- TextPaul Moody
HMLTD’s Henry Spychalski talks Paul Moody about the band’s debut album West of Eden and why they’re trying to offer an alternative version of masculinity to the one they grew up with
“It’s been both a dream and a nightmare,” says Henry Spychalski, casting an eye back on HMLTD’s turbulent five-year existence to date. “However, if we had released an album when people expected us to, we would have been seen as a hype band. We wanted to make something of lasting quality.”
For those who took 2017 off, HMLTD – then known as Happy Meal Limited – were the ‘it’ band of the year, a mirage of glam-prog androgny and punk attitude who delighted the press and had the British record industry frothing at the mouth.
However, having signed a long-term deal with Sony, the band quickly found themselves attracting less welcome attention. Forced by McDonald’s to change their name for legal reasons, they also found their more outré ideas being nixed by paymasters more interested in profits than artistic freedom. “We ended up being treated as commodity, which is essentially what you are on a major label,” says Spychalski with a sigh. “But I don’t want to talk about Sony too much, there are much more interesting things to discuss.”
A case in point being their stunning debut album, West of Eden. A perfectly calibrated mix of synth-pop, art rock, electro, trap and industrial over which Spychalski delivers lyrics like “the Dalai Lama wore Dolce and Gabbana in vermillion red” in a lounge-lizard drawl, it’s as exhilarating as it is unique. Depeche Mode-style banger Loaded is a thinly veiled analysis of their treatment by Sony with lines such as “I sold my soul to the devil tonight”, but there are surprises at every turn, from the Ennio Morricone-inspired strings of The Ballad Of Calamity James, to the Teardrop Explodes-meets-Visage pop perfection of Blank Slate. It’s the sonic equivalent of an image so extravagant it would turn heads in the The Hunger Games’ Capitol – check out the video for Loaded for proof.
However, anyone dismissing HMLTD as clothes horses is missing the point. “We’re trying to offer an alternative version of masculinity to the one we’ve grown up with,” Spychalski explains. “Being a man doesn’t have to involve being a lager lout. It can be something creative and expressive. The obvious example is David Bowie, but I’m also inspired by Lord Byron. I’m a big fan of Dennis Rodman. He existed within this ultra-macho world of American sports, yet he managed to present himself as this futuristic glamorous, gender-bending star. That is so admirable and brave.”
For Spychalski – a philosophy graduate – dressing differently is a political statement. Having grown up in the polo shirt-heavy sartorial desert Torquay (“I hated it”), he’s created a Lux Interior-esque persona which combines classical influences (he’s just finished reading Homer’s The Iliad) with the aesthetic sense of Evelyn Waugh and the intellectual heft of Michel Houellebecq.
It all feeds into West of Eden’s central theme – the moral vacuum at the heart of Western society. “A lot of people point to Brexit and Trump as being a crisis, but I think they’re responses to a crisis which has already happened,” he says. “The album is about the spiritual collapse of the West, where religion has died out and nothing has taken its place. All we’re left with is sex and shopping – endless attempts to satiate desires which can never be fulfilled. No wonder people feel frustrated.”
His frustration at the limited choice society offers extends to the current state of guitar music. “There only seem to be two routes available at the moment,” he says. “One is all about technical ability, which I think is very dangerous, because it will put a lot of people off joining a band. The other is much worse, which is this lazy Britpop iteration, which I detest more than anything in the world.”
As a band proud of their DIY credentials (“none of us have had any training”), Spychalski explains that they’re delighted to be flying the flag for everything that made rock and roll great in the first place. From Little Richard to Screaming Lord Sutch to Bowie, The Sex Pistols, The Prodigy and beyond, it’s always been about individuality, strangeness and a desire to shock. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do since I was listening to The Cure and The Smiths in my bedroom when I was 14,” he says in conclusion. “I thought of those bands as my friends, and we’d like to be a voice for outsiders in the same way. We’re trying to challenge the dominant mainstream image of what it is to be a man, or what it is to be cool. If anyone wants to join us, we can give them a voice.”
In a pop scene increasingly bereft of wit and invention, HMLTD are the real (meal) deal.