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Devendra Banhart lets his freak flag fly

fall arts preview

The onetime experimental folkie gives free rein to his far-reaching musical influences. Let those vibes reverberate through the canyon.

September 09, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles you can take your pick of popular-music's sacred sites, from Central Avenue near downtown to Laurel Canyon, Whittier Boulevard on the Eastside to the Sunset Strip. But from the wooden deck of his Topanga Canyon house, Devendra Banhart can drink in his own special dose of rock history.
"You see that red house there, it's got the triangle beams, right there," he says, pointing toward a distant ridge. "That's where Neil [Young] recorded 'After the Gold Rush' and 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.'
"And as you know, 10 minutes up the road is the remains of the Roadhouse, where the Doors wrote 'Roadhouse Blues' and where Crazy Horse was the house band. Woody Guthrie was one of the first artists that lived in Topanga."
All those artists figure strongly in Banhart's music, and maybe someday the red, wood-frame house that he rents with his guitarist, Noah Georgeson, will be referenced by future students of local music lore.
Unkempt and minimally landscaped, this ramshackle Xanadu is the nerve center of the international, experimental folk-music community that's congealed around the charismatic singer-songwriter over the last five years. Banhart squirms when it's framed that way, but he can't easily deny that his music and his moves attract attention from like-minded musicians and a growing network of fans.

So this house, where he and Georgeson built a recording studio in the large main room on the upper story and where he wrote the songs for the album he and his band recorded here, "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon," has seen a lot of action since they moved in, encouraged by a friend's tarot reading, earlier this year

"At one point we've had 12 people living here at once," says Banhart, rolling a cigarette on a large, round table. "We've had people show up, sometimes in the middle of the night. Somebody tried to crawl through my window. . . . It was harmless, but it was weird. It's not like I sleep with a knife by my side. It was a cute hippie chick, to tell you the truth. I guess there's worse things than that. . . . It's still a little unnerving."

Banhart's fifth album, which comes out Sept. 25 on XL Recordings, is another major step beyond the quirky, minimalist folk songs that attracted his initial cult following in 2002. The music ranges from sambas to doo-wop to Jackson 5-like pop, and there's a heavy dose of the '60s rock whose ghost permeates Topanga.

That '60s presence is no surprise. Banhart has made an impact in his corner of the indie-rock world not just as a musical force but also as an advocate of that decade's cultural spirit. A shaman-like attunement to his surroundings and a fetish-like regard for the relics of the religion of rock are driving attributes in his makeup.

One item in the studio, he says, is a spring reverb -- a device that enhances a vocal with reverberations -- from Frank Sinatra's home studio. Some of the funky furniture in the cluttered downstairs living room is from Jim Morrison's estate, and he reverently displays a gift he plans to give his doctor this afternoon: One of Bob Dylan's Traveling Wilburys guitar picks. Even his manager is something of an icon -- Neil Young's longtime representative Elliot Roberts.

The album reflects the nature of this setting in more ways than one. With the studio literally adjoining their bedrooms, co-producers Banhart and Georgeson were able to develop ideas as they occurred. The "open-door" policy resulted in unplanned participation by the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson and actor Gael Garcia Bernal.

And there's a case of pure serendipity. One morning at the cafe where he gets his coffee every day, Banhart was approached by a young man named Nathan Pelkey.

"He says, 'I hitchhiked here from Austin to play you a song on my kalimba.' . . . He plays me a song, and it's a killer song. And it just so happened that we needed a kalimba on the end of this one song, 'Samba Vexillographica,' and so he came up and he tracked it, and he plays the accordion and the piano. . . . And now fast forward, and our bass player [Luckey] Remington is his manager, he just went on a U.S. tour.

"So that was a beautiful thing out of him somehow finding out that we live here. The other side of that is people I don't know crawling in through my window."

Accidental style points

It's uncharacteristically quiet at the house on this summer afternoon. In a few days it will be crawling with band members and managers rehearsing and making final preparations to head off for a European tour, but right now it's just Banhart, pulling off his thin T-shirt to get some sun after being studio bound for months.

A packet of tobacco and a pack of rolling papers sit on the table next to a bottle of Mount Gay rum. An antique Royal typewriter occupies the center.

"It's a reminder. It yells at me, 'Come on, get to work,' " says Banhart, looking at the machine and reflecting on his progress from vagabond outsider to something of a star.

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