Just under five years ago, in New York, Matty Healy first told NME about his obsession with the end of the 1967 movie The Graduate. The 1975 had just finished their head-turning second album ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ and were shooting the first of their six – seven, as of today – NME covers. Matty, trying to pierce the pomposity of it all, was posing in a Meat Packing District backstreet, shouting “I’m Bob Dylan!” and “Guitar music! YEAH!”
The band’s first album, 2013’s ‘The 1975’, had been a big success – albeit without critical approval – hitting Number One and building the kind of deep-rooted, dedicated fanbase most bands could only dream of.
That album’s pastel-coloured power-pop suggested they were the prom night band in a never-ending, ‘San Junipero’-like John Hughes movie. Actually, said Healy, the band’s true aim was to capture that bit at the end of The Graduate where – boomer spoiler alert! – Dustin Hoffman’s lead, Ben Bradshaw, commits to the ultimate Risky Romantic Statement and storms the wedding of his beloved, Katharine Ross’ Elaine Robinson, to another man. The movie closes with a lingering shot of Ben and Elaine, in silence, riding off on a city bus, their smiles subtly cracking as they each realise the fallout from what they’ve just done.
With new fourth album ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ – out today – The 1975 have finally got to that moment, but you can switch Elaine for an excitable Cane Corso puppy called Mayhem (after the black metal band) and swap the bus for a studio in the English countryside. The Mona Lisa smiles are present because at the denouement of The 1975’s big narrative arc – their so-called ‘Music For Cars’ era – the cosmos has pooped the party with a pandemic.
It’s particularly toothsome that the album coincides with a paradigm shift into a strange and boring new world, given that The 1975 essentially predicted this with 2018’s meditation on modern communication, ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’. The same goes for ‘Notes…’, an album that splinters The 1975’s influences into distinct shards of UK garage, indie-pop, punk, dancehall, spoken word, symphonic movements and everything in between. It has ego-death by way of lyrics, with Healy methodically undermining the tortured, extra frontman caricature he has so carefully created. And amid all that, weirdly prescient lyrics – from October 2019’s after-the-rave anthem ‘Frail State Of Mind’: “Go outside? Seems unlikely” – paint Matty as some kind of Black Mirror rockstar-soothsayer.
Which is all, you know, weird, innit, NME suggests to Matty via video call. “Hmmm,” comes an unusually wordless initial reply. You suspect he’s heard that one before.
“‘A Brief Inquiry…’ is just like a series of questions; it’s not like a series of opinions,” he says. “So I don’t feel that, like, tied to it in regards to like it being a prophecy or anything. I was asking questions about a weird world that – funnily enough – turned out to be weird, you know? I mean, it’s not that shocking.”
We’re in the middle of the first of two socially distanced interviews: NME in London, Matty in the wilds of the East Midlands in the wood-beamed, barn-like studio that he and drummer George Daniel bolted to at first news of lockdown. This chat is carried out over an online podcasting platform Matty’s been using to interview artists including sonic scientist Brian Eno, Primal Scream firebrand Bobby Gillespie and semi-supernatural Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks, who expressed undying love for The 1975 during their conversation; all were recorded for posterity as part of Matty’s ‘In Conversation’ podcast series.
“I reckon me and George should produce the next Fleetwood Mac record,” says Matty. “That’s what I’m going to pitch to her. That would be so sick.” There’s mumbling in the background. “Oh, wait – George just said they couldn’t afford us.”
In the eight years they’ve been in our lives, Matty Healy and his three bandmates – Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann and bassist Ross McDonald – have seemed to shape culture as much as they’ve reflected it. Last summer, when they teamed up with Greta Thunberg for ‘Notes…’ opening track ‘The 1975’, Matty seized on the biggest issue of the day – climate change – and put out a stirring invective for action that just happened to land smack bang in the heart of a searing UK heatwave.
“People still relate to me because I’m having the same experiences as everyone else”
Back then, Matty was wrestling with the unsustainability of putting on huge events while simultaneously redefining the medium via a stunning, ever-changing, retina-destroying, budget-blowing arena production. He wryly notes that the show toured for two years because the second year needed to recoup the losses of the first. “We were just getting into a little bit of profit and now touring’s gone altogether,” he says. “I’m like, I’m out! I’ve got no fucking money! I spent it all on ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’.”
As music fans, we’re all having to come to terms with the reality that gigs and festivals as we know them are a thing of the past – for now, at least. It’s particularly galling for 1975 fans who were looking forward to their big celebration in London’s Finsbury Park in July, a groundbreaking, fully sustainable mega-show with a support bill of acts in the orbit of The 1975 and their Dirty Hit label. At the time of speaking, the event hasn’t been officially nixed, but Matty is unruffled and matter-of-fact when he admits it will be – he’d already been wrestling over the long-term future of performance on environmental grounds.
“That big show that we did at The O2 and stuff – that’s gone,” he says. “Like, that is already a thing of the past, and it’s gonna require me, and huge artists like Travis Scott, Billie Eilish, Drake, to reinvent what that spectacle is.” For his part, Matty says he’s “getting into the avant-garde of like, what even is a live show?” That means reconsidering even fundamentals like the use of power-hungry electric lighting – he’s been imagining a sealed black tent that allows the control of natural light.
Like many people, Matty has clearly been using the global quiet to do some big thinking. He’s feeling “very mad scientist”, he says – a feeling exacerbated by a lockdown look involving utilitarian clothes and a twist on his recent mohawk hairdo, now shaved on the top and sides, leaving an on-trend Tiger King-like mullet of long hair at the back. He has the look of Travis Bickle guzzling Scrumpy Jack at a Levellers concert. Mayhem, the dog, likes to chew the tendrils of curly hair. “I’ve gone full crustie,” Matty admits.
“There is a limit to how far one can connect with the world because of the self”
Among the big ideas bouncing around his brain is the concept of a VR world for him and fans of The 1975, a resource modelled on the health centre in the CGI video for the band’s ‘The Birthday Party’, which could be used for sharing information and creativity. It would contain a museum of digital 1975 assets to be manipulated and played with by others.
Matty and George – the former describes the latter as “kind of Buddhisty and into meditation” – are working on an ambient album of ‘evening versions’ of ‘Notes…’ songs: extended, sonically expansive reworkings intended for meditative listening, which will come with instructions on how to experience them correctly, right down to the correct volume and placement of speakers.
At one point, Matty explains that he wants to find an entirely new form of art in which music, imagery, film, literature and gaming are in perfect balance, so it’s an experience you make and listen to and play and watch, all at once and all in harmony.
“It always feels like one facet of art is subservient to another and I’m starting to get annoyed with that,” he says, after a mind-boggling explanation of his concept that was clever, confusing and bonkers – in perfect balance. “If you’re talking about colour, red and blue don’t stop when they meet each other, and you don’t have the red hanging over the blue and looking down on it. The red and the blue just make purple, you know what I mean?”
Er, yeah. How stoned exactly were you when you came up with that?
“Ha, I’m always very stoned, I suppose. So probably: very.”
A self-described “tech utopian” (“I’m obsessed with technology, and I really believe that our future will be defined by our relationship with technologies that we don’t even know yet,” he says), Matty’s interest in VR is not surprising. Much of Healy’s activity – from his much-publicised struggles with opiates to his insomnia and workaholism – is fuelled by a desire for escape from his restlessness, nightmares and from the most terrifying one of all: real life.
After revelling in ego and excess on ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ and scanning the horizon of a global tinderbox on ‘A Brief Inquiry…’, on which he raged about gun control, post-truth politics, incel culture, keyboard warriors, celebrity, social media and all the rest, ‘Notes…’ finds Healy in search of personal truth in a variety of ways. It’s comedic, nostalgic, wistful and fearful – but always honest.
“I want some God in my life, you know? And I can’t find it”
“There’s always this inherent kind of limit to the self,” he says. “You know, there is a limit to how far one can connect with the world because of the self, and I think that’s what I’ve been talking about the whole time. Like, why is that hard? Like, why aren’t films true? Why aren’t songs true?”
Among the truths on this album you’ll find anxieties about life, love, marriage, starting a family, getting older and vignettes from the road, where the majority of ‘Notes…’ was recorded. We hear about Matty’s “tucked-up erection” and the hours he’s spent pottering around hotels. Take these lines in ‘The Birthday Party’: “You put the tap on to cover up the sound of your piss / After four years don’t you think I’m all over this? / That’s rich from a man who can’t shit in a hotel room he’s gotta share for a bit.”
“I think the reason people still relate to me is because I’m having the same experiences as everyone else,” says Matty. “Pissing in hotels, not wanting to shit in front of people. I’m either talking about the things that make me uncomfortable or the things that make me laugh, or I’m talking about the things that terrify me. I just hope that honesty is not [seen as] self-indulgent. I don’t try and preserve my place as an underdog. I’m just trying to dispel any myth that people put on my work.”
Reviews of the album, most of which come out a week after we speak, have been decidedly mixed, but ‘Notes…’ was always going to be a testing listen. It’s the extreme example of The 1975’s ‘create as we consume’ mantra that not only commands the band to go where the muse takes them, but implores fans to come along for the ride too. If ‘A Brief Inquiry…’ was their ‘OK Computer’ (or, given its preoccupations with millennial culture, ‘Snowflake Computer’), their unimpeachable work of perfection, this is one their confounding ‘Kid A’ (or ‘Kid…Eh?’), their sketchbook follow-up, created from a position of luxury earned by past achievements.
If the album sounds scatterbrained, it’s because it’s made from the smashed shards of what was there before. Though ‘Notes…’ is a back-to-back successor to ‘A Brief Inquiry…’, it’s not a sequel or even a companion piece – it’s almost the opposite of it. “‘A Brief Inquiry…’ was a really big deal for us – like, it was a big record commercially and stuff like that,” says Matty. “When it came to making ‘Notes…’, we were presented with an option to either look backwards at it and keep trying to walk forwards bumping into shit, or just turn the other way and walk away from it.”
Matty’s creative tension has long come from a tussle between wanting to connect with as many people as possible and wanting to disappear to safety with George and a giant bag of weed. With a vast, honest and emotionally unguarded album coming out amid a mass global shift, he’s arguably got everything he wanted – it’s as if he’s taken his clothes off and run for the hills. There’s no release party for him to artfully not turn up at this time.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the band to pivot. They were supposed to be heading back on the road. Instead, they’re working on new projects: a new 1975 album, of which a new song called ‘Congratulations’ is the first brick laid; the ambient record; and two albums under the guise of Drive Like I Do, their pre-1975 group, whose demos are shared among fans. “Drive Like I Do is us and everyone knows that it’s us, but they do almost feel like a different band,” he says.
“I’m quite intense. I create quite a lot of co-dependent relationships”
When the lockdown is eased, they’ll be working on the next record from Gen Z grunge hero Beabadoobee – an EP or an album – to follow her upcoming debut. Bea – a protégé of Matty’s who’s signed to Dirty Hit – has recently become a Very Big Deal thanks to her being sampled on Canadian singer-songwriter Powfu’s ‘Death Bed’, a TikTok mega-hit. “I’ve told her that she’s primed for getting influenced by the wrong things,” says Matty. “So she needs to avoid that. But she’s good; she’s just really into her music.”
Matty’s own success has bought him a fabulous, minimal, modernist house in West London, a vision in concrete and, probably, the ultimate rock star mansion for the avocado generation. Why not go back there, take some time off, hit pause, enjoy what you’ve achieved?
“I don’t know man, like, fucking… I want some God in my life, you know, and I can’t find it,” he says. “And creating is the closest thing that I have. It’s the only thing that feels kind of like a higher pursuit. And it is a higher pursuit because songs are almost like religious declarations – declarations that I was here.”
George’s name pops up in the lyrics of ‘Roadkill’ (“I pissed myself on a Texan intersection, with George spilling things all over his bag”) while closing song ‘Guys’ is a saccharine declaration of love for Matty’s bandmates and all they’ve accomplished. You suspect that the idea of spending months isolated from George – the yang to his yin – may have been the most terrifying thought of all.
“We need to look after young men like Slowthai a bit better before we demonise them”
“We’re very much each other’s muse,” says Matty. “We are very, very inspired by each other. And you know, if you want some fucking truth, one of the things I’ve realised is that a lot of the time – due to my addiction and just the way that I am – I’m quite an intense presence. I create quite a lot of co-dependent relationships around me. And now I’ve noticed that, it’s something that I’m really, really trying to change. I don’t think I intentionally do it but I’ve almost created an environment where part of people’s relationship with me is worrying about me.”
The other two members of the band – guitarist Adam Hann and bassist Ross Macdonald – are isolating in their respective houses, Adam with his partner and dog. “I think Ross is going fucking mental because he created this kind of ’90s sitcom set-up of a house with all of his fucking mates that he thought was going to be amazing, because Ross is the partier,” says Matty, laughing. “Then it all got locked down and… yeah, nightmare!”
Matty describes his present day-to-day like this: “I eat, I smoke, and I make”. Given that he’s done looking inwards amid this strange, global quiet we live in right now, does he like what he’s found?
“Like, not really. But I think that that is all right, because that’s why I’m looking in,” he says. “I think I’m alright. I just need to be a bit more emotionally consistent.”
The extremes of Matty’s life haven’t been a great breeding ground for consistency. Right now, his bubble looks pretty stable. While we’re on the second interview, via Zoom a couple of weeks after the first, Matty has a huge joint, his dad is trying to call – which keeps cutting us off – and Mayhem the dog is trying to get his owner’s attention. A Cane Corso, incidentally, typically grows to be about eight stone in weight – trust Matty to pick an extreme pet.
Since we last spoke, two notable things have happened. One is Slowthai releasing the song ‘Enemy’, which samples Matty’s words on stage at the NME Awards 2020 following the Northampton rapper’s on-stage self-cancellation during a back-and-forth with the co-host of the show, comedian Katherine Ryan.
“I don’t think Slowthai would void himself of any responsibility from that moment,” says Matty. “His behaviour was inappropriate, and he knows that. But we as a society love living through people like Slowthai. We love celebrating young people who are economically disenfranchised and anti-establishment and they’re reckless and they’re wild. But then when it goes too far, we’re all a bit like, ‘Whoa…’ We need to be looking after young men a bit better before we start demonising them.”
“I’m putting a bow on my adolescence with this record”
The other is the song ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ becoming the band’s closest thing to a mainstream hit, receiving plays on Radio 2 and Capital and hitting Number 14 in the charts. It’s the ‘Notes…’ song that veers closest to the band’s swoon-pop debut, suggesting it’s a welcome relief for fans who may feel the band have got a bit, well, weird. Yet Matty says it’s subversive in its own way, given its lyrics about online sex.
“If two people get naked in a room together, the only connotation there is intimacy or sensuality,” he says. “If you do the same thing on the internet it immediately becomes encumbered with ideas of pornography or voyeurism and – let’s be honest – wanking, you know? Yet it’s essentially an environment that’s supposed to replicate the real world.”
As with much of the subject matter of the album, those connotations are changing rapidly right now as necessity pushes our lives further towards technology. Where other artists have raced to turn the coronavirus crisis into reactive art, Matty’s refusing to make a quick statement, instead digging through the recordings of his old band Drive Like I Do, doing endless interviews and trying to make sense of how he – and we – got to where we are now.
“I’ve done shows five nights a week for years,” he says. “You don’t get an opportunity to know what mood you’re in. No matter what mood you’re in, you go on stage, so you get the adrenaline rush, you never know what the fuck’s going on. I think that I’ve needed to grow, you know? I’ve needed to take that final step into understanding the past decade, but I’ve been in the middle of all of that and it’s really difficult to see out. I’ve just turned 31 and I think I’m going through a thing that a lot of people go through in, like, their mid-20s, because I haven’t really had the opportunity to do it. I’m just kind of figuring out who I am.”
“I think I’m alright. I just need to be a bit more emotionally consistent”
Picture yourself as an old school friend of Matty’s from Wilmslow, Cheshire. You work in an office, you have a family, and – just perhaps – you have a pang of jealousy when you see Matty’s many exploits. It turns out the same is true in reverse.
“I’ve struggled with the sacrifice of the domestic existence,” he says. “Everyone craves being a rock star because you’re sat on your sofa, in your job, in your life. But trust me, there’s been times where I’m travelling and doing all of the things that look amazing, but the one thing I want to do is watch MasterChef on the sofa, wake up the next day and go to a job where I paint a wall, look at the wall and see a good day’s work that I can quantify.”
A sense of completion is, clearly, important. The young Matty placed great value on myth and narrative and romance, and that’s why he’s here at the end of a self-declared but fairly arbitrary ‘end of an era’, one he’s talked about since the very beginning. In reality, nothing’s coming to an end – there are multiple 1975 projects on the go, and Matty says his focus is on maintaining the “high relationship” he has with the act of creation.
He has come to realise what ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ might mean: “I think that I’m kind of putting a bow on my adolescence with this record, really,” he says, slightly sheepishly given he managed to stretch adolescence all the way to 31 years old. “I think that my records have been me as a young man finding my place, and I think that on this record, I kind of found my place.”
So, there you go: Matty finally got his The Graduate ending, but perhaps not in the way he might have expected. He’s graduated magna cum laude from the school of pop into the great unknown beyond – and the camera is still lingering.
The 1975’s ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ is out now.