Grant Gronewold is one of the most truly fascinating people I have ever encountered. He works under the pseudonym HTML Flowers, and serves as one half of the Wondercore Island duo Lossless, while also producing solo music. On top of that, he is an accomplished illustrator, comic writer, visual artist and tattoo artist. He also suffers from a condition known as Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects his lungs. At 28 years of age, Grant has outlived his first life expectancy by 27 years, and his second life expectancy by 18 years. “I was 6 months old when I got diagnosed. My mum went to see a small town doctor who didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, and he said I’d be dead in a year. Then she took me to a big city doctor in St. Louis, a guy called Dr. Eagleton who I doubt even remembers me. He told mum that there was something we could do, and that I could live till I was ten. He saved my life. Then we outdid that shit, because that’s what I do – I just fuck with doctors.”
For someone with Grant’s condition, it is nothing short of inspirational that he has managed to have such a strong creative output throughout his life. He has not let his condition affect his artistic resolve. “Using art as therapy is essential to me being alive. Life is meaningless, and painful, constantly – at least for someone with my illness. Art gives my life meaning. Without art, I wouldn’t be here.”
When Grant welcomed me into his home, I did not expect our conversation to go the way it did. Where I thought we would be talking about the new Lossless album and perhaps some of his other artistic endeavours, we quickly descended into a philosophy-laden discussion about life, disability, the socio-political climate in America, and the many contradictions of human life. As I sat cross-legged on the floor of his room in a huge share house, I was entirely blown away by Grant’s friendly and outgoing nature, his openness, and his warm character. The large house featured an assortment of creative occupants, too many plants to count, a kiln and pottery studio out the back, a canoe on the fence, a blow up pool, and a pretty impressive chicken pen. In his bedroom a clutter of medical equipment, books, comics, pencils, sketches, paintings and assorted musical tools were spread around. Grant lives and breathes his work. “It’s quite natural for me to just create art. I think my life expectancy is a huge factor – I didn’t want to waste any time. So I started trying to lead a lifestyle where if I wasn’t drawing, the way I was relaxing was by making sounds. Why is watching a television program more satisfying than creating a sound-scape? What kind of complacency are we all subscribing to where it is actually an effort to try to exert our creative energy? I wanted creativity to not feel like an effort to me – I wanted it all to feel like a relaxing and therapeutic process.”
Grant has structured his life in a way that allows him to fully immerse himself in his creative outputs. “I try to scam enough time to do things that make me happy. My whole family are scammers. You’ve got to bend the corners – I think that’s what I’ve tried to do with my life, so that I can focus on art. Everyone knows it isn’t easy to find time for yourself. I get despondent if I can’t work – like I said, I don’t think I’d be around if it weren’t for the work. If you’re not a scammer, I feel like you have a pretty hard time as an artist in life.” He uses terms like ‘scamming’ and ‘hustle’ in his own unique way, allowing them to cover a broad spectrum. “Hustle is a fully encompassing term. It can apply to how cheaply you can get a tee shirt printed as an artist, but it should also apply to how much money you can save, what kind of barter you can set up with someone, or what kind of small illegalities you’re willing to engage with to fund your next project.” Grant has developed this attitude through simply mirroring the world around him, and coming to an early realisation about the structure of our society. “Everything is a scam. Rent is the biggest scam of all – it’s a scam for a scam in this life.”
Grant and his immediate family relocated to Australia from the USA when he was ten years old, in search of better healthcare, and a better life. “I would have died really young if I’d stayed in America. The only healthcare I got was what my mum could scam from the government. Our whole life was a scam, right from the moment the government made my mum declare bankruptcy because she couldn’t afford to pay my medical bills – which was only six months after I was born. This is a woman who would be up every night with me, and sometimes have to drive state to state just to find a hospital that would maybe let me in on compassionate grounds. She learned everything she could about socialised medicine, and she realised that we had to go somewhere better.”
Grant not only credits his mother with the gift of keeping him alive, but with encouraging him to foster his creative energy during his formative years. “My mum was really dead-set on me being an artist because she had to give up a lot of her dreams of being an artist to have me. She was a writer, and also into painting. She was always encouraging me – my earliest memories are of painting with mum. She also thought it was therapy for me at that age, and that it was good for me to have my own world outside of hospital.” As he speaks about his mother, he is quiet and reflective with a distinct air of affection, pausing with a wry smile. “She’s smart like that.”
Before relocating to Australia for a new life, Grant, his mother and his brother lived in a small town called Lincoln in Illinois. “It’s a nowhere town that doesn’t mean much to anyone. Half of my family are truck-driving Christians, and the other half are in and out of jail cokeheads. I had a deadbeat dad, and then a stepdad who was so bad I wished he’d go deadbeat. Lincoln was a tough fucking place. It’s a town that America forgot. There is a bottle factory there and that’s it. It’s got no social infrastructure. There’s a saying in that town, you either end up in the bottle factory or in jail. There’s no difference, really. My mum didn’t want that life for us – it was more than just my health that made us get out of there. That’s a place for ghosts. I went back once, and it was pretty hard. My stepdad is a man who is about to enter his sixties, and he just got out of doing a short piece in lockup. He’s as bad as he ever was. It’s a complicated story going back there for me.” His willingness to open up about his former life and the complex intricacies of his family to a complete stranger like myself is incredibly humbling. But this seems to be Grant’s attitude to everything – he is all or nothing, at all times.
Grant attributes the singular worldview that some members of his family and many other Americans possess to an ingrained reflection of the society they have grown up in. “In America, you’ve got people who have been brainwashed into thinking that socialised medicine is somehow bad. I have family who voted for Trump, and who think that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was fucked up. They watch Fox News, man. America is built as this brainwashing machine. When we moved here, my family said ‘why would you want to do that, America is the greatest country in the world.’ But they’ve never left. They have no idea what they’re talking about. That toxic patriotism is really bred into people where I come from.”
Grant’s relationship with Oscar Key Sung as Lossless, and formerly as Brothers Hand Mirror has been defined by its longevity and the common ground the two artists share. “We started working together in 2010. We came together in the first place because we both had similar ideas about things. We were informed by hectic noise music as well as hip-hop and pop.” The musical relationship between the two has developed greatly since the work they did on Brothers Hand Mirror back in 2013. “With that project it was very clear-cut; he produced and I rapped. Now he sings, and I produce as well. When you can both do everything, you can make a track in half the time.” His penchant for producing music is clear on the Lossless record. He was behind the helm of some of the album’s most outstanding cuts like ‘My Clique’ and ‘Rain Lung’. Their newfound joint productivity has led them to create even more music since the release of the album just a few months ago, and Grant informed me that they’re already working on album number two.
The change in style between Brothers Hand Mirror and Lossless is rather apparent. Everything from Grant’s delivery as a rapper to the production style, to the aesthetic and attire the duo embrace is different. Lossless’ music also possesses a certain element of aggression that was absent on Brothers Hand Mirror’s work. The strange dichotomy is that when Grant told me how his delivery had developed to this point, he said; “I just chilled the fuck out.” Grant “chilling out” apparently involved him coming across a whole lot angrier in his raps, and equipped with an emboldened, brash honesty. “I just wanted to be myself. With Brothers Hand Mirror, I was caught up in this internal dialogue about making future music. I didn’t feel comfortable casually rapping. I’m just trying to be myself now, just let it hang out. Some beats require a chill voice. Some beats require aggression. When we were doing Brothers Hand Mirror, I was really not into aggression. But when you put a low class disabled into the world, as the years roll by the anger starts to surface. I used to be ashamed of anger. Looking back on that rhetoric, I think I was just fucking myself up a bit. If you’re angry about something, you have say it. Nowadays I just ask myself how I feel, and I try not to pass judgement on myself for whatever that may be.” Perhaps one of the hardest elements of being honest with oneself is when you have to be honest about those feelings or thoughts that may be negative. Grant’s attitude, to his enormous credit, is that “sometimes it’s okay to be mad, and it’s healthy to express it.”
The honest nature of Lossless’ music is heavily demonstrated within the emotional spectrum divulged through the lyrical subject matter of the record. “If you look at the album, you’ve got ‘Lorica Plumata,’ which is entirely about not wanting to be around people and distrusting them. That’s a phase that I go through a lot, especially as I get older. Then there’s ‘My Clique,’ which is all about community, supporting one another, and helping each other survive this scam of a life. It’s beautiful to struggle together as friends and loved ones. I’m aware that it’s a contradiction to have those two songs on the same album, but at the same time – is it? Don’t we all feel like we fucking hate everybody sometimes, and other times we feel so grateful for our friends?” Embracing a broader view and appreciation of emotions has not been restricted to anger for Grant. “Nowadays I get a perverse satisfaction from saying things about myself that should be embarrassing. Which is good, because it realigns what you think should be embarrassing. That is so important, because embarrassment can be its own prison. Fuck embarrassment. Fuck shame. I’m done with that.”
Grant is a prolific and hard working artist who is proficient in a multitude of mediums. One of the hardest elements of being an artist comes in the why of it all. Do we make art for ourselves, or do we make it for the people who will consume it? For Grant, his artistic validation comes in a number of tangible and intangible ways. “I finally started doing better financially with some of my art, so I was able to travel more. Anyone who has been able to travel will agree that it is a mind-expanding experience. To know that there are people in Canada and Japan who care about the work that I’m doing is comforting, because I know I’ll be okay financially at least for the next little while. I can give my mum some money on the sly if she’s broke, I can afford Red Bull when I’m low key. Its things like that, small things, that I find validating. But I’m just looking for my own validation, really. I want to get to a point where some part of me starts to feel like I’ve made my place in the world. I wouldn’t be concerned if people didn’t listen to my stuff when I passed away – it’s in the now. I want to be able to sustain myself. I do want an audience, but it’s more important to me to have validation on my own terms. If someone likes it, that’s good for them, but it’s not to do with them.”
The sort of sage wisdom that Grant expresses when he speaks could only make sense from someone who has lived and continues to live the tumultuous life that he has. For Grant, the reward comes from the honesty of his work – “That’s the only way I can keep it pure in my mind, if I just focus on what feels good in that moment. Long-term validation doesn’t exist unless it comes from you. I think that the craft needs to be pure.” Grant seems to ensure that he is thinking about creative tasks at all times. Even as we sat chatting in his bedroom, he was idly painting a ceramic mug produced by one of his housemates in the pottery studio out the back of the share house. Yet even as he painted, he was still engaged in our conversation – he seems to be the perfect multi-tasker. This is because, as he explained, there are two minds that occupy our bodies – “If you take your intellectual mind off the task at hand, your unconscious mind will handle it. That’s how my process works in a lot of ways. That’s how I keep so many mediums going, and why it’s so satisfying.” At this point he paused, and took a look at the mug he had been painting from behind his glasses. A small smile decorated the corners of his mouth as he said, “I just wanted to make all art relaxing for me.”
Much like his views on leaving the ideas of shame and embarrassment behind, Grant’s view on art has an unshakeable of air emotional maturity. He has taken an approach to his creative nature that is nothing short of incredible. On his views on the intellectual and unconscious mind, Grant elaborated; “It’s the gut of the mind that guides you. You’ve got to get that intellect out of the way – it’s always so pedantic and anxiety ridden, whereas the gut of your mind is solid.” Though these ideas are rather poignant, they did not necessarily come easily to Grant. “Shutting off that intellectual mind is not easy. It was really hard to come to learn that. For someone with an illness like mine, having the ability to control and push out a thought process that is hurting me is integral. Sometimes I have periods where it seems like my literal life is in the balance from how bad my health has gotten. If I can’t get past that, if I can’t tell my literal mind to shut the fuck up and let the gut of my mind say ‘okay you might be dying, but you really need to chill out and paint something,’ then I’ve got nothing.”
“Multitasking just works for me – I need to drown my intellect and give my mind a chance to do its work. Then it doesn’t even feel like work, it’s just a beautiful experience that I get to have.”
Recently, Grant became his own nurse in order to treat his CF – or, as he put it on social media – “I needed a nurse to survive. I became my own nurse to LIVE.” He explained that he had needed to see nurses every day, and this had become too trying. As a result, he took the necessary avenues to qualify himself as his own nurse, and during our conversation, Grant performed two different treatments on himself, talking me through parts of it. He explained that having taken over some of his treatments has been a huge relief, as he has something of a strained relationship with medical professionals. “Doctors and nurses, they always want to help me, they’ll be like ‘well, don’t you want to live?’ And I’m like ‘I dunno, if it’s going to be like this.’ And they just can’t handle that. Doctors are just trying to fix a car. But bitch, I think more than a car.”
In his promotional shots, on stage, in his lyrics and on his social media, Grant heavily tries to normalise his disability. He does not shy away from it in any sense, and describes it in detail on certain tracks like ‘Rain Lung’ on the Lossless record, where he refers to it as a “monsoon, typhoon in my lungs.” He often dons his protective facemask on stage, and he explained his motivations behind this decision to me. “I kind of just do it to fuck with normal people, I’m not even sure if I need it. But the doctors said it couldn’t hurt having that extra layer of protection. I think it’s important for me to manifest my disability in a visible way. Because that is what my life is about – my whole brand is sick. It shouldn’t be considered wrong to be disabled, and I’m trying to fix that. Going around wearing a mask, and explaining why I wear a mask to fuckwits is just another form of loving myself.”
Grant’s normalisation of his disability through an artistic lens is not only beneficial for him, but for others living similar experiences– “If I perform and an audience member says something to me after the show about how important my message is to them as a disabled person, that is like… bliss.” After free-styling over a Swooping Duck set at the recent Freedom Time festival at Coburg Velodrome, a fan approached Grant; “This girl came up to me and said she needed to talk to me, because we had the same illness. I was there wearing a face mask, and she thought it was so cool that I was wearing that in front of all these normies.” However, negative responses from crowds are unfortunately equally as common as the more moving encounters. “I get so much shit for wearing that facemask. Festival crowds cannot handle it. So many people need to get invasive and ask questions. People think I’m just trying to freak everyone out.” But Grant thinks that if he can explain to people what the mask means in terms of his health, or what it represents to him personally, he is able to create a more diverse dialogue, and in turn contribute to a broader understanding of disability in general. “I’m really proud to bring people into contact with a disabled message.”
The HTMLFlowers that I had seen on stage at Lossless shows was quite a different character to the man I spoke with during this interview. On stage, he is a far more aggressive creature; throwing the middle finger at the audience and asking them to throw it back (literally.) “I just don’t see shows were people are aggressive enough. I’m not trying to create an atmosphere where it is legitimate animosity or anything like that, it’s just another therapy thing – giving the finger to someone means nothing, but it feels good. These are the people that appreciate me the most, because they’re at my show. I’m flipping them off and they’re giving it back to me, and that to me is love. Being comfortable enough to have aggressive moments with each other and trust that you can come back from that, that’s love. Love can be so two dimensional sometimes in the way people express it.”
Grant draws a different pleasure from each of his numerous artistic practices. “Making music is great for when I’m depressed. It feels good while you make it – it’s uplifting.” He uses his “by the gut” mentality when constructing music, whereas his approach to comic writing is far more patient. Grant first started making comics while touring Australia as a musician at the age of 18, when he met a fellow artist in Tasmania. “When I’m making comics, that’s planning for the future. That shit takes time. It takes real structure. The panels need to relate to each other, and you need to take note of how the page is going to sit. You have to think about how the first panel informs the third, how the third informs the sixth and so on. That’s planning. I probably use my intellect the most when I’m making comics, because I really need to structure things.”
For his tattooing work, he seems to take a more empathetic and spiritual approach. “Doing tattoos for me is a form of meditation. It’s a benevolent act, filled with energy that you’re transferring intimately from yourself to the person you’re tattooing, who is often a relative stranger. That to me is a meditation. I get absorbed in it, because I’m so obsessed with the process.”
Grant’s sheer absorption in his creativity is nothing short of astounding – he is dogmatic, confident and assertive in his various crafts, and lays himself bare for an audience. This results in some incredibly honest and emotionally charged work. His constant desire to create things seems to be driven in part by his condition – “I’ve got nothing to lose. Fuck it.”
“I love being a hot mess. It’s honest. My life expectancy is 35, I’m doing half the treatments I’m supposed to, I’m always arguing with my doctors about leaving me the fuck alone. I’m a hot mess. I live an insane life sometimes, and I just want to express that and its effect on me.”
Grant Gronewold is a unique human being with an outstanding body of work behind him, and his life and attitude should be an inspiration to each and every one of us. We must let go of our shame, let go of our embarrassment, and do something important with the little time that we have. Lossless’ debut record is available now, as is Grant’s new single as HTMLFlowers, ‘Diamontees On Ur Coffin’. An exhibition of his visual art will take place in May; look out for it by following him on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter @htmlflowers.