The Unapologetic Anger Of HTMLflowers

GRANT Gronewold is sitting in his bedroom in Brunswick, nursing an ice cold glass of water. It’s late January and Melbourne is in the middle of an unbearable, sticky heat wave. On the Sunday we meet, it’s 39 degrees.

The 30-year rapper, known as HTMLflowers, lives in an expansive, creative share-house. In the backyard there’s a chicken coop, a milk tray full of unkilned ceramics, and a shed full of panes of wood. In his high-ceiling bedroom there’s a loft space with a ladder, recording equipment and plastered all over the walls are tattoo designs, illustrations and tour posters. A sword hangs near his bed.

It was here he says, pointing to the corner of his room, where he recorded his album Chrome Halo. Released in November 2017, the album is a visceral account of being sick, growing up poor, navigating an unkind healthcare system and relationship turmoil; all enlivened by a palpable anger that unfurls across the album.

On the track ‘Choke Chain’ Grant spits, “Ambulance/ Please bring a nurse/But they pulled up in a hearse!”, with such force the lyrics feel glued to my subconscious days after I first hear them.

“I started to talk about what it means to be disabled because I just wanted to accept myself. I’m an angry person. I have to be. It’s a way to survive when you have to live like I live. And I think for a long time I was really ashamed of that anger,” he says.

The album is the first for Grant under the moniker HTMLflowers. The name came to him eight years ago, after he discovered an online obituary for his estranged father, who’d walked out Grant’s family when he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a newborn.

When Grant clicked on the site, he was asked if he’d like to light a virtual candle, or leave his father some virtual flowers. “I just like to haunt myself for some reason, so I think up these fucked-up terms that will rest in my mind forever. But they make sense to me,” he says.

The name marked a turning point in Grant’s creative output. He’d been making music for years, but the work was largely steeped in fantasy and metaphor, detached from his real life. As he got older, he began to find that mode of storytelling stifling. “I thought I wasn’t really accepting myself,” he says.

So his work got more blunt and honest. He started writing about his life as it was – mundane, day-to-day stuff. Fears, anxieties, frustrations.

But as someone living with a chronic illness, he realised quickly that the things he considered relatively mundane weren’t to healthy people. “They’re like, ‘Oh my god you sleep next to dying people, you jack off in hospital rooms, that’s crazy,’” he says. “But that’s been my life.”

These themes also stretch across his other creative projects. Besides music, he’s also a prolific comic artist, illustrator and occasional tattooist. When we meet, he gives me a manilla envelope of his most recent work: a comic series called No Visitors and a zine of hospital diaries called Sonogram. There’s also a collection of illustrated badges. My favourite is a dog with a studded collar wielding a kitchen knife, with the speech bubble “God On My Hitlist” – also the name of a track off his new LP.

Photo: Jonno Revanché

“I feel like the album sounds like my friends which I’m very happy about because I love them … I like listening to the album because it reminds me of them.”

When I ask Grant what inspired the sound of Chrome Halo, he rattles off a few international artists (Princess Nokia, Wiki etc), but he mostly mentions his friends: Marcus Whale from Collarbones, Banoffee, Felicity Yang, Sui Zhen, and Oscar Key Sung – all of whom lend their vocals and lyrics to the album.

“I feel like the album sounds like my friends which I’m very happy about because I love them,” he says. “I like listening to the album because it reminds me of them.”

Grant tells me it’s the best music he’s ever made, and he’s not alone with that conviction. He’s up for The Australian Music Prize (The AMP) alongside Paul Kelly and Jen Cloher. A few weeks ago, popular music vlogger/edgelord Anthony Fantano tweeted a Spotify link of the album to his 300,000 followers. There is a book deal, and maybe a TV show.

But as he’s talking about his record and upcoming projects, he wants to make it clear to me: he doesn’t see what he does as that important. He wishes artists would stop taking themselves so seriously. “The world is a fucked up place. And I’m not trying to be out here pretending that my album is going to fix anything,” he says. But: “I just think that maybe some people are ready to hear this kind of story.”

•••

Photo: Charlotte Swinburne

GRANT was born in the small town of Carbondale, Illinois. When he was six months old, he started getting sick – coughing, vomiting, sweating. He couldn’t sleep.

His mother took him to the doctor, which led to a diagnosis of Cystic Fibrosis: a genetic, chronic disorder that affects the lungs. Doctors told his mother that he’d die within a year.

He was sent to a specialised facility in St Louis, but after a six month stint, his mother was half a million dollars in debt. “We just started living in between everything,” he says. His mother sold her car and the house. She declared bankruptcy.

They slept at friends houses and in cars. Grant’s mother drove for hours visiting hospitals that might take them in and provide him with a couple of days of treatments. “[My] mum had to make a lot of hard choices. She had to live with people she didn’t trust or who were paying the bills. My step-dad paid the bills but he was a coke-head, he was a wife-beater,” he says.

He spent most of his early life in Lincoln, a small, working-class town of less than 15,000 people. For Grant, it was a bleak place to grow up – a “shitty small town with meth labs and churches”. Soon, Grant’s mother realised they’d have to move if he’d have any chance of surviving. She spent hours in the local library researching different countries’ healthcare systems.

After befriending a man from Melbourne online, and with money inherited from his deceased grandmother, they moved to Australia. He was 11. They were the first in five generations of their family to leave the States.

It’s horrifying then, for him to see the current rollbacks to the Affordable Care Act in the States. Grant tells me that his life expectancy is 35 due to the lack of care he received in America as a child. The track ‘Choke Chain’ is a direct response. “It’s been hard to be who I am and to watch what’s happening in America and not be able to be there, to not be protesting with people who are experiencing what I am experienced as a child … There’s trying to reinstitute things that destroy families lives.”

At the end of the track, Grant samples an American news program hosting a debate about the merits of the ACA. Laughing, Grant explains the absurdity of the broadcast to me by putting on a mock anchorman voice: “Repealing the ACA, is it good or it is bad? Should sick people live? Some say yes, some say no.”

The idea of debating healthcare may be hard for Australians to grapple with, but the truth is that our healthcare and welfare systems are in a lot of ways, precarious too. “Australians don’t realise how fucked up the medical care system is here, and how much is lost every year and how often they’re trying to cut things,” he says. And he’s not wrong. In Victoria alone, Malcolm Turnbull says he’ll slash 2.1 billion dollars from hospital funding over the next five years.

The track also deals with the Centrelink robo-debt scheme where thousands of welfare recipients last year were billed for alleged overpaid benefits. At one point, Centrelink was directing distraught callers to suicide hotline Lifeline. On the track, Grant sings: “My last will?/Just one sentence: leave my body at the Job Centre.” It’s searing, much-needed message: That prioritising profits over human lives has a body count.

There seems to be an unfair expectation that those with chronic illnesses be the image of benevolence; that they need to be unreservedly thankful for the treatment they get (“Inpatient with no patience and a doctor want me to act gracious,” Grant raps on ‘Choke Chain’) . But what happens when the system routinely fails you? It took years of jumping over hoops for Grant to get on the disability pension. In the meantime, he dealt drugs.

“Centrelink creates criminals as far as I’m concerned,” he says. He tells me stories about nurses being understaffed and drawing his blood with gloves and pencils wrapped around his arm because they lacked equipment. Now, he says, he’s certified to administer medication and IV lines for himself. It means he gets to spend less time in hospital.

The world is a fucked up place. And I’m not trying to be out here pretending that my album is going to fix anything ... I just think that maybe some people are ready to hear this kind of story.”

At the moment, he’s in the six-month qualification period for a lung transplant, also fraught with a slew of complications. Namely, edible marijuana use – while in no way threatening to his illness – could mean he is denied lungs. He’s been sober off weed for nearly a month now.

“I guess like [being] spiteful and angry and pure rage, a lot of it comes with being disabled. It comes with a lot of marginalisation. But I think specifically, if you’ve ever had to deal with the medical system, you might understand how I feel,” he tells me.

Music allows for a redress of sorts; a place where he can control the uncontrollable, and seek justice through his own narrative. “When I make a track that’s my world. And in there, my world, the tax man is held accountable, and abled-bodied people fear my relationship with death, and death is too afraid to come for me.”

Does that representation exist much in popular culture? I ask.

“No. It’s always tragic in popular culture when someone is an angry disabled. I think it’s beautiful,” he says.

•••

GRANT sees art as a compulsion – something that took a hold of him at a young age. As a kid, he made Dragon Ball Z-inspired comics about a character with four hearts.

He recalls how his family would marvel at how well he could remember song lyrics from The Velvet Underground, Salt-N-Pepa, and Neil Young. “Words were always like a huge obsessions for me,” he says. When he was 13, he’d secretly pen rhymes in his math textbook.

His mother, an abstract painter, always encouraged him. “Everyone is [always] like, ‘Yeah my parents tried to push this on me’, but my mom just pushed the things I love onto me. I don’t know if I make art just to impress her, or if I genuinely love art,” he says, smiling. “It’s hard to know.”

One of the most affecting tracks off Chrome Halo is ‘Real Mom’, an anthemic ode to his mother that leads with the refrain: “I’m the first son of a single mother/First thing I learnt was protect each other.” When he talks about about possible jobs opportunities or gigs, it’s always paired with how he can support her. If he wins The AMP he says he’ll buy his mum a house back in Illinois.

•••

GRANT dropped out of high school at 16 and then started performing as the Bright Eye-esque outfit Fulton Girls Club. In a 2007 interview, he described his music as sounding like “falling out of [a] tree and then showing everybody in town the bruises on your stomach”. He then began making psych-folk under the name Cougar Flashy. At the same time, he started listening to Dizzee Rascal and Cannibal Ox, and began privately rapping.

In 2010, he formed hip-hop duo Brothers Hand Mirror with R&B-inspired singer Oscar Key Sung. As young creative teenagers making music, they initially clashed, and saw each other as rivals. But that competitiveness soon turned into admiration, and the two have been close ever since. Brothers Hand Mirror morphed into Lossless last year, with Oscar’s balmy, dulcet tones floating above icy beats and Grant’s squeaky, sharp flow.

Photo: Jonno Revanché

Over email, Oscar tells me what he most admires about Grant. “As a friend he is so sweet and insightful. As an artist I think everything he does comes from such a deeply felt place of personal experience. It all has a special touch. And there is a modesty to everything, an obsessive pursuit of perfecting a craft. And all of that trial and error is played out openly, he doesn’t hide his development. He keeps it cute and fun too. While also not fearing to express true deep suffering and transmute that into art.”

While Chrome Halo is both bold and brutal in its candour, it’s the visual imagery that Grant elicits that’s most evocative. There are bloodied gurneys, cicadas, scalpels, surgical masks and sparkly heart emojis.

The inspiration behind the track ‘Frost Rose’, Grant explains to me, is the little icicles-like formations that spread onto window panes when it’s cold, that then disappear when the sun hits. He uses the phenomenon to express how he often isolates himself in his romantic relationships, especially when he’s in hospital.

 

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it sounds like – there are elements of trap, hip-hop, 808s & Heartbreak-esque AutoTune crooning, spoken word and electronic pop – but making demarcations in genre seem pointless here anyway. It feels futuristic – both mechanical and warm – with big, immersive bass and glitchy, distortion-heavy synths.

Grant handled most of the production – he scoured YouTube channels for weird samples, and recorded the sound of IV infusions from his hospital bed.

At the the end of track ‘Non-Compliant Patient’, a compressed and distorted sample from the David Lynch film Dune overwhelms the track in a haze, subsuming Grant’s vocals. “I wanted the end of the track to really sound like pain and confusion,” he explains. But it’s mostly Grant’s voice and bare-all lyricism that serve as the LP’s emotive centrepiece.

Writing the album, he explains was just like “note-taking or journaling. I just took out the best bits of my diary [and] showed them to everybody”.

In conversation, Grant conducts himself with the same unreserved frankness. He talks with a steady confidence and conviction; questions are answered thoughtfully, but quickly, without any censoring or second-guessing.

•••

Grant handled most of the production – he scoured YouTube channels for weird samples, and recorded the sound of IV infusions from his hospital bed.
Photo: Charlotte Swinburne

ONE of the the first thing you notice when you meet Grant is his tattoos. They cover most of arms and hands.

Most of them are stick-and-pokes. A selected catalogue: A naive-drawn Bart Simpson, the word “rainlung” across his neck, barbed wire around his wrist, and a cross that says “NO POP/MOM”. A new one from January is the word ‘Changeling’ written in gothic font across his right forearm.

A changeling refers to a folklore myth in which fairies would steal young, healthy human children and replace them with a fairy child. In these stories, the fairy children would often be afflicted with an illness or disorder. They’d misbehave, cry endlessly, and despite their parents’ best efforts, they rarely recovered from their ailments. The tattoo he says is a reminder: He’s happy to be hated.

“I’m not really trying to promote some message about disability or whatever, I’m just trying to be complicated as a disabled person, which is something we’re denied.”

For Grant however, hatred and exaltation are two sides of the same coin; both come with a kind of fetishism. When I ask him how he feels about being drawn into conversations or narratives about representation, he says: “If someone writes about [me] and they’re like his, ‘Heroine journey, his inspirational message’ shit, I’m just like, ‘Yes, give me that money, bring idiots in, make them feel like ‘Oh my god he’s so inspiring, he has the courage to be himself everyday, he wakes up everyday and doesn’t kill himself, what a genius’. That’s great! I don’t give a shit. That sells.

“I’m not really trying to promote some message about disability or whatever, I’m just trying to be complicated as a disabled person, which is something we’re denied.”

But as Grant’s public profile grows, there will be more interviews, and more inane conclusions drawn – the sort of lazy narratives that conflate honesty with advocacy.

A week after we meet, he tweets about an interviewer who asked him his thoughts on community and accessibility: “I don’t go on panels about community, I don’t wanna hold the worlds hand while it tries to understand disabled rage. I’m leaving books that disgust, I’m leaving songs that petrify, I’m trying to infect u.”

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