A Freak Refined: How Mourning Shaped Devendra Banhart’s ‘Ape in Pink Marble’

Devendra Banhart.

Devendra Banhart, apin’ it up.

There’s this thing that happens at parties to an artist who works across disciplines. “What do you do?” is inevitably asked in grand, champagne flute-gripping fashion, and always in the singular tense. There’s an assumption that, even if the artist works in different mediums, those mediums are all part of the same story.

Not so, Devendra Banhart told me last summer as we sat in a Tribeca coffee shop and rifled through the pages of the then-new coffee table book collecting his album artwork and other collected visual works, I Left My Noodle on Ramen StreetBanhart’s own artwork might adorn the covers of his albums, but when it comes to getting his hands dirty, to the nitty gritty, to the process, his visual and sonic compositions largely fulfill different needs. “[My] dual narrative is about the two disciplines coexisting but rarely intertwining,” he told me, “and at one point they did.”

Maybe Banhart was prescient—his middle name, “Obi”, sure suggests he’s got such Jedi powers, and folks can’t get enough of someone when they’re named after a Star Wars character—but last summer he was already chiseling away at Ape in Pink Marble, the ninth release under his name and his most cohesive collection of music to date. It’s out next week on Nonesuch Records.

Save for two songs, Ape‘s a decidedly mellow outing, equal parts somber and surreal. With the help of Noah Georgeson and Joe Steinbrick, the squad that helped 2013’s Mala capture some of the sparse, lo-fi perfection of his earliest recordings, Banhart has crafted some gorgeous new sonic architectures. Ape‘s loose narrative unfolds at an old, unnamed Japanese hotel, where samba and bossanova play in the lobby and an aging, comely dude tries to seduce a pretty young thing with a bowl of fruit.

“I’ve been embargoed on describing any art as childbirth.”

Banhart and I caught up again a few weeks ago, when his curiosity and genuine interest in my own work made me realize how much people project themselves into his music. Consider the second half of the album, when the meditative Oriental synth arpeggios of “Mourner’s Dance” channel Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme and the gorgeous “Linda” finds Banhart personifying a drifting, lonely woman who can barely let out the words to sing by the song’s end. My projection on that arc, that the singer was working through some heaviness, may have been true, but I ultimately failed in my assumption to realize that not everyone makes music into a shrine for something. Not everyone approaches their creative process with things to work out.

That’s the efficacy Banhart builds in his visual art, he told me when we aped it up over the phone. His music, meanwhile, is less a purged externalization and more a crafting of sonic and thematic archetypes, which he takes time to sit with. In that lobby, free of polarizing labels, the titular ape can be both primitive and evolved, shit-slinging and stately. Hence, Ape allowed Banhart to make something that he could, in his words, “reclaim without trying to interpret.”

Congrats to you on this tremendous work you’re getting ready to unveil. How do you feel? Is it like giving birth, or carving a monkey out of stone?

A lot of my friends have had kids, and I’ve had extensive conversations with them regarding the excruciating details of childbirth. Since then, I’ve ceased entirely [with] describing anything other than making a baby as childbirth.

The horrors of the process have been borne before you?

Yeah, it all pales. Everything pales. That metaphor is just…knowing what they’ve gone through, you can only describe it of course, not being able to experience it even, I’ve been embargoed on describing any art as childbirth.

Right on.

But I’m excited, I’m glad that it’s done, and I kind of now feel ready to just move on to the next thing, though, at the same time. I am excited to share it, of course, but for me usually, and actually consistently, over time, I start to identify patterns. A week before I finish the record I’m working on at that time, I know the record’s done because I’m ready—I’m impatiently waiting for it to be done so I can work on the next one. And I know that happens because I’ll begin my process of writing. That’s to daily accumulate ideas for songs, either in the form of just lyrics—lines, paragraphs or pages—or actual descriptions of songs, a particular architecture I’d like to explore, or genre.

That’s the zone that I’m in now. It’s a dumb answer because no one wants to hear that I just wanna make another record and I don’t care about this one. It’s not even the truth, but I guess I’m supposed to say, which is also very genuine, that I am very excited to play the record. I apologize with how terribly this interview is going.

[Both laugh]

Well, what you’re talking about is a very natural creative thing, and maybe why I reach for the childbirth metaphor even though it’s unfair. There’s a purging that happens when you’re done with something, and I don’t want to project my understanding of this music onto you, but it seems like, particularly on the second side, there’s a tremendous sense of melancholy. I get the sense that the singer is very much working through something and maybe getting something heavy out of their system. A lot of the stuff that’s very close and personal isn’t something you wanna sit with all the time…that’s why you commit it to recording, right? To exorcise it?

Well, I feel like you…do you play music? Because that sounds like a songwriter talking about what it is for them. I think you’re projecting a little bit, but it’s wonderful, I love hearing that, because it’s actually different for me. I don’t come at it from that angle, but it’s fascinating!

Yeah, but I’m really into this idea of sonic architectures that you mentioned, because the two we hear on this record are a lot of Brazilian music, the samba and the bossa particularly, then some Japanese music. The Koto is really all over the place on here too, and the first person you thank [in the liner notes] is Yukika Matsayuma, so I don’t know. I was thinking about that point in history when a lot of Japanese immigrated to Brazil and started playing patron to tropicália and a lot of the more avant-garde music that was being made, merging the cultures. Was that a conscious nod on this, just two of the things you were listening to a lot, or what?

I would sound really cool if I said, “Dude, of course, obviously. You noticed it, I’m glad you caught that!” But I had not made that connection till right now. [Laughs]

“I think this whole record should be called ‘Trying and Failing to Tune a Koto’.”

That’s what I’m here for, no worries!

There ya go, that’s what you’re here for…and feel very free to change everything I just said to “totally!” But it’s fascinating to hear that because you’re right, the biggest settlements or Japanese communities outside of Japan, the biggest in the world, are in Brazil. Rodrigo [Amarante] who plays on the record and is in the band and is one of my dear friends, he grew up in Brazil and he’s how I know about that community. He’s visited it, he’s been many times.

But I had not really made the connection between how this record is certainly influenced by Latin American music in general, but particularly Brazilian music, samba and bossanova. And in particular songs like “Theme For a Taiwanese Woman”, which is straight up samba. But with the Asian or Oriental, Eastern sounds of the koto indigenously produces, I had not made this connection. I think this whole record should be called Trying and Failing to Tune a Koto. I think it was a year, we all played it and we all realized that we are super arrogant.

We started talking about the record and thinking, “lets create a type of aesthetic template that we can measure the songs against, or see if we can clothe the songs in a way that they’ll be in harmony with that template,” that template being this imaginary hotel in this distant prefecture of Tokyo where there’s just a faded old broad and this kind of disheveled, old salty dog used-car salesman that’s the only guest, that’s been there for the last 10 years—

The “Fancy Man” of title.

Exactly. “Fancy Man”, “Fig in Leather” those are the characters at that hotel. But with the record, aesthetically it’s not about the narrative so much. Those songs, yes, they do fall into that narrative, but generally the aesthetic of it, the production end of it—do the songs fit, would they be played in this lobby? The koto was the obvious [choice]. “O.K., we need to use a koto, let’s rent a koto!” That’s why [she’s] the first person I thank, the person who rented us a koto. She’s a koto player and we didn’t record her, we just rented the koto from her and thought, “we’re guitar players, we’re musicians, it’s easy!”

How wrong you were.

How wrong we mothafuckin’ were! I wake up very early and I’m tuning the koto until Noah and Joe arrive, then they help me actually tune it, and the rest of the day is us trying to translate very simple guitar parts onto the koto. It’s not easy getting an instrument that you don’t know how to play to do what you want it to do.

There’s something so American and beautiful  about that.

For sure.

It’s the sincerest form of flattery, you playing the Brazilian stuff and the Japanese stuff. Here’s this kid, Devendra, a multicultural kid, and he’s wearing these storied, very rich cultural genres, but it’s not disrespectful. You’re wearing their skins to tell your own story, to create scene in a way.

You’re so fucking funny, oh my God, man!

Then it’s staying in! But you mentioned narrative, and I’m glad you did because sometimes I think I pick up on one and it’s another projection. I know that Joe and Noah co-wrote those two funnier, Zappa-esque kinda songs about the man in the hotel, “Fig” and “Fancy”, but then the record takes a turn to a much more meditative and somber place. How do I parse that? It’s not jarring, but it’s interesting, and seems like there’s some intention there on your part.

It was our way of taking a breather, I suppose. Hmm, it’s an interesting question. I’m happy that this record, unlike all the records in the past, isn’t so all over the place. It maintains a particular, well, we can say “mood,” we can say “narrative,” we can say a particular tone, more consistent than I have been able to do in the past. I feel that everything’s so relative and subjective, and this record compared to the others really does flow in this one, calm ocean.

But in comparison to a more focused record, it does throw you off to suddenly have “Fig in Leather” and “Fancy Man” jump up. Now those songs aren’t super-aggressive, super-dancey songs, but in relation to the rest of the record, they definitely stand out. They disrupt the harmony of the record. That, in a weird way, has been my M.O. for a long time. This is the first time it’s not as disruptive as it has been in the past.

You told me last year that you believe humor is a powerful tool for talking about something serious, too. You could write some songs off as embodying a silly character, but this is also the death of the male ego to some degree. You’re lampooning this character, this guy, and it feels like something we’ve talked about before.

I was approaching that question via the genre of music, but yeah, absolutely! The theme itself is exactly like you said, the male ego. The guy in “Fig in Leather” is this aging person trying to seduce this younger person with totally obsolete technology, and it’s totally in vain. That’s really a fun character to play with, and one I can identify with. And “Fancy Man” is also that, this totally naïve, privileged, entitled fuckin’ Ryan Lochte bro, just shitting all over the world and running through it!

Duuuude.

But there’s a little moment of transcendence in that song, when they realize at the end that there’s no value to any of it. “Is this a fancy thought, I’m pretty sure it’s not” kind of wraps up the song, the pointlessness of it, this is all maya. So there’s a little bit of space there, the person isn’t a total asshole. They wake up a little bit at the end of that.

That’s the ape, too, right? If Ape in Pink Marble relates at all to these themes, I guess I think of an ape and think of something brutish and unrefined, while pink marble is stately and elegant, maybe feminine. I’m trying to parse that in the context of these songs.

Yeah, well I don’t know why you’re talking to me! [Laughs] You know, you already know!

All the acid I did in college.

[Laughs] Well, yes, that’s exactly right, and that’s what the title is in one sense, a reference to that archetype or symbol. In the other sense, it’s something that I wanna reclaim from trying to interpret.

Devendra Banhart.

Devendra Banhart.

Cool! Is there any of this record that’s at all autobiographical, a reflection on your family or your life? You dedicate the record to your biological father at the end, and I don’t wanna pry because it’s none of my business what your relationship with him was like, but it’s just something I thought about with the themes of loss on the second half of the record.

Yeah! In a very short period of time I lost some very close people to me. Noah Davis, Asa Ferry, Bill Berkson, my biological father Gary Banhart, and Milos Kras. I didn’t sit down and write a song about them, or about that experience, but that process of mourning and that ongoing process certainly informed the record, whether I liked it or not, and definitely merged with the entirety of the album. There are these explicit or obvious things, like “Mourner’s Dance”, but that wasn’t actually written about that experience, it was written about going to see a dance performance.

But it was informed by so much death, because I’ve been to five memorials. I just got back from San Francisco playing Bill Berkson’s memorial, and I was wondering what it would look like to have a choreographed dance at a memorial. So there’s a song for that. And I think I would’ve written that song if I hadn’t experienced so much loss, but having experienced that loss makes it something I know how to write about, in a way.

You know how to write about process, too, yeah? When I saw you at The Strand last year, I think it was [regarding] the Oh Me, Oh My… artwork, and you talked about how the dude from INXS passed away and you were surprised at how much it affected you. You were working through it and you kept drawing these lines. You said something about how the process of drawing lines over and over each other until you have a memorial or a shrine. There was something about the process there I thought was very interesting.

That efficacy of that process exists in the visual domain for me. I don’t know if I feel that same way about songwriting. I just know that those experiences have seeped into the album 100 percent, unconsciously, and are completely a part of the record. But right now the only thing that I can even say is a real manifestation of so much loss is the fact that the only real action, the only real thing I can do, is to tell the people I love that I love them.

Other than that, I’m just mourning. I’m really just so heartbroken and sad, and I don’t turn to the guitar like we were talking about earlier. A lot of people turn to music to get this thing out, and I don’t necessarily do that.

You sit with it.

But I do actually turn to art for that. The drawing thing is actually a lot closer to that, to what it sounds like your process is with music. That’s the beautiful part about making art, it dances different with different partners.

Devendra Banhart’s “Ape in Pink Marble” is out 09/23 on Nonesuch Records. He plays an album release show that day, too at Rough Trade Brooklyn, which as of this writing has sold out.