In a windowless room in Old Street, east London, a female mannequin presides over an alarmingly sharp-looking knife, an overflowing ashtray and two types of fake blood. Pink velvet is draped on the walls, a labyrinthine mesh of cables obscures the floor. Crammed in this recording studio, six extravagantly attired 20- to 22-year-olds spend 10 hours a day, six days a week, concocting an electrifying sound that combines punk and glam rock, industrial noise and electronic drops: a bastard child of Bauhaus, Skrillex and Fat White Family.
Formerly Happy Meal Ltd until McDonald’s lawyers got in touch, HMLTD have only released four songs but buzz levels are high. Currently 26th on the Dazed 100 cool list, they are being heralded as “the UK’s most thrilling new band” (NME) and “the real fucking deal” (Loud and Quiet). Their forthcoming show at the 800-seat London Scala has nearly sold out; half a dozen summer festivals beckon.
Blinking into the sunlight for an interview are British frontman Henry Spychalski (mullet and eyebrows dyed blue, cut-glass accent, wearing a military cap and sunglasses), guitarist Duke from Paris (silver nail polish, leopard-pattern buzzcut, nifty moustache), and drummer Achilleas from Athens (flowing dark curls, piercing stare intensified with eyeshadow); left in the studio are guitarist James, bassist Nico and keyboardist Zac (most of them prefer not to use their surnames).
While hip-hop and R&B have been flourishing, in recent years much rock music has been floundering towards irrelevance. How can they make a bunch of men with guitars exciting again? “For a long time now guitar music has been looking backwards instead of trying to recontextualise itself,” says Spychalski. “It hasn’t been paying attention to what’s happening in trap and hip-hop and electronic music, so it hasn’t kept up with how the majority of people look at music.”
One solution is subverting listeners’ expectations within each song: their first single Stained starts as playful camp rock, morphs into a dramatic postpunk anthem, and culminates in an all-out feast of noise and distortion, courtesy of a sample from experimental hip-hop group Death Grips. “People’s attention spans are a lot shorter than they used to be,” says Spychalski. “With streaming you listen to about half a song and then flip to another one. So it’s important that our music flips between a lot of different things, or else people are going to turn to something else.”
The songs are only part of the equation: there are the preposterous outfits, the disturbingly gory, surrealist videos, the infamous live performances. Each show has a theme and custom-made set designs: past ones include B-movie horror and paradise, with cotton-wool clouds and angels handing out lipsticks.
The immersive, theatrical shows are designed to be sensory experiences: sound and vision, but also touch, smell (at one gig they put burnt hair in the ashtrays) and, soon, taste. “It’s almost there,” grins Duke. “We’re all quite bored of going to shows where there’ll be some people on the stage who look like the people in the audience and they just play their songs and leave,” says Spychalski. “We want to create something where you’re completely and utterly submerged.”
Combining feminine and hyper-masculine elements is also an integral part of their aesthetic: the video for recent single To the Door (directed by wild-child artist Jenkin van Zyl) features a BDSM leather bra, glitter, rodeo bulls and arm wrestling. Although none of the band identify as LGBT, says Achilleas, “it is culturally a very important thing, and it has been for a while, so I think ignoring it would be probably naive or ignorant. We’re inspired by it, but we’re not copying it.”
In Old Street no one bats an eyelid when we walk down the street to a cafe, but the band’s fashion choices are a harder sell in more rural places. In one pub in Southampton, the landlord warned he would send them back in caskets; after playing a gig in Besançon, France, their car was inscribed with the word “gay”, in nearby Dijon a band member was chased down the street for being “a bit glamorous”. But they are undeterred: in fact, those are the places they want to woo the most.
Growing up in rural Devon, Spychalski always felt like an outsider; one day he showed up at school in full makeup and was sent home. Achilleas says: “We all come from conservative places, oddly enough. Which is maybe the reason why we’re a bit more bold now.” Spychalski adds: “We don’t want to preach to a very small alternative choir. Hopefully we can help change how people in, say, Southampton, think about things.”
Being experimental is no barrier to popular success, he argues, pointing to artists like Kanye West and Die Antwoord. “There’s a culture of safeness, but Ed Sheeran’s not the only artist who’s filling stadiums. There’s an idea of the mass popular audience at the moment which comes from an elite perspective and is quite dumbed down, and I think a little patronising.” Some eyebrows have been raised by the fact the band is signed to a major label, Sony, but they are unfazed. “We never want to have to sacrifice being experimental. But we want to change the mainstream, and to do that you need to do it from within, you need the biggest platform possible,” says Spychalski.
“Pop is never in a permanent fixed state, there’s always a dominant idea and then something comes along. We see ourselves as part of something much bigger, that will hopefully change the way pop is moving forward. We want to form a part of that.”
- HMLTD play Birmingham (27 April), London (3 May), Bristol (5 May) and Nottingham (6 May)