Yungblud: “I wanted to write my ‘Urban Hymns’ or ‘Back To Black’”

Doncaster’s pop-punk rebel with a cause comes back down to earth with his theatrical second album, ‘Weird!’

Three years ago, in the back room of dingy London pub The Water Rats, NME made the following declaration: “We might have seen the future, and it looks like Yungblud”. It was the first encounter we’d had with then-19-year-old Dominic Harrison, who was still finding his footing under the Yungblud moniker. He stomped on stage in bright pink socks, sported an emo fringe and possessed all the trappings of an angsty teen still trying to find his place in the world. From this electrifying – albeit scattershot – performance, you could tell that he was still unsure what the Yungblud experience was destined to look like.

There’s probably little chance Harrison imagined that, for his second NME cover shoot in little over a year, he’d be painted head-to-toe in sparkling gold body paint. At our shoot in London, he prances around the studio with the same glee as a child in tiger face paint would a village fête. As he readies to nail the cover shoot he turns our way and shouts: “I feel like I’m in fookin’ Goldfinger!”

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME. Blazer, Shirt and Bracelets: Alexander McQueen

But with his theatrical and personal second album ‘Weird!’, Harrison is finally feeling comfortable about what his role in the world is supposed to be… even if he’s ended up as a punk-rock Goldfinger for a day or so.

The Doncaster-born musician painted himself as a lovelorn reject on 2017’s self-titled debut EP, but on the cover for ‘Weird!’ – featuring seven different versions of himself, including two kissing – he embraces his generation’s penchant for complicated and contrasting personalities. He says that he tried to use the cover to reflect the influences that punk fashion hero Vivienne Westwood, Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford and even, er, Aldous Snow – the fictional rockstar played by Russell Brand in 2010 film Get Him To the Greek – have had on him.

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Yungblud on the cover of NME

“I feel like I’m seven different people at once and I wanted to reflect that in this cover,” he tells NME a couple of weeks later on Zoom, sporting yellow-tinged “Elvis Costello glasses” and a messy red-topped mop. Make that eight, then.

Whoever Yungblud strives to be on any given day, he plays each role with serious conviction on the brilliantly bonkers new album. There are My Chemical Romance theatrics on ‘The Freak Show’ and ‘Theresa’, a splash of Beastie Boys braggadocio on mind-bending ‘Superdeadfriends!’ and Lily-Allen-meets-Blur’s-’Parklife’ on the Britpop-nodding romp ‘Charity’. It’s a complete riot, committed to being a mash-up of all of his influences, reflective of his generation’s genreless listening habits.

“I always ask myself three things when I’m writing a song,” he explains. “Firstly, ‘Am I telling the truth in this song?’ Then I ask myself, ‘Could anyone else sing it?’ And does this mean everything to me right now in this moment?’ If those questions get answered, then I’ll record it and release it – and I think every song on this album fits that criteria.”

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME. Shoes: Alexander McQueen

The Yungblud from three years ago would probably also like to know that he got this current point by being authentically himself. He’s gone from drinking Stella Artois with a then-unknown Lewis Capaldi to being one of the most influential and impactful rock stars of the decade. His 2018 debut album ‘21st Century Liability’ and 2019 follow-up EP ‘The Underrated Youth’ were explosive statements for a rebel with a cause.

He since has collaborated with blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and pop megastar Halsey, gained praise from Dave Grohl and Taylor Swift, shut down New York’s Times Square for the launch of ‘Original Me’’s music video, and bagged an NME Award for Best Video in February this year. But this thing has nowhere near peaked yet: his first arena shows are booked in the UK for next year. At no point has he compromised his sound or beliefs.

His origin story reads like one from a comic book: Harrison was born in Doncaster, but a move to a performing arts school in London aged 15 didn’t pan out – he found himself struggling to fit in with the cliques. He used the rejection to fuel his own community, the Black Hearts Club (BHC), a diverse collection of outsiders who find solace in his music. Their stories include discussing mental health and sexual fluidity, while campaigning for trans rights and anti-racism: the Yungblud umbrella welcomes and listens to all.

“I’m literally a Yorkshire Tea bag!”

“My fanbase have redefined every emotion and feeling I’ve ever felt,” he says. “To belong somewhere is to figure out that you have lungs and now how to breathe. I’ve met every kind of kid from every continent and every shape, size, colour, sexuality, point of view and they’ve impacted me so heavily – I belong to a community that allows people to be who they are.

“I don’t have to hide behind an insecure anger like there was on my first album, ‘21st Century Liability’. I’m a lot more reasonable than I used to be instead of barking straight back, which is what I used to do because I’d been hit by pain and aggression and backlash my whole life.”

Despite that, he says that the 2018 debut gave him to have an outlet that was “beautifully aggressive and full of contradictions”. He rallies against anxiety and injustices, particularly on ‘Machine Gun (F**k the NRA)’, where he not-so-discreetly tackles the issue of gun ownership and the influence of National Rifle Association lobbyists in the US. There are naive moments, for sure, but it was merely his first outlet to express himself.

“I was just throwing out how I felt at any given moment at the wall and not holding back without reservation or pushback,” he says. “The first album was like me putting my number on the internet and saying: ‘Call me if you feel like me!’ But, fuck me, a lot of people felt like me.”

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME. Hat: Stylist’s archive, Blazer, Trousers and Shoes: Moschino

What started as a niche but loyal community has ballooned into a dedicated worldwide movement. The BHC is used by fellow misunderstood fans to connect on social media platforms including Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. Harrison is at the center of it, but keen to empower his fans rather than harbour some messiah complex.

However, 2020 has brought new challenges to the fray for young people, and the outlet of a Yungblud live show still feels a long way off. The pandemic has dramatically altered the future of young adults worldwide, and he has particular sympathy for those in the north of England. Recent analysis suggests that young people in the region were the hardest hit in the job markets and he calls Britain’s recent GCSE and A Level exams fiasco, in which students were prevented from sitting exams and assigned grades by a controversial algorithm, “fucking diabolical”. After using his platform to provide answers to his fanbase, how on earth does he tackle what’s going on right now?

He sighs, “A lot of people in the north feel forgotten and isolated and I want to make sure that the north is focused on and remembered in any way I can. We’re hopefully planning some kind of homecoming show in Doncaster for next year, but it’s early days. My advice is to use this time to gather up your ammo in terms of who you are, what you wanna be, what you wanna do and how to express yourself. I know right now it might feel like you’re going anywhere, but you are. It’s such a fucked-up time right now, all we can do is get ready for when it ends.”

He found some sense of hope in Oli Sykes, frontman of Sheffield metal-popstars Bring Me The Horizon. In Sykes he saw similarities to his own life; raised on the outskirts of Sheffield, in the town of Stocksbridge, Sykes was similarly out-there kid whose band grew from niche metal favourites to pop mainstays: “He literally redefined my perception of growing up in wearing make-up and being different in the north. He basically saved my life.”

“Our gigs are like a car rattling and sputtering and the wheels might fall off at any moment – but you can’t look away”

A rare highlight of 2020 came when the pair collaborated on recent single ‘Obey’, which featured on BMTH’s collaboration-heavy new EP, ‘Post Human: Survival Horror’, alongside appearances by Babymetal and Nova Twins. “I’d waited my whole life to scream on a Bring Me The Horizon song”, Yungblud says. “I was pissed in LA when he called and I told him that I was going to the studio immediately. He’s like, ‘Woah, woah, woah – we haven’t finished the song’. I said I’d been waiting for this call my whole life, got into the studio, turned the mic on and just screamed for seven hours.”

Like all of us, Harrison’s year has been severely disrupted. After his performance at the NME Awards in February, his worldwide tour – including a three-night residency at north London’s 2,300 capacity The Forum – was postponed due to the pandemic. He used the time to reflect on how to further engage with his fans in less traditional formats and broadcast three episodes of The Yungblud Show on YouTube (think Jackass meets late ’00s T4) from his LA base. In recent weeks, he’s undertaken a 16-date virtual tour of abandoned tour dates, with fans from all over the world able to tune in for exclusive performances of his new album.

“I didn’t just want to do one show and everyone buys it and then that’s it,” he says. “I’d already done that with The Yungblud Show and we were one of the first people to do it and these livestreams are just glorified music videos now, anyway. I wanted a live, warts-and-all show with energy and mistakes, just like a Yungblud live show is. Our gigs are like a car rattling and sputtering and the wheels might fall off at any moment – but you can’t look away. I work well when I have something to kick against, and when all my shows got cancelled I had a chance to do that.”

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME

‘Weird!’ is a coming-of-age romp that fuses pop, rock, emo and hip-hop – energetic, emotional and gloriously messy all at once. It’s the sound of a wide-eyed kid who’s not just got the keys to the sweetshop and gobbled them all up, but popped a few up his bum out of giddy excitement.

Yet he had to find that thing to kick against to spark inspiration – and it turned out to be the person he was becoming. Despite his beginnings, Yungblud’s career initially took off in mainland Europe and in the US. A high-profile romance with pop star Halsey landed him in the gossip pages last year, all the while he was juggling a career ready to skyrocket – along with a reckless tour lifestyle. He decided that he needed to come home.

He says of his success: “It did feel very American at the time, because the UK hadn’t really got me yet and all the tastemakers thought that Yungblud was going to disintegrate very quickly. And I love America and the people, but I’d been away and on tour since I was 19 – I needed to feel England underneath me for this album. I’m literally a Yorkshire Tea bag! Not even Yorkshire Gold, I’m the Red label… and I needed to get back to my hot water and milk.”

“I feel like I’m seven different people at once”

A UK tour last winter – which culminated in a headline show at the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy – helped him come back down to earth. “After you play a sold-out Brixton, you don’t sleep, y’know? We’d go out and do what every adult does after a show like that – naughty things. So I walked up [upmarket neighbourhood] Primrose Hill and looked out over London and ended up writing the lyrics for ‘Weird!’ pretty much there. I needed to make a British statement and write the album I’d always wanted to write since I was a kid in Donny – I wanted to write my ‘Urban Hymns’ or ‘Back To Black’.”

In particular, he channelled the spirit of Amy Winehouse throughout the process, ensuring his individuality was never compromised: “She’s a huge influence for me. Like, once I started to get a little bit bigger a lot more fucking cooks come in the kitchen, and I’d have some meeting where a label executive would say they wanted to ‘normalise me’ and make a song that’ll just be big for TikTok. I’d have Amy in my ear going, ‘Fuck off, mate – tell the fucking truth’.”

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME. Trousers: Alexander McQueen

So how does he go about reclaiming British identity? For many young people, to be British is to be permanently embarrassed about the historical atrocities our empire has been complicit in in the past, or of modern-day farces, such as the calamitous Brexit fall-out. What is there to be proud of?

“History can carry a lot of weight, and we need to learn from that,” he says. “There are a lot of things that make me ashamed when I look at the Union Jack and what British powers have done over time. But it’s up to our generation to learn from history to make sure we’re nothing like it and build the best future we can.”

He channelled this into the video for ‘Weird!’’s Britpop-indebted single ‘Strawberry Lipstick’: “I wanted to make a chainmail Union Jack dress and wear some lipstick because that is what is going to represent this era in the UK: a boy in a skirt saying, ‘We will be fucking listened to’. I’m not the whole representation – Yungblud is all of us; I’m saying, ‘How the fuck can I culminate everyting I’ve learnt together in one image?’”

Though it was largely influenced by his British identity, the album was recorded in Los Angeles earlier this year. In January, he spent most of his time larking about with rapper turned pop-punk hero Machine Gun Kelly (who recently likened their relationship to Elton John and Jimi Hendrix) and breakout US rappers 24kGoldn and Iann Dior: “We’d be in the studio all day, go to The Roxy Theatre on Sunset Strip, get inordinately off our tits, go back to someone’s house, write until eight in the morning, sleep until ten, go back to the studio and do it all again. Honestly, we were drunk for a month all of us, but we were making incredible shit.”

“The first album was like me putting my number on the internet and saying: ‘Call me if you feel like me!’”

Being in the US also meant that he saw the fall-out from the murder of George Floyd in May and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests up close. After years of advocating for equality, he had to walk the walk. Of the global anti-racist marches that defined the summer, he says: “That was history at that moment. People from all walks of life risking their health in a pandemic and risking their lives to stand up for what is right – I needed to be there because I believed in it in my blood and guts.”

He did, however, feel discomfort about his involvement being extrapolated by media outlets, when he was spotted protesting in Los Angeles with his ex, Halsey. He insists it was merely a coincidence that they ended up in the same place and at the protest.

“We were just shouting for what we believed in, but it turned into this media story and that was never an intention,” he says. “She is so vocal on those issues, her Dad and her brothers are Black men and she sees the pain in that community first-hand. I was there because I see the pain from the people I speak to about racial injustices and the lack of safety.”

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME

It’s that open dialogue with fans that inspired the album highlight – and his best song to date – ‘mars’, an emotive rock ballad that’d sit nicely on Green Day’s 2004 album ‘American Idiot’. The song tells the story of a fan he met on tour in Maryland who was struggling to convince her parents that she was a trans girl and not their son. In the song, he recalls the “saddest pair of eyes that you ever seen” and someone who “can’t be herself when she’s somebody else”.

Harrison gets emotional talking about the impact that that fan had: “It was quite similar to where I grew up and it was quite repressive in certain ways. Her parents couldn’t understand that she wasn’t their son and had never been their son. They’d say it was just a phase she was going through and to stop wearing dresses and make-up. But she saved up money and got good grades because she wanted to bring her parents to a Yungblud show because they thought it might help them understand who she was. After the show, her parents told them that they’d seen other kids like her and their passion, fire and ability to be individuals and it helped accept them for who she was.”

He continues: “I just couldn’t fathom it. A community that we built and are a part of allowed someone’s life to be completely changed and allowed her to be accepted by her parents.” He hopes to re-reconnect with that person and thank her for her courage.

NME Cover Yungblud 2020
Credit: Perou for NME

Critics may sneer at his unbridled enthusiasm, and others may dismiss his diverse followers as just a bunch of kids who don’t know the world, but with ‘mars’ there’s now concrete proof of what the Yungblud experience can look like: change and individuality.

On this wacky journey, he has been figuring out what this Yungblud thing was going to be all about on the fly, just like he was doing so at The Water Rats all those years ago. But in this community, one fan found the courage to be true to themselves and make the world a little more special; perhaps that’s what Harrison was aiming for all along.

Yungblud’s ‘Weird!’ is out now

CREDITS:

Styling by Andrew Mukamal
Style Assist by Caterina Ospina
Makeup by Sven Bayerbach