The Cover Story

Hot Milk: “This is a family that we’re building. I genuinely feel connected to our fans”

Five years in the making, Hot Milk are finally releasing their debut album. Even with a string of global tours and headline shows under their studded belts, we find a band coming to terms with their status as the UK’s fastest rising stars, who are still just doing it for the love of music and their newfound family…

Hot Milk: “This is a family that we’re building. I genuinely feel connected to our fans”
Nick Ruskell
Tom Pullen

“Oh for fuck’s sake, he’s asking about the fucking name.”

The sofa in the repurposed Manchester mill is currently a noisy mess of laughter, shouting and faux indignation. On the left side of it, Han Mee is letting out a big, bold, north-west of England cackle. On the right cushion, Jim Shaw screws up his face in an exaggerated, exhausted wince. All we did was ask about the provenance of Hot Milk, a band name neck-and-neck with Pupil Slicer as the most horrible to appear on the cover of Kerrang! for some time. Some enquiring minds are more in the gutter than ours; in America, apparently, the question often comes with a guess.

“Oh,” mocks Jim, “Does it mean… jizz?”

“Everyone in America thinks it’s jizz, and they think they’re really funny when they reckon they’ve worked it out,” hoots Han.

Lovely. We’re not that low-brow.

“What did you think it means?” quizzes Jim.

Not that. The idea of hot milk – bubbling, greasy, thick, sweaty, evaporating milk – is just fucking disgusting, though, isn’t it?

“Yeah that’s kind of the point,” nods Jim. “Also, you’ve got to call your band something. Hopefully soon everyone stops asking about it all the time (laughs).”

Well, then, here is your chance, in the music periodical of record, to give the definitive answer. Go…

“I like the idea of, if you wanted to harm a politician, but not really harm them too much, what would you throw at them?” explains Han. “You could throw a fiery bit of milk at them and it wouldn't hurt, but it’d make them smell all day. It’s a protest, but almost non-violent. It's non-violent violence. It's short, snappy, it’s a bit of an oxymoron.”

This is much more sensible. It’s also much more instructive about Hot Milk themselves. They’re one of the most on-the-up rock bands in the UK, beloved by, among others, Foo Fighters (with whom they’ve become tourmates on the semi-reg) and blink-182 (with whose bassist, Mark Hoppus, they’ve written songs in his California home) – but they constantly worry that things might not be going their way. Onstage, they want to be “the most fun, moshing, go crazy with your mates” band, as Han puts it, while she also says that she “often comes offstage bruised and battered," admitting that, “I can get quite aggressive with my own body."

There’s also the fact that they’ve done all this – plus touring in South America (where fans mobbed the band outside their hotel, and Han enjoyed watching Tame Impala while on mushrooms and margaritas), booking a massive upcoming UK tour as well as dates in Japan and Australia, and becoming a genuinely, ahem, hot name – without having released a full album yet.

On Friday, the wait for that will be over, when they release A CALL TO THE VOID. Again, it’s full of dichotomy and contradiction: some was recorded in sunny Los Angeles at the Good Charlotte twins’ MDDN studio complex, the lion’s share was finished in the Manchester shipping container a stone’s throw from here that houses the band’s operation, during a bitterly cold northern winter. It’s a record that fizzes and pops with exuberance on BLOODSTREAM and the explosive PARTY ON MY DEATHBED, while the lyrics, and the album’s centrepiece, BREATHING UNDERWATER, reveal a much more shadowy centre.

A CALL TO THE VOID is also an album that Hot Milk didn’t want to make. Well, they did, but it had been on the laterbase and banned from conversation until it became unavoidable. And so, as they toured for what seemed like forever, they didn’t think about it. They didn’t start collecting ideas, or riffs, or a hard drive full of scraps and seeds. With the label knocking on the door and telling them that it was time to begin work now that the gigs had come to an end, Hot Milk were heading into the LA studio to start making their debut, and their most important expression to date, on which the future of all this hinged, effectively naked and without their schoolbag.

“We were just looking at each other like, ‘How do we fucking start?’” recalls Jim. “Every single time before this we'd had an idea, or messed around with some riffs or sonics or lyrics, whatever. With this, it was just… blank sheets.”

Not quite entirely blank. “I had sadness,” Han adds.

“I remember crying my eyes out in the studio on the first day. I just wanted my mum. I just wanted to go home,” she says. “I was trying to book flights home because I was physically exhausted. You know when you're that burnt out and it makes you cry? I really struggle with depression anyway, so it was a super-harrowing time for me.”

“There’s also the safety of failure,” adds Jim, of the enormous task they faced. “If you don't strive to achieve, you can't fail. So you just kind of sit in this place going, ‘I'll never be anything, I'll never get any further.’ You almost kind of feel safe, because you know that if you don't do it you can't fail.”

“I felt incredibly lost... like I was in this blank space of nothingness”

Han Mee

And just as Han was ready to throw up her hands and say ‘no’, and she and Jim didn’t really know which way to turn, the solution presented itself as the problem in a different set of clothes. An idea formed, around which things could be placed.

“I felt incredibly lost, open, vulnerable, like I was in this blank space of like nothingness,” says Han. “And I felt like, 'Well if I feel like that, let's just write about that.' I felt this insane pressure, and all this stress, burnout, and doubt, and I thought, 'What’s something that's all those things?' A black hole. A singularity that not even light can escape. I went, ‘I think that's our concept.’ And we wrote songs from the heart, that were real, and about stuff that we needed to write about that was going to help us as well.”

So they did. And as is so often the case, when Hot Milk got to LA to begin work, songs positively fell out of them. The City Of Angels, says Han, is “a good place” for the band – “We loved getting in our shitty little rental car, getting our shitty little coffees, heading into the studio” – and in the short time there, they nailed a quarter of the album on the first yank. Far from being crushed by the pull of a black hole, Hot Milk created their own big bang.

Sitting down to chat all this with Han and Jim, several seasons since the album’s completion, there is laughter and silliness, just as there are tears and more profound thoughts on the life of an artist. You learn quickly that they will undersell themselves to a point of absurdity, talking about achievements like hitting Download’s main stage back in June, or selling tickets for their UK tour – including a stop at Manchester’s Academy II, where Han saw her first proper gig as a teenager, Taking Back Sunday – as fast as they can be printed, as if there’s some sort of punchline coming.

They’re a classic pairing as well, two people whose individual and occasionally opposing quirks slot together like IKEA parts. It’s not surprising when they mention that they used to be a couple. Han is the louder of the two, talking a mile-a-minute and surprising us not in the least when she calls herself “a terrible over-sharer”. Where she seems to be the one in Hot Milk who pings around and takes the nearest tangent to hand, assuming the role of the band’s heart and gob, Jim is the brain, the nuts and bolts. “Hyper-focused” on the tiniest invisible details, according to his bandmate, he's apparently a never-ending worrier that, on a technical level, a gig is constantly on the verge of falling apart. It is he who produces all of the band’s music. This time, he says, having put every second of music on A CALL TO THE VOID under the microscope during the process, he’s found that he isn’t bored of it yet. (Something of a rarity, according to Han.)

Before forming Hot Milk four years ago, both parties had already done time in bands. Han’s first show was a rock night at a church in Preston, after which her band were excommunicated for a cover of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name. Jim, meanwhile, had busked in York, and toured with post-hardcore bands which would involve “five people trying to sleep in a bloody Yaris in a car park somewhere”.

Both had been bitten by the music bug from an early age, Han through Busted and then punk – “Green Day, Operation Ivy, Ramones” – while for Jim, it was his dad introducing him to the Sex Pistols and Cozy Powell, before discovering the heavier sounds of Trivium and Machine Head for himself. The pair confirm they were both total emos as teenagers.

Hot Milk started as something of a sneak attack. Living together as a couple at the time, they began writing songs, which they then put on SoundCloud and told people about, without mentioning it was them behind it, “Like a cheeky Trojan horse,” laughs Han.

“I kind of did it as a bit of an experiment, to be honest,” she says. “A social experiment to see what people would say, because people don't like to be caught off-guard. So I was like, ‘Hey, have you heard this band Hot Milk?’ And they’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I know loads about them.’ No you don’t, you fucking liar!”

Working in Manchester’s live music scene, bands would stay at their house, all of whom would be played the tracks. U.S. punks Free Throw asked Han if what she was playing was her own work. “Naaaaah,” she’d reply. But the good feedback got her thinking.

“We started going, ‘My God, maybe these aren't shit,’” she chuckles. “That’s when we started going, ‘Maybe we should take this more seriously.’”

After a year getting all of their ducks in a row in secret (“There’s nothing worse than putting something out and then people go, ‘We want more,’ and you think, ‘I haven’t thought this through…’” says Jim), having enlisted bassist Tom Paton and drummer Harry Deller, Hot Milk began proper. And then COVID hit. Oddly, having landed on their feet and been given the patronage of – and gigs with – Foo Fighters, it gave the duo a chance to actually assess what they were doing and just how much of a shot they had here.

“We went, ‘If we're going to do this, let's fucking do it properly,’” says Jim. “Let's not fuck about, let’s take it seriously. COVID really really did kick me in the face and go, ‘You're gonna fucking miss out on everything if you constantly stress.’ I realised what we had.”

By the time they got to LA to begin work on the album, their list of victories had become impressive indeed, not least an appearance on mega U.S. TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live!. And as much as they celebrated the victories, Han also began feeling the pull that would come to inform the record.

“There was lots of pressure. I feel it often, this horrible thing on my chest,” she says. “I spend a lot of time on my own as well, because my partner is also in a band. I spend a lot of time in my own head. It's quite lonely.”

Admitting that she can lean toward self-hatred, and has a tendency to focus on the darker parts of life that’s earned her the nicknames Wednesday Addams and June Gloom, other doubts began to come up: are my parents happy with what I’m doing? Am I wasting my life? Am I a failure because we’re not making any money? What are we doing this for?

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I love it, but all the things we sacrifice – relationships and friendships, and missing weddings and funerals – I got to the point where I thought, ‘Am I just a piece of shit for doing this?’”

“I was crying when I wrote it… I’ve never written something so nail-on-the-head of what I was going through”

Han Mee

This is where the album’s centrepiece, BREATHING UNDERWATER, comes from; a simple song (“The hardest thing to do,” says Jim, “just a couple of chords…”) that Han calls “the culmination” of the record. Among the chaos of the more banging moments, it’s a moment of reflection that’s all the more poignant for being so much more bare than what surrounds it.

“I was crying when I wrote it. I was just like, ‘This is hard.’ I've never written something so nail-on-the-head of what I was going through,” says Han. “It's that feeling of not quite being able to get air, like you're stuck just below the surface. I’ve had some suicidal tendencies in the past as well. And that's kind of hand-in-hand with that feeling of, maybe I don't want to die, but I also don't wanna be alive. I'm kind of happy being in his middle ground of what drowning kind of feels like. Limbo.”

While this deep pause is as personal and vulnerable as Han describes, the rest of the record feels more like fighting against such feelings. PARTY ON MY DEATHBED is a defiant banger. ALICE COOPER’S POOL HOUSE – a song about hearing tale of parties at the king of shock’s house in the ’70s, written on magic mushrooms, and which features the man himself at the end – provides a more LOL-some degree of levity, but still has the same do-or-die swing as the rest of it. Opener HORROR SHOW (kicking in after the intro of WELCOME TO THE…) starts the whole thing in an explosion of vitality and life.

“I wanted to come out of the gates blazing,” says Jim. “You've got that really At The Gates guitar, drum and bass, a kick drum and 808 vocals, and then it builds and builds and builds and builds and it's that release again into the chorus.”

“It was supposed to be quite forceful, that song. It's built to be kind of like, 'Hey, we’re gonna punch you in the face,’” adds Han. “I'm a blunt person. I don't beat around the bush. That song is like, ‘Yes, I'm a piece of shit. And what?’ It's in-your-face and cheeky. It’s a pit song. It’s unapologetic.”

This is a good word for Hot Milk. They may have their doubts, bouts of talking themselves down, but they also clearly care deeply about this, and understand what they have. That’s why Han didn’t quit and come home from America. That’s why they’re about to finally release an album that people have been waiting on for years now. That’s why you can believe in Hot Milk: because under all the jokey self-deprecation (“Headlining Manchester Academy? That’s silly”), and less-jokey admissions of almost buckling with pressure, they clearly believe in themselves and their music.

“I’ve always had the mantra of: if you're not physically on the verge of being sick when you're leaving the stage you've not done enough,” says Jim. “We leave a bit of our skin on that stage. We leave a bit of our soul.

“I don't think there is any other feeling like it, which is probably why a lot of artists turn to drugs – because they can't replicate the high you get from playing a show. When you play a good show to loads of people, you literally come back to the dressing shaking, buzzing. It's insane.”

Which is handy, because there’s a lot more to come. First there’s the album. Then Reading & Leeds, then the headline tour, then back to long-haul flights as they hit various corners of the globe. They find, in the process of releasing an album, having to “sell ourselves” (Jim) one of the more peculiar and boring parts of an industry that is, more often than they’d like, “sales figures and streams and graphs and things that aren’t music”, but this is a necessary evil. For both Jim and Han, it’s a means to an end, to stepping onstage, to connecting. If Han says during her darkest moments that she often asked herself why she was bothering, here she finds her answer.

“I find it really emotional,” says Han. “I feel like I connect with people quite easily, I guess. And when I've got them all there, and they're all having that moment together, I find that that's what the joy is, for me – the connection moment. Which is why I always say this is a family that we're building, because I genuinely feel connected to them.”

Then she goes one up, with the confidence of a true believer.

“Hot Milk is our church,” she announces. “A church for madness and love. And the people who come to see us, they should all leave baptised.”

A CALL TO THE VOID is out August 25 via Music For Nations. We're throwing an album-release party in London on September 5 – tickets are available now when you order any variant of Hot Milk's new album.

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