They’ve headlined arenas, topped the charts, and singer Olly Alexander has become a powerful voice on mental health issues, sexuality and LGBT rights. Plus: they’re super fun. Years & Years tell Nick Levine about a massive first 12 months in the spotlight
Just over a year ago, Years & Years were on their first ever headline tour as their single ‘King’ worked its way to Number One in the charts. That was “cool”, says singer Olly Alexander now. “I would forget about it, and then I’d remember. Then I’d be like, ‘I’m Number One this week. F**k you world!’” Since then, Alexander and bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy (bass) and Emre Türkmen (keys) have hardly had a chance to process everything they’ve achieved. Follow-up single ‘Shine’ was a hit in July, debut album ‘Communion’ entered the charts at Number One soon after, and the band’s live audience kept swelling. They’re presently on another UK headline tour that culminates this week in a sold-out show at London’s 12,500-capacity SSE Arena, Wembley. “It still feels weird to consider ourselves an arena band,” Türkmen says.
Meanwhile, Alexander has stepped forward as an important and thought-provoking new voice. In recent interviews he’s shone a spotlight on mental health issues by speaking candidly about his own battles with anxiety and depression, while simultaneously using his growing public profile to champion LGBT rights. In February 2016, Years & Years introduced their latest video ‘Desire’ as an exploration of “poly-multi-hetero-homo-sappho-inter-gender-queer” sexuality and Alexander wrote a lengthy Facebook post explaining the clip’s intentions. “I am an openly gay male singer, in a band called Years & Years; we make pop music,” he told fans. “I chose to make this video about sex, to portray myself as a sexual character. I choose this because I do not want to hide or limit my sexuality. I want to make videos and songs and art that celebrate all different kinds of sexuality and queer identities.” Years & Years are still the fun new band who make us dance, but now they’re also making us think.
Today, they’re shooting their first NME cover at London’s fancy Waldorf Hilton Hotel, and after they’ve restored their energy levels with a quick swig of coffee and a few bites of cake, we delve into everything they’ve been through in their incredible first year, piece by piece: the good, the bad and the properly surreal…
On why their songs connect with so many people
“I never want to just put in a cheesy lyric” – Olly Alexander
Although Years & Years collaborated with outside songwriters on debut album ‘Communion’, they say it’s the three of them working together that gives their songs a “human” quality. “I’ve done bits of writing for other people but when I’m writing music as Years & Years, I’m using my life and my stories and my experiences,” says Olly, who pens the lyrics and melodies. “I want it to be authentic and real but also to work as a pop song – I never want to just put in a cheesy line.” An example is aptly titled album track ‘Real’, which was inspired by Alexander’s “really bad relationship” with a former boyfriend. “When I met him, I was really wasted and I fell off a bin and had to go A&E because I sprained my wrist, so I put in the line, ‘Broke my bones playing games with you’. And then I got this rash, but it wasn’t like a sexual rash – honestly! – I had really bad eczema. That’s where the line, ‘I itch all night, I itch for you’ comes from.” There’s a faint hint of embarrassment hanging in the air. “I’m sweating a lot right now,” says Olly.
On why they’re no One Direction
“Someone said we could have come out of a test tube in Simon Cowell’s basement” – Emre Türkmen
Despite their snowballing popularity, Years & Years think some people may still have the wrong idea about them. One recent article even suggested they might be manufactured. “I was like, who would manufacture a band featuring an ex-architect, an Aussie who’s into tango and a younger gay frontman who’s not going to do all the things that other f**king people do? So that kind of pissed me off,” says Türkmen, the ex-architect. He and bassist Goldsworthy, the Australian, met online through findabandmate.com in 2010 and quickly bonded over a shared love of Radiohead. Alexander joined the band shortly afterwards when Goldsworthy, with whom he had a friend in common, heard him singing in the shower. Years & Years were a five-piece for a while, but slimmed down to a trio before signing to Polydor Records in 2014. Alexander initially pursued a parallel career as an actor, winning supporting roles in films including The Riot Club and appearing on TV’s Skins and Penny Dreadful, but full-time band commitments now make this impossible. So why do they think there’s still the odd lingering misconception? “Because we make pop music and Olly’s pretty,” Türkmen says with a smile.
On embracing your uniqueness
“It’s good to be awkward” – Olly Alexander
Alexander recently said he can be “a really awkward frontman on stage” – and that’s fine by him. “Being vulnerable is good because the audience gets an authentic experience – you’re not just banging out the same thing every night,” he says. Authenticity is key in the group’s lyrics, too. Olly pointedly sings about same-sex relationships – something that’s still shockingly rare in mainstream pop. The songs resonate because it’s rare to hear a male frontman – however he defines his sexuality – singing about being vulnerable in a romantic or sexual context, as Alexander does on ‘King’: “I was a king under your control”. “I think you’ve totally hit the nail on the head,” agrees Olly. “Another artist who’s really capitalised on that of late is Justin Bieber. You have to look at the people who write with Justin Bieber, who are amazing writers like [Semi Precious Weapons frontman] Justin Tranter and [23-year-old pop wunderkind] Julia Michaels. Justin Tranter is an incredible queer voice in pop music and he’s writing for Justin Bieber: it’s genius. Think about how rare it is to have a song like ‘Sorry’ being sung by one of our biggest male pop stars. It’s really unheard of and I think people clearly love that.”
On recent encounters with mega-celebrities
“I feel like Geri Halliwell is ignoring me” – Olly Alexander
Even after their supernova year, Years & Years are clearly still having fun. “None of us takes ourselves too seriously,” Alexander says. “And that’s been a constant throughout. Because if you’re not having fun, I’m not really sure why you’d be doing this.” Although they left this year’s BRITs empty-handed after missing out on four awards, it didn’t stop them enjoying UK music’s biggest party. “Like, Lana Del Rey was sat next to us texting,” says Alexander. “I was like, ‘You don’t have a phone, Lana Del Rey! You, like, live inside a coffin!’ But she was lovely.” One famous face the band haven’t yet bumped into is Geri Halliwell, to whom Alexander paid homage at Years & Years’ 2015 Halloween gig, when he performed as Geri in ‘The Splice Girls’. “I feel like she’s ignoring me,” Alexander says playfully. “I sent out a message to her! I mean, I dressed up as a Geri zombie!” Türkmen chips in, “Yeah, but is that the right message to be sending her?”
On Twitter trolls and haters
“I don’t understand why people ‘@’ me on Twitter when they’re saying I can’t sing” – Olly Alexander
Years & Years have a very healthy Twitter following of 355,000 and their official account doesn’t feel as though it’s being policed by record company marketing execs (“hiiiiiii we didn’t win anything but we did win being the biggest losers and that’s its own special award PLUS ADELE IS REAL SHE IS REAL,” they tweeted shortly after the BRITs). But as so many of today’s actors, musicians and public figures are finding, the instant connection that Twitter provides can come at a price. “I get trolled,” Alexander sighs. “The usual stuff – sometimes it’s homophobic, like gay hate. But I don’t understand why people ‘@’ me on Twitter to say ‘Olly Alexander can’t sing’ or ‘Olly Alexander, you’re ugly as f**k’. If we’ve been on TV I don’t go on Twitter for a while after. I get some people who are really gross and make rape jokes about me. It’s f**ked up. That’s why I can’t read too much any more because I don’t need to be seeing that s**t.”
On standing for something
“I do whatever I can to be a spokesperson for things I believe in” – Olly Alexander
Alexander’s LGBT rights and mental health advocacy has been widely praised, and rightly so – Gay Times even branded him “the most important gay pop star of our times”. But what makes him want to speak out when plenty of other pop stars never do? “There was just this stage where I realised that people were listening to what I was saying and I could actually say something I believe in and, like… why wasn’t I doing that? It’s not because I think I have a responsibility as a pop star or whatever; it’s because I think I have a responsibility as a human being. I care more about that than trying to maintain a distance or keep any kind of mystique going as an artist.” Olly says he doesn’t class himself as a role model, but someone in a position to “start a conversation”. He says, “Whatever I say, it deserves to be scrutinised, and I want to say something positive.”
On the challenge of playing arenas
“It’s going to be the own-brand Katy Perry tour” – Emre Türkmen
As they prepare for their biggest gig yet, Alexander says Years & Years have tried to make their show “arena-ready” with “outfit changes, staging stuff, lights – it’s basically going to be like the Katy Perry tour,” according to Olly. “Maybe the own-brand Katy Perry tour,” retorts Türkmen. But as the shows have grown, “it hasn’t felt any less personal,” Türkmen says more seriously. Goldsworthy agrees: “[We get] a really loud, vocal crowd.
Our sound engineer does a reading and they’re louder than the music by, like, 10 decibels. Which is a lot of decibels.” Despite their intense schedule, it’s obvious as they talk that Years & Years are still enjoying life on the road. At one point, Alexander and Türkmen gently tease Goldsworthy for his unusual choice of pre-gig tipple, which happens to be “a straight vodka with a few blueberries”. I tell him it sounds like the sort of thing Gwyneth Paltrow might drink and he replies, “My God, thank you, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!”
On the band’s future
“We’ve already started thinking about the next album” – Mikey Goldsworthy
Years & Years recently debuted a new song called ‘See Me Now’ in their live shows, but it’s not being earmarked for their next album. “I think that’s just a freebie – maybe a B-side or something,” Alexander says. When Goldsworthy suggests the band are “thinking” about a follow-up to ‘Communion’, Türkmen clarifies that it’s still “too soon” for Years & Years to release anything more substantial than a playlist. “But I want to work with whoever produced ‘Work’ by Rihanna!” Alexander proposes. For now, Years & Years are concentrating on conquering the UK’s arenas and sealing their reputation as the pop group who matter. “We’re trying to be an authentic part of the pop-dance world,” Alexander explains. “I just hope people realise that all this comes from us – that it was all our idea!”
Who’s who in Years & Years?
EMRE TÜRKMEN, 27,
Plays: Keyboards, beats
From: London via Turkey
Musical influences: The Beatles, Jai Paul, Timbaland
Fun fact: While an architect, he helped design Brighton & Hove Albion’s Amex Stadium
OLLY ALEXANDER, 25
Plays: Vocals, keyboards
From: London via Glos.
Musical influences: Joni Mitchell, Aaliyah, Robyn
Fun fact: He once opened for Belle & Sebastian with a solo Whitney Houston cover.
MIKEY GOLDSWORTHY, 26
From: London via Australia
Musical influences: Sigur Rós, Radiohead, Flying Lotus
Fun fact: He used to be a waiter at the Michelin-starred River Café restaurant.