Devendra Banhart, a folkie free spirit
The ‘60s and ‘70s – obsessed musician lets his freak flag fly on a new CD.
By Richard Cromelin
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 9, 2007
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.