INTERVIEW: Devendra Banhart on Ape In Pink Marble

With his next album Ape In Pink Marble out tomorrow, his ninth and his first since 2013’s outstanding Mala, we had the privilege of an incredibly candid chat with legendary folk singer Devendra Banhart on the making of and inspiration behind his latest record.

Hi Devendra, awesome to hear from you!

Hey, awesome to hear from you. Thanks for talking to me.. I know it’s already probably past dinner so I appreciate that.

No, that’s fine, haha. No problem at all. First off I’d like to start by saying that really like the gentle, Sunday afternoon kind of feel of your upcoming album, Ape in Pink Marble.

Thank you!

It takes a special kind of person to be able to casually mention Walgreens and still reach into depths of human emotion.

*Laughs* That’s the nicest thing I think anyone has ever said to me. It really means a lot to me. I really appreciate that. And the record – it’s odd that we are playing these festival and until we do a proper tour because it isn’t that kind of record. We are still playing songs.. a couple of tunes on the record and one that really is not a festival song. It has actually been really fun to play non-festival songs at festivals but the point is: it is a – like you said – a Sunday evening or Sunday morning record. I’m glad that you feel the kind of gentleness from the record. Walgreens is an interesting place *laughs*.

Haha, your last couple of albums like Mala have had that same gentle, more intimate feel to them than your more eccentric earlier work. Can you talk us through the progression? Has it been very natural for you or was it more of a conscious move?

I think it’s a combination. I think the more conscious you become, you can kind of work at not walking in the same sort of traps or corners that you can perpetuate. If you’re not conscious, it’s kind of like going to visit your family and there is one scenario when you revert to being a real kid and you fight the whole time and then you come home and just curse your family. And then there is another scenario when you know that you’re going to revert but then you go and you still revert and then you come back home and then you go, “what the hell happened? How did I revert to that scenario?” It takes a lot of consciousness, a lot of discipline, and a lot of effort knowing that you’re going to revert. Not reverting, and then coming home. Not falling into that.

One is the unconscious, one is the knowing it might happen yet still falling into it, and the other is just not falling into it. I am somewhere in the middle. Because I still haven’t made a record that I am so totally happy with. And there still isn’t enough space on the records and it still isn’t even delicate and gentle enough. Each record I feel like I get a little bit closer but I definitely don’t think this one is the way I wish it was. I also know it may never well be.. but I do feel that there is some movement towards something closer to that. I would like to make a record that is in fact – when there is a delicate and gentle song – I want to take it to a place that is far more delicate and gentle than what I have managed to do so far. And then the dance songs – if there are gonna be any – to make them something than you can REALLY dance to. Everything is kind of in the middle of that you know?

Yeah, I’ve listened to the album a few times and you definitely feel the gentle Sunday afternoon vibes but there is also a really funky, 80s feeling from Fancy Man and Fig In Leather. Was there any particular influence that lead you in that direction?

I don’t know about musical influences – other than wanting to pick a genre of music that would suit the narrative as best as we figured it would. And since so many of these songs began with the concept of the song or the narrative for the lyrics, the next step is, “okay, what’s going to be the right genre?” For Fig In Leather, it was sung about an older person trying to seduce a younger person without dated technology. It seemed like Italian Disco was obvious and I think it’s in the character of that delusional person. On a fruitless pursuit *laughs*. Same for Fancy Man. They are just these characters. So we just pick the music that will fit that character best.

I’ve noticed there are a few references to rainfall – like in Middle Names and Souvenirs. In general do you find that nature and the weather can influence your song writing?

Well I was writing it in Los Angeles where it rains for three seconds every three hundred years so that maybe was more like, wishful thinking. you know? It’s such an exotic thing in L.A. that I forget that it’s the most banal, like, cliche literary device imaginable, you know what i mean? *laughs*. I just forgot. It’s been so long since it rained I thought, “you know what? I should write about rain! That’s interesting. That’s new” *laughs*.

Hahaha. I guess it’s the same when people come from London and they come to Australia and rave about how sunny it is and we just say “yep. We hate it”.

*Laughs* yeah.

The first track on your new album is called Middle Names. I read your own middle name is Obi – in reference to the Star Wars character. Can you elaborate more on the meaning behind the track name itself?

Yeah, absolutely. I called it Middle Names because our middle name is typically our kind of secret name. You don’t immediately share your middle name with people – it takes a moment. It’s a special little insider thing that you only share with people typically that you are intimate with. And I suppose it’s just hinting at the intimacy of that. For me, that song is as non-specific as it is because the imagery is very simple. It’s about, you know, seeing somebody on a bus stop while it’s raining and you’re driving the other way and you’d like to turn around but you’re already pulling in this one-way street direction. It’s very simple. All of the metaphors and the rain and everything. It’s so non-specific.

For me it was a song written for a friend that was alive when I first started writing it but he passed away about 10 months ago before I finished the song. His name was Asa Ferry. He was a musician who lived in Los Angeles. He was in a band called Kind Hearts and Coronets. He would go off on.. benders, I guess. And just disappear for weeks and sometimes months on end. He wouldn’t pick up his phone but I knew he was in the same city as I was. Then when he would go off on these benders. I would hope and wonder if I was going to see him walking down the street or something. One day it was raining. It was the one day it rained in L.A. and I thought I saw him at the bus stop. It wasn’t him, but that feeling.. There is no poetry in that song. It’s just.. it’s all totally literal. I remember I’d walk into the Walgreens. “Maybe I’ll see him there”. It was that feeling. “I wonder if I’m going to see my friend” and “will I recognise my friend?”. When he goes off on those benders and you know, it gets so dark and then you kind of just.. disappear.

Yeah. That’s the main feeling I am getting from this new album. It just captures real human emotion. It doesn’t hide around metaphors, it’s very simple and real. I think it makes it all the more powerful and relatable.

Well thanks. Thank you. The thing is. Yeah. Sorry. I don’t know what to say. Thank you.

You’re welcome. So how did you settle on the name Ape In Pink Marble?

It was between that and Fish Taco In Chrome, Fig In Leather – which we ended up using in a song – and Waygone Lava. I think Pink Marble was better than all of the other ones!

Haha, yeah you definitely made the right choice. You have made a lot of references to animals over the years.. Ape In Pink Marble, Wake Up Little Sparrow, Little Yellow Spider, Cripple Crow etc. I take it you’re a bit of an animal enthusiast?

Sure! Who isn’t? I definitely support every single institution and charity that is gunning for animal rights and I marvel at animals. I would definitely think of David Attenborough as one of my heroes. I think, it’s almost like I love David Attenborough so much that his enthusiasm for animals has carried over, you know? It’s not even that I found animals and then I found David Attenborough. It might just be that I love David Attenborough. And animals are secondary. I should be singing songs about David Attenborough.

Maybe a love song for David?

Oh man, good thinking! Shit. I’m going to write that down. Thanks, Sarah!

No problem at all. So between Ape In Pink Marble and Mala you gave music a bit of a break for a while and released two art books: I Left My Noodle On Ramen Street and Unburdened By Meaning. As an artist, what have you gained and learned from publishing a book that’s completely different to music?

Well, I guess that it wasn’t so different to music. I mean, there was a lot of collecting, collecting, collecting. In this case I had already amassed over 10 years of work so it was just a huge stack of work and then editing it down, editing it down, editing it down. I wanted to make some kind of gigantic book that was just a catalog of 10 years of work. Of course the publisher said, “are you kidding me? no way”. It was the same thing with music, I have had moments where the label is like “are you kidding me? You can’t do that.” So it’s this compromise. It’s working together. And it’s a million little victories and a billion little defeats and it’s a lot like making a record. I was really surprised.

Interesting! So as well as making books and art you’ve also been scoring music for an upcoming film called Joshy. Were you directly involved in that process, how did it work?

Well that was also totally different from anything I expected. That was way different than making my own record or making the book. Those two made a lot more sense but working on Joshy, first, I love the film. I love the actors in the film and I love the director. So I was already 100% game and excited. What was different about it was that I submitted all this music which was what I wanted to hear in that movie *laughs* But it’s not my movie. And Jeff – the director – came back and said well, this is cool and all but – he didn’t say it was his film – but he had a different vision and it was something that was referencing some of my older work, so it was interesting.

For me it was like taking a trip down memory lane and playing things that were more evocative or something that I would have played maybe when I lived back in Woodstock or something and that was the feeling he was going for. Those were the records he had been listening to. So for me it was a cool experience of getting to play in that older way and I feel like I would NEVER do that. Actually that’s not true. Maybe I would do that. The point is, I was like a gun for hire in the way that I was really wanting to please him. I needed to make music that was going to flow behind everything and not get in the way and not say “hey, look at me!” You know? But the rest of my life is all about “hey look at me” *laughs*

That’s the way! So in an interview back in 2013 you stated that you chose art as your religion. Do you still feel that way and does it relate to any religious beliefs upheld by your family or have much to do with your childhood?

Oh my God, I take that back. I choose no religion. That’s my religion *laughs*

Haha, alright. I’ll lock that in. So what do you have planned for the remainder of the year? Can we expect to see you in Australia sometime soon?

Yeah, absolutely! We are hoping to do a little tour of Australia sometime next year and play this record and meet up with some of our buddies up there. I actually love Australia. There’s a lot of record stores so we will be there soon!

Yeah totally, hopefully we can hear your love song for David?

Oh I will be working on it. Thanks to you. I’m not kidding, Sarah. You were there and you inspired it. And I owe you, and I thank you for that.

No problem! Any time. Well thank you so much for your time, Devendra, it’s been awesome to chat with you.

You too! Bye.

Ape In Pink Marble is out tomorrow via Nonesuch.

Image: Missoni