What's in a meme? For Matty Healy, more than you'd think. The frontman for British pop-rockers the 1975 is chatting with me in a label office room, rolling a thick spliff and swigging from a Coca-Cola while band manager Jamie Oborne hammers away at his laptop, as he recounts a recent meme he came across on social media that relied on two images of his wild gesticulations in a video recorded for Genius. "It says, 'Me trying to explain to my friends why I like the 1975,'" he says with a laugh. Later in our hour-long conversation, as we're knee-deep in discourse about how the internet has changed social interaction, he mentions another meme he recently came across that points out how, ten years ago, young people were warned against talking to strangers and getting into random cars — two things that, through technology, are regular part of our everyday lives.
"I had this profound-but-also-not-profound realization that this whole thing outside of this — all of our communication with other people — is mediated through the internet," he says while discussing the main theme behind the 1975's third full-length, A Brief History of Online Relationships. "That's not even an interesting thing to point out, right? But say that to somebody ten years ago. If you make a record about any kind of relationship, you're making a record about the internet. Neil Young isn't gonna put out a new song about missing his lover where he references FaceTime — it's too modern. In order to be truly honest about how one has a long-distance relationship, you have to talk about these things."
Along with his bandmates in the 1975, Healy's made a successful career out of risk-taking — whether it be embracing the obvious or following the most potentially ridiculous impulses to their absolute creative zenith. Their self-titled 2013 debut LP memorably featured an anthemic, heartburning single that effectively mashed up Jimmy Eat World's hard-charging emo sound and a seeming lyrical lift from LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," simply called "Sex." Their blockbuster sophomore effort from 2016, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, boasted an absurd sense of ambition that matched its wordy title, tackling electro-pop micro-fantasias, moonlit acoustic balladry, and the bold, sexy sounds of '80s pop-rock forebears INXS with equal aplomb.
Healy, who wrote and produced the band's latest album in congress with drummer George Daniel, brims with unchecked ambition. And A Brief History of Online Relationships is more proof that "unchecked" is his best operative mode. The record feels at once more intimate and larger than its predecessor, hopping from sound to sound — aching George Michael-esque torch songs, capital-R rock music, afropop-recalling bounciness, and in the case of "The Man Who Married a Robot," automated spoken-word a la Radiohead's "Fitter Happier" — with explorative glee. Topics range from the desire for love and attention to Healy's own battle with heroin abuse, which he successfully completed a rehab stint for last year.
At times, while talking about the new album, Healy, who is typically verbose, falters for words, claiming that he hasn't had the distance to properly process its overarching themes and moods. And it's unclear if he'll even have a moment to do so in the future: along with prepping for a worldwide tour, he's been hard at work on the next 1975 album, Notes on a Conditional Form, which he initially promised for a May 2019 release but has pushed back a little further next year. "I've realized I can let it happen a bit more naturally than panicking about it," he says, explaining that lyrics typically come naturally long after the band's musical ideas have been sketched out. "I'm just waiting to let some stuff happen. Maybe someone'll tweet something like 'Thank you Kanye, very cool!,' he laughs. "I wait for that kind of moment."
Read on for our conversation about dreams, fears, drugs, the internet, and masculinity.
I was in Greece earlier in this year, and the only two rock songs I heard were "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME" and Imagine Dragons' "Thunder." The New York Times recently put the word "rock" in quotes when talking about the 1975 as well. Where do you think the band stands in the current rock landscape?
To try to understand things by slapping an ideology on it is an old-fashioned method. If you're bred through the internet, you're bred with zero tribalism. It seems counterintuitive to be at one with one thing. You hear 50-year-old men talking about us and twenty one pilots — "Well, they're a rock band" — and what you learn is that the vocabulary is so well-established that it's really difficult for people to see outside what they know and really listen. If you wanna analyze our rock side — there's the occasional reference to shoegaze, but if you put R&B first, it makes so much more sense. People are always expecting us to make the "rock" move, to play into their idea of what rock music is, but I've never been conditioned to do that.
I heard the New York Times podcast led by the main rock guy, an older guy, and he was so concerned with trying to understand [us]. "No, no, no! R.E.M. was inspired by this, and then you have the Killers, so the 1975's rock music is going to be the Killers!" It's all these assumptions. The generational divide is so massive now. I can't imagine what it's like to be a 15-year-old consuming music. I used to be imagine the utopian idea of waking up one morning, looking at your record collection, and genre not existing — this ecstatic, transcendent, spiritual experience. That must be what it's like to go on Spotify as a younger person now.
Do you remember the first time you used the internet meaningfully?
I remember torrenting music, talking on MSN, and creating my first MySpace. When we were a band in the mid-2000s, MySpace and PureVolume were really important to us. I remember Arctic Monkeys happening there. I call it a Gutenberg moment. It was the first time I heard people listening to music on a phone, on a bus, and I was like, "Fuckin' hell, that's a bit committed — listening to it on a phone." Now it's par for the course.
“Regardless of your love for sonics, a lot of people just want music.”
These days, high-quality production doesn't always translate through the methods we listen to music.
It's about embracing it, though, isn't it? As soon as we get into the proper stages of mixing, we listen to our music on laptop speakers all the time. You can't sign off on a mix until it sounds good on a pseudo-broken-down Mac. It's the same way they did Thriller. It was a big production, but at the time, those mono radio speakers were the only thing that people listened to music on, so they had the world's worst speaker in the middle of the room and mixed it down on that. Regardless of your love for sonics, a lot of people just want music.
The notion of audio fidelity has always been classist, too.
If fidelity really mattered, Loveless wouldn't be one of the best records of all time. I'll tell you what: don't spend $100 grand on a fucking session at Jack White's studio. Use ProTools, record it in two weeks, buy a tape machine, master it to tape, learn how to master and mix properly. Learn your craft. It takes a lot of energy and time to not be a purist as a producer. We need to move things forward.
I was listening to "The Man Who Married a Robot" with a few colleagues, and everyone had a different reaction to it.
When we all listened to "Fitter Happier" on [Radiohead's] OK Computer for the first time, it was scary. "A synthesized voice! That's unsettling." Now, you could have "The Man Who Married a Robot" in the background and no one would notice. People buy these voices and put them in their kitchens. It's so totally part of our environment. If you describe ordering off UberEATS as a robot saying "the collection of cooked animals," it sounds like the description of a dystopian universe, when it's actually an accurate description of where we're at right now.
As a recovering heroin addict, I find it interesting that when there's things we don't want to talk about — like how we're all addicted to our phones — the initial reaction is, "I'm actually fine with my phone, because I'm not addicted to it. I maybe use it a bit too much, but that's because everyone else uses it." The rhetoric is that of an addict — immediate and defensive. "Don't call me out on something I'm so comfortable with. It takes a change bigger than me." All this bullshit. Because I've been forced in my life to address those ideas, they've become quite evident to me. No one likes being called out, do they?
There's also a lot of good examples of bad music that's about digital life and technology.
I'd agree with you, it's a bit lame. "The robots are coming!" Throughout making the record, I really struggled with questions of the objective. It's me asking questions, even at my most passionate. "Love It If We Made It" is really objective — there's no opinion there. I'm signposting passionately and angrily, but I'm asking questions and saying, "I hope this is gonna be alright." I'm opening up dialogue to talk about this, and the reason that it sometimes doesn't work is because people judge. I'm never judging anybody. As soon as I see something beautiful or interesting, my first reaction is to get my phone out and film it or take a photo. That's how I live my life, and it's because we feel a desire to validate our experiences by sharing it with other people and seeing what they think about it. I'm as guilty as everyone else.
Someone drew a comparison to how Jack White bans phones [from his shows]. For the last couple of years, I have this part in our set where I try to empathize with everybody and say, "Just trust me, let's do one song with no phones, and I promise you that the memory of now that we've established will be far more potent than a video on your phone." It's about reminding people that they don't need to constantly oblige to these norms that we've created about the validation of one's experience in order for it to mean anything. It's not about saying, "Oi, dickhead, put your phone away!" You put your phone away, then! It requires intellectual consistency. Let's not pretend that things haven't changed. Things are always gonna change.
The 1975's audience is very young, typically. How do you relate to people your own age?
My desire to be understood as someone who's my own age comes out through "Give Yourself a Try." The vinyl, the coffee collection, the spiritual enlightenment — I'm at the same point in my life as all these other people. My main relationship with music was so personal — me in my bedroom with headphones on — and I've always been speaking to that kid. How I talk to that person is maybe why I relate to young people. Relating to people my own age is difficult, because I have a very small group of people that I spend time with, the band. I'm not part of the social responsibilities of the world of 29-31 year-olds. I don't have the same things.
What does "Give Yourself a Try" represent to you as a songwriter?
When I wrote that song, it made me the happiest. It symbolized everything that I wanted in the record, the purity of us at our best. It's about the idea of the destination, whether it be happiness or being a grown-up, and the realization that these things aren't destinations. Growing up is really subjective, and a continuous thing. You're not gonna be the person you thought you'd be at 29. Our generation is so young. 20 years ago we'd be really established. You'd have been working in the same job. It's a very different time now.
"Love It If We Made It" is a good example of a risky song that somehow works anyway. How do you challenge yourself?
People who normally have art as a proper creative outlet tend to save all their risk-taking for that realm, and not so much for living in their real life. I love having my band, because [risk-taking] is so important to me — but in the grand scheme of everything, it's not important at all. If I completely fucked it up and a bad album hits the world, it doesn't really matter. My band makes me take risks and live in a way that I'd never live in real life. I take risks in my art because I want that element of meaning in my life. It requires me to be bold.
After being in loads of different types of alternative bands over the years — a mini-Sigur Ros, a mini-At the Drive In — I was very versed in what the history of alternative music was. I saw the creation of voids, which you see now. It's not that I wanted to be part of the mainstream, I just knew that I couldn't do what I wanted by being in a hardcore band. I wanted to subvert pop music and do something really fucking interesting — a song like Ariana Grande, or Justin Bieber. That requires you to be bold, inherently.
I've played "Love It If We Made It" for people who didn't like your music previously, and they're always really surprised.
It's big, and it sounds like a cacophony — this machine that's ever-turning. I was really worried about ending the song. The reason why [Peter Gabriel's] "Sledgehammer" fades out is because you can't stop it. It took a while to get that song right. By the time stuff comes out, I normally think it's kind of shit for two weeks, but the reaction to that song has really humbled me — not that I needed to be humbled, I just found it touching because there was gratitude. People got a release from it. That's why you do it — to make something that feels bigger than yourself.
The lyric "Rest in peace Lil Peep" line is sad to me, partially because since then we've lost several more public figures to opioids and drugs in general. What's your perspective on drugs in the music industry right now?
One of the problems is the youth of hip-hop. At the moment, with SoundCloud rap, it's become a bit of a drug-taking competition, and that happened in rock and roll. Those things get weeded out the longer those things exist. The reason misogyny doesn't happen in rock and roll anymore is because it's a vocabulary that existed for so long is that it got weeded out. It still exists in hip-hop because [the genre] is so young, but it'll stop. That's why you have this moment with young black men — Kanye-aged men, as well — talking about their relationship with themselves, which is a big step forward for hip-hop. Drake, for example. But then they'll be like, "But I still got bitches." The scene's relationship with women hasn't caught up to its relationship with itself, but that's something that will happen.
I don't know what the "industry" is but the industry seems to be very hip-hop-led at the moment, promoting the idea of being spaced-out because it's going through a psychedelic moment. One of the reasons why I was so terrified of being exposed that I was using heroin is because of how much of a cliche it would make me. You know me enough already to understand that the idea of me doing something that's an actual rock and roll cliche is something I'd want to avoid. We don't have the cliches of Xanax yet. It's scary. The reason that Peep resonated with me so much is that he died while I was in rehab. He's ten years younger than me.
How did you feel when you found out about Peep's death?
[Long pause] It was so sad. It made me realize how precarious shit is, how precarious of a game you play. I used to be like, "If I'm only smoking it, the only thing I'm going to do is fall asleep." You have these little pop-science things that keep you doing it. Now, if you get bad Xanax, it could fuckin' kill you. There's a demand and a black market, and you don't know what you're taking. [Mac Miller], obviously, just tragic, so tragic.
What was the last dream you had?
A lot of my therapy's based around my dreams. I have a really bad relationship with dreams. Part of my whole relationship with opiates is to avoid dreaming. I have dreadful dreams. They're normally repetitions of stuff. The last dream I had was in my old house. There's nothing in it, like a ghost train car that goes through the house. I stop in a room, turn around in a circle slowly, come back out, and I do it in every room. It takes me an hour. I fuckin' hate it. Honestly, man, if I could never dream again...I'm terrified of dreaming.
“People who normally have art as a proper creative outlet tend to save all their risk-taking for that realm, and not so much for living in their real life.”
Do you feel like there's any misconceptions about you that people have at this point?
There must be, right? Because I'm a person, and I only give a way into what I'm like in interviews or records — which are a context. Everyone in the band is 6'4" and I'm 5'10", so everyone thinks that I'm 5'5". That's one of them. [Laughs] One of the things that I'm all about is the deconstruction of any idea. So any misconception that there is, is definitely my fault and my doing. One of the misconceptions is that [our audience] is just 17-year-old girls. It's fuckin' not. It's such a massive cross-section of people. When I'm onstage, especially back in the day, I know what I'm doing. I'm very versed in music. It's my passion. "I'm Jim Morrison. Am I Jim Morrison? Do I actually think I'm Jim Morrison? Do I know that you know that I know that I'm not Jim Morrison?" It's always been a meta-layered, postmodern performance, so there's always going to be misconceptions.
The 1975's music often offers a different perspective on masculinity than other rock bands have done in the past. How do you reflect on your own personal journey as a man?
I grew up in a very lovey, English-actors environment — lots of gay people, artists, progressives. The idea of who I was wasn't really that conflicted because my dad was an ex-welder from Newcastle, so he was somebody who already dealt with those kind of things when it came to his own masculinity, to a certain extent. He came from a very hard background and was the first person to start a theater company in his town. The idea of being oneself was always really promoted to me. I'm very lucky for that. The whole thing about masculinity is that the people I grew up watching were people like Prince and Michael Jackson; that's a slightly different example because he was quite conflicted, and maybe so was Prince. But those ideas were never presented as alternative to me. I always thought, "I'm like them. I'm George Michael."
I always thought really different, but I was able to lean into it. All the straight boys who tried to start a fight with me, I always tried to make them laugh or charm them. I always felt like I could make the best of what I was: gangly and effeminate. Fuck me, when I became a pop star, I was like, "Right, it's the ultimate realm to do that kind of thing." I've never been that conflicted because I've been surrounded by different sexualities with zero judgment.
Who do you think your peers are? Who are you inspired by?
I'm inspired by SZA. I'm inspired by [Kendrick Lamar]. I'm pretty inspired by Brockhampton. It's easy for me to say "R&B artists," because they're mainstream artists. With [Healy's Dirty Hit label], I get to exercise that passion into a lot of the artists, and now [the roster] is 80% female. I find the female perspective very inspiring. The Japanese House has made this album that she has no right to make at 22 years old — it's unheard of. But who are our peers? Because it's not Imagine Dragons, and it's not twenty one pilots. It's more like Ariana Grande. I feel more aligned with those kind of artists. Who's doing similar things as us?