There’s this series of fables called The Teachings of Don Juan that hippie mothers often read to their children. Author and narrator Carlos Castaneda travels to Mexico and apprentices with the titular Yaqui shaman Don Juan, but before the shaman’s lessons on becoming a luminous being and traveling though many different realities can begin, Don Juan makes Castaneda throw away his reporter’s notebook. The shaman criticizes Castaneda’s need to retain everything on paper, claiming such methods to be a crutch of the unenlightened. Maybe he’s right.
It’s unclear if those meetings really ever happened—Castaneda’s critics have denied that there ever even was a Don Juan—and fables have a way of becoming mythology. But I can’t help but feel like Castaneda, the apprentice, when Devendra Obi Banhart, 34, meets me at a Tribeca espresso bar. He’s wearing an old Mardis Gras T-shirt and smiling when he arrives, my notebook of questions resting on the counter top.
‘Silliness and absurdity… can be a very powerful tool, in fact, for looking at something serious.’
Never the student to study just one mythology, the Venezuelan-American Mr. Banhart is really more Joseph Campbell than Don Juan. Though he started as an artist making visual work, Mr. Banhart earned international notoriety as the face of the so-called “freak-folk” genre of American music in the early 2000s, a sound typified by the warbly throat singing, hypnotic guitar strums and whimsical lyrics of his early tunes.
Including that first proper LP, 2002’s Oh Me Oh My… , Mr. Banhart has released eight full-lengths of heady but goofy, warm, bilingual vibes. His artwork has accompanied each album release, simultaneously minimal and intricate.
These are the road signs that direct you to Mr. Banhart’s creative roots, to a seldom-publicized relationship with the art community that embraced both him and his ability to create work of interdisciplinary merits, too.
The Observer spoke with Mr. Banhart in New York as he celebrated the release of I Left My Noodle On Ramen Street, a book compiling his visual artwork, recently published on Prestl Press. Later that evening he’d discuss this book at The Strand with old friend Adam Green, a fellow musician and artist of Moldy Peaches fame. It was something of a follow up chat to their lucid conversation transcribed in the intro of Ramen Street.
Mr. Banhart was too humble to deeply analyze his own work at that event, apologizing for forgetting his lyrics by saying, “there’s a lot of lubricant in Spanish.” Of more interest to him was Adam Green’s upcoming feature length adaptation of Aladdin. Speaking to the symbolism of Aladdin’s lamp that night, Mr. Banhart thought aloud, “The archetype of liberation ends up enslaving you.”
This was spoken off-the-cuff, just another aside from a man who doesn’t need to dwell on his thoughts to know that he means them. Our conversation earlier that afternoon was rich with a similar magic.
Our readers want to hear about your sex life.
That’s going to be a very, very short read.
I’m not gonna ask! And not going to ask you about all the famous people’s furniture they say you own on Wikipedia either… though you talk about that in the Adam Green interview [at the beginning of Ramen].
The Adam Green conversation is a much more accurate Wikipedia page than the [actual] Wikipedia page. It’s so weird! Somehow things get on there and they become part of the caricature of a person, or part of somebody’s CV; it becomes fact in some way. It enters the peripheral consciousness at least, so you can’t… it’s very funny.
In that intro you mention a dual narrative—which feels like your thing. If religion is about the sacred vs. the profane, and we just vacillate between the two, how do you reconcile that your work is so spiritually meaningful to people and so goofy at the same time?
[laughing] Well, it could be that the original purpose of religion is to be a gallery, and spirituality is the light that emanates from that gallery. And there we come, and it should be the doorway. Now through identifying with the gallery as opposed to the work inside of it, those things have just been separated. So I think maybe religion is institution that leads you, that could lead you to the sacred and the profane, which would be what we blanket term ‘spirituality.’ I’m sorry, that was just an interesting thing you just said.
No worries, just wanted to hit you with that early on.
About silliness and absurdity… it can be a very powerful tool, in fact, for looking at something serious. I’ve always said that musicians are the comics of my generations and comedians are the politicians of my generation. That’s how we get our politics and that’s how I prefer to get it, you know?
Mark Maron’s Obama interview…
Exactly! And Stephen Colbert, David Cross… going back to Lenny Bruce, comedians are where I want to get my politics. And music is where I want to get my humor.
Well people are talking about the responsibility of media again, especially after Charleston…
People love to take sides, but it’s not effective. It’s not really an effective way of communicating something, because you’re either already part of the side or you’re going to feel attacked and get defensive.
But do you think your work addresses sides? Does it acknowledge them, or just live in a middle space?
No, because we’re really just talking as two individuals living in this world. I’m not talking as a songwriter or somebody who made this book or this art. I wouldn’t think so at all, that my work were to address any of that.
I’m just trying to understand the dual narrative idea.
Well the dual narrative has more to do with disciplines, because some stigma has surrounded interdisciplinary artists. Stigma, of course, is a very negative term. And it’s this [idea that] you can’t possibly do more than one discipline. I still haven’t pinpointed the origin of that… I’ve got some theories, I certainly know what some of the contributors are, it’s something that begins at a very young age. At a young age you’re conditioned to pick a vocation and stick to it, and later on the first question at a party is “What do you do?” It’s not plural. In the realm of art, I haven’t really figured it out exactly, because so many of everyone’s favorite artists have been people that had a hand in many [different] genres, yet the stigma still exists.
Like you reading the Joan Miró poem [A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress] on the audio tour at Tate Modern.
You know about that? Wow, that’s one of my favorite museums in the world. If anyone’s out in Spain, go to the Joan Miró Foundation.
‘At a young age you’re conditioned to pick a vocation and stick to it, and later on the first question at a party is “What do you do?” It’s not plural.’
It’s not at Tate?
Well the thing I read was for the Tate, yeah, a poem of his. But I’m talking about the museum [in Barcelona]. It’s not that I’m now dabbling in art. Since I started making work I’ve been making music and art. And it’s been this separate trajectory, or discipline, or practice.
And at one point in this dual narrative you’re able to switch back and forth quicker.
Dual narrative is about the two disciplines coexisting but rarely intertwining, and at one point they did.
“Ten years ago Devendra couldn’t finish a song without making a drawing—”
Right. But now with a little distance from that I think that’s just trying to make sure that the entire piece is something you don’t want to just throw away. It was actually kind of weird, somewhat reactionary to the decline of what is almost now obsolete—CDs. At that point people would buy a CD, but [eventually] throw it away. So you start to really wanna make sure that you’re gonna make a beautiful product, something that someone’s not gonna throw away.
And the CD gets scratched over time…
Yeah, well maybe you throw away the CD but keep the booklet. It comes with a little art book, you know what I mean?
Those often last longer.
Absolutely! Maybe it was about that, now that I look at it. At the time though it really did feel like “I can’t finish the song. I have to draw the end of the song and to start with this drawing,” but really it was all visual accompaniment to the songs.
Speaking of dying mediums, at your Mazolli Gallery show you had MP3s and zines available alongside your work. What’s your wildest dream medium for releasing art, now that all these disciplines are merging for you and you’re able to be more fluid about it?
You know what? The best example of people who have manifested these wild dreams is The Flaming Lips. The gummy brain? It’s so cool, my god! They’re like, “Here’s this great idea and we’re gonna make it manifest.” So they to me are an example of people making something so incredible and so free and imaginative. I’m pretty meat and potatoes.
Speaking to the music scene versus the art scene, how does your silliness, and your general ease with the world go over in the art community? Are they ready to embrace you?
The most love I’ve received, out of the different worlds between the music world and the art world, has been [in] the fashion world. It’s weird, and I find it to be contrary to my own judgmental assumptions. But I find it to weirdly be the more inclusive.
As a culture?
Weirdly, yes. About the silliness and maneuvering between different worlds, it’s lately my definition of an adult—somebody who doesn’t actually change, or react to the world or the scene that they’re in. They’re themselves throughout this consistent journey. Another definition is when you cease to say, “be yourself,” because I still do it, but it’s the weirdest thing. We go, “be yourself, be yourself”… it’s so crazy!
I was saying that on the way here.
‘It’s lately my definition of an adult—somebody who doesn’t actually change, or react to the world or the scene that they’re in. They’re themselves throughout this consistent journey.’
All these other creatures that we’re sharing the planet with are not going “be a bird, be a bird!” So to have that kind of voice… at least identify the madness of that.
That it’s unusual?
But you could argue that questioning is what makes us creators, it’s was keeps us challenging ourselves.
I think it maybe gets in the way of creating, though. I think it can be an obstacle. But we’re speaking abstractly and metaphysically, so that means there’s enough room for, a space where that is an obstacle and a space where that is a liberation. So I agree with you, and there’s another perspective, which is that it can actually get in the way.
You’re a diplomat!
Where do papayas fall into the creative process?
The papayas represent the mother archetype to me, and I think to many people, but specifically in my life I can equate the symbol to “mother,” and that’s just the most ceaseless, never-ending source of some form of…
Nourishment, or something to work through, just the classic archetype. So that’s what they mean for me, I think. They’re also just interesting.
You know, there’s a line of yours in the section of this book with Beck that really hit me… “I know that it is not appropriate to contact God.” People are always ascribing meaning to you…
That’s a great line, but I really can’t take credit for that. It’s all Beck. Even [my] quotes are his.
Really? All right.
But regardless of it being something I didn’t say, you still agree with it?
It moved me. I connected it with your work because I think you look a lot of stuff in the eye but don’t try to quantify it.
I interpret that line in a particular way… it’s like a Zen koan, which is basically a little riddle that shakes you up. So that serves its purpose, which is to eliminate the distinction between you and God. It eliminates duality. And it implies that you’re already connected and already contacting God. So actually, the door’s already open. It’s just kind of up to you to go through it.
It’s about noticing “I’m a bird.”
Yes! I don’t need to remind myself that I’m a bird. Exactly.
Here’s another one from the Adam Green part, a Buddhist proverb. “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.”
‘Sometimes you look at this stuff and it’s just tits and dicks!’
That’s a nice one, isn’t it? Well the Adam thing was one conversation. Towards the end we’re very drunk. Towards the beginning we’re pretty drunk! But there’s no editing in it.
What’s your drink?
There’s this Venezuelan rum called Pampero, or there’s whiskey.
I thought it was funny when I read about your [art] show with Paul Klee, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand most of that work was from your Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon album?
The Smokey phase!
Looking at the art, it’s all very aesthetically pleasing. But it’s not in this book at all and it’s all a big sex joke, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Ooh, that’s a good one! A big sex joke, not even a good one, but a big sex joke… sure, that’s fair. Sometimes you look at this stuff and it’s just tits and dicks!
I had a few questions about this puppy. [We open the book]
Let’s take our time.
[We turn some pages] What is this guy? A big piñata?
Kind of. That was my final at the San Fransisco Art Institute. It was called The Bee V The Moth—there’s the moth side and the bee side. So I just ran around [in this costume] until I knocked myself out, until I ran into something—I couldn’t see.
There’s duality here, too. Seems like you’ve always been interested in that.
For sure. These are just the earlier works and then it moves on.
[We turn some pages] This was the first of your album illustrations in here that really knocked me on my side. It looks like a creature reaching for something, and it’s birthing all those hands.
Tits and dicks!
What’s the black hole about?
As John Cage would say, “It’s not negative space but the positive void.”
This guy’s a trippy organic reptilian overlord man. But he’s a carrot, too?
Trippy reptilian carrot man? Sure… I love it! The way the book worked out, it was me and Carl Williamson, of Familiar Design here in Tribeca. We sat in front of a computer and did the layout, then you send it to Prestl and they say, “A little bit more of this, a little bit more of that.” It’s the tug-of-war of trying to make everybody happy.
‘If you can somehow reach a compromise with publishers, who on top of that are German, that’s fantastic.’
A little bit. But it’s this whole collaborative thing. So it isn’t like they’re choosing text or text size or anything. We do everything then they try to, you know… I almost called the book Ignoring Germans, but we went with the title we went with. We do love each other very much! In the end you end up growing from that experience. If you can somehow reach a compromise with publishers, who on top of that are German, that’s fantastic.
That’s sainthood in some parts of the world.
[We turn some pages] Are these lizard people?
They’re kind of a mythology, yeah. At [one] point I’m really getting into the Zapotec, Mayan and Aztec stuff, and alchemy. This is really all my own discovery of that, over… I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. But at that time, that was the mythology I was influenced by. For me, one of the benefits of an interview or a book or an album is [they] always subtly or explicitly implement references, and the references might lead you to discovery. Influences, so fascinating! They lead you to discovery.
Well, all right!
But I actually pressed pause the minute we started recording.