It would be easy to surmise that power punk four-piece Hot Milk are on a high right now, main stage appearances at Leeds and Reading Festivals later this month being followed by the release of second EP, ‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’, and a first UK headline tour next month.
Their 2019 debut EP, ‘Are You Feeling Alive?’, landed amid a whirlwind year that also saw them tour with Foo Fighters, Deaf Havana and You Me at Six, and play some of the biggest festival stages. Some going for a band that only formed in 2018.
And following mid-June’s pilot Download Festival, the Manchester-based outfit get another chance to air new material when they return to Leeds Festival and Reading Festivals later this month, this time playing the main stage, before those headline shows – including a Manchester Academy 2 homecoming on September 10th.
But after such a testing last year and a half, while eager to get back out there again now, vocal and guitar duo and co-founders Han Mee and Jim Shaw – who met working behind the scenes on their adopted city’s music scene, both yearning for a shot of their own at the big time – are holding back on expectations right now.
Han was making her way back from her family home in Longton, near Preston – “I was born at Sharoe Green, in the shadow of Deepdale,” she told me – to her city centre flat in Manchester when I called her, on the day the title track from the new EP was released as a single.
Now in her mid-20s, her roots in the industry were as a promoter, putting on gigs for ‘all the bands who came to town’, working with various venues. But while Manchester’s been home for some time, she told me her adopted base took on a different feel during the lockdown, becoming ‘an empty city’.
“The summer of the first lockdown was just weird, sunny days with nobody about … apocalyptic. Hard to believe that was the reality. Hopefully it won’t go back to that.”
While she said it’s good to be on the verge of getting out and playing again, Han’s not building her hopes up yet.
“At first, we were hoping it’d be over by the end of the year. Nearly two years later … I’ve learned not to get too excited – I don’t think I could take the fall.”
We talked some more about how it’s been for this generation coming through, missing out on defining moments in pubs, clubs and in venues.
“Yeah, that’s what makes you who you are. That’s where you learn and meet people. Think of all the people who will never be born now because two people have never met. There’s been a massive change in people’s futures, and I feel sorry for people who are 18, just going to uni. Imagine the first year of uni without being able to experience and live it. At least I got that.
“And we toured as a band for 11 months before we had to go into lockdown.”
Han and Jim quit steady jobs to put their energies into the music industry, Han plying in bands initially in Preston and her co-founding bandmate in York, the pair meeting in Manchester when they moved there, ‘signed off the back of four songs, essentially’.
But their year and a half gap between EPs was put down to a lack of opportunities to push a new record amid the pandemic, having to be reliant on social media alone – as hands-on as they are in that respect.
“Some people write songs because they like being in a studio, I write because I like being on stage. At the moment, I don’t really feel like I’m in a band. We’re in the studio, but not getting that other side of it – the reason we wanted to be in a band in the first place.
“The live set is so irreplaceable. We sold out all our first headline shows on the day first time, but they never happened, so we ended up merging them together into one 1,000-capacity show in September.”
Looking at Hot Milk’s videos and live clips, they clearly have fun on stage and making those promo films. I have to ask though – albeit tongue in cheek – was that a choreographed slip by Han on stage I caught on footage of their Download festival appearance?
“Ha! No! Course not. I came out, giving it the big dick … but the universe was saying, ‘Don’t get too cocky!’. I had these new boots on, with no grip, and it was raining, soaking wet. But you know what … screw it!
“Of course, that would happen to me! Classic me, to be honest. I’ve not got a bee in my bonnet about it though. It’s mad that we even stand on two legs anyway! I’m gonna fall over some point, it just happens to have been the first gig out of the gate after 18 months or so, and I’m on my arse!”
There’s a neat blend between Han and Jim’s voices, I suggest. Was that a natural thing?
“I guess it kind of happened, really. We’ve known each other years, then wrote a song together when we were drunk one night, and felt, ‘That didn’t sound that bad, did it, shall we do it again?’
“We were together three years before the band happened, and the band kept us together, our reason we’re as close together as we are. When you’re in a band with someone you’re in a relationship and write music with, you’ve got to be able to be unfiltered, and being together as long as we were and going through all the stuff we’d gone through together made that a lot easier.”
Based in Manchester’s Northern quarter at the time, they still hang out there most nights – ‘making up for lost time’ – although Jim is now further out in Eccles. And how did bandmates Harry Deller (drums) and Tom Paton (bass) get involved?
“Tom was in a band with James. If we were going to do this live, among other people, it had to be with people we cared about, having been surrounded by people we didn’t really like for quite a while. Tom was a mutual friend, and we knew he was good.
“With Harry, we needed a drummer who was good and nice, and couldn’t find one, but Tom was like, ‘I know this guy, but he’s a bit weird.’ We met him, and he was weird, but beautifully weird, and we were like, ‘Sick! Let’s have him!”
Are you good at rehearsing? I get the impression it might end up being a bit full-on judging by your stage show.
“Well, we’re doing that for the next two days. We tend to do it in big blocks after practising on our own. We’ve got Reading and Leeds in four weeks, so need to rehearse two weeks straight before. It needs to be perfect …”
Give or take the odd slip on stage.
“Yeah … we won’t do that again … or maybe I’ll make it my thing, start doing that.”
Where do those rehearsals take place?
“Ancoats in Manchester … basically a crack den, the worst place ever … but it’s ours, the cheapest we can afford at the moment, we can walk there and keep our gear there. A bit of a headquarters.”
Halfway through my next question, with Han back at hers now, she’s in fits of laughter, telling me her ‘little corona cat’ won’t get out of the bag it’s been transported in, despite the bag being turned upside down.
She’s soon composed again though, and I mention how there’s plenty to write about right now, from dealing with mental health issues to questioning those in charge in this post-Brexit administration at a time of deep divisions all over. But, I say, I get the impression that at least the younger generation are waking up to the reality.
“Well, you say there’s lots to write about, but there was added pressure lately, feeling you have to write. We kind of ran out of a bit of gusto towards the end of the pandemic. That’s why we’ve just been to Brighton for a week.”
The first EP’s title track, ‘Are You Feeling Alive?’, was about the pair’s determination to refuse to settle for second best in life, that sense of not letting life slip through their fingers at the core of Hot Milk’s punk-indebted ethos. And having taken a leap of faith to grasp their platform, they’re not about to let it go to waste.
Similarly, the new EP’s title track, ‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’, produced by Jim, is another call to arms, full of huge hooks and catchy choruses, encouraging ‘everyone, everywhere, to follow their dreams’.
Their lyrics are very personal in places, the band bottling the anxieties and frustrations of everyday lives. ‘Woozy’ tackles depression, ‘Good Life’ takes on societal corruption and distribution of wealth, and elsewhere they address the pursuit of happiness in a modern world. Yet for all their expressions of angst, I suspect an underlying optimism, all about inspiring positivity, with community and shared values important to their band ethos.
“I’m kind of optimistic, but naturally a pessimist. My mum’s nodding at me! I’ll say I’m a realist. I’ve seen the worst of people the last five years or so, generally jaded about humans. We’re innately selfish to a degree. But then I see kids coming through that have such liberal minds and are so optimistic about the future, and think, ‘I used to be like that!’. That does give you a bit of faith. They’re not jaded like I am.”
She goes further in the press release for the new EP, adding, “These songs are honest. I have nothing to hide. Everyone’s on antidepressants these days. It’s the world we live in, it makes people sad. Capitalism. Is it broken? One hundred per cent. I’m angry that we’re sold a world that actually doesn’t make your inner peace happy. Humans need love and community and a lot of the time, there is no love and the community has dissolved.
“We’re angry, both politically and existentially in terms of the system we now live in. But also, we’re angry at the fact that we’re sad quite a lot. But we’re trying to not just sit there and take it. We’re trying to fix it, by building a family through this band.
“You can’t take things with you, but you can make the best memories. That’s the most important thing in life. Your currency is your memory. What you can take with you is something that absolutely makes the blood pump round your veins and gives you goosebumps. That’s what this band is to us. It’s our passion. That’s what this EP is about.”
Live, Hot Milk aim to create an ‘aggressively space safe’ where fans are empowered to be themselves, ‘authentically and unapologetically’. It needs to be about the music too of course, and Hot Milk love their rousing choruses, my favourite on the new EP perhaps ‘I Think I Hate Myself’. But what comes first, the words or riffs and hooks?
“It’s different every time. That one … me and James were drinking a bottle of wine, watching David Attenborough. We hang out all the time. He’s my favourite person in the world. We’ll sit there with a guitar, mulling over the pandemic and why we exist, and what’s the point if we’re not doing what we want to do, and how we’ve got no money. And I hate myself like that.
“So that came pretty naturally – just acoustic guitar and vocals. But sometimes it’ll be a synth-line first, and I constantly have notes and lyrics on my phone.”
Is there an album just around the corner?
“I think there’s another EP first. I think the idea of an album right now … we need to know where we’re at, after all this time.”
No one really likes labels, but power punk, emo-pop? What’s the description you tend to go for?
“Oh God, labels! I don’t know. We’ve called it power pop before, but we’re such a varied band, with so many influences. We kind of just write what comes out. This EP is so varied. We like to take it any direction we want. And as we get older, our tastes will change, and I don’t want people to think we’ve just changed genres.”
What do you reckon you took from those live shows with the likes of the Foo Fighters?
“Well, the Foos for me … they are at the top of their game, legends …”
I hear that coming through in a few of your songs, not least that energy.
“Ah, that’s good! And once you’ve toured with a band like that it’s hard not to absorb their way of doing things. And those guys have been so, so nice to us. They didn’t have to be nice to a couple of people from Manchester. It’s a bit random. But we’ve just confirmed a few more dates with them for next year.”
Soon there’s Leeds (August 27) and Reading (August 29), this time playing the main stage, then that headline UK tour in September. Pandemics aside, is this you living the dream here?
“Hopefully … though like I say, I don’t want to get too carried away. I’m scared of that being taken away.
“There’s other life pressures going on as well. But as long as those are solved before, it will be more enjoyable. It’s not nice knowing we can do all this but then come back and still be on the dole. Being in a band is bloody expensive. We’ve still got bills to pay.”
In this day and age, without the record company advances I used to hear about, I guess you’ve got to truly love this struggle to be able to do it full-time.
“Exactly. On paper, this is insane really! Trying to justify this to your Mum and Dad is constantly an uphill struggle.”
Have there been plenty of jobs along the way?
“Definitely, especially the last year or so, lots of freelance bits, trying to stay creative and doing arty bits. For me, if I had to go back and get a proper job … I was offered one in PR a bit ago, but I think that would take all my energy away from what I actually want.
“You end up getting in this cycle of doing something else, and before you know it you’ve got too used to that. If I take the focus off the band and go down another road, I’d put all my energy into that.
“But me and James are still very much in control of this band and work on it every single day. We’ve got a label involved and whatever, but they don’t really have much say in what we do.
“That’s why we signed with the label we did – to keep that creative control. In terms of our history, working locally in the scene, we know what’s what. And hopefully we can get back on it soon. We’re wishing the days away at the moment.”
Hot Milk’s five-track ‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’ EP, out on September 10th via Music for Nations, includes exclusive merchandise, CDs and limited edition heavyweight purple opaque vinyl pressings. For pre-order release options, head to https://store.hotmilk.co.uk/. And to keep in touch with the band, you can check them out via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.