Devendra Banhart on Natalie Portman, Hugo Chavez, and Why He’s Not on Twitter

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You may know Devendra Banhart as the hirsute dude who briefly dated Natalie Portman, but the 27-year-old Californian is a seriously gifted (and slightly eccentric) singer-songwriter who’s released six records of wonderfully experimental folk-rock. This month, he returns with What Will We Be, his first album for major-label Warner Bros. Vulture caught up with Banhart to talk about recording in a remote area of Northern California and his favorite songs of the decade.

You live in the Los Angeles area, but recorded your new album in Northern California. Why?
I started re-reading books by the writer Richard Brautigan again, and I wanted to record in the same town where he worked. I feel like I’ve done that with a lot of my records. For my album Cripple Crow, I wanted to go where [Louisiana R&B musician] Bobby Charles worked. It’s like revisiting old friends, for me.

Where in Northern California did you go?
I don’t want to say. The people there are very guarded about their community, and they asked me to respect that.

Is that because they grow marijuana there?

I don’t know; I wouldn’t know. Maybe.

You’re fluent in many languages. Which ones do you sing in on this album?
One of them is this new one I discovered, an extinct dialect from these Native Americans called the Pit River Indians. The historical book I found had some phonetic words that survived. There are maybe only twenty words. I thought, Fuck, man, this is a dead language. This would be cool to use.

The new song “Maria Lionza” is a spacey, multi-part opus. What inspired that song?
It’s an evocation of a goddess. It’s musically trying to represent what that experience would be like. So in the beginning, I state my woes to the goddess, and in the next part, we state her name and ask her for something. When it comes to her reply, it’s ineffable, so that part is instrumental. I thought, Who makes the most ineffable, sacrosanct music? And it’s Alice Coltrane. It was an Alice-inspired moment of music. I’m sure I didn’t execute it well, but that was the concept.

Growing up, you lived in Venezuela for many years. What do you think of the country’s leader, Hugo Chavez?
I just returned there this winter, because my cousin got married. My whole thing is that I love him when I’m in the U.S., and I’m unhappy with him when I’m in Caracas. I’m happy when he’s not around. I was living there during the coup. I was on my way to school when it all happened, and my mom was like, "You’re not going to school today." Today, it’s frightening. He’s tried to influence the culture. Any music on the radio has to have some modicum of an indigenous instrument. I find that to be a totally fucking fascist way of instilling some sort of culture. I don’t agree with it, but I guess he’s trying to remind people that Venezuelan culture is extremely valuable.

A lot of musicians use Twitter nowadays. Why don’t you?

Just because I’m a twat doesn’t mean I can do it. I don’t know. I guess I don’t want everyone to know what I’m doing every second.

You dated Natalie Portman for a spell. Are you guys still on good terms?
Very good terms. She’s one of my best friends. I love her super-much. Super-much.

The decade is almost up. What are some of your favorite songs of the aughts?
That’s a tough question you just threw up in my face. "My Girls" by Animal Collective, "Daniel" by Bat for Lashes, "Walls" by Beck, "Two Weeks" by Grizzly Bear, and every song by GZA. And can we put Deerhoof’s "Spirit Ditties of No Tone" on the list, too?