Devendra Banhart's amazing "Mad Men" finale theory involves Roger's octopus painting and J.K. Rowling

Salon sat down with the musician to discuss his latest project, the book "I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street"

Published July 7, 2015 4:42PM (EDT)

 Devendra Banhart      (OSK, 2015)
Devendra Banhart (OSK, 2015)

Those familiar with Devendra Banhart know he's always been a mystical force. A little over a decade ago he made waves with his strange, folky sound and striking appearance--he used to sport long, untamed facial hair and dressed like a sort of hippie Shaman cartoon character. His larger than life presence always made sense, though — after all, he was named after Indra, the Hindu god of all gods.

Banhart was born in Houston, but spent much of his young life in Caracas, Venezuela. After moving to California, he attended the San Francisco Art Institute. Despite dabbling in the visual arts, it is Banhart's musical career, which includes eight records, and collaborations with figures such as Beck and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, that garnered him acclaim.

Now, at 34, the visual is at the forefront of his attention, at least for a little while.

We sat down with Banhart to discuss his latest project, an art book "I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street." The book features some of Banhart's drawings, photos, and paintings, as well as essays by some of his friend and collaborators, which include Beck, Antony, musician and artist Adam Green (The Moldy Peaches), and renowned curators Diego Cortez and Jeffrey Deitch.

The collection features an adulterated conversation between Banhart and Green, primitive paintings with repeated patterns and motifs, some evoking ancient Japanese woodblock prints others more contemporary, and a series of photographs taken of Banhart throughout a span years. Cohesive in its own right, "I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street" asserts Banhart's dedication to an interdisciplinary way of working, an approach that spans across, and often intersects with, numerous disciplines.

So why the title? Where did that come from?

I really wanted to talk about all these missing noodles I started noticing around New York. The title reads well. I like the way it reads. I don’t really like saying it out loud. It’s such a silly title. That isn’t why I don’t like saying it out loud, but I wanted to do something that looked good. I like the way the words look. That’s one aspect. The other is very literal. I lived on ramen street, which is on 10th street. These conversations with Adam and a good amount of the pieces, some of the photographs, are from 10th and 2nd. There are a series of noodle shops. I lived literally above one of them. So the power, the pungent ether and air loaded with pork bone and spices would just seep through the floorboards and just permeate my entire apartment. I was really living in that zone.

There was that, I was literally on ramen street, but also I wanted to have my own version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I was reading a book at the time about Morton Feldman that was called “Give My Regards to Eighth Street.” It had such a nice Broadway, old time-y feel. So what’s my version of that? This is my silly attempt to word things in a way that someone like Sondheim would. Something that felt like those inspirations.

Also, I was like how am I going to title over 10 years of work? Other than something like “Drawings,” which is what I wanted to do originally. I wanted to make that kind of book. It’s different if it’s a series. You could give a series a title. Or an album. You have to give an album a title. You don’t have people that put out 10 albums and you don’t call that whole thing something. I mean you can do that, but it’s daunting. I didn’t know how to do that. It was also something like first thought best thought. It was like this doesn’t point to any one series or any one phase of the work that therefore it becomes appropriate. There’s no favoritism in that title.

Your list of collaborators here touch on how they met you and their relationship to you, but why did you decide to work with these specific people for this book? 

A little bit of it was just an intuitive feeling, someone who is a peer, someone who I had worked with closely in a friend/art work context. Antony is someone who is a good friend, a good writer, and who is a great artist. He’s been focusing a lot on visual work in these last couple of years so that felt really right.

Diego is really one of the main people I owe my art career to. He’s the first person that said “I like your art work. Lets talk about that and lets get a show happening.” Diego writes and lectures all the time and is actually the person who introduced Basquiat to Bruno Bischofberger, the famous German dealer. Diego is a legend in the art scene and someone I owe so much of my career to. That made sense obviously.

Beck is also a dear friend. He has worked through something that I think this book touches upon. It’s the stigma of interdisciplinary work. The idea that you can’t possibly do this if you do that. That kind of stigma that still exists even if you continue to do the things. Beck is someone who is interdisciplinary. He’s worked in different fields. He’s a friend and an exemplary figure.

Jeffrey [Deitch] is someone who’s also been supportive from the beginning. Adam too. He’s a true peer. We are born a couple of days apart, have known each other for over a decade, and work in different genres. Instead of saying it came organically, I’m telling you a little backstory into why it was organic.

I’m glad you mentioned that interdisciplinary stigma that so many people hold. Jeffrey Deitch attributes the aesthetic underground of your background to being more influential to your art across all medias than formal schooling. How have both helped you?

The root of it I still haven’t figured out, but "academia" you could use as a blanket term for all midrange status quo cultural conditioning. Meaning, general avenues of nurturing of a newborn being, the most hammered into your head question throughout the process of your education is what do you want to be? And it better not be more than one thing. Pick your vocation, specialize in it, and stick to it. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. But if you want to broaden your vehicle of expression—this should actually work in all the different domains of human vocations. But the point is that it isn’t just college. It’s from the beginning that we are encouraged to stick to one thing. So you start to look for a more well-rounded education outside of these institutions, which is really ironic. Skateboarding was a doorway into music and in a much lesser degree, a doorway into the art world. But thinking of yourself as a misfit or outsider has its traps too. It’s very positive because you establish that you want to be an individual and do your own thing and no one is going to tell me I have to do one thing only if I want to do other things. But then you can get trapped and it can hinder you from wanting to break out of that as well.

Did you ever experience that for a time?

Absolutely. I think that’s maybe what the definition of evolution in the individual is. Can you evolve past the identity that you cling to. Ultimately none of them are you. You just keep chipping away and chipping away until you get to the point where even when you start saying your name that feels—I’m speaking metaphysically now—but you get to a point where you can just say “my name is coffee.” It’s the same thing. That actually isn’t me.

I don’t know. I have a suspicious there was time when human beings were being educated in a interdisciplinary way. I’m going to go back to the vedas, the oldest written manuscripts of how to live your life spiritually, physically, etc. Part of the human’s education was to study all of the different fields. Then we got into specifying and specifying, but now I think we are trying to break out. There was a time when you couldn’t even choose. You’d be born and they’d tell you what you were going to be. Your dad was a baker and you would be a baker. That’s it. End of the story. Off with your fucking head if you defy that. Then we get into the realm where we could choose, but deviate from that at any point was unheard of. Now we are in this beautiful, it’s beautiful because you can see the change, but halfway through you can say I want to try something else now. I was a dentist for 10 years and then I realized I want to do pottery. That is happening. But what was is that you said Jeffery was saying?

Here he talks about skateboarding and you watching skate videos growing up in Caracas.

The skate videos were the doorway into music. Not so much art. Skateboarding was fully — all the music that I love wasn’t through an older brother, family friend, or a local record store, it was through skateboarding. I went holy shit. There is something more to the music that I’m hearing constantly in Caracas, which is music I love now, salsa, merengue, cumbia. All this shit that is awesome. But that’s all you hear. Suddenly you see a skate video and are like what is this?

Do you ever go back to Caracas?

Of course. Unfortunately, it’s crazy. I’ve played everywhere in South America except for Venezuela. I’ve never been invited to play in Venezuela. It may be a sign of good taste on their part, but it’s very bittersweet. You play in Colombia and you know you are next door. But many members of my family are there. So I go to visit as well.

Can you explain the conversation you transcribed for this book with Adam Green?

This is just one conversation transcribed. I haven’t really scrutinized it. A part of it is like the title. Here’s the title. It’s not careless, but it’s something detached from the contents of the book. Therefore it doesn’t have any favoritism. We clarified that. This conversation is detached from critical analysis and from what the other texts have, which is that they’ve been worked on. This is a conversation. That’s it. There’s nothing. It’s a documentary as opposed to the other ones, the things somebody sat and wrote.

Adam and I are such peers. Anyone from our generation will get our references in here. It’s how we talk. The drawings in between the dialogue are the ones we made sitting there talking. From the get go there’s that sense of two friends intimately talking. It’s not so self-conscious because it’s just you two. But, we are very drunk by the end. We are actually totally wasted by the end of that.

What was your decision to include photographs of yourself in this book?

That was more of a Prestel thing. I just wanted a book called paintings and drawings. A catalog of that. Prestel wanted something else, something a little more lyrical, intimate. These are there words and I totally understood that. That was were the photographs started to come from. I started asking Ana [Kras], who is a photographer, and she started getting me to take photographs. She opened a new tool to play with, which is actually helpful for some writing. I only take portraits, but I still carry the camera right here. So I carry my camera around and am like “What am I going to take a picture of? Nothing.” So I write about it instead. It keeps you attentive in this weird way. That’s another thing.

It’s interesting to see these photos because someone had just showed me the Kim Kardashian selfie book, her collection of portraits.

You know I haven’t see that, but that was a huge inspiration on Kim. This book. She thanks me in that.

Pork bone and Kim?

Pork bone and Kim is actually our blues group. I think we are playing tonight. I’m actually starting a band called BBC with Andy Cabic from Vetiver. We are called BBC and Al Jazeera. So he’s Al. Jazeera. And I’m B. BC. It’s just blues. straight up blues. But you can definitely play with this.

There’s a painting in your book that reminds me of that very famous Japanese print. It’s on “Mad Men.” The one of the octopus pleasuring the woman.

Oh. I love that. I don’t know that one exactly. I always had this theory that “Mad Men” was going to end in Harry Potter. Like it turns out that Harry Potter was just watching, or did a spell. So somehow it ends with the first Harry Potter. Harry turns the TV off when “Mad Men” ends and it begins his story. There has to be some weird connection. Maybe it’s the octopus. What is it doing? Whatever it is, it could be the bridge between Harry Potter and “Mad Men.”

That may have been a really gratifying end to the show. 

I haven’t finished it so don’t ruin it for me, but I’m hoping it ends with Harry Potter.

I think you joked about it with Adam, but do you experience some sort of synesthesia working across so many mediums? 

I think everyone does in various degrees.

You have so many repeated patterns and designs in your paintings. The hands, for example. Is there a psychological or spiritual meaning behind those?

Psychologically, repetitive work is an aid into entering a meditative state. What is a meditative state? It’s a state of presence. It’s a state that creates space and it’s a state of really being. It’s a state where you are not jumping into the future or jumping to the past. These are the fundamentals to spirituality. Psychologically it creates that space where you can, just like you focus on breath in meditation, practice some physical motion. You are focusing on this motion the way you focus on breath. That’s where the psychological tool works. Spiritually, the symbol itself is charged with its baggage. The hand is an archetype. It’s a symbol of receiving, of giving, of prayer, of creation. You make with your hands. It’s a symbol of reaching out, connection. It’s a loaded symbol. So you ruminate on that symbol, on a very simple mantra. In order to receive something you must open your hand and let go of what’s in there. You must make space. You can’t get anything unless you release that thing to receive. That becomes a practice. This one here is the cover of album. What you see here is the evolution of trying to get to creating this image that became the cover of the album. At this time I the work was really intertwined.

It might be my own version of synesthesia. In terms of the disciplines, I thought that I couldn’t finish songs without the drawings. That really means that the piece as a whole encapsulates more than the oral aspect of the work. There’s also the visual aspect, the album cover. It made sense to make this whole body of work. The visual form is the artwork and the sonic, oral form is the music.

Do you meditate? 

I would say that it’s the most important thing in my life. Without a doubt. It is a little bit like music. If you hear a kind of music you don’t like it doesn’t mean you don’t like music. It means that you might need to try a different band. Look at that as a different technique. I started doing this at the beginning of the decline of the CD. People are starting at this point to buy a CD, burn it, and throw it away. Now more so than ever. I was mentioning this in an interview and someone used Joanna Newsom. She really puts a lot of effort into her album covers, the booklet, and the printing and the paper. All of that is really part of the whole experience.

That reminds me of FKA Twigs and the way that she controls every aspect of her image and career.

She’s one of the rare full formed avatar creatures that pop up and have it. I don’t understand it. She’s great.

Do you think that’s the future of the way art is going?

I think there’s a lot more overlap. I think the stigma, it certainly is present, but maybe it’s being marginalized a little bit. That’s a wonderful thing. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that it exists. It could be an engine. Ultimately, support is a much stronger engine than “I’ll prove you wrong.” I was supported. But, both of them have their purpose. The point is that, I see things moving in the direction of this type of festival. Every kind of discipline will be represented at this festival. That’s starting to happen more and more. It should somehow like TED talks, Coachella, and the Kumbh Mela—that’s the great religious festival, the biggest one in the world—merge. All three of those. I think things are moving in that direction.

Social media and the internet seem to be such an important aspect for most people. You work is so analog though. Does it play a huge role in your life?

Well, there’s an email in the book. But I use Instagram. I use it as an advertising platform. I utilize it. I’m certainly not a digital artist. I’m certainly not mining the Internet for my own work explicitly. But without a doubt, certain fucking crazy things that technology has created enter your subconscious. I’m not a purist in any way. Lets say there is a song that is just acoustic guitar and voice. That first record I thought I was making a Faust album. I just had an acoustic guitar and was like lets make those references subtle. That digital influence is subtly present in the work. But I don’t explicitly use it so much.

Do you find that difficult in a time where people demand that of artists? 

No. Not really. If anything I hope this book could be a testament to that. It’s very analog.

What do you have going on in terms of your musical endeavors?

I start recording an album in the next month. The book was finished around December. Then I started writing the album and now we are going to start recording next month. Making the book has been a relief in only that I realized the art is a lot closer to the music I’d like to make. I just surrender to the fact that this album is again pop songs. Just pop songs. Two to three cords is two to three chords too many. Just simple work. That’s the next thing. Then a little festival at the Walker Arts Center. I’m very excited about the lineup and working on this little festival.

Would you say that compiling this book marks a different phase in your career?

Just the end of this work. It ends with working in oil and now I can begin working on the new stuff. I can now hand this over to somebody who asks do you still make art work, which happens at shows, and then at an art show people ask if I still make music. I can just hand the book over. I’m moving on to the next thing. This marks being done. I don’t have to look at this ever again.

You said you make pop songs. I know labels can be super reductive, but what is non popular art mean to you?

I mentioned it to Jeffrey in passing. He asked what kind of art I make and what do I call it. This is the context. When I go to the airport they are like what do you do. I say I’m here to play music, to play a show. They ask what kind of music. I say non popular pop music. They laugh and let me through. So that’s what I say when I’m at the airport. Art-wise, Jeffrey and I spoke a lot about it. What do I think about the work? I’d say it’s surrealism, I’d say it’s just repetitions on a motif, riffing on a theme. Minimalism to some degree. Yet, it’s also semi figurative, expressionism, or it’s just non popular pop art and music.

By Eric Eidelstein

MORE FROM Eric Eidelstein

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Adam Green Art Books Devendra Banhart Fka Twigs Jeffrey Deitch Mad Men Music