HMLTD Is Leaving You More Than a Song

Image features HMLTD and art by Mike Raymond for their new song “Leaving” at Async.Art. Left to right: Duc Peterman (guitarist, producer), Achilleas Sarantaris (drummer), Henry Spychalski (vocals), Nico Mohnblatt (bassist), James Donovan (guitarist).

Click here for the full interview transcript.
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asyncedition.

HMLTD is experimental.
HMLTD is socio-political.

HMLTD is immersive.
HMLTD is unsettling.

HMLTD is charming.

HMLTD is thrilling.

It’s a wide spectrum of identities found in preparation for my interview with three members of this five piece London band. In fact, “a wide spectrum” seems to be the overarching theme.

HMLTD wants you to have their cake and eat it too.

Different aspects of the band’s personality shined through in the hour and a half of my time with HMLTD’s frontman — Henry Spychalski, producer and guitarist — Duc Peterman, and drummer — Achilleas Sarantaris.

Henry — a performer who, Duc says, always gives a hundred ten percent of himself to the show — looked sharp in a black suit and tie. His short hair was dyed blond and slicked back. His face was clean shaven minus a four inch scar marring his otherwise perfect complexion. When asked about it in the interview’s live chat, he admitted, “it’s real” and that “urban foxes aren’t as cute and cuddly as they look, it turns out.” He was proud to show off the desk lamp he used as lighting for the Zoom call.

Henry introduced the mustachioed and long-haired Achilleas as a kind man and the band’s philosopher. After hearing Henry compliment him on his red blazer, he replied with a thanks and a quiz, asking if he remembered where it was from. Henry promptly answered correctly, saying who originally wore it and in what music video. If you, the reader, can guess, you get true fan cred.

Duc — described by Henry to be a fantastic producer — dressed the most comfortably. His hair was secured in the back with a clip, occasionally drinking from a mug and a water bottle. He sat in a gaming swivel chair surrounded by plants, a variety of seating options, music equipment and instruments. It was a brightly lit and familiar room that I had seen them do a practice session in, in another video.

The heart-to-heart share of vulnerabilities at the start was a welcome surprise. As a fledgling frontman, it ironically took Henry months to feel comfortable singing in front of the band. As for Duc, he shared what he called a “lame” childhood story of himself pretending to perform for thousands of fans in front of a mirror. It wasn’t lame. Achilleas dealt with his childhood anger and possible depression by hitting the drums. These relatable nuggets brought the star quality of the group much closer to Earth with the rest of us. Their mutual good manners, affectionate teasing, and collection of fun stories are signs of their closeness and respect for each other formed during their rough stint with legacy music giant, Sony. It was an inevitable split for a band intent on staying true to who they are.

Musically, no genre is beneath HMLTD’s exploration. In the interview, Henry explains that “Mikey’s Song,” (from their debut) album West of Eden, started as an auto-tuned hyperpop, PC music song, followed by other versions, including Afro Bashment. It’s final version was a synth pop indie ballad. Duc will also share why several genres tend to be found within one song. For example, the sounds of spaghetti westerns, trap, and post-punk unexpectedly live harmoniously in “To the Door.”

Yet these multifarious sonic experiences are only a part of the full picture. Yes — there is more. HMLTD has an aesthetic vision and as Duc says, Henry is their “aesthetic visionary.” If you thought their glam rock style and multi-sensory, themed live shows were already immersive, they plan to take it up a level using the physical space and the architecture of the venue itself at their next live London show later this year. As perspicacious observers of the world’s socio-political affairs in recent years, plan to see these materialize as live-show themes. And, plan for a darker, more introspective second album which, according to Duc was at forty percent completion at the time of our interview.

They are a band of many identities, many genres, many senses, and many projects. It’s a rich cake to have. But here’s the multi-layered slice from HMLTD that you’ll really want to eat: “Leaving” — the world’s first ever-evolving, programmable NFT pop song which drops in late April. It tells a variety of stories and gives different perspectives of a love triangle through “sixty-four hundred unique compositions stemming from six underlying layers.” If you’ve ever felt the emotions of leaving someone, being left for someone else, or being the person someone else was left for, then “Leaving” is the song you need to help you get through all of that.

“Leaving” is quite an accomplishment, not just because it bears a “world’s first” title, but because it took six months of hard work to complete it. In Duc’s words, “for this to work … you had to bring in everything you’ve learned so far in music. How can you have as many variations as possible using songwriting, using musical theory, using lyrics, using production and musical engineering? I had to use all of the tricks in my bag in order for this to make sense together. It was a real challenge. Even something as stupid as organizing your sessions — even that was incredibly important in order for this project to work. And I was really looking at every aspect of what makes a song a song, and trying to see how much you could play around with it. How deeply could you go inside the song itself to variate it as much as possible? It really had that kind of black hole way of working on something that I thought was quite interesting.” It was quite a group effort, not only involving the band, but also Seth Evans on piano, Tallulah Eden’s vocals, Mike Horner’s engineering, Caesar Edmunds’ mixing, and Mike Raymond’s visual art. Visual art, you say? Yes — that, too.

According to HMLTD’s very succinct Twitter thread, “Every possible composition, acting as a distinct moment in the (love triangle) relationship, has a corresponding and distinct visual representation beautifully rendered by Mike Raymond” — HMLTD’s longtime visual art collaborator since day one. The visual elements are tied to specific stems. If you own the drum stem, you can change the type of drums, which would in turn change the album art’s background. When the owner of the vocal stem makes changes, the positions of the characters change. When the chords owner makes changes, the flora changes. Harsher sounds have equally harsher images, and subdued sounds are visually expressed with subdued images.

How is it possible to have one song with 6400 possible combinations and a variety of dynamic artwork to match? The answer is a platform called Async Art. Async started as a digital platform for art made dynamic without the need for coding knowledge. Changes are based on data, like statistics and time. The artist provides the menus of changes, and the owners of each of the artwork’s layers can customize from their menu, changing the look of the overall piece. Well, now, Async is offering music in that same vein. Async music is composed of a single Master track NFT and multiple Stem NFTs, just like a programmable artwork. Stem NFTs are effectively the same as Layer NFTs. They have the ability to change what the current Master track both looks and sounds like. Both the Master track, and each of the Stem Layers can be purchased and owned, that is — if you win the bid for each.

When the song sells, it will be a welcome event for HMLTD. In a 2018 Summer Well Festival interview, I recall listening to Duc and Henry talk about getting excited over receiving a Spotify royalties email so they could finally pay their rent, only to find out that they had earned a measly six cents for the year.

Three years later, they may finally reap the rewards of their hard work. Duc speaks from experience, “It’s renowned, as a musician, for you to actually make money, you’re going to have to work like crazy, and you’re going to have to get exploited so much in order to make just a little amount of money. Contracts in general, record contracts are made to enslave you, just to make you work like crazy, and so that people can make profit from your work. And that is amazing with NFT technology, thinking about a world where potentially, as an artist, you can see most of the profit of what you actually produce. And this goes into that whole discussion about getting rid of the middleman. I mean, I’m saying that I’m really happy with my label. [Chuckling heard in the background] I have no problem with my label. But despite that, a potential world where there’s no need for the middleman — it’s amazing for artists. And that is really, I think, one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever heard of.”

On the flip side, the bidding war for an NFT “first” will understandably create a financial barrier for a majority of HMLTD’s fans — especially now. Achilleas had reached out to Async with his dynamic NFT music idea back in the summer of 2020 — way before anyone even knew that the new year would bring another blockchain hype cycle — this time for NFTs. Async happened to be working on the very same idea, and the timing of it all has the “Leaving” drop happening in the general time frame of the celebrity hype train’s arrival.

The NFT space can seem like a playground for the crypto wealthy, and it makes it hard for your fans to be crypto patrons. How might you help fans continue to have a sense of belonging while you’re taking the journey through this new world?

Duc Peterman (DP): Okay. We’re doing this mainly for the arts. We’re not really doing this just to be a cash grabber that jumps on the hype train and tries to make some money out of the blockchain. What we’re really interested in is the actual experiment of what it means to make decentralized, programmable music on the blockchain. This is why we started doing this. So, we want to make sure that we somehow still involve the fans in this, that we just agreed together to give one of the layers to the fans, because the reason why we’re able to do this in the first place is thanks to them. And we want to make sure that the people that can affect this song are also the people that enjoy our music, not just some random crypto NFT collector who maybe doesn’t have much of an interest in music and has more interest in making profit from, you know, the NFT… I’d rather people that actually care about our music possess the actual layers.

Achilleas Sarantaris (AS): Although, we do welcome the collectors. [laughter] And if you’re listening, you know, please buy something.

Was there a lot of pushing & pulling in the making of “Leaving”?

AS: So, generally speaking, there’s a lot of pushing and pulling, for sure. And there’s been a lot of years of creative disputes. With this project … you’re like, “We’ll just put both of them in.” And we did that a few times. So, I think in this case, the kind of form of this project allowed for a sort of easier ride in terms of certain decisions, because it didn’t have to be made, right? You just put all of it in.

DP: … it was actually quite relaxing having not to make that choice. That’s what’s interesting. That’s a good question. With “Leaving,” it’s that the authorship is not really on us anymore to finish the song. It’s up to the audience that possess the stems to actually finish the song for us. So, they’ve kind of taken away that daunting task of having to finish the song away from us. And in a way, it’s a bit of a blessing because I personally really hate having to just give someone the final product. For me, a song that I release is so much more than just that one song that’s on Spotify.

Henry Spychalski (HS): Yeah. I think it’s a funny thing. The irony is that this is a process which we’ve actually almost done so many times before accidentally. To take an example, “Mikey’s Song,” which is off the album West of Eden, that started off as being a kind of super auto-tuned hyperpop, PC music song, and then it went through so many different versions. At one point, it was an Afro Bashment kind of dance hall song. And then it finally ended up being this kind of synth pop indie ballad. But it went through so many different versions to get to that final point where we couldn’t just figure out exactly what version it was meant to be. And there’s so many more examples of that. We’ve done this before.

What you’re doing with Async is a big deal. How does it feel to be the first band to create a programmable NFT pop song?

AS: I think it’s been amazing, to be honest. I think it’s really, really cool. So, the thing with music, it’s always been the case I feel, it has a much more … valorized creative process than other artworks too, right? The idea that you go in the studio for a few years, then everyone is silent. It has to be toxic. Or you come out and this is the final piece, and it has to be perfect, right? And everyone scrutinizes you immediately. It seems like other creative processes are much more open to the idea of the process itself being something to be celebrated with the audience, with everyone involved. Something like theater, for example. Theater is procedural. Every night, it changes. It’s not perfect until the final night. I would say, with visual arts and performance art, of course, it’s pretty much just that, just the process. So, I think music kind of lacks a sensitivity for the value of that, and also, as a result, a sensitivity for the intimacy between audience and creator. There’s this sense that you get the record, you put it in your room, and that’s it. It’s done. And it kind of goes through the pipes of major labels and distribution networks, and you never really see the musician. Maybe the live show afterwards, you might get a signature or an interview.

I think what Async has done, I think what it continued doing, is just breaking that down and opening up the process itself as an artwork, and also the consumer and the audience as an active participant in the musical world, which I think is great. How many times have you heard people say, “I love this album, but if this was slightly different”? And how many times have I felt, and musicians have told me, what you’ve just said ten minutes ago, “Why do you have to make this choice?” It’s just a constraint of the form. These choices are just a constraint of how the form has been historically. The fact that blockchain technology allows us to change that form, I think, is something to be celebrated. I think it’s amazing. I don’t think all music will end up being programmable. I don’t think it has to be. But there’s definitely a place. And I think there’s a lot of artists who could really thrive with the process itself being the final artwork. Yeah. That’s my take.

HS: Duc, do you want to go first while I formulate my hot take? [chuckling]

DP: I’m not sure. It was really hard to make, actually, so I don’t know how I feel about it anymore. Sometimes when you create something, you just spend so long inside of it. You know what I mean? Sometimes the process is like tunnel vision. You’re inside making this thing, and the world stops existing around for a while, and that’s the only thing that’s on your mind. You go to sleep, you’re thinking about this. You wake up, you’re thinking about this. And I think this has occupied us first. We started working on this around (October). So, I just feel like I just came out of the tunnel vision. So right now, I’m personally a bit numb. After creating something, I usually need a bit of time to actually know what I’ve created. Right now, I’m still trying to take a bit of distance from it and not think about it too much personally. But I’m still proud. I still think it’s amazing. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a real achievement. It’s rare to be able to actually do something and think to yourself that “I’m the first person to have done this ever,” you know? It’s this weird thing of chance and technology and musicianship and craft all coming together at one single moment in time, and you just happen to be one of the persons that can be a pioneer in that. And for that, I feel incredibly lucky and I feel incredibly grateful to Async and all the collaborators that participated in the creation of “Leaving.” It was a really good experience. Yeah. What about you, Henry?

HS: To me, one of the most interesting things about what Async offers and what this kind of layered NFT offers is the possibility of a genuinely dynamic artwork that is basically never finished.

And I remember when Life of Pablo, the Kanye album, came out. I found that really exciting, this idea that it was never really a finished product and that Kanye would be constantly changing the album, making changes to it, and that these will be updated on Spotify, and that this album was in this kind of constant state of flux ad infinitum. That idea really, really, really excited me, and I was like, “Wow, this is so really revolutionary,” regardless of whatever else you want to think about Kanye. And with this, it actually gives you the ability to really push the idea to its limits because you’re decentralizing the process of decision-making in a way which has just never been possible before. With The Life of Pablo, whatever changes happen to it, those are decisions that are made by a central body, and so they’re not going to be made very often, and it’s going to be quite slow for those changes to be reflected in the artwork. Whereas here, because of the way in which authorship and artistic control and creation are decentralized, and the way that the blockchain responds to its inputs, you actually have a genuinely dynamic artwork that is changing and evolving in real time.

And another thing I find really exciting and tantalizing is the idea that there are thousands of combinations of this one song, some of which will never be heard and yet they kind of exist, even if just in potentiality. Over the thousands of different versions of this song that there are, we, between us, as the creators of this project and as the artists, have only heard a fraction of them. There are literally hundreds of versions that we’ve never heard before. And when we’re playing the track before finalizing the project, essentially by randomizing which inputs we had for each layer, we just kept hearing all these different versions which we’d never heard before, and each one had its own really unique character and unique emotional identity. And so, I’m really excited to hear what other forms the song takes. But I’m also just interested in the idea that there’s so many versions of it which will never be heard even though they exist.

Could you explain the process of what it took to create “Leaving,” and the stories and meanings behind it?

HS: In terms of the actual story behind the song, like getting into it lyrically, and again, this is something that’s really interesting about this technology that you have with Async, is that it enables you to tell loads of different sides of the same story. I really love that in books or in films where you see the same thing from different perspectives. And this actually allows you to do that. And so, the song is centered around basically a love triangle between these three characters. And the first perspective that we worked on was a classic pop trope which was somebody being left by somebody else. And then there’s another lyrical perspective which is from the perspective of the person who is doing the leaving. And then there’s another perspective from the person who the first person is being left for. And so, you get all these different perspectives on the story. And also, there’s a chronological element. I won’t get into the details because I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but they all kind of meld into each other, and each of the characters who are involved becomes the other one.

They all exhibit these different qualities of jealousy and possessiveness. And certain characters come back to haunt the other characters in this kind of endless, infinite loop of leaving, being left, and being the person who was left for. So, it’s kind of like playing with pop tropes. And I think that’s, again, something that’s really distinct about this project is that it’s kind of an homage to pop music and pop music’s tropes and pop music’s variabilities as a cultural aspect.

AS: Just to add to that, I think the title “Leaving” kind of represents a dynamism in a way that it’s a process. It’s a verb, right? It’s a process. It doesn’t stop. Who’s leaving? Who’s being left? What are they leaving for? So that’s what we’re describing. It’s not a moment. It’s a spectrum of moments that could describe the process of leaving …

And just a few more tidbits that I think are really interesting. So, the way we’ve done it is kind of, we’ve named every… So, there’s … twenty-six individual stems, right? So, in combination (there’s) about (sixty-four hundred) because of the different combinations you can make. …

They’re all named after emotions, right? So, the idea is that, for the vocal ones, it’s tentatively named after the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, (etc.) So, there’s this procedural thing going on there, and also the leaving process. And the more instrumental ones are also named after emotions that represent the sonic backbone of each individual instrument that’s playing. So, one of the basses is called “Lust” because it’s a really sexy base. And that’s probably part of, sort of the emotional spectrum around the situation. So, you have twenty-six of these, and then the way you combine them. Emotions are not singular. Moments are not singular. Love is very complicated, right? So, it feels a bit like a big stew where you put the different emotions and you come up with these feelings. Each individual stem, each individual sort of procedural spectrum of the instrument — like (the) drums, they all have one layer which is empty. There’s one called Absence. One is called Grief …

Related to the point I made earlier about authorship, I think that’s also the big challenge we had with this, which is that someone could plausibly turn the state onto the empty ones and burn it, right? They can burn the token, and then that’s it. The song is gone forever. No one can change it. And I think that’s so interesting because we are all perfectionists. I think we’re all also control freaks. I think we also exhibit traits of narcissism, right? So, the idea that someone could take what we worked on and just delete it from existence, that’s a tough one. But I think it’s also liberating because you’re like, “This is a worst-case scenario.” But that’s their choice. Again, in relation to the song lyrics, the options of something could also… even the permanent options of something, I would be really excited… Please don’t do it. If you buy a layer, please don’t burn it. But if you do burn it, [laughter] I think it could be really interesting. I don’t know how I’d feel about it. Probably get really angry, feeling like I’ve been left by my own artwork, right?

HS: I think there’s another really interesting element there, which is, a lot of people … I’ve seen them talking about what political or economic impact the blockchain could have and how it could be used in politics and in economics. And this is an interesting project because it’s almost an exercise or an experiment in cooperation between individuals who are isolated from each other, and each only has a specific amount of knowledge available to them. And there’s this interesting thing of whether or not the people who own the different layers are going to collaborate and all kind of somehow figure out how to make a version of the song which works really well together. For example, somebody chooses the ballad vocal, somebody chooses the ballad piano, somebody chooses the ballad drums, or if it’s going to be a kind of Hobbesian state of war where it just descends into pure chaos and everybody is just choosing conflicting things that don’t fully work with each other. So, I think that’s going to be really interesting is to see whether the natural state of things is cooperation or conflict.

DP: To go back, for me, for the process, one other thing I really enjoyed was actually the storytelling part of it. I think Henry did an amazing job on that. So, I find that, usually, when you write a song, if you want to tell a story within a song, you’ve got about four minutes and about a certain amount of words and verses and stanzas to say the story. It starts at A, finishes at Zed. And then you need to somehow have synthesized the entire story of what you want to say in this really restricted version of it. And if the story is about a breakup or something like that, it’s hard to have all the different nuances of what it means to break up with someone. If you’re lucky, you can do an entire album, but you’re still quite restricted by the album format. And what I thought was really cool and interesting in the way Henry decided to build the whole thing is that by having different vocal layers, you can actually have a dynamic storytelling where you start discovering the different viewpoints and the different nuances and how the story is being told by interacting in between different layers. … So, it’s not only an exercise in form, in musical form. It’s also an exercise in storytelling that I think is just as exciting as the cool music technology thing.

And to go into the production of the actual musical thing … it was quite a weird thing to do because from the beginning, we all agreed that we wanted each different layer to actually have grave repercussions on the overall song. We didn’t want it to be just small changes — it changes a bit the tonality, or it’s a bit more stereo, or the EQ is different. We wanted to give the power to people that possess the stem to actually dramatically change the song. So, everything is organized so that it can go from a piano ballad to a dubstep remix, and all of the different kinds of genres and combinations of genres in the middle that this entails. And so, actually creating that — in a way that at the same time gives power to the audience and also doesn’t turn into a massive mess if someone wants to re-experiment between genres — was quite complicated. It’s sort of like trial and error. And it was a lot like someone will write a part, and then it would sound good with this, but it would not sound good with something else, and then you’d have to constantly backtrack. And so, yeah, it’s maybe because we’re probably the first one to do this, it was quite complicated to do. But yeah, it was really a challenge. It was quite interesting, though. I don’t think we ever worked on a song where you need… How much was it, Achilleas?

AS: So, it’s 6400 different audio files, the combinations of which… And there’s always, at most, six active, so the combination is sixty-four hundred.

DP: Yeah, where you have several thousand different combinations that can work at the same time. Obviously, some combinations are more musical than others, but that’s also part of the fun.

AS: We (had) a choice from earlier on. So, I think there’s a tradeoff, right? On the one hand, you don’t go for, like, full decentralization choice, right? So, Async’s limitations, for example, are nine by nine. So that will be nine different stems with nine different combinations per stem. That’s three-hundred-sixty thousand different combinations. So, at this stage, unless we spend three years on this, it would be impossible to do this — more than three years, actually — for all of them to make sense. On the other end of the spectrum, you could go for something really simple: three states with three combinations where they don’t overlap. You could have … the drums come out, for example, and then it’s the vocals. So then, you minimize the possibility for dissonance. We wanted to position ourselves, in terms of the production, somewhere in that spectrum, where we gave as much as we could, and as many variations as we could, without compromising the artistic integrity of the song.

So, what I think was the really hard thing to do, and kudos to Duc for this because he worked really hard on ensuring that. That’s the one thing I’m really proud of. We struck a really good balance between these two things. And all of the combinations aren’t bad, they all make sense musically, they all follow with each other. But there’s still a lot of variation that can happen. There’s no minimal change, right? So, we managed to do this where, because of different melodies, different lyrics, different voices, different instruments … if you change the bass line, or if you change the drums, the whole song changes radically because it’s what’s in between the lines. The sum is greater than the parts in a way. It’s not just this bass and these drums. You change one thing and the coloring of the whole thing changes. … I think eventually, hopefully, we or other artists will be able to expand that and allow for more combinations with even more possibilities while maintaining the artistic backbone. But I am quite happy that, at the first try, we did quite well (with) the amount of things we managed to stuff in there while still not destroying our minds or the actual songs themselves …

Anything else that you want to get out? Or even a message?

HS: We love you, we care about you, and you’re in our thoughts. That’s what we want to let all our fans know, because they haven’t seen us in months.

This article is also featured in asyncedition.

Pastry-loving stan of the NFT crypto art and music space, and your self-appointed stylist. I am not funny.