Hailing from Billings, Montana, Hey, ily! is the brainchild of Caleb Haynes, who combines influences from “Nintendocore, Emo, Powerpop, Shoegaze, and anything else the project can get its grubby mitts on.” Though Caleb has been active in local bands including Gray Joy, Rookie Card, and The Invertebrates, the way he blends disparate styles with Hey, ily! is both incredibly unique and strangely effective – it’s no surprise their two EPs, February’s (/ _ ; ) and latest release Internet Breath, blew up online, even without the push of his 92K following on TikTok. Hey, ily!’s music might spur arbitrary discussions as to where exactly it fits in the post-genre world, but what makes it so enjoyable to listen to is that it comes from a place of unbridled creativity, pairing frenetic energy and the impulse to experiment with the pure, nostalgic rush of a catchy chorus. These sounds shouldn’t work so well together, but they do – no small feat for a project that almost disappeared before it even had a chance to be discovered.
We caught up with Hey, ily!’s Caleb Haynes for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about his inspiration for the project, the process of making Internet Breath, and more.
First of all, is Hey, ily! a solo project? Who exactly is in this band?
That’s debatable. I think I like to leave up the mystery of like, “Are there other people in this band?” I guess the simple answer would be sometimes. Sometimes it’s a solo project and sometimes there’s multiple people in it.
But in terms of recording and producing, you do most of it yourself?
Yeah, I do pretty much all of the recording myself. Some people will come in and perform their stuff, but all the recording is done by me.
Is there a reason behind you wanting to have a bit of mystery behind the project?
Yeah, the idea of Hey, ily! as a whole is this kind of – I wanted it to be like a mysterious internet band, like, “Oh, who is this, what’s going on, what are these people, what are their lives like?” But I also want it to be a bit more transparent than that. I don’t want to be like Death Grips where I put out my first mixtape and no one knows who or what the band is. But I do want there to be a mystery behind it.
I know you’ve played in a few other bands before, so I was wondering what the initial inspiration for starting Hey, ily! was.
I think I was really sick of being in these bands that are just emo and nothing else. I was so tired of this copy-and-paste emo sound a lot of bands, including the bands I’ve been in, are doing. And so I was like, “I’m just sick of this. I want to make something that’s familiar yet super crazy and all over the place at the same time.”
The thing that I wanted to do with this project is – basically, I wanted to impress people on Twitter. I saw people on Twitter and I was like, “Those guys are so cool, I want to make music that they’ll like.” But in order to do that, I thought that what I would have to do is create something that people haven’t really heard before, and I was like, “Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to combine influences from emo with chiptune and shoegaze and punk and all this different stuff to try and create something new.”
In terms of influences, you’ve also cited Nintendocore, which is a term a lot of people listening to your music might not be familiar with.
I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t know what Nintendocore was before people started calling my band it. But I think what Nintendocore is is, like, music inspired by video games that isn’t directly related to video games, if that makes sense. So it takes sounds from retro old video games but combines it with a modern kind of tint to it.
When it comes to emo and shoegaze and power pop, why do you think you gravitated to those sounds early on?
I kind of started my music journey with radio rock, like I was really into Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gorillaz. And then, I don’t know exactly what happened, but as I got older and I got more like an emotional teen, I got into Joy Division and indie stuff like that. And then from that, I discovered American Football – which, you know, when you’re in high school and you discover a band like American Football and emo stuff like that, you just get totally obsessed with that sound. I was really into the way that these harsher, not as prettily sung vocals combined with these really beautiful melodies. And so bands like Los Campesinos!, Say Anything, American Football really stood out to me in that regard.
How did you start playing and making your own music?
I started playing guitar when I discovered Radiohead, because the guitarist from Radiohead is always doing crazy, weird – I was always obsessed with weird sounds, I guess. Weird bleeps and bloops. And I saw that the guitarist from Radiohead, he could make bleeps and bloops with his guitar, and I was like, “That is so cool.” Little did I know that you had to be good at guitar, to be able to do that kind of thing. But I was like, “That’s so sick, I want to do that,” and so I got a guitar and I was like, “Wow, this sucks, I can’t do anything that that guy’s doing.” But I started learning guitar and doing that kind of thing, and as what I listened to change, my playing style also changed. I know a huge one was Coheed and Cambria. I discovered those guys and I was like, “Wow, these melodies that they’re doing, they’re playing leads on guitar while also singing leads, that’s so cool.” And I think that throughout my musical journey, a huge thing that I thought was super cool was bands like Mr. Bungle who would combine all these different kinds of music. And then 100 gecs came out and they were combining all these different kinds of internet music and I was like, “That’s sick.” And so, what I really wanted to do was to make music that combined these beautiful melodies with music that you wouldn’t ever think that it would be combined with, like hyper pop or ska or black metal.
That’s something I was curious about: Do you see yourself as fitting more into the internet aesthetic of 100 gecs and hyperpop, or do you see your music as belonging to a long-standing tradition of emo and indie music?
That’s a good question. I think I kind of flip flop back and forth, because some days, I’m like, “Oh, I just want to write an emo song and just have it be emo.” But then other days, I’m like, “I want to write a song that is what it would sound like if an anime intro was completely made with computers.” But I think that if you were to look at the majority of the things I listen to you and the things that I write, I’d say that it’s more of a traditional emo kind of thing.
Something that struck me in your bio was the confidence of, “Caleb wants to inspire people all over the world.” But when it came to describing your sound, there was this hesitancy of, “referred to by some as fifth wave emo.” I know there was recently some controversy surrounding this, but do you see yourself as a part of that genre, or would you rather avoid that tag?
It’s really funny, because when I first came with this first EP, fifth wave emo wasn’t a thing. I’d never heard the term fifth wave before – or even a little bit after I came out with that EP. But people started referring to that EP as fifth wave emo and I was like, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” I mean, I’ve always wanted to be part of a wave of something, you know. I’ve always wanted to be in a new genre. So I think it’s super cool that people are calling me and other people part of this new genre.
Do you think the pandemic has played a role in pushing bands to innovate more?
I think yes and no. I think there’s always been innovators in the emo genre and genres like it, but I think that the pandemic is forcing people to stay inside and just write music and record it with all these different limitations. It’s more relatable and people are finding each other more easily now, you know, like Home Is Where, Khaki Cuffs, yours arms are my cocoon, all these bands that are doing something different with the genre are finding each other and are being like, “Hey, check out these other bands that are doing something cool and crazy and exciting.” So I think that yes, it has in part to do with a pandemic, but also the pandemic just makes it more accessible.
Before we get to Internet Breath, one moment I wanted to point out on the first EP is ‘The Sad Acoustic Song’. That outro especially is insane. When you set out to make a song, do you always start with the intention to make something both overstimulating for the listener but also challenging for you as well?
I think that most of the time I start with an idea, and I don’t really think about, Oh, how can I make this into something almost unlistenable? With that song specifically, I was like, “I’m just going to make this sad acoustic song and that’s going to be it.” And halfway through, I was like, “I’m bored of being sad and acoustic, let’s us make it super loud for no reason.”
I’m amazed that there’s this lo-fi quality to your songs, but it never gets unlistenable or overbearing. It sounds very intentional. How do you go about achieving that?
I record everything off of my phone, and I’ve been working with music on my phone ever since I started making music. I’ve always been interested in these people who are making music that I really enjoy with basically no money, like early Car Seat Headrest. And so I kind of wanted to do that, but I also didn’t want it to become a gimmick. I didn’t want like people to be like, “This is a lo-fi album,” you know, I wanted it to be emo, I wanted it to be all these different things – I didn’t want “lo-fi” to basically get in the way of that.
With Internet Breath, did you expect that it would get the reaction that it did? You said before that that was part of the intention, but why do you think it caught on?
I guess I kind of wanted it to catch on a little bit. I mean, everyone, when they make music, they’re always like, “No, I didn’t expect this huge [reaction],” but I kind of wanted it to happen. I was like, “Man, it’d be sick if all these people enjoyed it.” But no one thinks it’s going to happen. And I think that’s a real struggle when I was making Internet Breath, too, I was like, “I’m making music that I’m only going to enjoy,” because it’s so specific and so niche in what it tries to do. And so I was like, “No one’s gonna like this.” And then it kind of blew up, which is really cool. I guess it’s still kind of blowing up, and I’m really grateful for it. A part of me still wonders if it’s undeserved, because like – with this EP, I just wanted to make music that’ll scratch an itch for me, and I guess a lot more people have that itch than I imagined.
Something I didn’t notice until much later was that you also have a TikTok with a lot of followers, but you don’t really promote your music there. Is that a conscious attempt from you to keep things separate?
It kind of is, because I wanted to keep it separate. But also, part of it is like, people on TikTok have really short attention spans and I’ve tried to promote my bands on there before, and it just does not work out. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the TikTok algorithm is broken. But people don’t really support you outside of TikTok – if you find a following on TikTok, your band might get a few extra followers, but most of the people just stay with your content on there, like people won’t try and find you on other places if even if you promote it on there.
But also, I feel like a lot of people that like my content on Tik Tok are kind of – I don’t want to sound mean or whatever, but they’re just starting to get into that kind of underground scene, and I think that they wouldn’t really like what I’m doing out there. I think maybe what I’m doing out there would be too in their face, you know. I think they’d still have to make the journey that I did.
Can you talk me through the process of making Internet Breath?
I do this thing a lot where I’ll find a project idea, whether it be with other people or with myself – I get really into this project idea, I put something out there, and then I’m like, “Wow, this project idea is really dumb.” And then I delete it and I just never think about it ever again. And that was almost going to be what Hey, ily! was – it was going to be like a one-off, just throw it up there, see what happens, and then take it down eventually. But people really liked that first EP, and I was like, “Well, I guess now I’m sticking with this.” And so the second EP was kind of made just because I wanted to give people that already liked the first EP something more to listen to.
Throughout the EP, you find so many ways to distort or push the limits of your voice, whether you’re screaming or running your voice through effects. How much of a challenge was that for you?
I kind of am not that great of a singer, and I don’t really know a lot of the inner mechanisms of how singing muscles and organs work. So I think for a long time, I’ve been just pushing my voice and distorting it a lot just because I wanted – I’m not really super confident with my vocals yet, so I wanted to disguise it in any way that I can, whether that be singing harsher or adding effects onto the vocals. I’ve been doing that for a while now, but the challenge was making it listenable too. Sometimes I’ll add too many layers or too many effects to my vocals and people will just be like, “Wow, this is garbage.” And so I think that a part of me was just trying to be like, “Let’s calm down,” but also, “Let’s not calm down.”
A connection I made has to do with the way you use your voice and the idea of the “internet breath” that you bring up on the lead single, ‘DigitalLung.exe’. Did you have a particular concept or theme in mind for this EP?
Yeah, most definitely. When I was writing this EP, I was like, “I hope people will pick up on this,” so it’s really encouraging to hear that at least you did. I really wanted this EP just to be about the pandemic and the way that has forced us to live our lives basically through the internet. We can’t really see – well, I guess now places are starting to open up – but for a while we couldn’t really see each other, so we had to rely on just texting and group chats and we had to rely on the internet for entertaining us for most of the day. So, really what I wanted most of the EP to be about which is that struggle of being forced to do everything online, whether that be communicating with your friends online or just not trying to become addicted to social media in general. And then, you know, body image in an era where all you’re doing is looking at other people and seeing other people’s success.
Were you immersed in internet culture growing up, or was it something that really changed during the pandemic?
I was exposed to the internet at an age that was probably way too young for me, so I’ve totally been on the internet for a long time. But the thing is that I would still always find a balance. But as the pandemic started to become a thing, it did start to just absorb me and kind of take over my life for a while.
Something that stood out to me about that song is how it starts with “I’m brainwashed, but I like it” and ends with “part of me wants to break free.” This obviously relates to what you’re talking about, but I was wondering if you could expand on that final sentiment of wanting to break free.
I am helplessly addicted to the internet and I’ve been for a long time. And I like being able to talk with people online, I like being able to talk to communities, I like being able to access music and art and all these things thanks to the internet, but a part of me just wishes that I could just go to a time when it wasn’t completely online, and if you wanted to have a community you had to go out and experience that, you had to be around people. A part of me just wants to be able to turn off my phone and turn off my computer and just experience life, you know, without the internet. But also, I think I enjoy the internet way too much to do that.
What are your ambitions for the project going forwards?
I finally have a full band figured out for this project, so I’m really excited for the future. I think that we’re gonna try and ride out the attention this EP is getting – more listeners for me and my label mates, everyone else in the record label, and then we’re going to try and just make something bigger and better. And it’s going to be hopefully a full-length album. It’s just going to be just everything turned up to 11 – it’s going to sound better, it’s going to be more crazy, there’s going to be a lot more different things happening in it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.