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Songs At The End Of The World: An Interview With HMLTD
Patrick Clarke , April 4th, 2023 09:21

On their ambitious second album HMLTD imagine an England swallowed by a giant medieval worm, populated by spineless feudal lords and chivalric counter-revolutionaries. Yet it is all, they tell Patrick Clarke, about the personal

Photos by Erika Denis-Febles

“It really did come to me in a dream,” Henry Spychalski insists. “I dreamt I was one of a group of child soldiers in the midst of a guerrilla war. We were running through a far-flung jungle with bandoliers and knives, hunting out this enemy. All the while I could hear this primaeval drumbeat in the back of my head, and a voice saying, ‘When you find the worm, you must kill the worm’. I think that was based on a Zen koan I’d been reading; ‘When you meet the Buddha, you must kill him.' Then, in the dream, something changed. I realised that in fact I was the one being hunted by the other child soldiers. I tripped and they started tearing me open. I floated above the body of my child self, watching all the other children tear me open. I was full of worms, and the children were eating them.”

The image was still implanted in his brain, days afterwards, so he took it to his bandmates in HMLTD. The group were at that point already working on new material, in which mental health was emerging as a theme. Spychalski has struggled with “on and off anxiety and depression” since he reached adolescence, he explains. By combining that and those dream visions, they eventually landed on the bold narrative that forms the basis of The Worm a concept album, set in a world in which hydraulic fracking has awoken an enormous monster. The creature has swallowed England, which has devolved into a feudal society ruled by tyrannical lords called The Devertebrates who have removed their spines to try and win favour with the beast, while Spychalski plays the leader of a counter-resistance group called The Grunters.

As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Spychalski is an unreliable narrator. A psychologist, played by drummer Achilleas Sarantaris, tells us as much halfway through in the introduction to ‘Liverpool Street’. “Dear listener, Mr Henry Spychalski is exhibiting extremely volatile behaviour. There is a confluence of longstanding abandonment and rejection issues, with mythological and quasi-biblical delusions expressed as long rambling narratives punctuated by song and dance,” he states on the song. For the rest of the album the narrative now flickers between the worm world and the real one, and it becomes clear that the England of Grunters and Devertebrates is a delusion. The ‘real’ worm, if there is one, is within Spychalski rather than around him, a manifestation of his inner demons. If the worm represents mental illness, “then the album externalises it, manifests it in a way that makes it conquerable and killable.” The narrative arc was directly inspired by the Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which partly served as a vehicle for creator Hideaki Anno to explore his own issues with depression, and like that series, The Worm has two alternate endings. “One where the narrator defeats his worms, overcomes depression, reaches some kind of salvation or maturity, and another in which those things lead him to destroy himself,” Spychalski explains.

The image of a worm ends up being something akin to Herman Melville’s white whale, a sublime creature, either too vast or too hidden to ever be witnessed in its full form, that represents many different things. The struggle against tyrannical feudal overlords is “at least in part a metaphor for capitalist realism,” Spychalski says. The fact the worm is awoken by hydraulic fracking evokes the spectre of “a deep ecology, Gaia response” that mirrors our own impending climate disaster. The worm’s ancient quality is a warning about “man fooling ourselves that we’re godlike, then falling from transcendence when we see our own material physicalism reflected back at ourselves, and realise we’re just ruled by instincts,” Spychalski continues. An accompanying manifesto, preceded by an instruction to their listener to listen to the record and form their own analyses before reading it, explores all these potential meanings in academic depth, with reference to Satan, the ouroboros (the album’s ending is at the very beginning), the folk tale of the Lambton Worm and more.

“I hope that – in this universalizable symbol of The Worm, each listener can see their own particular, personal experience of struggle embodied,” the band write in that manifesto. For Sarantaris, thinking about The Worm has recently been evoking the spectre of artificial intelligence, and the prospect that unfettered technological advances might create a similar destructive monster we can’t control. “This super intelligence that might literally de-atomise us,” as he puts it. Spychalski adds, “We’re basically summoning an amoral god that has the capacity to become infinitely more intelligent than us.” In a separate publication called The Wormbook that will be released supplementarily to the album, the band used artificial intelligence to rewrite the album as if it were an actual eleventh century epic poem. Says Sarantaris: “It’s a book by the worm; written by what I think is a very big and scary worm lurking in the future.” It also includes an editor’s note at the end, exploring the perils of Artificial intelligence. “I do think you can be scared of AI and still use it, although I hope the 20 quid I paid isn’t the 20 quid that crosses the line into the singularity.”

It’s worth pointing out that all the different permutations of its central image are all interconnected. As Spychalski’s narrator yowls on the album’s title track, “the worm lives deep within yourself, and you live deep within the worm.” The ‘inner’ worms of depression and anxiety are linked closely, he argues, with those giant ‘outer’ worms of existential threat. “We’re told that these symptoms and these disorders [like depression] are very much biological,” he says, “but I think that they’re quite rational responses to the age that we live in, especially in this country where the general outlook for the future is just so, so bleak. Combine that with the backdrop of a climate crisis that is just terrifying – most people of my generation know a lot of people who are saying they’ll never have children because they don’t want to bring them into this world. That’s not normal.”

For a time, HMLTD were in direct contact with the machinations of capitalism via a major label record deal. This, Spychalski said, had “massive” implications for his mental health. “That experience , combined with my already fragile mind state to create a perfect storm,” he says. When they signed to Sony in 2017, “I was 20 years old, and I was being promised the world, it was presented to me as a dead certainty that all these things were going to happen. I totally believed it, took it for granted that I had the rest of my life set out for me,” he continues. The band spent, it was reported in a 2019 interview, hundreds of thousands of pounds on an aborted debut album. At the same time, they cultivated a flamboyant, confrontational image – partly, they have previously alleged, at the requests of their label – that proved extremely divisive. “For many the confidence and bravado was the highlight, for others the worst thing about us,” says Sarantaris. A few months after their first release for Sony, a social media debate erupted following not-unfounded accusations that the band’s imagery constituted queerbaiting. They have since said they were actively discouraged to respond directly by their label, who instead wanted to re-market them as appealing to a straighter, less flamboyant indie rock market. Shortly afterwards, their working relationship with Sony collapsed.

“Then, for a long time, life was a state of limbo,” Spychalski says. It took a year for them to disentangle themselves from the deal, and it would not be until 2020 that their debut record West Of Eden finally emerged, via indie imprint Lucky Number. “There was this thing I’d been promised that felt like it was so certainly around the corner but never arrived. That can stop you from living your life, I think. It also gave me some narcissistic issues, which is partly what the new album explores.” It’s for that reason that the band made Spychalski the narrator under his own name, and that the album’s artwork features him painted as an Arthurian hero, a knight in shining armour boldly vanquishing his invertebrate foe. The psychological summary that Sarantaris offers at the beginning of ‘Liverpool Street’ is entirely his genuine assessment.

“It personally had a lot of resentment towards the whole thing when the Sony deal fell through, and our inflated expectations collapsed,” Sarantaris says. “That became something very much like a worm in a way, a parasite.” Making The Worm, he explains, was as much a way for the band to process their collective trauma as it was for Spychalski to explore his personal demons. The experience with a major label, Sarantaris says, “created a lot of internal strife within the band in various ways. Making this record felt cathartic, not an exploration of the record label deal, but of our relationships with each other. Just laying it all out there. Although it’s a bit paradoxical, because now, we’re coming out and trying to sell it.”

Paradoxical, too, is that as their budget has got ever smaller, the band’s commitment to maximalist decadence has only increased. The ambition of the record’s lyrical narrative is matched at every point by its musical scope, which sways manically from avant-jazz breakdowns to ludicrous prog-folk riffery to melodramatic piano balladeering. The band employed a total of 47 musicians, including a gospel choir and a 16-piece string orchestra to add the appropriate heft. “We wanted to create something that was the best it could possibly be, and as uncompromising as it is,” Spychalski says. To cut corners, they spent the entirety of their advance – 50 per cent of which was supposed to cover living costs – on the album’s production, “and found ways to struggle through elsewhere,” Spychalski says. They finished the majority of post-production in their bandmate Duc Peterman’s living room. They called in favours with friends for instrumental contributions, and for the orchestra, they flew to Sarantaris’ home country of Greece where expenses would be cheaper.

Though, by their own admission, all but trained musician and keys player Seth Evans, “are not very skilled musicians,” as Sarantaris puts it, they wanted to work with as many highly accomplished players as they could, while also pushing their own abilities. They made a conscious effort to rely less on the electronic production that defined much of their early output, partly, Sarantaris, because “we’ve tried to stay much closer to the music that actually inspires us,” but also, Spychalski says, that “though it sounds wanky to say this, I think it was an important creative decision in terms of capturing the spontaneity of human spirit. We wanted this album to feel spiritual, real, and human.”

Drawing on medieval texts like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron as much as directors like Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, the extra-musical aspects of The Worm are highly stylised, whether in the artwork for both the album and accompanying book, or ambitious music videos directed by Spychalski himself. ‘The End Is Now’ depicts life inside the worm as a Seventh Seal-indebted monochrome melodrama, “a fake origin story for myself, my child self’s first experiences with darkness,” Spychalski says, while on ‘The Worm’ he is a full-on fanatical preacher, spreading his message to a baying mob.

For ‘Wyrmlands’, however, the thin dividing line between the fantasy realm and reality is laid bare, as a distinctly modern warehouse is populated by grotesque medieval peasants writhing in mud, the band dressed in a combination of chainmail armour and modern coats and cargo pants. Later, as he tries to pour gasoline on a box of writhing earthworms in order to burn them, he wrestles with his child self, who wants to rescue them. “We both have these very separate responses to what I call the problem of worms,” Spychalski explains. “When you’re a child, you’re full of innocence, you lack experience of darkness in the external world and the darkness within you, so you see worms in this very innocent way, which is why children are never afraid of them. When you become an adult, they suddenly become this disgusting, offensive thing. I think it’s because they mirror something back at you which you would rather deny.”

With a record so unabashedly grandiose in concept, so weighty in its themes, there is of course a risk that The Worm could end up swallowed by its own pomposity. To counter that, the band embrace their own ridiculousness. Plot is often laid out in the songs with such directness (“I was born in the War of the Worms at the fall of the vertebrate government,” Spychalski crams almost cartoonishly into one breath on ‘The End Is Now’), and musical and lyrical cues are so tightly intertwined (“you feel the worm as much through the music as the lyrics,” Spychalski says), that the record often inhabits the knowing camp bombast of musical theatre.

For all its heaviness, they say, The Worm is still an “optimistic” album. “At least on a spiritual level,” Spychalski says. Of the two alternate endings to the album, they prefer the positive one presented on the album’s operatic final track ‘Lay Me Down’. “The narrator’s overcome his delusions and his demons. He can’t overcome the larger issues at hand, and the climate apocalypse still happens, but he’s made peace with that, and made peace with himself. It’s a song at the end of the world.” Ultimately, the record states, to conquer our worms we must simply learn to live with them.

The Worm by HMLTD is released on 7 April via Lucky Number