Matt Healy, singer in The 1975, is a proper rockstar. He looks ridiculous, says funny stuff and is convinced the world “needs” all 75 mins of his band’s new album. Dan Stubbs meets him in New York.
“Derrrrrr derrrr derrrr derrrr derrrr!” The 1975 frontman Matt Healy is thrashing an air guitar, posing for pictures by a brick wall in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District sporting a leather jacket, skinny jeans and a sculptural cascade of curly hair. “The Strokes! New York! Indie rock forever!” the 26-year-old shouts. He’s taking the piss. For Healy and his bandmates, indie rock is passé. “It’s just done,” he says later. “Rock’n’roll is very cyclical, I know that, but we’re so far past it now. And being perceived as retrogressive is my biggest fear.”
The 1975 have a mantra for their music: create as you consume. It’s about how we all listen to a multitude of different things and how they want to be the band that ticks every single one of your boxes. “I want to be representative of this generation,” says Healy. “The non-linear consumption of music everybody picks from all over the place… I just want to be truly modern.”
Healy and his bandmates – reserved guitarist Adam Hann, gregarious drummer George Daniel and drily witty bassist Ross MacDonald – are in the middle of their first NME cover shoot. They’ve been in New York for a few days and judging by the bright green kale smoothies they’re slurping, they’re getting into the way of life. Healy says the smoothie tastes like “pond bananas” but ploughs on anyway, having got today off to a skewwhiff start by smoking “the wrong type of weed”.
Ten minutes after striking their best indie rock poses in the shadow of the zig-zagging fire escape, the four are being snapped walking down a cobbled backstreet. “I’m Bob Dylan! Dylan and his three mates!” shouts Healy. He’s still taking the piss. Then a woman walks past with a cute French bulldog, the entire band zip over to pet it and New York’s musical icons are safe again for the time being.
Taking the piss is something The 1975 are very good at, because you can never really tell if they’re being serious or not. They recently tricked their fanbase into thinking they’d split after circulating a fanzine-like image containing a comic strip, a typed statement and an image of two people reading a suspiciously familiar magazine titled ‘Nihilistic Music Expression’, front-page headline: “Is this the end for The 1975?”
It was just a jape. A single soon followed, ‘Love Me’, which pokes fun at the group’s own rockstar pretensions, the generation’s obsession with social media (George wields a giant selfie stick) and their contemporaries (Matt licks a cardboard cutout of Harry Styles in the video). It’s also funky as hell, channelling David Bowie’s ‘Fame’ and Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ to irresistible effect.
It sits on an album, due for release on February 26, that becomes weirder the closer you listen. There’s a boyband-like song called ‘She’s American’ that goes down a storm at New York’s Terminal 5 venue but perhaps shouldn’t, given the lyrics are about a US suitor complaining about Matt’s teeth. Elsewhere, there’s a heartbreaking acoustic track ‘Nana’, which reduced Matt to tears in the studio, and a conventional pop song about cocaine psychosis called ‘UGH!’.
There’s a D’Angelo-style slow-jam (‘If I Believe You’). There’s an instrumental called ‘Please Be Naked’. The title track, typically chosen for best representing an album, is in this case an oddball post-rock thing – “I don’t know, ambient house, Sigur Rós meets Jon Hopkins?” offers Matt.
And the title? Take a deep breath: ‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’. The album is also 75 minutes long. It could be considered a smidge pretentious. Matt beams at the suggestion. “I’d rather people think I’m pretentious than not care. The idea of provoking ambivalence is my biggest fear. Certainly bigger than being seen as a w*nker…”
‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ follows turbulent times for the band. Having first grouped together as teenagers in Macclesfield, they spent years as outsiders on the Manchester music scene, ignored by London labels and local music lovers alike. Matt was 23, working at a Chinese restaurant and living with his mum (you know his mum – it’s Denise Welch from Loose Women) when their manager Jamie decided to put out their music himself. Via four EPs released between 2012 and 2013, they connected with a larger group of outsiders – an ever-growing army of superfans. Suddenly, Matt became “the ambassador of emo for all these kids”.
Releasing their self-titled debut album in September 2013, The 1975 hit the road hard the following year, playing 195 shows in 29 countries, travelling far enough to circle the world six times over. That took its emotional and physical toll, culminating in an on-stage meltdown in Boston in which Healy vented his frustrations on a member of the audience. “I love you!” she shouted. “You don’t have the right to love me,” he snapped back.
When they got back to London a year ago, it was time to reassess. “It was a bit messy trying to adjust to… You know, typical clichéd stuff: drugs, lifestyle and dealing with the polarity of the noise of tour and the silence of being alone,” says Matt. “I was petrified of being alone.”
The pressure of following the Number One hit debut struck, too. Co-writer George suffered what Matt describes as “a nervous breakdown” while in Brazil. “Our main fear was feeling that we didn’t have the ability to capitalise on what we’d created,” says Matt. “The turning point was when we just forgot about all the bullsh*t. We soon realised that the only album we wanted to make was an album that’s about conviction and about our truth.”
There’s plenty of truth in Healy’s lyrics. Much as ‘Love Me’ punctured social media addicts, Matt’s songs are the musical equivalent of sticking a d*ck pic on Snapchat – they lay him utterly bare. It helps forge that deep connection with his fans, the largest proportion of whom look like displaced boyband devotees. As we approach the venue in New York, a couple of hundred of them are queuing up hours before showtime. Two catch a glimpse of the band through the not-quite-tinted-enough car windows and bolt down the road behind us. “Don’t run after the car, love,” mutters Matt, slinking down in his seat. “It’s not the ’60s.”
Written down, some of the things Healy says can make him seem like a fabulous narcissist, but it’s said knowingly. There’s a neediness to him that’s endearing, too. “I love our fans so much because in order to be a proper fan of this band, you need to really get me,” he says at one point. “You need to understand me, or give me the benefit of the doubt. Or you need to like me. And as someone who says, ‘Oh, I don’t care,’ I obviously really want to be liked, don’t I?”
He talks about his generation with some detachment, particularly with regard to young famous people. “I see all these celebrities hanging out with one another and I’m very suspicious of whether they’re actually friends or not,” he says. “As soon as famous people of my generation get near each other – you know who I’m talking about, your Cara Delevingne and Kylie Jenner people – they’re all a tight group and I don’t really know what they represent. People just want to be in photos with people. ‘Squad goals’. The phrase makes me die.”
Matt counts ultimate it-girl Alexa Chung among his own pals, but says, “I’m a musician, not a socialite who ended up in a band. That’s my love: music as a form. I’m not doing it because I wanna shag birds or be famous. I’m doing it because it really turns me on. When I have that moment on my own writing, when I get it, I equate it with a sexual desire. It’s like a carnal thing within me. It’s not about anybody else.”
You suspect there’s a shy person in there somewhere. “There is a self-defence to going on stage,” he admits. “I know there are dads in the audience rolling their eyes, so I end up being the clown. I’m not Michael Hutchence. I’m not Bono.” He says he was “never a shrinking violet”, but that increasing adulation hasn’t made him more outgoing. “It goes the other way for me. It makes me more introspective. Makes me feel a bit recalcitrant. I’m not a rockstar in my head; I’m me. I know what I’m like.”
This, he says, has extended to his personal life too. A great lover of women, if his lyrics are to believed, he finds himself a modern King Midas. “It’s gotten a bit harder to be honest with you, because if you’re somebody in my position, there are women who do adore you,” he says.
“It’s not a w*nker thing to say – you saw them chasing the car down the road. When they’re the facts and you pride yourself on being a grown-up and a progressive person and not a misogynist, the first thing you do, instead of going, ‘Oh, this is good I could probably get off with her,’ is, ‘If I try and get off with her she’s going to think I’m a w*nker because it’s so predictable.’ I’ve got what I want but what I’m faced with is, ‘Oh yeah, but you’re like that with all the girls.’”
There’s a seam of worry and self-criticism in Matt’s lyrics. One on the new album has him pondering whether he’s too old to be smoking weed. Given that his lyrics come from his own experiences, I ask what will happen if he stops finding himself so brilliantly fascinating. He laughs nervously.
“Erm. God. I’ve never even thought about that. The ultimate fear.”
Some hours later, the band’s arrival on stage at Terminal 5 prompts nothing short of hysteria. Their show is a mini version of an arena-style production, every single surface on the stage, backdrop and five towers a video screen glowing bright pink or fizzing with static. It’s designed, says Matt, to create the feel of a Tumblr page.
Matt’s on-stage persona is part English fop, part contorting Lizard King and part concerned older brother. He refuses to perform at one point until the crowd stop crushing the front rows. He also spends most of the show shirtless. His performance is, he says after, “more rock’n’roll” than your average indie rocker. “If you’ve got a saxophone out and stupid trousers on and you’re licking the drummer’s leg, isn’t that rock’n’roll?”
“I just want to be the band of this time,” says Matt. “The one. The four boys in a band who play instruments. That’s the thing I was taking the piss out of with the Strokes thing. We do have those clean lines – the four boys, two guitars, bass, drums, leather jackets – but it’s just detail.”
The aim, then, is to reach as many people as possible. “If you don’t want your art to reach people, that negates you as an artist,” says Matt. “I hate that indie band bullsh*t of acting like you don’t care so you don’t get judged about being sh*t. That’s what indie is now. That fey sense of ‘we don’t care’. Well, don’t do it then. F**k off and do something else.”
With this in mind, their modus operandi looks either brave, foolhardy or – perhaps – genius, because their next move is that brilliant but bonkers second album. “I’m challenging people to sit through an hour and 15 minutes and 17 songs that all sound completely different from each other,” admits Matt. “It’s quite an emotional investment. It’s art. It’s what I want to do.”
He pauses. “The world… No, I’m not saying that.”
Not saying what?
“I was about to say the world needs this album. F**k it, you can go for that. The world needs this album.”