Dollars to Pounds: Blood Orange

June 24, 2011

I always enjoy talking to Dev Hynes. He’s candid and switched on and it also helps that his musical output is always surprising. First there was the twitchy dance-punk of Test Icicles, formed when Dev was 18. Then there was the I’m-pissing-off-to-Omaha-and-immersing-myself-in-the-Saddle-Creek-massive album as Lightspeed Champion. His nimble melodies, affinity for pretty harmonies and strings was a surprising about-face.

Now the Texas-born, Essex-raised songwriter lives in Brooklyn and has adopted the moniker Blood Orange. He’s stripped it all back, embraced a higher register and unleashed his love of hip hop and R&B hooks all over the lo-fi, plinky, guitar-rippled, pop of his debut album Coastal Grooves.

On a recent return to London, I spoke to Dev about writing for Solange Knowles, bullies and inspirational drag queens. Download his new mixtape and read our conversation below.

Download: DJ Exotica Sage Presents: Blood Orange Home Recordings Mixtape

It seems like you’ve been living in Brooklyn forever. Three and a half years. It's weird because everything changes but doesn't at the same time. I don't hate London; I just can't live here. I feel like I'm constantly having to push a little harder. It doesn't suit my personality. I don't have a drive and everyone is so driven in London. Do you not think so?

I always had the impression that NY was even more competitive than London. They are, but I just surround myself with less driven people. In New York, I don't get the question, "What are you doing with Blood Orange?" Whereas being in London I get that all the time.

Surely Blood Orange just is. Exactly. I'm like, what does that even mean? You've always got to take everything to the next step all the time. I don't even have a next step.

As Lightspeed Champion there was quite a big production with a full band. Now it’s just you with a backing track and some triggers. Is this a reaction against your former set up? I think so. I've written a bunch of acoustic songs for another Lightspeed album and that stuff was a counter to it, but these songs were written just day to day. I was doing them to put on mixes and give to friends. You know Aaron Pfenning? He used to be in Chairlift and he does a project called Rewards. He was staying on my floor and we'd work on his songs and songs to give them to each other.

It was funny to see you playing guitar on Letterman with Theophilus London a few months back. How did you hook up with him? I met him at a Christmas party a couple of years back. I produced a bunch of his stuff and every now and then he’d ask me to play. That's how I got hooked up with Solange [Knowles]. I was in LA doing some Theo stuff. At the same time I was also doing the Blood Orange album—literally in between breaks going back and forth on the desk between albums. Solange came to do vocals on "Flying Overseas." She liked the Blood Orange stuff and asked me to write for her album. I went to Santa Barbara to write and ended up producing the whole album.

When I ran into you the other week you said you were already thinking of Coastal Grooves 2, you wanted it to be super-pop and wanted Solange and Jay-Z onboard. Did I say that? Was I drunk? It's a half-joke. I have this fantasy of going super-huge. Actually trying. I always admired people who just do it. I got told this quote by LA band Inc. about how you sidestep being thrown in the indie swimming pool. They’re like, “Just step over it.” That's such an arrogant, amazing thing to say. I was talking about how I've seen a few articles talk about Blood Orange in an indie sense. It's something I've always thought about—it seems you can't reference R&B if you're not from a huge label and have tons of money behind it, because otherwise it gets labeled as indie or slightly ironic.

How much of the lyrics on Coastal Grooves are based on real life experiences? Pretty much all of it. They're stories and some of them are pretty stupid, over the top stories, mainly from female perspectives. When I was in LA doing Theo and Blood Orange stuff I broke up with my then girlfriend who I'd been with for years. I realized that the whole album is like, breaking up. Completely. My incentive was to write about escapism. “Sutphin Boulevard” is escaping to a drag bar. I dedicated the album to Octavia St. Laurent, a transgendered model in the ‘80s who died a couple of years ago. She had AIDS but died of cancer.

What was it about her that appealed to you?I became like a kid again. I found all of her interviews really inspiring. She was an amazing role model. I kept thinking about the gay ball scene in New York in the ’80s and being young and black and gay at that time. So tough. And becoming a woman. I grew up in Romford, Essex and faced a lot of prejudices like that, almost as if I was gay. I was spat on on buses daily.

Why was their problem with you? I was in the football and basketball team, but I was also listening to Marilyn Manson and painting my nails. I was on the chess team, but I knew the words to every single rap song. I think it was a headfuck. God, I played in the orchestra too! Cello was my first instrument. All the people from around the school would give me beef. One day it was non-uniform day and I came in wearing something crazy. Not even crazy, just not a tracksuit. In the hallway this guy kept giving me shit. So I swept his leg away and he fell. After school and there was a shop on the corner and this group of dudes came up to me and were like, “Are you Dev?” And before I got the “Ye-” part out, I’d been sucker punched and then they were pounding on me really intensely and I had to go to hospital.

Then what happened? The next day I shaved lines in my eyebrows and shaved my head and came into school and my media teacher sat me down. It was really emotional. She gave me a hug and said, “Don't change!” I remember thinking I'm not going to leave Essex, or if I did, not knowing there was a world outside of it, thinking that’s just how people are, that's how it is. Following that whole world and meeting people in New York that are still a part of that whole culture and listening to Octavia’s interviews was really inspiring. A lot of these songs are about finding yourself.

Who’s the chick on your LP cover? I think her name's Exotica. I was looking up Octavia and I found this site that had pictures from this club called Sally's Hideaway which was in Times Square from 1990-93. They were so amazing. I went out on a limb and messaged the site contact and a guy called Brian Lance wrote back and said he’d taken the photos. I explained my love for them. I'd done an edit of Paris Is Burning, so I sent him that and some other music and he replied saying, “I'm actually in Paris Is Burning.” He hasn't taken photos since that time because he hasn't found anything that he loved as much. He said was really touched.

Home Recordings Mixtape Tracklisting:
Get Fresh
Sex Cray
Huge Quit Part 2 Feat. Erika Forster Spring
Drop Dead
Casper Valleys
Telling (What's Wrong With Me?)
Instantly Blank Part 2 (Teacher)
He Doesn't Even Know That I'm Alive
Falling Apart
Secret Sights
I Should Have Known Better
Lives & Treasure (Acrylics Cover)
Sutphin Boulevard Part 2 (Concluded)

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Blood Orange