The writing (and rewriting) of everyone's favourite party track, and why Melby will always be grateful to David Letterman
“I have a neighbour over here,” says Kelvin Melby, speaking from the grounds of his sunny Florida home, “she’s older, and when we moved into our spot, she asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a musician.” She said, “Are you professional, or do you just play in the bars around here?””
He laughs. “I said, “No, we go out and we play all over the planet.” She was just like, “Well, what’s your name…?”
“Next day, she turned up at the door and she said, ‘I love that song!’ She’s like 65, 70, and she knew that song, which was pretty hilarious.”
It’s a funny image, Melby’s neighbour going home to Google Melby and coming across The Heavy. By the time Melby moved next door to her in 2017, the Bath-born rockers had released four albums, toured the globe, played Coachella, and garnered a reputation for venue-smashing, bar-dancing, riotous good times. But one song was destined to become larger than the band themselves, to become the party tune that even your 70-year-old neighbour knows.
Melby was nine years old when he realised what kind of music he wanted to make. “I’d heard Planet Rock maybe like a year before, but I think it was the point when Malcolm McLaren introduced me to ‘Buffalo Gals’ that just blew my f*cking world apart. I come from seven brothers and three sisters, so there would always be different music being played around the house, and I would always be into all these different kinds of music. But when I found ‘Buffalo Gals’, that was like, “That’s my music! That’s mine!””
As a young adult, Melby would DJ around Bath. “I’m an eclectic DJ,” he says. “I can play like Spanky Wilson ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ but then go into The Kinks, ‘All Day And All Of The Night’. From there, we could go to ‘The Witch’ by the Sonics, and then drop it down into ‘Police And Thieves’ from Junior Murvin. I was always that kind of DJ.” He can still hear that eclectic mix of genres when he goes back to Bath now, and it makes him laugh. “It never used to be like that,” he says.
In amongst Spanky Wilson, Junior Murvin and the Sonics, Melby began introducing his own stuff, music that he had created with his friend Dan Taylor. The two were writing “incessantly” at that time, combining Dan’s organic sound (“He was in a proper band”) with Melby’s love of sampling. MiniDiscs of their latest work would find their way into Melby’s sets. Sometimes even their works in progress – Melby recalls playing an unfinished instrumental track composed of entirely horns and huge beats.
“I remember this dude, the owner of this bar, coming up to me, because I had girls dancing on the bar. He was like, “You realise you’re gonna have to pay for that bar, because they were wearing heels…” I’m just like, “Dude, nothing to do with me.””
That was the first time that ‘How You Like Me Now’ had people dancing on a bar. It wouldn’t be the last.
When Melby wasn’t DJing around Bath, he and newly formed band The Heavy were booking time in whatever studios they could find that had a sampler. Melby was new to the technology, but he knew what he wanted – “I would always kind of say, ‘No, I want it chopped from here or chopped to there. And can we make it sound like this?’”. The sound engineers weren’t always impressed.
The Yamaha SU10 was a game changer for Melby. Suddenly his tiny Yamaha sampler and the Atari ST could create exactly what he heard in his head, without outside help. One gifted copy of the first edition of Logic later, and Melby and Taylor were writing nonstop. It was in these early days that they wrote the entirety of their first album, Great Vengeance And Furious Fire. They also wrote ‘How You Like Me Now’, an unfinished gem of a track not destined for their debut, but that Melby loved nonetheless.
“We played at The Big Chill bar in Kings Cross,” Melby remembers. “And it was funny because Spencer [Page] wasn’t playing with us that night. So it was just a three piece. I put all of Spence’s bass parts down onto backing tracks. We were playing half backing track and half live. There were 20 people to begin with, and by the end there were 400 people kind of just losing their sh*t to us, which was insane.”
In that crowd of 400 happened to be Peter Quick of Ninja Tune. “He was just like, ‘Do you guys have a demo?'”. They had a 10-track record – and Quick loved it, and didn’t want to change a thing. For anyone in doubt, that never happens. The band had ‘How You Like Me Now’ written at this point, but Melby was adamant that the song should be held in reserve for now. “I remember saying that it just didn’t feel right. It’s not right. It doesn’t sit with these 10 songs, and it doesn’t feel finished.
“The chorus wasn’t right. And we just couldn’t figure it out. We tried it in loads of different iterations. We always knew that we wanted the drop, but we could never make it right. We tried it in so many different ways.”
Melby remembers that decision to leave ‘How You Like Me Now’ off their debut as one of the best calls the group ever made. “We could have put it on there. But I always think a record should be 10 tracks. I think we’ve broken the rule maybe once. My favourite record, probably of all time – and it’s just because of the production – is I Can’t Stand The Rain by Ann Peebles. It’s 10 tracks. It comes in just under 30 minutes. And you just want to play it again. And again. And again. All the way through. I love that about a record, if you just want to keep playing it. So it was the correct decision to leave it off, not having an 11-track first record, and then having the budget to actually do it properly later on.”
Fast forward to the band’s sophomore record, The House That Dirt Built. Producer Jim Abbiss joined them in the studio, fresh off his work on the first Arctic Monkeys record. Another crucial thing had changed: the Heavy now had the budget to play around with ‘How You Like Me Now’ as much as they wanted, until it sounded exactly as it should.
“I think ‘How You Like Me Now’ was mixed on my birthday weekend, around March 29,” says Melby. “We left it on the Friday, and we all agreed to leave it until Sunday. But I got f*cked up on Saturday, and I turned up late. Jim was not very happy with me.
“The drums were too light. They didn’t feel like hip hop. What we really, really wanted the record to sound like, regardless of whether we were playing it, was that it felt like it had come off other records. You know? Yes, it was us playing it. But then it was us chopping stuff up and processing it in a way where it sounded like it came from somewhere else. What Jim had put together at this point was something that sounded too live. It sounded great. But it wasn’t right, it wasn’t us.
And so, the next day, I sat in with Jim and we looked at the track in sections – this needs to happen here, these choruses should always be the same, but slightly different… It needs to feel like ‘Jump Around’ by House Of Pain or ‘Insane In The Brain’ by Cypress Hill. We had all of these conflicting views, so Jim said, “Alright, just leave it for an hour. Come back in an hour with the rest of the guys and see what I’ve done.”
When the band returned, it was perfect.
‘How You Like Me Now’ was the ultimate Heavy track: a combination of all the references that Melby and Taylor wanted to make that still managed to sound fresh and original, topped off with a dynamic hook. “People like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, even James Brown have used it. It’s like a blues line, and then within hip hop, Kool Moe Dee has a song called ‘How Ya Like Me Now?’. And then LL Cool J in ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, he’s like “How you like me now?”” Melby loved the line. So did the Heavy’s audiences.
“We’ve torn down so many places throughout our career,” he says. “Which is why I will always go out and watch a support band. Doesn’t matter what I might have to be doing, I will always make myself available to watch the support before our gig, because we burned so many lead acts. They wouldn’t watch what we were doing, and we would be tearing sh*t up, and then they’ve got to follow us, basically.” He recalls a gig at Brooklyn’s Union Pool, the intense effect of ‘How You Like Me Now’ on a crowd that most likely had never even heard the track before. Everywhere the Heavy went, it was like the song cast some kind of spell.
“But the turning point for that track was when we got asked to play David Letterman. I remember the conversation. “They want you to play ‘How You Like Me Now’.” It was like, “Okay, well, we don’t have our horns.”
The Dap-Kings were flown out to oblige. Melby and bandmate Chris Ellul flew out to New York, where they watched a string of live performances from bands they loved and looked up to on The Late Show. “It was really, really weird because it felt like everyone was just doing TV performances. Like, super straight. But when I was younger, I was obsessed with watching James Brown shows. I remember getting this James Brown video when I was a kid and the dude was f*cking on fire. Every time. Anytime he was put in front of a TV camera. I remember saying to the guys before we stepped out onto that stage, ‘We don’t play it any differently. All of those places that we’ve taken down with this track – that’s how we play it on David‘.”
The Heavy were the first band ever to get an encore on David Letterman. The Kia Super Bowl ad that was in the running suddenly became a sure thing. Overnight, the track was everywhere. “That performance changed our lives, basically.”
Which brings us to now. “We played it the other day,” says Melby, “and it was ridiculous. It was absolutely ridiculous. It’s one of those songs where I’ll probably only rehearse it a couple of times, because it’s like, right, I know it. It’s cool. But every time I do it, it’s different. That song seems to really pulse with whatever’s going on in that room. It’s one of those tracks where… the chorus just goes crazy anyway, but it’s the drop for me, in that song. Maybe it’s because I know I’ve only got another thirty seconds to be onstage, but it feels like, “F*ck yes, let’s go! Let’s ramp it up!” We’ve played it in so many different rooms, and it’s still super enjoyable to play. It’s a party tune, you know?”
Even for a hit, ‘How You Like Me Now’ has been used a huge number of times on everything from adverts and film trailers to TV, video games and sports. It’s one of those unavoidable tracks that you’ll know even if you’ve never sat down and listened to the full thing.
Asked when he realised that the song was taking on such a life of its own, Melby remembers a recent conversation with Geoff Barrow of Portishead. “He was just like, ‘I cannot believe how much that f*cking truck has been used!’ I can’t tell you why. But the beautiful thing about that song, what I realised, especially for music supervisors, is that it fits so many different moods. Jim made it sound like four different songs, and all of the sections have been used for different things.
“But when did I realise that?” he thinks about it for a second. “It was when someone actually came up to me in New York and started singing it. Someone that I just did not know. They were singing ‘How You Like Me Now’ to me and saying that it was a f*cking phenomenal track.
“We’re still quite a small band, you know what I mean? But our tracks are kind of like caricatures of ourselves. We put them out and they’re so much bigger than what we are. Some of our reviewers ask how The Heavy aren’t bigger, and… I’m happy. I’m really, really good. Just us being able to push out what we do. And it’s great if people resonate with the tracks. That’s amazing. That’s everything.”