Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson on 80s health food stores, Halloween hallucinations and shared spirituality
By Clementine Zawadzki | Music | 16 September 2021

Their friendship began some 20 years ago on Halloween; Noah Georgeson dressed as Bjorn Borg, and Devendra Banhart as a character of his own creation. Looking past their costumes, they immediately recognised a kindred spirit in one another; an affinity for 80s health food stores and a deep spirituality that runs through everything.

The pair first worked together on Devendra’s 2005 album Cripple Crow, with the seed for their latest venture Refuge simmering behind the scenes for decades. The right time aptly arrived last year when the events of 2020 spurred most people to look outward for perspective and look inward for reflection. It was while making Devendra’s 2019 album Ma, that the ambient record began to take shape, however their initial plans to capture the sounds of nature while travelling were quickly halted due to lockdown. Instead, although a short drive from each other in Los Angeles, the pair collaborated remotely.

The intimacy of this process extends to the inclusion of friends, fellow musicians, and teachers who also lend their talents to the record, such as Mary Lattimore, Nicole Lawrence, Tyler Cash, Todd Dahlhoff, Vetiver’s Jeremy Harris, David Ralicke, as well as meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, Venezuelan guru Sri Mataji Shaktiananda, and Devendra’s own Bhutanese teacher Neten Chokling Rinpoche who recites a mantra at the end of track Asura Cave. Devendra and Noah aren’t particular about how you enjoy the record, they just hope Refuge reflects some compassion and peace back into the world.

Photography by Lauren Dukoff

Clementine Zawadzki: We owe this album to the power of Zoom. You must both be experts by now…
Devendra Banhart: You know, a lot of people have heard of ‘be here now’ but for us it’s ‘be here Zoom’. I’m surprisingly not Zoom savvy. You would think I’d be better at this point. I finally played my first show after a year of playing Zoom shows, and I always thought it’d be a dream to play a show in my underwear. Turns out it’s much better with an audience.

CZ: You wrote and recorded Refuge separately. Have either of you worked like that before with other collaborators or was it an entirely new experience?
DB: We’ve only been in the same room for decades.
Noah Georgeson: Perhaps too long.

CZ: Two decades, right?
DB: 20 years! That’s nineteen and eleven months too many to be in the same room with this person. This is our first remotely made album, and it completely changed the concept and the impetus, the engine of proportion was completely altered by the pandemic. Not only was it shaped and altered by the fact we were completely separate but also close to each other, we live a very close drive but we hadn’t seen each other, this also changed the intention of the record.

CZ: This is a record you’ve both been meaning to make for some time and it seems fitting it fell into place during a year people became more introspective…
NG: I think we were just waiting for a global pandemic to happen. Perhaps we manifested the global catastrophe for this record…
DB: Don’t say “We,” don’t quote me on that. Noah Georgeson said, “We manifested the pandemic.”
NG: Serendipity is definitely not the right word, because that implies a positive connotation. I think we all at times need peace from something… something that brings us closer to ourselves. I would say that very, very little positive has come from this horrific last year and a half of untold suffering and death. The only thing that could be potentially said is that it’s been a slight tiny fraction of a degree of levelling the playing field. This has affected us all in some way, and a lot of people are very often not affected by the catastrophes and dangers of the world, just by virtue of how we were born, the country we’re in, and all that stuff. But while we still enjoy those privileges, and in some ways they have been magnified during this pandemic, we have been touched by the horror and sadness of this time. Whether you are a king or a beggar, we are all in need of refuge from the scariness of the world.

CZ: That’s beautifully said. Is this reflection what made the recording process more intimate or the process itself?
DB: I think both. We were surprised at the intimacy of writing alone and for each other, and then extending that to the rest of the world. In a way, you’re more vulnerable when you’re writing alone and then you share it with one person. The record is a combination of half of Noah’s compositions and half of mine, and we were both so happy because he influenced the songs I composed, and I influenced the songs he composed. It wouldn’t have ever taken shape if it hadn’t been for this internal time, this introspective time. Like Noah said, we’re all going through this in different ways, but we’re still all going through it. That’s really brought a type of spiritual maturity to the world, because you hear how we’re all ‘interconnected’ and this concept of ‘interconnecting’ hasn’t been at the forefront of general vernacular, so it’s really nice to see that aspect of it.
NG: Devendra, you mentioned spiritual maturity… a side effect of that is also spiritual tantrums people throw. The way their fear is manifesting is by just wanting to keep their sovereignty, what they think is their own free will at the cost of the community. Of course, I’m speaking about people who don’t want to take the vaccine because they think it’s an infringement on their rights, or not wearing masks because they don’t think they need to protect other people. That’s just a reaction to fear. A misguided one I would say, but you have to try and see the humanity in it.
DB: I remember seeing this documentary where this Republican politician realises the way we consume meat in America is so over the top to the point it’s affecting farming culture and the globe, contributing to global warming and the destruction of the earth. The solution was to just maybe eat a little less meat. So he goes around talking to different people saying, “Would you consider having maybe just five hamburgers and skip the other two days of the week?” And the anger he received for suggesting that… having a hamburger free day is too much of an affront to someone’s identity. It’s also probably the first time we’ve heard of the term ‘ableism’, and it’s a term that’s been around for a long time, but I feel this pandemic has brought forth that term. It’s basically a very selfish, ego-driven way of thinking that excludes the fact some people are very ill and are born very ill. To bring that to light means we can catch where we have an ableist attitude in life, because the opposite of that is compassion.

We were surprised at the intimacy of writing alone and for each other, and then extending that to the rest of the world.”

Photography by Lauren Dukoff

CZ: How much was creativity and music a refuge for you both?
NG: I had two things that kept me focused and not spiralling off into the formlessness of this time, especially being someone who doesn’t have a normal schedule to begin with as a musician. We couldn’t see other people, so what provided me structure was having a young child who during the day kept me very present and I’m very thankful for that. At nights, I did a bit of doomscrolling, finding every horror there is and indulging in that, which is a very strange, human appetite. The healthy thing that would tear me away from that self-destructive habit was the nightly practice of working on this record in a half-dream state. I think that kept me sane for the last year and a half.
DB: I took a lot of refuge in listening to music and meditation, but really having a lot of beautiful music made by a lot of the people that influenced this record for us. Foremost, Harold Budd, who I feel like I wrote a lot of the songs for, but who passed away from Covid-19, so he never got to hear it. Also, people like Hiroshi Yoshimura, Satoshi Ishikawa, Pauline Oliveros – who Noah studied with at Mills [College], so definitely a big influence – Masahiro Sugaya, Roger Eno, Paul Horn. I’d be listening to this music thinking, “This is really helping me, this is my refuge.” Then, suddenly, a song by Smash Mouth would come on. I’m listening to this beautiful, ambient music for four or five hours straight while I’m working, dealing with friends, people freaking out, I’m freaking out, and this calm music is helping me through, then… a Smash Mouth song. I was like, “What the fuck is going on? How is this algorithm going from Roger Eno to Smash Mouth?” It happened for at least six months. I’m listening to the same playlist all year, and suddenly this Smash Mouth song comes on. I started thinking someone hacked into my account and listening to whatever they want, like Smash Mouth. Time goes on and then finally Noah just hints at something about my Spotify. It was like watching a thriller movie, like Ocean’s Eleven where you see later all the steps they took to do the heist. I looked in my Liked Music – I didn’t even know it was a section – and there was just hundreds and hundreds of Smash Mouth songs. I remembered that Noah had my old computer for recording for some reason, which has my old Spotify on it, and for one year he had slowly been making Smash Mouth my most liked band without me knowing. So, thanks for nothing…
NG: I wanted to jar you out of your blissful state.
DB: Thank you for teaching me tolerance and patience.

CZ: That’s friendship…
DB: None of that story is true; it’s just a metaphor for our friendship.

At nights, I did a bit of doomscrolling, finding every horror there is and indulging in that, which is a very strange, human appetite.”

CZ: I understand you both had a similar upbringing in the sense you were around New Age practices, like meditation. How much of that was instilled in you from a young age and how much was your own discovery as an adult?
NG: It was a very straightforward, matter-of-fact part of life, not that I meditated as a child necessarily. I tried, but it’s a tough thing to pull off when you’re an actual kid. I think your mind needs to be looking outward when you’re a little kid. The only thing that was obviously different was that I grew up vegetarian. If you were spying on the family, that’s the only thing that would look out of place. My Dad would wake up, meditate for two or three hours, go and work at the Post Office for eight hours, come home and coach my Little League Baseball team, and have our vegetarian dinner. This spiritual practice and the teachings they read to us from all different cultures and spiritual paths were integrated like they were just part of the routine. It wasn’t heavy-handed, even the vegetarianism, my parents always said, “Hey, if you want to eat meat that’s fine,” so it never gave us this point of friction we would rebel against. If you want your kid to be this super freewheeling artist type, and you push that on them, it’s guaranteed they’ll be a doctor or a conservative young Republican or something. They were great at exposing us to this stuff and not making it too much of a trip we’d push back from. I’ve seen the power of that and how my parents were able to navigate life graciously and gracefully. My Dad worked at the Post Office for 40 years, but I couldn’t do it for a day, it would drive me crazy. But he was able to do it in service to his family. Meditation has always been there for me and I’m very lucky.
DB: I had a very similar upbringing. It wasn’t weird at all to wake up and see both my parents meditating, and to have this Eastern spiritual wisdom surrounding me. In one sense it made the idea of meditation very comfortable and normal, it wasn’t exotic for me whatsoever as a kid. But in a way, it kept me from actual practice because I only saw the spiritual materialism of it. I only saw the outer tools, like the seats and the nice little robe that you wear. As a kid I’d try it, but I was just sitting there. My parents were like, “Oh wow, we have a spiritual child,” and put that trip on me. That fucks with you a bit, because you think that’s what it’s about, or like it’s some crazy mystical thing where you get visions like you’re floating through space. In a different perspective and at another level, high beings are having those kinds of experiences. I remember seeing my father meditating and thinking, “He must be somewhere else,” it wasn’t until later when I started to meditate I was like, “Wait a minute, it’s when I’m not meditating that I’m somewhere else. This is the only time I’m here.” So I tell people if I’m meditating, “Don’t worry and just ignore me. This is when I’m really the most here.” I remember showing videos of different teachers to friends, and it was so disappointing because they weren’t saying some crazy, psychedelic stuff. A lot of this stuff is so concrete it’s boring almost. A lot of it is boring actually. At the same time, those are the moments you sit because you must. We tried to make a type of album that could be utilitarian in the sense that it might create that environment where you might just want to take a moment and sit with yourself. It’s really rare that, even throughout the day, we remember we’re breathing. Just one conscious breath is so valuable. But I get so caught up in my brain I totally forget.

It wasn’t weird at all to wake up and see both my parents meditating, and to have this Eastern spiritual wisdom surrounding me.”

CZ: Were your similar backgrounds something you immediately connected over?
NG: We didn’t know it about each other in an overt way. We obviously recognised something in each other that allowed us to have ease with each other from the very beginning. Devendra was in Caracas, Venezuela for most of his childhood, so in a lot of ways our upbringing couldn’t be more different. I think our immediate affinity for one another is probably not something you could pin on any experience… not in this lifetime anyway.
DB: That immediate sense of family, that brother feeling, was based on some coincidences, something so nostalgic for us that we shared, and definitely made us want to make this kind of record someday. It was basically spending a lot of time at the Health Co-op. The music playing, some Windham Hill album, the smell of the peanut butter making machine… it’s like 80s corporate hippydom. I feel like I spent my whole childhood in the one health food store.
NG: If we had the budget I think we would’ve created a nostalgic health food store. Every detail, every product, we would’ve sourced some deadstock, built this entire place, had people wander through the aisles, looking at supplement bottles from 1981…
DB: Nectar Nugget sponsored.
NG: If there are any investors out there that want to make this happen, let us know.

Photography by Lauren Dukoff

Just last week we had to commit crimes to get sent to jail, just so we could share a cell and record a record.”

CZ: You also met on Halloween, so your friendversary is fast approaching…
NG: I think our perception of each other was we injected the crazy into what was not crazy. I lived in The Castro in San Francisco, which used to have a huge party where half a million people would show up every year. They stopped doing it many years ago. My house was like the default escape headquarters from the madness, and Devendra was going to art school with a mutual friend of ours. Devendra got out of the taxi… even Uber seems stressful now… they’re breathing, you’re breathing…
DB: I’m just waiting for the Uber drone that grabs me by the back of my neck like a big cat.
NG: I feel sorry for Uber drivers and taxi drivers right now. Anyway, he got out, and I was the tennis player Bjorn Borg with a tracksuit on. Devendra told me that when he saw me he decided I was French and a drug dealer. Neither of which were true at the time. And to this day I’m still not French. Devendra was wearing a dress… it basically didn’t occur to us it was Halloween, even though we were surrounded by people in costume. But we took each other’s costumes at face value.
DB: I remember it quite differently.
NG: Devendra liked me because he thought I could sell him drugs.
DB: My version is that I saw this beautiful French cowboy drug dealer, holding bags and bags of various chemicals, and a big cowboy hat lit up with almost Christmas lights dangling from it.
NG: I wasn’t wearing any kind of hat.
DB: But this is how I remember it. You were very sexy, just out there doing a southern accent and a French accent at the same time, knocked me off my socks. You’d think I was wearing a dress, but it was actually just vomit. I was actually so drunk. I think I was wearing a predator mask and I had this robe, and I was Medator; the predator that meditates.

If we had the budget I think we would’ve created a nostalgic health food store. Every detail, every product, we would’ve sourced some deadstock, built this entire place, had people wander through the aisles, looking at supplement bottles from 1981…”

CZ: How do you think your working relationship has evolved over the years?
DB: The day that Noah tried to have me jump into an icy cold river in Upstate New York, I knew it wasn’t going to get better than this. We made a record in Bearsville…
NG: It’s near Woodstock, New York. Beautiful place, mid-winter. We had this cosy wooden dreamy studio, and that was the first record we made together. Since then, we have continuously downgraded the creature comforts. As interest wanes and budgets…
DB: Shrink…
NG: Now we record in a bare concrete room. Just last week we had to commit crimes to get sent to jail, just so we could share a cell and record a record. That’s our next plan.

CZ: What journey do you hope Refuge will take people on?
NG: I can’t imagine this, but if someone wants to lift weights to this record then I encourage them to do that. We won’t be offended. We understand this is music that allows your focus to shift. If you want to engage with deep listening, there can be rewarding moments, but it doesn’t demand that of you. If you want to use it as the backdrop for cutting vegetables, reading a book, climbing a mountain, breaking your old furniture… nothing is off-limits. There are no taboos here.
DB: I agree with that sentiment. I only know from my experience, but maybe it’s something that people can relate to, and that is almost everything is stressful right now. Everything is a bit of a struggle to get through, to accomplish, to participate in. Even going to the supermarket is a pretty intense experience right now. Maybe take this record into the gym. I’d love to see it if that’s the case. Everything is magnified and amplified for a good reason, so hopefully it can help you navigate though the stress. And this is called HERO magazine. Hero, that’s cool you know. I’ve heard people say it should be Shero… let’s gender neutralise it.
NG: Theyro.
DB: Theyro! Let’s think of Theyro’s journey, Joseph Campbell’s famous Theyro’s Journey. The question isn’t whether the Theyro or Shero or Hero will win, but the question is will they use their heart?
NG: If you can use this album to find a moment in the day to find a bit of a refuge for yourself, and then project that peace outwards into the world to someone else, then I will be very gratified we’ve been successful with this record.

Refuge by Noah Georgeson and Devendra Banhart is out now via Dead Oceans.


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