Are HMLTD Queerness Tourists or Guitar Music’s Greatest Hope?
The complications of being an art project/band of straight guys where gender-fluid makeup and clothes define your look.
It takes a lot of effort to transform Scala into an underwater wonderland using balloons, fishnet and clingfilm, but HMLTD (the band formerly known as Happy Meal LTD) somehow manage it. Their sold-out show on Wednesday 3 May is one of many on a highly-anticipated European tour and the London venue is packed to the point of feeling frenzied. There are unimpressed indie boys behind the bar, couples in their early 30s taking turns to snap kooky #selfies with inflatable dolphins and a sea of teenagers, decked out in chiffon shirts and tight flares with neon-painted faces. Initially, the vibe feels more east London pop-up art installation than sold-out gig in a mammoth Kings Cross club.
This art-driven approach to music and performance has been presented as one of the key selling points the band, much-hyped for their sparkly take on guitar music – a genre which, it has to be said, has been gagging for a dose of glitter dust for years. Heavy riffs and screamed vocals punctuate most of their tracks, but they also rope in surf rock, ska, trap (yes, really) and EDM. They're experimental but poppy enough to be a major label's wet dream – proven by a recently-inked deal with Sony – and have been covered by everyone from Dazed to NME and The Observer.
Unsurprisingly, their aesthetic is gaining just as much – if not more – attention as their music. One writer called them a "mutation of Adam and the Ants and Judas Priest", but to me, their style feels more directly influenced by current tastemakers like Charles Jeffrey and Gucci's Alessandro Michele; all stylish 1970s androgyny topped off with technicolour mullets and blue lippie. Think an amalgamation of Bowie, Prince, Annie Lennox and Boy George; queer icons wrapped up in a sexy new parcel with cheekbones to die for. They're also equipped with an enviable contact list; their first two videos, "Stained" and "To The Door", for instance, were directed by twisted yet mesmerising visual artist Jenkin Van Zyl, a regular and prolific fixture at queer nights in London.
But this is where it gets complicated. While their charisma and stage presence are undeniable, they are indisputably indebted – at least aesthetically – to club kids, drag queens and queer cultural figures. Many of the stars visually referenced by HMLTD have done their bit to challenge misconceptions around sex and sexuality outside of their music and performance, giving excellent (and occasionally fairly 'lol') soundbites on gender and sexual fluidity. Such figures were revered because they possessed a raw, anomalous magnetism that emanated regardless of clothing and aesthetic and a willingness to actually call out bullshit in the public sphere. Who they slept with wasn't always the sole point; they were challenging gender norms in a way that felt true and authentic, breaking down stereotypes and myths in the process. But conversations around gender have moved on a fair bit since the 80s. Now, HMLTD discuss it in a fluid way, approaching it in art theory terms of binaries, androgyny and presentation. "I mean, we're all male, right, but I don't think that should hinder us from being able to talk about it," said Achilles, to Loud & Quiet mag.
That said, when one interviewer asked HMLTD about their sexuality in a profile for The Observer, their response was a little strange: "Although none of the band identify as LGBT, said Achilleas, 'it is culturally a very important thing, and it has been for a while, so I think ignoring it would be probably naïve or ignorant. We're inspired by it, but we're not copying it.'" This statement is weird for various reasons, the first being "LGBT" is first and foremost an identity, not a culture. The second is the argument that it would be "naïve or ignorant" to "ignore LGBT culture" – this implies that such a thing is a tangible concept and not a way of life embedded into the very fabric of people's existence. Somewhat oddly, they also fail to mention that they have worked with so many queer visionaries, specifically those behind London's nightlife renovation.
Contextually, this comes just before a paragraph that details the harassment they've faced for their flamboyance – their car was once vandalised with the word "gay", whereas one band member was chased down the street for "being a bit glamorous". We then learn that Spychalski was once sent home for wearing full make-up at school and has always felt like an "outsider"; a complicated web of statements that position queerness as an aesthetic and themselves as misfits or outsiders, while they're essentially still a band of straight, white, cis dudes who wear interesting outfits.
This isn't necessarily a criticism – it would be both reductive and harmful to try and police the way a person chooses to express themselves and it's positive that they are rejecting gendered shackles and encouraging others to do the same. But when a band aligns themselves and their art so closely with queer signifiers, that art is allowed to be scrutinised within that lens, particularly within the context of making money.
This dialogue doesn't change the fact that, musically, the band is tight. Their eclectic mix of genres and mastery of pop structures make them difficult to define, whereas their live shows are both hectic and exhilarating. When the band finally emerge on stage at Scala, the heaving crowd scream back the lyrics for their most recently-released tracks – "Stained", "Music!", "To The Door" and "Is This What You Wanted?" – word-for-word. Experiencing them is all about the euphoria that comes with getting off your tits on Strongbow and throwing yourself into a mosh pit you never signed up for. A security guard keeps getting hit with a giant inflatable turtle. A dolphin deflates slowly and sadly, laid to rest at the side of the stage. People are crowd-surfing, soaked in their own sweat, while the guitarist falls over, face first off the stage.
The songs themselves properly batter you over the head in the best possible way. The glitchy synths of "Music!" literally vibrate through your chest, whereas "Satan" builds up to a guttural screech of "I'll be your fucking sacrifice!" Sludgy guitar quickly fade out to heavy trap breakdowns, whereas one track sees a deranged Spychalski yelling "CHOO CHOO!" at his enraptured audience. For the last song, he strips off his shirt and winks, cooing: "Is this what you wanted?" I imagine it to be not far from the time Elvis first waggled his hips at white America – kind of sexy and a bit progressive, but only really within the context of a fairly conservative audience. This analogy would make sense, considering the band's assertion that they don't want to preach to an alternative, left-field choir and instead want to take their vision mainstream.
Perhaps, as a queer kid growing up in a world where identity politics are neatly packaged and sold by big corporations, (Hi Pepsi!) I'm being overly critical. On the other hand, art should be analysed, and we've already seen profile pieces that dwell at length on their visuals. It's become part of their brand, whether intentionally or not, so they'll undoubtedly be asked questions about queerness and sexuality.
Queer representation is scarce, which is ironic, because queerness itself has seemingly never been more commercially desirable. Musically, HMLTD more than live up to the hype – they've nailed their own brand of a sonic pick'n'mix, dragging a new breed of sparkly, off-kilter guitar pop into the 21st-century. As live performers especially, they possess the rare ability to whip crowds into a frenzy. A combination of talent, major label representation and the right contacts mean that they probably will become massive, and the conversation that labels them as boundary-breaking outsiders will undoubtedly propel this success.
But they're recreating the vision of countless queer creatives, seemingly without understanding exactly why interviewers are so focussed on their aesthetic and their sexuality. They might be musically thrilling and refreshingly glamorous, but it's also crucial to remember that they are, by their own admission and the descriptions of those around them, creating an art project. There's a distance between the band and the universe they have carved out, which seems to become more obvious the more you read. They're theoretically interested in queerness without seemingly understanding the hardships that come alongside living a genuine life as a queer person in an increasingly dystopian world. So, are they impressive? Yes. Are they the avant-garde, boundary-pushing misfits the hype would suggest? I don't think so.
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(All photos by April Arabella)