Cult gay icon Kristian Hoffman :: New CD, classy gig
While the phrase "cult gay icon" has been bestowed upon many a name through the years, there are a few cultural figures whose "cult" status has been rendered questionable once they attain a certain level of mainstream ubiquity. (See: John Waters post-Hairspray remake, Kathy Griffin, ironically, post-My Life on the D-List and Ellen, in particular).
But in a career that has spanned three decades, singer-songwriter and artist Kristian Hoffman is a gay "cult" star who has yet to break through -- and I'd venture to guess he might prefer it that way. Since moving to New York in the late '70s, Hoffman played with the Mumps and collaborated with some of that scene's most celebrated names, often serving as Rufus Wainwright's musical director on the road and collaborating with Ann Magnuson, Klaus Nomi, Lydia Lunch and Mink Stole among others.
Late last year, Hoffman released his latest solo album, titled 'FOP,' which is a Bowie-esque sprawling, swelling work with lofty ambitions, biting lyrics and impeccable arrangements. Though he rarely performs live in concert, Hoffman has put together a special show featuring many of his musical collaborators and a string quartet at LA's Steve Allen Theater Friday, Feb. 4.
Taking a break from rehearsals for the so-called 'FOP Formal,' Hoffman spoke with EDGE about his latest album, offending fundamentalists and his thoughts on the music industry today.
Show this weekend
EDGE: Are you excited for your show at Steve Allen Theater this weekend?
Kristian Hoffman: Of course I’m excited! I mean I’m thrilled with the people I’m working with. The people at the theater are great and the guest artists are all great. I love that Ann Magnuson is making time to sing "Sex and Heaven" with me and the relationship I have with Prince Poppycock. I’m excited for the strings and it should be a fantastic show. It’s also pretty daunting and I’m just hoping I can pull it off. I haven’t done a show quite this big for a while and it should be as exciting as it is precarious that I could artistically fall off a cliff at any moment.
EDGE: Tell me about your latest album, ’FOP.’ What inspired you to create this, your first solo album since 2003, and what was your mood at the time of its creation?
KH: In the beginning, I’d just been writing songs steadily since ’&’ and even since the album with Ann. It was a particularly bleak period in American and international history throughout the Bush regime. It seemed like the future got darker and darker with less hope, plus the fact that our country was so eager to give away its civil rights without blinking. Intellectualism and the arts, the things that usually bring people together, became suspect. Most recently, the David Wojnarowicz film was removed from the Smithsonian exhibit. You’re not given a chance to speak in this climate and it seemed to be at its worst during the Bush regime.
[The album] looks through that dark prism, but I hope to liven it up with a bit of humor. When I got my backing for the album, it was very much about when - not if - I will make my big album and there was a lot of joy in that one moment. I can go for that ’MacArthur Park’ in me that has never really been hit but has been something I’ve always longed to do. In the ’60s, people could have whatever eccentric or not particularly popular vision they had and could go into a room with a 60-piece orchestra and make fools of themselves on a grand scale. I wanted to have that opportunity.
I felt with this political climate, it’s important to make a declaration that big art is evolution in itself. Art should be front, center and unembarrassed, as florid and opulent as possible as a political statement. There’s a gay metaphor there too, since I wanted to make it as fancy as it could possibly be. Art is perceived as disposable or accessory, and that is something that gay has also been perceived as.
Politically pointed songs
EDGE: Let’s talk about the song "Hey Little Jesus" off the album. What was the inspiration behind that one and how does it fit into the declaration?
KH: The funny thing about that song is that many of the songs on the album are very pointed politically and are anti-religion. "Something New is Born" is the idea that the troops of God have lost their center -- they made a community that used to be about helping people, but now it’s about hating others. This song was written as a joke in 1981. The Swinging Madisons had an Easter show and I was asked to write a song for it. It’s a harmless song about getting out of that hole -- which means him coming back from the dead and out of the tomb -- and is based on Connie Francis’ ’Stupid Cupid.’ It was a crowd pleaser and a good rock song.
We were filmed playing it twice by the 700 Club who called it the music of Satan. We were playing at CBGB and there were all these television cameras there and that was a proud accomplishment on my part. But we never recorded the song fro an album. When we did the video for it, I thought it was very jokey and fun but not particularly sacrilegious. The song has caused so much controversy and resulted in so many people de-friending me on Facebook. Those responses have been revealing. People are so hyper-touchy about something they don’t even care to investigate. Many of the songs on the album are much worse and slanted against religion or political figures or the status quo.
EDGE: I just read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which seems to touch on a larger sense of nostalgia for New York right around the time you moved there and began your music career. What do you think of that? What impact did the city make on your trajectory as an artist?
KH: I think nostalgia is kind of an ugly word. To me it’s demeaning and has a Norman Rockwell feel to it. That was a remarkable time, but I feel the one thing that’s not often represented is the socioeconomic aspect in New York City when that moment was made possible. I went to Cal Arts here and was supposed to be an artist, but everything then was about conceptual art and drawing was no longer considered a fine art. It was so regimented and the exact opposite of what I thought art should be. Lance Loud and I were both obsessed with Andy Warhol and the idea of just going to New York. There was a movement of a lot of kids who felt that way and it was like going to summer camp with the coolest kids you’d ever met. It was fashionable at the time to move to the suburbs and East Village was considered a slum so people were lowering rents, which made for a good catalyst.
My parents feared when we’d come to this town we’d become addicts and whores and then we did and our parents were right. Every time you walked out the door, there was another art student who had moved there from West Virginia or Minnesota or someone who was on their way to some great thing to see that didn’t cost any money. That setting made it very ripe and fertile for an artistic explosion to occur. It made it possible for a very interactive community of young people to get together and live out their fantasies in the greatest city in the world and I don’t think that will ever happen again. We all happened to move there at the same time -- the people who formed Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and so much else all lived within an eight-block radius. But we knew it couldn’t last and, though we were young, we knew this is the magic moment and we have to seize it. I tried to seize on every project that came my way -- having an art show, bands and underground movies -- and we did all these things.
EDGE: How is it different for you to perform live shows now as compared to when you were first getting started?
KH: I haven’t performed very often. I’ve been a keyboard player for many people and toured all over the U.S. and sometimes Europe and I’m very lucky to get that work. The industry is in such chaos that most clubs here in LA or San Francisco won’t book you unless you can guarantee a certain amount of ticket sales and it’s not nurturing. In that era, you could go to town and they’d book you. The punk movement was getting a certain amount of press all over the city and people would be excited to see you.
I bet there’s that spirit for younger people today, a community I don’t know about, but in my community it’s not happening. I don’t want to sound whiny because I’m very lucky and blessed in many ways, but I can see where if one of these nice nightclubs did a songwriter night once a month and let LA people play there, it would feel much warmer in LA than it already does.
A new atmosphere
EDGE: Have you found it difficult to find an audience for your solo work?
KH: It’s unclear to me. The one thing I feel is that the record has gotten such over-the-top critical response that I feel if people hear it and they’re patient -- it may not be what they’ve heard before -- they’ll like it. In ’96, when I toured with Rufus Wainwright, I realized I loved the direction of big opuses with big string sections -- like his song "Go or Go Ahead." That is similar in ambition and scale to what I tried to do. I think it speaks to people who have made a career out of being journalists listening to music. They love it. But getting it heard is a big question during this very specific collapse of the industry where I chose to make a career.
I do think there’s a new atmosphere allowing you to work on a record for a while. It’s an independent industry now -- even mainstream artists are going independent -- so you have time to make a record happen. My record release party in LA surprisingly sold out and this show on Friday may be sold out, so maybe I’m being cynical but it does seem hard.
EDGE: What do you make of the out gay or gay-friendly music icons of today and how do they compare to their predecessors? Do you think younger gays honor the trailblazers as they should?
KH: In the best of all possible worlds, people investigate and look for things with originality and substance and a message but if you think back on the history of music, the things we regard as the huge masterpieces of the era of the ’60s, for example, were not embraced by the youth ... The youth of the ’60s and seeping into the ’70s were politically engaged and went to peace marches and were encouraged by their icons to engage with politics by singers like John Lennon. I don’t see much of that from many of these people today, except maybe Lady Gaga. She’s the same way Madonna was, standing up for gay rights and questioning Republican programs.
But overall, the people that became the huge record sales people from most eras were not the pioneers but people wo took the flavor of the pioneer and made it more homogenized. The Sex Pistols didn’t sell records, it was the Pretenders because their music wasn’t threatening. I do think Chrissie Hynde is a great songwriter. I think today is the worst era of music since the early ’60s as the record industry is in such a place of panic that they will only fund something that sounds like a cover version of something else. Look at Adam Lambert, I’m not in love with him, but he was obviously the best singer and entertainer in that show. Instead, they picked the non-entity who sounded like a Huey Lewis cover band. It’s a nation in fear. When we’re in fear, we regress and go with what’s most comforting, the familiar and non-threatening. I think of ’FOP’ as a protest against that.
EDGE: What do you think you would be were you not a songwriter and performer?
KH: I was raised in very artistic community. My parents were both quakers. My father worked in a liberal think tank and my mother was an actress and peace activist. It was always expected of me that I would be an artist. I wouldn’t say I had incredible talent, but a great facility for talent. I went to art school to try and do fine art, but I always really loved children’s book illustrations from the ’20s. I would have loved and expected to become either a children’s book illustrator for other people putting together old-fashioned fairy tales or I’d be doing more grunt work like graphic design or designing covers for sci-fi novels. I’ve never really stopped drawing. I did the poster for the Green Day movie ["Hand Like a Hand Grenade"], the album cover for X and a few things here or there. I’d definitely be in some other career without any foreseeable future.
Kristian Hoffman performs Friday, Feb. 4 at the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., in Los Angeles. Visit www.steveallentheater.com or www.kristianhoffman.com for tickets and more information about his upcoming gigs. His latest CD ’FOP’ is available at Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble .com, or most cyber distributors.