PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Dispatches From the Battlefield: An Interview With Van Hunt

All photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Van Hunt recorded one of the best albums of 2008: Popular. The only problem is you're not going to hear it.

If it were up to Van Hunt, he'd perform with the Stooges and Gang of Four. "I think I'm a punk rocker at heart", he muses backstage at the very un-punk B.B. King's, in the heart of Times Square. "I just love the aggression in that music." Van Hunt dismantles a whole host of assumptions about his music, primarily that he is not the answer to the church-schooled soul men of generations past. "For some people, man, they see my face on the cover and they're like, 'Oh I know what this is. It's some soul music.'" If anyone is expecting Sam Cooke or Otis Redding at a Van Hunt concert, they'd best look elsewhere.

It's only a few hours before show time and Hunt is the epitome of calm, despite the torrent of rock and funk he will soon unleash onstage. "Lately, I feel like I'm going to war. I feel aggressive for some reason," he says, dressed, appropriately, in a button down, military-green jacket. His career has been a war of sorts: war with being pigeonholed, war between commercial and creative success, war with embodying an image fabricated by the industry machinery. Hunt has probably even waged war with himself but only to be more truthful in his art. The occasion of Hunt's latest venture onto the battlefield is a pre-release tour for his third album, Popular. Beneath the bravado is a musician whose personal standards of excellence propelled him to create a work of music that stands confidently apart from anything else. It's that exceptional.

The only problem is Popular did not appear online or in stores on January 15, its release date. Add Blue Note to Hunt's list of purple hearts.

The backstory is this. In 2007, Hunt shifted from Capitol to Blue Note within the EMI-owned family of labels. His first two albums, Van Hunt (2002) and On the Jungle Floor (2006), were both met with critical success, but sales were modest by comparison. Presumably, Blue Note was meant to be a promising alternative for the L.A./Atlanta-based musician, and at first it was. A four-song EP entitled The Popular Machine surfaced online in August 2007 and generated some healthy buzz. A pair of key cuts from Popular, "Turn My TV On" and "The Lowest 1 of My Desires", and two acoustic tracks found Hunt working without any apparent creative boundaries or interference from the label. Yet, despite five months of promotion and touring, Blue Note and Hunt parted ways only weeks before Popular's slated street date.

Tension could be detected in late 2007 at the B.B. King's show, the occasion where I met and spoke with Hunt. Representatives from Blue Note sat at a reserved table towards the rear of the venue during his set, far removed from the wildly responsive audience who stood and shouted throughout the performance. Mid-way through the show, Hunt called out, "Is Blue Note here?" and quipped to the audience, "They're the ones sitting down over there in the back." There was clearly a disconnect between the kind of audience that shows up at Hunt's shows, and the kind of label Hunt was on. He belonged neither to the label's group of pop-oriented acts like Norah Jones, Amos Lee, Elisabeth Withers, and Suzanne Vega, nor to the straight-ahead jazz acts that round out Blue Note's roster.

It appears that Hunt needs some explaining to the record industry, because the fans get him even if the executives do not (or more specifically, they don't know how to profit off his music). At the time of our chat, Hunt hadn't yet parted with Blue Note, but he offered a candid explanation about his art, creative process, and who exactly listens to his music.

"Most artists say that they want to make the ultimate statement," Hunt suggests. "I certainly do, but I don't mind people seeing all of the things that I would consider imperfections, because, quite honestly, I feel like they're better than anything else they're gonna hear." In print, Van Hunt's words might come across as arrogant. In person, his manner is very matter-of-fact. He's self-taught on just about every instrument he plays, so there is substantial talent to be reckoned with. His first two albums showcased a unique fusion of rock, funk, and soul, but were by no means indicative of his entire range.

For the fortunate few who've heard promo copies of Popular, it's clear that Hunt cemented that fusion while adding a bunch of new ingredients. He explains the arch of his three albums (and already-recorded fourth album) this way:

"I try not to repeat myself melodically, chordally, lyrically. I like the first record just because it's akin to, for lack of a more pleasant phrase, taking a shit. It's just something that's in you and it's got to come out, whether it stinks or smells like cherries. The second record was like cooking. 'Are you going to be a chef or are you just going to go in and microwave something?' It was like, okay, I want to be a chef, so let me go ahead and throw this shit together. As it turned out, I made a pretty good meal, but I was not quite a chef. The third record was, 'You're close to being a chef now, but what are you really?' I discovered that I'm an explorer, I'm a philosopher, I'm a musician. The third record was born out of the beginning of that process. The fourth record, I'm hoping, is that statement: Me, as an explorer/philosopher/musician."

If Hunt is an explorer, then Popular contains a treasure trove of discoveries. Blue Note may have no plans to release Popular, but the brilliance of the album necessitates discussion. Popular is by no means conventional sounding, or even as instantly accessible as Hunt's first two albums, yet it sounds like Hunt is truer to his muse, sonically and lyrically.

The polyrhythmic funk of "SNM", "Ur Personal Army", and "Blood from a Heart of Stone" illustrates how a swirl of sounds coalesces inside Hunt's musical mind. How does he even conceptualize such elaborately structured grooves? "These things, honestly, they come to me pretty complete. The words, the melodies, the chords, the layering, the polychords, the rhythms, the polyrhythms -- they're always there. It's just a matter of what I pay attention to. Sometimes I choose to ignore it just because it would drive [me] crazy. I could literally be creating all day."

The songs themselves don't fit into any thematic scheme, despite the tasty possibilities the notion of "popularity" presents across a whole album. (The dynamics between Van Hunt and Blue Note, however, present a whole different subtext about the notion of what is popular.) People aspire for popularity in a culture where MySpace hits are a fatuous measure of "friends". It's not uncommon for someone to broadcast the minutiae of their lives on YouTube and yearn for some sort of affirmation from strangers in the comments section. Hunt pinpoints the root of this need on "Popular" in the line, "You fear that no one will know your name". The tune itself was written about ten years ago, long before the social networking phenomenon. Initially, "Popular" wasn't a critique on society, but rather Hunt's dialogue with a kid in Anytown, USA. Count Bass D (who guests on the track) encouraged Hunt to revisit and record the song for the album.

Hunt uncovered other layers of meaning in the song, primarily the idea that the importance of popularity amongst one's peers is a driving force behind certain behavior. He explains, "I don't know very many people who don't yearn to be accepted, maybe except for myself. I'm in a business where I have to be accepted in order to make a living. I have close friends who would say that I, too, need the validation that comes from putting a record out and receiving a good response from it. They may be right."

Good responses from listeners, not voluminous record sales, are enough of a validation for Hunt, though that wasn't always his mindset. Even with a million dollar marketing and promotion budget, On the Jungle Floor was hardly worked for all its worth by Capitol. The label's inabilities to break the album made Hunt seriously re-evaluate his priorities. The sober perspective he now has on his career, and the fact that acceptance doesn't necessarily translate to a chart-topping album, is the backbone of "N the Southern Shade". The tune suggests that the rock star life is better left behind. He qualifies success quite differently:

"I alleviate any pressure for myself by using my own measurement for success, which is, 'Can I take what's in my mind and lay it down, put it at the tips of my fingers?' That, for me, is the only criteria that I need. If somebody buys a shitload of records, that would be great. If they don't, then I'm going to have to make it some other kind of way just to feed my son and myself. I feel [success] everyday because I've made three albums and now I'm working on a fourth. I do want it heard by as many people as possible. Ten million 'no's' to get a million 'yes's' would be all right for me."

Unfortunately, Popular won't have the opportunity to be heard by anywhere near a million listeners, unless EMI sells the album back to Hunt for a reasonable price so he can release it himself (or an underground bootleg campaign kicks in). The Popular Machine EP, still available online, gives the curious and the already converted a taste of the album's flavorful brew.

The new-wave punch of "Turn My TV On" contains one of Hunt's freakiest grooves. "Everyone loves a stranger / But nobody wants the danger", he warns. From the perspective of the character Hunt portrays, the drama and the lack of control over situations in the real world are insurmountable risk factors, so he sits at home in his underwear. He insulates himself with his TV and computer, the passports to all his desires. His world, the "new world", is one of message boards and websites where any TV channel can transport someone to their fantasy and anyone with a web profile can become a celebrity. Even when propositioned to meet in the "real world", he declines, replying, "Like most things a good time looks better from a distance". About that character, Hunt says, "That person in 'Turn My TV On' probably wants nothing more than to interact with somebody. At the same time, if I ran across that person, I don't think that I would urge them out into the world to go and fall in love." The juxtaposition between the thrill of the "new world" and the danger of the "real world" is the core of the tune's shifty chords and Hunt's breathless intonation.

He dives into the depths of carnal cravings on "The Lowest 1 of My Desires", the second track from The Popular Machine that was also intended for release on Popular. The music and lyrics are intense. The guitar riffs are aggressive, and the delivery of Hunt's message -- "I wanna fuck you, baby" -- is imbued with sexualized hunger. It's probably the one song in his catalog that has the most polarizing effect on listeners: those who dig its explicit nature and those who do not.

The two extremes are not lost on the song's writer. Even one of Hunt's friends attended a show of his in Atlanta and was disturbed by the so-called "fuck you" song. "I think that's the general reaction from people who feel uptight about something in their lives," Hunt observes. "I feel like if you don't like my music, then there's something going on with you. It's honest and there's not much bullshit on there. I thought it was a beautiful period to put on that sentence. I thought, 'I wanna fuck you' was perfect after saying so many other things that were poetic."

Another dividing factor among Hunt's listeners is the way his music has evolved since Van Hunt. Fans who liked the marriage of contemporary and classic R&B gravitated most towards his debut. When Hunt started laying on more guitar licks, some listeners did not applaud. Shortly after "Turn My TV On" debuted on iTunes, one commentator even wrote, "While I loved his first album, and grew to like his second album, all this upbeat dance funk is not my cup of tea. I'm not into Van Hunt's new style ... sorry". That kind of listener is very familiar to Hunt. "I know exactly what songs that person likes," he says. "They like 'Seconds of Pleasure' and 'Down Here in Hell With You' and that's it. I know that person. I meet them all the time. They think that the white establishment has gotten ahold of me and is convincing me to put out all this pop music. I'm gonna be myself no matter what's going on."

Because Hunt excels in rock music, the temptation is to group him into the "black rock" category. The idea of such a category exists way outside Hunt's orbit. Though he doesn't think in terms of being a "black rock" musician, he hopes that his music inspires the movement. "I feel like I'm out here and I write good music and honest lyrics," he affirms. "If you have a movement, Van Hunt should be the symbol of your movement." He continues:

"I think people do a lot of absurd things to keep them from the real issues, which is, 'How good are you?' Are you as good as you want to be, and if not, then your ass needs to be practicing. To me, if you're going to pick up the guitar, you need to be as good as George Benson. If you're gonna sit down and play the piano, you need to be Herbie Hancock or better, and of course I sit there, and it's good, but it ain't Herbie Hancock. I'm caught in this weird world where I really want to practice, but I have records that are out there. I have to make a living. The next statement I make has to be me as a musician on par with the masters."

Had Popular been released, audiences could hear just how completely Hunt immersed himself into the project, even at the expense of mass approval. He resides, almost stubbornly, outside of any one genre, and that's largely part of his appeal. Perhaps this was Blue Note's ultimate challenge: how to market an artist whose scope is well beyond the confines of any prescribed box.

Despite the fall out with Blue Note, Hunt is in no way abandoning music. His MySpace page is regularly updated with new tracks and demos. There is absolutely no censor in his creative process. "I call myself a creationist," he says. "I'm sure some people will tell you that you need resistance, melodrama. I don't really need anything, honestly. A good night's sleep, a little time alone, and I feel like I can create a world." The world he created on Popular is probably the most musically gratifying, if challenging, environment one could experience right here and now.

This century's fiercest musical artisan is already onto other missions. He was in the middle of recording tracks for a fourth album at the time of our conversation, and is most likely onto a fifth. The difference now is that Van Hunt is no longer tethered to a label. A punk-rocker at heart, a funk-master in style, this soldier has won the battle.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.