In New York City around about this time last year, Matty Healy sat down with NME and talked up his band The 1975’s next record. “The world needs this album,” he said. There was, as there always is with Healy, something of a nudge and a wink, a bit of rock’n’roll arrogance delivered with a running commentary on the mental process leading up to it. It was a big, ridiculous claim about a big, ridiculous album, but you have to admit he had a point. Today, in the bar at Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, Healy is informed that NME has named ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ its Album Of The Year 2016. The frontman – wearing a baggy black hoodie with a ‘Parental Advisory: Exquisite Lyrics’ print – is fabulously nonchalant about it. “Yeah, it feels good,” he shrugs. “But it’s a bit, like, ‘So-rreeee,’ isn’t it – for that time you called us the worst band in the world [at 2014’s NME Awards].” They’ve come a long way, baby.
For anyone not already up to speed, a quick recap: ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ (as Healy himself abbreviates it) followed a wildly popular but critically ignored 2013 debut album that catapulted the band – and particularly the charismatic Healy – to the level of fame that gives power to personal demons. Coupled with a punishing touring schedule, Healy hit a self- destructive low point from which the second album was both the result and his salvation – rarely has cocaine paranoia been captured quite so adeptly as on the single ‘UGH’. “My life had changed and I couldn’t make another record about being a bored, middle-class teenager in Macclesfield, but I also didn’t want to get caught in the trap of making a record about ‘poor famous me’,” he says. “You know, ‘Oh God, Champagne tastes horrible; aren’t threesomes hard?’ So I went quite inward – it’s not about going partying, it’s an odyssey into my brain.”
‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ is that rare follow-up record that knocks spots off the debut, its broad musical sound a reflection of the band’s far-ranging tastes, pinching from artists as diverse as Bowie, Yazoo and D’Angelo. “All creation stems from imitation and that was very much at the forefront of my mind,” says Healy. “I had a list of songs by other artists that I was going to rip off. Like, I need a song like that and I’m going to do it.”
In a year in which giants including Beyoncé, Drake, Frank Ocean, Lady Gaga and Radiohead have put out new records, the two top spots on our list are occupied by those who took a greater gamble than the rest: Kanye West, with his ever-changing ‘living album’ ‘The Life Of Pablo’, and The 1975 with their epically long, genre-hopping, wilfully pretentious opus. “We wanted it to feel very cinematic and it is almost the length of a film,” says Healy. “We got to the point where we were told it wouldn’t fit on a CD if we carried on. It was just this really exciting creative bender, and the more ridiculous it got, the more subversive it got. But there’s f**k all wrong with the album. Nothing. It’s perfect for me. I could spend another two years on it and maybe make it three per cent better.”
Today marks the band’s third visit to Chicago in 12 months. Healy, who spent his formative years in well-to-do Wilmslow, Cheshire, but now lives in London, jokes that he’s seen more of the USA than Hillary Clinton this year, “because we went to f**king Wisconsin”. The 1975’s relationship with the US is a mutual love affair. “Michael Jackson, Talking Heads and Back To The Future always resonated with me a bit more than Joy Division, The Smiths and Withnail And I,” he says. According to the band’s drummer George Daniel, Healy’s started singing like an American too. “He said the other day, ‘You’re crooning on this album, like you’re f**king Elvis or something.’ I listened back to ‘Change Of Heart’ and thought, ‘Oh yeah, what a dick.’”
Being in the States during the presidential election campaign has challenged Healy’s understanding of the place. “Every night on stage, whether we’d been in a Trump state or not, I’d been saying, ‘We’re English and we know what it’s like to f**k up your country very swiftly.’ And even after I said it, it still happened. Can you believe that?” The band were in New York when the result came in, and Healy cried when Trump won. “I was tired and we felt a bit defeated,” he says. “I got very much caught up in the race, bigotry, Donald-Trump-says-stupid-things stuff, so when it happened I was like, ‘F**king white people, what the f**k are we doing’, you know? But the fact of the matter is America voted for Trump – white, black, Latino, middle class, poor – so the thing now is to understand their genuine concerns.” Is it odd having your biggest, best year while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart? “No, because I’m not that caught up in myself,” says Healy. “So much mad s**t’s happened: Donald Trump’s the president. Brexit. We got nominated for the Mercury. I mean, I’ll be glad to be over it. I’m running on fumes, emotionally and physically. It’s been intense for me and intense globally – it’s so hard to keep up, to be ‘woke’, as they say. It’s like living in a mad TV show.”
Here are some things that happened in The 1975’s mad TV show recently: Healy was invited to Diplo’s house to hang out, but thought the Halloween decorations looked so cheap he must be in the wrong place. Bassist Ross MacDonald almost got in a fight with a notoriously bratty pop megastar. They played a one-off show backed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. And when the band found themselves in the same LA hotel as much of the Desert Trip line-up – Bob Dylan’s band and Neil Young included – it was Who frontman Roger Daltrey who came up to Healy and asked him if he was “that kid from The 1975”. Feeling shy, Healy took off to his room for a crafty smoke instead. “People ask if it blows my mind to have loads of girls outside our gigs and all that stuff, but to be honest, it doesn’t, because you’re not wired to have your mind blown every 20 minutes,” he says. “You get used to stuff. You can’t walk around s**tting yourself.”
The next day, we meet in the massive Chicago Music Exchange store, which seems to have the effect on guitarists that a trip to Toys R Us has on your average five-year-old. The 1975’s Adam Hann is there, and he and Healy watch a vintage valve reverb unit in action with the lustiness of Homer Simpson eyeing up a doughnut. Healy’s in the market for a new guitar and he narrows the choice down to two: a century-old Martin that he reckons makes him sound like cardigan folkie James Taylor, and a 1960s Gibson. I suggest maybe he’d like the Taylor Swift signature edition acoustic on the hanger behind him, and he politely diverts the subject matter, having spent two years denying he ever had relations with that woman. “That’s where the money is, signature guitar ranges,” he says, by way of deflection. He plumps for the Gibson, a snip at $3,950. “That’s from the album three budget though,” he says, before heading back to the venue for tonight’s gig. “That’s not me thinking, ‘What am I going to buy: bacon or guitars?’”
Though we’re still celebrating ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’, the next 1975 album is already forming in the band’s minds. “I don’t have an attention span, so I’m onto the next one,” says Healy. “What’s it going to be like? Even more ridiculous, I’d imagine. It’s almost starting to sound like a deconstructed version of The 1975, like if The 1975 were falling apart a bit.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Healy’s more famous than ever, but he’s not letting himself fall into old habits. “Cocaine is extremely old hat for me – it makes me feel like s**t – and I backed away from social media, so I’m just not wired in any more,” he says. “I feel a bit more comfortable with being normal. I think I felt a duty to be famous. I think there was an element of me being, ‘Oh God, I should be going out, or be at this thing,’ but I didn’t want to embrace anything other than smoking weed and writing songs, and I got a bit more comfortable with that being OK.”
Touring life is practically suburban, he says: a lot of weed, FIFA, writing and hanging out with the band and crew, nearly all of whom are old friends. As he speaks, we can hear the low hum of Daniel racing a remote control car around the empty venue.
Healy’s most troubled times typically came at home, when the routine of touring was replaced with the silence of everyday life. Now, he has a house of his own that’s a “three-minute skateboard” from best mate Daniel’s, and a Bullmastiff cross named Allen Ginsberg keeps him company. “I used to think I was a beat poet,” he says. “Now I have a dog named after one.”
Being settled seems to suit him. “My job is curating my life through music, which is f**king mint,” he says, “and now I’ve found a balance, I’m thinking, ‘If this is it, if this is what I get to do now forever, then f**k me, that’s a steal. I have nailed it!’”
Later that night, at the improbably early time of 8pm, the band take to the stage at Chicago’s ornate fantasyland Aragon Ballroom to play a refined, reinvented version of the show they’ve been touring all year, in which the entire stage is covered with video screens. The latest incarnation, which they bring to London’s The O2 and Manchester Arena in December, sees deeper cuts on the setlist and feels more leftfield. For much of it, the band are silhouettes: great for fans of visual art, not so much for anyone who’s there to gaze at Healy’s face.
This, you suspect, is Healy’s grand plan entering a new phase: The 1975 are a pop Trojan horse that’s revealing itself to be something a bit more complicated, a bit weirder. Trust that he won’t f**k it up: there’s a strategy in place. “We’ll put something out next year, whether it be a single or an EP, album in 2018, headline Reading and Leeds that year, headline Glastonbury the year after or the year after that.” Simple as that? “Yeah. I mean, I haven’t got the offers yet. But I tell you now, I’m doing it. Who else is going to do it?”