Text: Wyatt Allgeier
"Nobody is calling the cops saying we need more art books. There will be plenty." Devendra Banhart, talking in reference to anxiety he experienced at the onset of his new publication, I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street, is, of course, correct here. There is certainly no shortage of art books, monographs, artist zines, and the like circulating at the moment, filling up museums' bookshops, pop-up stores, and whole floors of general bookstores. There is a shortage of something else though: sincerity. With many artists' books there is a distance, a conceptual bridge unfit for many readers' crossing, but in Devendra's first foray into print, there is an abundance of the sincere gesture, the kind hand guiding you to new lands. The earnestness of simplicity and beauty unentangled by high, theoretical pretense are at the core of I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street. It is a book that chronicles his evolution as an artist, from early experiments in film to drawings chock full of meticulous attention and subtle perfection, but it also reads like a family photo album. In the nearly 200 pages inside, a constant sense of intimacy and directness walk the reader through photographs, poems, drawings, film-stills, and conversations to great effect. During a summer afternoon thunderstorm, Devendra and I talked about the book, the process leading to its conception, practical magic, music, and dancing. Like his entire body of work, the conversation was a simple exchange in sincerity.
You’ve been doing a lot of shows in space for a while now, touring a lot and so forth, so what attracted you to the format of the book? And why now?
DEVENDRA BANHART Why do a book? Because any artist does dream of a monograph. And once Prestel, the publisher, approached me it was like, Oh my god, thank you, yes. I want to keep my answers brief because I have so much empathy now for transcribers! I really commend your bravery for only using one recording device. I’ve only conducted two interviews my whole life and both were complete technical disasters. I had two iPhones and both stopped recording like five minutes in. These were two hour-long interviews. And so the point is I’m warning you, ‘cause you’re with someone who is not a Luddite, but someone who is poison to recording devices... I’m like Big Foot. Technology goes loopy and wacky around me. I’m just telling you right now…
Are you a book collector?
DB I am! I kind of gleaned this from these two friends of mine who I designed the cover with. They’re Osk Design. They’re awesome designers. At the studio they always have this revolving door of art. But the art is just nice book covers that they have facing outward on a shelf. That’s how you can tell when you’re done with a great book cover; it becomes a nice piece. It’s such a pleasure because I’m constantly shifting the art around my house. It’s like, now I’m going to have this cover—I’ll pull this one out, face this one out… It’s so fun. The book is something that is such a beautiful object—it can be at least—and I feel I spent so much of my adolescence hunting for them, like, Oh my god, they don’t realize what they have! It is very similar to records [in that way], actually.
DB When I go to people’s houses, I try to make it a point to go through their books, because it’s so fun! And I know that they probably took some time in their library to curate it, so it’s like, let me look at your books!
Do you know that John Waters quote where he says, “If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!”
DB That’s so good! Yeah.
And so true.
DB So true and so good.
How are you feeling about layout? Whether or not the layout has some rhythm to it can make or break a publication. Maybe it’s sort of similar to composing an album, choosing the song order?
DB It’s 1,000 times more essential in a book than in an album. You could open a book anywhere and you should be in the page. We don’t listen to music the same way we used to. You don’t typically make a mix of the book. Oh, that’d be amazing though, wouldn’t it? That’d be kind of an interesting concept. I come to your house, you tell me your favorite books, then I make you a mix. So you’ve got your book mix number 1, book mix number 2, all in your library… It would be an interesting service! It could be purely conceptual, but it’s something kind of interesting to think about.
Have you been to Printed Matter?
DB Oh yeah, of course.
It was devastating when Hurricane Sandy came through. Something like 9,000 books were damaged. There was a big community effort to try to replace the books. People gave books from their personal libraries just to try to replace what was in the archive. I bring it up as a testament, of sorts, to the importance and love afforded to books.
DB I had a moment where I was like, so freaked out [about the book]. I was so nervous about the book, because you have a book and it’s your book and it’s like, what are you going to call it? Pressure! Pressure! And nobody is calling the cops saying we need more art books. There will be plenty. You have to attempt to have fun with it. You should really make it a beautiful object. Make it something you want to keep.
Do you have feelings about the difference between words and images? Is there a difference?
DB Well, there’s an entire [history there]. I wouldn’t say that I work with words visually other than I get really into different fonts and handwriting in certain phases or bodies of work. When I work on an album, there’s a particular handwriting that goes with that album, with those songs. So, why is there text in here? I wanted a catalogue. I wanted a pretty dry catalogue of work over the past ten years. Prestel wanted something quite different; maybe something more intimate and lyrical and winsome and a little looser, which is lovely. This is their polite way of saying "There’s no way you’re going to do that." [laughs] As you’re accumulating work, weird little things start to pop up and you start to look at the book as a space to make work. And so, you start to see this image might be interesting with these words. Things start to emerge through the process of creating a book. So much more than, “here’s a bunch of work.”
Earlier, we touched on repetition when we were talking about music you want to make. I was wondering if you are you influenced by certain sacred geometries or is it a meditative practice?
DB Well, sometimes it feels like my way of overriding concept or talent. Okay, I’m just going to prove to you how much I love this by just repeating this forever. Here’s my proof. Now I have proof. Here’s proof of dedication, of time. And one of the most beautiful expressions of love is of course attention. So here I am, I’m giving attention to something so miniscule. I’m just gonna paint this dot a billion times. When I was very, very young I was hanging out with a childhood friend and her little sister, who’s now growing up to be a dancer, came home - she must’ve been 12 - she came home, exhausted from middle school, and she just says, “I just want to draw lines all day.” And we overheard this, she wasn’t even talking to anyone. And wow, that moment stayed with me. So the thing is, there is very little concept.
Do you dance? Are you a dancer?
DB Poorly, poorly. I flew in from L.A. to a dance party, people dancing on tables, and I realized I am just the worst dancer. I have no moves and I immediately revert to a character, which is Old Cuban Man. In my head I go Oh, Old Cuban Man. Always people ignore him, or go “he looks pretty cool. Old Cuban Man giving it…,” so I do the Old Cuban Man. It’s the only move I’ve got. That, or [does a hand gesture].
Like a little twist?
DB I don’t know what move it is. Actually, I was on tour a couple of weeks ago, in Portugal, and I saw an eight year old boy completely letting loose. Fully no-give-a-fuck-about-anybody, all he wanted to do was express what the music felt like. And he looks like, pre-dancing. Or it looks like spastic flamenco. Or it looks like cubist voguing. Voguing is already kind of cubist. By the way, I think the day of the book release they’re going to show Paris is Burning outdoors. Which is a crime, because I’ve been waiting to see that movie outdoors. So, on the record, if you’re going to see that film, watch it, it’s the greatest documentary of all time. I forgot what I was going to say….
Dancing. We were talking about dancing. Cubist voguing.
DB Oh, so cubist voguing is what this, what is looks like, I think, when you have a being fully unselfconscious. I’m a very self-conscious dancer. I’m not so self conscious that I don’t dance. I’ll dance, but I’ll stick to my character, Old Cubist Man… or Cuban Man. [laughter]
Well, as an adult, if you do that total free, spastic thing, you really let go, immediately most people in the room don’t see it as freedom. They see it as an attention-seeking device, and that makes you self-conscious.
DB Exactly. But you really need to override that, because we think we can get in to other people’s heads. We actually can, fundamentally, because of the seat of the human being. But that’s metaphysical. Generally speaking, on the particular world, physical realm of consciousness, we have this thought, people are looking, people care. The sad thing is that that’s some sort of nurtured crime, when in fact, they could be looking at you going, "My God, I wish I could do that." Or, "How gorgeous, how wonderful." But we never jump to that. It’s really a fucked up thing. That’s why actually maybe it’d be good to have kids. Try to curb that censor.
When I was in college my drawing teacher, Kimowan Metchewais, was really in to dance. He would never let you draw sitting down or on the floor. You always had to move. Drawing was a movement of the whole body.
DB I love that. One of my favorite stories ever is about this Zen master who would get drunk, dip his ponytail in ink, whip his hair, and make that the painting. I mean, that’s one of the most beautiful images. It’s beyond beautiful, it’s so beautiful. Talk about motion! Talk about work capturing motion!
I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street by Devendra Banhart is available now from Prestel Publishing.
After "Haru Spring" by Harold Budd. Ink on paper, NYC, 2014
First Tour- with Entrance/ Guy Blakeslee, somewhere in New Mexico, 2002. Photo: Tommy Awalt Rouse
The Three Secrets of Fatima. Ink on paper, NYC, 2003