Music for Milton

Lance Dawes

Keenan Milton. Cape Town, South Africa, 2001.

When discussing Devendra Banhart, you often hear about the uniqueness and fragility of his voice, his eclectic upbringing or his singular songwriting steeped in so many genres. It's strange that skateboarding -- one of the biggest inspirations in his career and the reason he once cancelled a tour due to injury -- is seldom cited. An intimate instrumental on his latest album, "Mala," inspired me to ask him about skating and Milton's influence. What was your first setup?
Devendra Banhart: My first setup was a Variflex that I bought in Caracas, Venezuela, where I grew up. It had a picture on the bottom of a guy doing a handplant on a vert ramp. So there's this guy doing a handplant, he's upside down on a vertical halfpipe, and under the graphic it said "Ollie." So I'm skating around Caracas and was like, "Yo, there's this thing that if you hit [the] back [of your board] with your foot, you can make the board jump! I'm really excited about that, but someday I'm going to get to do this 'ollie' thing that's on the bottom of my board.'" [Laughs.]

Did you dive right into skateboarding after getting that first board?
As kid in Caracas we had limited access, but what we had was utilized like the conch in "Lord Of The Flies'" or the euro: It was currency. If somebody had a copy of "Propaganda" or "Ban This," they were king of the universe. There was a little crew of skaters; our club [was] called "The Talking Skulls." We had memberships [cards] that had a skull with a knife going through its head, and our first exposure [to skateboarding] was Powell. My hero was Frankie Hill; he was a superstar and was so important to all of us.

Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

"If I am initially attracted to a sport, that is not a sport, but an active meditation or a meditation activity. Skateboarding is immediate freedom." -- Devendra Banhart

When I moved to America, I continued to skate and that's how I found my friends, but it wasn't what it is today; I was immediately marginalized for being a skateboarder. I was the first kid who had Etnies in my high school and I was made fun of because they were green. I was already a kid from South America with a weird name -- a girl's name, essentially, [or] at least that's how it was perceived -- so I didn't have a lot going for me.

Every weekend, we'd take the bus to the West L.A. courthouse and hope to see some of our heroes. I'm a professional musician and artist, and I've done it for over 10 years, and with all of the famous people I've met, none of it compared to the first time I saw Rick Howard, Eric Koston, Tim Gavin and Jeron Wilson skate down the steps of the courthouse, or [the] first time I bought a deck from Kareem Campbell from the back of his car, shivering, shaking, unable to speak. Any of the people I've met since then has been very comfortable, because nothing was as monumental as meeting [those skateboarders].

What about the music in the Powell videos?
That never ever affected me. It wasn't until later -- seeing Keenan in the Girl/Chocolate videos, that was the catalyst for me wanting to make music. Up to that point I had only heard the ubiquitous music, the root music of Venezuela, which is salsa, merengue and cumbia. At home, I was lucky: I had hippie, arty, cultural parents that played me classical, American music and rock 'n' roll.

When I moved to America, what was happening with skateboarding then was 411 [Video Magazine], Girl and Chocolate, Foundation, Toy Machine and 60/40. Suddenly, this was the music that I had come across; all of that influenced my music. I already had a musical vocabulary, but it wasn't until this exposure to the music from skateboarding that I really thought I had found my music. It wasn't that I just happened to be in an environment; I had searched it out.

I clearly remember the moment I put on the Chocolate video "Las Nueve Vidas De Paco" and saw Keenan's part. He skates to "007(Shanty Town)" by Desmond Dekker and I'd never heard anything like that. It was simultaneously the most futuristic and atavistic thing I had ever heard.

Were you the type of kid who dug into the Desmond Dekker catalog because of that song and it parlayed into other artists?
Thanks to skateboarding I heard Crass, The Bad Brains, The Smiths, John Lennon -- that's thanks to Tim Gavin -- David Bowie, more indigenous ethnic recordings because of 60/40. That's how I heard my favorite hip-hop -- Gang Starr, De La Soul, Tha Alkaholiks, Del [tha Funkee Homosapien], [A] Tribe Called Quest -- and even soul, like Charles Wright and The Watts when Girl used "Express Yourself," but you can't skate to it unless you go [to] the record store. So it began this journey, but it was this particular moment that is so clear in my mind when I see Keenan skating to "Shanty Town." I knew about music, but saw a completely new dimension.

[Milton's] death is one that is beyond tragic, and "The Ballad Of Keenan Milton" is an instrumental. My intention was to record the song in the style of someone who is just learning how to play music, where you can hear that person not making it up as they go along, but investigating a new territory -- unsure of their footing. I wanted it to sound like my earlier recordings because his selection of "Shanty Town" was a catalyst for my recordings; it made me want to make music.

Would you be interested in doing the soundtrack to a skate video?
Just like I'd love to play the White House, I have to be invited to do these things. Well, I take that back; it's not like that's my dream place to play! But I have been waiting for that call for 31 years. That would be a huge honor. I have to also give credit to Jason Lee and to Chris Pastras for exposing me to jazz that I liked for the first time. The first time I saw 8mm or 15mm or anything shot through a Bolex, like Coltrane or Monk, that was heavy. That was big. I would be beyond honored to compose all of the music for a skate part or segment.

My talking point for this interview was one song, but skating seems to have informed your whole body of work. Did it influence all of "Mala"?
The fact that I make music or art, it's influenced that. I am not a dilettante or dabbling, or find skateboarding to be a hobby. I find it to be something that has formed the person that I am. My debt to it completely transcends my ability to explain what that debt is.

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