Hot Mulligan Return With The Anthemic, Invigorating, And, Honestly, Pretty Dang Bleak ‘Why Would I Watch’

Hot Mulligan know their way around a throwback emo trope — the scorched sugar melodies and set-and-spike dual vocalists, the absurdly long, shitposty song titles and earnestly twinkling guitars. And so the centerpiece of their third album Why Would I Watch should be just as familiar: the acoustic weeper that temporarily puts all of the aforementioned aside to mourn a dead pet.

Several decades of experience with this exact type of song led me to believe that Nathan “Tades” Sanville was mourning his dog. “You fool,” he fires back, in what only sorta sounds like mock outrage – for one thing, I misidentified its subject, a beloved rat that he got at the beginning of the pandemic. “I’ll just sit there in their room with their cage open and just watch them and play with them for hours at a time every day because it makes me feel better,” Sanville reflects. “And while I’m out on tour, Betty gets a lung condition and she can’t breathe and she dies.” The bigger offense was asking whether Hot Mulligan, in some perverse way, relishes experiencing a new form of shitty stimuli to sublimate into singalongs. “There’s the joke where if you date the pop-punk guy, once you break up, you know that there’s gonna be a full-length album about you,” he explains. “[‘Betty’] is dread, pure dread. The reflex is not…bet I could write something about it. Fun!”

Like the two Hot Mulligan albums before it, Why Would I Watch is some of the most anthemic, invigorating rock music you’ll hear about wishing you had the energy to die just a little bit faster than you currently are. The songwriting core of Sanville and Chris Freeman didn’t have to search very far for inspiration – the seasonal depression and regular ol’ depression depression borne of living in rural Michigan, intractable familial strife, alcoholic despair, graduating college with seemingly fewer career options than when you started. When I challenge Sanville to name the most upbeat song from Why Would I Watch, he immediately offers “Christ Alive My Toe Dammit Hurts,” because “it starts really happy, like a dance.” The starting lyric in question — “I feel kinda sick / like I don’t wanna smoke no more / cause I feel like dying.”

Both Freeman and Sanville attest to slightly healthier lifestyles since completing Why Would I Watch — being on social media less, eating better, less booze, and less vaping, “if only because it looks stupid.” But the album itself is littered with the spiritual and physical detritus — “For every crater on the moon / there’s an empty beer around the room,” Sanville sings on Why Would I Watch’s most melodically uplifting hook, and the remainder airs out every last bad vibe that followed you’ll be fine — a record that might’ve shot them into the upper echelons of pop-punk had it not been given the unfortunate release date of March 6, 2020.

Though “Betty” is very, very, very direct in addressing its subject matter, Sanville’s dearly departed could still be seen as a stand-in for all of the home lives that Hot Mulligan had already sacrificed just to get to you’ll be fine, itself a classic emo trope: the sophomore leveling-up after a popular and admittedly derivative debut made by teens. Raw and spirited, 2018’s Pilot was often compared to Boston Manor and Tiny Moving Parts, emo and pop-punk acts exceedingly more popular than any you’ll read about in indie-leaning publications. Thanks to singles “Feal Like Crab” and “*Equip Sunglasses*” — a little bit of The Hotelier’s incendiary anthems, a little bit of the 1975’s frothier, funkier pop — the quartet were now considered to be the Most Likely to Blow Up amidst a burgeoning Michigan scene, alongside critical darlings like Greet Death and Dogleg, as well as local fixtures Parkway and Columbia, Forest Green, and Charmer.

“While they were doing what bands are meant to do, which is to have fun and then every now and again do the tour twice a year, we just cranked them out because, really, there was nothing waiting for us at home,” Sanville explains; he describes an existence like a Springsteen song without the quiet dignity, getting consistently fired from dockwork and other manual labor. Meanwhile, Freeman recounts a mostly aimless academic career in college, working as a runner or bouncer at local clubs and booking Hot Mulligan shows during class breaks. “Our ambitions for touring were more destructive towards [our home lives] compared to people who are more likely to be, ‘I can’t do that because I’ll lose my job,’” Freeman says, having internalized the romantic and increasingly outmoded belief of suffering as the touchstone of artistic growth: “Nah, you’re supposed to lose your job.”

Hot Mulligan’s grindset led them to the sort of gigs that put them in front of enormous crowds and very few tastemakers: opening for Knuckle Puck and New Found Glory, taking a slot on the Journey/Converse-sponsored Sad Summer Festival, headlined by Taking Back Sunday and The Maine. On the poster for this year’s When We Were Young weekend, their band logo is right between that of Lit and Fenix TX. More recently, they did a US run with The Wonder Years, a band who spent much of the late 2010s interrogating their Warped Tour roots — “We wanna go on tour with certain kind of bands and play certain kind of festivals and it’s just like, ‘NO, because you are this thing and you don’t fit into this world with us,” Dan Campbell said in 2018, questioning whether his band was a cautionary tale for younger artists who toed the line between indie and pop-punk. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results, as the proximity to these wildly successful bands has opened up a new, loyalist fanbase. As Freeman points out, “It was 20-year-old girls with green hair one year ago, but now it’s a lot of 30-year-old guys pulling up to these shows, I love you man!”

When I catch up with Freeman and Sanville, they’re only a few hours removed from arriving in Belgium on the verge of their first international headlining tour, alongside their labelmates in Arm’s Length; they’ll be back in the UK this fall, supported by Spanish Love Songs, another band that’s similarly appealed to both fresh faced teens and washed 30-somethings by putting a more emo-friendly spin on The Hold Steady and The Menzingers’ celebration rock. In most circumstances, a band at Hot Mulligan’s level doing a European tour is more indicative of their willingness to endure financial hardship than their clout. A few years prior, Freeman says the band “chewed out their manager” after seeing some of their peers touring abroad — “He’s like, you don’t wanna go yet, you’re gonna lose a lot of money and it’s not gonna be fun.” But after playing a European run with Knuckle Puck, Sanville recalls, “The main question for that tour was if we came back would we be able to pay rent and we were. So here we are again.”

Thus far, Hot Mulligan have integrated Why Would I Watch into their setlists in a slow drip. Sanville blew out his voice doing “Gans Media Retro Games” on the first night of their most recent tour and cops to having more difficulty keeping track of Hot Mulligan’s bombastically penned lyrics than the people in the crowd. “I fuck up lyrics all the time. If I say the wrong word then I’m gonna forget the rest of it, so I just mushmouth,” he admits. “If I forget the entire thing altogether, I just point the mic out at them and hope they can cover me.”

They admit they have yet to perform Why Would I Watch in full, even in their practice space, which is understandable – Hot Mulligan’s third album isn’t so much an expansion of their palette as it is an amplification, hyperbolizing everything great about you’ll be fine: more riffs, more savage lyrics, more tempo changes, more electronics, less downtime. From the moment opener “Shouldn’t Have a Leg Hole But I Do” breathlessly segues to “It’s a Family Movie She Hates Her Dad,” this is the best pitch I came up with: imagine an album sequenced like PUP’s The Dream is Over made by a hyperpop band who works entirely in samples from the Warped Tour’s 2003 compilation CD. If any of that sounds appealing to you, good news: Why Would I Watch does mostly that for 40 straight minutes.

The density of Why Would I Watch still makes it a little difficult to distinguish the “Tades songs” and the “Chris ones,” even if Hot Mulligan’s main songwriters represent a classic artistic duality. Sanville is the type to “go back to the old well”; his girlfriend has made Richmond alt-rockers House And Home a mutual favorite, which he describes as something like a screamier version of Chevelle. Freeman is the futurist, the guy who namedrops Charli XCX and emo-rappers; “I was not satisfied trying to channel you’ll be fine energy and do this riff that’ll be fast and heavy,” he states. “It’s probably objectively good and catchy but it’s not stimulating my sense of wanting to do something new.”

To be clear, Why Would I Watch is still very much a spitfire, spiteful synergy of emo verbiage and pop-punk hooks. In explaining the theme of Why Would I Watch’s lead single, Sanville revealed that it was about his mother. “I’m asking her to die. Every time I hear about her, she’s a worse person than before.” This was in the press release. The title of that song is “Shhhh! Golf Is On.” Freeman didn’t voice any resistance to the subject matter itself, just reservations about the final line, that “cornfields” didn’t sing particularly well. “It’s important imagery!” Sanville says in his defense. “There’s a cornfield behind my mom’s house and I hope when it collapses with her inside, that it’s into that field.”

At a time when it feels like bands in Hot Mulligan’s sphere are co-opting puffy therapeutic language as a form of clout-chasing — “radical empathy” is 2023’s “angular” or “ethereal” or whatever — their honesty about the shittiest possible emotions serves as a kind of artistic integrity check. But as a band that are now elder statesmen in their genre on account of making two successful albums, they face a longview question that’s troubled pretty much every single artist topping the poster at When We Were Young — what happens when your audience clamors for the songs you wrote at the most cringe time in your life? I won’t name names, but if you’ve ever loved a pop-punk band from the early 2000s, you’ve also probably seen them play some of the most half-assed festival sets imaginable a decade later.

“My songs on [Pilot] are the ‘relationship songs’ and they do not hold up to me at all,” Freeman admits. “I play it and it’s like, that was cool that I wrote that.” Sanville concurs, “A lot of those are general feelings that I can identify and I still relate to it in a way because I was stuck in that for so long.” Alluding to When We Were Young’s infamous wind-induced cancellation in 2022, Sanville comes up with an inventive solution for how to deal with this dissonance: “We say that we’re playing, but what’s really gonna happen is that I’m gonna bring a wingsuit and stand there with my arms spread and see how far away I can get.” Freeman’s head immediately drops into his hands, and as with most things Hot Mulligan, it’s not entirely clear whether you’re meant to laugh or wince at an unguarded and potentially costly moment of candor. Judging from Freeman’s reaction, it’s probably both — “Keep your location on so I can pin you.”