Musician HXLT Talks Jumping Out Of Windows & Working With Kathleen Hanna
To Nigel Holt, the Chicago-based musician who performs under the name HXLT, legitimacy matters. His career, over a decade long now, has been marked by friends, journalists, and peers trying to categorize him, telling him how to dress, or how to market himself. Is he hipster hop? Afro-punk? Given his recent matriculation at Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, the latest batch of news wires seem eager to compare him to fellow genre-iconoclast Kid Cudi.
But typecasting, labels, definitions—these are the exact things Holt resists in his work. The artist wears many of his influences on his sleeve; emblazoned on his black leather jacket is a mishmash of patches and badges venerating punk idols like U.K. Subs, Charged GBH, and The Exploited. But the music in HXLT’s self-titled debut (released on February 26th) doesn’t simply sound like an American approximation of the punk revolution. The album cuts its jangly guitars with airy vocals, a lone feature from riot grrrl goddess Kathleen Hanna, and a mix of clap and bass samples that sound like they’re ripped out of a MIDI pack of hip-hop drum samples.
If HXLT’s portfolio must be reduced to a singular concept, it is “passion project.” Holt has left his fingerprints on every stage of his self-titled album. He plays almost all of the instruments on every song and he directed the music videos, meticulously mapping out each shot. He even threw himself out of a window in order to get the album’s black and white centerpiece. That’s devotion.
I had the pleasure of talking to HXLT about defenestration, working alongside Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, and the woes of having a common name in the Internet age.
What was it like falling through a window?
The feeling is so crazy. The best feeling you can ever feel is being in midair. It’s like time slows down and shit—to feel the hit of the breaking glass and then fly.
This is kind of weird to say, but I’ve always wanted to jump out of a window. I wanted to feel that crazy feeling of flying, not just jumping out of a window but breaking through. You know, I used to watch action movies as a kid. Me and my brother would always be wrestling and jumping off of shit. I’ve always been a fearless flying squirrel. I was mad little as a kid and my older brother is like 6’2”, so me going through the air was a normal thing.
Did you set it up?
I used to live near the Congress Theater, which is a big music venue in Chicago, but it has apartments around the whole thing. The guys that ran the building, whenever they had problems with the patrons, they couldn’t hit them because they were security. But I’d pop out and beat ‘em up, so security would be like, “Alright, cool.” So I had a real good friendship with the people that worked there. When I told them I wanted to jump out a window there, they were like, “Alright.”
So we rented the Theater. I signed my death waiver just in case I missed the mat. And then we looked up the sugar glass and it was like 500 dollars a sheet, you had to ship it from California, and it wasn’t guaranteed that it wouldn’t break on the way. So I was like, “Fuck it, we’ll just Google how to make sugar glass,” and we made it at our house. Four bigass sheets of it.
What’d you think when you saw the album cover?
I liked it a lot! It was a very striking image with all the glass shards floating around you.
Yeah, we shot it like eight times. When you just jumped through the glass it wouldn’t break enough. So I’d take all the broken glass shards off the ground and hold it in my shirt. Then I’d run through a new sheet of glass and let it all go. It looked crazy.
“I’ve got the queen of punk on my album; it don’t get more legit than that.”
So, Kathleen Hanna. We’re big fans of riot grrrl. How’d that happen?
Realness is what happened.
My manager, she’s super feminist and a straight G. So I was like, “Who could we get?” Mind you, I’m a huge fan of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. I actually played a show with them at SXSW in 2008 and was dying next to the stage. When my manager said Kathleen I said no fucking way. I didn’t think Kathleen was doing anything with anyone. But, shit, we could try. My manager literally hits her up, like, “Yo, my artist is a massively psycho fan of yours. He’s got this song—check it out if you want to get on it.” And then two days later she sends me all these vocal parts. Two days! That’s unheard of. I’ve got the queen of punk on my album; it don’t get more legit than that.
How was your fashion week?
It was kind of sucky because my flight got delayed, so I missed the Alexander Wang show, which I know was tight. I missed Public School, but I ended up going to their after party. I went to the Phillip Lim show, and it was his best collection yet. This year he really nailed it. It was fun.
Do you have an ideal onstage look?
I love The Clash’s style. Paul Simonon, the bassist for The Clash—he was the freshest dude I ever saw. He just had this whole aura—a quiet, tough motherfucker. I wanted to be like him.
The punk aesthetic.
It’s not really that. I like this jacket. These ripped jeans. These shoes. They’re $200, but they look fresh. I like quality. This is what my personality looks like.
In the past, you’ve performed under the names Holt and Hollywood Holt. Why HXLT with an “X?” Are you straight edge?
[Laughs] I dropped “Hollywood” because I used to be a rapper. I didn’t always feel comfortable making the music I wanted. I thought, because I’m from where I’m from, and everyone around me raps, and I can rap so easily—guess I have to be a rapper. But I had more music in my head.
The “X” was because I used to run into this problem. There is some blogger in Hollywood with the last name Holt. So if you Googled “Hollywood Holt” it’d be me and this chick. And then if you just Googled Holt with an “o”—there ain’t no finding me. With the “X,” I’m the only one.
Hollywood Holt is part of my personality. I know how to rap, how to flow. But that’s just one side. If I started a straight punk band, I’d be something like “Lightning Holt.” Or “Spaceman Holt” if I made dance music. But HXLT is just me, my personality through music.
My logo looks like an “X.” It’s like a big cross with no stem. To me it symbolizes that there’s no up, no down, no right, no wrong. It’s just open freedom. So the “X” makes sense.
You seem to have had a lot of creative control over your projects.
I just need one other person to help galvanize my ideas. I spent my whole rap career directing my own music videos, but giving the credit to others because they held the camera. I’m thinking, “He’s got the camera, so he must be the director,” even though I came up with the creative vision and I literally came up with every shot. So I was like, “Fuck that shit.”
Same with the music. I work with one guy, and I say, “Pull up the drums,” and I play the drums. “Pull up the bass.” Play the bass. We are our own creative vision. I’m not going to shortchange my creativity when I already have the vision myself.
For the “Sick” music video, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia, with you jumping through time. What was the vision behind that?
We had an idea of making a stage room where you jump through windows. I thought, “Oh, we should jump into alternate universes where my ex is tripping every single time,” and then we built the set from there. The song is actually pretty funny, so I wanted to make a jovial video for it.
I wanted to have legitimacy in the scenes. So I made the ’80s set with a shout-out to Timbuck2 because I used to breakdance. And then I didn’t want to do just ’60s. In 1960s Paris they were doing these giant protests against the government. The poster on the wall is about the protest that was going to happen that day. The guns are real guns.
That’s what I like about my art. I want to make everything pretty legit. I don’t want you to look at it and think, “Are those props?”
Check out HXLT’s new album, available now on iTunes.
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