Devendra Banhart & Noah Georgeson discuss the inspirations behind new album ‘Refuge’
Old friends and frequent collaborators Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson have just released Refuge, a gorgeous album that is unlike any either have made before. Created during 2020 lockdown, it's a seamless, hour-long trip that features appearances by Mary Lattimore on harp, Nicole Lawrence on pedal steel, Tyler Cash on piano, Todd Dahlhoff on bass, Vetiver’s Jeremy Harris on synthesizer and additional production, and David Ralicke on brass and woodwind. Refuge falls under the ambient umbrella -- they call it "new age" which is reinforced by its very Windham Hill cover art -- but it is also a compelling listen and you can check the whole thing out below.
We talked to Noah and Devendra about the inspirations behind the album, which include everything from composers Terry Riley & Gyan Ryley and Harold Budd, to farms and health food store peanut butter machines. Their commentary is a wonderful read, you really get a better sense of Refuge and the artists behind it. You might even be inspired. Read that below.
To celebration of Refuge’s release, the Getty Center in Los Angeles will be hosting a special listening experience on August 21 and 22 in the museum’s central garden designed by Robert Irwin. "Streaming through a custom sound system set up throughout the Central Garden’s circular pathways, the music will be looping throughout the weekend to make room for meandering and contemplation," and you can also pick up a limited edition zine made just for the event. More info is here.
DEVENDRA BANHART & NOAH GEORGESON ON THE INSPIRATIONS BEHIND 'REFUGE'
Five from Noah:
Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College
To me, the Music Department building at Mills feels like a temple - as though the greatness that has passed through there over the last hundred years has seeped into the stones. Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, John Cage, Terry Riley, Anthony Braxton, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, Henry Cowell, Maggie Payne and Laurie Anderson all spent time there. Some of the foundational ideas of electronic music and synthesizers came out of there. Pauline Oliveros taught me about her concept of ‘Deep Listening’ there, and she also taught me how to sing two notes at the same time. PS I don’t even sing one note at the same time on this record.
Listening to Terry Riley play piano and Gyan Riley play guitar
I was one of two kids in the small town where I grew up who played classical guitar. The other kid (who was/is far better than me) was Gyan Riley, whose father is Terry Riley. They lived way out in the woods at a place they called Sri Moonshine Ranch. I would go stay the night and Gyan and I would play guitar (he would play circles around me), and on a couple of occasions I heard Terry improvising on piano. I had never heard anything like it. I didn’t understand it, but it infinitely expanded my idea of what music could be the instant I heard it. Then I would hear Gyan, - my contemporary - also playing these incredible things, and that combination simultaneously opened up a new exotic universe and also made it feel like I could maybe inhabit that universe myself. A few years ago, my wife and I brought our then one year old son to see Terry play in a Doug Aitken installation at the MOCA in LA. So, the very first concert he ever saw will be the coolest concert he will ever see in his lifetime. It’s all downhill from there, kid…
By the way, Gyan Riley has a new album called ‘Shelter in Space’ which is wonderful.
The peanut butter machine at the local health food store growing up
This is a very particular memory that Devendra and I share, having both been kids in California in the 80’s with Hippy/New Age parents. It’s a multi-sensory memory - the sight of the peanut butter machine regurgitating it’s beige, chunky ambrosia, the smell of the peanuts mingling with the wafting scent of the supplement aisle, the profound disappointment at the blandness of unsalted peanut butter, and the omnipresent grinding, accompanied by the strains of the Windham Hill records played on repeat.
‘New age’ is kind of a derogatory term at this point, but it wasn’t always that way. Sure, it may have always been mostly silly, crunchy hogwash, but, for the most part, it was pretty innocuous. You believe that crystals raise your consciousness? Sure - why not? They’re nice to look at, at least, and, as long as you don’t start/join a cult, and you still take your kid to the doctor when they get sick, nobody’s getting hurt. Somewhere along the line, though, it got distorted and weaponized into a hyper-individualist, Ayn Rand approach to spirituality and health that has spawned the science denying, anti-vaxx misinformation that’s literally killing people right now. So, instead of using the much more respectable ‘ambient’, I’m choosing to call this a ‘new-age’ record, as an attempt to help reclaim that term from these maniacs, and return it to the innocent nonsense of its past.
Lou Harrison - The Perilous Chapel (the piece and the album)
‘The Perilous Chapel’ was a piece written as a ballet in 1948. Please listen to it.
‘The Perilous Chapel’ is also an album of Lou Harrison’s music from 1993, played primarily by David Tanenbaum and William Winant. I listened to this record a million times, and learned to play about half of the pieces on it. It was my introduction to non-western scales, modes and tunings, and it combines instruments from different traditions in a way that makes it feel like chamber music from an imaginary country.
Five from Devendra:
I may have listened to Harold’s albums more than anything else in my entire life, in fact, I'm listening now as I type this! ….. hours and hours and hours of his whole catalog… very utilitarian, augmenting the beauty all around, uncovering it where it could not be immediately found, and gotten me out of a panic pickle many many many a times…I cant even step into an airport without first checking if my Harold playlist is ready to go…So when Noah and I started composing and mapping out Refuge at the beginning of lockdown, I remember being so excited to finally be making the kind of album I've always wanted to share with Harold …. Everyone one of my compositions on Refuge was directly influenced by him…He died of Covid before I could drop off a copy, but this album will always be for him.
Green Gulch Farm Zen Center
This has always been one of my favorite places on the planet. We’ve done so much tracking in Northern California that Green Gulch has always been on the way to or from wherever a session may be, there is a ton of online talks and practice groups and hopefully in time one can still pop by on a Sunday and buy some of the best produce I guarantee you have ever tasted all straight from the temple adjacent farm... while writing the last record I spent a little time on retreat there and started to think about what kind of music a cabbage might like, what kind of music might un-spook a horse, what kind of music might sound nice if you were an ant walking into the throat of a blue Morning Glory….
Also, its very true that Noah and I are the children of the local health food co-op. I would have definitely also included the Peanut Butter Machine…. Oh and I totally agree, Gyan Rileys new album is spectacular, Tomorrow Morning, Again and Take a Look Within are muuuuuy bellisimo!
All of the field recordings on the album, particularly on "Asura Cave," were recorded in Nepal… there's some Kathmandu, Jomsom, Muktinath & Pharping all floating through there…. The most beautiful place I visited in Muktinath was a monastery run by nuns…. many were there on three year retreat so of course they could not be bothered, but a few were making fires and hanging out and they were perhaps the warmest and kindest people I have ever met. Those are their voices on the song Asura Cave…. Later in the song my own root teacher is singing a very powerful mantra for the benefit of all beings….
This is where Noah and I sat waiting for the Kancho (head Abbot) of this most extraordinary Temple in Kyoto… we had just had the insane fortune of being allowed to record a song in the main hall …. ( It never made it on to the last record!) and as a thank you gift we had just delivered a large (like huge bigger than a big baby sized) sake bottle and a small donation, when one of the monks escorted us into a small room with three chairs and a scroll hanging from the wall. Noah and I sat there for quite a while….. enough time that we started wondering if we were missing some temple etiquette and were supposed to just leave? Are we supposed to be grateful for having sat in this nice “vip” room? Or is the teaching to regard the empty seat as the true host or guest? We started laughing and decided we better split and right at that moment the head Abbot walks in and sits in the empty chair beside us, not saying a word, just sitting there ….. till finally one of us pointed at the scroll and asked “what does that say?” To which he replied “pure light” and left the room! We probably did indeed manage to offend him somehow but to us it was a perfect hang! We decided right there and then that we needed to make a “temple friendly” record full of “pure light” ! Oh and sake too…
One of the albums sleeves has a photo of Arunachala…. A legendary mountain in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu…. Getting there was not easy lemme tell ya… and if you ever have the inspiration to visit, perhaps a Shaivite aspiration is suddenly awakened, or you feel drawn to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and decide to the visit the Sri Ramana Ashram, my advice is to get a good strong callus goin' on yer feet as many of these sacred places require a relatively long trek up that must be made barefoot, of course, I didn’t know this and while hiking barefoot was amazing and intimate in a way I could have never imagined, the blisters and blood covering my feet at the end weren’t the prettiest sight ha!
Anyways, my point is go on pilgrimage, I’m sure a mountain or a cave or a forest somewhere on this planet calls to you, maybe your parents told you about it, maybe they named you after it, maybe you read about it in a book, maybe it’s a secret that no one else knows, keep it a secret but make this the trip to take after things open up !