time at this point.’ It’s like a simple little pamphlet. You can read it while you wait for the doctor!
Can you tell me about the title?
The title has nothing to do with the artwork (laughs). It’s just kind of the beginning of sharing the work to a larger audience. It has a narrative; it starts with some of the first work I made when I was really taking art seriously. It doesn’t have work prior to college, but once I went to the Art Institute in San Francisco I started thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’ Generally the scholastic art environment at that time was ‘Fine Art is a waste of time. You will only get work out of this if you design websites and do graphic design.’ They’re right, in a way, but what I think is harmful is to ignore the other discipline, but it also helped me make the most analog work I could possibly make. In doing this I realized that my artwork is much closer to the type of music that I try to make, which was a real revelation.
So you can express yourself better visually than vocally?
Yeah I guess so. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know how it’ll change the music. I always try to have a variety of genres or songs that represent different aspects of our experience, and I enjoy making music like that. Every album I say I’m gonna make a song that’s just piano and maybe a little bit of singing and that’s it, and then when it comes down to make the record there’s three reggae songs and a waltz, and it just happens like that. As much as I always say I’m gonna make this kind of album, now at this point – over 10 years into this – it seems like a comedy that I would think that I can change it, that I keep thinking, ‘oh this record is just going to be all French horn and it’ll be all in Greek.’ But I only end up doing that with songs, not with the whole record. It’s too much fun writing different types of songs.
Do you think there’s more pressure now, after having such a prolific career?
I think it makes it easier to try different things. If you have a good record it’s because you’re been trying different things, it’s not because you’ve been doing the same thing over and over again.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
It was a song about plastic surgery called ‘We Are All Going to Die.’ Someone told me what plastic surgery was, so I wrote this song and sang it for my family in Caracas. They told me to never sing it again, and that’s how I started singing (laughs).
Was it funny or sad?
I think it was more funny to me, but it was more horrifying and sad to everybody else.
You were really funny in that cameo in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and you’re going to have roles in Aladdin and Transparent.
You know what? I never saw that, because I went to the premiere with my friend and right as that scene happened she said, “Hey that’s the bodega I always go to.” And then the scene was over (laughs). These new things came about because of friends. I don’t have this aspiration to act, at all. It’s not for me, but it’s fun! Why not do it when it’s your friends? Adam Green is one of my great, great friends and great peers – someone who I’ve known for so long and love. He’s written this entire film, which is really his take on Aladdin, and his philosophy, and his creation. It’s so loosely based on Aladdin, it’s more Adam’s thing; I wouldn’t even call it something else. Not only did Adam write it and direct it and stars in it, it also has a bunch of other friends, so of course I wanted to participate.
It was the same thing with Transparent. Jill [Soloway] is a friend and one of my best friends in the world, Mel Shimkovitz, is also on it. So why not? Plus, any excuse to get back into drag…I miss it so much. I haven’t been cross-dressing too much since I cut my hair. It’s such a part of me and such a pleasure, so I couldn’t wait to do it. My character doesn’t dress the way I would’ve cross-dressed, but it’s still fun to be in panties for a couple of hours.
What is the strangest job you’ve ever had?
My interview at Starbucks was really odd. I had never heard anyone sexualize a coffee bean the way this guy did. It was fantastic. I mean he really objectified and hyper-sexualized it! The way he talked about it really got me.
What else? Well I shoveled shit for a long time in Caracas. That was interesting because the smell of pure goat shit burned my nose! I can remember the acid, singing, burning feeling and then I sort of transcended that and broke this powerful goat shit… and then you have to go eat!
Do you miss anything about Venezuela?
[switches to Spanish] Ay do you speak Spanish?! You said Venezuela so perfectly!
[In Spanish] Yeah I’m from Mexico, it’s my first language!
Ay que chévere! We could’ve done the interview in Spanish! (laughs) But yeah I do miss Venezuela because I love it. My childhood is there and we always get a little nostalgic for that kind of return to our childhood home. But what I lament the most is that I’ve never played there…no one has asked me to play there (laughs). I’m planning on going back soon to wander the streets for a little bit. What part of Mexico are you from?
I’m from Mexico City. I actually went to your concert years ago.
I love Mexico City. I think the Rufino Tamayo museum is the best. You know what’s funny, someone was going through the trash in New York and thought ‘this painting is nice’ and turns out it was a Tamayo!
Final question. If you could relive any year of your life, which one would it be?
Could I go back in time? I’d go back to 1382. I’m not sure what happened that year.
Maybe you go back and play the surgery song.
(laughs) I’d go back to the year 1382 to play the surgery song!
Get a copy of ‘I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street’ right here
All photos (c) OSK, 2015