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Tough Questions for Devendra Banhart


Born in Texas but raised in his mother’s native Venezuela, Devendra Banhart has built an enviable career out of being an outsider. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter broke out in 2002 with a lo-fi album made up of largely folky ditties he left on people’s answering machines, quickly amassing a passionate following. On his sixth album What Will We Be (Warner Bros.), he once again blends Latin Grooves with mellow California vibes — just don’t call it freak folk. “That’s the most embarrassing term in the world,” says Banhart, by phone from his L.A. home. “it’s humiliating.” SPIN reached the talkative Banhart as he took a break from designing ironic T-shirts.

Am I interrupting anything else?
You know what I was thinking about, honestly, right before you called? About how Moses didn’t part the Red Sea. He parted the Reed Sea. That’s been fucking me up all morning.

I see.
I mean, that’s true. It’s, like, a mistranslation. All of the artwork that I’ve seen has Moses parting the Red Sea, and that’s so poetic to me, but it’s actually the Reed Sea. But fuck it, man. Obviously, I’m not doing anything.

I just listened to your new record.
I’m sorry. I apologize.

FYI — Wikipedia listed the final track as “Ric Flair,” yet the advance CD doesn’t include that song.
I’ve never heard of Ric Flair. What the fuck is Ric Flair?

He’s a professional wrestler.
That’s pretty fucking funny! It is erroneous, but it’s hilarious. Still, if I was going to call a song after a wrestler, it would be the Ultimate Warrior. Birthplace? Unknown. He was the shit, man.

You got the WWF down in Venezuela?
You kidding me? Of course we got that stuff. No Holds Barred was the Ark of the Covenant. We got a strange little diaspora of vomit. We also got Ugly Kid Joe, EMF, and, fuck, I think that’s it. And then we got poverty, corruption, violence, and Chávez.

Did you experience culture shock when you moved back to the States?
Yeah. A lot of the things that just came out there are about 20 years old here. That’s why I’m hip to all this stuff from the ’60s because it was just coming out when I was a preteen.

I guess that explains the hair. How often do you get called a hippie?
Like, people yelling, “Get a job, hippie!”? I’ll yell that more than people yell it at me because I find it very funny to do that. When I was really young, I just decided that I would let myself appear the way I was intended to appear biologically.

So you’re more caveman than hippie?
I like to think of it more as some primordial-man thing, a natural thing, and I let it flow. But I don’t even have a beard right now. I’ve got a mustache and a little patch of hair under my lip.

Am I the first interviewer to talk to a beardless you?
You are. You’ve broken my beard hymen. I was born with a beard. We’re quite hairy down in Latin America. We don’t have to use sponges when we wash dishes. We just use our baby beards.

Is your middle name really Obi?
It truly is. The story is that I was in my mom’s stomach during Star Wars. Alec Guinness came on, and I started kicking. So they just called me Obi. At least that’s my mom’s story. The real story is probably that she really likes O.B. brand tampons.

Speaking of Star Wars, remember last year, when you dated Natalie Portman?
Man, you had to go way back there. That really brings me back to when we were young.

Did you and she bond over your connections to the Star Wars universe?
I love Star Wars. But I don’t entirely honor her films. I try to forget that the prequels exist, I really do. So we just avoided the subject for the sake of my mental state. Those prequels are all bad dreams.

So you’re a total nerd. Nice.
I hope I am at least up there in the echelons of nerds that you’ve interviewed. I’m sure I’m not the paragon, but I hope that I’m amongst them, at least on the lower levels. Put me in the mezzanine, man!

Well, what else have you got for me?
Okay, let’s see. I wake up every morning and long for “Alien transmission received.”

You mean that you hope we’ll make contact with aliens?
Yes. And the thing is, in five years, we will know without question if there are Earthlike, life-sustaining planets. I think we’ll probably find animals. Animals, man! I mean, imagine an alien animal — it’s so fascinating! And then to think about “Blind” Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground,” which was sent on a piece of gold vinyl into outer space. Imagine an alien race coming across that! You know what I mean?

Congrats. You have officially been granted access to the mezzanine.
Right on. Sweet!