In the final days of compact discs, I commandeered many a car stereo to put in Van Hunt’s self-titled debut album, breaking God’s most important commandment: Never touch a black man’s radio. “But you have to hear to the lyrics,” I would say. “He’s such a good writer.” Back in 2004, pop and R&B lyrics were endlessly frustrating to me, with their ooh-girl this and baby-please that. When I first heard Hunt’s song “Down Here in Hell (with You)” I thought, Wow, this has actual detail. On “Down Here...” and in many other songs, he showed a wide-ranging ability to express nuanced feelings: ennui, ambivalence, and schadenfreude, common emotions that most songwriters don’t, or can’t, touch.
My suspicion that Hunt thought of words as more than just song-fillers was confirmed reading his short story, “drugs, crime, religion, paris, begging and sex…but for Brilliant, it’s never chess,” which is excerpted below. That richness of voice that comes through in his songs lives here, too.
Hunt’s fifth album, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets comes out May 5 via his label, Godless Hotspot. Like so many great artists, his interests and influences are vast and indirect—a quirky set of obsessions that filter in through the side door.
What do you typically read—fiction, newspapers, magazines, blogs?
I read a lot of astronomy magazines, and go to a lot of astronomy sites, and physics sites. I love reading about quantum computation and quantum physics. I don’t understand it all, but I love reading it over and over again so that I think I have some idea of what they’re talking about. I like the idea of there being this world that exists that modern physics hasn’t really figured out how to come up with a language for. The quantum world is still very mysterious, still seemingly very powerful, and I’m definitely attracted to the mysterious and the unknown and just the vastness of what my imagination puts on it. But I also read The New Yorker. I love Walter Mosley and Robert Parker crime novels. And I read a lot of music reviews.
Music reviews, really?
Well, because—and this just may be my perception—but it seems like the music reviewers; you know, a lot of the writing is really good. And no disrespect to the artists, but a lot of the reviews are better than the music. [laughs] Sometimes, I don’t even listen to the music, I just read the reviews. They make them sound like such soundscapes.
Oh, I’m also into UFO stuff. I read a lot of the battle that goes on between the ufologists, you know, the ones who think that UFOs are aliens, and the people who think that UFOs are demons. They battle with each other, and sometimes I interject comments, every now and then. Not as myself, but under another moniker.
Like, on a message board?
Yeah, their battles are so intense! And I don’t think either of them have actually thought about the fact that there’s no relief to think of UFOs being driven by aliens or demons. [laughs] Either one is a pretty phenomenal thought.
You read this stuff online, and sometimes comment—what’s your handle?
Oh, I have several. But I can’t tell you! If I reveal them, then I’m no longer anonymous.
But I don’t go on UFO message boards, so—
[Laughs] I have one that I use to go around and correct people’s tweets. Because people use such bad English. So sometimes, she jumps in on the ufologists. And then I have one that’s a boxing moniker, because I’m into boxing, too. Sometimes he goes in, and he messes with people. And I use my godless-hotspot moniker.
But that’s associated with you.
Yeah, but ufologists aren’t interested in Van Hunt.
You never know, there could be some other anonymous real person who’s on there.
Anonymous Real Person? That would be a good name for a band.
Would you say that physics, UFOs, and music reviews are part of your creative influences?
Certain elements of them. With the ufology, I like that certain people have committed their lives to bringing out the truth in their own words. And I like the conflict that’s there, and how committed people have become, and almost neurotic and anxious in delivering this news, and having their rebuttal be so vitriolic—that intrigues me. So I can write about that.
Is there a Van Hunt persona that comes out in your songs or performance?
If there is any persona that emerges most in song or on stage it’s probably the influence Richard Pryor and Sly Stone have had on me. But that’s changing as I continue to absorb and compose influences.
The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets is your fifth album. What inspired you to make it? Why does it exist now?
Outside the practical purposes of being a working artist? I’m constantly in search of that initial feeling I had listening to “Flashlight” when I was 9. Or listening to “Controversy” by Prince when I was 10. That feeling was fantastic. Nothing has ever felt that way. And, I think, if I’m ever guilty of those few times when I have read what someone says about my music it’s that I’m looking to see if I have that effect on someone else. I think it’s so wonderful. And that would be the part two, in the answer to your question, ‘Why does this album exist?’ because I want to give someone else that feeling. And I say that humbly, because I was moved by Prince and George Clinton, and I’m not putting myself on their level. But if there was ever a chance that my music could give someone that feeling, I would be really satisfied, and gratified with that achievement.
How would you describe that feeling?
It is one of those things that’s indescribable. There does exist that thing—they talk about it in quantum physics. It’s just something that if you pay too much attention to it, it disappears. And it’s kind of like that. The feeling really is something difficult to capture, but it always exists. It’s everywhere around me.
It’s something that’s really powerful, but it’s almost as if it doesn’t actually exist in our realm of understanding, but yet it’s all around us. I hate to keep going back to physics, but in astrophysics, they talk about time being something where the past exists with the future and the present. And if you think about infinity, it would almost be necessary for something that will exist to have already existed, if there is no time. And so, almost like the wind, it blows around you and it comes from all different directions. And that’s the feeling that I have—that I remember, anyway—and that I still have when I think about Thelonious Monk or my first Prince experience, or George Clinton. It woke me up.
Excerpted from “drugs, crime, religion, paris, begging and sex...but for Brilliant, it’s never chess” by Van Hunt
uncle brilliant stood tight and still, rustling behind the door to his mother’s living room like a poorly trained ninja. like a ghost holed up in a “secret” camp—outside of the family’s presence—but in plain view. Repeatedly bending and releasing his middle and index finger, as if rapid-firing an invisible gun, meant that all that was left was for me to walk into the ambush. it hardly made sense to comply and suffer his bungling; but i remembered my mistake, which was bragging that I’d been working all summer. and, this was my punishment. as expected, once i reached the edge of enemy territory my weight set off the trap. brilliant cast an old, well-worn fishing net over my head. the holes in the net so large that upon contact with the top of my hair the scraggly hemp could only slide down the length of my body and fall harmlessly to the floor.
“lemme hold five dollas’,” my uncle asked.
we played our roles as captor and captive.
“i gettit back tooya.”
he would always add this to take the sting off his entreaty; and, it was always five dollars. the amount of the loan isn’t more than most people will miss, but it affords uncle brilliant his most prized inessentials: wine, weed, and bus fare downtown to donate blood for another nine dollars.
“i don’t have no money.”
“people who have less than you, but come from the same place as you, will believe you owe them a cut of whatchu’ worked to get BEFORE they will believe that the same fortune is out there for themna’ earn. you will lose more than just money if you give to these niggas’. you lose respect for ’em. their names change to a bad feelin’. and after makin’ these people dependent on you, you will have to remove yourself from beneath ’em in order to avoid bein’ suffocated by ’em. your escape will leave behind a spoilt’ spirit . . . who lacks self-reliance. The embarrassment of bein’ seen at their lowest will make the jingle of your fresh charity heavy to carry. you will be resented in the end. nothing is for free, boy—neither the givin’ nor the takin.’”