Hot Milk on perfecting the live sound, learning from the greats and crossing genre boundaries
I’m sure the last thing that Hot Milk needed the morning after a launch party for their debut album A Call To The Void – which they referred to as a “piss up in a brewery” – was an interview. Battling through the vimto-seltzer hangover, the pair seem incredibly grateful for the chance to celebrate their new record with family, friends and fans.
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“It was like a Hot Milk festival!” exclaims one half of the duo, Han Mee. “I’m relieved that the album is out. I think I’m just really glad that the songs that were personal have connected.”
“It’s like a weight lifted from our shoulders,” chimes in co-singer and fellow guitarist Jim Shaw. “People seem to feel the same way that we do”.
Formed in Manchester in 2018, the duo became known for their ability to blur genre lines through earlier EPs Are You Feeling Alive and I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead, but it’s the album where they feel like they can really spread their wings.
“It’s allowed us to explore and do some stuff that we probably wouldn’t be able to do on EPs,” explains Shaw. “We always said we wanted to look at interludes and soundscapes and have a more of a journey rather than just like, here’s a song, here’s a song, here’s a song. So this allowed us to feel more grown up.”
“You only get one debut album and we didn’t want to fuck it up,” continues Mee. “But it wasn’t like we overthought it. We just kind of went: ‘let’s just write an album’.”
Making a debut
The nerves of wanting an album to land with fans is pretty understandable; launching a debut album into a fairly built-up audience is quite the challenge. However both Mee and Shaw are seemingly taking the nerves in their stride.
“We’re always trying to push ourselves and try to create something that hasn’t necessarily been done before, whether that’s having a different playing style or having a different sound. We always wanted to push that,” says Shaw.
Instead, the pair ensured that attention remained focused on one element of the album: how it will sound live.
“When we started this band out we didn’t really have anything to go off,” Shaw explains. “We just wrote the songs and then we went and played them live. We quickly felt like some of these songs didn’t work, some of the sounds just didn’t come across live.
“Any band with a soul always kind of sees that as their favourite part of being in a band,” exclaims Mee. “Live music is where we all got inspired and realised we wanted to be in bands. You want to fucking throw a party and you need a song that’s going to excite people in a way that’s genuine and authentic. So that’s what we’ve had to focus on this album is just ‘how is this going to sound in a gig?’”
For the debut album, A Call To The Void, the duo explain that they have stripped back their gear with the want to “start again”.
Both donning Neural DSP Quad Cortexes, new racks, and a host of new axes such as Mee’s Gibson Flying V and Shaw’s plethora of custom Gordon Smith guitars, their live sound is hoped to be huge ahead of their hometown performance in Manchester in November.
“You don’t just want to watch the record being played in front of you, do you?” expresses Mee. “You want to hear ‘what they did in the middle eight, that was sick’, ‘that solo is a bit different’, or ‘did you see how they started that song?’ You want to make it as exciting as possible.”
“Having a good song is great. You need that. You need it to be a banging song. But I feel like performing live, about 60% of it is having good songs,” chimes in Shaw. “The rest of it is on showmanship or how the song is played. You need to make it that extra experience that the fans are going to walk away and be like, ‘wow, that was incredible’.”
A lot of their inspiration regarding the importance of live sound comes from a band they had the pleasure of supporting a mere six months into their career: the Foo Fighters.
“They don’t always perform the song exactly how it is on the record,” explains Mee. “They will make a three-minute song last 20 minutes sometimes and I think it’s about creating suspense, creating a story within a song and really taking advantage of the elements of the song that can really make people feel united.
“I think that’s a lesson that we’ve learned by watching some of our peers and some of our older inspirations is like, ‘You know what? That was a great gig’. We then think about what made it great and what we can do in our set to emulate that feeling.”
“100 percent!” agrees Shaw. “Even the songs that we’ve written on this album, we just finished writing our live set for November and a lot of them go off on tangents or they’ve got different things or they blend into other songs and stuff like that. If I’m going to watch a band live, I’d love to see something that I know, but something new too.”
Defining a sound isn’t always easy
Being coined as a band that likes to blend genres is all fun and games – until it comes to streaming, and the tendency for services to aggressively categorise music. From the outset of the discussion about genre definition, one thing became enticingly clear: they’re not fans.
“We always want to create something new,” says Mee. “We like to experiment or push out stuff that isn’t necessarily traditional, but whilst keeping those old school tropes. We love guitar music, and rock music will always be at the centre of our band. But that’s not to say that we won’t deviate from path sometimes because, fuck it why not?”
However, this desire to “push forward and create something new” as Shaw explains, is sometimes easier said than done.
“On the EPs previously I got really pissed off because Spotify put us in a pop-punk category,” Mee admits. “It was really lazy, and I’ve never really said that we were straight up pop-punk. Other bands in that genre were quite different, it’s not the same kind of feeling to us. So that used to piss me off and I used to ask why they put us in that. That’s not what we are.”
“I get it that they have to have a way to decipher and separate things to a degree, but I’ve always hated and rejected the idea of labelling your art as one particular thing,” Mee continues. “It makes me feel like I can never deviate from one thing, as if you have to do what is expected of you. I think that’s really shitty.
“How do you expect the music scene to grow and change and develop if you’re constantly pitching pigeonholing into things that you decide?” explains Shaw.
The pair seem incredibly set in knowing who they are outside of genre defining lines, and it’s certainly refreshing. However they continue to stress that regardless of their own opinions about the structures of music streaming, they do understand why it’s necessary, especially when it comes to cultivating a fan base.
“Labels do have to have some sort of divide, whether it be broad, whether it be small in order for fans to, you know, pick up new things that they like,” admits Shaw. “I don’t feel like they’re intentionally pigeonholing or genre defining us, but, they are. However I don’t know what the alternative is. They’ve got to put a label on something which is both right and wrong. It’s one of those things.”
Hot Milk draws in listeners across emo, punk, pop-punk, Rock ‘n’ Roll and so much more, so do the duo actually care how you found them? “I know what we’re doing,” accepts Mee, “our fans know what we’re doing, so fuck it.”
“When people do hear Hot Milk, eventually they’ll figure out that Hot Milk is just Hot Milk. I think the bigger we get, it just won’t matter anymore, and I’m kind of okay either way.”
Learning from the icons
It isn’t just the legendary Foo Fighters that the duo has been able to work alongside, as their newest album features rock ‘n’ roll icon Alice Cooper.
“It’s just ridiculous,” says Shaw with a laugh.
“The whole idea just started out as a joke and then we sent it to management and as it turned out, someone in our management shares a stepfather with Alice, and he said he’d pass it on and see what he thinks. That then turned up in a mailbox and we were like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’. It’s just been one mushroom trip that hasn’t stopped.”
As well as their upcoming shows with the Foos across the UK in 2024, in addition to the support shows in 2018, the duo have nothing short of praise for the band. In fact, they credit the Seattle group in helping ground them as musicians, and realise the importance of treating everyone you work with and meet with respect.
“It’s really shown us how you should act as a band,” explains Shaw. “They’re all such lovely people and if they’re travelling so much and going across the world, they’re going to want a crew that feels like a family, and that’s exactly what they’ve got.”
“Also, I think also because we’ve been at the shows with them, and we’ve played some sets at festivals the same day as them, they’ve always got a lot of time for us,” adds Mee. “I think moving forward, like on our tour in November, the way that they treated us is the way that we want to treat our bands.
“I can tell you right now we’ve not always been treated that nicely by bands we’ve toured with, which I would just think is mad because they’re an awful lot smaller than the Foo Fighters, yet they are much cuntier!” she exclaims.
For Jim Shaw and Han Mee, while only at the release of their debut album, the duo has seen such growth from their humble beginnings in 2018. They may have a little bit to go to reach the fame of the likes of the Foos and Alice Cooper, but they know that a respectful and appreciative attitude is what will allow them to go far.
“To go for a career that long and to still see them absolutely adore they do and like thriving off each other is incredible,” Shaw notes.
A Call To The Void is available now.
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