Devendra Banhart really, really wants you to dance.
With “Golden Girls,” the lead-off track on Mala, which dropped on Nonesuch Records this week, he implores the listener to do just that: Banhart hypnotically chants “Get on the dance floor” as the flames from a steady burn of strings and crashing cymbals lick at your heels. The song may last a grand total of a minute and a half, but the message carries over the course of the album as Banhart’s trademark eccentricity pops through flamenco guitar strains, synth deluges, sultry ballads and minimalist love songs that stun with their lyrical impact and instrumental simplicity. Surprisingly, Banhart doesn’t think that Mala‘s repertoire, despite this rhythmic call to arms, will have people up out of their chairs when he starts to tour behind it.
“I like to ask people to dance,” says Banhart. “I think it’s an uncomfortable thing to do, but I think it needs to happen. The goal is to be as confident, respectful and comfortable as possible. I’m not there to ignore anyone. I’m not there to not look into people’s eyes, or just even play the music and leave–but I’m not there to put on a show, either. I’m there to present something as humbly and respectfully as I can. I’m not an entertainer. But I’d like to do a little dance, if I can. I’m the worst dancer in the room, and probably the worst guitar player in the room. It makes it more comfortable for everyone else to join so we can all dance together.”
Recorded in the studio he and longtime collaborator Noah Georgeson built themselves in the Los Angeles home Banhart was residing in at the time, Mala is as much a product of its surroundings as it is the brainchild of the talents involved. As it wasn’t created in the highly controlled environment of a standard studio, Banhart, Georgeson and the other players featured on the record were subject to some imperfect, improvisational additions–say, a passing lawnmower or the shrill chirping of birds outside–that eventually worked their ways into Mala‘s fabric because the insulating job they did wasn’t as thorough as they thought.
“We soundproofed [the studio] ourselves,” says Banhart. “This was our first time doing so, so problems arose from that. Birds were on the song, and I didn’t want birds on the song. I remember years ago, the Library of Congress had identified bird songs for the amateur birdwatcher–they would play you the song of the raven or the bluebird or cardinal, and slow it down by one octave so you’d get a better sense of how the bird song sounds. I remembered hearing about this, as we had the challenge of having bird songs on our songs, so we dropped the octave, not by one or two but by 10, and it made it sound like a synth. The surprise of production I guess, in the end, was that seemingly synthetic sound is organic in origin. That was a really fun way of problem solving and using the studio itself.”
For Banhart, confronting challenges in the at-home studio with Mala was a beneficial exercise, one that pushed his songwriting limits and forced him to rethink the aspects of the recording he couldn’t control–tweeting birds and background noise and all. Though the resulting record is as elegantly unhinged, buoyant, inventive and unashamedly gyration-inspiring as his previous work, his songs remain works in progress, even after they’ve been retired for the set list and in circulation for years.
“I’ve never felt that anything is finished,” he says, when asked if he would’ve done anything differently now that Mala is ready for its debut. “I’m in a state of consistently perpetual frustration. I’ve felt that since I first started recording, so now I’ve reached a point where there’s no such thing as a song being done–it’s just incomplete enough. There are plenty of songs that didn’t make it on to the record. They just didn’t make it on to the record because they weren’t incomplete enough. Due to lack of responsibility and arrogance, I’ve put out songs that I didn’t like. At least there are songs that I like on this album. I just probably would record a lot of these in a different way, but my criteria for a song being done is that it’s incomplete enough. I know that seems circuitous. This record, I’m happy with it, but I can’t wait to get it right someday.”