Music by VICE

Sex, Drugs, and Mantyhose: Enter the Twisted Kitsch of Seth Bogart's Wacky Wacko World

The former Hunx and His Punx frontman goes John Waters-meets-'Pee-wee's Playhouse' on his self-titled solo debut.

by Peter Holslin
Mar 18 2016, 3:20pm

All photos by Kristina Pedersen. Photobooth installation by Allison Riegle.

“We’re going to try to cover the ceiling with hair,” Seth Bogart tells me, gesturing up as he tours us around his clothing shop-cum-gallery space, Wacky Wacko, on a bright February afternoon in LA.

We’re on a not-quite-gentrified corner of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, and the space is in the early stages of a Pee-wee’s Playhouse-style makeover. Tools and tape are strewn about, and the walls sport fresh coats of bright pink paint. Against one, Bogart’s friend and artist Peggy Noland has built a giant sculpture of soda cups, molded out of chicken wire and duct tape, and soon to be fleshed out with papier-mâché.

Bogart and Noland have run the shop along with fellow artist Christine Stormberg since 2014, and until recently, it was only open on Saturdays. On March 19, it will re-open as a full-time operation, and they’re working to turn it into a regular business and revenue source, just one of many projects the 35-year-old musician and artist has been juggling alongside a multimedia live show and a new self-titled solo album.

“I have a lot to do,” Bogart says.

The album, out now on Burger Records, arrives on the crest of a major transition for Bogart. A former member of California queercore favorites Gravy Train!!!! and Hunx and His Punx, Bogart has been touring and putting out records for well over a decade. Weary of the repetitive touring and album cycle schedule, Bogart has spent recent years honing an immersive new aesthetic and artistic outlook.

Last September, he put up a solo installation at LA’s 365 S. Mission gallery—a funhouse popping with giant sculptures and Pepto-Bismol pink decor, and full of brilliant Bogart-isms like a display for Leggs brand “Mantyhose” and a giant makeup compact that eats people.

He has also completely revamped his approach to music and live performance. Seth Bogart moves from his older garage-punk sound into a mature electro-pop direction, and includes features from the likes of hero Kathleen Hanna, Tavi Gevinson, and Australian indie-pop auteur Chela. On stage, he’s ditched the live band format to deliver a one-man variety show spectacular featuring video broadcasts, costume changes, guest appearances, and karaoke-style sing-alongs.

"I just feel like, unfortunately, I’m a person that has to be creative to live,” he says. “Whether that’s, like, painting or making sculptures or writing songs, sometimes I just feel like that’s the only thing you can do.”

If Bogart is something of a workhorse, there’s still a refreshing frivolity to his creations. Kitsch, novelty, sex—these are his raw materials. With an eye towards free expression over formalism or commercial restraint, he invites us all to stretch out, forget the rules, and have fun.

Most fans probably know Bogart by his former alias, Hunx. It’s been his nom de stage since the early 00s, first as a member of Oakland LGBT electroclash outfit Gravy Train!!!! (alongside bandmates Chunx, Funx, and Drunx) and later as frontman for LA-by-way-of-San Francisco garage rockers Hunx and His Punx.

The moniker suits him. On stage during his album release show—aptly titled "The Seth Bogart Show"—at the Echoplex nightclub, Bogart shines like a leather daddy Ken doll. His hair is dyed jet-black with shoe polish, and combed to perfection. His face is clean shaven except for a delicate pencil mustache. His cheeks glow with rouge, complementing the bright pink plastic tablecloth material of the two-piece suit Noland custom-tailored for him.

Even in more casual garb, like the T-shirt and backwards cap he sports when we meet for our interview a few days earlier at Wacky Wacko, he’s still striking—perfect teeth, strong jawline, lean build.

“I’m trying to get buff,” Bogart jokes, sipping from a cup of healthy green juice.

Hunky though he may be, Bogart has grown out of his Hunx alias. The new album is his first under his real name. The project was recorded over several years with friend and producer Cole M.G.N., known for his work with Beck, Ariel Pink, Julia Holter, and Stones Throw Records. With the help of another friend’s home-grown weed, the two musicians crafted an electro-pop fun-zone — sexy synth lines, dancefloor-ready drum machine beats, and Chipmunk-ified vocal parts, all girded by sophistication and emotional depth. On highlight “Forgotten Fantazy,” the BPM slows and the mood darkens as Bogart muses on the frustrations of unmet desire over electronic atmospherics inspired by the band Broadcast.

“I liked playing that [Hunx] character, but I wanted to make a record that felt more like what I truly am, or whatever,” Bogart explains, seated at a yellow, oblong table sculpted as part of the Wacky Wacko redesign. “It’s like a weird teenager’s version of an adult album, I guess. But I just mean that in the sense where I took it super seriously and worked on it for a long time… I just feel like every other record I had ever made was done in, like, a week. I wanted to make something that I would look back and still really love later.”

Raised in Tucson, Arizona, Bogart grew up rocking out to The Ramones, 90s riot grrrl acts, and 60s girl groups. His mother was a nurse and his father was a lawyer, and he’s described coming out to his mom at 18 as a positive experience. But it was also during his teens that his father committed suicide, and beyond what’s been reported in past interviews with publications like Out, he declines to discuss his Arizona upbringing.

“I blacked out my childhood after a string of traumatic events in my late adolescence,” Bogart writes by email, when pressed for more details after our meeting.

In the early 00s, Bogart fell in with the rag-tag Gravy Train!!!! crew after moving to Oakland. For years, he and his exclamation-prone cohorts fueled dance parties and irritated the occasional critic with their vulgar, shoddily-recorded sex jams. Though the quartet never achieved anything close to mainstream success, to this day anthems like “Ghost Boobs” and “You Made Me Gay” are beloved by weirdoes, punks, and party people.

“Gravy Train!!!! damaged me because I don't think I will ever again experience something so intense and exciting,” he recalls. “We were so young and pent up — and didn't care about anything else in the world. I feel very lucky that Gravy Train!!!! was basically my college education.”

Around 2007, Bogart went in a new direction with Hunx and His Punx. The band boasted Bay Area garage scene staples like Nobunny’s Justin Champlin and Shannon Shaw from Shannon and the Clams, and together they put a raunchy, John Waters-esque spin on 50s and 60s teen pop by way of infectious riffs, be-my-baby beats, and grime-encrusted punk jams, topping one of their albums off with homoerotic cover art.

Hunx also showed an earnest side: For his 2012 solo Hunx album Hairdresser Blues, Bogart toned down the kitsch and took a more reflective route, paying tribute in one song to late friend Jay Reatard, and in another, “When You’re Gone,” to his father.

On his new album, Bogart returns to personal territory. Album opener “Hollywood Squares” bemoans the celebrity worship and social climbing so prevalent in his adopted city of LA, where he moved from Oakland at the end of 2011.

“And I can’t believe that I could be this desperate for a lick / Of something that doesn’t exist,” he sings. Later, on “Plastic!,” Bogart delivers a poignant kiss-off to a friend via warbly Auto-Tune.

For all for the fun he has, Bogart's creativity is ultimately his survival mechanism.

“I mean, mostly I do it because I like it," he says. "But sometimes you just feel terrible, and writing a song makes you feel better.”

It’s tempting to fixate on the politics and personal experience behind Bogart’s work, to unpack the ways that it challenges gender binaries and sexual norms, offers inclusive new pop culture visions, and fuses the serious with the silly. But Noland, a frequent collaborator and close friend of Bogart’s, prefers not to overthink it. She points out that it’s the fun, not the heavy stuff, that’s important.

“I feel like it’s maybe all novelty. On purpose, though. Not as a gimmick, but just as a sincere appreciation of novelty,” she says. “I mean that definitely as a good thing. I feel like maybe the emotion that you’re picking up is definitely — we’re saying the same thing, you know? He’s definitely pure and sentimental and certainly connected emotionally to what he’s making, but in a way that is for fun on purpose.”

Back at the Echoplex, playfulness rules the night. The room is packed, the lights are flashing. At one point, Bogart solicits weed from the audience. At another, Chela joins him onstage to dance around while they duet on “Supermarket Supermodel,” a catchy ode to a grocery store cutie.

Throughout much of the show, two buff security guards stand at attention at both ends of the stage. They’re clearly not event staff -- in fact, they look more like strippers in their tight shirts and shiny sunglasses, a hunch that proves correct when Bogart performs his song “Lubed.” To cheers from the crowd, they rip off their clothes and perform a strip-tease, flexing their washboard abs only to end up getting arrested and led away by two women in latex cop uniforms.

It’s basking in fun, for fun’s sake. Whether under the stage lights of the Echoplex, among the colorful sculptures of Wacky Wacko, or with the dance jams of his latest album, Bogart creates spaces where we can be ourselves, and celebrate ourselves. No matter how serious, silly, or embarrassing our needs and fantasies may seem, he gives us permission to just play.

“I’m a strong believer in just doing your thing,” he tells me. “No matter what.”

Peter Holslin likes fun. Follow him on Twitter.