- 04 Jun 20
Little did we know that The 1975’s March show in 3Arena would be one of the last major gigs in Ireland before coronavirus wrought unprecedented havoc. Backstage, frontman Matty Healy addressed the more dystopian elements of modern society. Also up for discussion were the band’s stunning new album Notes On A Conditional Form, Greta Thunberg, politics, sex, heroin and tabloid scandal. Plus we catch up with him in lockdown for his thoughts on the Covid-19 crisis.
They say in life, you never know what’s around the corner – and this year has been a particularly extreme case study. It’s the evening of Tuesday, March 3, and outside a loading gate at 3Arena, I’m waiting patiently for The 1975’s publicist to escort me inside for a summit with the art-pop crew’s frontman, Matty Healy.
The sun is setting over the Dublin docklands, and a steady stream of fans in 1975 t-shirts excitedly file by on the way to the gig. It’s simply another busy spring night in the city, but – in a development reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film – in just a week-and-a-half’s time these streets will be deserted, with the government announcing an unprecedented national shutdown in a bid to curb the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Any hopes the virus might be quickly contained and some degree of normality restored were swiftly obliterated, as we came to terms with the shocking scale of what was unfolding. After fully two-and-a-half months in lockdown that have had massive social and economic consequences, the world is only now tentatively attempting a phased reopening, with no one having any idea of what the long-term future will look like. You could say it put things in perspective – too much fucking perspective, to quote Spinal Tap.
As it transpired, The 1975 show was one of the last major concerts in the country before the shutdown. Reflecting on the evening now, it’s an extraordinarily potent reminder of the sheer joy we get from gigs and other communal events – a joy which, in the west anyway, we probably too often take for granted.
Eventually, the band’s publicist pulls back the gate, and accompanies me up to the second floor of 3Arena where I’m deposited in the canteen whilst Healy is located. I have some idle chat with the crew as they eat dinner – we even touch on the coronavirus that’s been in the news lately. Will there be any gig or festival cancellations in Europe over the next few months? Who knows. One thing’s for sure: the idea of countries being locked down and borders being closed is nowhere on the conversational agenda.
A call comes across the room and I’m informed Matty’s on his way. Around the corner in the quiet of the singer’s dressing room – surprisingly bare, with just a small couch, a couple of chairs, and a seat in front of an illuminated mirror – there’s a bit of time to gather my thoughts.
I’d previously done a phone interview with Healy seven or eight years ago, right when The 1975 were starting off. Although I liked the band, the singer had conspicuous star quality: in the grand tradition of English pop conceptualists like David Bowie, Neil Tennant and Damon Albarn, he had a manifesto and was noticeably opinionated on music and culture. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Matty – the son of actors Tim Healy and Denise Welch – had the looks and the moves to match the patter.
Healy’s deft way with a pop hook meant that by just The 1975’s second LP – 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It – the Mancunian quartet were number one both sides of the Atlantic and headlining Madison Square Garden.
But it was with A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, released two years later, that the group’s critical standing caught up with their commercial profile. An exploration of our social media-saturated cultural landscape, the album shared thematic similarities – as well as an experimental rock edge – with Radiohead’s OK Computer. Healy was still careful to retain The 1975’s usual pop and R&B influences, meaning the record was another commercial smash.
The singer is clearly at home in the spotlight – unlike, say, U2 or REM, the other band members’ public profile is non-existent – and he’s once again solely handling promo duties on this visit.
He makes a low-key entrance into the dressing room, notably wearing the same black hoody and trousers he’ll wear onstage in a couple of hours. His hair is in a kind of emo Mohawk, and he pushes his fringe from his eyes as he gives a warm greeting. After putting out a cigarette – yep, he was having one indoors, the cheeky sod – Healy takes a seat on the couch and gets down to business.
At the time of our previous interview all those years back, The 1975 only commanded a crowd of a couple of hundred at Dublin’s Academy 2. Tonight, they’re playing their second 3Arena headliner in just over 12 months, and the stunning Notes On A Conditional Form is one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year.
Has the journey so far exceeded Healy’s expectations?
“It’s funny, actually,” he considers. “The first time I’ve been truly retrospective about it has been recently. There’s a song on the record called ‘Guys’, and the video has all this footage from over the years. It is crazy that it’s become so massive, but it’s been such an organic growth.
“You can look at my Twitter or whatever and see us playing the Barfly in Camden, then Alexandra Palace – all the way up to the O2. I’ve always come off the road and gone straight into making a new record, and I’ve done that four times now. I’ve never had any time away; it’s all felt like one tour. So it’s very difficult for me to be objective about it.”
The first time I talked to Healy, I strongly got the impression of someone who wanted The 1975 to be a big and important band.
“You know what?” he reflects. “It sounds really arrogant, but I think by that point, I had this sense we were an important band.”
Really – that early?
“Not that we were at the time,” clarifies Matty. “But that’s what we were destined to be. Obviously, you can read that written down and it makes me sound like a megalomaniac. But you have to have that level of… not arrogance, but blind young confidence. I never aspired to be in a big band – I aspired to be like all of the bands who inspired me. Culturally important bands.
“I’m obsessed with pop and I love melody. Even though I’m also obsessed with the alternative world, that pop element helped us gather an audience a lot of alternative bands don’t get. I always thought if I could get out everything in my head, it would be worth something to music. I felt like I’d really studied the form and knew what I was doing.”
Healy is not shy about sharing his ideas on music and culture – or, increasingly, politics. Last year found The 1975 releasing the NOACF teaser ‘People’, an industrial-tinged disco-punk wailer about cash-strapped millennials (Healy, an arch pop ironist, even allows himself the line, “Stop fucking with the kids!”).
Occasionally, his political gestures have got him into trouble: the singer narrowly avoided arrest in Dubai last year when – in protest against the UAE’s homophobic laws – he kissed a male fan in the audience. This followed an earlier incident at an Alabama music festival, when Healy – having registered disapproval at the state’s abortion ban without taking into account its more relaxed attitude to gun ownership – was forced to hightail it from the venue.
Meanwhile, Notes On A Conditional Form kicks off with ‘The 1975’, an ambient piece featuring a powerful articulation of the need for radical action on climate change, courtesy of teenage activist Greta Thunberg.
“We always start with the same song on each one of our records,” notes Matty. “We were having the conversation about what the next one would be, and what was the most modern version of that statement. Who has the most contemporary voice? It was Greta, and I very suddenly had this desire to talk about what she was saying and give it a formal place in pop culture.
“Cos there’s a million tweets about Greta Thunberg, but having something concrete on streaming platforms felt like an important thing for the world. Stuff like that’s just bigger than us. We play that song live and it’s more important than the other stuff.”
Has Healy become more politically engaged over the past few years?
“I think that people have in general,” he suggests. “I’ve always been… I wouldn’t say politically engaged, but I’ve always been kind of an activist, in a loose sense. Whether it was coming from hardcore or punk, I’ve always had this idea that music can change our world, at least, and then we can go on to change the wider world.
“There wasn’t a lot of it on my first record, because I didn’t even know if that record would come out by the time I’d finished it. Half of it was literally written at college, or school – I was fucking around. I mean, what do you write about when in those years? That album was finished when I was around 22. I would reference poetry or literature, but it wasn’t as outward as the records came to be.
“And now we’re at a point where this album has the likes of ‘People’ on it. I just think it’s a waste of time not to reflect what’s happening in the world – that’s the purpose of art.”
The pantomime nature of the Trump presidency can obscure his most deadly flaws. His handling of the coronavirus crisis could be charitably described as lamentable: initially downplaying the virus’ threat, he subsequently sidelined experts, and even recklessly suggested people might return to their workplaces before the disease had properly subsided.
As bad as that’s been, the climate change denial espoused by Trump and the alt.right could prove even more calamitous. Though we’re collectively too stressed to process it right now, in the years ahead, we will realise that the coronavirus pandemic has provided a chilling insight into how the world might look like on the back of a major environmental catastrophe.
Does Healy ever find himself despairing?
“Oh, totally!” he acknowledges. “I’m not an optimist. I was instilled with quite a lot of hope when I met Greta, because of her conviction and seriousness. But to be honest with you, I keep getting asked what I think about Bernie Sanders or whatever. I mean, I love Bernie Sanders, but what I really think – and I don’t want to be overly pessimistic here – is that Trumpism is such a phenomenon. And there’s nothing phenomenal standing up against it, and I don’t see it declining any time soon.
“Trumpism is about the obfuscation of fact, and it depends on this idea of a subjective truth. It’s almost like they say, ‘Well, you use logic as part of your discourse, so we’re not gonna fuck with that, or engage with it. It’s fake news!’ It’s like when a six-year-old just keeps repeating what you’re saying when they don’t have an argument left.”
More than ever, then, the past few years have emphasised the importance of communal celebration such as we’ll enjoy tonight.
“Yeah, it’s not often that people are unified for one positive reason anymore,” nods Matty. “It seems like most global communication is negative or extreme. It’s not particularly central and positive.”
Does Healy engage with social media much himself?
“I do, but it’s quite safe for me,” he replies. “That’s because I’m an adult and also – even though some of it is personal – my social media is essentially, ‘This is what I do.’ Whereas, a lot of people’s social media is, ‘This is who I am.’ And they’re very different approaches. If you go one route, it can affect your self-esteem.
“I engage more now, post-A Brief Inquiry. That’s because I’m really interested in content, and the way things materialise and come from the underbelly of the internet, and present themselves in mainstream culture. We live in this really interesting time, so I’m very wired in, but I almost feel like a bit of a journalist, do you know what I mean?”
As noted earlier, for many critics, A Brief Inquiry was the full realisation of The 1975’s potential. Was that how Healy saw it?
“It wasn’t for me to say,” he demurs. “In order for me to make a record like that, we had to really not care what people thought. By the time we got to the second record, we hadn’t become press or industry darlings – quite the opposite. So we were a bit like, ‘Let’s do what the fuck we want.’”
Did Healy come to any notable conclusions about modern society and culture on the back of it?
“I suppose because that record considered our relationship with technology, people would assume there’s a kind of dystopian reality we’re addressing. Or that we as a band are reverting to being Luddites or something. The main thing I realised is that reality is chaos, and always has been.
“And, of course, we live in a more divisive, contentious time where… racial tensions aren’t worse than what they used to be, at all, and poverty isn’t at the same level. And murder doesn’t happen in the same way, and rape accounts are down, but if you create an algorithm that keeps you informed of all the chaos – from the moment you wake up until you go to bed – that’s gonna have an effect on society.”
It certainly is.
“And that’s where we’re at,” Matty continues. “It’s not that things are better now, it’s just that we used to have linear, curated media consumption. A group of people decided what the news was – that’s how it worked, and you watched the news. That actually sounds more dystopian! In the early days of the internet, with cyberpunks and stuff like that, there was this true utopian idea.
“The concept was sold that, you’re going to be able to talk to your grandad who lives in Singapore. You’re going to be able to email Geoff when he’s in Germany – it was all about the extension of your pre-existing relationships. It wasn’t, you’re going to be able to argue with a priest in Uganda about whatever the fuck you want at three in the morning.
“That’s part of a utopian ideal – free mass communication – but it wasn’t something that people particularly signed up for, like social media. So, we created a car, and decided to invent the seatbelts at 300mph on the M6. I don’t think we’ve even made the seatbelts yet!”
FAME AND ATTENTION
A few years back, Healy – who turned 30 in 2019 – had a well-documented stint in rehab after struggling with heroin addiction. He has never particularly come across as a man with demons, so one wonders where the problem stemmed from. Certainly, he wouldn’t be the first young star to find fame and attention distorted life more than he bargained for. Was that a factor?
“Well, I think there’s this idea that whatever age you get big at, you stay at, until you’re forced into another age,” he considers. “So that was probably true in regard to my emotional development, a little bit. But I’ve always had quite a sense of responsibility. (Long pause) I don’t know… The graduation to becoming a man happens at different stages in men’s lives.
“I’m not remotely conflicted about how old I am, or my art, or whether I’m uncool or anything like that. It’s more to do with your personal life. So my relationship with drugs and my relationship with people… It’s just about growing up and taking a bit of responsibility. The main thing is people don’t change until it’s too hard not to, and that was the same for me.”
I’m about to ask another question when Healy cuts in.
“My twenties was fucking great!” he beams. “It was everything… I’d been in the band since I was 13, so I’d never not known being in the band. But that time in the band was, you know, the time.”
But did the excess end in a dark place?
“There was excess, but it didn’t end in a dark place,” he counters. “The excess was just kind of fun. We’ve always been, like… I don’t know what’s the word. We got fucked up, but we were never like rock ‘n’ roll-y with girls or anything like that. It’s not that we didn’t get with girls, but we were more kind of like nerds – whose weird little emo band got big. And what do you do? You just spend money on VR rigs, and sniff drugs and do stupid stuff.”
Notably, The 1975 still do fan favourite ‘Sex’ early in their shows. Is it still a primary concern for Healy?
“Yeah, totally! I’m in a really good place now, I’m in a really happy relationship. So I’m good with all of that – all of my addictions have kind of tapered.”
It must be absolutely bizarre reading accounts of yourself in the tabloids.
“It’s absolute nonsense,” says Healy dismissively. “There was one article that talked about me and an ex-girlfriend, and it said we broke up because I partied too much. I was like, ‘I haven’t had a drink in four years.’ Listen, there’s a misconception with me as well. I think there’s footage of me from one night in New York or something, where I was really drunk.
“I’ve never been – whilst I’ve been in The 1975 – a guy at fucking Soho House doing cocaine until five in the morning and coming home drunk. Like, I used to do smack by myself. That was my vibe. So any rumours of me having parties – I haven’t had a party in about 10 years. I don’t pay attention to tabloids, I just find it interesting where they get this information.”
Having got the nod from the band’s publicist, it’s time for us to wrap up. Healy and I shake hands and say goodbye. Later, I return to 3Arena to see The 1975 put on a brilliant and memorable show. It is most likely the last concert I’ll attend in 2020.
Fast forward two-and-a-half months. In a recent interview, Healy revealed he had spent part of lockdown in Suffolk with his girlfriend, rumoured to be avant-pop star FKA Twigs. Certain tabloids have devoted extensive analysis to Twigs’ dog, who is apparently called Solo and whom some sources suggest she shares with her ex, Hollywood superstar Robert Pattinson.
There has been frenzied speculation that Twigs and Healy have been looking after the dog in lockdown. Despite all the hoopla, the frontman has understandably declined to comment on any aspect of his current relationship. One thing I can confirm is that there are no barking dogs in the background when I put in a catch-up call to Healy, who is now in Northamptonshire, where the The 1975’s studio is located.
The singer recently told one interviewer he’d occasionally felt anxious during lockdown, but today he’s in good spirits.
“It’s been alright, I’m managing,” he says. “I’m one of the lucky ones in regards to the global situation. Like anyone else, it started out as a very edgy time, and we’ve kind of slowly got used to it. That’s one of the weird things – by the time we go back to normal, this will be normal.”
During our chat in Dublin, we touched on the more dystopian elements of modern society. Many of us feared there was a catastrophe somewhere on the horizon, albeit one more directly related to the environment. Did Healy ever feel there was something bad around the corner?
“It seems like maybe I was worried about that,” he considers, “because that’s kind of what the last few records have been about. They’ve been asking the question of whether the centre can hold. There’s an element of it again on this album, which has been justified now that the question’s been answered for us. I don’t know, it feels right, I suppose.”
Notes On A Conditional Form finds Healy going full maximalist, with 22 tracks of dazzling scope that variously encompass pop, rock, electronica, garage and dubstep. It’s The 1975’s second consecutive classic and quite possibly their definitive artistic statement. When we talked back in March, Healy described a very exciting concept for the album: it would take inspiration from dubstep artists like Burial, in a bid to evoke the mood of nocturnal driving on Britain’s motorways. It was an inspired idea – the Hyperdub label, Burial’s long-time home, is producing some of the most visionary music being made today.
“Hyperdub’s where I’m at with regard to electronic music,” enthuses Healy. “Even Kode-9, or Thom Yorke, who I would regard as being part of that scene. A lot of the sonic identity of that world comes from a place where we grew up as well. Darker garage music like Wookie, Lain, MJ Cole and Four Tet was all so influential to me – we’re super into that. It’s very, very UK. The only thing that makes us remotely patriotic is a World Cup, garage or dubstep! They’re the only things that make me proud to be English.”
On that note, the UK government has shipped severe criticism for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis. What are Healy’s views?
“To be honest with you mate, it’s a fucking difficult job,” he responds. “I wouldn’t trust the people who are trying to dismantle the NHS in a disease-control situation. So the fact that they’re not doing it very well doesn’t surprise me, and a lot of my energy has to focus on what I can do. The Tories fucked up the coronavirus – what a surprise. But then I don’t know who would have been able to do it, because I don’t think we’re really unified enough to grasp those kind of things at the moment.”
Finally, as we look towards a deeply uncertain future, Healy must surely miss the buzz of live performance – compounded by the fact that we don’t know when live music will return.
“I can’t imagine I’ll be touring this record,” he acknowledges. “I honestly don’t know, I’m just taking it day by day. It’s totally crazy, but we will figure it out. The world is changing every time the government says something – if they come and say something tomorrow, then we’ll talk about that tomorrow. It’s so intense trying to figure it out.
“Playing shows, you just subconsciously get into a rhythm. It becomes how you live and understand the year – and it governs the distance through which you mediate your relationships. So yeah, it’s a change.”
• Notes On A Conditional Form is out now.
The new issue of Hot Press, featuring cover star Matty Healy, is available to order online below: