Being Devendra

Tickle fights, Neil Young and pubic hair--it's just another year for music's court jester

In a recent and hurried phone conversation, Devendra Banhart informed me that the last time he and his band stopped in Tucson, they landed in a bit of legal trouble.

"Basically, we had a tickle fight with an off-duty cop, which was misinterpreted," Banhart said.

Strangely, this specific kind of trouble (fetish?) plagues the group. "It seems to continue with us. In Paris, the entire band ended up in jail, except for me and (multi-instrumentalist) Noah (Georgeson), for doing the same thing."

Is it the band's neo-hippie look and carefree demeanor that sets off those guarding the thin blue line? "I suppose they just get into that mode where we just look guilty to them ... but you just learn to deal with the hassle of somebody who's trying to protect the rest of the world from patchouli and sage and pubic hair."

Legal issues and pubic-hair suppressants aside, Banhart and his posse of mischievous jokesters (and quite accomplished musicians) managed to keep their hands to themselves and record Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL) last spring. The recent release is a genre-hopping collection of 16 tunes and may be a career-best for Banhart--no slight compliment.

Co-produced by Banhart and Georgeson, Smokey is the rare album that can move from the Latin shuffle of "Samba Vexillographica" to the jazzy prog and classic rock of the eight-minute "Seahorse" without feeling contrived or awkward. The entire record slips by gracefully without coming off as inconsequential. Whether it's the tempered slide-guitar angst of "Bad Girl," the Morrison yelps of "Tonada Yanomaminista," the organ trills and choral lushness of "Saved," the Jackson 5 bounce of "Lover" or the dub groove of "The Other Woman," Smokey is a rare treat that uncovers new pleasures with each spin. Some may call it excessive or unfocused, but Banhart's mastery of multiple styles suggests true talent.

The album was recorded in a renowned cabin in the hills of Topanga--just north of Los Angeles--which previously housed some of the Doors, Mick Fleetwood and Emmylou Harris. Whereas the home's former residents recorded elsewhere, Banhart and gang opted to make the home their studio.

"It was great," Banhart said. "It was a little like being in Arizona, except you're near the ocean. It was one communal existence where the kitchen was the tracking room, and the bedroom was the vocal booth; the toilet was the amp and guitar room."

A romantic notion suggests that the creative vibes of past musicians still permeate the place--but that seems patently unnecessary when you have personal contact with one of the manor's most notable former tenants, Neil Young, who stayed there during the recording of After the Gold Rush.

"We actually hung out with him a couple of months before we recorded it, so we didn't have to rely on any old vibes," Banhart said. Devendra met the godfather of grunge when he played Young's Bridge School Benefit. "Oh, fuck, that was unbelievable. He really lives up to all the expectations. ... He's like Vashti Bunyan; they just get better with age, and that's rare."

Speaking of the English folk icon Bunyan (who has worked with the likes of Banhart and Animal Collective), she is merely one of the countless guests who appears on Smokey. Bunyan surfaces on "Seahorse" and weepy closer "My Dearest Friend," while Nick Valensi (of the Strokes fame) pops up on the Jewish love ditty "Shabop Shalom," and actor Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) duets with Banhart on genteel calypso opener "Cristobal."

"Everyone had dropped by prior to recording," Banhart said. "Then, the days they were there, it wasn't planned. ... It just happened to be who was there at the time. Since the house was also our studio, it was really a document of what it was like when people came over and hung out. ... It was all very casual."

Causal recording is one thing, but the group is serious when it comes to touring. Bounding from Europe to Canada before their current trek through America, Devendra noted the group is "energetically burnt out" and "running on shadows from hell," while looking forward to the West.

"I think what I look forward to the most is once we get to your side, where the land changes and feels separate from the rest of this land," Banhart said.

And they've learned at least one thing from their Tucson arrest. "The desert winds, they make a young lady go wild, like ourselves: The desert winds make the bearded ladies go crazy."