On the evenings of Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14, Venezuelan-American musician and painter Devendra Banhart will play a two-part concert series at the Walker Art Center as part of the Liquid Music series. The shows will feature additional performances by Lucky Dragons, Jessica Pratt, Helado Negro, William Basinki, Rodrigo Amarante, Hecuba, Harold Budd, and more.
In a phone interview, here’s what the singer-songwriter had to say about the Walker, his new music, paintings that look like songs, and hip priest/poet Father Dom.
Rachel Johnston: We’re excited to have you back in Minneapolis!
Devendra Banhart: I’m excited to go back there. I played there on my birthday two years ago and we played in a nice, normal rock club, which is fine, but then we drove by the Walker and I really, really distinctly remember going, “Oh, one of these days. One of these days. Maybe. Maybe.”
Have you spent much time in the Twin Cities?
I’ve played there intermittently for over a decade, but spending time on tour means you get to see a backstage and a toilet and a stage and an airport — and a hotel, if you’re lucky. So as many times as I’ve visited, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever gotten a real sense of it. That’s one thing that I’m trying to rectify in my old age when I come play places that I’ve always been interested in and wanted to explore — in fact, even places that I don’t want to explore, because I haven’t explored, so how do I know if I want to explore it or not? I’m excited to get lost in your town.
Of the times that you’ve played in the Twin Cities, do you have a favorite venue?
I’m going to say the Walker, regardless of how I play. The venue itself is so beautiful. I don’t love venues, generally. If I could play a tour where I just played museums — the museum is always the most beautiful to me. And any kind of church is always such a hallowed space: It always charges the performance with some degree of pious energy. But generally, rock clubs kind of blur into my mind. Where you will find me on tour is either a used bookstore or museum, so playing at the museum gets two birds with a stone.
How did you get connected with the Liquid Music Series?
I first made the acquaintance through [Philip Bither’s] brother, David Bither. Philip is the head curator [of performing arts] at the Walker. He introduced me to Kate Nordstrum, who runs the Liquid Music program. They’ve been curating and programming these really fantastic events with a lot of modern composers and a lot of classical and avant-garde composers.
We all met, and I basically turned into a fanboy about the Walker and how much I’ve always wished I could play there and how much I admire it in terms of its history, its architecture. Then next time Philip was out in L.A., we just had coffee and started talking about what it would look like to maybe put together a little two-day mini-festival. Then we drew up our little dream team of musicians who would be an interesting little lineup.
How did you choose your dream team?
The list, at first, went on and on and on. It was like a scroll. I mean, the list was, like, from here to China. We started editing it down and started to think not about who’s our favorite, but what’s going to kind of work in an interesting flow.
Will there be a different feel to the two shows? Are there any distinct differences between the types of artists playing each night?
I think all the artists are totally distinct in their own capacity, so each night is going to be its own thing. The only difference is that the first night I’m gonna open up playing acoustic and the next night I’m opening up with a full band. Both nights, I’m playing all new songs. There’s going to be some collaborative moments as well. There’s a lot of improvisation, a lot of spontaneity — because some of these people have never played together, so there’s this tightrope kind of environment that’s always pretty fun.
You’ll be playing a whole new set? Can you tell me more about that?
Well, we just finished the record yesterday [Monday], and now we can start playing it. There’s something really not fun about letting a long period of years go by and still sticking to the same set. I’m glad that we’re not doing that. I’m not even excited to play new songs; I’m just excited that I’m not playing old ones. Which isn’t entirely true. We are playing a couple of old songs, too. I’m just full of contradictions this morning, aren’t I?
You’re both a musician and a visual artist. What does that mean to be able to play at the Walker?
It means that I’m not a good enough visual artist that they would show my work! It means that it’s an environment that I’m very comfortable being in. The good majority of the people who are performing are also visual artists. Even when I initially started talking with Philip about this lineup, I think that was a big impetus: artists who work in the aural dimension and work in the visual one as well.
Is there a connection between your art and your music?
I would say the connection is they’re the product of a particular expression, and they’re a decision. The desire to express something comes from an ethereal space and then it’s a decision: is this a song or is this a painting or is this a different discipline? For me, I focus on painting and music: half the year I spend doing music and the other half I do visual work. The only time they intersect physically is when I’m doing the album art.
With visual work, I end up thinking, “Jeez, that’d be a nice song.” I just happen to make visual work that looks more like the music I’d like to make. It’s almost like I can really express myself musically with my visual work. And when I sit down to make music, I don’t make music that way. I think that’ll change in time, even though I feel like I’m still singing the same old song. But I guess you can help me decide that if you do me the honor of listening to the record, which was finished yesterday, which I can’t even begin to describe how happy I am about that. I can’t believe it’s done.
Do you feel that your music has progressed and evolved?
I don’t know. I really feel like I’m singing the same old song. And I don’t think that that’s a bad thing and that that’s a sign of not evolving and not progressing and not transcending. But it’s still, to me, the same old song! That means that there’s a lot more in this so-to-speak room to explore. There’s still a lot that’s been left unturned. There’s still more mystery to dive into. It’s like a big cave and I’ve still got the same flashlight that I’ve been exploring that cave with.
The program title is borrowed from Dom Sylvester Houédard’s poem “Wind Grove Mind Alone.” What does the poem mean to you?
Father Dom was a Catholic priest who was also a poet and a very hip fella. He was infamous for working with the concrete poem and for making these fantastic typewriter pieces — as in, he would draw with the typewriter. Also, he made these beautiful constructs that were poems that were like sculptures. One of them is typewritten, everything is typed, and then in the negative space, the words “Wind Grove” appear. And then there’s a platform that sticks out and it’s a reflective surface and in that reflective surface the words “Wind Grove” are altered to say “Mind Alone.” And it just killed me when I saw that. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.
That was on my mind perpetually as we were trying to find a title. It felt right with the aesthetic of the other musicians playing and I thought it’d be a cool way to turn people on to Father Dom. Part of curating is exposing people to things. It just made sense to choose a title that someone else had written — curating the title, as opposed to making up the title — and then it can lead to another artist.
Will we get a chance to see any of your artwork at the show?
No. That would have maybe made it a little bit too “me-centric.” I’m more comfortable actually being backstage and having other people play. But maybe someday.
Rachel Johnston is a writer, designer, and music junkie from the Twin Cities who attends college at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. Read more of her music-related writing at thebridgemusicblog.com.