HMLTD should either have exploded or imploded by now. Back in 2017, they rode in on a tsunami of hype, sending quick-penned journos into a frothy-mouthed frenzy of superlatives. The UK's most thrilling new band! 24/7 art project! Guitar music's greatest hope! The most shocking part? Their flamboyant genre-swerving output was worthy of the praise, if only because it was impossible to pin down in print.
Fast-forward to 2020 and instead of detonating HMLTD have reached a crossroads. The band have cut ties with their corporate overlords Sony ("I sold my soul to the devil tonight/And I'm still pretty fucking poor," frontman Henry Spychalski yelps wryly on 'LOADED'), they've sadly lost keyboardist Zac, and they've finally sat down and written a bloody album. "Oh, and I'm working in Peckham's pre-eminent pizza chain," Henry adds. "Being a musician doesn't pay that well unless you're Rihanna."
It's a pretty idle Sunday afternoon when we call Henry, and he sounds suitably content. "I'm just having a really, really lazy Sunday, not even a hangover Sunday. I actually didn't do anything last night." He speaks slowly, carefully choosing each word. It's a marked change from the writhing contortions on stage that so set quills a quiver, but HMLTD have always enjoyed playfully toying with contradictions.
It was that oxymoronic tendency that saw HMLTD sign with Sony in the first place. For a band dedicated to throwing hyperactive experimentation and in-your-face glam pop in a musical blender, they seemed like unusual bedfellows. Still, the group snapped at the opportunity to retain creative ownership while using the massive reach of a major label. Of course, with Sony now a supposed quarter of a million in the hole for a record they never released, something had to give.
"We were warned by everybody around us that they would take creative control and that we would be coerced into doing things that we didn't feel comfortable doing, but we never at one point really felt like that was happening. The way that's described makes it sound as if it's a specific action or event that happens, whereas it's actually a slow, incremental, insidious process by which they gradually take more and more, and you give more and more, and the psychology of the relationship slowly changes."
In fact, from an outside perspective, HMLTD initially seemed to beat the devil at his own game. Their infamously well-decorated live shows were gaudier than ever, they went from headlining Scala to playing dates with Nine Inch Nails, and the production quality of their music videos scaled up massively without sacrificing their scrappy DIY charm. Still, as time passed that initial momentum seemed to fizzle - the live dates dried up, and, after the release of a well-received but far from impactful EP in 2018, the band appeared to enter a state of silent stasis.
"We just tried to give them as much reason to drop us as we could... We sort of stopped writing and went on writing strikes. It was a shame that it got to that point because there were people that we really liked within Sony. That's something that we should stress to mention. The issue is more just the general drive for profit you get in these organisations where everybody's job is on the line. It's this very destructive process with a life force of its own where everyone is answerable to shareholders ultimately, and you're just an asset in an investment portfolio."
In some ways, it's clear HMLTD knew what they were getting themselves into. In the band's last interview with Dork in 2017, guitarist James said: "I'd like to see our popularity grow until it was so strong that there's a big, big backlash at the beginning of 2019 – that would be the ideal." There's something prophetic in those words, even if it played out far more rapidly. In fact, the backlash came later that very year courtesy of a Vice article querying whether the band was appropriating queer culture. Again, Henry paints Sony as restrictive handlers.
"The Vice article came out, and we felt like it had really dramatically misinterpreted what we were doing in a way which really upset us because we always see ourselves as doing something really positive, which is offering a critique of monolithic, toxic masculinity. We wanted to release a statement, and I think that Sony's approach was basically to just sweep the matter under the rug. That was frustrating for us because this was really important to our mission statement, and we didn't feel like we had the actual chance to express it."
There's a calmness to Henry's unpacking of the situation - you sense whatever fist-clenching or screaming into a paper bag needed to be done, has been done. "In terms of the artistic opportunities that it's afforded us, I think it's actually been a great process. To get where we are now, this is the only way that things could ever have possibly happened, and I'm happy with where we are now. You know, we've got a great album, and it's coming out in February with a great label, and I'm just feeling extremely positive."
Still, the costs of the band's time in corporate purgatory are pretty obvious. "Some people felt alienated from the creative process, Zac first and foremost. Obviously, we're responsible for letting that happen. That was a real shame, but he has contributed to a lot of the songs on the album, including my favourite song, 'Mikey's Song', which was written mostly between myself and Zac. We're still on really good terms."
Unsurprisingly that album, titled 'West of Eden', was at the heart of the power struggle. The very act of its creation speaks to HMLTD's tumultuous two years, veering from the finest studios in all the land to, well, a flat in London. "We finished the album in our bedrooms using a cupboard as a vocal booth." Still, Henry seems unphased. Quite the opposite, in fact. "A big part of the process of Sony is that there were never any limits because there wasn't a time deadline, and there were basically no budgetary constraints. The lack of limits I think drove us a bit crazy.
"The creative process has gone back to how it originally was before we signed with Sony, and in the early days of Sony. We don't have the same financial resources, but we've also realised that we don't need them. You can do things a lot cheaper on a shoestring and still make really incredible and exciting music. You don't need massive bags of money to do something really artistically amazing."
What's perhaps most surprising about the band's laser focus in getting West of Eden finished by any means necessary is that early on, they rejected the idea of an album entirely. "It tends to only be patrician listeners who actually take the effort and time to listen to an album in full. So in that sense, it felt slightly out of place in the modern context." What changed? "Well, I think we realised that an album was an opportunity to do something really artistically ambitious, to create a whole story and a grand work with an overarching narrative. That story is basically our story."
Fittingly for an album that's such a personal tale for HMLTD, the songs on the album span many eras of writing, including the band's first full-blown crossover hit 'To the Door' and never-released fan-favourite 'Where's Joanna?' "What makes us such a colourful act, is the fact that we explore so many different genres, so many different styles." In many ways, though, Henry argues, the whole thing chants in unison.
"What really connects the songs is the ideas behind them, narratively and conceptually, and also the eccentricity and the focus on just trying to write a good song, and not create something bland. That's what really bored us about guitar music and alternative music generally, is that with so many artists it felt like all their songs sounded roughly the same. Part of that comes from a place of irony and sort of cool self-detachment, which is a really terrible trait of contemporary culture; this focus on coolness and irony."
When we mention David Foster Wallace (like every good, annoying English Literature student) and his concerns about the commercialisation of irony, Henry lights up immediately. "We do see ourselves as basically a 'new sincerity' band, and we are really just massively opposed to irony. It creates these layers where it's virtually impossible to tell what the true meaning is." Regardless of their rapid genre changes and ever-cycling lycra costumes, you can tell HMLTD are only ever being themselves.
If 'West of Eden' is the purest distillation of what it means to be HMLTD then, it stands to reason it must be pretty out there. "Maybe it's because I've been so bound up in the struggle of creating it, but I think that the album that we've written is - and I don't want to sound arrogant because generally I'm an incredibly self-deprecating person, so if I'm saying this I must mean it very much - I really think that we have written an incredible album." They might not be the UK's most thrilling new band anymore, but the prospect of finally hearing a full project is still pretty damn exciting.
Taken from the February issue of Dork. HMLTD's debut album 'West of Eden' is out 7th February.
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