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Body and Soul

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Body and Soul: Our grossly unprofessional five-hour Van Hunt interview has Lester Bangs spnning in his grave.  

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f all the musicians I’ve interviewed and wanted to sleep with, none has challenged my journalistic integrity more than Van Hunt. He’s a handsome young soul rebel who writes, plays and produces his own material, dresses like a militant Sammy Davis, Jr., and sings lines like "What would I do if we were perfect / Where would I go for disappointment" with the raw funk of Prince and the calamitous loss of Bill Withers. Van and I met in the bar of the W Hotel, where he’d spent most of the afternoon downing Cosmos with various hangers-on in preparation for his upcoming tour. (His self-titled debut album came out in February.) An interview in his publicist’s hotel room turned into dinner and BYO-$6.99 cabernet at an Indian restaurant. I’m used to the artificial date-like rapport that sustains interviews between reporters and subjects, but I realized this might be turning into an actual date right around the time we kissed in the backseat of his chauffeured car. — Jada Yuan

***Publicist’s Hotel Room, 7PM*** Van Hunt: I like that we’re going to a hotel room and neither of us is staying here. You don’t have a room here?
They don’t let artists stay at the W Hotel. I’m in Brooklyn, at the poor man’s Marriott. I don’t like Brooklyn. I like really, really swanky and really, really poor. So I like Central Park and Harlem.
Is Van Hunt your real name?
Yeah. It sounds romantic to say some Dutch family gave it to some slaves and they passed it on to me, but I really don’t know. My grandfather was in WWII and he evidently went to Europe and came back with the name. My father’s name was Van, too.
Your bio says he was a part-time pimp.
He’s always part-time something. The car factory was the main job I remember, other than painting. His friends called him Van Gogh. The prostitution didn’t come up until later. I remember I was seven and I would be with my dad and his friends and I knew I couldn’t gamble or smoke marijuana or talk to any girls or hit anybody on their ass—
Did you want to, at seven?
I’ve always loved women. I would sit in a corner and watch. Every time a song came on that one of them liked, they would jump up and forget all about the game and start screaming, “Oh man, that’s my jam!” So I was like, well, maybe I’ll contribute music and make them pay attention to me. But I also remember just this abnormal amount of women. I’d heard my stepmother on several occasions be like, “You motherfuckin’ pimp!” But I never paid attention to that. So later I had to ask him, “Pop, what was all that about?” And he was like, “Oh, well, I dabbled in prostitution.”
He was also institutionalized – was it some midlife crisis?
No, he told me, “It was the summer and I worked in this factory and it was just so hot in there that I had to get a break."
Do you keep in touch with him?
Yeah, yeah, we talk. He’s still pathetic. It’s like, “Pop, I’m going to do a show in Cincinnati,” which is forty-five minutes away. “Yes, Son, I’m gonna drive up,” he says. Then you never hear from him.
Do you go back to Ohio a lot?
I’m mostly in Atlanta or L.A. There’s absolutely no reason to ever go to Ohio. All there is to do is rob people, play ball, and play music. Every uncle on my mother’s side has been in prison, for everything from stealing a lawnmower to drugs. And they still go to jail quite frequently. I’m aware that it costs $113 exactly to get a television in jail.
Have you been to jail?
I’ve never been arrested, and I thank my mom for that. My uncle took me to dope houses and I did work for this lady, Miss Mary, in Ohio. She was, like, sixty-five and she’d carry the drugs in her front apron pocket. I had to go out and find high schoolers who wanted to buy drugs and send them down to Miss Mary’s house. I started smoking around the same time, when I was eight. I smoked until I was fifteen. Then my mom asked me to quit. So I quit.
What did your dad teach you?
He taught me to respect women, respect everybody. He was all into opening doors and pulling out chairs and taking off coats and putting on coats. Didn’t you see me open the door for you?
I probably didn’t even say thank you. Did you start dating at an early age?
If anyone came over to my house, they were going to be explored. Even at age five, me and this girl had the same babysitter and as soon as she sat down to watch her two o’clock soaps, we’d go around the side of the refrigerator and start messing around, you know, however five-year-olds mess around — kissing, comparing genitalia.
You were mostly raised by your mom. Were there a lot of surrogate fathers coming in and out of the house?
No. She was very serious about raising me. There were a lot of nights where it was like, you know, “There’s some tomato soup on the stove and I’ll see you in the morning.” But no, she didn’t have a lot of dudes around.
When did you lose your virginity?
Technically, I think I was eight. That was just some girl at school. We messed around and I guess there was penetration, but you know, you’re eight. It was out in the bushes after school. Very embarrassing. Her name was Holly. There was actual ejaculation when I was thirteen. I wasn’t in love at all. I think my experience with my dad kind of numbed me concerning sex. By the time I was sixteen, I was over it. I just liked playing basketball and my little keyboard.
What’s your writing process?
I usually have to be alone and it usually takes about two weeks. Then the songs usually come to me in a dream or a vision. I see people acting out the song, like a movie, but a silent movie, and I’m filling in the words and sounds. It’s pretty easy.
Are you getting commercial play on the radio?
The alternative stations have always been supportive. Black radio stations, no. They’re afraid to take chances. All they know is that their numbers won’t drop if they continue to play the same thing they played yesterday, you know, Jay-Z, 50 Cent. The most dangerous thing they’ll play is what they call neo-soul, like Musiq Soulchild and Erykah Badu.
Do you consider yourself more of a funk, blues, or something-else kind of artist?
Something else, yeah, but still black music. It’s very insulting when they tell me, “I’m not going to play this, man, because it sounds like the blues.” That’s a ridiculous statement to make from one black person to another. If I were to make country music, I would make what I call country music; something along the lines of Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. And if I was going to make rock music, I would make what I call rock music, which is Iggy Pop or Led Zepplin. It would be as authentic-sounding as that. So when I make soul music or funk music, to me, it’s as authentic as a Sly Stone record or a Curtis Mayfield record.
Did you grow up listening to them?
Not with Curtis. I didn’t catch up with him till later. But with Sly Stone, yes. And Theolonius Monk and Richard Pryor.
Who’s not exactly a musician.
No, but the stories he spins, they have so much atmosphere. And there’s always honesty in what he does, and it’s tragic, but it’s always humorous at the end of the day and that’s what I got from him.
Your manager is Randy Jackson from American Idol. When he gives you criticism, does he always start with, “Yo, yo dawg, what up dawg?”
No, that’s so television, although he is a critic at heart.
What happens if you blow up? Are you prepared?
I sure as hell want to find out. I know I have talent. I know my record is good. I’m just impatient. I don’t need to sell 10 million records; I need to not need money.
Do you have dalliances with different women in every town?
I certainly have a lot of relationships. Not sexual, though. I’m not an international playboy. To be honest, I’m trying to adjust to the speed of this thing. You do shows and afterwards there’s twenty or thirty women wanting to talk to you. Not all of them want to fuck you. But there are always three or four who want to find out if we can hang. And a lot of them are really pretty. You can get yourself in trouble. The trick for me is to meet everybody and say hello and go back to my room.
Don’t you feel like an old man?
No, it’s good for me. I get some rest. I can only sleep four or five hours anyway, so mostly I’m on the computer writing. I write letters to my son. He’s not old enough to read them, but someday they might be interesting.
I didn’t know you had a son.
He’s in Atlanta with his mom. He’s two. His name is Drake.
Are you in a relationship with his mother?
I’m not going to answer that. But I see her.
Would you have another kid?
I’m really good with, you know, going to the park, playing games, talking, and you know, paying for the child. But I’m not going to count contractions again. I was really good at taking care of my brother and making sure everything was in order for my mom so she could come home and relax.
How many brothers do you have?
Three younger brothers, two from different women. A couple of them went through it worse than I did. My old man and stepmother spend a lot of time chasing each other around the house. And neither he nor my stepmother has teeth, so it’s really entertaining to see them argue. They can barely make words out. But it’s just this peculier relationship that works. They’ve been together twenty-five years.
I read something about you critiquing your brother’s choice of music for making looove.
Oh, he’s awful. I always ask him, “How do you listen to Bootylicious while having sex? Or ‘In Da Club?'”
Would you have sex to your own album?
No, it might kill my love of music. But I’d listen to "Don’t Say Goodnight" by the Isley Brothers.
“Down Here In Hell (With You)” sounds like a flawed relationship. Do you seek them out?
No, but I do have a friend who goes around looking for sunken treasure. I call him Jacques Cousteau. But once you stumble into a relationship, I am into working it out as opposed to walking away. That’s what this song is about.
Are you currently in a relationship?
I am. A sexual relationship.
Have you ever been in love?
No, but I’m very good at relationships.
What’s the point of working to keep a relationship if there isn’t love there?
There is love. I’ve just never been in love with somebody. I don’t really understand what that is. But I love the women I’m with. I’m committed…
Are you fading?
No, no. I’m good. You’ve got the red dress on with the stripes. It’s nice.
What are you doing tonight? Going back to the bar?
No I’m going to make my driver, Eddie, drive me to the Golden Krust so I can get me some oxtails. I want to eat something close to home. You want some?
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten oxtail. I’m kind of a vegetarian.
Lord. We’ve got to do something with your diet. Who becomes a vegetarian?
Thanks.
Come on. Let’s go harass Eddie.

***Indian Restaurant, 8:30PM*** This is not bad for $6.99 wine.
Wine puts you in such a sensual mood. It’s like ecstasy. You love everyone. You’re taken by my charm.
I was from quite early on. Being drunk is just an enabler.
It does dig deep down into your subconscious. It can’t make you do anything, but, man, it’ll sure make you think.
There are other drugs that do the same trick.
I wouldn’t know. I’m not into that shit. Although I thought about taking cocaine once just so I could do more work. Hugh Hefner did that when he was starting his magazine.
Now you’re emulating Hef?
I definitely enjoy his work ethic and the results.
I like Bob Guccione better.
Penthouse is better, because the pictures are more to the point. And not so many damn blondes. I love Larry Flynt, too.
Want any bread?
I’ll help you, but I’m on my video diet. There’s no point unless you’re going to look good in it.
Are you working out?
Working out? Can you imagine? You have to focus for an hour and just concentrate on doing one muscle. It shouldn’t take effort to look this good.
The effort kills me, too. But I think I might start running.
Why do you want to change your body? It’s so nice and natural.
So what are you doing now?
I think I’ll go back to my hotel. I have to read treatments for my video.
That’s too bad. You should come get a beer with me in Williamsburg. You have a driver, don’t you?
Well, I’m going back to my hotel. You should come with me.
Are you proposing we hang out as friends?
Yeah, of course. I’m also proposing sex.
If I say no, have I lost my chance forever?
Of course not.

***Backseat of the Limo, 11PM *** How old are you? I’m an old lady, 26.
I can’t believe you said that. I’m 26, too, you know.
When’s your birthday?
March 8.
Ah, a Pisces. Are you psychic?
Actually, I do have premonitions from time to time.
[To Eddie] Right here is great. [To Van] This is where I get out. [Lean over to peck on cheek, suddenly kissing.] You know, I can’t get out of this car unless you move. [Standing outside on corner, still kissing.] I have to go. [Finally disengage, watch car drive off, hit head repeatedly.

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© 2004 Jada Yuan and Nerve.com.