Interview Dances With The Devil: HMLTD
Meant to have it all, when the hype died down and a major label deal went sour, HMLTD had to regroup and work out what they really wanted. The result is long-awaited debut album ‘West of Eden’.
“A lot of people’s issues were that they saw us as not being sincere, that we didn’t really believe in what we were doing,” begins Henry Spychalski. “People saw it as a cynical attempt to sell, which in a large part was probably down to our association with Sony; had we been on an independent label, then maybe people wouldn’t have had this perception of us as marketing something [false].”
Exploding into life back in 2016 as the then-cheekily-named Happy Meal Ltd, south London quintet HMLTD quickly became the epitome of polarising hype. Decked out like a Central Saint Martin’s ‘Erotic Renaissance’ collection, with a penchant for immersive live shows and a burgeoning catalogue of songs that smashed industrial throbs with Henry’s theatrical wails, they quickly and starkly divided opinion. In one early review, they were labelled “a band that genuinely seem to stand for something different”; in another, the writer overhears someone in the crowd declare “I didn’t think I could hate a band this much”.
But by 2017, they’d generated enough talk for the major labels to come sniffing and, against all odds, this strange, distinctly art school band became labelmates with Beyoncé. Then came the turn. Today, Henry describes the latter stage of their time with the label - who they’ve since parted ways with - as feeling like “an asset in an investment portfolio”. An asset that, you sense, was not quite as profitable as they’d first hoped. “The issue is, when you’re in that context, [employees] have to sell or they’ll get fired. We ended up being quite enslaved to the corporate machinery,” he recalls. “There’s a great expression that goes ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’, and that points to the the bad decision-making that comes with an extensive bureaucracy. We’d have meetings about meetings about meetings, and no-one’s on the same page.”
“We want to create an environment where people can really be themselves and not be judged for it.”
— Henry Spychalski
More troublesome, however, were the accusations levelled at the band of appropriating queer culture. It’s a stance that the singer acknowledges may have stemmed from them not having “found the voice and the self-awareness to articulate [their] concepts” at the time, but that he’s adamant was never the aim. “We always knew what we wanted to do. We knew we hated the bland guitar indie that we felt surrounded by and that we wanted to do something really theatrical and immersive and provocative and challenging,” he begins. “I just think, at the start, what we were doing was very instinctive but it was very unarticulated, and it took us a long time to find the way to articulate it.
“We’re trying to challenge toxic masculinity and we’re doing that from the perspective we can do that from, as the human beings we were born into being, which is predominantly straight cis men,” he continues. “But I don’t think having that role should exclude or prohibit you from taking on that political perspective and from taking on what is probably the most violent, toxic, cruel force in our society. We’re learning from queer methods and we always try to express that indebtedness.”
Now, with recently-released, long-awaited debut album ‘West of Eden’ out in the world, the band finally have a manifesto to back them up. A concept album that lays modern capitalism, exploitation and violence up against religion and historical mythologies (the band’s logo is of Romulus and Remus - “two brothers suckling at the teat of the compassionate she-wolf, sucking her dry until one brother murders the other”), it is undoubtedly a record that comes good on all the pomp and ceremony that came before it. ‘What’s The Story…’ mk II, this certainly is not.
Dressed today in an immaculately-tailored red suit and slicked back hair, and bringing to mind a chat show host that might go American Psycho at any point, it’s not hard to spot which person in the pub is a member of HMLTD. He’s perhaps surprisingly affable, remarkably wordy, but also speaks a lot of sense; if the singer’s interview style is a lot to wrap your head around, then it’s also one that leaves you thinking. It’s an attitude that bleeds all over the quintet’s whole ethos, too: they’re a band that unashamedly care, who go above and beyond to portray their twisted fantasies and who are willing to lay themselves on the line in pursuit of what they believe in.
“I’ve always found the dichotomy between theatricality and sincerity to be absurd. I think the most insincere thing is that cool, ironic detachment that’s so obviously affected by people who don’t want to be seen as trying hard, or committing themselves to something,” he declares. “I absolutely loathe The 1975, but they have that song ‘Sincerity Is Scary’ and I was like, ‘I’ll give you that one Matty Healy’. They’re this band that very clearly advances the idea of sincerity; they aren’t about being ironic, and irony is just cowardice. Irony is a form of self-protection in a society where meaningful statements and sincerity are not in abundance.”
Meaningful statements within the world of HMLTD, however, come at every turn. They want to destroy “the pernicious forces” of a contemporary Western society “steeped in a history of male violence and cruelty”, and create a new era of pop (“We see ourselves as contributing to a new form of pop which is about genre-bending and unpredictability and experimentation”). Perhaps most appealingly, they’re deeply indebted to the possibilities and potential around them; rather than posturing cynics, the band are perhaps actually more wide-eyed in their own way than most.
“We want to try and create worlds,” nods the singer. “A large part of what we do is with this emphasis on imagination, and by creating these bizarre videos and weird set designs, we try and imagine these different worlds the audience can step into to engage with us. We want to create imagined universes and I think that in itself is a radical, political act because what you do when you imagine something is you point to the contingency of your present, actual situation. You remind audiences that it doesn’t have to be that way, that everything can be undone.”
If there are many things that the casual observer could hate about HMLTD (they’re inaccessible; style over substance; pretentious), then dig a little deeper and those same traits are actually exactly what they’re not.
Go to any show of theirs and you’ll find the most unapologetic, unashamedly free crowd imaginable: “When people present the truest version of themselves, I think they feel sexy,” says Henry. “That’s all we could ever ask for for our shows, that we create this environment where people can really be themselves and not be judged for it.” While, within ‘West of Eden’’s utterly wild 15-track ride, you’ll find an album that builds on the promise of old and turns it into coherent - albeit still fabulously strange - grinding, playful, industrial pop nuggets.
And as for pretension? “People are so afraid to be seen to try hard, and they’re the same people that are willing to throw around the word pretentious,” counters Henry. “But it’s also a word that can be applied to every great development and idea in the history of culture. When Duchamp did the urinal, that was pretentious; when John Cage did four minutes of silence, that was pretentious; when Jackson Pollock splashed loads of paint on a canvas, that was pretentious. So when people say we’re pretentious, I’m like, ‘Great. Thank god we’re not fucking boring’.”
‘West of Eden’ is out now via Lucky Number.
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