Devendra Banhart Is Not Hungry
Photos by Nate Miller
The Chateau Marmont hotel has famously served as a welcome respite for celebrities looking to avoid the all-seeing eyes of the public. Whether it’s Lindsay Lohan ducking from the omnipresent tabloid press, or John Belushi throwing off the pesky shackles of mortality, the Chateau has long been a place where you can go specifically to not be seen. But that’s not so for musician and visual artist Devendra Banhart, who agreed to spend a full day in one of the hotel’s rooms as part of the clothing line Band of Outsiders' exhibition for its 2014 Spring/Summer collection. With cameras set up all over his room streaming live to online viewers, his every move was on display and his every word audible to anyone who cared to listen.
I pulled up to the valet outside of the Hollywood landmark and thanked myself for getting my car washed a few days ago. It still looks like a piece of shit, but at least it gave me enough confidence to hold my head up high among the hotel’s patrons who were shelling out hundreds of dollars a night to feel like real celebrities (conveniently forgetting that celebrities never pay for anything). I went upstairs to check in with my contact at Band of Outsiders and was met with a room of eight people watching one of the three monitors displaying the different camera feeds from Banhart’s room. It felt like one of those uncomfortable moments at a party when someone wants to show everyone something on YouTube. Except it’s not YouTube, it’s live, and you’re at the Chateau Marmont instead of your friend’s shitty studio apartment.
The event worked by organizing the collection into various looks and associating them with certain themes. The Band of Outsiders team would inform Banhart of the theme and give him a directive by knocking on the door and passing along an envelope containing a typed note with instructions. The image I saw on the computer screen when I walked in was of Banhart playing with a small child. This was nostalgia. Afterward, the child was traded for a barber and manicurist who went to work on Banhart. That was vanity. I learned that I’d be eating lunch with Banhart for my interview, and that the theme would be hunger. I immediately became apprehensive. I won’t say no to a free lunch, but I am a notoriously slow eater and began to work out the schematics of asking questions while maintaining some sense of dining etiquette. I was told we’d have another 30 minutes or so until they needed me, so I went outside to smoke a cigarette and steel myself.
I smoked three cigarettes and came back. I chatted with Scott Sternberg, the designer for Band of Outsiders, about why he chose to eschew the traditional runway approach to unveiling his collection. He pointed to the success Band of Outsiders has had in doing so before, and stated his belief that the runway is not the most conducive venue for male models or clothing. As we were talking, he looked up at the computer screen to see Banhart still being groomed for the theme of vanity. Sternberg asked, “Should we move on? Is this getting boring?” I began to worry about how long it would take him to ask the same questions once my interview started.
Fortunately, I didn’t have long to freak out. I was told that the food for lunch was ready and that I’d be going into Devendra’s room. The hotel servers knocked on his door, and a look of surprise registered on his face. We exchanged names and handshakes before sitting down to eat. I grabbed my BLT, and mentioned that this was a dream scenario for me. Not because of the subject of the interview, per se, but because it was a blessing to be able to eat at my own pace while someone else spoke at length. I asked him if he was hungry, to which he replied, “No.” This seeming impossibility shook me to my core. Now I’d be eating slowly in front of someone who wasn’t eating anything. A fate worse than death, indeed. Banhart must have sensed my unease, because as I stared blankly at him he assured me, “Eat. I’ll talk, don’t worry. I’ve got logorrhea.”
Less than a minute in and I was already impressed by his vocabulary, which didn’t fail to disappoint throughout the rest of the interview. We spoke for about 30 minutes and I got about four bites into my BLT. Here are some of the conversation highlights.
VICE: With all these cameras, I can’t help but think of the recent issue of NSA surveillance in the US. Are you at least comforted by the fact that you know you’re being watched?
Devendra Banhart: No, I’d much rather not have any idea. I prefer not knowing that I’m being filmed. I’m sure that someone has access to the camera on my computer, and I spend half my life in front of that screen, but in this situation, ignorance is liberation. I really admire people who can just be themselves or a version of themselves they don’t regret later. A lot of us don’t like the sound of our own voice, sure, but most of us know how to speak and act with the camera on.
I’m envious of those people. Ian Svenonius comes to mind. I know he’s being a version of himself, but it’s such an incredible, sagacious, and charming version. Which is him, but a version. He’s aware he’s doing an interview. There are those people whose art I love so much, but they can also be insightful and give an amazing interview. Maybe it’s genetics. The diplomacy gene.
What is your relationship to fashion and clothing? Are you a clothes horse?
I like clothes. I really do. I like going through colors, in a way. I go, “Greens, man. Greens. Oh, yellow. This yellow feels good.” So it shapes your psyche in a way. But I don’t think about it too much, even though I’m interested in it. So why am I doing this? Because I think this is a company that makes some of the best stuff. I think of a fashion company as its own little museum, and there’s a whole look to it. From the tag to the material to the label.
Green is one of my favorite colors. And here I am wearing this lovely green. It’s almost a nostalgic green. Like a lived-in green, with a bit of kitchen appliance thrown in there. So we can visit different cultural epochs with what we wear. For me, I don’t really know how to talk about how I feel about fashion. It’s not that I have some issue with it. I really like fashion and I’m happy to talk about it. But what usually inspires me to wear something is the cut and the fabric. And as a record collector, I’ll go through these different phases. So I’ll get into a scene and look for something that touches on that.
The current theme you’re exploring right now is hunger. I know you’re not eating, but what about the bigger kind of hunger? You’re a successful musician now, and at one point I imagine you hungered for it. Do you still have that same hunger? Is it different now?
No, no. I can be very used to something, but not comfortable in it. I don’t think I’ve reached that idea of success yet. For me it’s about making a full album I really like. Or with visual art, I do variations on a motif and repeat it for long periods of time and then move on to another motif. So there are five more motifs that I need to tackle before feeling excited for where I am. So I don’t think I’ve lost a hunger for success. Look at where I am doing this shoot for Band of Outsiders at the Chateau. It’s an incredible privilege and honor. It’s flattering, but I still have that feeling that everyone is going to figure it out and pull the plug. And I’ve had that feeling since the beginning of my quote, unquote career.
[He then asked me about my BLT, and I answered that it was relatively light due to the minimal amount of mayonnaise. He then brought up a type of mustard he can’t find anywhere before moving on to fermented horse milk, which is apparently all the rage in Mongolia. That touched off a brief discussion of our mutual love of milk and, in particular, milkshakes. I recounted a time recently when I had two milkshakes in a row, and he said he had done the same thing, although his body hated him for it.]
It’s like when you’re a kid and you think about being an adult and what that means—for a kid that means drinking as many milk shakes as you want.
Oh, yeah. Like I imagined I would have so many skateboards on the wall. I remember when I was a kid I thought I could either be an athletic water drinker, like an Olympic-level water drinker, or I could invent Windex. Which I thought was really smart, because it already existed.
I had a friend in high school who had a younger brother and we asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a milkshake. I thought that was a perfect answer to that question.
That’s the best answer to any question. Like, what time is it? I’d like to be a milkshake.
I imagine you stay in a lot of hotels.
I sometimes feel like I should be in the hotel business.
You know that feeling of walking into your hotel room? It’s almost like a new-car smell. Does that ever go away?
It happens every time, and it’s only the anchor of a consistently similar bathroom that I create that gives me that sense of, “No, I know this.” So always the car smell, but then I go right to the bathroom and I align the toothbrush in a particular place and the toothpaste in a particular place and then that new-car smell evaporates. And then I go, “Oh, OK, I’m someplace familiar.”
[During that last question, the phone in the hotel room started ringing. It just got boring, I thought. The call was from the other room, asking me to wrap it up. I complied, but I didn’t get out of there before Banhart was kind enough to ask me some (at least seemingly sincere) personal questions. As I left the room, plate of BLT in hand, I started to fret about how the interview played out. Did I ask the wrong questions? Should I have talked more about clothes? Was I… boring? But I didn’t hang on this line of thinking too long. I had bigger things on my plate. I sat down on the couch while the team left to prepare Devendra’s room for the next look and finished my BLT.]
Check out the video of Allen's interview with Devendra below. It starts at 4:09:17 and ends at 4:41:00.
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