Han Mee and Jim Shaw talk us through Hot Milk’s stratospheric rise to the top of the rock scene, and their upcoming debut, A Call To The Void
Since first emerging in 2019, Manchester’s Hot Milk have been in a state of constant acceleration. Formed whilst grieving a close friend over a shared bottle of wine in their living room, what started with a few drunken acoustic guitar chords has since led them to the dizzy heights of their scene. From stadium support slots with Foo Fighters to the main stages of the world’s biggest festivals, and even an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel in the US, it’s been a jam-packed few years – even with the disruption of a global pandemic – but they’re only just getting started.
Blossoming over the course of three self-produced EPs, Hot Milk have developed a penchant for music that tiptoes between light and dark, with a positive nihilism fuelling everything they do. With roots firmly planted in the hooks and catharsis of rock ‘n’ roll, they’ve evolved into something without boundaries. Flirting with power pop, emo, post-hardcore, hip-hop, punk, and countless other genres over the last four years, the Manchester band are now gearing up to make the loudest statement of who they are and what they stand for.
Ahead of a jam-packed festival season, and the release of their long-awaited debut, A Call To The Void, we sat down with co-vocalists Han Mee and Jim Shaw to reflect on their unstoppable rise to rock stardom, the importance of live music, and piecing together a record that’s 100 per cent Hot Milk.
Looking back on where everything began four years ago, it seems as though a lot has happened since you were sat at home in rainy Manchester, drinking a bottle of wine and talking about forming a band together…
Han Mee: It’s interesting because a lot has changed, but that’s still there. It’s still very much writing songs in our bedrooms.
Jim Shaw: There’s very little glitz and glamour, it’s all doom and gloom.
Mee: It is, but we try and keep our core in everything we do because I feel like a lot of bands forget their roots. The bigger they get, the more they fly off to LA and become encompassed in that world of liars, thieves, and cobblers. It’s important for us to keep our starting point, because never in our wildest dreams did we think that we’d tour worldwide and play with the Foo Fighters.
There is almost a mental alchemy there, because if you think it and you believe it, it will happen. I fully believe in that, but at the same time, we’ve been cheeky. It was the cheekiness that took us into places we could never have dreamed of. We asked questions when we shouldn’t have done, we put ourselves in rooms with people that we shouldn’t have been in, and those things have pushed us forward. We come from humble beginnings, but f*ck it, anyone can do it if they’ve got the right mindset. It’s always been about music, even since day one.
Shaw: It’s about music and community. We’ve always surrounded ourselves with the best people.
Since your formation you’ve released three EPs, with the latest being 2022’s The King And Queen of Gasoline. How important has it been for you to have those individual projects and eras to explore the band in its early years instead of jumping straight in with a debut album?
Mee: We wanted to explore our sound, and my favourite EP is the second one, I JUST WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I’M DEAD. We had around twenty odd songs that we thought we should probably get out before we started writing an album, because we were always a big fan of the idea of going into ‘album mode’. We wanted to just knuckle down and write our debut from scratch, so we needed to get the other stuff out first, and those three EPs allowed us a vehicle to figure ourselves out.
We were new to songwriting with each other, and the first songs that we wrote together were on our first EP. We needed to explore what we could do together, and you only get one debut album. We needed to make sure that we were mature enough both musically and otherwise to put out something that we felt was representative of us, and better than everyone else’s debut album. We were like, ‘If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it proper’.
Shaw: Through our early teens and early 20s we’d done all the sh*tty van touring and sleeping in the back of cars.
Mee: Yeah, once we reached our mid 20s, we were like, ‘We’re not doing that again. If we’re going to do this, I don’t want to do that because we’ve got rent to pay’. We decided to have one last stab at writing tunes and being in a band, but we wanted to do it in a way that we could build on, and a way that was meaningful. The risks that we took to do this were massive, and everyone said that we were absolutely mental, but we believed in the music we were writing so much. We put all our eggs in one basket, and we’ve blindly followed the tunes since then. I think we’re still trying to work out whether we actually believe it was a good choice.
After the EP trilogy, the debut album is finally on its way this August. How did you know that the moment was right? Was there a magical moment where it all clicked and you felt ready, or did it just feel like the next natural progression?
Mee: I think four EPs is a bit excessive! Everyone around us would probably have been like, ‘Please just write more than five songs, guys…’. We always planned for it to be a trilogy of EPs because a trilogy just makes sense. Within those three EPs we explored different concepts, we explored musically what we could do, and we also grew up a lot. The pandemic took two years away from us as a band, so we’ve really only been a touring band for two years, but now just felt like the right time.
Shaw: We’ve had a chance to hone our musical craft a bit more now. If I had to come out of the gates and produce an album for Hot Milk, it would have sounded sh*t. The lyrics that Han writes wouldn’t have been as cohesive, and it all would have been a mess. We’ve not only grown up in terms of age, but we’ve also grown up in our musical ability and understanding.
Mee: It’s interesting because I actually think I’m more f*cked up now than I was then. I’ve got more to write about now, and that makes it all a bit more real. Your world expands as you grow, and now is the right time to make a statement. We’re ready to put a flag in the sand and show people who we really are because I feel like we’re a completely different band from our first EP. Nobody stays the same, and no one knows who they are, we’re all just working it out.
When did the process of piecing together the album really begin then?
Shaw: It was after a little bit of kicking and screaming! We had just finished a three-month tour, and we were locked in a room by our team and they refused to let us out until we’d given them a song. We had some fights, there were some tears and breakdowns, and then the door to room opened and we had four songs…
Mee: It was weird. We’d just finished a US tour and went to LA to work with Zakk Cervini because he always helps us clear our minds and sets us on a path. He’s the only person we ever write with, but I just remember crying because I was so mentally drained. My body ached, I was so tired, and I hadn’t slept for more than four hours in three months. I wanted to go home and see my mum, but we managed to get four songs out in two days.
Shaw: It just took a bit of pulling out of us, and Zakk is so good at focusing our minds because we’re always f*cking stressed, and our minds are in a million places at once. It was so emotional because it was the first time that we’d actually been able to sit and be with our thoughts.
Mee: I hadn’t really looked after myself throughout that whole three months either. We were ill and knackered, and I’d lost a stone and a half or something. The next single is the one that hit the nail on the head during that time, and it’s super emotional. Every time I’ve had a drink and listen to it, I start crying.
So, the creation of the record started in LA, but a lot of it was also done back in Manchester too, right?
Mee: Yeah, we finished the bulk of the record in Manchester.
Shaw: Manchester was the anchor of it. We’ve got a small shipping container that my studio is in, and we came back from LA with these unfinished songs. They were an idea of where everything else was going to go, so we threw them into the pot with some other ideas that were kicking around. We locked ourselves in there and did the pre-production process over the span of a month, which built out the soundscape of the album. Then we went to Sweden to do vocals and sprinkle the finishing touches over the top of it before coming back home and finishing it.
Throughout the three EPs, rock has been at the core of Hot Milk’s sound, but you’ve flirted with countless genres along the way. What was the sonic vision going into the album?
Shaw: We love so many genres that they all seep into the cracks of everything that we write. It ended up being this maximalist thing, and the focus was on having a lot of texture, aggression, and feeling.
Mee: I think every single song is different with us and it always will be because I get so bored. We’ll play a song, and it’ll sound cool, but then I don’t wanna write another song like that. As soon as we’ve done something, I want to change and do something different. I’m never going to be happy if we’re not constantly changing.
Shaw: Having said that, we’ve always had a real admiration of harmony and the way notes work and don’t work with each other. If you had to nail down the Hot Milk sound, harmony has always been the central point. There are two of us who write the music for this band, so there has to be harmony there.
You mentioned before that you worked with Zakk Cervini during the writing process, but you’ve always kept your circle very small when it comes to making music. Jim, you’ve handled production duties on all of Hot Milk’s releases including the upcoming album. Do you think that keeping things as confined to the two of you as possible is important to maintain the core of Hot Milk?
Shaw: I don’t think so.
Mee: I do think so. This is where we differ.
Shaw: We’re two individuals that really know what we want. We’re not gonna work for everyone, and we don’t want to work with anyone. We know when it’s right, and these are the people who we really want to work with.
Mee: For me, I feel like we are Hot Milk, and the way that Jim produces is specific to our sound. I never want to lose the fact that Jim always has the last eyes on it, and I would always want a producer to send him the track after they think it’s done. If we go to any of these producers that work with a multitude of acts, sometimes it can leave a massive imprint on it. I just hate the idea of our song sounding like any other artist, especially because at the moment there are a load of fake f*cking pop artists pretending to be rock artists. All their songs sound exactly the same and it does my head in because the genre that I love and grew up with has been copied and pasted so many times and now it’s ruined.
What makes Hot Milk an actual real band is that we write our own tunes, and we have our own production on them. I’ll work with people, but I never want it to feel like they’ve had their last eyes and touch on it. It ends up being this mass machine of music industry w*nkery, and I want to try and resist that as much as possible because I’m a bit of a purist.
Shaw: A good producer brings out the best in the band rather than putting the best of themselves into the band. Bands that stand the test of time are ones who can keep their own sound rather than merging into the norm, and we always want to do that.
It lends itself to the songwriting, because something that echoes through Hot Milk’s lyrics is just how real these stories are. Every line feels like a snapshot of something that actually happened in your lives.
Shaw: I don’t know how anyone would write music that isn’t real, to be honest.
Mee: I think there are people that didn’t really have that growing up, though. We’ve met a few artists where we’ve asked their favourite rock band and they’ve said things like, “Oh, I like The Blink 182s”. If you come from the rock world and you got bullied for wearing a My Chemical Romance shirt when you were a kid, you understand the realness that needs to come in that music. It shouldn’t be pushed into this easy-to-sell package; it needs to be gritty and real because we are gritty and real people.
Shaw: It’s not even just rock music, a good song is basically a story. It’s got to have its peaks and troughs and it’s got to have a feeling tied to it, even if it’s an instrumental. It’s got to have a feeling tied to it for it to resonate with humans, because humans are just big bowls of feelings.
The album seems to delve into some of the darker feelings we experience as humans, especially this idea of isolation. What does A Call To The Void really represent to you as a collection of songs?
Mee: It’s a modern analysis of the dichotomy between the darkness of the inner world and the darkness of the outer world, which involves our personal worldview. There’s a lot of loneliness in this record, and A Call To The Void is a spin on the French term l’appel du vide. It’s that feeling of being on the edge and wanting to jump. You’ve got that compulsion to just go, ‘F*ck it’. Everything’s existential with us because I’ve done too many hallucinogenics and my brain now works in a really weird way, but that phrase sums up a lot of feelings. It was so overwhelming and there was no other way to describe it.
There’s a never-ending gaping darkness that drips into everything that we do, and the whole record goes through a multitude of different feelings and stories. A Call To The Void is how I felt at the end of it, and it was like I was on the edge of something. We had a few other names like ‘Kaleidoscope Of The Abyss’ that were running around for a while, but naming the record was the last thing that we did. Ironically though, I’ve got the name for the second record already.
What Hot Milk do so brilliantly though is find that balance of darkness and humour, which is important. Life can of course be dark, but sometimes being able to laugh about it is the only way through, right?
Shaw: Tragedy is always paired with comedy!
Mee: It’s like going to the airport, realising you’ve got a seven-hour delay, and going, “F*ck it, I might as well have a drink.” Everything is sh*t, but we’re still alive so we might as well f*cking laugh at it. The other option is just soaking in the misery and ending up topping yourself.
Shaw: It’s like your house being on fire, being stuck in the middle of it, but bending down and finding a fiver. Life is so crazy, so you’ve just got to see everything for what it is. It’s up to you how you react to it.
Mee: You’ve got to take it on board and absorb it. We’ve all had bad things happen to us, and you’ve just got to accept it, breathe, and have a bit of a jab at it. For us, that mentality started with grief. When you experience grief, you have to grow up a lot.
Shaw: It makes you understand the good times a bit more when you’ve really experienced the bad times.
There’s a level of catharsis in that, and that element of Hot Milk really comes to life during your live shows. Was that something that you kept in mind whilst putting together the album?
Mee: We will always be a live band, first and foremost. We write songs to play them live and we’re always thinking about how they’ll work in that environment.
Shaw: We learned very early on with songs like ‘Are You Feeling Alive?’ that whilst some songs sound great on record, they don’t always work live. Now we’re always thinking about how songs will come across in rooms of 300 people, rooms of 10,000 people and fields with 70,000 people.
Not only does every song need a feeling and emotion tied to it, but it also has to have a place in a set and a reason to be played live. We’re always thinking about what’s missing from our current set and how we can explore new areas to show people what we can do.
Speaking of songs that are made to be played live, you’ve recently released the latest single from the album, ‘PARTY ON MY DEATHBED’…
Mee: That song was built to be a set opener! If we open our set at Download with that, people will know that we mean business. You need a balance of songs that make people want to rip their own faces off and ones that make people want to put them back on again because they’re crying too much. You need a bit of both sides, and the first two singles are quite in-your-face and punchy because the next one is the opposite of these two.
Everything about this band – from the songwriting process to the setlists and the focus on production – shows just how much you both care about it. As people who have grown up in the music scene that you’re now playing within, is this everything to you now?
Mee: It has to be because there’s nothing else. There have been bad days where I’ve thought about packing it in because of the stress, but then you go on tour and see everybody in front of you. All that hard work becomes a tangible thing, and you realise that it’s not so bad after all.
There is a lot of pressure being put on us, but I don’t want to let the fans down. They’ve sat through three EPs waiting for full length and we’re finally at this point. You put your whole heart on the line as a musician, and you sacrifice an awful lot. You miss weddings and funerals to do this, and once you get to my age you realise that by doing this job it may mean you can’t have children. You put your whole life into this, so it has to be worth it. You have to love it, you have to feel it, and you have to be in it 100 per cent.
It’s that passion and honesty that has enabled Hot Milk to forge such a vibrant community over the years. Seeing people relating to your music, finding meaning in it, and connecting with one another through this band even before your debut album, how does that feel?
Mee: I wonder if our fans see us like I saw my favourite bands when I was younger. It’s weird to think that someone looks at me the same way that I looked at the bands I loved because I’m more of a pal to our fans. I’ll sit outside with them for a long period of time to actually talk to them, but I don’t think any of my favourite artists have even looked me in the eye. The way that I am with our fans, I feel like they’re more like friends. I don’t know whether that’s very healthy, but they’ll voice message me sometimes if they’ve had a bad day, and I’ll talk to them. The Hot Milk community is based not only on music, but a genuine love between a lot of these people and me. They’ve given me a great gift.
Shaw: The only reason we can do this is because people listen to our music.
Mee: Exactly, that’s why I don’t understand people who talk sh*t about their fans. We’ve been in the same room as bands who were chatting sh*t about the people that come to their gigs, and I don’t get it. They’re spending their hard-earned money on your dream, and that is something to be incredibly thankful for.
Speaking of that dream, with the album on its way later this year, what is the long-term goal for Hot Milk, given how much you’ve already accomplished?
Shaw: I just want to f*cking survive. There are goals in terms of what venues we want to play in the future, but the real thing for bands of our size right now is survival. We’re looking at budgets for touring America, Europe, and even touring the UK, and it’s insane how little support there is from the British government to help one of the biggest industries in the world.
Mee: I’d love to see a healthy stream of bands continue to be successful and represent this country because we’ve got a great music scene here. To be able to find some inner peace in all of this and explore myself as a musician more would be amazing, but I just want to keep this band playing shows and reaching more people. I think that will bring out the best in all of us as musicians and as people, and the bigger we get, the further we can spread our message.
You’ve got to take the small things and enjoy those little moments, and that’s what the album is all about. No one knows when the darkness is going to come, and with Hot Milk the bad news always comes in fives. The good news always comes and overshadows it for a bit, but I don’t know any other band that has luck as bad as us. We do things either terribly or amazingly, there’s never a middle ground. It’s one extreme to another. But that’s just life.