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The Big Read – Yungblud: “I wanna be the rock star of the 2020 generation”

He's gobby, he's hyperactive, he's outspoken, he's fearless, he feels sexy in a dress, and he's a new breed of rock star. Yungblud – aka Dominic Harrison – reckons he and his growing cult of fans are in this together. On the eve of his biggest release to date, Thomas Smith meets the Doncaster lad done good in New York City for an unfiltered chat about music, life, and getting smashed with Lewis Capaldi.

A margarita flies through the air in a bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to a roar of delight. No, Yungblud’s hometown Doncaster Rovers haven’t just scored a late winner – he’s just had confirmation that his new single ‘Original Me’ has been uploaded onto Spotify and is now officially out in the world.

On the way to the bar in the back of the cab, Yungblud – aka Dominic Harrison – has been playing the song repeatedly, constantly reloading that menacing drum kick and his twisted first verse. The 22-year-old quickly calls Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds – who shares lead vocals on track – to discuss the roll-out of the song and build more hype by simultaneously sharing screengrabs of their iMessage conversations to their followers.

By the time we arrive at Eastpoint bar, he’s raring to go. His bandmates and crew meet him there to celebrate, and the neighbouring parties watching the array of sports games being projected onto the walls of the bar are sucked into his orbit. That is what tends to happen when you order 35-shots of whiskey and pass them out to anyone still standing upright.

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When NME caught a first glimpse of Yungblud in September 2017 at tiny London venue The Water Rats, there were signs that he was onto something special. After the intimate show, we said that the “future is looking a lot like Yungblud,” and that he was poised to go ”stratospheric”.

Following the release of his debut album, ‘21st Century Liability’, last summer, he’s throwing himself into a brand new project. New EP ‘The Underrated Youth’ is a mix of rock anthems (‘Original Me’), scuffling indie (‘Braindead!’) and solo acoustic balladry (‘Waiting On The Weekend’). It’s a playful and earnest step-up from last summer’s debut, and almost certain to be the one he cracks America with.

The EP follows a number of big-name team-ups this year with US rapper Machine Gun Kelly, Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker and pop star Halsey. He was also in a high-profile relationship with Halsey earlier this year, though they are no longer together.

Now, after a set of riot-inducing performances at Reading & Leeds Festival earlier this summer, he returns to the UK next month for a run of sold-out shows, including a gig at London’s landmark O2 Academy Brixton on November 21.

‘Original Me’ is Yungblud’s biggest and best moment to date, blending Yungblud’s rocker attitude and love of hip-hop beats into a bone-rattling and life-affirming anthem. It’s also transpired to be a bit of a passing of the torch. Yungblud praises collaborator Dan Reynolds fight for “equality all the time while his band has been huge”, and with a fanbase of socially-active kids who need more influential figures to fight their corner: Yungblud, then, is the perfect fit.

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

Earlier today, Yungblud was musing on his journey from a loner in his native Doncaster to a public figure with serious clout, and big tunes to back it up. “The train’s just left Donny station and we’re not even at Retford yet,” he laughs. For those not familiar with South Yorkshire and the surrounding area, that’s barely 10-minutes away.

As it reaches single drop time in the bar, Yungblud is pacing the room like an expectant father, checking in with his team who are making sure that everything is going smoothly. When he gets the all clear, everyone necks their shot and the bar’s PA blasts out the new song for the first of three times in a row – his manager is manning the booth – and that’s when the margarita goes flying. As the drink slops onto the floor, a barman watches on. He rolls his eyes and heads off for the mop, with a shake of the head and a smile on his face.

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

See, even if he’s making a mess in your bar, it’s quite hard to have anything but goodwill for Yungblud. He’s the Doncaster lad done good making a crack at breaking both Britain and America simultaneously with a set of brash rock anthems tailor-made for a new generation. Someone recently told him he’s now one of the town’s biggest exports, alongside One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson and Rothwells Fish and Chips.

To join that, er, elite company, he’s amassed an army of young fans – he’s named them The Black Hearts Club – who follow in his footsteps, spread the good word and offer support to each other on topics like depression, sexuality, identity and the state of the world in general. The fans have set up group chats on social media and frequently reach out and DM those who comment that they’re struggling on Yungblud’s posts. Sometimes, Yungblud will just message them himself. It’s young, fun and, actually, quite clever.

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

When we meet Harrison earlier that afternoon at NME’s photo studio in midtown Manhattan, he immediately shows us a clip from last night’s show in Boston, Massachusetts. In it, he’s swinging from the balcony of the club, ready to make the enormous leap into the crowd below. Like the trouble-maker he is, he’s leading a deafening chant of “Fuck The NRA” – a title of one of his songs, and a reference to controversial US gun lobby group, National Rifle Associaton – as he soars through the air to an ocean of hands, just like that majestic margarita.

“Every night, the kids chant that line. It doesn’t matter if we’re in Dallas, Houston or Detroit, everywhere across America young people are calling for a change in this area. But Donald Trump and Boris Johnson don’t want people like us. They don’t want mass gatherings and people with a lack of fear to tell them they’re wrong,” he tells us.

“They’ll say, ‘you’re just another naive, bratty kid talking about something that you’ll never understand’. I have just as much access to information as you do now. If I really want to, I can speak out. Just look at what Greta Thunberg is doing right now. She’s making Trump look like a fucking idiot. She’s the Karl Marx for our lifetime.”

If you’re meeting Yungblud, you’ll hear him before you see him. He’s excitable and loud, but in the friendliest of ways. If you don’t know him from Adam, he’ll endeavour to become your best mate by the end of your time together. His thoughts and energy race from one thing to the next, and if you put an idea or person into his head, he’ll just inhabit it as his own. When he uses the term “rock ’n’ roll” in lieu of a pause in conversation, I joke that he sounds like Liam Gallagher. In response, he assumes the frontman’s crooked pose and belts out a couple of lines of Oasis.

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

He bowls up to NME shoot in an all-pink, no-fucks-given outfit. And we mean all pink: jacket, jumper, trousers, shoes, socks and phone case. The only item not falling in line with the dress code is a pair of the kind of oval-shaped white sunglasses last sported by one of his heroes, Kurt Cobain.

The snaps will feature slightly different get-up. We’re going for a little play on Teddy Boy and Teddy Gal culture, and we’ve stuck on hits from Chuck Berry, Danny Gatton and Duane Eddy to bring out his rockabilly spirit. Firstly because he looks really good in a suit and we thought he might enjoy looking a bit like another hero, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner (he did). The other reason to show every side of the musician and his fanbase.

=If you’ve managed to catch Yungblud live in the last few months, you’d have likely seen him sporting a black dress, running from side-to-side on ever-growing stages. Earlier this year, he explained why his view on his identity in pretty succinct terms: “Boxes are for cereal. Labels are for clothes. We are human and the need for division is becoming less relevant every day.”

“It’s so funny, I’m sure there’s some geezer called Gaz saying ‘why the fuck’s he wearing a dress? It’s been done before, mate.’ Like, I’m doing it because I want to. I’m not doing it for any other reason because he did it or she did it or anyone did it, I’m doing it because I feel sexy as fuck. So look at me Gaz, I’m sexy as fuck!”

He’d grown up admiring the androgynous stylings of The Cure frontman Robert Smith, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and David Bowie. The first time he wore a dress at his next door neighbour Annabelle’s house, aged 12, he felt liberated and just like his heroes.

“I remember rubbing my hand on the silk and processing how it felt on my body and I felt really fucking good in it. It opened a part of me that I didn’t realise existed. It totally embedded in me. I felt like I became myself more in that 10 seconds.” Later on that night, we spot him flashing the composite of his two looks to his friends with a big grin on his face.

The look was also inspired by his permanent desire to represent and involve every member of his community, whether they be misunderstood teens from Britain, trans kids in the US or outcasts in South America and beyond. Every musician will say that it’s the fans that propel them forwards, but Yungblud really means it. If you look in the comments on any of Yungblud’s social media posts, a swarm of black-heart emojis appear from his legion of fans, which is based upon two black-hearted tattoos on Yungblud’s middle fingers: one complete and one broken. Throughout our time together he likes keeps an eye on his followers, whether it’s counting the number of comments on his posts, or totting up the number of tickets he’s selling to shows in Europe.

They’re also known to arrive at venues at 4am to get down the front, and then stick it out long after the show to meet him and have a picture taken, or sometimes just a chat. Following one show in Chicago on this recent run, it got so busy out back after the show, that he, his Dad and his Uncle Greg had to be escorted through the fans and into the back of the car as fans banged on the windows.

How did Uncle Greg take that?

“He just goes: ‘Well, that’s a bit bloody hysterical!’” Yungblud cackles in an amped-up Yorkshire accent.

yungblud
Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

But this commitment now means that the name Yungblud – given to him by his current management when he first came aboard, because he was the “young blood” of the agency – takes on a vastly different meaning. Harrison is starting to let the moniker take on a life of its own.

“Yungblud ain’t just me. It’s become a community and a bit of a fucking movement. I am 50 percent of Yungblud and the other 50 percent is them” he says. “If you feel like you don’t belong anywhere then you belong right here with me. This whole movement feels so punk and rebellious – it’s punk to have a community and to battle against loneliness.”

Performing in front of them is simply not enough. He wants to embody their stories and give representation to their hopes and fears, while inspiring them to think big and dream of a new future. Take the EP’s title track, ‘Hope For The Underrated Youth’ where he sings of societal displacement (“Got called an alien for being’ myself/I ain’t got the patience to be someone else”) while on the hip-hop leaning ‘Parents’, he sings that his “favourite flavoured sweets are raspberry amphetamines.”

Is drug culture something you’ve found becoming a topic amongst your fans?

“In my fanbase, we talk about real life. I ain’t gonna bullshit people. I ain’t going to pretend that kids aren’t going to do drugs, because kids are going to do drugs. I did them. I don’t do them much because of my ADHD and uppers would send me in different ways. But I’m not going to tell people not to do drugs – it’s about being safe and not being stupid with them.”

In ‘Parents’, there’s the line: “My daddy put a gun to my head/Said if you kiss a boy, I’m gonna shoot you dead”. Have you started inhabiting characters in your songs?

“‘Parents’ isn’t me telling your mum and dad to fuck off. I’m not that naïve. That song, for example, was inspired by a trans girl I met in Bonner Springs, Kansas. She’d been through so much strife but just said that: “it all makes who I am. I’m just me and I like what I like’. That’s the real shit. I’m not arsed about being about for 10 minutes, have a hit song, get a fucking mansion, do too many drugs and kill myself. I want to be reaching people like that and doing this until I look like Mick Jagger. He’s still sexy as fuck!”

Being outspoken and putting yourself at the front of this movement must come with some consequences, right?

“In Russia I got death threats because I was wearing a skirt. The first thing I did when I landed in Moscow was put on a dress and go to Red Square to get a picture. My guitar tech says that every night he gets really scared that I’m up there going, ‘Fuck the NRA!’ and some nutcase is going to pull a gun out or something. But it doesn’t scare me. Because we’re just doing what’s right. If someone’s going to shoot me for it, then I’m prepared to get shot for it because I believe in it. That’s intense, dark and scary to say, but I’m prepared to die for this shit. As a result, that show in Moscow had the craziest crowd, because those are kids that needed that release and me the most.”

If you told the lad from Donny a decade-ago that his 22-year-old self would be shifting tickets all across the globe to loyal fans, he’d have likely told you to fuck right off. Harrison says that he grew up misunderstood in schools and by important figures in his community. His vibrant and energetic spirit was mistaken for naughtiness, and he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. Despite the support of his parents at home, it had an impact on his outlook on the world.

“A teacher, a youth leader or even an MP doesn’t have to understand you. To them, you’re just another fucking freak. You’re just another thing that they’ve judged before you’ve even opened your mouth. I felt like an object my whole life, and it was really hard for me because I was suppressing all this passion about being myself.”

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

He grew up in and around his dad’s guitar shop in his hometown where he found his way around guitars, as well as taking up the drums. He found early influence in classic rock (The Beatles, The Clash, Bob Dylan) and through discovery gave it his own twist. He became obsessed with the intensity of Joy Division and their haunting frontman Ian Curtis, the flow of rappers Busta Rhymes and Eminem and the theatrics of emo kings My Chemical Romance and Marilyn Manson.

After a rough ride in his hometown, he moved to London, aged 16, to attend performing arts school, ArtsEd in Hounslow. He hoped that he would meet his crowd and find people who understood him. But it turned out to be worse. The theatre-brats couldn’t handle him, his creativity or his noisy nature. It sent him into tail-spin.

“The one place that should have accepted me for who I am didn’t, so I thought that there was something wrong with me. I started to think, ‘maybe I don’t belong on this planet’. I got into a deep, dark phase and was suicidal. I would contemplate suicide maybe six times a week,” he says. “I think that’s what made me become so extroverted. It was a simmering pan. I suppressed it for so long that it nearly blew up and I needed to fucking get it out or I was gonna die.”

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

London was tough on his head-space, but there were some positives to get from his time in the capital. While working on his music, he landed himself a couple of TV roles, including a one-off episode of Emmerdale in 2015 [cast as ‘Farm Matt’] and a year later he landed a new gig in Disney Channel’s The Lodge, where he played teenage rocker, Oz. Does he look back fondly?

“I got paid £5k a week when I was 17 and fucking skint in London and I was in a fucking Disney show! That’s cool! Music wasn’t working for me yet, so someone asked if I wanted to do this and I lined-up for 10 hours to audition. I fucking loved it,” he says.

Around this time he started making some friends in London, such as his guitarist Adam Warrington, who in turn introduced him to one of his best mates from Scotland: a pre-fame Lewis Capaldi. “Before either of us were signed, me and Lewis just used to sit in the two-bedroom council flat in Clapham I shared with Adam. Now me and Lew are walking out of Soho House like a pair of wankers. Like, what the fuck has happened? People love Lewis because he’s so real and authentic and I feel like it’s the same with me.”

The music started to come together in late 2017, with Arctic Monkeys-sized tunes ‘King Charles’ and ‘I Love You, Will You Marry Me?’ breeding a grassroots fandom in the North of England and in mainland Europe. He landed a deal with Geffen Records (Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses) and Interscope (Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey) to release his debut album ‘21st Century Liability’ last summer. It didn’t make much of a dent in the charts, though for him that wasn’t really the goal. “Making a connection is so much more important to me than going ten times platinum,” he says

2019 has been Yungblud’s breakthrough year. His single ‘11 Minutes’, featuring Halsey and Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker, opened him up to a new audience, and his friendship with US rapper and Eminem-beefer Machine Gun Kelly (“he’s a real one”) netted him joint-single ‘I Think I’m OKAY’, a raucous collaboration that gave him his first whiff of a hit.

With Halsey being one of the biggest pop acts on the planet – and just as outspoken and inspirational as he is – their relationship brought new attention headed his way. As celebrity mags and gossip columns caught on, they were digging for dirt when writing articles on him, and the Daily Mail referred to him as her “beau”. The pair are no longer together, though they remain “great friends,” he says.

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

What was it like stepping into that new world of attention?

“It’s a totally new ballgame. You can get lost and swept up in it, and fall into a mindset where that attention becomes more important than the music. But thankfully it wasn’t like that. I was with someone who was very similar to me, was such an advocate for young people and the music always came first. I think that’s why we clicked because we were both anti-pop stars.”

What did you learn from that experience of new exposure?

“Having taken a glimpse into that pop world, I want absolutely no part of it. That vapid, false world of bullshit. It’s rubbish. I respect it, but I’ll be in the corner with my people. They need this shit right now and to be told the truth. There’s just so much bullshit right now.”

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

There’s no chance of Yungblud ever being reduced to a whisper. As we come to the end of our interview, he reveals that he’s got a mission statement for his next chapter: “I want to bring rock music back to the clubs”. We can confirm he will – he’s played us an unreleased song with two of the biggest names in the game right now to create a mix of pounding pop beats, gnarly guitars and chaotic verses. You’re going to lose your shit to this one.

When we spoke to you last summer you told us that “rock’n’roll music is on life support”. Do you still think that?

“I think it’s very much alive right now. I always knew that it would come back because rock’n’roll is starting to become relevant again with young people. Post Malone just did a song with Ozzy! It’s been reinvented for a new generation.”

Where does the new generation find rock music, then?

“Rock music is back on TikTok [social media platform]. I joined TikTok a week ago and I’ve already got 400k followers because it’s where all the rock and emo kids are now. I did this video with this amazing rock kid called Syd [@punker_irl, 1.5m followers] dancing to Blink 182 and then this new guy called CG5. They both fucking rock.”

Has it helped you understand your audience and rock music differently?

“Definitely! I wanna be the rock star for the 2020 generation. People always advise me: don’t say that you want to be something, just in case you don’t turn out to be it. But I’m not afraid to say that I wanna be the rock kid for them. I hate it when people say: ‘rock isn’t cool’. Rock is so fucking cool. Pouring your heart out is cool.”

Rock music doesn’t necessarily have to be sound though, right? It’s an attitude – that’s what you said about people like Lil Yachty…

“People will be afraid of the unknown at first. Like, I was so scared of trap music. I didn’t know what to make of ‘Gucci Gang’ by Lil Pump, but then I understood it. Travis Scott, Juice Wrld, Lil Pump – they’re the Blink 182 of right fucking now. It’s got the same bounce and emotion, but it’s just new. It’s why Billie Eilish is the biggest artist in the world right now, because she represents something that’s new, exciting and fucking real.”

Does it bother you if people think you’re not an ‘authentic’ rock star?

“At the end of the day people will say, he’s just playing to tracks and that it just sounds like noise to me, but you know what? Your dad was saying that to him about Oasis, his dad about that for The Beatles and his dad about Chuck Berry. People think I’m not authentic or that I’m a bratty kid just shouting about things but that’s fine. If there’s no pushback, there’s no push forward. If I wanted to be normal or liked all the time, I’d work in a cake shop. I ain’t got all the answers, I ain’t Mother Theresa! I’m completely full of contradictions, but that’s my generation. That’s people!”

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Photo Credit: Matt Salacuse

Two days later, Yungblud goes flying again. To celebrate the launch of his new video for ‘Original Me’, MTV have given up some coveted screen-time in New York’s iconic Times Square to premiere the full clip. That’s the kind of honour that’s reserved for the final episode of Seinfeld, not some gobby rocker from Donny.

A teaser on his socials the day prior means that a rabble of fans wait excitedly on the corner of 44th and Broadway upon arrival. When the police finally manage to stop traffic, Yungblud sprints across the road to get in the midst of the mosh-pit that’s formed by the Black Hearts Club. It’s proof that in the midst of an era where a generation feel underrepresented, and rock music being maligned by have-beens and jealous-minded, that a new kind of rockstar like Yungblud can emerge: impassioned, funny, chaotic, life-changing and in the thick of it with his kids.

As the chorus approaches, he climbs the street sign post like King Kong racing up the Empire State Building, and when the song drops he throws himself skyward to land on his crowd. This time, it doesn’t ever look like he’s going to come down.


Photos: Matt Salacuse

Grooming: Jennifer Brent using Smashbox Cosmetics and Davines / TraceyMattingly.com

Styling: Shea Daspin

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