In the front room of a smartly-decorated, four-storey east London townhouse, Sharpies squeak on glossy paper as three members of U.K. band The 1975 scrawl their names on the sleeves of pre-ordered copies of their second album, the ludicrously titled minor masterpiece I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. Across the hallway, in his kitchen, that album’s architect Matty Healy puts on the kettle and makes two cups of tea. When he’s done, Matty presents me with a choice. “Black mug, or yellow mug?” It’s like being in a homier version of The Matrix. I choose yellow. “That’s the right answer,” is his mysterious response.
Injecting anxiety into something as mundane as tea delivery is a very Matty-from-The-1975 thing to. It won’t have gone unnoticed by The 1975’s rapidly accumulated and unusually engaged fan community, who helped the band’s tracks like “Chocolate” and “Girls” dominate international airwaves, but this 26-year-old isn’t like most frontmen in most bands, and The 1975 are not your average British guitar four-piece. Their image is as multi-layered and wilfully disorientating as their music, which genre-hops between rock, R&B, electro, and '80s FM rock.
But front and centre, there’s Matty Healy. Some artists talk like they’re reading from a script; Matty speaks with utter conviction of thoughts that seem to be a work in progress, peppering his sentences with phrases like “postmodern,” “meta,” and “post-ironic.” His focus is contagious, and persuasive to the point of being faintly intoxicating. Matty has a romantic view of that long-gone era when artists were untouchable entities — when seeing Michael Jackson at London’s Wembley Stadium was the nearest he’d ever get to his existence being acknowledged by his hero. Equally he knows that the internet, which he blames for blowing the lid off the whole pop mystification game, has been integral to his own success. Using a highly stylized social media strategy that first centred on monochrome imagery and oblique, idiosyncratic missives quite at odds with most new pop acts’ ‘selfie with Demi Lovato’ approach, The 1975 have navigated a strange but charismatic path—sonically and stylistically—between those two eras.
Non-superfans may find Matty’s onstage persona a little banal—that particular character is a preening, pouting, shirtless rock god in the tried and tested Mick Jagger vein—but today, in his kitchen and on his own territory, he bears a closer resemblance to the complex personality identifiable in his songwriting. His layered, claustrophobic lyrics reveal a man obsessed with fear and fragility, success and failure, endlessly looking for answers about himself and the pop-culture world he uncomfortably inhabits. In typically perverse fashion, Matty is more interesting and convincing when he’s sitting in his kitchen underneath a chalkboard bearing a reminder about which night to take out the trash, than he is when he’s actually trying to be a pop star.
Do you enjoy doing interviews?
I do. I’m very much in my own world with The 1975, so when I do an interview I have to treat it like a conversation in everyday life. Which sometimes gets me in trouble. But I’m not bigoted and I’m not horrible so what’s the worst that can happen? You have to say something, whether it’s in your music or in who you are.
Plenty of artists get away with saying precisely nothing.
They do, but that’s just upholding the status quo. All I can say is that with me, when there are so many young people hanging on every word you say, with that comes a lot of responsibility. You have to talk about what it’s like to be a human being. I’m not being, like, ‘I am the truth,’ but I don’t try to make myself overtly cool.
I feel like I should state for the record that you’re currently wearing leather trousers.
[Laughs] But it’s not really ‘try hard,’ anything I do. All of my flaws and all the things that make me up are part of who I am. It’s about honesty and everything that encompasses: fragility, neuroses, getting it wrong. I stand for being an ambassador of that kind of honesty.
You have said that when the band first formed you hadn’t secured your social identity. Have you found it now?
I’ve found it in millions of young people who’ve designed their lives aesthetically and musically around The 1975. We’re the kids who didn’t really fit in, who’ve become ambassadors for those kids. I didn’t feel particularly cool when I was 16 or 17 but I felt accepted in a community of alternative music and the gig scene. I feel like we represent the comfort found in that. We’re kind of like the new emo: we’re not emo, but we have the same fan craziness.
"If you know me, after a while you know the stupid stuff I say. And it’s like, I’m only joking. I’m not actually a fucking full-on narcissist."
Can you talk me through what happened last year, when you deleted all your social media accounts and everyone thought The 1975 had split up? Did you think you’d split up too?
Oh no. Oh, it was all very clever. It was very much for the fans. Like everything we do. One misconception that annoys me is that we have a marketing team. It’s me and it’s Jamie [Oborne, the band’s manager]. Always has been from day one. This thing that turned into a press stunt or a PR stunt—‘ooh, they’ve disappeared, they had all their people do this thing for them’—well that just came from me sat smoking in my flat. Everyone says things like ‘we need to make noise.’ That’s everyone’s favourite word: noise. We were talking about putting the new album out and making sure people knew, so I was thinking that desirability is more potent than obtaining something. I thought, I might just do it now. Turn off the internet. So we had ‘the removal,’ and everyone went fucking mental. And more noise happened.
Was there another end game beyond just making noise?
I mean obviously it seems like a bit of an elaborate prank but it was a way of playing with the internet. We weren’t being melodramatic; it was the best way to reinvent.
Bearing in mind how intense your fanbase is, and that fans can do extreme things when their favourite bands split up, did it cross your mind that it could backfire?
No. Yeah, but no. If I start fearing triggering the buttons of people who are mentally ill—because that’s what you’re talking about—then…I mean, kids cut themselves and give me the razors. That’s something I carry around. I’m more aware than anybody of the effect and power that I have, but what I’m even more aware of is the self-empowerment that comes from [me] being myself. That’s had way more positive effect than anything I could ever say negatively. Don’t make me feel bad.
It’s an extreme act, to play with your fans like that.
I suppose religions would say it’s testing their faith, do you know what I mean? Giving them a hint of the idea of a life without The 1975.
Why would you want to do that?
Because I knew it would be the most effective way for people to express how they truly feel about us.
This seems like curious behaviour from someone who’s known to have strong Humanist beliefs. Because that is what religions do, isn’t it? They manipulate people. And it seems strange that now you’re kind of in the position of religious leader, you do it yourself.
No, because I’m not being malicious with it. I’m in a pop band!
The 1975 is more than a pop band to your fans though, isn’t it?
Yeah it is, and I’m sorry that it is, for some people. But I can’t not play with people. I’m not being malicious. I’m probably not explaining this well...Maybe it was a bit mean. But if you were there, and you saw the way we did it, it felt like a very 1975 thing to do. It wasn’t a sly move. And it wasn’t a dig at them—that’s not fucking cool. I was showing people that the value isn’t actually in the noise. It’s in how much people care.
Just to rewind for a minute—fans giving you razors they’ve cut themselves must be pretty intense. How does it make you feel?
Well, I have my own emotional baggage, and now with fan letters and things I’m given, I carry around literal emotional baggage. I have cases full of letters, from every tour. I try to keep everything. It’s insane.
Do you have any of those cases here?
I don’t have all of it here but I do have one case. Do you want to see it? [Disappears upstairs and returns with a huge suitcase] This case is from the last tour. I have no idea what we’ll find in here. [Goes through hundreds of items including clothing, flags, paintings, and illustrations] We get a lot of paintings—I read this amazing book called On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, it’s about how one’s perceived notion of beauty elicits a replication: you want to follow it, or look at it more, or have sex with it, or reproduce it, or draw it. A lot of our fans draw our lyrics. I understand the desire to replicate something you desire. [Brandishes portrait] Ooh, this one’s good isn’t it?
You look a bit like Justin Bieber in that one.
Yeah, I know. I don’t want to throw it away. I like the idea that when I’m old I can fill up a whole room with really nice things that people said to me. [Selects random letter] You see every letter has this kind of sense of knowing about me, or a desire for me to know that they know. Or that they’re looking out for me. ‘Dear Matty, I know you’re tired, probably stressed out and you miss your family, but just so you know your fans love and care for you so much. I’d love to show you my tattoo that says ‘LOVE’ from when you signed my autograph book in Austin in May. It means more to me than anything and gets me through so much.’ I feel guilty sometimes that I don’t know them—that if I’m sweet, and I’ve just smoked a zoot, and I’m playing PlayStation, maybe someone’s thinking about me. I have these two realities.
I’m interested in how you feel about pop music. For instance you criticized Justin Bieber songs but covered "Sorry" recently. You’ve questioned One Direction’s credibility but went to the studio with the intention of working with them. What’s at the centre of this turmoil?
I have a turmoil about where things come from. If you’re not as emotionally invested in your music as I believe true artists are, then I don’t have to say you have any artistic credibility. The thing is—[Sighs] I like One Direction as people. What I’m saying is, artistic credibility is a very specific thing. If you work your whole life, making compromises and sacrifices and dedicating it to a craft that defines you, if you choose to go and stand in a queue instead, does that negate your artistic credibility? That’s a good question. And the artistic credibility thing came from: if you’re an artist, you treat other people like artists. And they [One Direction] brought me into that studio and they said, ‘we don’t really want you to write a song. We’ve already written a song based on one of yours, will you help us write it.’ I said no. Oh, why am I doing this again?
You know, you are allowed to stop talking.
[Overdramatic sigh] I want to clear the air. Because I’m not questioning other people’s artistic integrity! I’m asking if we’ve created a culture where we should be questioning it. But artistic credibility is something that needs to be preserved. Let’s all think about it! That’s all I’m saying.
Moving on, then: as a fan of architecture, who would you say is the Matty Healy of the architecture world?
Brutalism is a big turn-on for me. Me and my flatmate have been making these. [Points to concrete plant pots on windowsill] He turned to me one day and said, “nobody’s doing brutalist pots.” Architecturally, it’s so celebrated now—form over function that becomes a celebration of the mundane. That’s what our music’s like: it’s very celebratory, but it’s self-lacerating.
Tell me about growing up in Newcastle.
I grew up on a cow farm in the middle of [north east England county] Northumberland. My mum and dad were both from Newcastle, and my dad had just finished [acting in British ‘80s comedy drama] Auf Wiedersehen Pet, which was massive—and because it was so political, and all about the subsidisation of industry and Thatcher’s Britain, that you walk round the north east with my dad now and he’s a hero up there. He was knocking around with Thin Lizzy and [Dire Straits’] Mark Knopfler! I wasn’t socially isolated as a kid but I was an only child—so there were a lot of video games, a lot of Michael Jackson videos, a lot of singing and dancing to myself and self-involvement.
Did you like being by yourself?
I’ve always liked being by myself. I grew to like it less when I was older. And then I convinced myself for a long time that I liked my own company, but I actually just quite liked being on drugs and didn’t really like my own company at all.
Did you take drugs by yourself?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah! Every pursuit of mine is very indulgent and personal. That sounds like a dark thing to say; my indulgences are always private things. I used to like thinking and writing on drugs. I thought I was William Burroughs, know what I mean? Anyway, when I was ten I moved to Manchester when my mum got a job on [British soap opera] Coronation Street. I spent my whole teenage years there—went to school there, met the guys when I was 14 and we’ve been in the same lineup ever since.
"I called my record something which at face value reads like teenage emo notebook scribbling...but I wanted it to be as dynamic as me. It’s a long album, but it’s my life."
Why aren’t you a solo artist?
Because I’m not a solo artist. [Notes my raised eyebrow] No I’m not! I mean it’s an autocratic situation and one of the reasons my band’s big is that it has one voice which is very concise. I know my stuff about being what we are. The one thing I know how to be is The 1975. We are the best in the world at being The 1975. And The 1975 is a complete world. We’re open with our relationship, we’re tactile, we’re close. And we preserve that. My assistant is my best mate from maths class. Our merch guy is my cousin. Our lighting guy is Darren, who was my best friend when I was 11; our photographer grew up on the farm in the house next to me. It’s a world. It’s a thing. It’s a very personal thing. I’m not a solo artist.
Do you have many friends outside this world you’ve created?
I’ve got other friends I’m close with but I know that in this world where I live my social life, my real life, my artistic and touring life, I’m not going to be judged on what I say. I’m not going to be questioned. I’m going to be supported and facilitated.
And you think that’s always a good thing?
Yeah! Yeah. If I go off the rails we’ll discuss things. I’m not a dictator. I don’t run a regime of fear where I could be overindulged by people’s support. They’re my best mates. We can say ‘I love you’ and ‘fuck off’ in the same sentence. That’s the way it works. We’re trying to not to be wankers: the second before I go on stage, when I’m prancing around like I’m a rock star, [they’ll say] ‘stop being a fucking dick.’
Do you have to try not to be a dick?
I have to…Understand that people don’t know me. Because if you know me, after a while you know the stupid stuff I say. And it’s like, I’m only joking. I’m not actually a fucking full-on narcissist. All these things are very postmodern silly ideas that I play with. I’m not a bad person. I’m not stupid. I need context. When people like you point it out it makes me think more about it. I don’t know. I’m a dichotomy of ideas. Going out and playing a bit of a character is probably self defense…
Do you think you are playing a character?
I’m talking specifically now about when I go out on stage and mince about and stick my tongue out and I’ve got no shirt on—that’s playing a character. People who know the band and love the ‘Love Me’ video know that…It’s kind of post-ironic. It’s a joke! But the music isn’t a fucking joke. I take my art very seriously, I don’t take myself very seriously. I don’t think we have an environment to take yourself seriously as a rockstar now, the vocabulary is too extended and self-aware.
Your new album’s 17 tracks long. At a point when everyone’s talking about the death of the album, does anyone really want a 75-minute album in 2016?
I don’t really care. It’s like a rule; a presumption. I called my record something which at face value reads like teenage emo notebook scribbling. But I wouldn’t be calling my record something that ridiculous, that opens itself up to so much criticism, if I was also going to go, ‘oh I can only do ten tracks.’ I can sound pretentious when I talk about the record but I wanted it to be as dynamic as me. It’s a long album, but it’s my life.
A long time ago, when he was still an A&R man, I asked Simon Cowell why he made his artists’ albums so long. And he said, “well, no fan’s going to pick up a CD in the shop and complain that there’s too much music on it.”
The generosity of it as a commercial aspect is one thing, but the record finished itself, man. There were too many songs I loved! People say ‘save it for another album.’ Another album? I wasn’t thinking about any other albums when I was making this one. I was thinking about this album. I was thinking about it making me happy.
Has it made you happy?
No, has it fuck. Not even in these trousers.