Dispatches From the Battlefield: An Interview With Van Hunt
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.
"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."
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.