“I wouldn’t be surprised if climate change becomes so passé that a big pop star does a song about it, or whatever.”
It’s early afternoon on a Saturday in September, and I’m stealing an hour of The 1975 frontman Matty Healy’s time in Sydney before they play the convention centre that night. He’s come straight from the airport via Melbourne to FBi Radio, where he’ll have another interview immediately after ours, in spite of the inevitable sore throat that comes with international touring.
I greet him and the small Sony Music entourage accompanying him at the door to the dark and — save for a lone soul on lunchtime duties — deserted community radio station. It almost would’ve counted for a moment of quiet for Healy, if not for the three tradies employed to install a stage in the foyer, which, upon reflection, explains the migraine he mentions later when apologising for taking time to answer questions. But if he slowed down once during our chat, I didn’t noticed.
Healy, 30, is immediately friendly. We start on a musty couch facing each other and trading stories of drinking too many Vodka Red Bulls and (unrelated) the day previous’ Global Climate Strike, which is how we eventually land on pop stars making climate change anthems.
I knew The 1975 had gone to the Melbourne rally, as pictures of Healy taken by fans there went viral on pockets of the web. “It was a special day,” he said, smiling. “We were going to go to wherever we were, I think, because it was such a global event. It just instils a bit of hope, because normally — it’s just a bit depressing isn’t it? It was quite inspiring.”
Healy greeted fans and got a few photos, but for the most part they left him alone, taking pictures from afar. Later that night, I experience the gentle ferocity of The 1975’s fanbase first-hand: they slide into my Instagram DMs to ask where and when my picture with Healy was taken, tracing him for their own records. Those movements are weighing on Healy’s mind, as he’s well aware of the carbon impact a worldwide stadium tour has. In the time since we’ve spoken, The 1975 have returned to Australia for Laneway festival, and their 2019 tour alone saw them travel across Europe, Asia, and North America.
“I’d rather be accused by some crusty person on the right of being a hypocrite than I would be accused of being an artist who didn’t do their job.”
In July, climate activist Greta Thunberg made a musical debut of sorts on ‘The 1975’, the band’s lead single from their upcoming fourth album, Notes On A Conditional Form, with all proceeds going to Extinction Rebellion.
Over the instrumental track (a tradition for the band: all their album openers are titled ‘The 1975’), Thunberg delivers a rousing four-minute speech telling listeners we are currently failing “the greatest and most complex challenge that homo sapiens have ever faced”, and that “it is now time for civil disobedience”.
The song was blasted at the Climate Strike in Glasgow, with protesters walking solemnly as the speech played: Healy was moved by the footage, and tells me he’s “just so happy to be remotely affiliated” with the strike.
Live, the band ‘perform’ the song in full. In Sydney, Healy sits cross-legged on the stage floor with his back to the crowd, facing towards the LED screens displaying the transcription of Thunberg’s speech, never looking away. And yes, he’s aware of the irony of using a heap of carbon to promote carbon neutrality, though when announcing 2020 tour dates, The 1975 announced they’d plant a tree for every ticket sold. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than lip-service, as is forcing a sweaty crowd to quiet down and hear Thunberg’s speech.
“[When we released the song], I was expecting to be called champagne socialist,” he says. “Nobody knows how to be totally carbon neutral, so everybody is open to the accusation of being a hypocrite, but I’d rather be accused by some crusty person on the right of being a hypocrite than I would be accused of being an artist who didn’t do their job.”
Giving It All A Try
The 1975 have existed, in various forms, since 2002, when Healy, guitarist Adam Hann, bassist Ross MacDonad and drummer George Daniel started making music as teens in Cheshire. They landed on their current name when Healy found it scrawled in a note on a secondhand copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
The 1975 gained attention in 2012-3 with four EPSs ahead of the release of their self-titled debut album, which, with thanks to smash singles ‘Sex’, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Girls’, reached #1 in the UK.
The 1975 was sprawling: 16 tracks (and 32 on the deluxe edition, pulling tracks from the EPs) which didn’t so much bounce between pop-rock, ’80s synth-walls, Britpop, garage and R&B as it did sprint between them. Ambitious if somewhat uneven, The 1975 was tied together by a distinct, Tumblr-ready aesthetic and a self-seriousness artistry that evolved with each ‘era’ of the band.
Sincere, funny, and hyper-stylised all at once — it’s The 1975 to a fault.
The monochrome visuals of The 1975 were replaced with on-trend neon and pastels for 2016’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, mirroring more the rollout of a pop star than a rock band.
In a BBC Radio 1 interview, Healy chats through the references and decodes the videos of the album. This is a band who have actively created a community through Easter eggs and rabbit holes of references, much like the fan-fuelled microscopic focus K-pop bands have in terms of teasers and endless in-jokes.
Take I like it…‘s funk-line fuelled ‘The Sound’, the band’s meta-moment: a love song that doubles as commentary on the band’s critical reception. In the music video, the band perform in a glass box as critics watch; visuals toggle between monochrome and pink-neon, and criticisms against The 1975 flash onto the screen, such as “genuinely laughable” and “punch-your-tv obnoxious”.
But the band keeps on, and Healy ignores the quarrels: they, and the fans, know ‘the sound of their hearts’. It’s sincere, funny, and hyper-stylised all at once — it’s The 1975 to a fault.
Critical appraisal shifted with their 2018 album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. At 15 songs and 58 minutes long, the album is nowhere as overwhelming or pretentious as the title implies.
Loosely structured as a look at art’s most naff topic, The Internet, A Brief Inquiry… is easily the band’s most cohesive record. A swirl of isolation, longing and hope, the album’s glued together by ambient samples that linger across all the record’s sounds, as well as Healy’s sharp, often brutally honest lyrics which cover heroin addiction, getting STIs at 27, and always wanting to die, sometimes.
As increasingly the case, influences fold in on each other again and again on the album. Nowhere is that clearer than ‘Love It If We Made It’, an apocalyptic-optimistic anthem where Healy packs in as much as he possibly can from the past few year’s headlines into the lyrics over sax lines, glimmering synths and painfully hard drums.
Combining a series of news and pop-culture moments, lyrics sound like Crying-For-Clicks Headlines we’re scrolling past online: “Rest In Peace, Lil Peep”, Trump’s tweet, “Thank You Kanye, Very Cool!”, “Fossil Fuel Degradation”, “Poison Me Daddy!”, “Suffocate The Black Man”.
Just like the ‘Poison Me Daddy’ posters that popped up across Sydney when A Brief Inquiry… was released, it’s a bit too much on first listen. But for those who cry cringe, the chorus might sway them: sure, “Modernity Has Failed Us/And He Said, I’d Love It If We Made It” is one of those all-meaning, potentially nothing-saying lyrics, but at very least, it’s trying to do something with our global mess. Healy pours it all into the delivery, too, sputtering out every syllable with a frantic energy, occasionally yelping, as if the lines scratch his throat on the way out. You have to respect the effort.
That’s also, to some degree, the message of A Brief Inquiry…, hinted at across songs like ‘Give Yourself A Try’, ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’ and ‘Sincerity Is Scary’, a jazz-driven song which describes a lover ‘masking’ their ‘pain in the most postmodern way’ — aka what Healy does in ‘Love It If We Made It’. In terms of the album title then, is he being critical of our ironic distance from ourselves, where existential dread about climate change or ‘World War III’ is expressed in memes? Well, not really.
“I try not to over analyse what I do, because I realised that the less contrived that I am, the more it resonates with people.”
“I don’t really think about it that much,” he says. “I try not to over analyse what I do, because I realised that the less contrived that I am, the more it resonates with people.”
Instead, Healy largely scats lyrics, improvises and fits things in on a syllabic level, occasionally trying to ‘cram’ a full sentence in. Most lines are lifted from conversations or quotations, giving songs a tangential quality — tied to a context we’re not across, though he says “normally they”, meaning fans, “make up the right interpretation”. While he’s not interested in analysing the ‘what if phone but too much’ elements across A Brief Inquiry…, Healy does thing that The 1975 are a very ‘now’ band, reflecting something ineffable about the times.
“I think that even [with] the fact that my records get made a couple of months before they come out, I’m very kind of tied into the modern world,” he says. “I think that The 1975 is always really representative of what’s happening. I never really thought about it like that lyrically though. I don’t really think about my lyrics that much.”
Doing The Work
Those dismissive of The 1975 call them a boy band, while fans — and the music critics they won over in recent years — call them the future of rock, a band defined not by (a struggling) genre, but aesthetic and tone. Healy himself has said, semi-jokingly, that he “never viewed The 1975 as a band — it’s more of a brand”, one that can provide all the songs in a ‘mood’ playlist.
“And I keep saying this: it’s about not being bored. We’ve been in a band for like 17 years. We write music. That’s what we do for fun. Doing the same thing over and over again is not fun, and we want to have fun.”
“There’s loads of analysis of why we’re like, ‘part of the zeitgeist of our generation, et cetera, et cetera’,” he says, a smack of distance in his voice from those quotes. “It must be two things. I’m so obsessed with so many bands — I don’t have the attention to want to be in one band, so I grew up wanting to be in every band. I wanted to be really heavy and [someone would say] ‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Why not?'”
“And I keep saying this: it’s about not being bored. We’ve been in a band for like 17 years. We write music. That’s what we do for fun. Doing the same thing over and over again is not fun, and we want to have fun.”
“If we were working on something and then we were like, “Oh well let’s try and do something a bit like this song,” one of our songs, we’d be like, “Well why?” Because we did that really well — or are you saying we didn’t do it well enough? Because if you’re saying we didn’t do it well enough, then that’s another thing. But if we’ve done it, what’s the point? Every statement has to be forward thinking with me, otherwise I feel really depressed with myself.”
Those statements, occasionally, are ‘social’. Healy tells me he doesn’t consider The 1975 overtly “left-leaning”, but admits it is in terms of the pop landscape they’re placed within. “There’s not many bands like The 1975,” he says as explanation. “There’s not many bands, anyway.”
Healy’s hyper-skeptical of artists ‘speaking out on issues’, through does so regularly himself — beyond ‘The 1975’, he made headlines last year for both calling out the music industry’s misogyny at the BRIT Awards, and for kissing a male fan at a Dubai concert.
Critics will call it woke boy band branding, or appeasing their queer fanbase. Healy himself is weary of those risks, and we spend much of our hour together talking about the minefield of doing ‘the job’ without profiting off it or diluting it.
“I wasn’t trying to be provocative,” he says, referencing talking about The 1975’s Dubai concert, and his choice to not write ‘God Loves Fags’ on his chest, as was originally planned.
“Ross was like, ‘If you go on stage with ‘God Loves Fags’ on your shirt, we’re not going to get through the first or second song. You’re not going to be able to do ‘Loving Someone’. You’re not going to be able to do the things that that you know already really unify people, that those people are waiting for’.”
“The reason that I chose not to write ‘God Loves Fags’ [is] when I saw the police room at the gig, which was 10 policemen watching every single monitor, I was like, ‘Okay, well, regardless of how I feel, they’re just going to come and take me off stage, is that worth it?'”
“The reason that I chose not to write ‘God Loves Fags’ [is] when I saw the police room at the gig, which was 10 policemen watching every single monitor, I was like, ‘Okay, well, regardless of how I feel, they’re just going to come and take me off stage, is that worth it?’.”
“Would it be as empowering as an entire set, where I get to do more but slightly softer versions of that statement? That’s the whole thing. I think that I’ve got to realise that that outwardness that I express is genuine: anything that becomes ego-driven, I’d be really suspicious of. I’ve always hated the idea of adopting, even like, a fight for gay and equal rights. It’s part of my… I suppose I’m known for that, but it’s not my…”
He pauses. Healy is not queer, though after our interview there was a mild Twitter storm when comments of his around having “kissed beautiful men” but not wanting to “fuck them” were perceived as queer-baiting; a queer magazine reported that he had “come out” as “aesthete”.
“I didn’t come out as anything this [is] a weird thing to say,” he wrote on Twitter. “I did an interview with a queer publication and was asked about my sexuality. I’m not playing a game and trying to take up queer spaces, I’m simply trying to be an ally and this headline makes me uncomfortable.”
If anything, it was the opposite of queer-baiting. It was a direct answer to a ridiculous question for an artist who has addressed his sexuality multiple times, which was then quoted out-of-context by queer publications who regrettably have to deal with the fact that a straight artist ‘playing coy’ generates more clicks than anything else.
His comments then are echoed what he says now, about the importance of making a stand without centring yourself. “I think a lot of artists will make statements where it’s been worked around enough that they know that they’re not actually really making a statement,” he says. “They’re just doing the same thing that Marks and Spencer’s do when they put out a ‘gay sandwich’.”
“It’s just affiliating with the culture….I just want to help. I just don’t want to be perceived as… fucking, like, fake woke, or trying to score brownie points with people.”
Of course, ‘clapping back’ generates headlines: The 1975 didn’t win top honours at the BRIT Awards, but they did get the most attention. From our time together, Healy genuinely seems to want to shift that spotlight away from him, and towards what he’s saying. It’s not that The 1975 are merely saying woke things, it’s that woke things need to be said.
It’s an uncomfortable tight-rope stretched between praxis and profit. Plus, perhaps the influence is best seen on the immeasurable small scale, in the way their fans might switch off a light, or LGBTIQ+ people feel accepted, for one night.
In some ways, these moments — somewhat frantic, as in the case of Dubai — feel largely propelled by Healy’s need to feel like he’s doing something with The 1975. These acts of protest might serve his own sanity as much as it changes the world, the same as those only growing increasingly petulant about their Keep Cup usage as the world burns (and floods, and burns again).
The Future Is …Now
The commentary around A Brief Inquiry… couldn’t ignore one of the album’s oddest moments, the robot-read interlude ‘The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme’. Essentially Her meets ‘Paranoid Android’, the track is both cynical and sweet, largely because Healy and co. recognise ‘The Internet’ isn’t easily moralised, especially at the moment.
“The fact of the matter is that it sneaks up on us — we don’t put in the groundwork and we just kind of rush ahead,” he says. “It’s almost like with the internet, we invented the car and then just haven’t figured out the seat belt yet. We don’t quite know what we’re dealing with the whole time.
“With just funding it and funding it and letting it be our scientific golden-boy tech, we’ve kind of…not over-invested, but we’ve invested so much in it financially and [yet] not really invested in it as a society in regards to how we’re going to deal with it.”
“It’s almost like with the internet, we invented the car and then just haven’t figured out the seat belt yet. We don’t quite know what we’re dealing with the whole time.”
Healy talks about the seeming impossibility of ‘rolling back’ social media, and how it’d have to come from the industry itself — a self-regulation in the face of governments struggling to hold the likes of Facebook accountable for fake news or harmful material. He’s also wary of the way social media teaches individuals to promote themselves purely by identity, as well as the way writers, artists, and influencers gain clout by diving into their traumas.
“There is a point where if you’re a young person and your model of social interaction is attention on the internet, that’s how you engage and how you gauge who you are,” he says. “If you say loads of things into the internet, no one cares over a year and then you say something that doesn’t portray you [completely] but about how you’ve been oppressed or how you’ve been victimised culturally, socially, that gets 10,000 retweets.”
“As a young person you go, ‘Okay, that’s my subject matter then. That’s where I’m going to get attention. So I will make every issue about how I’ve been victimised’. So you’ve kind of fetishised the idea of being a victim.”
Perhaps, in some way, that’s why A Brief Inquiry… is optimistic at its core without the pitfalls of poptimist platitudes of self-love. Instead, it’s a constant shifting of sonics and emotional states, a refusal to be defined by any one moment. As a frontman, Healy takes that same approach with the public — after going to rehab in 2017 for an on-and-off heroin addiction, he released ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’ as a sort of final statement, where heroin doubles as an absent lover, the relationship a distraction from struggles.
While open to discussing addiction, it’s clear Healy isn’t terribly interested in being known for it, or, in his own words, being some kind of victim. Even as a final statement, ‘It’s Not Living…’ mixes metaphors and lines about living in a simulation — it’d be possible to listen and just hear a break-up song, one which revels in the pangs of heartbreak, wanting to relapse.
Back to the question of Healy’s job, then. When we chat, The 1975 has just released ‘People’, its second single from Notes…, which was recently delayed till April.
It’s is a searing punk track where Healy yells about getting people to ‘wake up’ over aggressive guitar lines and drums — in the music video, he wears a Marylin Manson-esque wig and striped suit, playing the role of a petulant rock god. Unlike anything they’ve ever done (“The 1975 goes through more phases than a middle schooler does”, reads one top YouTube comment), ‘People’ is an aggressive, vague call-to-arms, inspired by the hardcore and punk music Healy listened to as a teenager.
“It was a frustration [that created ‘People’],” Healy says. “It wasn’t just a frustration about the climate. It was a frustration about women’s rights and the way that minorities are treated in America, because we were in America when we made that song.”
“It wasn’t just a frustration about the climate. It was a frustration about women’s rights and the way that minorities are treated in America, because we were in America when we made that song.”
“I grew up on hardcore and punk and stuff [and listening to that] was the first time I knew that you could really really move somebody [as a musician]. I think ‘People’ was our version of that. There is a place for anger sometimes.”
Notes…‘s two other lead singles aren’t carried by the same frustrations of ‘The 1975’ or ‘People’. They are both inspired by genres from Healy’s childhood, though.
When we talk, Healy doesn’t have much to say about Notes…. After we start talking about recording it across the world, he stops and leans forward, as if letting me in on a secret.
“I’m a bit done with talking about Notes… to be honest with you,” he says, “because… [everyone asks because I’m] on tour doing promo and about to put an album out, but I haven’t finished it… [but] it speaks to a lot of music that I’ve spent a lot of time on my headphones, walking or driving.”
Healy has repeatedly referred to Notes… and A Brief Inquiry… as a ‘music for cars’ era, a phrase taken from one of their first EPs. And sure, there’s dashboard belters and convertible scream-alongs, but mostly, it seems to refer to the solitary freedom of a late-night drive: where you can oscillate between exhilaration and emptiness in a few minutes, if not in the same moment.
Skeptics lean towards the latter, as The 1975 are an easy band to be cynical about. But after watching them fill out stadiums (then headline Laneway a few months later), it’s indisputable The 1975 are one of the biggest rock bands of the moment.
When they perform ‘The Sound’ live in Sydney, the music video plays in full behind them, reverse-engineering hundreds of Instagrams of Healy singing to a stadium in front of a pastel background that flashes the words “vapid”, “pretentious” and “boring”.
At their best, their music has an era-defining air, an embarrassingly earnest cross-genre dive into Big Ideas that trades in tone and a swirl of feeling rather than concrete ideas. At its worst, it’s an embarrassingly pretentious mess of sound and half-formed thoughts. But still, they’re always trying to do something, whether it’s call-out an injustice or create oddball, inventive pop. The 1975 always swing big, and their hits more than make up for their misses.
Jared Richards is Junkee’s night editor and a freelance writer, based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.