Singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart discusses his latest album, trust being more powerful than love, and accessing unknown languages via plant medicine.
The post Devendra Banhart Believes The Macarena Can Save Us All appeared first on High Times.
Talking to Devendra Banhart is somewhat akin to listening to a Devendra Banhart album. You let go and simply go with the flow. At one point during our conversation, Banhart describes his love for sad songs and horror movies, comparing them to a ride. Having a conversation with Banhart is a similar experience. Discard the notes, forget any questions, and just enjoy as Banhart’s focus wanders while he discusses his latest album, Flying Wig, and the classic Los Del Río tune, the “Macarena.”
Perhaps the 30th anniversary of the song was on Banhart’s mind?
Whatever the case may be, Banhart had a lot of thoughts on the song from Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones. The song became a massive hit in 1996, getting the entire planet dancing with delight. Banhart believes the song can not only unite us once again but perhaps even make us some alien friends.
On that note, Banhart’s soothing album is now out in the world, and he’s hitting the road for a tour. Most importantly, he’s thinking a lot about the “Macarena.”
You like to start your day with music. What were you listening to this morning?
I was listening to one of my favorite songs of all time, called “Maki Madni” from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I realized that I don’t know what the words are, so I’ve been trying to Google translate while I listen to this song. And then I listened to a little bit of Roger Eno. This is good, I’m giving a very thorough answer. And then my friend Bob was like, “You got to listen to this person.” I can’t think of their name now. How about you? What were you listening to?
Honestly, the new Queens of the Stone Age album from the summer. I can’t let go of that one.
I’ve heard that it’s quite good. The thing is, I will always have a sweet and soft spot for them. My hero is, one of my reasons I play music is this musician Caetano Veloso and he loves them. It just inadvertently, I’m always like, oh, they’re cool.
How was your experience translating lyrics? Did it change how you interpreted the song?
They’re mostly bumming me out because it’s just so much better than anything I could ever write. I know that it’s a terrible translation. But one) oh my God, that translation is a thousand times better than anything I could ever write. And then two) because it’s a bad translation, I’m not getting the full color and the metaphor and the full image. So that’s depressing, only because I don’t know the language and I won’t probably ever learn that language. On my to-do list it goes, learn Sanskrit, learn Tibetan, learn Japanese, and I am never going to do it. Please, please fucking Tim Cook, make this shit happen. Put a chip in my brain.
At the same time, it’s funny that we’re talking about this magazine that I grew up not fetishizing, but almost being seduced by in this similar way that maybe as an adolescent you might see a porn mag. It was so beguiling and so enticing and exciting and it was a glimpse into a world that I had no access to. High Times is a lot like that, too. I was like, “Whoa, that’s interesting. This is cool. This is the coolest world and I have no access to that and I want to be a part of that world.” I always have this theory that with the right combination of plant medicine, you can access every language.
When did that theory start?
I’ve always had it. In fact, one of my best friends, Mel, was in Greece and she got super high on some Greek weed, I guess, or was probably something that she had in her suitcase. And then she’s like, “I knew Greek. I knew Greek. I was so high in this particular way, I knew Greek. I accessed the Rosetta Stone.” [laughs] I think that’s possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if, I’m sure Terence McKenna has a whole 5,000 hour talk about how it’s totally accessible through some plant medicine.
A good example is, you played with Carla Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl, and I don’t speak the language, but when I hear her singing it moves me. I don’t know if the lyrics are tragic or if they’re hopeful, though.
It would be amazing if the lyrics to “Macarena” were the most heartbreaking, gorgeous poetry imaginable. It’s, like, “Macarena” by [writer] Gabriel García Márquez. You never know. One of my favorite songs of all time is by Cesária Évora. It’s called “Petit Pays,” little country. It’s just a longing song, and I just know exactly what she’s singing about. I don’t know that language. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I can feel her speaking to me in a way that the only way I can equate it is dream logic. Listening to powerful music in the language you don’t understand is the equivalent to dream logic. Rarely, though, do I go and try to look up what the words are.
So, this morning I just had this feeling. I grew up listening to Ali Farka Touré as well. I don’t know actually what he’s saying. So, today I was going to go through this one record called Radio Mali that I really fucking wore out. I listened to the shit out of that record when I was a kid. My dad gave it to me. I sing it. I’m singing these words, I don’t have no clue what he’s saying. So we’ll see… What if it’s just, “someday a great politician named Trump will rise”? Who knows? What if turns out I love this pro-Trump sound [laughs].
[laughs] Man, worst case scenario thinking right there.
But yeah, no, it’s a really fun extra kind of dimension to putting in a little bit of work into the music that you love. Just looking up who produced it, looking up who played on that instrument always leads to other records. Oh, that guitar player that played on that record made a solo record. Let’s check that out. And this is the same thing with lyrics. I love the songs in a different language, but let’s look up what the lyrics are. “Oh, okay, based on a poem by blah blah, blah. Let’s get that person’s book.” It’s a very fun archeological dig.
Photo credit: Dana Trippe
So, you got bummed looking at these lovely lyrics on Google translate. As a successful songwriter, does that feeling never stop, like, oh, I’ll never be that good as this song?
That’s never gone away for a second. But the paradox is that within the thought, “Wow, I’ll never write anything as good as this,” there’s also, “Wow, I’m such a good writer.” There are two insane extremes. Rarely am I like, “Well, I’m an okay writer. I’ve dedicated my life to it. I know how much I work on it, and it’s okay. The world will keep going when I’m gone. It’s not a big deal, but it’s not the worst, either.” Now, that’s how it should be.
But the reality is mostly, “I’m the greatest writer that’s ever lived of all time, and I’m the biggest piece of shit and everything should be burnt. What am I doing?!” It’s really there where it mostly is. It should be just, “Okay, I do my work.” It’s such a funny thing, such a bummer. It’s a sweet bummer because Google Translate is doing something without trying that I spend 12 hours trying to do while writing, which is: counterpoint.
Counterpoint is what makes poetry interesting, what makes writing a song with a theme that is so fucking banal, possibly interesting. You’ve heard what this song is about a million times. So, how can this be interesting is counterpoint, the poetry of it, and the symbolism. Trying to be a non-subjective human being is impossible with your own work. You’re trying to do that, trying to even trip yourself up and create a little hiccup in your own narrative, in your own linear, let’s say, pathway.
You’re trying to chop down some new pathway in this jungle, but Google Translate just happens to do it so perfectly. “Fuck! Why couldn’t I think of that? That’s exactly what I wanted to do.” There’s a lot of that. I’m trying to psych myself out.
For the new album, what were some new paths you wanted to journey down?
Well, it was a collaborative thing. I wasn’t alone, just me and my machete trying to hack my way through the brambles and tangles and vines. I was there with Cate. So, [producer] Cate Le Bon was such a wonderful fucking partner. It was supposed to be co-produced, but five minutes into tracking, I just said, “Cate, you’re producing. I trust you so much.” Trust is so, like, oh my goodness. It’s a real waterfall of nectar to discover trust. That’s why it’s so painful when trust is betrayed, because it’s so extraordinary when you find it, when you feel it. I mean, “I trust you” should be more powerful than “I love you,” you know what I mean? I love burritos, but I don’t trust burritos. Now, “I trust you,” it’s like, whoa.
I think we were surprised that we were in this natural, beautiful country, classic California environment, even with a bit of that California history in it. It was the house where Neil Young had written “After the Gold Rush,” and we’re feeling that. There’s just gorgeous trees everywhere and hawks flying around and we’re in that pastoral California feeling. I’m listening to the Grateful Dead or ambient music pretty much nonstop.
Amidst this totally pastoral environment, we make this record that to me and to Cate, I guess, sounds like the desolate and more dystopian side of Japanese City pop. We’re trying to create something that feels like if you were watching Blade Runner and the camera just moves away from Harrison Ford and focuses on an extra, and then the extra goes to their therapist. “Yeah, today it was blah, blah, blah,” and then they went shopping. We have the soundtrack for this extra in Blade Runner. So, that to me was surprising because we were in the complete opposite of that environment.
[Laughs] Also, it’s funny, I wrote in my notes that the album feels like – and I know it’s a cliche – just a cool breeze.
Wow, that’s amazing. That makes me so happy. Because it’s a beautiful thing to share and have somebody feel what you’re doing. We didn’t see any of that. We were feeling the cool breeze while we were recording, but we were like, Oh my God, this is so funny. It’s the opposite of a cool breeze. This is a hot fart, synthetic hot fart.” [laughs]
[Laughs] Well, it’s like that thing you’re saying with, “Hey, what if you translated the ‘Macarena’ song”? Maybe the content and the execution are just the complete opposite. Ya’ never know what the true feeling is sometimes.
I actually just looked up “Macarena” lyrics. The first line is, “I am not trying to seduce you. When I dance, they call me Macarena and the boys, they say that I’m good. They all want me. They can’t have me come and dance beside me. They move with me, they chant with me. And if you’re good, I’ll take you home with me.” Okay. I mean, yeah, it’s a seduction dance. I was hoping for something a little bit more… What a bummer.
That was actually very nice to hear [laughs]. My favorite song off the album is “Twin.” Like for that song, when do you know in your gut, you really want to sit with a song and let it breathe as much as that one does?
I guess that’s getting into the realm of process and intuition. I overdo it. I am a real quantity over quality person. I’ll do 100 drawings, so I get the two that I can show that are okay. And so, you arrive at that place of here’s the appropriate length with overdoing it and then underdoing it; it’s the only way I can figure it out.
I never know immediately. It’s never clear. I never have any idea. And then also, I think Cate is much more of an interesting person all around, a much more artistic person all around and a much better player and singer. It doesn’t hurt. I mean, if you’re going to make a record with someone, try to get somebody that’s much better at everything than you, it helps. She would push it.
My favorite type of poetry is haiku and my favorite book has, like, one word in it. I like to bring it back in as short as possible, while Cate would much prefer to pace it out, give it time. So, that was part of our dynamic. A lot of the meeting in the middle was the length of these songs. For “Twin,” Cate’s version could have been 20 minutes and I would’ve preferred a 45 second version of that.
I want to give you a festival. I want to have a festival, and all the 100 bands play half a song. That’s a good festival. I mean, I would be into that festival.
Have you pitched that idea to anyone?
Kind of a speed freak festival. We’d have the highest organic Ritalin for sale, I’m sure, but it’d be like, “Here’s the hook of my tune and the next band. Okay, thank you. Next band. Wow.“
Do you think people would be satisfied?
What are these three-hour sets? Who the fuck wants a three-hour set? That blows my mind. It hurts to sit for that long and it hurts to stand for that long. I mean, okay, if we have Casper, the Casper Festival, everybody gets a bed and a toilet. Okay, we’ll do a three hour set.
Valid points, I say.
That’d be a nice festival, right? Everyone gets a lazy boy and a toilet. Fuck that would be awesome.
So, when you’re on tour—
Okay, let’s get it together. Yeah, let’s do it [laughs].
[Laughs] I’ll make some calls. You’re about to go on tour. What do you expect or hope for playing these new songs live?
Well, we haven’t presented them the way that we are about to begin presenting them. I’m actually quite jetlagged. I got back from India yesterday. Now, this work begins by trying to really work out how to present these tunes. Some of these songs are going to stick, some won’t. We’ll be so excited to present them as close to whatever, as close to the record I guess, as possible. But so far, I’ve only really noticed something with my favorite song on the record. The one that means the most is a song called “Charger.”
The first line is so dumb: “It looks like I lost my charger.” Even though subconsciously the reality of losing my charger for me, at least, is real anxiety. Genuine anxiety and kind of panic and terror. It means losing my charger is actually quite awful, but it’s such a silly thing to sing.
I’ve only played it a handful of times, but people laugh at the first line, like, people crack up. The song is actually quite serious. And so towards the end, the mood changes so much and the feeling in the room changes so much. So, that’s so fun to experience. I’m the butt of the joke at the start of that song. And towards the end, we’re all in a very different zone.
That’s a nice arc. It’s like when you laugh at a character in a movie, and then by the end, you feel terrible for having laughed at them.
That’s right. I just love making people feel bad. This is the main thing that I’m into. It’s the only thing that gets me going [laughs].
[laughs] I don’t think your music makes people feel bad.
Everything makes me feel bad.
I love it, though. You see? It’s funny. Making a song, I mean, I love a sad song. My favorite song is the sad song. It’s going on a roller coaster ride. I like a sad song. I like a horror film. If it’s done right, it just takes me away. It’s a ride. And crying feels good. It’s embarrassing and humiliating, obviously, when you’re not trying to cry.
I mean, I cry, just coming up with a lyric. It’ll always emerge at the worst time. And I don’t have a pen or a paper or something to record it. It’s just like, whoa. That’s where it comes up, where it emerges.
And then the same thing with weeping, it’s never here alone in the house. It’s like at the post office or ordering a cup of coffee. Suddenly something just hits me, maybe the way somebody speaks to someone or the way somebody is opening the door for someone. Just a moment of real kindness, and I fucking lose it. I lose it. It’s such a cleansing, beautiful feeling.
So, this thing of, is that a sad song? Is that a happy song? Yeah, I don’t understand. I mean, “Macarena,” I really want to do a cover of “Macarena” that’ll make people cry [laughs]. I’m excited to give that a shot. A really dark, sad, sad version. Oh, yeah, that’s exciting. I’m getting Nick Cave to do “Macarena.”
You should work on this today.
You got it. The lyrics are right here in front of me. Yeah, because there’s something here… “But don’t you worry about my boyfriend. He’s a boy whose name is Vitorino. I don’t want him. Couldn’t stand him. He was no good.” I mean, that’s already like, whoa, heartbreaking.
Photo credit: Dana Trippe
Do you ever cry at concerts?
I think one of the most special parts of writing and recording and then presenting music is there are not that many places where we are collectively weeping. There’s funerals and, of course, that’s the ultimate in a way, that’s the main place where we’re collectively weeping. Maybe the theater, except that we’re not really seeing each other in the dark.
It’s at a show where that real collective weeping is happening in a very particular way. It doesn’t happen too often. It really builds, even on a subconscious level, a feeling of community, which we really all long for, especially in the West. We don’t live this life. We don’t go to school, and they’re like, well, today we’re going to learn a bunch of things, but the most important one is ritual, healing, and community.” You’re never going to hear that ever. But those are the three things that we really need in our lives. We really long for these things, subconsciously and unconsciously.
Going to a concert has all three elements. There’s a ritual. It is absurd. A concert, you don’t need a concert, nobody needs a concert, that’s such an absurd thing [laughs]. But, of course, it’s so important. In the eyes of a kind of very materialistic and western logical scientific world, a concert is the most absurd thing ever. But you could look at all art that way, of course, as well as religion and spirituality. Of course, these are also the most important things.
So, there’s a ritual there [at concerts]. It’s a community. You’re around people. You don’t have to talk to any of these people, but just being around them and sharing that collective experience that is so even subconsciously meaningful and precious. And then healing. I mean, that’s the main thing. Born to heal. I was born just fucking straight out of the womb wishing to heal.
I saw Shannon Lay playing a set her acoustic guitar and singing, and then she sang an acapella song, fucking acapella, and everyone lost it. You can have a million bells and whistles, and that really can hit hard, too, or you can just go do something as simple as acapella, as pure as acapella. It could also be the most mortifying, embarrassing thing on the planet. I mean, really, it could be the most like, “Oh my God, please can this end?” But when it’s done right, it’s so beautiful. So beautiful.
Yeah, I agree.
I’m not sure what the point was, but back to the “Macarena.”
[laughs] We’ll circle back to “Macarena,” but I have to ask you about India. How was your experience? Were you there for work?
In a sense, I was there for work. I’m actually meaning to explain that to all the people I work with, because I went there to meet up with my teacher, who’s in Himachal Pradesh in the north of India, very near Dharamsala. I went just to be at the monastery. My teacher has a monastery there.
When I say it’s for work, it’s because I’m about to start this tour, so I needed to go there and get a few things cleared up, do a little bit of that purification work, and a little bit of work to just be even more present. It’s for the benefit of work. Yeah, I was just in India with my teacher doing some stuff [laughs].
And did it work? Feel more present?
Well, I did there, I did there. But the second I got back I was like, “Blah, back to it.”
But you could circle back to that feeling.
Yeah, sure. I could give it a shot. I can give it a shot.
Good luck. Any closing statement on “Macarena”?
Well, I’m scared of global warming. It pretty fucking hot right now. I think we fucked up the planet to a possibly totally reversible place. All that is to say the only solution is the “Macarena.” I think the “Macarena” is the only solution. We need to broadcast the “Macarena” on our biggest satellites out into space. It’s the only thing the aliens are going to listen to. Fuck the Voyager. You know what I mean? Putting Blind Willie Johnson on there? Give me a break. I’m talking about the “Macarena.” That’s the only thing that the aliens will go, “Oh wow, this is an advanced society and we need to preserve these people.”
[Laughs] Thank you for the time, Devendra.
Wish I’d known that we were going to talk about “Macarena” the whole time. This is, like, a dream for me, know what I mean? I’m talking to High Times about the fucking “Macarena”! I feel I’ve had a… high time? Hey, ha-ha! Alright, I’ll talk to you later, man.
The post Devendra Banhart Believes The Macarena Can Save Us All appeared first on High Times.