Van Hunt is a true artist and an anomaly, just the sort of enigma we love at FP. His career has been rife with unfortunate twists and turns, all of which ended up fueling his creative fire, thankfully. Hunt first broke on the scene after being found by Randy Jackson, of American Idol fame. His first two records, one self-titled and the second the supremely smooth On The Jungle Floor were released on Capitol Records to a lackluster release, despite his forward thinking songwriting and commitment to quality music, likely because of Capitol’s insistence on marketing him within the waning neo-soul movement, a stigma he still rejects. After Jungle Floor, Hunt was dropped from the major label, to be picked up by the legendary Blue Note Records. His planned and recorded edgier third album Popular ultimately wasn’t what Blue Note was hoping for, and his efforts were shelved and subsequently never released. Following his bout of friction with two internationally renowned music labels, Hunt was obviously distraught, but not entirely discouraged. He reemerged last year with What Were You Hoping For? An excellent and idiosyncratic mix of soul, punk and psychedelia, What Were You Hoping For? deserves a spot on our Albums We Missed: 2011 edition. After catching his fantastic, eclectic set at Lincoln Hall, we had the opportunity to discuss his career. I’m still getting used to interviews, but the following exchange was entirely enlightening, and will be remembered as one of my favorites. A true individual, Van Hunt shares some brilliant ideas on the state of pop music today, and the roles that we all play.
Frontier Psychiatrist: Hey man, big fan. I’ve been listening to your stuff since we received On The Jungle Floor at Marquette Radio my freshman year of college in 2006. Really love that record and have been jamming to you ever since. That was a long time ago.
Van Hunt: Cool, thanks. That was a crazy time then, with On The Jungle Floor, but we got through it. We’ve been busy the last 5 years, making the time fly. I definitely have a bit more control over my life now than I did then.
FP: Speaking of being in control, I want to congratulate on your fantastic show at Lincoln Hall last week. You commanded a serious presence and everyone fell in line. And it was really great to hear the new music in a live setting; I’ve certainly never seen a show that incorporates all those different styles at once. Not to mention your superbly talented band.
VH: Thank you, man. That’s been a reaction that a lot of people have had to the show, that it’s like nothing they’ve ever experienced, and that’s definitely what I was shooting for.
FP: You can tell. You can also tell that on the new record, What Were You Hoping For? Although it’s a few months old, I think it’s still worth talking about. I love all the different sounds you have working, especially with your newfound interest in psychedelia and punk rock. How did these other sounds end up playing their part in writing and recording this album?
VH: Well, honestly, I feel like this album is something that I’ve been driving towards since the first album. I think I was somewhat unjustly lumped into this neo-soul movement, but I’ve always had a hybrid to my sound. I remember being in the studio with Randy Jackson and a mixing engineer, and Randy had to explain all of the different genres that were going on in just that one song. It was real interesting to hear his take on my sound.
I don’t set out to make music of any specific genre, the first thing I do is write a song, which can happen on a drum set, guitar, piano or in my head. Once it’s done, I can start to approach the production elements, but even then the production remains pretty minimalist.
FP: I’d agree that the production is minimal, but there are also a lot of effects coming through your sound. It’s hard to discern if that’s done live or on the album, but it comes through on both the recording and in-person.
VH: Yeah, some of the effects came through in the recording process, but a lot of that is thanks to Melissa Mattey, who handled the mixing. I really enjoyed working with her, because in the past I would make it a priority to be present at all mixing sessions, making sure it’s going well. But, with her, I just sent her the tracks, and she sent me back her versions. It took a lot of pressure off me, because she was dead on. Sure, we had to do a little tweaking to get the recordings to where I wanted them, but for the most part, she nailed it.
FP: That’s awesome. You hear that the post-production of a record can be a really tedious process.
VH: Yeah, you know, sometimes Randy (Jackson) and I argue over if mixing is really necessary, but when you get someone who’s creative working on it, it’s a definitely worthwhile process.
FP: Interesting point, because sometime you hear an unmixed handheld recording that blows studio work out of the water, and most other times, the product from a studio recording is better than anything else because of the equipment, time and money that went into it.
VH: Exactly. Money still plays a part, you have to shape your creativity to fit the budget. And a lot of times, necessity is the mother of invention. You find new ways of creating sounds when money is tight.
FP: The new record is out on your own imprint, in conjunction with Thirty Tigers out of Nashville. How was that experience?
VH: Man, it was fantastic. I talked to them, maybe three times: before we recorded, in the middle of recording and after recording. Not once did they tell me that it needed to sound like anything. They just let me do what I do, and helped me work it.
FP: I’m sure that was a relief.
VH: Yeah, it was, but it’s also bittersweet. I grew up with the expectation that I was going to take advantage of the major label system. I think it’s a system that really works to combine arts and commerce, and I thought I could have taken advantage of it in the same way that Ray Charles, [Sly Stone](ed: I think this is what he said. Phone was breaking up) and Prince did. I saw myself in that lineage, not that I’m as talented, but they are songwriters, artists and producers trying to sell music to the public.
FP: I agree with that, but I wouldn’t say What Were You Hoping For? is exactly a publicly accessible album.
VH: That’s what I’ve been hearing. To be honest, I think it’s pretty accessible. If this were a different era and it was easier to galvanize an audience, you could get those songs out there on the radio, through video and through touring. Unfortunately, audiences are much harder to galvanize now.
FP: That’s the real problem. The old radio and video channels don’t work they used to. They don’t work like they should, frankly.
VH: Yeah, I agree. But also, YouTube is fantastic. Other than YouTube and Google driving the animal, there is nothing out there to represent the music and the artists. Once there is, [the internet] is a wonderful tool. I actually don’t think music needs to be free or act as a flier for your concerts. Just because people have the ability to take your music for free, doesn’t mean it should be given away. I myself, can go take some just like everyone else, but I don’t because I know it’s for sale.
FP: Totally, that makes great sense. Unfortunately, the music industry didn’t see that, and had to stoop to a different level.
VH: Yeah, they had to act of desperation and fear, and quite frankly, ignorance. There’s no reason for the industry to not have benefitted from modern technology. I think all of the new tools are great, I just think that if we’re going to live in a society that you tell people that if you work hard, go to school, and study, you can get a job that will pay your bills. That’s the blueprint, call it the American Dream if you will. But as hard as I work, I shouldn’t have to fight to keep people from taking my music for free.
FP: Very true. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are. I grew up with the #1 goal of somehow getting into the music industry, maybe working as an A&R guy or something like that, but that dream doesn’t exist anymore. A&R guys and labels don’t hold the power anymore; it’s not about that.
VH: Yeah, that’s unfortunate, because I too was a fan of the A&R guy, because I think it was such an important step in teaching the artist how to compromise themselves enough that they don’t dilute their product, but can prepare their product for a market that’s full of buyers, not artists. In the past, the A&R and artist development was really important. When everyone stayed in their lane and did their job, from A&R to promotions and marketing to the artist, it’s a system that can work. Only if you allow people to do their job, however.
FP: That’s pretty different than things are now. You have artists running around without any sort of guidance as to what can sell and what can’t. But also, a lot of people think that is a better system. You can draw fans from across the world, but it’s much harder to get a serious base and consensus of fans like in the past. What happens next then?
VH: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s very much a big mess. That said, it’s a fantastic opportunity for society. I love the modern technology, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re just waiting for the industry to adjust to modern technology. It takes time.
FP: And in the mean time, you and I are playing our parts.
VH: Exactly, man. I think we need to start a label together.
FP: YES. I’ll be your promotions and A&R guy.
You’ve had some poor experiences in the record industry, notably with Capitol and with Blue Note records. Would you say that those experiences have shaped your understanding of the industry?
VH: Yeah, those times were disappointing. But, it still didn’t change my understanding of the potential of the major label system. Along with any artists that had negative experiences with major labels, it was really just due to greed, fear and ignorance.
FP: Would you say that there’s still a purpose for the major label system, after the rise of social media and the fracturing of audiences? Is there anything a major label has over an independent label in the year 2012?
VH: Honestly, probably not. At least not until a change happens, spurred by money and a will to make major music important again. I don’t know if that is going to happen, I’m not terribly positive about it. Maybe society has moved on, and we won’t have the major artists like we once had.
To clarify, when I say important music, I mean like when The Eagles were a pop band, or when Duke Ellington was a pop artist. Real, money making music. (ed note: “I’ve had a rough day, and I hate The fucking Eagles, man.”)
FP: Can’t music be more populist, like with indie labels, rather than the ruling class of the major labels? There’s something to be said about bringing music down to the people. Everyone has an iPod and listens to it all the time. Everyone has a blog. Everyone can start a band, and a lot of those people can be successful. A perfect example of the power of music today is SXSW. So much music, so many people there to enjoy.
VH: All of that is true, but it isn’t as important as it once was. At one point, there was technology being created to facilitate the production and distribution of music. That isn’t really going on anymore.
If music is as important, or gaining importance, I think that’s great. The “indie” movement is great too, but it’s not necessarily something I believe in. I’ve met many major label executives and indie label executives, and they all want to be major label executives, regardless of what they say. That’s great, but also, if you’re going to be marketing music, you need to make sure it’s marketable and developed. There’s a difference between someone who wants to provide entertainment and who wants to provide music.
I think there’s something real happening with the Arcade Fires and the Bon Ivers of the world, but still there is a level artistry that can exist higher than that, but unfortunately lacks development.
FP: Well, if you leave Americans to something for long enough, they’ll figure out how to make money on it. It’s great to hear your thoughts on all of this. You know you’re in the minority with this thinking, right?
VH: Yeah, it’s difficult for people to separate the actual blueprint of the system from the greed that we have now. You could just have easily given the artists a larger share, have an A&R person to find the talent, working in the studio and develop those ideas for the public, and then put that product in the hands of the marketing and promotions people. It’s a beautiful process. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work, other than greed, fear and ignorance.
FP: Something happened in the late-80s early-90s, people got stupid.
VH: Michael Jackson happened. People made an unspeakable sum of money, and didn’t want it to stop.
FP: True. I still think things are turning up. We’re getting opportunities to find and listen to so much more music than before. Do you listen to any new music these days?
VH: Yeah, man, but it’s like when you go to the grocery store. You’re so excited to get some food, but you don’t really know what you want. (ed note: that’s what we’re for.) But, yeah, I’ve been digging some A$AP Rocky, those producers he’s got coming up with him are great.
FP: There’s also an R&B resurgence lately, different from the neo-soul movement, closer to electronica. You like Frank Ocean or The Weeknd?
VH: Yeah, that first Weeknd mixtape especially. First time I heard that one, I couldn’t stop thinking about how weird it was. It was like the first time I heard Keith Sweat, just a weird guy.
FP: And that’s a perfect example of how our new system works. How would we have gotten The Weeknd under the old system?
VH: Yeah, I totally agree. That’s why I wouldn’t trade one for the other, I’m really excited to see where it all settles. I certainly won’t stop bringing the highest craftsmanship I can muster to the business of making music.
FP: That’s all you can do. You go anything coming up?
VH: I’m so excited for all this new music; I can barely stay on tour. We’ve got two albums coming; at least one of them will be out by August. One sounds like Billie Holliday filtered through Pete Rock’s drum sampler. The other one is completely wild; I don’t even know how to begin to describe that one.
FP: Real excited for both of those. Van, thanks a lot for your time.
VH: Thank you, and say what’s up to the Frontier Psychiatrist.
Peter Lillis is Assistant Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He still would love to be an A&R guy, if anyone has an opening.