Matty Healy, the frontman of British band The 1975, stands in the kitchen of his townhouse in London’s East End, wolfing down a dish of steak and fries. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter, dressed in a gray sweater and too-short black trousers that reveal a pair of pale ankles, cleans his plate and reaches for a cigarette, smoking six in quick succession, before moving on to a spliff. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning. “I need constant stimulation,” he says. “Love, sex, this conversation, whatever. Weed is a big problem. I’m a drug addict, basically. I need it every day.”
Healy bought this place in 2015 with the profits from his band’s self-titled breakout 2013 debut, which topped charts, polarized critics and helped make him a tabloid sensation repeatedly linked to Taylor Swift (he denies the relationship rumors). He settles into the living room, surrounded by a treasure trove of flea-market finds: vintage record players, typewriters, Anglepoise lamps. On the bookshelves, Cormac McCarthy sits next to Truman Capote and celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins. “Music is my only divinity,” announces Healy, his head shrouded in smoke.
The 1975 also includes guitarist Adam Hann, 27; bassist Ross MacDonald, 26; and drummer George Daniel, 25, but it’s mainly the vision of Healy, an exceedingly charismatic singer who treats interviews like psychiatric sessions. In the United Kingdom, they got very big very quickly, and Healy became a star with conspicuous ease, flirting with the famous (Swift, Cara Delevingne, Lindsay Lohan), playing with gender norms and painting his fingernails black like, as he describes it, “an emo lizard king.” On Feb. 26, the group will release its second album, the ridiculously titled I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, which Healy hopes will take it global. The act made its Saturday Night Live debut on Feb. 6, and in April, it will play Coachella for the second time, before headlining U.S. theaters and arenas, including Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
In its vision, the record has more in common with Kendrick Lamar than it does Arctic Monkeys, its scope as grand as the singer is verbose. “This record is the product of an all-consuming creative bender,” he says. “It almost drives me mad. I chew in rhythm, I walk in rhythm, I f– in rhythm. It’s a carnal thing for me — and I hope it’s about to pay off.”
Healy grew up privileged, the son of British TV actors Denise Welch and Tim Healy, who counted members of Thin Lizzy and Dire Straits as friends. “My dad once said to me, ‘You be whatever you want to be, son. You can be f–ing John Lennon,’ ” recalls Healy. “When you hear that as a kid, the concept immediately becomes real.”
Healy formed The 1975 at 13, and for the next five years aggressively pursued a recording contract. But his ambition was too precocious, too scattershot. No one was interested. “That hurt,” he recalls, “because I was being told I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t like the idea that somebody else held the key to my creativity.”
So Healy set up his own label, releasing four EPs that eventually garnered the band enough of a fan base — largely teenage and female — to make Universal Music Group take a bite (Interscope releases The 1975 in the United States; Polydor handles the United Kingdom). Its self-titled debut, heavily influenced by the music and John Hughes-directed Brat Pack movies of the 1980s, hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom and at last delivered Healy the fame he had long been dreaming of.
Perhaps that’s why his canvas is so much bigger on the new album, which is arguably 2016’s most ambitious pop record so far, with 17 tracks spanning disparate genres (R&B, ambient, ’80s funk-rock), topics (drug psychosis, his mother’s miscarriage) and influences (D’Angelo, Mazzy Star, The Replacements). “We’ve always been musical magpies,” says Healy. First single “Love Me” pokes fun at his own emerging stardom — and others’: “Karcrashian panache/A bag of bash for passion,” sings Healy. “You’ve got a beautiful face but got nothing to say/You look famous, let’s be friends.”
The album’s genesis, admits Healy, was fraught. He didn’t want to deliver merely more of the same to an expectant audience, and considered diving back into hard drugs in order to write “from the gutter. But I already had been well into that and come out the other side,” he says, alluding to past cocaine and heroin use. In the end, he simply followed wherever his erratic muse and ceaseless aspirations led. “There is no room for democracy in art,” he says. “I’ve never let my self-delusion or my self-obsession hurt anyone else, but I’ve also never let anything stop me from getting where I’m going.”
An hour later, Healy assembles with the rest of the band for a photo shoot. His three bandmates are quieter propositions, all smiles and polite handshakes, and in their company the singer is muted, for once. He doesn’t, after all, have to perform for them. But their relationship is clearly a close one. “We are gentle, sensitive boys,” says Healy. “We love each other, and the band is everything to us — the only thing.”
This comes at a cost, and he admits to being incapable of holding down a relationship. “You can’t be a good boyfriend, a good frontman and mother to a touring company all at once, can you?”
Healy is indeed only human, and he doesn’t deny occasionally indulging in rock-star behavior with overeager fans. “Don’t go for the ones with ‘Matty’ tattooed on their neck,” he jokes. “That’s never a good idea.”
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of Billboard.