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In the time since, Hunt has been tinkering away on his debut full-length, The Phoney. The album is a sea change, as Hunt diverts from the hazy, lackadaisical aesthetic of his earlier work while keeping his outre characteristics intact. Those changes are quite obvious on "Criminal" and "Castle of Nothing," which local imprint Moniker Records originally released as a seven-inch single two years ago; on the vinyl version of "Castle of Nothing" Hunt morphed his vocals into something resembling a misanthropic, water-damaged supercomputer from the 80s, but on the new version he sings so clearly you can hear his voice quiver slightly at certain points. Moniker will release The Phoney on Tue 4/30; the Reader has the exclusive stream of the album until its release next week.
Although The Phoney is Hunt's first album proper, it takes up a small fraction of the recorded works that the 27-year-old has amassed over the year. "I have tapes that go back to not even eight or something," he says. Those tapes are sitting in a garage in Lansing, Illinois, along with plenty of notebooks containing his writings; Hunt has tried to digitize all of his cassettes, but, he says, "it's just too big of a job." Still, he's managed to get 400 of his songs onto his computer.
According to Hunt, not all the material on those cassettes could be classified as songs or even music. Hunt grew up surrounded by microphones and recording equipment, and he'd record what happened around him. Some of that was music—his grandmother sang in church, and every Saturday some of her church friends would come to their house to sing hymns and Broadway tunes. One of his grandmother's cohorts would arrive a little early and give Hunt piano lessons. Despite his background, however, music wasn't Hunt's first love. "What I was always really into was plays," he says. "I wasn't that into music when I was younger."
He began developing more of a taste for music when he started playing bass at 14, which nearly led him to performing his first concert when he was 15. Hunt stumbled upon the opportunity while walking around Cleveland, where his family was living at the time, when he spotted a peculiar stranger. "He had a shirt off and long, greasy, scraggly hair, and looked like he had been doing acid for awhile," Hunt says. "He was yelling, 'Does anyone play bass?!' And I was like, 'I play bass.'" The stranger asked Rollin to fill in for his band's bass player for a show the following night, and told Rollin to show up for band practice. Rollin says at the time he was really into the slap technique employed in funk songs, which didn't go over too well. "They played, like, death metal, and I was doing slappy stuff," he says. The guys in the group asked Rollin to join them onstage anyway—they told him they'd turn the volume on his bass down low—but Rollin never showed.
Hunt's family moved around a lot, and it wasn't until they settled in the Chicago area that he really began to explore his musical ambitions. Part of that was because of the musically inclined friends he began making once he settled in. But it was his father's death in 2001 that provided him with the impetus to pursue writing and recording his own music. Hunt says his family delivered the news the day after he lost his virginity. "The next morning I was in bed with the girl and my family came in," he says. "It was a weird 24 hours."
Along with dealing with his father's passing, Hunt was grappling with feelings of isolation, and he began to turn his attention to creating songs. "I had a little tiny room with like a bed and a karaoke stereo next to it, and a little like keyboard I had since I was ten or something, and I started just trying to record with it," he says. Hunt also learned to how to experiment with the few tools available to him. "I figured out a way to dub these two tapes to do multiple tracks so I could do four tracks before the tape totally degraded."
Part of what makes Hunt's music so fascinating is the way he's able to find new ways of spinning familiar pop sounds, doing so despite (or maybe because of) his rudimentary abilities. "I am sort of a sloppy player," he says. But he's also a tinkerer, a musician who spends plenty of time toying with how a song comes together—he compares the beginning stages of his songwriting experience to that of becoming absorbed by a puzzle, which he quite literally did with some of his melodies.
Hunt says he's most diligent about writing the lyrics for his songs; he likes to let the music come out spontaneously and let the words come together after that. It took quite some time for the songs that eventually wound up on The Phoney to fully form. "I would spend a lot of time just sort of talking through the songs and retalking through them and rewriting them," he says. Hunt spent several years recording The Phoney, and he roped in an impressive list of musicians to help out, including singer and violist Anni Rossi, onetime . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead percussionist Doni Schroader (who also produced the album), and experimental composer Devin Maxwell.
These musicians helped transform Hunt's ramshackle songs into lush, fleshed-out pop—the tunes are so intricately detailed it helped give rise to the album's name. Hunt says the songs on The Phoney are partially inspired by his feelings about his family's transient nature; the amount of time he spent working and reworking these 11 songs is a marked contrast to his upbringing. "That's why I call the record The Phoney, 'cause it's against my nature," he says. "It feels like some sort of exercise in permanence." That also extends to the album's recording: "There's nothing about it that's left to chance in the recording part, and I just felt like everything was very deliberate," he says. "It ended there, whereas nothing else felt ended or finished."
Hunt is still toying with these songs, shaping them for his live show. Now living in LA, he recently found a backing band, the current incarnation of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, sans founder Anton Newcombe. "Within the first four hours, they listened to the record and played it perfectly," he says. He's also planning on eventually taking more of his old material and reimagining it for future full-lengths—it'll just be a matter of revisiting those old cassettes and feeling out what songs will fit well with his new high-fidelity aesthetic. "No more scrapping by," he says. "I'm doing it right from now on."
Preorder The Phoney in digital, CD, and vinyl formats from Moniker Records' Bandcamp page.