This is the full extended interview that ran in our April 2013 Interview Issue, on newsstands now.
Portrait by Sam Muller, words by Kevin Duffel
Don’t judge a book by its cover, Devendra Banhart will slay you in a game of SKATE. Every single time. With a banging switch heel that’s equally as pleasing to the eyes as his guitar and vocal harmonies are to the ears, the Venezuelan-born and now New York-based songwriter and visual artist owes a vast majority of his musical education to growing up watching skate videos—especially Keenan’s part in Las Nueve Vidas De Paco. So yeah, for the record, his song “The Ballad Of Keenan Milton” on his wistfully melodic new album, Mala, is a tribute to that Keenan Milton. Keenan forever.
On the new album you have a song called “The Ballad Of Keenan Milton.” I assume that’s named after Keenan Milton the skater, yeah?
Yeah [laughs]. Oh no, it’s about the old Irish playwright, Keenan McMilton. No, it’s about Keenan Milton, yeah.
Has he always been one of your favorites, or why write a song about him?
Well, yes, but Keenan in particular, he was kind of a key player—or at least a key catalyst—in my desire to really want to make music my vocation. At least partly my career. You know, I make visual art too, and have actually been able to make more money off of that in the last couple years. But the point is, with music, Keenan had a huge hand. In the Chocolate video [Las Nueve Vidas De Paco], for Keenan’s part, he chose a song called “007 Shantytown” by Desmond Dekker. And that changed my life. I had never heard any music like that.
So you heard that and realized music was what you wanted to do forever?
Well, in a sense, yes. Absolutely. It didn’t necessarily make me realize that music was what I wanted to do. It just completely opened up a world that I knew I wanted to explore. I didn’t think, “Man, I want to make music.” I just thought, “What the fuck is this? What are these sounds? I need to get into what this is.” I never heard any music like that, and it felt like I discovered it, like Keenan whispered this song to me. It totally changed my life. I owe that so much to Keenan. And so this song, it’s an instrumental called “Ballad Of Keenan Milton”—but of course he also died under the most tragic circumstances and it was unbelievably sad and unfortunate and heartbreaking to this day, for me at least and I know for a lot of people—and I wanted to write a song that sounded really vulnerable and like I’m just discovering how to play the guitar, you know? I’ve been playing the guitar now for I don’t know how long—many, many years—but I wanted the approach for the song to make it sound like I was just discovering the guitar, because Keenan was one of the reasons. So you’re right, it did make me want to write music. In the end, yeah, you can absolutely say that a reason I write music now is because of Keenan Milton. I also owe so much of my music education and desire to make music to skateboard videos. The first time I ever heard David Bowie was in a skate video. I don’t remember who it was. It might have been a Toy Machine video. Who was the skater who had big black hair and big glasses? He might have ridden for Toy Machine?
“In the end, yeah, you can absolutely say that a reason I write music now is because of Keenan Milton.”
Steve Olson? Was it a Foundation video?
Yeah, in a Foundation video Steve Olson uses a song called “Quicksand.” You know what I’m talking about, right? Well that was the first time I heard David Bowie. The first time I heard the Smiths was in a 411 video. Shit, the first time I ever heard Blondie, “The Tide Is High”, was in a skate video. I owe so much of the basics of music and my musical education to skateboard videos.
That’s what I was going to say. So obviously skateboard videos play a huge part in people’s understanding of music and their education. So do you feel like it’s an honor when someone uses one of your songs in a video part?
It’s an honor I have yet to experience.
You’ve been in a Toy Machine video.
Yeah! Austin Stephens used one of your songs.
Yup, I promise. I’ll send it to you.
No way. Yeah dude, please. I can’t believe it. Are you kidding me? I’m shocked.
Yeah, I actually know a lot of people who discovered your music through that part.
I didn’t know about that. I really didn’t know about that. [Laughs] Well it’s news to me. I’m fucking beyond honored, unbelievably honored. Of course, exactly, think of the beauty of that. I had a transitional phase with management, and maybe they made a decision for me, which is a wonderful decision. That’s the best decision made for me. Officially. I’m super honored. So much of the foundations of my musical education, and for so many people, comes from skate videos. And to have your music in a video—lowering the bar in that musical education—regardless is still an honor [laughs].
Do you have any song that you’ve recorded that you feel like would go particularly well with skating?
Remember when Girl had, I think it was maybe Rick Howard skates through the forest? Well, someday if they can shoot somebody skating on the ocean somehow—like freezing the wave and actually skating the ocean. Obviously that’s how people would describe surfing, but no, I’m talking skateboarding on the ocean, or maybe underwater, I’ve got a perfect song for that. All my songs work for that. When you skate underwater, that’s what my songs are for [laughs].
“When you skate underwater, that’s what my songs are for.”
You’ve beat me in numerous games of SKATE before. How do you keep your flatground perfectly on point?
Oh, that’s not fair to say. That was serious luck. Your skills… it’s not even a question. Anyway, that was weird sabotage. I messed with your bearings before we went out and played that game.
How do you stay on point with it?
How’s a great question. The tricks of the trade—I don’t know if I can just give that away.
Do you get to skate quite frequently still?
I absolutely do. I am actually staring at two skateboards now. I put bikinis on them and they are wearing a lot of makeup. And I take skateboards with me on tour. I always have one. My suitcase is actually just the right size where I can fit a full deck, or take a little cruiser, on tour. So yeah. And I always make sure of course that I have a full skatepark in my tour bus, which is humble—very humble.
Hey, you’ve got to spend that money somehow.
Well even with that, bringing your board on tour, I know you broke your leg skating while on tour before and had to cancel some shows. Does the management ever get upset with you or say that you can’t skate?
Well no. It wasn’t my skateboarding, it was that somebody’s head—somebody else’s skateboarding—broke my leg. I was happily cruising along, doing little manual tricks, a little switch heelflip here and there, just cruising along. Well, Rodrigo Amarante who plays in my band and is in Little Joy and Los Hermanos and has his own solo records. Well, he was playing with us at that time and is a great brother who I love deeply. But he’s Brazilian, and Brazilians have strong craniums. They have thick, robust craniums. And he just skated, pumped as hard as he could, and tried to do a trick right before hitting me. I don’t even know what was going through his mind. His idea was to skate as fast as he could, do like a 90 ollie, and just errrr. You know, he thought that his wheels were just going to skid out a little bit. He thought he was in a Ferrari peeling out. That’s what he thought he was going to do. And it didn’t work and he smashed his head into my knee, bending it backwards. I was cruising around mellow. But at that moment I was standing stationary on my board. It was his head, man, it was his head.
Is there anything akin to a game of SKATE in the music world that you’ve discovered?
Anything akin to a game of SKATE? The ecstasy of victory that one can derive from a game of SKATE, that will never be eclipsed by anything else on this planet [laughs].
And the pains and toils of losing…
The pains of losing, it is. I’ve been dropped off labels, I’ve had records go in the red, I’ve been booed off countless stages, but it’s all been a sundae with a cherry on top compared to losing in a game of SKATE. I often watch those videos of the SKATE matches from the Berrics, and you see Koston and Steve as the charming hosts—sometimes The Game will make an appearance, which is awesome and weird—and they’re riveting. They’re Shakespearian dramas. These are our Midsummer Night’s Game Of SKATE.
It is true. There’s nothing quite like it.
Nothing else interests me more, in terms of watching an athlete. There should be marble—I would get Donatello to rise out of the grave and make marble sculptures of skaters, of the best skaters. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I mean, if I had the fucking money. One day I’m going to get real Greek marble and just sculpt—imagine David, but it would be Rodney Mullen. In the future, I will do that. That’s what I’m working on.
That’s the next project. Go from paintings to sculpture.
“The pains of losing, it is. I’ve been dropped off labels, I’ve had records go in the red, I’ve been booed off countless stages, but it’s all been a sundae with a cherry on top compared to losing in a game of SKATE.”
Both skateboarding and music are coming to this crossroads of commercialization, where each is becoming more and more of a commodity than an art form in a sense. What’s your take on the commercialization of each? Do you think those are commodities to be bought and sold, or are they art forms that should be experienced spiritually?
Oh no, you can sell anything to anyone. So if anyone complains that something’s being commercialized or that somebody is capitalizing on somebody only because they see dollar signs, or the potential to exploit, that’s just the nature of it. But art—like skateboarding, like music, like forms of expression—is made up of individuals. And that’s it. That’s one person, completely alone. Skateboarding is the closest thing to that. I don’t want to talk to people, I want to be alone. And skateboarding is mine, you understand? So I don’t care, people can sell it, people can sell anything. But I’m still going to skateboard, I’m still going to make music, I’m still going to make art regardless.
So it doesn’t detract from the art itself?
Exactly. It’s a byproduct. It has nothing to do with me, in a way. This is the weird part of course as the artist or as the skateboarder. Those problems that arise with the marketing of art, the packaging of art, and the same goes with skateboarding, that has nothing to do with me. Of course I can decide to interact with that, I can decide to play a part. But as long as we’re not playing a part, as long as we’re not acting, then we have nothing to hide behind. And we have nothing to be ashamed of. I’d love to be able to pay rent, but then I’m going to get a job and still make art and still skateboard. Those aren’t my incentives. That’s not the impetus for skateboarding. We have to exist as the Buddhists say: “In the world, but not of the world.”