On Wednesday night, Olly Alexander will take to the stage at London’s O2 Arena for Years & Years’ biggest headline show yet. He calls the band’s ‘Palo Santo Tour’, currently criss-crossing the UK, a “kind of an apocalyptic fairytale circus extravaganza” designed to bring their excellent ‘Palo Santo’ album to life.
“The whole thing about this second album was trying to create a concept that people could come and see physically that felt a bit different from a regular gig,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted to conceptualise a whole show that’s not just about me performing the songs.”
The O2 Arena show will also launch ‘Rendezvous’, a project conceived by Alexander “to celebrate LGBTQ+ voices and provide a space that’s respectful, inclusive and inspiring for everybody”, as well as to “shine a light on the incredible talent from within our community and our allies”. To that end, the evening will be compered by Munroe Bergdorf, the model and activist known for discussing race and gender issues. Other performances will come from queer pop starlet Rina Sawayama, Norwegian rising star Astrid S, voguing specialist Jay Jay Revlon with The Kiki House of Tea, and LGBTQ+-inclusive choir Urban Voices Collective. In time, the plan is for ‘Rendezvous’ to become a full-on festival.
‘Rendezvous’, which shares its name with a stand-out ‘Palo Santo’ track, crystallises the blend of entertainer and advocate that makes Alexander one of our most exciting and important pop stars. Since Years & Years became a properly big deal in 2015, topping the charts with the brilliant single ‘King’ and debut album ‘Communion’, Gloucestershire-raised, London-based Alexander has used his growing visibility to speak eloquently and sensitively about LGBTQ+ rights, mental health issues and toxic masculinity. As he collected the Live Act of the Year prize at September’s GQ Awards, Alexander urged the audience to “to make room for all the many, many different ways there are to be a man”, saying: “Let’s let our men be happy, be sad, be trans, be questioning, be bisexual, be non-conforming, be feminine, be masculine!”
Because Alexander is such a natural and passionate advocate, it’s easy to forget he’s also a fun, playful person who really loves pop music. He rocks a ‘Spiceworld’ T-shirt in the NME photo shoot before this interview, so I ask if he’s booked his tickets for the Spice Girls’ 2019 reunion tour. “Babes, I don’t buy tickets any more,” he shoots back with mock grandeur. “If I don’t get fucking guest list for the Spice Girls tour, I’m quitting the music industry. I’m putting that out there now.”
Alexander says he’s met two Spice Girls – Geri and Mel C – and once stood next to Mel B outside Soho House in L.A. while she was busy talking to Harry Styles. “She didn’t give a shit about me, bless her, why would she?” Two decades after he collected Spice Girls merch as a seven-year-old fanboy, he’s not surprised the group’s reunion tour is selling out stadiums. “They’re just such an enduring part of British culture, and I think they’re an important part of people’s lives,” he reasons. “You could also say that because the world today feels so fucked up, anything that reminds us of the ‘good old days’ is appealing. But I also think their songs are amazing and stand the test of time. There was nothing like them when they came out; I remember at that time it was Oasis and the Spice Girls and it felt quite revolutionary to be in the UK.”
During the interview, Alexander also sings bits of two Geri solo bangers (‘Look at Me’ and ‘Bag It Up’), but before things get spicy, we go deep. I ask about the pressures of being a high-profile figure who’s known for speaking out – after all, if you say even slightly the wrong thing, Twitter might eat you alive. “I had a lot of anxiety over that for a while,” he admits. “But I always knew that was the case. And I knew that if I said something, I needed to be able to back it up. That’s why I always speak on my own experiences – because I know what they felt like. At the same time, I’m always trying to acknowledge other experiences and other systems of oppression, and juggle all those things. It can be a bit, like, ‘oh God’. But at the same time, I wanted to do it so much that it felt like the benefits outweighed the negatives.”
Keen to express himself clearly and completely, Alexander carries on explaining the complications that surround his pop star platform. “I genuinely do want the world to change in a positive way, but I wouldn’t call myself an activist, you know? I’m an entertainer who engages with activism because it feels really meaningful for me. But sometimes I look at what you could call my ‘personal activism’ and think, ‘Is it just giving speeches at awards shows?’ And then I think, ‘That’s not enough, that’s fucked up’. And it opens up this weird conflict in my brain because I want to help, but at the same time I worry that I’m also perpetuating something, because I’m this white cisgender gay guy that’s ticking all these privilege boxes. I’m trying to dismantle a system that I’m benefiting from, which is inherently problematic and a bit difficult. But I wouldn’t change my advocacy. I don’t always get it right, but I’ve met so many amazing people who’ve taught me so much about advocating for various kinds of rights.”
Alexander also feels conflicted about being named alongside actors Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges and fellow queer pop singer Troye Sivan in a notorious New York Times article called ‘Welcome to the Age of the Twink’.
“Oh God, there’s just so many feelings I have about it!” he groans. “I think it’s a little… what’s the word, myopic? I think the article had some really good points and I think it’s great that there are successful young gay guys out there who maybe lean into a specific aesthetic. And it surprises people that [this aesthetic] can be so popular among a young female fanbase. But at the same time, I’m like, ‘Guys, there have been skinny white boys forever. Think about Leonardo DiCaprio.’ There’s a difference now, I guess, in that a couple of us are openly gay and enjoying agency over our sexuality and our bodies. But personally, I’m 28 and a half now, so I’ve been trying to like, manoeuvre myself away from being a twink because I know it has a shelf life!”
Having lightened the mood with this self-deprecating joke, Alexander pivots back to serious again. “Personally, I’ve always been ashamed of my body and I’ve hated being so skinny – I had an eating disorder for so long. ‘Twink’ feels like an easy way to put someone down and say: ‘You’re dumb, you’re just a bottom that wants to be fucked.’ There’s a lot of bottom-shaming that goes on in the [LGBTQ+] community. I mean, my Twitter is just literally… people are obsessed with placing someone as a bottom or top. So when I saw that article, there are just so many things I felt about it. The tone of the article and the headline especially, it was… what’s another word for inflammatory?”
“Provocative. And provocative in a way that, I don’t know who it benefits. Are we meant to be happy that it’s the age of the twink? Are we meant to be encouraging it – is it a good thing, or is it a bad thing we need to dismantle? I just feel like I don’t need to refer to myself or anyone else as a ‘twink’ because it’s just lame.”
I tell Alexander I’m glad I’m not the only person sick of seeing jokes about bottoming on Twitter. “It’s an obsession with a sexual dynamic that feels pointless,” he replies. “Just get over it, get past it. Our notion of who’s a bottom and who’s a top is rooted in notions of gender and masculinity and femininity that are really outdated as fuck. Say what you want among friends, but I’m a bit bored of the online discourse being, like, ‘bottom energy!’ or ‘top me daddy!’ or ‘that’s not gonna work – two bottoms don’t make a top’. It’s super-reductive.”
At the same time, pop fans saying ‘bottom energy’ on Twitter is kind of an unlikely sign of progress. Does Alexander feel as though his success – alongside Troye Sivan’s – has dispelled the idea that coming out stops a gay male pop star from building a female fanbase? “Well, I don’t think it’s totally gone,” he says. “It’s undeniable that some artists who aren’t straight are hugely successful now, so I think it must have been dispelled to a certain extent. But I just know there are people who are hiding their sexuality, so it’s still not gone completely, you know. And I think it so depends on the artist and the context they operate in. If they’re a pop act, they’re likely to have a lot of involvement from their team and they’re all going to be going really hard [to build] a large fanbase. And I can imagine someone saying: ‘Hmm, do we really wanna “turn off” part of the public?’ That’s a phrase that gets used.'”
Has Alexander heard it? “Well, yeah. In various different forms I’ve been told [that]. Everyone gets a little bit squeamish when it goes ‘too gay’. Because they’re worried that it’ll turn a potential audience away. Even talking like that sounds outrageous because it’s so obvious this isn’t the case any more. But there are a lot of people behind the scenes in the industry who maybe aren’t quite as woke as we’d like them to be. They see the biggest-selling artists, who they are and what they do, and they think: ‘We need to try and emulate that.’ I think Sam Smith changed the game [for queer artists] in lots of ways, but he doesn’t necessarily get the credit for it.”
As Alexander has stepped up to the plate in so many ways, his bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen have taken a step back. They’re on tour with Alexander, and joined him for some ‘Palo Santo’ promo, but they’re not here today. And whereas Alexander wrote or co-wrote every song on the album, they co-wrote only two. Alexander recalls why: “I was like, ‘I’m going to take the lead. I need to finish this album now the way I want to finish it. We were having so many problems and couldn’t agree on anything. And then once I made that decision, it felt kind of natural that I would do more press [for the album]. And we figured it out. I think they’re sort of quite relieved to not have to do so much press!”
But as a result, do they feel less ownership over this album? “Oh, I’m sure they do. But it’s still their album, it’s still Years & Years, we’re a band. But I’m sure they felt… well, they were more involved with the first album than the second. That’s just the way it went down. We really tried to recreate how we made the first one, but it just didn’t work. Everyone wanted to do different things, and it was just really hard to get anything done. I’d been really resisting, but I think I realised I had this way I really saw the music and the visuals and everything, and I was so passionate about it. I was like: ‘Guys, I really really really want to do this, what do you thInk? And they were like, ‘Okay!’ And we had some deep chats, you know.”
This week, Years & Years have shared a surprise new single, ‘Play’, a catchy collaboration with chart-slaying producer Jax Jones. It’s a savvy move reflecting the fact that two artists are stronger than one in the streaming era. “The whole music industry has changed in the last three years,” Alexander says as we discuss how promoting ‘Palo Santo’ has been different from promoting ‘Communion’. “When we released our first album three years ago people were still buying physical CDs or downloading music. That doesn’t happen any more. So now it’s like we have to come back into an entirely different market. It’s definitely been a very different experience this time around, being an act who has to try and get on the radio. It’s not negative in any way, but sometimes it can feel like you’re just trying to fill an algorithm [for streaming services like Spotify], which is bizarre.”
Alexander admits “there was a lot of pressure for us to have a hit” from ‘Palo Santo’, including pressure from himself, and says he’s “not that surprised” that it turned out to be ‘If You’re Over Me’. A bouncy electro bop co-written with Ed Sheeran collaborator Steve Mac, it’s racked up 111m Spotify streams – more than three times as many as the album’s next most streamed track, ‘Sanctify’.
“I think it sounds like the most radio-friendly song [on the album],” Alexander says of ‘If You’re Over Me’. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I love songs that are on the radio. I suppose it felt like the most obvious one in a way, which is why it was the single. [But] even then people were like, ‘It’s too poppy, it’s too annoying ‘cause it’s kind of got an annoying riff in it. It came together in such a short time. You know you’ve got something magical when it all comes together in two hours and you get something that feels like a jam.”
Olly says 2019 will bring more new music from Years & Years. “We have a lot of songs ready to go already – songs that didn’t make it into the first album because they didn’t fit, but which I really love. We just need to fill in a few gaps and then we’ll have something to put out next year, which is the plan.” But could the band break from the traditional album release cycle – a bit like Charli XCX with her mixtapes? “It’s kind of exciting that artists now are just dropping whatever they want. Ariana’s going to release another album next year and tour them both together, and that’s amazing. But I don’t know if we can do that, because we’re not Ariana Grande!”
Clearly, Alexander isn’t planning on taking a break from the spotlight just yet. But before our time comes to an end, I ask if he can still go out on the east London scene to super-inclusive spaces like The Glory and The Queen Adelaide that seem very him.
“I can still go out and have a fun night,” he says. “But there were a couple of times where I went out around the first album and it was just not a fun experience. A lot of really drunk people were asking me for pictures, and I just didn’t want to be in that environment. But I’ve also gone out and had no one give a shit that I was there. The thing is, I had a lot of clubbing and going out and partying before Years and Years, so I don’t feel, like, too-short changed. It’s just a thing that’s happened. I can still have fun, but it requires a bit more planning and effort, and maybe leaving before it gets messy. Well, before it gets too messy, anyway…”