Interview: Van Hunt

Van Hunt is shaking up his arsenal of artistic weapons, filled with bass guitars and note-shaped bullets—which are aiming directly for our domes—by loading it with all sorts of self-indulging raw expression. To the world, it started in 2005 he brought his major label endeavor “Out of the Sky,” that donned tracks like Down Here in Hell with You and the ubiquitous song Dust followed by his next album—equally as major and widely distributed—“On the Jungle Floor” with soul-phonic-funk sounds like Hot Stage lights, Being a Girl and introspective ballads such as Mean Sleep (featuring Nikka Costa).

After releasing a couple of taste-teasing EPs, and fading into the oblivion of the Indie world—a world that Van describes as a bunch of small companies“trying to become major labels”—he’s finally out with a golden egg of an album, “What Were You Hoping For.” Amid his new-found love for photography, short stories and philosophizing, we discuss the past and present of Van Huntville (somewhere near North Hollywood). Just before the September 27th release of the album and his October 7th performance at Schubas in Chicago.

Gozamos: How’s it going man?
Van Hunt: Not bad at all…I’m actually really excited about the promotional campaign for this record—and the tour

When is the tour going to start jumping off?
VH: The first official date is September 19th in New York

So right now everything is, kind of, percolating for you with the upcoming tour and the release of the album in September, right?
VH: Yea, well it’s probably percolating for everybody else but for me it feels like an explosion. I’m so excited, preparing and talking to everybody online and feeling the excitement of fans and everybody. For me, not having an official record in about five years, well, it feels like bombs going off.

What have you been up to these last few years since the release of “Use In case of Emergency?”
VH: That was something I wanted to give to hardcore supporters. There really wasn’t a release. I made Popular, which was never made available so after that—I guess that was in 2008—I took a year or so and I’ve been writing short stories and I’ve taken a lot of photography. When I made “Use in Case of Emergency Available” I shot some more photography and I worked with a graphic designer who helped me out in thinking about a theme for a new record. His work actually became the album cover. I’ve been releasing some of the stuff with the free downloads. I picked up a new management team and started a new record. That took me a little less than a year to complete.

I want to delve into the new album but I want to ask you about “Popular”—which was never released—but then you had the EP “Popular Machine.”
VH: Yea, I honestly don’t remember what was on “Popular Machine.”

Mark Corece lists all of the songs from “Popular Machine.”
VH: (continued)…Of course I remember “Popular” but “Popular Machine” was originally supposed to be promotional material for the actual album. I wanted to redo “The Night is Young from “On the Jungle Floor” album because I was never really satisfied with it.

Your bout with Capitol Records and then Blue Note (which you ever released anything on) has lead you to being a solely independent artist. How as that impacted your work?
VH: I would like to think that this is the record I would have made even at a major label. It’s assuming that if I were at a major label at this juncture it would finally be with someone who would just let me do what I wanted to do. I’ve been able to do that with this record without any compromises.

Talk about some of the ills, and joys, of being an independent artist.
VH: I’m sure you’ve heard other artist say how much work it is and there is a lot of work but only because you don’t have the money to pay other people to do some of these jobs that a regular label would do. I always feel a little uncomfortable when we start talking about independent labels versus major labels because in my mind all indy labels are trying to become major labels. If you’re trying to make some money well you’re trying to make some money.

With your new album, what can we hope for (or at least expect)? [Laughs]
VH: I’d like to say I know but I really don’t. I don’t know what you’re expecting but I guess that’s why the question was posed. [Laughs]. The response so far has been really exciting and that’s all I wanted; I wanted people to respond viscerally. I want people to say: “what is this?” Or “man, I love this side of you”—or a little bit of both.

What does it feel like when you listen to it, comparatively, since you’ve made four or five unofficial albums? You know when something you make sounds good.
VH: For lack of a better reference—this is about as crass as my intelligence will allow—but it’s like taking a big dump…
VH: (cont.)…you know when Ice Cube talks about the dump that makes him feel ten pounds lighter when he leave his moms house?

Yea, from Friday.
VH: It’s like that. You have this clean feeling in your body like wow that was great. It feels like I made my first demo (off my first record). I knew that I had my hands on something that would make people talk. That was really all an artist could really ask for is to disrupt.

As an artist, how do you deal with the waxing and waning of insecurities?
VH: Well where I am emotionally it doesn’t really bother me because I know I’m just having an insecure moment. Those are pretty far apart and I’m generally comfortable in what I do, probably because I’m fulfilled. Most people don’t get to do something they love to do for a living. While I can think of easier ways to make a living, being an artist allows you to fulfill your ideas; it’s challenging but it’s certainly fulfilling.

What makes “What Were You Hoping For” your most daring provocative album?
VH: I think when someone says daring it refers to the honesty that’s in the record—both lyrically and sonically—that part of the record is certainly me.  At the time when I was recording songs I was unafraid to do or say what I wanted to say in the song. The provocative part, I hope, is the picture that the song presents of my perspective of this convergence of unaddressed issues that have been going on in at large in my own life.

Talk about the track “North Hollywood.” Where did it come from?
VH: In “North Hollywood,” I’d been riding around North Hollywood so much and taking so many pictures of abandoned couches and it really went into the feeling of the record; you could just imagine some of the stories told and what life had been placed on these couches. Now they look so lonely and nasty and gnarly and I enjoyed the visual. I was hoping that the record could represent something so beautiful and nasty.

It seems like you have a new found love for Cali since your trek from Atlanta—which you’ve been away from for awhile.
VH: Yea I do. When I first got here four and a half years ago, it seems like I had just missed an era that would never return but it has taken on a new personality for me while I’m here. I like the birds that wake me up in the morning [Laughs]. I dig it. It’s a place where I can hide…

And a place where you can be found if you want to?
VH: [Laughs] Yea.

Do you have any commentary about mainstream music? Where it is? Where it’s going?
VH: I mean other than the obvious there has been a decline in society because the respect for artistry has been taken away. Not just in music but across the board.

What makes it so difficult for independent creative forces, like yourself, to reconcile you the artist being a commodity versus, say, a chart-topping-machine-like artist?
VH: I think, for me, the main difficulty is the assumption that it’s going to cost more money to sell an expression like me than an expression that sounds like the last one—or whatever is playing on the radio; that may or may not be true but what I do know is that a culture is enriched by introducing something new to it, of quality. That’s what I represent. I do that purposefully and I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else as an artist. I want to represent where culture should be as opposed to where it is. With that said, people aren’t willing to spend the money on it being on the shelf along side whatever the next hot thing is. I remember I once opened for Kanye West in front of 10,000 people and when I tell you 7,000 people booed me [Laughs] but it was an opportunity to pick up 3,000 fans. At a 30 minute concert I picked up 3,000 fans—that’s worth it.

What was it liked being booed?
VH: It was pretty early on in my professional career but looking at the aftermath I gained a lot of exposure and experience because I was able to work through that. Now I wouldn’t care who I was playing in front of.

I saw that collaborating is something you don’t like to do. Why is that?
VH: I don’t think there is a way to protect your work from compromise when you are working with someone. It’s nice when your collaborator is equally—or sometimes more—skilled, you’re sure to come out with something you like or something you wouldn’t have if you had done it on your own. I do bring in people to work with on a record, sometimes I don’t.

On your new record the only collaborator you brought on it was the drummer Ruthie Price?
VH: She and I laid down most of the songs and then I had Peter Dyek come in on keyboard; it was just the three of us. It was a lot of fun and they are both really incredible musicians.

How many instruments do you play?
VH: I can express myself on just about anything but as far as what I can play on a professional level is bass more than anything.  It’s less bass on this record more than any record I’ve done. I just got tired of hearing bass lines. I wanted the bass to be hinted in the song as opposed to making it so obvious.

What’s the Van Hunt aesthetic? It’s clearly a hyphenated something.
VH: I think my friend Randy Jackson said it best: “Van is a hybrid.” A lot of different things and I’m cool with that. At the same time I think it’s really important for other people to define what I am to their lives.

Really? I didn’t expect you to say that.
VH: Exactly. I probably wouldn’t have said it myself if you hadn’t brought it up…
VH: …Where I am right now I think it’s important for me to just talk about me and my work regardless of what you say.

I know that you used to blog a lot and I realized you’re a thinker. What are you thinking about these days?
VH: Parenting. Not really any politics because I see through that, it’s really silly. I think about the Midwest a lot—which is where I’m from—I love playing places like Detroit. People don’t have much but they know their place in life and not in a derogatory sense. If you were to go to Cuba

What can we expect from you next Van?
VH: It’s just this album and the tour. I want to go right into the next album to be honest. I’ve already decided I’m going to make it in Cuba.

What brought that on?
VH: The culture. I love the people. I want to go there and have some experiences and make a record from there.

Can we expect a little Afro-Cuban music in your next album?
VH:[Laugha] I don’t know what it’s going to sound like, but I imagine being influenced by their culture for sure.

This could really be your “Bitches Brew” [Miles Davis]the album that really takes it some place else for your fans.
VH: Yea, for sure.

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