Devendra Banhart Blurred Lines
Published Sep 27, 2016"If I sound like I know what I'm talking about, you're not really talking to me because I don't know anything — so just to clarify, the caveat here is that I have no idea and I do not know what I'm talking about," says the amusing and always fetching Devendra Banhart, while explaining his new record, Ape in Pink Marble. It'll be his ninth full-length release, and is unabashedly "Devendra" in feel — a multifarious mix of styles, with dashes of romance and humour that those familiar with Banhart have grown to expect, but decidedly more scaled back, tidier and calmer than his earlier work.
Ape in Pink Marble — which was nearly titled Fish Taco in Chrome or Wig on Larva — addresses the cohesion of female and male energy, Western vs. Eastern mythology, witnessing the beginnings of love, loneliness, pretention, privilege and the patriarchy. In other words, it runs the gamut, dipping its toes in every river.
Songs that serve as odes are not a novel thing for Banhart — think "Ballad of Keenan Milton" or "Für Hildegard Von Bingen" off his 2013 release, Mala. Ape in Pink Marble offers up "Jon Lends A Hand," which credits Jonathan Richman for the chords. "The idea of that song is, 'Jonathan, hey buddy, Jonathan, baby — you, you gotta help me out. There's this person, I'm real soft and sweet on 'em, and I want to let them know how much I like them, I want to let them know that I think they're real cute and no one can do that better than you, so can I borrow some of your chords just to tell this person how beautiful they are and I'll give 'em back when I'm done? Basically I'm trying to tell you, Jonathan, that you do it best, and I'm not even going to bother coming up with my own chords.' So that's what that is. And you know, I'm getting ready for the lawsuit, it'll be the first of its kind," explains Banhart.
"I've never met him, but I know people that know him and we at one point shared a manager. His contract with [that] manager was my one of my favourite things in the whole world. It was just a piece of paper, and in pencil it said, 'Do what you think is right.' That's the whole contract. I love him so much. Sometimes you don't want to meet your heroes, but I'm pretty confident that he won't disappoint."
Banhart has always been one to blur the gender line — songs like "The Other Woman" or "Bad Girl" from Smokey Rolls Over Thunder Mountain have him embodying women in song, and Ape's "Linda" opens with the line, "I'm a lonely woman, alone in the world." As a nine-year-old, Banhart found his voice when he put a dress of his mother's on and grabbed a comb for a microphone. "That's how I even gave myself permission to sing. I didn't know how to sing like all those guys, but suddenly in a dress, I felt empowered, I felt stronger, I felt like I could sing. Because of that experience, because I feel in touch with that side, it makes no difference to me if I'm saying woman or man, or he or she. Why do I play around with gender? Because gender is mine to play around with. Society is just catching up. The term gender fluid is novel, it's new, people are identifying with it a lot more than they ever have. It's a relief, wonderful, it's some form of progress."
Midway through the album, Banhart shifts from soft and sweet to upbeat and curious, including the quite fun "Fig in Leather." "I hope that that's somehow apparent that we were having so much fun creating this character and clothing this character story in this Italo disco ridiculous song… you can't even really dance to it, you know what I mean? Everything is just a little bit wrong."
"Fancy Man" is the other half of the curious equation. Initially meant to be a song about an "empowered superwoman" (originally "she's a fancy man"), it became a song about "the privileged white male or the collective consumer, a representation for the lowest common denominator on the internet — capitalism and greed and ignorance — but there's a little bit of room, and in the end they kind of realize that it's all ridiculous and all for nothing. They have a little bit of an awakening at the end of that song," says Banhart.
The awakening comes with the ending lyrics, "Sometimes I get to thinking, is this fancy thinking?/ Is this a fancy thought?/ I'm pretty sure it's not." "It would have been a much more powerful song, but in the end it turns out that I'm much better writing about a guy who's an asshole than a girl who's super amazing. So it's one of those 'stick to what you know, kid.' I'm not a good enough writer, that's why I didn't go with 'she' — she deserves better than me writing about her. I couldn't structure the song the way that I had actually envisioned it, which was disappointing and a testament to my lack of abilities in really getting it just right. I can only do what I've got with these dumb brains of mine."
"Saturday Night" speaks to seeking solace in solitude, and grew from a night drive following a long day of isolated work at home. "I don't really go to the movies too much, I don't really go to too many bars, I don't really go to that many parties and I don't go to that many shows, that's just how I naturally am. I end up typically in the car and just downtown, not particularly looking to go anywhere or talk or meet anyone, but just be in what feels like a city. The closest thing to feeling like a city in L.A. is driving around downtown. There's something very lonely about that, but there's also something very comforting in that 'alone together' feeling, being amidst all those lights that promise so much but deliver so little. That song is kind of a way of saying 'don't be with me just because you don't want to be alone.' I know so many people who are in those kinds of relationships that are like, 'Well, I'm not that into them, I just don't want to be alone,' or just have to be with somebody because they don't want to be with themselves or face themselves."
To be expected, what's next for Banhart is more crafting and creating.
"I'm working on a book of photographs and an album that's going to be a little bit even more stripped down and quieter — the hope is to do something that's got a lot more Spanish on it, but it'd be nice to try some other languages, too," he says.