I know I like to blab on and on about how great and cool Dev Hynes is, and how he’s the (musical) voice of our generation, but all of those things are true, so whatevs. I recently went to his apartment and asked him questions about all his stuff. Sandy Kim took photos. This interview originally appeared in Apartamento magazine.
Devonté Hynes wears many masks: musician, producer, actor, nerd, comic whiz, synesthete, sex symbol, ostensible playboy. Today, he is perhaps best known as Blood Orange, the moniker under which he makes sexy, early ’80s disco infused with eastern melodies. He also wrote and produced True, the recent record from Solange, aka everyone’s fav album of the past year (check their dance moves on Jimmy Fallon #chic). Throughout his career Hynes has become known for changing his name and appearance with each new musical project he begins, perpetually starting anew. Before launching Blood Orange in 2010, Hynes spent three years making orchestral pop under the name Lightspeed Champion, and even earlier was his screamo band, Test Icicles. He is a very prolific man; as ‘Dev Hynes’ he writes scores for (my) short films for Purple magazine and UK Channel 4, has produced hip-hop artist Theophilis London, and has written songs for artists like Florence and the Machine and Chemical Brothers. Not to mention Hynes is an erstwhile actor, and works as a consultant for Rocawear, Jay-Z and Damon Dash’s clothing line. See, told you he was cool.
Hynes grew up in Essex, a small town outside of London, but has lived in New York for the past six years. You’d think with a life like his he’d be loling-out 24/7/365. However, when I arrived at his Brooklyn apartment for this interview, he immediately informed me that he was on on a “downward spiral,” and that he was struggling to work out whether he’s a sadist or a masochist (or both). And all the while he was continuously flinching from neck pain–the result of what he defined only as a “sex injury.”
Slutever: You’ve lived in quite a few apartments in your six years in New York.
Hynes: I know, it sucks, because I don’t want to be that person. I’ve lived here for a year but I’m about to leave again, because I moved in here with my girlfriend and we just broke up.
Bummer. So, you have a lot of comics.
Yeah, I’m obsessed. Growing up Spider-Man and Marvel comics were my favorite things in the world, but nowadays I prefer more realistic comics. I used to escape my life by reading about the surreal. Now I escape my life by reading about people who are more depressed than me.
Who are you into these days?
Well of course Daniel Clowes, who did Ghost World and David Boring. I practically know every page of David Boring by heart. And I love Adrian Tomine, who did Sleepwalk. I actually have ‘sleepwalk’ tattooed on my wrist. And also the Japanese artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. At the moment I’m rereading A Drifting Life, which is a comic autobiography of his entire life. He’s 77 now, but he used to make these super dark comics about post-war Japan. They talked about how depressed people in Tokyo were, and about guys hooking up with prostitutes and then going home to their lonely, box apartments. It was stuff no one was talking about at the time, let alone drawing about in comics.
When did your comic obsession begin?
When I was 12. There was a comic store near my school where I used to hang out. I didn’t really eat at that point in my life, so I just spent all my money on comics.
Why wouldn’t you eat?
I was anorexic.
Oh, because I was going to tell you that the correct term is actually ‘manorexic.’
I didn’t have an eating disorder, thankfully. But around that time I got really sick. Basically I got a stomach virus that lead to an ulcer, and then combined with my allergies I ended up getting so sick that I almost died. I had to be in the hospital for a few months, and then after that I was still so ill that I had to be home-schooled for the rest of the year. Before I got sick I was sort of a big kid, but then I lost loads of weight because I could only eat toast and water, because I lost tons of my stomach lining so my stomach couldn’t digest anything. And when I got better I never fully gained the weight back, which I suppose is the one good thing that came from my near death experience.
Yeah. And then for years afterward I apparently had what’s called post-viral depression, which is when you have a fear of getting a previous sickness again. And because I associated food with how sick I was, I was too afraid to eat.
Let’s talk about something less depressing. What do you spend most of your money on?
I spend a lot of money on rare art books. I recently got this book, Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York. It’s full of the best picture you will ever see in your entire life. There’s some photos of RuPaul when he’s young in it, hanging out in Times Square looking fucking amazing. And there’s lots of photos of Octavia St. Laurent, who the Blood Orange album is dedicated to. A lot of people know from the famous voguing documentary Paris is Burning. She’s incredible; everything she says just really resonates with me. She died while I was writing the album.
Judging from the artwork for your album Coastal Grooves, and from some of your music videos, you seem to be very inspired by ball culture.
Yeah, the album artwork is all old photos from NYC vogue balls in the 80s. And my song “Sutphin Boulevard” is about a young boy who dresses in drag who sneaks out at night to party, so that video features drag queens, and is sort of an tribute to that time. I’m just in awe of the early 80s gay culture in New York—the ball culture, what they created, how they expressed themselves. I grew up in a small town in England called Essex, and because I dressed weird and had gay friends, I was tormented. I would get spit on, beaten up, called a fag. But imagine how difficult it would have been to be black and gay, or black and transgender 30 years ago in New York. They had so much against them, but they managed to create something so beautiful. I find that bravery really inspiring.
Do you think this association with gay culture has anything to do with why the top suggested Google search upon typing ‘Dev Hynes’ into the search bar is ‘Dev Hynes gay’?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s because I’m gay?
Oh, cool. So you were talking about being bullied when you were younger. I assume this means you weren’t a “cool kid” in high school.
Correct, I was not cool. But I played on every sports team, so it was a weird juxtaposition.
How did you lose your virginity?
Oh god, it’s a pretty dark story. The first time I had sex was with a pen pal. The way we met was… well, I used to read metal magazines, and some of them had these forms that you could fill out that would allow the magazine to connect you with people who were “like you”. It was essentially a sort of social networking thing, but for metal-heads in the pre-internet era. So I filled out one of those forms and ended up becoming pen pals with this girl who lived a short train ride away from me. She described herself as “pretty cute,” and I described myself as looking almost nothing like I actually did. Then one day we decided to actually meet up, so I got the train to where she lived. We spent the day hanging out with her weird metal friends who had just come from the Slipknot show, and they were all definitely like, “Who the F is this weird back kid who we’ve never met hanging out with you?” Oh, and I should probably add that she looked like a dude. Anyway, we ended up going back to to her house and having completely non-eventful sex. But like, it wasn’t even sex, it was intercourse, ya know? Like penetration.
Yeah. It was depressing, because clearly the entire day–hanging out in a CD shop, going to look at Metallica T-shirt, sitting on skateboards in supermarket parking lots–was all just a lead-up to this one moment, and it was so anticlimactic. And I’m not sure if this is just me, but after I come I have a moment of mini depression anyway, so at that moment, in the middle of nowhere with this girl I didn’t even like, I just felt so dark and horrible. And then I took the train back, probably listening to Korn, hating my life. We never spoke again.
When you were young and depressed, did you dream of being a rock star?
No, I wanted to be a biographer, which I think is why to this day, when I like something I really like to study is, to dive in and take it on fully. Growing up I loved music so much, but I didn’t know how to make it make me happy. I would do is I’d hear songs on the radio and I would imagine that I wrote them. Like, at the most, I would sing in front of the mirror. I would never imagine myself performing, or romanticize being on tour or anything like that.
It’s interesting that you’re talking about growing up a nerd, because the imagery surrounding Blood Orange is so classically and unapologetically “cool.” Lots of motorcycles, slow motion basketball, ‘mean streets of NYC’ vibes. It seems that with Blood Orange you’re created this sensational persona, perhaps to counter your inner nerd.
That’s funny. Actually, very recently there have been multiple people, including my ex-girlfriend, who have told me that I’ve started to become the character I created.
Did they mean it as an insult?
Almost definitely, yeah. Words like ‘alcoholic’, ‘womanizer’ and ‘drug abuse’ were thrown around. [laughs] I don’t know, maybe it’s true. I’ve always liked the idea of the ‘ambiguously romantic bad boy’. Not that I actually think I’m a bad boy…
Well, as we’ve learned from Madonna, creating characters and reinventing your image is not a bad thing.
People always ask me why I choose to change the same of what I’m doing musically. Like after Test Icicles I made music under Lightspeed Champion, but now I make music as Blood Orange, and sometimes I work under Devonte Hynes. To me it just makes sense, because each of those projects are different and very separate. All of those musical personas are me, but I don’t ever want anyone to ever think I am just that one thing. I suppose I like to wear masks–I wear different masks for each thing I do. But equally, I’ve always said, if you wear a mask for long enough, it just becomes your face.
What musicians would you say carved great images for themselves?
Lou reed and Serge Gainsbourg. I’m somewhat of a Gainsbourg fanatic. He is someone who cared a lot about the look and feel of his home. His house was incredible, and it was such a part of who he was, and part of his music as well. All the walls in the place were painted black, and the curtains were black too. He had lots of statues, of which was a naked man sitting down, but he had a cabbage for a head. And Gainsbourg became so obsessed with it that wrote an entire album from the perspective of the statue, titled L’homme à Tête de Chou, so literally ‘the man with a cabbage head.’ Actually, during his life he said that after he died he wanted his house turned into a museum, and I read that his daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is actively trying to make that happen.
Do you put a lot of consideration into the way your apartment looks?
Generally I do. Although the girl who I moved into this apartment with is quite domineering, and I’m quite relaxed about anything and everything, so a large part of the way this place looks was down to her, because she was pretty militant about how she wanted things to be.
Can you describe an average day for you?
Well, I have difficulty sleeping. I sleep about four hours a night, so I get up early. The first thing I do is work out what sport I’m going to play that day. I play pick-up basketball games on various courts around Williamsburg, and I play tennis a lot with Albert Hammond Jr.. We’re currently training for the Williamsburg Open. I’m confident we’ll at least make it through the preliminary rounds. I’ve also recently gotten really into ping pong, which I play religiously at this youth center type place in Brooklyn. Then I go home and read a little bit, and then I work on music. For the most part, everything I write starts on piano; I write a piece of music, and then I assign what instrument each part belongs to. I even write vocal parts on piano.
What a lot of people don’t know about you is that you were born with the neurological condition known as synesthesia, which causes you to literally see sounds, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. Basically, synesthesia is a condition where your brain simultaneously perceives one sense with one or more additional senses. For me, my senses of sight and sound are linked. I’m not an expert on it, to be honest. I just know my brain is wired in a way that means I can see sounds—different colors for different notes and tones. Weird rainbows of noise floating around me constantly.
That sounds intense.
It can be distracting. Like, it’s hard to have a conversation in a bar or a venue with all that insanity going on around you. People always think I’m being rude or unresponsive, but really I’m just trying my best to block out the endless visual circus. But with time I’ve learned to get over it, to focus.
Are there any benefits?
Well, I’ve recently started using it as a tool for writing music, by attempting to write songs that produced the most visually attractive color patterns for me. It’s been really fun actually. And another thing that’s cool is that I never have to learn a piece of music. I can play a song immediately after hearing it once, because I can read the notes by the colors it produces.
Wow, that’s crazy. According to Wikipedia, Marilyn Monroe, Vladimir Nabokov and Stevie Wonder are all synesthetes as well.
Yeah… we’re cool.