In The Middle with HMLTD

From angels handing out lipsticks at gigs to a cease and desist letter from McDonalds and live shows that are already being recounted as the stuff of legend: HMTLD will have you choking on your Big Mac.

“We were just really fucking bored with everything that we saw,” says singer Henry Spychalski when I question him backstage at Headrow House about the divine inspiration behind the band’s striking set designs. Formally known as Happy Meal Ltd until the band “indeed ceased and desisted lest the {McDonald’s} lawyers take further action” after their name caused copyright controversy, HMLTD have injected some much-needed dystopian glamor into murky venues across the capital through their dramatic conceptions of heaven, hell, saturnalia and under the sea. Whether its repulsion or glee, HMLTD are desperate to leave you feeling anything but ambivalent – “bands who I don’t know were wearing jeans and t-shirts and were just playing their music,” muses Spychalski about gigs he’s attended in the past. “They might have been technically great or they might have been, you know, good musicians or whatever, but they were so boring.”

And fabulously thematic sets are certainly not where the band stops in terms of pushing (or at the very least, severely tampering) with the boundaries; the thought of HMLTD taking to the stage in jeans and t-shirts seems as far removed from the glam rock quintets’ shows as Darcey Bussell at a Slipknot gig. In a world where it’s the norm for a band to come on stage, plonk about for about an hour in some skinny black jeans, moan in between songs and then leave, describing HMLTD’s attention to detail in terms of their outfits, designs or stage presence as a breath of fresh air feels like an injustice to just how wholeheartedly revitalising it is to watch them perform.

But perhaps the most most important thing Spychalski wants to communicate is that for HMLTD, their style of dressing and performing is not truly a performance at all. This is not a band wearing ironic costumes or trying to see who can dress as outrageously as possible in some unfounded effort to be satirical, but five people quite simply being themselves. So when I address HMLTD self-describing as an art project in the past, he is keen to refute – “In earlier interviews we described it as an art project which I think was really dumb and pretentious. How we dress is basically just us expressing ourselves and I think a lot of people have perceived it as being some sort of ironic thing or as being us playing characters which I think would be disingenuous…which I think would be problematic for a multitude of reasons.”

When you look like you’re Phresh Out The Runway in your day to day attire you’re going to turn some disapproving heads who still can’t fathom why boys (the shock, the horror) are wearing blue eyeshadow – so I’m intrigued to know if there’s anywhere that the band feels the most relaxed or unwatched being themselves. “We’re ourselves everywhere,” says Henry, “it’s just the reaction that it fosters is different. In London we can be totally ourselves without really any repercussions. In most of England to be honest that’s the case.” Spychalski goes on to point out that the band are acutely aware of the privilege cisgender straight white men have which allows them to explore self-expression without the weight of any systematic oppression – “throughout Europe definitely when you go to certain towns you get a lot of abuse for how you’re dressed or whatever, but I mean really we don’t face any issues. Like, we’re privileged white males. It’s really fine. We don’t face any kind of oppression.”

As ever, unhappy to leave a band shrouded in the mystery of being not easily squashed into a box neatly labelled with a singular style of musical influence on it, publications have jumped at the challenge of trying to designate the band with the most obscure and rambling simile possible. I ask Spychalski about a certain description which fancies them as Adam Ant’s evil offspring, but he cringes at the thought. “One time we were described as Nick Cave fronting The Scissor Sisters- I much prefer that to be honest.” Naturally, I then jump at the opportunity to get the vocalist’s take on Cave’s new album, but he only rates it at a somewhat disappointing 7.5 out of 10. “I’d give his two previous one’s nines. This one’s really good but it’s a bit self-indulgent.”

After the interview and far from the brooding and melancholic meditations of Nick Cave, I try to take a couple of photos during the set, but the entire crowd descends pretty much instantly into the most chaotic and joyous mosh pit I’ve seen in a good old while. Amazingly, the gig seems to balance on some sort of miraculous knife edge between utter frenzy and a kind of strange poeticism- whilst Henry swings on the edge of an amp hanging over the crowd, bassist Nico sips elegantly from a glass adorned with two strawberries. One minute the band is dropping away into ‘To The Door’, where a fan manages to stagedive and -somewhat successfully- crowd surf, the next Spychalski is handing the mic to someone else in the audience who gives a rousing rendition of the last verse of ‘Satan, Luella and I’.  Even if you can vividly picture the somewhat jarring imagine of Nick Cave indeed fronting The Scissor Sisters (much to the mutual shock of both parties I’m sure), you’ll still be far from guessing just how violently brilliant the band are. But not being able to quite place your finger on HMLTD is no accident. They’re a band determined to rebel against categorisation both musically and visually – and don’t they do it beautifully.

Header Image Credit to Maddi Fearn.