Last September, Matty Healy, the exhilarating, exhausting frontman of The 1975, told his bandmates that he intended to keep smoking heroin. A crisis had been brewing since they headlined the United Kingdom’s Latitude Festival in July, just hours after drummer George Daniel’s discovery that Healy had been using again. Intended as a celebration, the show became an intervention. Healy confidently told them that he would detox when they went to Los Angeles to start recording their third album. Instead, he found himself ranting over dinner one night, under the influence of benzodiazepine, about why he didn't need to stop.
Healy winces and inhales a Marlboro Light as he paraphrases what he said: “Listen, everyone has to get onboard because I’m the fucking main deal. If you want songs, we’re just going to have to get on with it.” The next morning, he woke up mortified. “I realized that was absolute fucking bullshit. So I went downstairs and told George I should go to rehab.” Daniel is the band’s production whiz and Healy’s closest friend; they live virtually next door to each other in east London. Healy says his habit was the first time a secret ever came between them.
The singer spent seven weeks at a rehab clinic in Barbados in November and December and has been clean since then. “People had started to lose respect for me, but not an irredeemable amount,” he says, running his hands through his scruffy, half-peroxided hair. “The fact that I knew I was building on something that wasn't destroying made me feel really strong. Because I knew that one more time and that’s it.”
Healy, 29, frets about discussing his addiction. He doesn't want to romanticize it, trivialize it or invite pity. But he has to talk about it because it’s all over The 1975’s forthcoming third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (which will soon be followed by a fourth album -- more on that later). When he plays me the irresistible potential hit “It’s Not Living If It’s Not With You,” he says bluntly, “This is the big heroin one.”
“I don’t have things that I want to write about that aren't exactly what I feel day by day,” he explains. “The problem I have now is that this is my truth, and I feel like I can’t negotiate properly with the world if I can’t tell the truth.”
Two hours with Healy is a wild ride. He has the helter-skelter intelligence of an autodidact, name-dropping Debord and Dostoevsky, and accidentally inventing words like “dissolvement.” His brain swerves between extremes of self-belief and self-doubt, so it’s hard to keep up with all the qualifications, revisions, digressions and apologies as he tries to crystallize what he means. This earnest craving to be understood creates a sense of intimacy disproportionate to the fact that we’ve only just met. “I’ve got too many thoughts,” he says. “That’s why I was a good drug addict, because it used to stop me being like that.”
Healy agrees that his radical honesty about his own anxiety might be the key to the fervor of The 1975’s fan base. “The manicness seems to resonate with people, because they know how it feels to be like...” He struggles to sum up the generational condition. “I don’t know. It’s just... a lot.”
Matty Healy is a rock star for a generation that’s too clued-in to believe in rock stars. Onstage, he deconstructs his own performance as he goes along, like a Father John Misty for teenagers. “I do the Jim Morrison thing a bit,” he says, “but I know that you know that I know that this isn't real. I’m so aware of the vocabulary of rock’n’roll, and what’s tired. It’s difficult because everything’s so postmodern and self-referential and hyperaware of everything being bullshit. As I grow as an artist, I just want to be sincere.”
Really, The 1975 only qualifies as a rock band in the sense that it is a commercially successful group of four men who play instruments, which makes them an endangered species in 2018. Their albums include almost everything but straight rock. The self-produced A Brief Inquiry, out in November, ranges from Auto-Tuned house to blue-eyed soul, art-rock to the Great American Songbook. Their fourth album, Notes on a Conditional Form, will be more intimate, nocturnal and cinematic. Healy doesn't think there’s anyone else in The 1975’s lane.
“There are no big bands who are doing anything as interesting as us right now,” he says, using the top of the bill at Britain’s Reading Festival as an example. “Tell me dudes with guitars who are more relevant to do that slot,” he asks, not expecting an answer.
The 1975 would have made more sense in the 1980s, when pop was colonized by the post-punk and art-rock diaspora, and a record as bold and idiosyncratic as Peter Gabriel’s So (one of Healy’s favorites) could result in top 10 hits, platinum discs and inclusion on teen-movie soundtracks. In the current climate, Healy is surprised The 1975 is as popular as it is. The band’s second album, 2016’s i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, topped the Billboard 200, yielded four top 10 hits on the Hot Rock Songs chart and elevated the group to headlining arenas and festivals. Its tracks have been covered by Lorde, Halsey, Chvrches and Dashboard Confessional. “When I think I’m at my most impenetrable, that’s when it gets the biggest reaction,” says Healy.
“All the signs are that the band will just keep on growing,” says Jeff Regan, senior director of music programming at SiriusXM’s Alt-Nation channel. “I don’t think there’s a ceiling on this one.”
Dressed as only an off-duty singer would be -- fawn cardigan, flared blue velvet trousers, Thrasher slip-on skate shoes -- Healy is bobbing around on a sunlit sofa at Angelic, the picturesque residential studio in the Northamptonshire countryside where the band has been living for the past seven months. The garage houses a lemon-yellow vintage Jaguar E-Type, one of Healy’s few financial indulgences. In the studio, where Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann and bassist Ross MacDonald are busy finishing the classic-sounding swing ballad “Mine,” a picture window offers a view of grazing horses. It is a long way from Healy’s London home, which is infested with memories of drug use.
Occasionally, Daniel wanders into the room to get something and chuckles fondly at Healy’s latest live-wire monologue. With his long hair and half-unbuttoned shirt, the drummer has the look and vibe of a Zen surfer. Healy compares him to a Buddhist: “One thing I’ve learned from George is about the things you can’t control.”
Many bands would not be able to spend seven months living and working together without at least thinking of killing each other, but the members have known one another since they were 13-year-olds at Wilmslow High School in Cheshire, England, so they’re used to it. “There’s such an organic purity,” says Healy. “If you fall out, you will get over it because there’s real love there.” Healy says he doesn't have many friends outside the band and its inner circle. He doesn't like going out much and feels especially awkward in glamorous environments. “Put us at a fashion show and we’re a bunch of gimps,” he says. “It’s hilarious because we do the wrong thing.”
They were bonded by struggle. For years, says Healy, The 1975 “couldn't get arrested.” Then they set up their own label, Dirty Hit, with manager Jamie Oborne and started releasing EPs in 2012. The same voracious eclecticism that confused major labels resonated with the everything-at-once music habits of younger listeners. Even when they were playing small venues, a quarter of the audience would be diehard fans, lining up at the stage door to show Healy their 1975 tattoos.
Their intensity inspired Healy to pay it back. In 2013, he talked about capturing the mood of a John Hughes movie -- “the apocalyptic sense of being a teenager” -- on The 1975’s self-titled debut album. But the band’s young, largely female fan base prompted condescending reviews, a stigma compounded by the suspicion that, as the son of British TV stars Tim Healy and Denise Welch, Healy was a celebrity brat. (In the United States, where his parents are unknown, he carries less baggage.) So much for critics: Soon The 1975 was supporting The Rolling Stones, and Healy was sufficiently gossip-worthy for an extremely brief public encounter with Taylor Swift to set tongues wagging.
With its 17 tracks and improbable title, i like it when you sleep was designed to prove that both the band and its fans had been underrated. “Every time I play a show, there’s a young girl who’s smarter and more well-informed than I am,” says Healy. This time, critics swooned. In the recent single “Give Yourself a Try,” Healy jokingly calls himself “a millennial that baby boomers like.”
Candid though Healy’s lyrics were, they occluded the fact that he had been smoking heroin since late 2014. From childhood, he had felt “a deep, carnal desire to be sedated,” which is why he started smoking weed so early. He wanted to turn off the noise in his brain and, on tour, to cushion the adrenaline comedown. He also wanted to sleep better. He never has good dreams, only nightmares, and they all occur in the same location: a dystopian housing estate surrounded by a white void. “I’ve grown up there,” he says bleakly.
What it wasn't about, he stresses, was the clichéd myth of the countercultural rebel junkie. That doesn't work when you’re “middle-class and confused and a bit sad.” His habit was never performative, it was private, which is why he finds it hard to publicize it now. “I don’t want to fetishize it, because it’s really dull and it’s really dangerous,” he says, reclining on the sofa. “The thought of being to a young person what people like [William S.] Burroughs were to me when I was a teenager makes me feel ill.”
Healy was a functioning addict. In the studio, he managed with weed. In the States, he switched to prescription opioids. He could go weeks without heroin but relapsed when he was alone. Though he felt his hidden habit eating away at his relationships, it didn't derail the band, nor his relationship with his “incredibly wise and incredibly beautiful” girlfriend, Australian actress and model Gabriella Brooks. He knew what he had to lose. “I still risked it,” he says, “but it took me being in one of the most divisive, exciting bands in the world to make me stop doing drugs for a little bit at a time.”
As becomes obvious when he rolls a joint, Healy’s recovery is not abstinence-based. He has only ever been addicted to “The Big One” and is fully committed to recovery, volunteering to take weekly drug tests in front of his bandmates. He says it’s going to be “something I struggle with for the rest of my life.” Five turbulent years into his stardom, Healy has reached some important conclusions about where to find self-esteem.
“I thought it would be like, ‘Ooh, a bit of gold, a Rolls-Royce’ -- I never had a Rolls-Royce -- ‘drugs with a pop star, shag that pop star’ -- I didn't shag any pop stars -- all of the trappings of a music video,” he says. “And what you realize is the pursuit of happiness is this Sisyphean thing for most people. Thinking that the goal is to be happy is a bit mad. It’s more about fleeting moments of joy and knowing that life is hard.” He looks resolute, like he’s reciting a mantra. “Self-esteem requires esteemable actions. Telling the truth. I think this focus on truth is what’s in the record.”
While we are talking, The 1975’s new single goes live. Healy considers reading the reactions online but decides against it. “Love It If We Made It” is a rolling chyron of the world in 2018, taking in Black Lives Matter, refugees, social media, the death of Lil Peep and direct quotes from Donald Trump. Many would call it a protest song, though Healy is dubious. “Hopefully it could be used on a montage for the times, but it’s not going to change the times,” he says. “It doesn't provide a solution.”
Healy is uneasy around explicit political statements. On June 24, 2016, the day after the British public voted for Brexit, The 1975 played the Glastonbury Festival. Healy made a passionate speech about older voters stealing the younger generation’s future, but then qualified it with a joke about being just a pop star in a white suit, so why listen to him?
The singer ties himself in knots trying to make a point about the wider political discourse, but his gist seems to be that intolerance for nuance, context and ambiguity ends up making many topics too radioactive to discuss. “I think there’s a big fear of saying ‘I don’t know,’ and there’s a big fear of apologizing in public,” he says, frowning. “I’m not dying on any hills because I don’t really know [enough], but I’m an artist, and these are the things I talk about. It’s kind of a discussion between me and the world, even though that might sound a bit egotistical.”
That discussion no longer takes place on social media, where, after some contentious tweets about religion in 2014, Healy now sticks to promoting The 1975. It did, however, appear on walls and billboards in major cities around the world in May. The band’s brazen prerelease marketing campaign for “Give Yourself a Try” deployed situationist-style slogans such as “Modernity has failed us” and “First disobey; then look at your phones.” “We all know how addictive the phone is, but when it’s brought up, it’s boring,” says Healy. “It’s almost like Brexit or Trump now: ‘We know, Granddad, we know!’ But we don’t really want to do anything to change it.”
It is typical of the band’s audacity to launch such an ambitious teaser campaign long before an album is finished. Manager Oborne says that when pondering their next move, they ask themselves, “What would The 1975 do?” The answer is, always act boldly.
Healy says that the campaign conveys some of the thinking behind the album, but not the sincerity. In the past, he has been prone to subverting a beautiful melody with an irreverent, self-aware twist. He’s trying to do less of that. “All the best records are about life in an all-consuming way, and that’s what I hope this record is about,” he says. “We live in a weirdly postmodern time, and I don’t have that many solutions, but what I know doesn't have solutions is irony. After a while you start to hide behind it, because it’s easier than being truly human, which is being a bit naive, a bit soppy.”
For a year or so, Healy liked the idea of ending The 1975 in the same way David Bowie killed Ziggy Stardust: unexpectedly and onstage. It appealed to his love of melodrama and narrative closure to bow out with the decade. Eventually, though, he decided against robbing himself of the most important thing in his life for the sake of a memorable statement.
As is his habit, he went to the opposite extreme and said that the band should record two albums in quick succession. The group is going to Los Angeles to make Notes on a Conditional Form, with a plan to release it next spring, a few months into a world tour. He excitedly plays me some of A Brief Inquiry on his Mac. The songs variously recall George Michael, John Cale, Chet Baker, Radiohead and Drake. One is narrated by Apple’s Siri. Another is named for conceptual artist Joseph Beuys’ 1974 piece I Like America and America Likes Me. It’s... a lot.
Healy isn't trying to make The 1975 bigger (“I wouldn't know what the formula would be”), just more interesting.
“Once I’ve done something, I’m on to the next thing,” he says. “I feel more addicted to the days when I walked around Manchester, dreaming of playing Madison Square Garden, than to playing Madison Square Garden. I’m not very good in the moment. The past is like this vague, hazy, beautiful memory, and the future is this vague uncertainty, and there seems to be this clinical spotlight on the present, where I don’t get to experience those things that I romanticize either side of it.”
Each night at Angelic, Healy goes to bed listening to The 1975’s new material on headphones and fantasizing about the first time the band will play it live. His eyes grow round at the thought of it. He is wide awake and dreaming.