Six questions for... Devendra Banhart

devendra banhartDevendra Banhart (shirtless) enjoys collaborating with Beck, D.C's Ethiopian restaurants and dagger dancing. (Photo by Neil Krug)

I was 10 minutes late calling Devendra Banhart for our interview because, like an idiot, I got on the Blue Line instead of Orange Line on the way to the office. I explained this to him and asked if he'd ever gotten on the wrong train. "I've been on the wrong train my whole life, my friend!" he responded.

It might be more accurate to say that he's just been on his own track. His earliest albums were filled with weird little ditties that helped kick-off the unfortunately named "freak folk" explosion (more on that later). Since then, the prolific Banhart has expanded his sound to full-bodied folk-rock that encompasses every genre he feels like attacking. The 28-year-old free spirit plays a Thanksgiving-eve show tonight at 9:30 club, and we talked to him about his collaboration with Beck, that whole "freak folk" tag and his unique Thanksgiving plans.

You did that whole Record Club with Beck, covering Leonard Cohen's entire first album. How did that process work?

Beck wanted to play music for the sake of playing music. For fun. But at the same time using an artist we want to honor -- and obviously whose music we love -- and use it as a vehicle to just have fun and be in the moment. We all got there at 3 p.m. It was me, Beck, MGMT, Binki Shapiro from Little Joy and Andrew Stockdale from Wolfmother. And we just talked. "OK, 'Master Song,' this is a pretty heavy song. Why don't we just have fun and make it a weird hip-hop kind of jam? OK!" And that's the discussion. And everyone gets to their stations. "You play the clarinet. You play the mbira."

And every take was first take. The only discussions were prior to recording, who's going to play what. But every take was the first. We're doing this for fun. And at the same time we're on a schedule. We have to cover the entirety of his first record. That's the goal, that's the challenge. And so by midnight we had finished every song, but we only did that by every take being the first take. And [Beck's] doing another now, it's so rad. It's Skip Spence's, "Oar," one of my favorite records of all time. I told Beck, "Man, I'm so jealous, I wish I'd done that one!" I mean, I love Leonard just as much as Skip Spence but Skip Spence has another, more secret spot in my heart even though I'm relieved I had nothing to do with it because I really want to listen to this one.

(Stuffing sheep and stalking Ian Svenonious, after the jump.)

Way back in 2004, which was a really long time ago ... remember "freak folk?"

(Laughs.) Nope! It all seems like a bad dream that I'm so happy I woke up from. And have forgotten. An old, forgotten dream. It was doomed to fail from the beginning! It was created by journalists. Each one imagining that they were the one that coined it. And not one single person that they assigned that nomenclature to ever called themselves that. Whereas in the past if you got a movement, you call it punk, eventually, yes, we're a punk band, fine. That happens eventually. Or immediately.

But this was a case where that label -- that assigned genre that seemed new and created by everyone other than the people making that music -- was never ever embraced by the people that are being called that. So it was destined to fail from the beginning because the thing that we had in common was not some banner of a style... And so it goes.

Each album you've made has been more and more expansive, but it seems like "What Will We Be" is the first that has sort of reigned things in.

Each record is a document of where I am at the time. There's also that element of collaboration with the space where it's recorded. And the people that it's recorded with. I've always stayed committed to one thing, which is to be inclusive. Truly inclusive. So when it came to [2007 album "Smokey Goes Down Thunder Canyon"], I really sent a letter -- an e-mail, a text, whatever -- I sent some form of communication out to everyone I knew and said: "This is the address, come by. We're recording."

We got all these cameos, we got so many people coming by to hang out. And that was awesome at first but then eventually there were people we didn't know showing up at odd hours. I was going through a despondent phase -- I was letting myself get lost. And I knew it. And I feel like that record, towards the end -- and not just the record -- but I was coming apart at the seams. And I can hear it if I ever get wasted and decide to torture myself and listen, I can hear that in there. I just wasn't in that place this time. And we maintained the inclusiveness. I still sent out the e-mail to everybody, I still wrote a letter. I still have to write physical letters to so many people. But this time we were recording in such a hidden away little spot that nobody actually came. Which was great. It was just us in this really small little town. And it allowed for a more focused project.

How many people do you send the letter or text or e-mail to?

Probably between 50 and 100 or something. It needs a lot of la-la-las and ooh-ooh-oohs!

So I have to tell you that an old party trick of mine was that I used to be able to do a killer impression of you, specifically on the song "Chinese Children." Got any favorite party tricks?

I like to pretend I know how to dagger. You know that dance? It's super sexual, insane dancing that's been banned in Jamaica because people are getting hurt. Pelvic bones are broken because it's so violent in its execution. The kids are into it but they're getting broken pelvic bones because of it. So I'll go to a party and air dagger. But it looks more like I'm having a seizure. But it's a sexy seizure. Oh, and I'd also like to imitate you doing me doing "Chinese Children."

So you're playing in D.C. the day before Thanksgiving. You're not playing a show on Thanksgiving, so are you going to have some sort of feast in D.C.?

Well my dad and [a friend] will be there. There's this old Bedouin recipe for a festival and we do that every year. We can't do it exactly, but we can approximate it. So what you do is you stuff a fish with eggs. Then you put that in a chicken. Then you put that in a sheep. Then you put that in a camel. And then you let it roast for a long time. So we just try to approximate as best we can. There's some Amish distributors that we know that sell sheep and stuff like that.

The thing is, I don't really eat any of these things. But they do, so I help with that and just eat some mung beans or something. Then I'll go to one of the Ethiopian restaurants. The best thing about being in D.C. is that you have the best Ethiopian restaurants. So I'll just do that. And then go looking for Ian Svenonious.

By David Malitz |  November 25, 2009; 11:09 AM ET Hippies , Interviews
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