- 19 Feb 19
Having conquered the charts with their debut album, synth-pop stars Years & Years went with an ambitious concept for the follow up record, Palo Santo. Peter McGoran catches up with the band to talk sex and relationships, AI and androids – and opening up about important issues in public.
Olly Alexander and Emry Türkmen aren’t sure whether the third member of Years & Years, Mikey Goldsworthy, has yellow fever or not.
“It’s very very unlikely,” says Olly.
“It makes sense though,” responds Emry. “He’s had his vaccinations. What else could it be?” “What are the symptoms of yellow fever again?”
“Vomiting. Headache. Just generally feeling sick.” “It’s a 1 in 10,000 chance,” says Olly. “We’ll see how he feels. Maybe it isn’t yellow fever.”
Thankfully for the trio, it isn’t, and they deliver a brace of stunning performances over two nights at Dublin’s Olympia. Their adoring fanbase pack out the venue – one of the most intimate on the tour – and Years & Years show why they’ve become one of the most important, and innovative, bands in pop.
“We love playing in Dublin,” notes Olly. “These are our first shows back in 2019, so it was a really good one to kick things off. We played that venue a couple of years ago, and it’s really nice to come back and think about how things have changed. We met a lot of fans last night. I met this one girl who was like, ‘I was 13 when your first album came out and I couldn’t come to your show – my mum wouldn’t let me, but now here I am!’”
“I met a gran,” says Emry.
“Oh, nana Kay!”
“Nana Kay. She’d spent €400 coming to the show but didn’t have tickets. I put her on the guestlist for the second night.”
“I know!” says Emry. “But no, I love playing here as well. This is the only venue we’ve played in Dublin, other than the Ball thing. What was the Ball thing?”
Olly jumps in: “Dublin Ball? The Student Ball thing?” Trinity Ball?
“That’s the one!”
That’s normally quite…
“That was a messy one!” laughs Emry. “But the Olympia is one of my favourite venues, up there with the Olympia in Paris actually. I’ve good memories of going out here. I’ve got a couple of friends in Dublin who I’m hopefully going to see.” He turns to Olly. “Did you ever go out here? Did we go out here together?” “I don’t remember,” the frontman responds.
“I don’t think so. I stayed in Dublin while doing a part for the TV series Penny Dreadful, but I was staying by myself. I was too scared to go to gay clubs by myself, but I loved just wandering around the city.”
As mentioned, the band’s Dublin shows kick off the 2019 leg of an extensive world tour in support of their second album Palo Santo (named after a wild tree in South American, which translates as ‘Holy Wood’). Alive with the same sort of synth-pop bangers that made the band an international success four years earlier, this second record sees Years & Years mine deeper for their material. Palo Santo is steeped in religious iconography, deals with the nature of spirituality (‘Sanctify’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Karma’ are some of the song titles), and its lyrics explore the murky waters of desire, lust, love, and what constitutes the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. When did they start writing it?
“I think ‘Palo Santo’ the song was written almost straight after we began touring the first album,” explains Olly. “So we had that song for quite a while, but it didn’t become the title of the album until 18 months later. It was almost a patchwork jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit things together, and then it fell into order at the 11th hour. But there wasn’t really one DING moment where everything came together.”
Was there one particularly tough moment?
“Ugh, we had so many fights over ‘If You’re Over Me’, as a single,” says Olly. “It was just classic, like… The label were very confident that that would be the only song that was potentially a hit. That drove us all a bit nuts because it took us at least six months to get that song into a shape that everyone could agree on. But as well as that, there was just the pressure of having to deliver on a second album, you know? Your label wanting you to deliver, as well as us wanting to make something good for our fans.”
The album ultimately spawned several hits, as well as about half-a-dozen further tracks that could’ve easily have been singles as well. It’s about as measured and successful a second LP as Years & Years could’ve hoped for. Was there a constant worry that that wouldn’t be the case?
“I think so, yeah,” admits Emry. “The second album thing is true for sure. But I was thinking about this the other day – it’s true particularly if you’ve had a successful first album. It’s not true if it’s the other way around. You know, off the top of my head, Pablo Honey – there probably wasn’t that worry. But if you’re off the blocks with a No. 1 album… I mean the second album thing is a cliché for a reason, right? A lot of the time it’s because it’s true.”
Palo Santo deals with spirituality, often through the prism of sex and relationships. How did they find themselves writing about that?
Olly laughs. “I mean, I guess…”
“It’s what he likes,” laughs Emry.
“Yeah, it’s stuff that inspires me really. It’s as simple as that. I’ve kept a diary all my life, and the only time I go in on my diary entries is when I’ve been really fucked over by someone or when I’m really pissed off by a boy, or something’s happened. So I guess that’s what makes it into the songs.”
The release of Palo Santo was followed by a 15-minute film of the same name, which stars Olly in the lead role and is narrated by none other than Judi Dench. The film depicts a semi-dystopian sci-fi future, where androids – who appear to be in control of society – seek out humans whom they can put on the stage – to dance, sing and love – for their own entertainment. It’s an example of “putting on a good show for the camera” ramped up to its most pernicious and nightmarish; the cameras in this case are sentient robots. It’s utterly unique, not to mention a brave move for a pop band. How did this concept come about?
“We’d worked with the director Fred Rowson on quite a few videos throughout the first album,” explains Olly. “I really loved working with him and I knew we could do something good together. I had the idea for Palo Santo in my head, but I think the challenge would’ve been going straight to the label and saying, ‘Hey I want to make this sci-fi fairytale!’ I knew that would freak them out. But if I had a director already who had delivered something really good in the past, who I’d had really good conversations with about the project, I knew that they’d come on board and that we’d have a very good team.
“So very early on, I emailed Fred and asked whether this was doable. Then about a year later, we shot the whole thing in Thailand over four days. In some ways I’ve been thinking about sci-fi and fantasy my whole life, so it was something that became a bit more fleshed out with our music.”
Who came up with the plot?
“I wanted to do something related to a semi-dystopian android future,” says Olly, “because I’m really into AI and technology. I thought it’d be interesting to set these videos in an android society, for loads of different reasons. It’s a really interesting way to play around with preconceived notions of gender, identity and sexuality, because obviously, most of the people are actually androids. So I was asking, what does that mean for humanity? Fred and I would have a lot of the same favourite authors and films, and he’s an actual proper director, so we gelled really well.”
In a Twitter post at the start of the year, Olly opened up about an eating disorder he had 10 years ago. How difficult was it to share something like that in public?
“You know, I’m… I’m just more used to talking about it now I think,” he admits. “It’s good to talk about it actually. It’s good for me because I still sometimes have this hangover of being ashamed of having an eating disorder. Anyone who’s had an issue with food can understand that. So sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s not shameful, and that I should say it out loud, and remind myself how helpful it was when I heard other people talking about it. It’s not really difficult to talk about it now. But I suppose, if you spent too long dwelling on painful parts of your past, it can drag you down.”
What about the idea of putting things out there in front of a public audience – on Twitter, Instagram – where people can be deliberately ignorant or even malicious about what you’re trying to say. Is that difficult?
“It can be. But I don’t really dwell too much on it, because it might drive me a bit crazy. It’s all just… I don’t know, it’s very unusual to have 100,000s of people following me on social media. I think somewhere along the way you go, ‘Alright, that’s my life, but I’ll still do things that I want to.’ You know what I mean? You can’t think too much about it.”
What’s the next step for Years & Years after this tour?
“After this there’s the tour in Russia,” says Emry. “Then China, then the Far East. We’ll be touring for another while yet!”
“Then I want to put another album out,” smiles Olly.
“I’m putting another life out…”
“Oh yeah, Emry’s having a baby!”
“I’m having a baby in a couple of months. Not as important as another album of course…”
“Of course not!”
“But yeah, that’s happening. So I’ll be popping in around March time before heading to the Far East!”
Which are you more nervous about?
Emry: “It’s one of those things that, until it’s happened there’s no point in me trying to pretend like I know how it’s going to feel. But knowing myself, I’ll end up worrying that I’m going to be worried about this little thing. Until it happens, I couldn’t tell you what’s more nerve-wracking!”