The once-much-hyped glam-punks offer a cautionary tale on the perils of the music industry and tell us how they finally released their debut album
Glam-punks HMTLD opened a recent east London gig with typical eccentricity. A topless woman in a wolf mask twirled onto an otherwise empty stage at the 800-capacity XOYO, held aloft a horribly realistic mask of a bald old man, encouraged the audience to howl at her, tweaked her nipples – and then disappeared backstage.
The ensuing show (comprised of equal parts industrial, glam-stomp, ‘Low’-era Bowie, New Romanticism and accessible pop) proved that the London art-pop provocateurs have lost none of their swagger since NME dubbed them “the UK’s most thrilling new band” two years ago.
But a lot has happened since then. The underground punks improbably signed to major label behemoths Sony, spaffed hundreds of thousands on an aborted album, got cancelled on Twitter, got dropped by Sony, lost a band member, signed with indie imprint Lucky Number and announced their upcoming debut ‘The West Is Dead’, which is slated for release in February.
HMLTD (they were called Happy Meal Ltd but adopted the acronym for Ronald-appeasing legal reasons) previously courted an air of mystery, revealing little about how they met – an approach that made them the most hyped band in the country, but also one that, frankly, got up peoples’ noses.
NME sat down with charismatic frontman Henry Spychalski to hear the simple truth: the six 20-something students met in London’s alternative music scene through a shared love of showing off. It was all going swimmingly – and then they got cancelled.
We found Chisholm in the mood to talk up the new record, as he let cancel culture off the hook and violently spiked Sony instead. The label may have promised to make them “the biggest band in the world”, but if you can achieve that through gobbiness alone, HMTLD are already well on their way.
So what’s the big idea behind ‘The West Is Dead’?
“The album takes place on a microcosmic and a macrocosmic level. The macrocosm is the dying West. It’s a West where sex is commodified and ecological catastrophe looms large. It’s looking at the present and seeing it as a dystopia. Western civilisation has entered its decadent stage and is heading to its end.”
“I think we need to build another, alternative masculinity – a kinder, more creative, less violent one”
– Henry Spychalski
What else is this album about?
“We’ve always tried to present an alternative version of masculinity. Which doesn’t fall under the queer umbrella, but is certainly different from the toxic version of masculinity which underlies patriarchy and which we’ve grown up surrounded by. That’s the only masculinity we’ve ever known in school, in our families, and I think we need to build another, alternative masculinity – a kinder, more creative, less violent one.”
Speaking of queerness: your relationship with Sony soured after the publication of an article that accused the band of appropriating queer culture, which created a very minor Twitter storm. How did you feel about that?
“Largely misunderstood. I think that was partly our fault because I don’t think we helped ourselves in making clear what we were doing, what we were trying to say and what we were trying to critique.”
Do you mean you had a bit of ironic detachment from it all?
“A little. That’s something I massively regret because we always said we don’t want to be ironic. I hate irony. I think it’s a really damaging cultural trend. It comes at the expense of meaningfulness and sincerity and truth and honesty. But I think we were scared and we did hide a lot of things behind irony. The culture of irony makes people afraid to say or do anything because they’re afraid of sounding stupid. People are afraid to put their balls on the table and say something that might be deemed pretentious.”
Did Sony discourage you from, erm, putting your balls on the table?
“Sony strongly discouraged us from talking about anything remotely theoretical. They were keen to push us in whatever direction sold. In the early days they really trusted us with everything. We had resources but we were doing whatever we wanted. Then they told us: ‘We know how to make you the biggest band in the world.’ I regret believing them.”
“I think they wanted to present us as queer. We knew we weren’t queer in the traditional sense, but Sony wanted us to be the lowest common denominator. And when that article came out, they did a volte-face. A Sony rep came into our studio with six Pretty Green parkas and said, “I think you need to appeal to people in the north of England.’”
What does that even mean?
“I think it means we were going over people’s heads in the north because apparently they’re incapable of understanding these things and we needed to get parkas and wear mod cuts. Which was just wrong on so many levels. That was the moment when we realised we really needed to split with Sony.”
Do you think Sony panicked?
“After that there was a 10-month gap where we didn’t release music. Which, when you’re trying to establish yourself as a new band and a cultural force, isn’t the brightest idea. We basically became part of an investment portfolio. There was about a year where we were desperately trying to extricate ourselves from them.”
The argument of that article seemed to be: ‘HMTLD look a bit gay, but they’re not gay’. Which seems… dubious.
“Well, for me, the issue with the article is that it was reinforcing the stereotypes and suggesting that if you wear make-up and you’re flamboyant you must be gay. And if you’re straight you have to wear a Pretty Green parka and go to football matches. And it leaves so little room for people in-between.”
Is the problem not that a band’s career can get derailed by one article and a couple of people on Twitter?
“I see your point. But at the same time sometimes these social media platforms are really helpful. They can be used as vehicles for really progressive messages – look at #MeToo. In our case it was deeply mistaken and based on deep misunderstandings. But those misunderstandings were made worse by our inability to communicate them properly – and that came from Sony.”
“I noticed that lots of bands were pretending to be working-class. I found it so much more fun to play with something more upper-class” – Henry Spychalski
If you’d been on an indie label you might have addressed it…
“Exactly. We wanted to release a press statement about it and Sony didn’t want to attract any more attention to us. Their attitude was: ‘Hopefully this will blow over – in the meantime, here’s some parkas.’ If we’d been on independent label, we’d have addressed it and I think people would have been able to see that what we are doing is actually a really, really, really good thing, a beneficial thing.”
In a statement accompanying the album, you slam “hegemonic late capitalism”. So why sign to Sony in the first place?
“Sometimes you need to use the tools available to dismantle the thing itself. It’s the same thing as The Communist Manifesto being a best-selling book. If you want to make a change, you need a platform within the framework of the existing system. You’re not going to do it by just releasing your songs on Bandcamp. What we saw with Sony was a massive opportunity for a huge platform. We needed the capital.”
Did you get a hefty advance when you first signed?
“It was obscene. The ‘Pictures of You’ video cost about £30,000. The recording budget for the album itself the recording budget ran into between three- and four-hundred thousand pounds. We’ve used about 20 per cent of that [on ‘The West Is Dead’]. It wasn’t a multi-million pound record deal, but in terms of the money they invested into HMLTD, it would run into millions of pounds.
“We spent some of it on things that Sony didn’t cover, like stage designs. When we played at [iconic central London punk venue] The 100 club, we spent over £2000 on chicken-shaped dog toys and dead chickens.”
Your keyboard player, Zac, left after you got dropped from Sony…
“Sony created tensions within the band. They would send us to Los Angeles to write but they’d send three of us out and the other three would stay back in the UK. You can well imagine the rift that created, which is what led to Zac leaving. That’s a regret because he was basically alienated from the creative progress. It’s not something you see straight away – it’s very insidious. I’m not gonna refute responsibility for it because I’m responsible, too, for falling victim to that mentality and going along with it. I should have stood up a lot earlier.”
I think people think HMLTD are, like, aristocracy.
“My posh accent probably didn’t help us…”
Were you playing with that, putting it on a bit?
“I noticed that lots of bands were pretending to be working class. If you look at just about any band in London, they have what appear to be very thick working-class accents, which I know very well are not genuine. Because if you want to live in London and play in a band, then you probably need to come from a middle-class background. It is a privilege that is just not open to working-class people. [The affectation is] so problematic.
“I found it so much more fun to play with something more upper-class. It’s what Brian Ferry always did. He was a coal miner’s son but he acted like he was fucking Oliver Reed.”
So that doesn’t really represent your background?
“I’m not upper-class; I’m middle-middle. When I was a teenager I was obsessed with Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh. I read those novelists vociferously and I watched the ITV adaptation of [Waugh’s novel] Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons over and over again. I was basically wanted to be Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited, so I worked very hard to talk with an upper-class accent. Which probably made me even more hated by my peers.”
Finally, what’s your ambition for ‘The West Is Dead’ and for the future of HMLTD?
“On [recent single] ‘Loaded’ we’ve admitted we sold our souls to the Devil. We sold out and it was a mistake but as a result we’re richer, although we don’t have any money any more. My ambition has always been to be voice for outsiders, for people who don’t fit in for whatever reason.”
- Sony Music provided NME with the following comment: “RCA supported HMLTD both musically and creatively at all times and strongly believed in them as a band. We wish them every success going forward.”