In this episode, I sit down with one of my favorite creative geniuses/sources of inspiration and discuss why Hentaii’s title of “Austin’s Next Drag Superstar” just didn’t work out.
We also discuss what truly motivates an artist in an existential environment, their newest EP “Modern Phenomenon” (which is totally out now btw) and what projects + events they’re looking forward to this year.
As always you can listen to the full interview below in the web player or listen to the episode on your favorite podcast app. *
*Editor’s Note** Hentaii, so far as I know, doesn’t Identify as trans, but in that correlation, is referred to as “they” throughout the interview. It’s also worth noting that the interview below is a condensed, rough paraphrasing, NOT a transcript. The full interview contains everything you’re missing.
It’s a particularly blue day as we unload the excessive amount of equipment that I insisted on bringing for this interview.
As I grab a giant box containing a new photography light that hasn’t ever been opened or assembled, I catch a glance at my subject’s eyes and see a face that’s familiar, but markedly different from how I normally imagine them.
Back before Hentaii was Hentaii, they were David- a hilarious juxtaposition to the eccentric nickname self-dubbed by the ex-drag queen. Before they snatched the heart and the crown of Austin’s drag scene, and before they ever became a drag sibling of mine, we had both swiped right on Tinder and made sushi plans that never came to fruition, an equally eccentric factoid that neither of us has acknowledged for whatever reason since their return from Japan in 2017, not that it matters now (we’re both happily partnered for years).
In that profile picture from wayback when, they looked like the lead singer of a Nickelodeon rock band, and now they looks a little bit like a European dog sitter, albeit a very fashionable one.
We begin making our way to Hentaii’s apartment and as we step in, I’m immediately impressed by the size and space of it. Their outside balcony seems to be the only natural light source throughout their vast living room, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous palm trees.
Looking down from the balcony, it’s a very relaxing sight- one can easily imagine the shelter of the palms providing perfect acoustics for the rain’s inevitable fall. All in all the apartment seems like every artist’s dream.
We settle my giant box of equipment down and move to the bedroom where the smaller space provides more reliable recording acoustics, dodging the dogs Lemmy and Gotham along the way. Just as my interview with Louisianna Purchase started, we christen the beginning of our interview over a bowl of ganja and make small talk of general weed experiences (which you can hear in the full episode).
As Hentaii messes around with their grinder, I spot a large pink bear on the corner of their bed that makes me smile as I think about the dichotomy between the hot pink sensitivity of the bear and some of the haunting iconography of their past drag aesthetics. As I near the end of my daydream, I think about the interesting trajectory of their entertainment career so far, and how our fortunes have come full circle into this moment.
In recent years a number of superstars have emerged as nightlife staples in Austin’s Drag scene. Most of the time these personalities are pictured as corpulent, (either naturally so or emboldened by a padded exoskeleton), commanding queens with a microphone- typically hurling playful obscenities as a crowd of bachelorettes lose their shit, and yass-kweening gays croon over their dollar bills.
Hentaii never really got around into fitting that mould. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to think of a mould they do fit into. Similar to our last guest Louisianna Purchase, you’d think based off of some of their past looks that Satan himself had a hand in crafting some of Hentaii’s illusions, and for a handful of them- you might be right.
During our previous weed-talk banter I explain that my pipe (which I may or may not have referral links to in the future) is easily cleaned with coconut oil….which encourages Hentaii to lead me to their bathroom. “I keep it in an urn,” they say with their own unique version of a chuckle, “I thought how cool would it be to have my coconut oil in a place that held someone’s remains?? If there is a ghost in there, it’s a well moisturized one. ” they say grinning.
Truly fucking metal.
But to pigeonhole Hentaii as a “spooky queen” would be to underplay the versatility and commitment to the ethereal that their style evokes. Every performance is a unique experience- a snapshot of a moment in time in another universe, untraceable in many ways to one single source of inspiration.
“I’m really into transhumanism, things of that nature, and that’s a theme that shows up in this new EP too.”– Hentaii on the themes that inspired Modern Phenomenon.
I’ve known Hentaii since they first started performing onstage in my old dancing grounds of Stonewall Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas. The first performance I ever saw from them was a number where they took off a ski mask and revealed a wicked wig underneath. From that very second, I was hooked. For a period of time, Hentaii was the only performer that could encourage me to get out of the house even when I was socially and mentally exhausted.
Part of Hentaii’s appeal to me has always been the surrealist and futuristic nature of their performances. In many ways, their drag seemed to be a protest of what modern drag queens were “supposed” to be, and I became addicted to the multiverses that their performances exposed me to. Having the chance to see them rebel as their authentic self was always inspirational, especially as they began to make their way to the austin circuit. Later on they’d beat out twelve or thirteen other competitors and claim the crown as Austin’s Next Drag Superstar, only to quit drag two years later and pursue a growing commitment to their music projects under the name Vestite.
Before I begin my questions, I prepare Hentaii for my excitement. We’re drag siblings through our iconic mother Chitah Daniels Kennedy, and although we’ve known each other for quite a while and have hung out at our drag family gatherings, we’ve never functioned outside of a group setting, and secretly I feel a little nervous that they’ll regret letting this excitable extrovert into their apartment.
Thankfully, they haven’t.
G: Does this happen to you a lot where people just grab you and tell you how fucking inspirational you are?
H: No, not a lot but I was just talking to my friends about this the other day, we were at the grocery store and we saw another musician in Austin who we all know – and I’ve met her multiple times but always in full face- it was back when I used to do full drag, but I know that feeling of when someone comes up and says hi and brings attention to you by telling you how great you are, like in that moment…I want to die, but then after it’s very reaffirming but when it’s like in that moment I’m just like erghhhh I don’t know what to say!”
G: Well that and then it’s kind of like-well at least they acknowledged you outside of it! ‘Cause that’s a big deal too! I feel like sometimes whenever you’re surrounded by an artistic community…it is kind of a bigger deal to get acknowledged outside of that moment or environment, and not that as an artist you *should* always be seeking the validation of others, but it’s a natural thing to be attune to that…so I can kind of see how that could be triggering too.
H: It feels good to be reaffirmed or told “yeah I like what you do” …In the moment of receiving those compliments though I don’t know what to do, like I don’t know how to absorb or register them, but what I’ve learned is that you just say thank you and be very nice and later you can reflect on it and be like ‘Wow they really liked it.”
I will say however, those kinds of compliments too can also be -in my experience as a performer- very negative too, because in my mind if I just got done with a bad performance and I don’t feel good about it and am having an existential crisis like ‘what the fuck am I doing, why am I doing this?’ This happened a lot with drag, not so much with music and someone comes up and talks about how much they LOVE the performance that I just did and that I hated then I’m like what the fuck am I doing? If people just like ANYTHING then why even put in the effort?
G: So for those who don’t know you from Austin, you got started in San Marcos under Stonewall Warehouse when it just started with Chitah and everything- can you talk about how you went from that to eventually getting into Austin?
H: Yeah, when I came back to San Marcos for my senior year in college I had returned from studying abroad in Tokyo. While I was there I was really interested in the fashion scene there and had a lot of interesting and bizarre clothes I had gathered, but had nowhere to wear them- and San Marcos is very conservative compared to an international city like Tokyo; and I ran into my friend Tyler George who performed under the name Tara Bull at the time, we were in his car and I found a pair of stockings and was like ‘what are these?’ and she was like ‘I’m doing drag now, there’s a gay bar here called Stonewall’
So I started performing there, and actually the first time I went to Stonewall I was in drag, and I didn’t have eyelashes on and I didn’t have a drag name, but I was living my fish fantasy, and I met River Rains that day who is to this day one of my best friends, and I met Bambi and Ruby that day, it was a very fateful day.
G: So how did your relationship with Ruby come about?
H: I met Ruby that first night I went to Stonewall and we were acquaintances up until I was in drag survivor and they had a theme one week where you had to partner with someone who had done it in the past, and so I got Ruby to be in my duet and then we hung out to prepare for it, the challenge actually went really well. We started doing more duets together and finally decided to start doing our own show after Sub.Rosa – the first show I did in Austin- was temporarily put on hold. We brainstormed and came up with other ideas and worked together on things more.
Now we’re doing completely different things but there might be some stuff that we have planned to do in the future but…no details on that yet.
G: That would be cool! Ruby is interesting to me in an elusive kind of way- just because I haven’t talked to her very much.
H: She’s a very elusive person…very down to earth- a lot of people think she might be kind of a bitch because she’s hot, quiet and dressed to the 9’s or the 10’s or whatever but she, like myself is an introvert but when she drinks… and we all drink, I’m not saying she drinks a lot or that she’s an alcoholic or anything *laughs* but-
G: *laughing* She is gonna light you up!
H: No! But like really when she drinks… some people get louder when they drink but Ruby gets quieter, and at drag events she’s pretty quiet….
G: *Jokingly* Because she’s lit!
H: No! Not because she’s lit but because she’s just very observant and introverted, she’s watching what’s going on and she’s a little introverted so maybe she doesn’t talk to anyone and everyone who’s there.
G: Another thing that I’ve gathered about Ruby just from the work that you’ve both done on Violent Fem alone is that she’s very capable of conceptual stuff.
H: Yeah there was this photoshoot we did where we were connected together by an umbilical cord and people were messaging me telling me how much they loved it and I was like ‘oh no, this one was actually all completely Ruby’ and it looks like something that would come from my mind because I’m very into science fiction and like-
G: ….Weird shit
H: Yeah, weird shit! and just like very disturbing, provacative stuff. It’s funny how people would assume certain things just because of how polished she looks that she might not be able to get into the weird and the creepy and conceptual. And conceptually for Violent Fem- we always took turns creating concepts. One month it was mine and the next month it was hers, so if you look back at those you’ll see it.
And honestly, for the first violent fem, we were getting so ripped off financially, we got a really bad deal from the bar that we threw it at and it’s been fixed, the person ripping us off no longer works there, but we were so discouraged that we weren’t going to do anything like a photoshoot or videos to promote for the second one- but Ruby and her friend were like “Let’s just do, it let’s do something.” and it was really campy it was the housewives one that sticks out like a sore thumb, but I’m really glad we did it.
G: What role do you think Chitah had in your drag ascendance?
H: Whenever I started at Stonewall, I already knew how to do makeup and was posting stuff online- it was one of those internet thing- I had a voice and I knew how I wanted to do my face and stuff, but I didn’t have anybody with more experience than me that could give me some guidance, and that’s what Chitah has been since I met her. One thing about the gay community now is that we’re very segregated by age and that’s not great because it didn’t used to be like that. It’s important to interact with people who are older than you, more experienced than you and wiser than you to tell you how it is- because our parents can’t do that, and our peers are just as lost as we are. So there needs to be someone for example who can tell you that you can take a break from drag because in ten years, people are still gonna be doing it.
So I think in terms of her impact on me, A) I wouldn’t be here without her and B) imparting experience and passing it along…I couldn’t have gotten it from anyone else.
G: And how ridiculous is she?
H: I was just thinking about this because the first time I met you, you were performing and you had this little vest on and you were dancing on stage and I was like ‘Who’s he? He’s cute’ and as soon as you got offstage, she was like “Hey Greg, Hentaii wants to suck your dick!” I was like ‘ohhh’…I learned something about Chitah that night.
G: *cracking up* That was so funny ’cause after I heard that I I remember thinking, ‘Did I hallucinate that?’
H: Nope, that was all Chitah…I think I just waved or something. *laughs*
G: Well, I was just like “Oh my god, Hentaii knows who I am, yay!”
H: Nooo, at that time I wasn’t anything, like at that time-
G: I’m telling you, I was hooked on day one, your very first performance that I saw with the ski mask…
H: I think it was Mr.President by Kylie Minogue but it was slowed down…that was something that I liked doing, especially in the beginning-
Was it the time when the music stopped? Because that was traumatic….
G: *laughs* I don’t know… I-
H: This number is me in a ski mask in a trench coat and I come out to Mr.President by Kylie Minogue slowed down and then I take off the trench coat and I’m like naked underneath it except I have something covering my no-no parts. And the first time I did it- I guess the file I sent was corrupted or something and so right whenever I take it off- the beat drops and I like rip off the trench coat, the music just stops and I’m just like standing there….there’s a video of it somewhere, I don’t think it exists anymore.
G: *cackling wildly*
You think your lawyers took care of it?
H: I HOPE SO. You see my body posture just kind of change from like confident to…like ‘oh no…’ ’cause you have that moment of silence where like everybody is engrossed in watching and then suddenly it’s silent and you can hear shuffling and like the movement of lips. So I ran offstage and was like “What’s wrong?!?” ‘Cause I’m a fucking diva, I was pissed. and they were like ‘somethings wrong with the file, it says it’s playing but there’s no music coming out’ So I was like ‘Just play Toxic by Britney Spears!!’ So they just played that and I performed as best as I could.
I will tell you, since then I’ve only had about one major musical malfunction…so you learn, you grow from it, but my god talk about trauma….”
G: *Damn near tears laughing*
“I can totally see the part where you said your posture shifted…”
H: Yeaah! I was like very confident and then suddenly it was kind of like you shrink in and you’re like ‘Oh no, where am I? Why am I naked and there’s people looking at me?’
G: It’s like coming out of a hypnotism….
H: Yes! It’s like an abrupt return to reality! Like suddenly Kylie Minogue is gone and all you’ve got is the sound of shifting weight in the crowd…
G: Some people in the Austin drag scene may know you as the queen who won
“Austin’s Next Drag Superstar” and quit drag two years later…so my immediate follow up question is…Who the fuck do you think you are making all this music?
H: *laughs* I took someone else’s opportunity to shine and then was like ‘see ya!’
No, but towards the end of doing drag- I really started to resent it, because I was working two jobs, was super duper busy, but still trying to make the drag thing happen and my heart wasn’t in it. So like, a lot of the performances- particularly at the end- I’m not necessarily proud of. It was like you get off work at like ten and the call time is 10:30 it’s like okay I’m gonna put a mask on and glue a bunch of shit to my face but people would still come up afterwards and LOVE IT and nothing had changed.
So it’s like if I’m not really extending myself or doing what the art that I wanna do and getting the same response, maybe I should do what I wanna do…so that’s what led into it- I’m just…doing what I wanna do.
G: That’s really bad ass! I knew you were kind of over it towards the end for a while, but that’s really awesome. The reason why I was so particularly drawn to your drag is because when I see you on stage looking so phenomenal, with different looks and meanings… I know for you it might not have been great because your heart wasn’t 100% in it- but for me as a member of the audience…just seeing the conglomerate of different experiences is just so overwhelming to the creative mind, your inspiration transcends mediums.
H: That’s what I aimed to do, so thank you for that. I always considered drag to be a combination of the things I was good at like writing, and directing (I did directing in college) and putting it into a performance medium. A lot of my drag performances are open-ended and I’ve kept up those ideas that nothing is objective, everything is open for interpretation and have translated it into my music as well- my partner Sam HATES it because after a show or performance he’ll ask me “what was that performance about?” and I’ll say “I dunno what do you think?” because to me, answering that kind of ruins the fun of it for me.
G: So when did you start getting into music? Did I hear you say earlier that you always wanted to do music?
H: I always did music actually, high school into college I used a number of different programs, and so I was always making music- it’s still there, it’s on soundcloud- but it was never something I really thought about like “hey I could really do this.” And then I started to feel bored with drag, went through some tumultuous life period stuff- so originally I released my first single, Magnetic as Hentaii, I didn’t have Vestite or a name for the project – it was just an extension of the drag, which now looking back was a good idea- It helped me bring some of the following from drag into music. I made the demo on my bed from my old one bedroom apartment on my laptop- I hardly even had any hardware to make it.
Looking back on the demos, it’s crazy how much my production has improved since then, but I got together with a friend, Joe Stacey, who’s a producer and eventually I sent him some demos and he helped me produce that song and a couple of others from my EP but it wasn’t like I just handed him the songs and said “make something with it”- I was in the room with him for mostly everything and I watched everything he did and asked questions when I could while he was around to absorb as much as I could. The song Mind Slave on the EP is actually my first song doing everything myself.
The newest EP actually, is all me as well. Cheer captain is the first single, and there’s three other songs, and I did everything, there’s no input from other producers or anything, and it’s really hard; I’m not as knowledgeable as Joe so when I have questions on how to do something I have to watch an hour long Youtube video, but it’s really rewarding.
I’m really proud of how it sounds, listening to them through the first demos vs the final products I’m like ‘wow this is really clear’ and it sounds like you’ve pulled it out of the abyss- and I’m really happy with it.
Cheer Captain- Our “Song Of The Week”
Definitely recommend streaming on Apple/Spotify for quality purposes but add it to a playlist!
G: What came with the names Vestite and Hentaii? It sounded like earlier you said your relationship with Hentaii is still kind of going…
H: Yeah, I’m still going to be doing some performances this year. My boyfriend Sam is doing a benefit for his top surgery so I’ll be in drag for that, just because all the other performances are drag and it’d feel kind of weird not too….and also I do miss it, I just don’t want to go back to how I was doing it before, but Hentaii will always be my name for as long as I live in Austin, Texas.
The name Vestite came from a list of names that I made for what I wanted to call the project- I realized I wanted to separate it from drag because I felt like there are certain expectations that come from doing music as a drag artist, because there’s an emphasis on the appearance and visual side of it and while I love visuals and all of that, I wanted to focus on the music.
Originally I wanted it to have some sort of connection to Hentaii, and I came up with the name Hentaii as a joke because I didn’t want a drag name but Chitah made me pick one so I decided I wanted something equally funny to my Japanese and American friends. So originally I wanted to call the project “ANIME PORN” but then I decided that that’s not me anymore. I didn’t want to attract that kind of fan either, I don’t make anime-specific music and I know that a lot of parts of my drag have been compared to anime and Japanese fashion- but that wasn’t ever my main inspiration. The japanese connotation is different than what we think in the states too though, in Japan, the usage of the word Hentaii is more widely used to describe weird, queer, pervert, or a freak.
G: So what are you looking forward to in regards to your music and how everything goes from here?
H: I’m really looking forward to making music with more hardware and less software, because I really enjoy being able to touch and turn knobs rather than sliding on the trackpad, it’s a lot more expressive and I can groove- there’s just so many ideas that you can get with it. For the next EP I wanna do a lot more hardware and recording more with the instruments themselves.
On this topic, Hentaii also lists a host of other shows and events- most of which have since been cancelled due to Coronavirus- but one that didn’t was their February 29th EP release party with cohosts Bitchtopher and Brujaux – where they performed all of the songs from the EP as well as some funky covers.
Unbeknownst to both of us at the time of this interview, Hentaii would eventually ask for backup dancers on Facebook and I was more than happy to oblige.
At one point during our conversation, we both begin discussing our relative retreats from the social scene and our resurgence back in as our careers and hobbies have created the need for us to re-enter. As I confess my newfound relish of introversion, Hentaii offers a unique perspective that speaks to the heart of the existential and intangible:
H: The one thing I will say of being in an artistic community -especially the drag community- is that everybody is living this fantasy of being this sexy, hot superstar that they are, and the difference between my bar friends and my close friends are my close friends are the people who can turn it off.
Because you can’t always be that character, you can’t always believe that you’re the best thing on the earth and that you’re this superstar, and there are some people who straight up can’t turn it off, they’re always in character or ‘turned on’.
So going out, you’re kind of surrounded by people who are all turned on and they’re all living their fantasy which can be this kind of like euphoric thing or it can be-
G: -Like you’re surrounded by creative ‘Yes’ men…
H: Yeah creative ‘Yes’ men or creative narcissists- and to be fair I think all creatives and artists have that element of themselves, I mean it’s a self-indulgent thing, the world is on fire and we’re dressing up as women and dancing- but it’s the ability to be self-aware and switch it off when you need to that makes someone a close friend that you can sit down and chat with.. that makes them more than a ‘drag friend’
I’m not sure if it’s the dispassionate delivery of the statement or if it’s just the jarring nature of the hearing this confession aloud, but immediately I begin to wonder- am I guilty of this?
After our interview I begin to chew the question over more…. is that what’s stopped me and Hentaii from hanging out outside of those family outings? Did they think I was always ‘on’ ?
Sure I’m usually pretty excitable by nature, but I always thought I made it clear to my peers that I’ve always valued meaningful connections over being “the life of the party..”
It then dawns on me that if Hentaii believed that to be the case, they probably would have never invited me over, let alone allowed me to take up three or so hours of their time with an interview. As I debate back and forth on this insecurity, I reminisce on the scenes that we’ve shared in those group settings- mostly at the clubs that are now closed or barred from operating to the public due to coronavirus. Brief stares from across the room or single moments of acknowledgement. In a way, those nods said it all.
There’s a nature in us both that lifts up through the fumes of the party and looks at it from the ceiling-down in a lot of ways. While we both may live in our minds about where or when the next time or opportunity comes for pushing our creative boundaries, we also recognize that the world is on fire, and that our art is nothing more than a vision to distract (or emphasize) the flames burning all around us.
As mentioned previously, the interview above is a summarization of some points of our conversation w/ Hentaii, the following bonus material is also contextualized by listening to both Episode #5 and the Spray Paint Q & A Bonus material.
As promised in the Spray Paint Q & A Bonus Material,
here is Hentaii’s “Peanut Butter Baby” performance.
As well as the Orchestral Hit phenomenon mentioned in the longer interview as well.