“No matter what you do, make sure that you have a good time,” indie folk-rocker Devendra Banhart said last Thursday during a party celebrating the release of his seventh album, What Will We Be.
Discreetly located on the second floor of a Chinatown restaurant, the apartment previously known as Madame Wong’s is a former concert hot spot known to some as LA’s version of CBGB’s. Madame Wong’s became famous in the ’70s and ’80s for bringing in such acts as The Pretenders, The Ramones and Oingo Boingo to LA audiophiles.
Thursday night, however, Banhart and his crew of sombrero-wearing psych-folk compadres decorated the recently converted two-story townhouse with skull-shaped piñatas, ice tubs full of free cerveza, dark-red lighting and endless trays of enchiladas and churros to give the celebration a timely Dia de los Muertos theme.
Different from most big-time indie-rock shows, the audience at Madame Wong’s was a small crowd of Banhart’s friends and family, including actress Kat Dennings, who stood in the front row, tapping her feet as marionette shadows danced across the walls, and Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti, who performed as a guest musician in Banhart’s band.
A visual artist, poet, singer-songwriter and occasional actor, Banhart’s personality is an exact reflection of his musical style — friendly and genuine, but mysteriously difficult to diagnose — making this exclusive live concert an ethereal experience. It’s one grounded in reality but high enough to scrape the dew off a Venezuelan rainbow.
Born in Los Angeles but raised in Venezuela until the age of 14, Banhart attended the San Francisco Art Institute, but his artistic journey entailed getting as far away from the rules as possible.
“In college, they’d tell me to paint pictures a certain way, make art a certain way and get rid of my own personal style, and that’s when I knew I had to get out,” he said in a quiet booth at Footsies, a hole-in-the-wall bar located a few miles north of Chinatown, where Banhart held his after-party.
After performing music on the streets and at small venues in the Castro district, Banhart decided to pursue his musical interests full-time and played concerts throughout the United States and Europe. His first six albums consisted of innovative musical combinations using rustic string instruments, raspy vocals and dreamy poetry. Success with these new sounds ultimately mounted Banhart as the poster child for New Weird America, a recently established musical subgenre also known as freak-folk or, as Banhart describes it, “naturalisimo.”
In the last few years, however, Banhart’s fame has spiked with art exhibitions, bit roles in studio films, musical contributions to TV commercials and a brief relationship with actress Natalie Portman — it’s no wonder he feels resistant to becoming a sellout. But although Banhart has a lot more exposure on the horizon — including songs on Todd Solondz’s upcoming Life During Wartime soundtrack and a featured spot on a Beck-compiled compilation of Leonard Cohen covers — he remains optimistic.
“College is very important,” Banhart said. “I left the institution, but I kept the connections I found there and have benefited from them to this day.”
Dennings agrees with this statement, as she swoops into the booth and whispers something into his ear every few minutes. A longtime friend of his, Dennings and Banhart shared the silver screen together in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and continue to stay in touch. Concerning Banhart’s new album, Dennings adds that it’s “like unicorns dipped in chocolate.”
Banhart, however, isn’t too quick to praise his new work.
“My new album isn’t completely honest,” Banhart admitted after Moretti poured him a shot of tequila. “Even though it focuses on updating different genres, it’s not totally me.”
Despite Banhart’s sentiments toward the album, the 14-track What Will We Be is already getting rave reviews and is sure to propel Banhart even further up the ladder of important folk artists of our generation. The album mixes elements of R&B, bluegrass and Latin musical styles, and has an effervescent, friendly mood to it — much like the atmosphere Banhart has created for his guests Thursday night.
As the after-party wound down and Banhart headed off to a much more exclusive after-after-party, he made sure to write down a list of his favorite films and TV shows, taking contributions from Dennings, Moretti and other friends — in hopes of inspiring college students to follow in his footsteps and relish in the “naturalisimo.”