“We have no dollar bill
To pay our water bill
But we’re still sexy…
We are much less attractive
When our money is subtracted, heyyay”
— Van Hunt, “Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane”
Something about former Atlantan Van Hunt’s new album What Were You Hoping For? (released today via his independent label godless-hotspot and Nashville-based Thirty Tigers) makes me hopeful about America’s future. Which is a weird thing to say, considering “hope” is one of those words that’s been emptied of its original meaning in more ways than one over the past few years. Even Hunt admits in the following interview that it’s one of his “least favorite words.” That it still wound up in his title is part of what makes his post-apocalyptic cultural critique so personal and profound.
Perhaps after enduring record label rigamarole of his own in recent years, he’s in a unique position to view this country’s dire straits (pick your crisis: economic, social, political, personal, spiritual, etc.) in realistic terms. He addresses it throughout the entirety of What Were You Hoping For?, his fourth full-length including the unreleased Popular, in a way that’s uniquely Van Hunt: full of poetic subtlety and subtext, surrounded by a musical palette of punk-inspired funk, rock and soul that seems to scream — and alternately whisper — WTF. But there’s also an abiding sense of whimsy and wisdom about the album that suggests we could all be better for the downfall, that it might be just what we need to remind us of our humanity.
Van Hunt plays album release show. With Empress Hotel, Mind Creatures. $15. 8:30 p.m. Wed., Sept. 28. The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com.
The album has this undercurrent of hope despite these trying times we’re living in. Somehow you seem as if you were close enough to touch the BS, but still removed enough so it couldn’t touch you in a sense.
VH: Yeah, I think that’s extremely accurate. It fits my personality that no matter what’s going on I’m going to answer it honestly with a wink and a smile. As cliché as it might be, I feel like every situation needs a laugh.
You’ve gone through some rather thick industry BS yourself over the years, like being shifted around on the subsidiaries of your former major label, and then producing the album Popular and having the label not only shelve it but refuse to sell it back to you at a reasonable price so you could self-release it. So how have you come out sounding so resilient on the other side? Is this just the end result or was there a darker period for you?
"What Were You Hoping For?"
The more I listen to the new album What Were You Hoping For?, the more it almost feels like a really loose conceptual album. It almost feels like you’re kind of personifying post-apocalyptic America, and in some songs you seem to be narrating that person’s story and in others you seem to be speaking directly to that person. Is that anywhere near what you had in mind?
VH: I think you hit the nail on the head more than anybody else outside of my camp. It was a loose concept and some of it, particularly the title song, was a tale that goes on in post-apocalypse and something that could happen — like a guy is with his family and they’re struggling and they are the only ones left in the neighborhood, and another family comes in and they stumble across this family and suddenly realize they need each other. The guy is like, this shit is really fucked up right now, but I still want to be in love. So he says, ‘Hey, we’ve found each other so let’s just forget all the rest of this shit and just be in love.’
That’s kind of where the song started, but when I say a loose concept about the record, it was more about the collision of all these unspoken issues around society — whether it’s racism, politics, immigration, things that never get addressed. As you can see our political system is stagnant to say the least, but also in our society in our general conversation between two people you rarely hear anybody addressing the pink elephant. You take a couple for instance, they’re never talking about whether we should actually be together; they’re always trying to work around some problem but nobody really addresses what’s going on, at least not honestly. Those kinds of things, to be honest, I find ticklish because I know whatever your end goal is you’re not going to get there without addressing that issue that sits in front of you. So being in L.A., you get to see that because it’s kind of a starting point for what will happen with the rest of the country in three, four, five years.
So is that why you start the album off with the song “North Hollywood”?
VH: Yeah, exactly. If you’re not going to deal with these issues, what are you hoping for? That’s kind of where it started, and without even trying to make some political statement it’s common sense to me that if you can’t talk about the most important problems then you’re not going to get anywhere. Yet, everyone is trying to get somewhere.
With “Watching You Go Crazy is Driving Me Insane” — which, again, like a lot of the songs on this album, seems like it could be a love song on the surface, but on that deeper level it feels like you’re talking about these issues within America.
VH: Well, like in your own life you probably have to balance a lot of things, it goes on in my life, too — from a relationship with your woman, your bill collectors, etc. At the same time you’re trying to do what’s most important to you, which is to express yourself and to do it honestly. I say this is most important in my life because I can’t honestly have a relationship with my woman or raise my child to the best of my abilities if I can’t even be honest enough to say what’s on my mind.
Overall this album feels like your take on the American dream as delusion.
VH: I want you to understand, I’m not really bitter about anything. I hope that comes across in the music and the lyrics. But I’m realistic in how my life is and how I feel like I fit into the mainstream. As well as, how important or unimportant the mainstream should be to my personal life.
Definitely, that’s what funny about the album. Despite the times that we’re in — everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, everything you hear has this sort of depressing tone — this album almost feels like it’s coming from a higher place, like you’re looking down on what’s happening and you have this really hopeful tone. It feels like at times you’re talking to this person, America, if you will, and kind of saying, “What were you hoping for,” but also kind of get over it, get beyond it and move forward a little bit.
VH: Yeah, I use the word “hope” in the title because it’s probably one of my least favorite words — particularly after the last presidential campaign when “hope” and “change” became symbolic with something that was really going to impact people’s lives. I don’t know what everybody thought would happen, but I would bet that many people are disappointed to learn that it didn’t happen the way they thought it would. The reality is most of us are a part of a middle class that has a lot of power, but we don’t use it. In fact, we give most of it away. I don’t know that there is ever going to be a change today. It’s always been the way it’s been.
How did you strike up the relationship between your independent label and Thirty Tigers?
VH: Thirty Tigers came to me maybe two years ago and said, “I don’t know what’s going on with you but we just want to extend our commitment to whatever it is you are doing. We really enjoy your work and, if not now, whenever you’re ready we stand here with a commitment to help you get records to the market.” So I essentially just began reassembling and assembling a team that could help me put a record on the market. It took a long time to do that and it also takes some time to write songs and record them. So it’s a joint venture; they provide the support and I provide the “talent,” if you will.
So how much time was spent on strictly recording and the creative process?
VH: About 10 months, from just sitting down and realizing it was time to write a record and then handing it off.
"Eyes Like Pearls"
What was the first song you wrote that made the project?
VH: “Cross Dresser.” I had “Moving Targets” from previous sessions. I just held onto that. It was always going to be a song that I have as a part of this project. Actually, “Moving Targets” and “Eyes Like Pearls,” but for this record and this 10-month process I’m referring to “Cross Dresser” was the first song I made.
Was the single “June” originally going to be a part of this project?
VH: No, neither “June” nor “The Savage, Sincere L of P.” They were just some tunes. I started getting wind from my team that this record was a little different from other records that I made, and they were fearful that it might draw off the audience, the fan base that I built. So I looked at “June” as the bridge, if you will, from where I was to where I am.
You’ve never really seemed fearful of losing fans, even as you’ve continued to evolve your sound throughout your career — from soul to rock and punk — and gotten that pushback from the industry. The funny thing is I would dare to say that you are proven right because your core fan base seems to appreciate you growing and challenging them in that way.
VH: Yeah, and I think that people beyond my core fan base would feel the same way — and not just not being put off by what I’m doing, but embracing and get excited about someone presenting something beyond what they’re accustomed to hearing. But having said that, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to imagine that people can’t get with a black dude singing some songs that are guitar-oriented or whatever — as if there aren’t any rock songs that play on commercials in black communities on their televisions or on their radios. You would think that we had nothing to do with Bo Diddley or Little Richard. Craziest thing.
“A Time Machine is My New Girlfriend” kind of feels like another girl-as-metaphor song. It made me think of the protagonist from sci-fi writer Octavia Butler’s "Earthseed” series. Are you familiar with that?
VH: No, but when I use to work with Dionne Farris, that’s where the title of her record [Wild Seed, Wild Flower] came from way back in the early ’90s. She would always talk about Ms. Butler, but I never read her work.
The title song, “What Were You Hoping For?” for some unexplainable reasonable reminds me of Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s Hell Below.”
VH: At first I didn’t associate that song with anything from black culture, if you will, until we started playing it live and that’s where the band all went. I was like, “You know, it does.” No matter how different I try to be, it’s always associated with something like that. But yeah, it definitely had the little simple beat and a nice little base line, and the guitar feel from Curtis Mayfield or from that era. I definitely get that.
Obviously in the past people have compared you to several people, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Sly Stone. I kind of thought of Jimi Hendrix a lot listening to this album, but I think more than any of your past releases that may have drawn comparisons to older artists, this one feels very uniquely Van Hunt.
VH: I appreciate that, you know I still understand the Al Green and Curtis Mayfield references, but it wasn’t something I grew up listening to. I was definitely a Prince head and a Sly head, so when people say anything I do sounds like that I really do believe it, because I listen to that all the time. I love Curtis Mayfield, particularly old quartet gospel stuff where Curtis, Al Green, Tyrone Davis and Johnny Taylor — all those dudes come from that place. I’ll listen to that all day because it’s pure soul to me.
Your album has a really vintage sound, even the guitar you’re playing has a real rustic sound — almost like you know we’re being forced back to a more simple time.
VH: Yeah, when we were mixing it with the engineer I said this is post-apocalyptic: You know, I met this girl, she’s from this other family and we’re the only families left there. I’m trying to reach her through this static and this fall and everything that has happened. She really nailed it with the mix.
Did you have multiple or layered meanings in mind with “Cross Dresser”?
VH: No, to be honest I just thought it was funny. It’s one of those things that people talk about, but that’s never really happened to me. But I literally wrote it in 20 minutes. It felt good, from thought one to thought eleven. It was really quick and I just thought it was something silly and funny. I wasn’t even going to keep it on the record once I had it on there because it was so whimsical, but people really took to it so I decided to leave it on there.
Career-wise, you’re doing this indie thing, now, and have this cool hook up with Thirty Tigers. But would you see yourself going back to a major label again if they came calling?
VH: If I feel like their business model works for me, sure I’d be open to talking. Right now I’m really enjoying the relationship I have with Thirty Tigers. I’ve never been so in touch with the audience that we’re trying to reach, which feels really good too.
You mean in terms of the promotional stuff?
VH: Yeah, exactly the promotional aspect because I have a label on it on. I am responsible for apart of it too so it feels really good to be able to reach out directly to the audience and talk to them about what I’m going through day to day.
I was surprised to see you have a Twitter account. I think you make a reference to that on one of the songs, something about social media. Is it a necessary evil for you?
VH: Yeah, in the beginning it was and I’ve come to understand it as a vital part of business. When I first started with the MySpace thing years ago, I really thought it was an opportunity for me to write and express myself to the fans and learned very quickly that it wasn’t the thing to do and a lot of those thoughts should remain private. I still think that a lot of what people write on Facebook and Twitter should remain private.
The last song on the album, “It’s a Mysterious Hustle”, feels like it might be a really pure expression of your own spiritual beliefs or whatever you want to call it. You almost sound like a really wise old man on this song, like you’re kind of giving tidbits of wisdom.
VH: Well, I’m essentially talking to my son, and I was hoping people would take it like I’m talking to them as well. But I appreciate you saying I sound wise, I don’t want to sound like a fool.
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