LOOTING THE BINS WITH DEVENDRA BANHART

Browsing America’s
record stores with musicians – famous and infamous.

By ANDY TENNILLE

 

“You guys are standing in oldies. And you guys are standing
in folk, or maybe bluegrass. If you’re looking to pick something up, try a
record by Robbie Basho called The Voice
of the Eagle
. It’s one of the most spiritual records I’ve ever listened
to.”

 

Devendra Banhart is seated in a folding chair on the tiny
stage at San Francisco’s Amoeba Music, dispersing recommendations to the thousand-plus
people that have crammed into every conceivable crease of the cavernous store
for his mid-afternoon in-store set. It’s a role that comes naturally to
Banhart, the 27-year-old Californian–by-way-of-Caracas singer-songwriter and
czar of all things freaky and folky: he was once an employee of this very store
and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music that ranges from rock to reggae to
rare folk albums.

 

“Here’s one of my favorite records of all time,” Banhart
says a few minutes after his performance, pulling a recent reissue of Linda
Perhacs’ 1970 album Parallelograms from
the stacks of the store’s folk section. “Linda sings on our new record on
‘Freely.’ She just had throat surgery and emailed me last night to tell me that
she feels like a new person and can’t wait to get back into the studio to
record because she says I won’t even recognize her voice. So hopefully we can
help make that happen soon.”

 

Banhart’s joy over Perhac’s improving condition is merely a
symptom of the generosity he regularly displays utilizing his celebrity to
spotlight his influences and musical cohorts. Last year, he made a guest
appearance on Brazilian psych-rockers Os Mutantes’ Live at the Barbican Theatre. In 2006, Banhart contributed a
version of “Sligo River Blues” to I Am
the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey
in addition to singing on Bert
Jansch’s Black Swan. English folk
songstress Vashti Bunyan appeared on Banhart’s Rejoicing in the Hands in 2004 as well as 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, which
bookended his appearance on her 2005 release, Lookaftering.

 

“Vashti Bunyan…I don’t know really what to say other than
she is a very, very special artist to me. They’ve just released this one, which
is all of her singles and demos from 1964 to 1967,” Banhart says, admiring with
pride the copy of Some Things Just Stick
in Your Mind – Singles and Demos 1964 to 1967
in his hands. “It’s got her
very first single which was originally written by Jagger and Richards in ’64, I
think. Most of the rest of it is her tunes and it’s really beautiful. Vashti
found someone online that had an original pressing of her first single. They
gave it to her, which was very kind of them, and they recreated the exact label
for the reissue. I think it’s just so elegant.”

 

Another artist that’s enjoyed renewed success based on
Banhart’s support is Michael Hurley, the American folk singer who’s latest
album — Ancestral Swamp — was
released by Banhart’s Gnomonsong label last year.

 

“Do you have any Michael Hurley?” Banhart asks, slightly
concerned. “I need to buy you a Hurley record if you don’t already have some.
Hurley is an interesting guy – he recorded his first album on the same tape
machine that Leadbelly made his last recordings with. Cat Power covers a bunch
of Hurley songs on her records. That’s it; I’m gonna buy you a CD. I’m really
gonna buy you something, but maybe not Hurley. Let’s go to the dollar bins for
your gift. Just kidding, folks: I’m gonna get him something nice. Don’t worry.”

 

With that, Banhart’s already infectious energy shifts into
overdrive and the lithe, longhaired musician begins pawing through records with
a new sense of urgency. No questions are asked, ‘cause none are needed: Banhart
is on a roll.

 

“Now here’s a Tim Hardin record that I’ve never seen
before,” he says, pointing at a recently released anthology of Hardin’s music.
“Tim Hardin is amazing. He wrote ‘If I Were A Carpenter,’ ‘Lady Came From
Baltimore’ and ‘Misty Roses.’ He shares some of the same qualities that I love
about Tropicalia in that it’s music that takes elements from all these
different genres, from all these different indigenous cultural styles from
around the world but funneling it through something very, very uniquely them.
With Tropicalia, everything they were funneling, from the Beatles to reggae to
African highlife to classical music to American rock, was taken in but the
result was always very Brazilian. With Tim, he takes from jazz, folk, rock and
blues, but it was always him. That, and he had great hair. Don’t ever discount
great hair in music. It can sell records.”

 

“A lot of people get into John Martyn because they know that
he wrote a song about Nick Drake called ‘Solid Air,’” Banhart says, pulling
Martyn’s 1968 debut album London
Conversation
from the bins. “He’s also credited as the innovator of
chilled-out music, like these long, chilled-out jams. He makes some really
weird shit, but it’s really beautiful and his early records are incredible.
John Martyn’s also one of the first dudes to go down to Jamaica and record with
all those guys from Island Records. I think he’s also had a leg amputated due
to gangrene.”

 

“We’re standing here in front of Judee Sill,” Banhart says
when I catch up with him. “Judee was a singer-songwriter from Southern
California and who’s got a pretty crazy backstory: she was an ex-convict,
junkie, prostitute and Jesus freak. All of her songs are like these romantic
songs to Jesus. She’s finally sort of been discovered in the last couple of
years. She’s totally a genius and her self-titled record is a masterpiece. She
describes it as gothic, baroque pop, but I hear a lot of Elliott Smith in it.
Maybe it’s just me.”

 

Since much of the discussion has revolved around the store’s
folk section, I ask Banhart if we might branch out into the blues or perhaps
some world music, where his interests in South American music are widely known.
But as my request passes through my lips, Banhart holds up his hand and points
at the collection of CDs in front of him: we’ve reached Townes Van Zandt.

 

“Townes Van Zandt is the perfect writer,” he says with
complete reverence. “He’s got good melodies, and he’s got a comforting vibe.
He’s sort of like the biological father you always wanted. Bob Dylan’s gave a
great quote about Townes when he said, “In some ways, Townes was the better
writer.” Bob wrote about everything – political songs, romantic songs,
religious songs – but Townes kept it personal. There’s not a word wasted or a
word thrown in for the sake of rhyming in any of his songs. Everything is so
elegantly and perfectly picked. It’s precise. It’s perfect.”

 

On our way to the Used Blues section, Banhart gets
sidetracked when he spots a Link Wray record that stirs an old memory.

 

“This is his country rock record,” he explains, holding a
copy of Wray’s 1971 self-titled release. “Link Wray was immortalized by writing
‘Rumble,’ which had only three chords. He also is attributed to having stabbed
the cone in his amp with a pen to create distortion. Link Wray had only one
lung. Yet with just one lung, he could still really belt it out. This record is
incredible. I was probably nineteen years old when I first heard this record.
The circumstances were…well, I can’t really tell you on the record. I’ll tell
you afterward off the record, but it’s safe to say that it involved some
chemical assistance that resulted in five seconds of absolute euphoria and over
ten hours of terror.”

 

Arriving in the blues section, Banhart heads straight for
Mississippi John Hurt, the Avalon, Mississippi native who learned to play
guitar at age nine and went on to record several albums for Vanguard in the
‘60s.

 

“A friend of mine named Isabel, who plays in a band called
Hecuba from L.A, made me a mix when I was 16 years old of Mississippi John
Hurt,” he explains. “That tape was the reason why I got into music. Honestly, no
shit. It’s not easily expressed in words, because the feeling was so
transcendental. The thing I got out of the tape was the friendliness of
Mississippi John Hurt. His voice is so calming and comforting, but his guitar
playing is inhuman. There’s that legendary story about the famous classical
guitarist who heard a John Hurt recording and after it ended said, ‘That’s
great, but who’s the second guitar player?’ You can’t get any more unique than
that.”

 

Banhart once again reaches hyper-speed when we hit the
Amoeba’s vast selection of world music, naturally gravitating to the Brazilian
music that’s had such a profound effect on him as an artist.

 

“Os Novos Baianos,” he says, scanning the stacks for the
psych-folk hippies from Bahia, Brazil. “Novos Baianos… they don’t have any
here?! No shit, that’s not good. Well, just know that they are the best, just
the best. They are a bunch of fuckin’ mind-blowing geniuses. They all lived
together in this commune in Brazil in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You could tell that
all they did was play music together, ‘cause it’s so tight and poppy and
masterful and joyous. Just incredible.”

 

“Do you know this album?” Banhart says, handing me Alçeu
Valença & Geraldo Azevedo’s 1972 self-titled album that sports the word
“Quadrafônico” across the front. “I used to think ‘Quadrafônico’ was the title,
but I think it refers to the fact that it can be played on a quadraphonic hi-fi
system from the ‘70s. This record is really, really good: very psychedelic and
Brazilian. It’s mind-blowing. Rogerio Duprat, who was like the Brazilian George
Martin, produced it. It’s a must.”

 

Hopping from Brazil to the store’s African music, Banhart
talks about his love of Ali Farka Toure, E.T. Mensah and Fela Kuti before
shifting over to the Middle Eastern section.

 

“Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan might be my favorite singer of all
time,” Banhart says of the Pakistani singer of Sufi devotional music known the
world over as “The Emperor of Qawwali. “His music is incredibly spiritual and
the range in his voice…it just blows my mind. The fact that Jeff Buckley
covered one of his songs just kills me still to this day. That’s insane, just
incredible. The fact that he could even do it is just…it’s so far out. It’s
something to give credit to and respect.”

 

Browsing over the stack of CDs and records that have
accumulated in his arms, Banhart shoots a glance at my own collection and a
surprised look emerges from his bearded face.

 

“I haven’t gotten you anything!” he exclaims. Despite my
repeated assurances that he need not spend a dollar on me, Banhart rubs his
forehead, apparently deep in thought, before jetting off. When I finally find
him deep in the folk section, Banhart smiles like a kid trying to keep a secret
before handing me a disc.

 

“Clive’s Original Band,” he says, proudly. “Clive Palmer
basically started the Incredible String Band and played on their first record.
I think he contributed two songs. Then he took off for India and Afghanistan
and hung out for a while before eventually coming back to start C.O.B. They
have this fantastic record called Spirit
of Love
but my favorite is called Moyshe
Mcstiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart
. It’s from ’72, I
believe, and it’s very, very, very good. This is what I’m gonna buy you. I
think you’re gonna dig this.

 

“And if you don’t, drop me an email and I’ll send you
something else.”

 

[Photo Credit: Andy
Tennille]

 

 

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