Artist Spotlight: Hotline TNT

    Hotline TNT is the project led by singer-songwriter Will Anderson, who spent much of his 20s in the Vancouver noise-pop outfit Weed. Having formed the band following a move to Minneapolis, he returned to Brooklyn in late 2019 and was set to open a leg of Snail Mail’s US tour before it was postponed due to the pandemic. After a series of EPs and singles, Hotline TNT’s debut album, Nineteen in Love, arrived in 2021, initially as one long YouTube video whose description read: “Cancel your Spotify subscription.” Now signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records, the band is releasing its follow-up, Cartwheel, this Friday. Anderson plays and sings almost every note on the LP, which was recorded in two sessions: one with Ian Teeple, and one with Aron Kobayashi Ritch. In combining his knack for pop hooks with surging guitars and subtle production tricks, Hotline TNT feels akin to the recent wave of bands putting a modern twist on shoegaze, but rather than drowning in a wash of noise, Cartwheel sounds as relentlessly dizzying as it is warm, blurry yet cathartic, stacking up distorted riffs and emotion in the hope – or even just the possibility – that love will triumph in the end. “There’s a lot in this song/ That’s not in my diary,” Anderson sings on ‘History Channel’, and one way or another, it makes itself known.

    We caught up with Hotline TNT’s Will Anderson for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the origins of the project, working with different products on Cartwheel, signing to Third Man, and more.

    After moving to Minneapolis from Vancouver, did you start writing songs specifically for Hotline TNT, or did Hotline TNT provide a home for songs you’d been writing around that time?

    I would say both of those things sound accurate. I wasn’t planning on taking the band very far, it was just another project. It’s become clear to me that no matter what’s going on professionally for music, if this all blew up tomorrow, it’s not like I would stop writing songs. No matter how successful or how many people were rocking with the band, I’m sure I would just keep writing songs and putting out records at my own speed. This just seemed to be the one that got the most momentum over the last few years.

    Did you feel the need early on to build an identity around the band, be it musical or aesthetic or in terms of ethos, that was distinct from your previous projects?

    It was not a conscious thing, that just kind of developed naturally. I think there’s definitely a cult of personality around Will, the guy from Hotline TNT, in the way I present the music online and through social media. But that’s not something I started out when I started making the songs, like I’m going to make this persona. And as far as the ethos goes, that’s been building for years, whenever I started playing in a DIY band in Vancouver. It’s just things I learned over the years, like, I want to do things this way, or I see somebody else doing it and I pick that up and apply it to my own ethical code.

    Aside from the presentation around it, do you feel like the way you wrote songs for Hotline TNT was different?

    No, I don’t feel like my approach to songwriting has ever changed, really. I think and hope I’ve gotten better as the years have gone on. When I listen back to the first Weed record, it’s for me a little bit hard to listen to because I feel like I’ve gotten so much better since then. But obviously, people are still attached to it, they liked it when it came out, and that’s great. But I don’t remember any difference in the way of sitting down to write a song – it’s just, let’s find some chords that make sense together and think of a catchy melody, use a keyboard if you have to, and just take it from there.

    Was it similar with the transition between Nineteen in Love and Cartwheel?

    I did work with some more collaborators in this one in the recording studio. Almost every note is played by me in both albums, all the drums are programmed by me, and the songs are pretty much written by me – when I get into the studio, they’re already done. But I did allow Ian, who is one of the producers – I pretty much asked him, “I want you to put your fingerprints on this.” Like, “Tell me what you think of the song structure” and stuff like that. He definitely helped me and pushed me a little bit in ways that I hadn’t really allowed for before – not for any particular reason, just circumstances. The first few 7 inches, I had people helping me record and it’s not like I wasn’t allowing them to add their voice or opinion, but I kind of sought out Ian Teeple on purpose because I love the way he writes songs and makes music.

    Along with Ian, you worked with another producer on the record, Aron Kobayashi Rich. How was your collaborative relationship different or similar with each of them?

    With Ian, I guess I came a little bit less prepared. I had some riffs ready to go, but a lot of the songwriting took place on site with Ian, so I kind of leaned on him a bit more in the songwriting stage. Aron was a dream to work with, but with him it was four songs and I had those really dialed in. He added some things as well, but not so much with the structure of the song, and I wanted him to do a bit more with fun elements we can add, some character. I think he’s really really good at that, and I love the way his recent records, like the Momma record, turned out. The production on that album’s awesome, and I thought it’d be cool to get some of that flavor in the Hotline songs.

    One of my favorite transitions on the album happens not between tracks but halfway through ‘Spot Me’, which you recorded with Ian and kind of reminds me of his work in Snooper. Maybe it’s the way the song brings itself back together at the end, or the final line about “the feeling that will never die,” but I wonder if it was one of the more cathartic ones to lay down.

    Yeah, it is. I can’t quite remember how it all came together. I probably had the main riff done when I got to the studio, and somewhere along the line, it seemed like it’s going to make sense to have this breakbeat happen halfway through the song. Actually, I remember texting my friend Doug, who’s in They Are Gutting a Body of Water – he’s been at it for a while, incorporating those elements into his shoegaze band. I was like, “Doug, just so you know, I’m jocking your swag a little bit.” And he was like, “Dude, of course. You have my blessing.” We’ve talked about this stuff so much, me and him. But I tried to put my own spin on it, and I don’t think it sounds too much like like TGABOW.

    Lyrically, that song is about a very specific situation, about specific people that I know – not about me, actually, but something that I was a witness to and not a part of. So it’s kind of an unusual song for me in a few ways, because most of my songs are about my own experience, but this is just me sort of telling a story about people that I’m close to – they know they know it’s about them, but I don’t think anybody else does.

    Although it’s unusual, I think there are a few other moments on the record where you switch perspectives or inhabit someone else’s experience.

    In my opinion, a good thing to do, not only a storyteller but just a human being, is to try to sit in somebody else’s shoes. Some of the songs – probably the one you’re thinking of is ‘I Thought You’d Change’, [where I am] speaking from my perspective and the other person in the relationship. I hope I did that person justice as far as what they were feeling and what they told me they were feeling. But like we were talking before with other stuff, it wasn’t something I set out on purpose. Even with the last album, I started writing a song about my dad, but then I realized this isn’t about what I thought it was about, it’s actually about this person. The lyrics take on their meaning, and after it’s all finished, I realize what I’ve just done.

    Do you think you seek out that realization or feeling of catharsis, even if you don’t set out to write about something specific?

    Yeah, I think most of the songs I’ve written, especially on this one, have come out of very raw emotional moments in my life, and that seems to be what drives me. Recently, I’ve noticed that I just haven’t had time to sit down with the guitar, but there’s already stuff up here that I’m thinking about, that I just have a feeling that there’s going to be some songs about this situation coming up. If I had time to sit down with the guitar and write some lyrics, I’m sure that’s what would happen. But it’s cathartic, of course. It doesn’t necessarily fix anything about these emotional turmoils, but it’s a form of therapy, for sure – not to be cliche about it.

    You originally released your debut album as a single video on YouTube, which was obviously meant as a statement about the streaming economy. But it made me wonder if seamlessness is a quality you appreciate in an album more generally, and if it’s something you sought after with Cartwheel.

    Yeah, definitely. I mean, we’re on a bigger label now, of course, that follows a business model that I have less control over. But I wanted to present the album as close as possible to the listening experience you would have by putting on a record or a tape – it’s a little harder to jump around the different songs and pick your favorite songs. It goes back to my piano teacher, when I was a kid, giving me a mix CD, but he would never give me the tracklist because he didn’t want me to jump around to the songs I knew – he wanted me to listen to all of it. That was my way of trying to control what I was putting out into the world, and obviously people are going to take it and remix it and put it out the way they want. People would put up their own YouTube videos of the single tracks and I would hit them with a cease and desist right away. They would beg me not to put up a copyright strike and I’m like, “Look, this is my art, this is the way I want to present it.”

    Even thinking about stuff like Gary Larson, who’s one of my favorite cartoonists, he wrote a strip called The Far Side. Some people will say he’s a luddite, but he hates it when people post his art on the internet, on social media, because he wanted to present his comics in two ways: one was every day in the newspaper, and the other was in a collected volume. It’s really hard to fight the internet because it’s just gonna keep moving, but there’s something awesome about keeping the fight up, I think, and resisting and doing things differently. I think you stand out when you do stuff like that.

    I actually was up late last night preparing the full album YouTube for Cartwheel. It’s different than how it’s going to sound on Spotify and Apple Music. Obviously everyone’s going to listen to it however they want to listen to it. But if I had it my way, I’d make you listen to the whole album straight through, because we spend time in the studio sequencing the record, this song into this song into this song, and there’s an arc to it. I’m the same way – I’m going to pick my favorite songs off any album I listen to and put those on a playlist or a mixtape, that’s just human nature when we listen to pop music, but as much as possible, I want to give the fans or the listeners the experience that I set out to make. If I help 10% of them try it out, that’s great.

    On ‘BMX’, there’s the line, “Crossed off all your thoughts on distortion.” I feel like on Cartwheel, you’re sort of fighting against that, using distortion to amplify the feeling at the core. Is that a distinction that exists in your mind at all in terms of how you use distortion in your songs?

    It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s a struggle because I don’t want to over-explain the lyrics too much, but if you put a gun to my head and said explain what you meant by that, which is not what you’re doing, I would say something similar. I haven’t thought about it much, bt it’s kind of about, if I’m thinking about a relationship, I’m talking to someone and connecting to someone, is my way of expressing my feelings, which is often writing a song about it – there’s value in that, but I am distorting things and not being as clear as walking up to person X and being like, “Hey, this is how I feel about our relationship.” Instead, I’m going to put it in a song and release it into the world. You’re putting it through a distortion pedal that way.

    At the same time, you maybe come out the other end with a clearer idea of what that thing is.

    Yeah, you lose something when you express yourself that way, but obviously you gain something too. I love music and I love art, and I think art has value in and of itself, no matter if nobody hears it or a million people stream it every month. It’s therapeutic.

    You’ve talked about being skeptical about signing to Third Man Records, a label that has recently picked up a lot of exciting young bands, including Snooper. How and when did you see yourself aligning with the label?

    A lot of things happened that led to this moment in me working with Third Man. I have been doing this for a long time, and I want to keep doing it. It felt like the momentum was there and the fan support was there. People work really hard on being in bands, and it’s really fun to be in a band often, and to make art and go on tour and play shows that people are excited about – but it’s also a lot of work. Everybody knows, unless you’re at the level of U2 or something like that, you’re probably not getting paid what you put into it. And that’s fine – the people who are playing in these bands don’t expect that, including me. I don’t expect to get a financial return from the work I put in. It’s not why I do it. But I’m 34 years old, and I have shifting needs and goals in life. It’s great that people are still rocking with the band and want to keep hearing what I’m writing and seeing us play, but it really felt like the time was appropriate to get some more support behind the infrastructure of the band. I have peers that are able to really focus on the art and the music and make their living that way, and it gets very complicated when you tie up art and career goals. But it’s a constant battle, internally, of: am I losing something if I make this my job? On the other hand, don’t I deserve to get paid for the work I’m doing?

    If someone’s making money off of your work, it should be you. It should be the person making the art. It shouldn’t be somebody else, it shouldn’t be Spotify, it shouldn’t be a booking agency. It should be you. And that’s kind of where things are. After Nineteen in Love came out, we toured a lot, it was DIY, it was super fun and the shows were great, but we still weren’t making that much money. I’m like, I see the people at the shows, I see people listen to the record – for the amount of work and time I’m putting into it, am I getting a return on investment here?

    That’s when the labels started calling and the booking agents started calling, and I was very careful with who I picked to put on the team. We always – and when I say we, I kinda mean me, it’s always been me and various people have been in and out of the band – we always picked people that were willing to run through a brick wall on our behalf. That was the guiding principle of who we let into the circle, and that was Gabe, our booking agent, who was down to meet every demand I had. And with labels, there was a lot of people calling that I just philosophically did not connect with. With Third Man, I did, and they gave me the best offer, and it was the offer that allowed me to continue my vision as an artist while also throwing the most resources at it and support behind it. It was as simple as that, really.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Hotline TNT’s Cartwheel is out November 3 via Third Man.

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