Mirrors Without Reflection: HTML Flowers Interviewed
HTML Flowers is the current nom de plume of Melbourne-based musician and visual artist Grant Gronewold. Having previously made noise and art under the aliases of Fulton Girls Club and Cougar Flashy, Gronewold has now moved into the realms of raps and beatmaking. Born in Illinois, he moved to Melbourne when he was 10 years old and now possesses that curious end-of-sentence inflection that Australians mock themselves for.
I caught up with Grant via Skype last week. Over the course of the conversation, he asked me to note that he’s being “cutely sarcastic” at (undetermined) points. Work it out for yourself. At one time he changed the topic to talk about the shitty press release he’s currently writing for his hip-hop duo, Brothers Hand Mirror. Later he described the duo as “all about motivational self-help pamphlet raps,” which would probably fit really nicely into a press release.
Gronewold has Cystic Fibrosis – a line of inquiry I don’t follow. In his song ‘Almost Living’ he raps: “Live and die in an almost way, nobody knows what to say.” I’m shy and it frightens me. He shares enough of that online already, and there’s so much more to ask about. He ends all his emails in a little kiss or two: x, xx.
How are you?
I’m good, I’m just drinking a coffee and sort of slept a bit late, Oscar [Slorach-Thorn, of Oscar Key Sung and Oscar + Martin], who is in Brother’s Hand Mirror with me, came over and we watched Men In Black 3 last night. We fell asleep near the end. It was really funny and cute.
Speaking of, how did Brother’s Hand Mirror start?
Brother’s Hand Mirror started years ago. Oscar emailed me to collaborate back when he was doing Psuche and I was doing this thing called Fulton Girls Club. But we were kind of teenage rivals so I didn’t trust him… [laughs]
How were you teenage rivals? Is that even a thing?
That’s a complicated story. We were two young boys making abstract art in the same friendship group, so we kind of just resented each other in a way. Y’know, you’re a teenager and insecure. But we didn’t know each other at all, that was why. Once we got to know each other we became the best of friends. It was basically Oscar’s persistence over the years; we had a few good hangouts and it was like “yeah, we should make something.” Then we talked about it for three years, and then I just went and stayed in Oscar’s warehouse for a long time and we actually did it. I guess it all started just over a year ago now, when we started recording and playing shows.
You’ve utilised a few names for your art: Fulton Girls Club, Cougar Flashy, now HTML Flowers. What’s with all the different names – are they different projects?
Yeah kind of. I guess art has always been a process of reinvention and self-interpretation for me. I often just change my name [depending] on how I feel. HTML Flowers is the coolest one though.
The other names were beautiful and they had meaning, but HTML Flowers has the most personal meaning and it is really the best name so far.
Do you still do things as Fulton Girls Club or Cougar Flashy?
I’m actually in the process of considering retiring Cougar Flashy. Up until a couple of months ago I was still releasing all my zines and doing all my artwork as Cougar Flashy, but recently I’ve been putting HTML Flowers: that was on the cover of Inverted Dawn [a split comic with Girl Mountain], so I’m thinking of letting Cougar Flashy die as well. They’re all just past me’s. Fulton Girls Club is the adolescent self who is completely afraid of dying too young, so all the songs are that: interpretations of my life as a really sick person at a young age. Cougar Flashy was about me taking heaps of acid and trying to find happiness, and experimenting with pop.
Now, HTML Flowers… I want to become everything I think I can be in terms of an artist. The name HTML Flowers is like – my dad died a while ago and I never really knew him, and we found out nine months after he died via an internet obituary. The website gave you the choice of lighting a virtual candle or leaving some flowers for him, so that’s where HTML Flowers comes from. I picked that name because I wanted a name that reminded me of how pathetic my father’s life and death were, because he was a really isolated person who couldn’t connect with people and he had a lot of addiction problems as well, and he was just someone who was so self-centred and who ruined any chance of family and love for himself.
So the reason I picked that name was so that I could stay haunted enough to stay close to the people I love and to not short-sell myself and really become everything I want to become.
I was going to ask you if you listen to much Australian stuff. Your hip-hop feels completely separate to all the ocker Australian mainstream stuff, whereas you’re over here with all the RnB and electronic artists.
Yeah we get kind of slagged a little bit, we get called hipster-hop heaps. Which is fine, most people would identify us as hipsters – we do like to wear good clothes [laughs]. Heaps of Australian hip-hop I miss and it misses me, we’re not interested in each other. I don’t have the door shut to it, I like heaps of Australian beatmakers, I’ve just rarely met a rapper who I’ve liked. I don’t want to say anything negative, it’s just a matter of fact that I haven’t met any rappers that I’m really enamoured by their work. So it’s overseas collaboration I’m interested in with that stuff.
Locally my favourites are Zanzibar Chanel, who are amazing. Collarbones are like our [Brother’s Hand Mirror’s] brother band in my opinion. The shows I do with Collarbones are always my favourite shows, they’re ridiculous. I do listen to a lot of Australian stuff but it’s mostly beats and singing. I love heaps of bands that have nothing to do with hip-hop, like Kes and Lehmann B Smith. Everyone on Mistletone is a fucking gem. Sophie [Miles, co-head of Mistletone] is like a genius. She doesn’t make music, she’s just really good.
On the topic of Collarbones [whose new album HTML Flowers features on] – you’re a really collaborative guy. How does that come about, are you just friends with all these people?
Marcus [Whale, from Collarbones] has actually known about me for a long time. He found me on the internet years ago and then I did a tour of Sydney and we met, and that was ages ago, 2000-and-bleh. So Marcus and I have known each other for a long, long time and I’ve always had a deep love for his work as Scissor Lock, and he was one of my most avid supporters when I did Fulton Girls Club, and he followed my work through when I changed to Cougar Flashy. I’d forget to tell him that I had a show but he’d be there. He is totally just a dedicated, loyal friend. At some of the points where I’d felt like the most depressed in my life, just hearing Marcus talk about what he takes from my work just gave me incredible strength to keep moving.
‘Die Young’ [the track HTML Flowers raps over on Collarbones’ latest album] came together really well because that beat is just so sick. The whole introduction to ‘Die Young’ was the length of the original beat, that whole bit there with the whole rap was written quite separately. But Marcus had already written his lyrics and I just wrote my lyrics about River [Phoenix] and Lisa [Lopes] and the idea of how we become crystallised within the people we idolise, and they become symbols for trials which we’ve endured and changes which we’ve had.
You seem to have a preoccupation with sharing your lyrics upfront. Each Soundcloud and Bandcamp release has the lyrics attached. A lot of artists like to hide their lyrics and don’t show them off, but you share it all right upfront.
Yeah. I feel one thing that has always been important to me is forthcoming honesty, like totally being in someone’s face: “this is how I feel about something”. I guess that translates over to my work. I’ve always been a writer first. When I was like 10, 11, 12, 13, I’d write all the time, I’d write 60-page little novellas about some weird character I invented. So writing was always my actual first love and it remains the basis of all my work in some way. To me it’d be a total shame if people missed out, because I talk quite fast in some of my songs and I don’t want people to miss the words. I also like writing a blurb about what the lyrics refer to in my life. Marcus does it as well. Me and Marcus have been hi-fiving a lot recently about not letting the art of putting your lyrics with your album die.
Yeah, I love that. The whole Die Young album has the lyric book.
Yeah, it’s so sad when they don’t have it. Every release I’ve done with Oscar so far has had all the lyrics and I intend to keep that up. I like to go that extra bit and have the meaning behind the lyrics as well, just because I wasted hours of my life just scrounging through interviews of people I adore, just trying to find out little tidbits about their lives. So I always wanted to make that easy for anyone who liked my work.
Do you compose your solo work [as HTML Flowers] differently to how you write for Brothers Hand Mirror?
Yeah. Brothers Hand Mirror is like, I collect a lot of ideas I want and sometimes I’ll write out a whole verse before I see Oscar. Usually I have an idea of what I want a song to be about, a couple of key lyrics I’ve thought of, and as Oscar works on the beat, I write. Our process is very symbiotic.
The writing process with my solo stuff is like – I have a [certain] level of ‘depressing’ I let get into Brothers Hand Mirror, and anything above that I let it into my solo work. Because I write some real depressing shit, and Oscar’s beats are like “yeah, wanna get up and dance!” and you don’t wanna be dancing and hearing like “I wish I was dead! I wish I was dead!”
So one’s the party outfit and the other’s the cut-your-wrists outfit?
Totally. That’s what HTML Flowers’ work is. At the moment I’m working on an album of songs about hospital, and recorded mostly in hospital, using some medical instruments as instruments as well. It’s so uber depressing, but it’s totally real. My life is totally hounded by this terrible illness and I’m just trying to write about it and understand it through my art. So I’m working on that right now.
Have you performed HTML Flowers live yet?
I’ve done one show where Oscar did beatboxing and I did my raps, and it was almost like the lyric booklets where I prefaced every song by telling people what it was about. It was so brutal as well. Some of them were about molestation and stuff, and I was like “yeah this is a song about how I got molested about a year ago” [laughs]. People are quite touched by it, but I guess there’s a level of insecurity considering what I do with BHM is so danceable and HTML Flowers is so not.
…is this mostly a music interview?
Both, I was going to ask you about art later, but we’ll do it now. I actually found out about your work via Simon Hanselmann because I lived in Hobart for 21 years and I picked up the two volume Girl Mountain book he made when I was like 16, 17. I thought it was awesome. Then he moved to London and I couldn’t find his work anywhere. He wasn’t on the internet for years, and finally he started a Tumblr this year. And then I found you through that.
That was me! I have been trying to get him to get a Tumblr for years. Not even a Tumblr, but anything, he never had a Flickr either and I was just like “Simon, come on!”. The thing that’s genius about what he did, totally unintentionally because he hated the internet and hated trying to stay on top of things – he just wanted to stay stoned and make comics. [The users of] Tumblr are now like “how the fuck did someone just appear with literally 25 years of comic making experience and we’ve never heard of him?”. Because he lived in Hobart, no one knows shit about Hobart, so it just suddenly looks like he’s a genius. But in reality he’s been working on his shit for 25 years. Literally since childhood. He has stories about selling fake spy comics on the school playground for extra shit in his lunchbox, like “give me those rice crispies, here’s a comic.”
Yeah. You recently had an art show with Simon at Tinning Street. How did that go?
That went great. There was heaps of support, a very supportive crowd. Me and Simon actually were having super difficult times, because we’ve both had pretty challenging years in our lives recently. So we were actually really anxious, both having really severe anxiety and depression before the show. But because we got it up and actually did it after being worried we wouldn’t be able to do it, it just felt amazing. It totally felt like you’re crawling up a mountain, and one and a half of your legs fall off, and you’re just so worried that you’re not going to get to the top, but somehow you did. And then when you get to the top your legs have grown back and you’re like “oh my god that’s so cool.”
So it was really great, and Simon’s performance was amazing. He did a performance of synth depression from his sadness mattress, which he dragged to the gallery. It is literally the mattress he lays on when he’s sad as well.
Me and Simon have been collaborating for 5 or 6 years now. He’s one of my oldest friends. If it weren’t for him I don’t think I’d have much… like he really pushed me into doing art. I was really self conscious about my art and he’d be like, “Hey Grant just draw a comic today, just do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not.” And then eventually I got good, so it was really good of Simon to be such a supportive person.
How did the response go to the art show?
Super supportive, people totally dug it. We had a really good crowd there. I received some really beautiful emails from people I know and do not know as well, just about my work. We sold out of all our comics. We just started a new series called Inverted Dawn. That was really gratifying.
Simon is really used to doing big narrative sort of things, but he pre-writes everything as well. But this is the first time I’ve tried pre-planning comics, for the Inverted Dawn one, and they came out so much better. Everything else I just draw on the fly.
Have you ever wanted to long form comics, or long form art?
Totally, yeah. I’ve been working on conceptualising… I like to have a lot of time for contemplation. I feel like I don’t wanna jump the gun, you know? Me and Oscar have enough material for a Brothers Hand Mirror album, but we don’t feel like it works as an album, so we don’t wanna just make one. So in that same way I could definitely make enough material that it would be the size of a comic, but I’d much rather just wait until it felt like it was a proper comic. In that way I’m more likely to take 20 minutes of strong, cohesive music over an hour of like, “okay, well I did have these songs so I put them next to the rest of those songs”. I’m really interested in it but I haven’t really hit on a storyline that I felt could use infinite development.
So you want to wait for a cohesive storyline for your albums. You release heaps of your HTML Flowers stuff on Soundcloud and Bandcamp though, just as single songs. Do these track just not have homes?
I really like that the internet is like this really brilliant egalitarian, money-free platform that can afford you the ability to produce a single whenever you want. I’ve only been trying really hard to make beats for the last twelve months. Just grappling with a beat is enough. I don’t really want to conceptualise an album. So a lot of it is just, “well I made one good thing, I don’t know if it has any context with anything else I do, so it can be a single online”. With this I can even just go use an internet cafe to upload a song if I want, I don’t even have to pay for the internet. It’s the ultimate poor man’s dream! Kendrick Lamar reference right there, ‘Poe Man’s Dream’. I’d love to collaborate with Kendrick, like that’s ever gonna happen! [laughs]. He’d have to not say anything misogynistic though, that would suck.
Forthcoming Brothers Hand Mirror shows:
November 4 Workers Club, Melbourne
November 8 Kings Cross Hotel, Sydney