Hot Milk vocalists Jim and Han guide us through the making of their long-awaited debut album ‘A Call To The Void’, featuring the singles ‘BLOODSTREAM’, ‘HORROR SHOW’ and ‘BREATHING UNDERWATER’.
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In some respects, it feels odd to be talking with Hot Milk about releasing a debut album, the Manchester-based group having already garnered a dedicated live following, gracing the main stages of festivals, while anthems like ‘Candy Coated Lie$’ and ‘Glass Spiders’ amassed millions of streams. Yet, through their journey from sweaty clubs to stadium support slots, they have waited patiently for the right moment to release their first full-length record into the wild.
“We got better at writing and quicker and more experimental,” explains singer and guitarist Han Mee. “Some of the actual musicianship, you can see how it does evolve and become more complex and more refined.”
From starting a band with acoustic guitars on a living room floor, their ambitions have grown into something much grander, as is visible from the expanded soundscape and lyrical avenues of ‘A Call To The Void’.
“We still write for fun but now we write with more meaning and importance” Han adds. “That’s not a bad thing”.
Han joins her bandmate and fellow guitarist/vocalist Jim Shaw to talk through the writing process, aims and meaning behind their long-awaited debut album.
Welcome to a new era of Hot Milk. Welcome to the horror show. Welcome to the void.
The introductory track, with its ambient tones and dueling vocal lines, immediately marks new territory for Hot Milk, setting the scene for the sprawling, multi-genre work to come over the next 10 tracks.
“We always knew that was how the record was going to start,” says Han. “That’s the only thing we knew. When we were writing it, we really had no idea where the body of the record was coming from yet but we knew we wanted this almost semi-religious, grand, a capella opening. That was our flag in the sand – our starting point.”
Jim adds “the band started with just me and Hannah so we thought it would be nice to introduce the album with both of our voices – welcome to our album, it’s finally here.”
“It’s about setting a framework for the tragedy and the comedy that’s about to unfold” adds Han.
Even in the album’s more familiar sounding moments, there are flashes of new colours within their palette. Previous single ‘Horror Show’ features a danceable beat reminiscent of Pendulum whereas ‘Migraine’ includes some metalcore-esque screams from the vocalist pair.
“We’ve always talked about being a bit heavier and a bit screamier,” says Jim. “That’s the music we’ve always loved. It would be a disservice to ourselves if we didn’t explore these avenues because of what people might think.”
“With an EP, you’ve got to be straight down the line” he continues. “It doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for experimentation. But with a bigger body of music, you can treat that as a journey. We really grabbed that by the horns – what do we want to include here?”
He mentions wider influences like Sigur Rós and film scores, something that fed into the sound of album closer ‘Forget Me Not’. Showing the band at their most vulnerable, it was added almost at the last minute to the record, reflecting on the loss of Jim’s grandfather to dementia. Writing became an outlet to process the shock and pain emanating from the situation, with the final song formed over a chord structure he had been playing with for around 12 years – never finding the right moment to use it until now. As he puts it, “having that piece to put my pain to felt right.”
“It was hard to start but when we hit on the idea of just talking about what you were feeling, it hit the right path,” adds Han. “I just think that song is one we needed to write for Jim’s state of mind. That’s what art should be – something you make because you need to. It finishes the record how it started, kind of goes full circle.”
Loveless vocalist Julian Comeau appears on ‘Amphetamine’, a feature that the pair is keen to stress came about naturally.
“It’s quite easy to get carried away and have a hundred features with people popping up on every song” says Jim. “We were quite keen to make it about us.”
“I’m not a big fan of features,” Han continues. “I think it sometimes can be quite lazy and shoehorned in. But there is a time and place for it. We wanted the three-part harmony and we knew he had a great voice that would compliment ours. From the musicianship side, that’s all it was for me. He’s a great musician and has a great voice.”
Elsewhere, Alice Cooper provides a hilarious voicenote to the ridiculously titled ‘Alice Cooper’s Pool House’, a concept dreamt up by Han, almost as a joke initially.
“I watch a lot of music documentaries and this theme kept cropping up that after the Sunset Strip, everyone would go back to Alice Cooper’s house for afters.”
Weaving Cooper’s song titles into the lyrics – ‘Bed Of Nails’, ‘Poison’ – they wrote the final track in two days, not intending to include it on the album until their management revealed that they had an existing relationship with the rock legend. The skit you hear on the album arrived in their inbox just a few days later.
“I never intended to write anything other than what is going on in my head and heart at that moment in time” says Han. “In the past, I have definitely written about not belonging anywhere because for a long time I really didn’t, and to an extent still don’t.”
The lyrics on Hot Milk’s EPs, even when wrapped inside a wider character arc or concept, have become increasingly personal with each release. Now, with ‘Breathing Underwater’, they tackle the idea of hopelessness and the pressure we can put on ourselves. The first song written during the album’s studio sessions, it arrived at a particularly vulnerable moment for Han who found catharsis through the studio process.
“We’d been on the road for three months and were just burned out” adds Jim. “We went to LA for a change of scenery and were working with Zakk (Cervini, producer) who just sat us down and said ‘well, what do you wanna write?’. It slowly started this concept, which is loose, but it is about the feeling we had then and there. Displacement, a feeling of failure. Losing the ability to feel anything because you have pushed everything away to try and protect yourself. That was a really big starting place for all the content of the record.”
Elsewhere, they found themselves laughing in the face of adversity, ‘Party On My Deathbed’ in particular lending a cheeky, humorous tint to the darkness.
“Life’s too fucking short” Jim concludes. “Just have fun and be a good person.”
THE TITLE & THE ARTWORK
The previously discussed feelings of pressure fed into the artwork process as, unsatisfied with the original concept, Han took it upon herself to find a new option at the very last minute. Following a quick photoshoot in the garage, throwing a camera into the hand of bassist Tom Paton, she sent some roughly edited images over to Seanen, a designer and visual artist she had met on a recent night out in Manchester’s gay village. Within two days, the final art was completed and ready to go.
Then, when it came to choosing a name, the loose concept around the album clearly fed into the title itself with only one other option ever considered – the similarly themed ‘Kaleidoscope Of The Abyss’, lifted from the lyrics to ‘Bloodstream’.
“We wanted something that encapsulated the two sides of this record,” says Han. “I remember where I was when I thought of it. I was in the back of my mate’s car driving through the hills coming back from some bar. There weren’t many streetlights or anything and I just thought, wouldn’t it be funny if she just crashed into a tree right now? It comes from ‘L’appel du vide’, that French saying. That feeling that I could just jump off that bridge right now or crash that car.”
Beyond the record release, the prospect of playing their biggest ever headline tour lives at the forefront of the minds of Hot Milk, set to feature their longest setlist and most ambitious production to date.
“One big thing for us that we learned very quickly was to write for live” says Jim. “We are a rock band first and foremost and live is our bread and butter. It’s where we feel most comfortable and most at home. So you’ve got to make sure your songs hit the same way live as they do on record.”
“What I will say is I don’t think anyone will have seen a show like this from a band on their first record” Han teases. “It is a stage show and quite theatrical. It exceeds what we have done in the past in terms of what Jim has managed to design. We are putting an equal amount of effort into the live show as we did into the record.”
And now that they have finally completed their first full album, are they already considering their next musical steps?
“I’m more prepared conceptually for the second record than I was for the first” Han reveals. “We have a name already which is the other way around to last time. We are both on the same page in terms of sonically what we want to do. And now I have to go out and live some life in order to have awful things to write about.”