For a minute there in early 2015, it seemed that The 1975‘s Matt Healy might go from up-and-coming artist to tabloid fodder before he even had a chance. Taylor Swift checked out the band’s concert in 2014, setting off a months-long flurry of gossip and speculation.
The interest in Healy was an opportunity some rising bands would have exploited the hell out of. But unlike most musicians in the 21st century, Healy isn’t remotely interested in altering his life to hang out with celebrities — at least, not the flesh-and-blood kind. He did feature a gaggle of cardboard cutouts of A-listers in The 1975’s “Love Me” video, his sly way of acknowledging the dubious celebrity friendships that make headlines and fill social media timelines.
“I felt everybody that was a peer of mine was mates with everybody else, but I wasn’t mates with anybody,” Healy recalls of the period after the U.K. band’s self-titled 2013 debut dropped. “I found this weird social hierarchy was constructed based on who you had pictures with. Then I started to think, ‘How can you all be such good mates?’ How is Sam Smith everyone’s mate?”
Instead of concerning himself with Instagram opportunities or post-show parties, Healy instead devoted himself to something a lot of artists neglect after their first album: Evolving. The 1975’s upcoming album I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It is more than just a record with a hard-to-spit-out title — it’s a gigantic creative leap forward for the band, and the most stylistically ambitious LP of the year so far (it’s officially out Feb. 26).
For a band incorrectly pigeonholed as a rock outfit in its infancy, this album encompasses everything from ambient to funk to synthpop, and excels at all of them.
Ahead of the band’s Feb. 6 performance on the Larry David-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live — a look that might catapult them to a new level of fame, even if Healy avoids playing to the press with forced celebrity friendships — Healy stopped by Billboard’s New York office. During a frank and thoughtful discussion, Healy talked about a variety of subjects, from his “leftfield, darker dance music” side project to why he thinks it’s a “bullshit” excuse when artists don’t write music on tour.
I was surprised how much of a creative leap forward this new album is. It’s on another level from the first one.
There were no rules to this record, which is why it’s such an eclectic, long record. The only mission statement was to make sure it was a distillation of anything we’d done before. I wanted to expand the world of the first record.
It’s a complete evolution and extension, but it also references the first one and jokes about the naiveté of the first one compared to the resignation of the new one. There’s so much subtext and Easter eggs, musical references to the last record and lyrical narratives that finish previous songs.
When you say “naiveté” of the first album, do you mean that you look back on it and are embarrassed of certain parts?
No, it’s a blissful naivety I’m envious of now. The first time around, you’re making a record and that’s it. I was writing about my life. [On the new album], there is this resignation and wisdom — I’m not calling myself wise, but I am wise with my own experiences — and that knowing has replaced the hope of the first record. It’s sounds emo and depressing to talk about. [laughs] On the first record it was me looking at my life and looking for ways to change who I am to be more happy. This record is more about self-acceptance and understanding you’ll always be looking at those things.
This is a much longer album than the first one. Do you expect some listeners will cherry-pick what to listen to from the album?
Definitely. It’s quite an intense listen if you do the whole thing, I’ll admit that. Nobody consumes music in a linear way so why create music in a linear way? But I wanted it to be everything I love musically, and I love lots of things.
I really liked the ambient songs. Even though some of them clock in at six minutes, you never notice — they don’t drag.
It’s honed and it’s there for a reason. The older we get the less we play. We are fans of outsider music and trying to make something expansive but coherent and difficult. I feel like the intention behind every moment is right. There’s no showing off or unnecessary self-indulgence.
The lead single, “Love Me,” has some crisp guitar riffing and a great ’80s throwback vibe that’s not really on the rest of the album. Where did that come from?
It came from jamming. We’re big Talking Heads fans, big Scritti Politti fans, and Japan as well. “Love Me” was just three years of being on the road and not wanting to soundcheck the same song every night. That riff just happened. “Love Me” sounded bombastic and ridiculous and a bit arrogant and I was like, “That’s what it needs to be about. The rock star buying into his own self-constructed mythology.” We found ourselves, as a band, being immersed in a world we didn’t feel part of. So it’s just… love me, if that’s what you want to do.
The whole famous friends thing — is that a world you feel pulled into?
Not really. We’ve not been a big socialite band. Now that we’re popular, it’s not like all of our fiends are all famous people. But I felt everybody that was a peer of mine was mates with everybody else but I wasn’t mates with anybody. I found this weird social hierarchy was constructed based on who you had pictures with. I started to think, “How can you all be such good mates” How is Sam Smith everyone’s mate? I started to think, “That’s the aspiration now. Kids want to be in those pictures.” It used to be pictures of Bowie talking to Paul Simon at the Grammys — that’s what it was reserved for. It’s a decline in the standards of what we expect culturally. Because the people who are in that upper echelon aren’t there for the same reasons they used to be, at least a lot of the time. Not all of the time. But now you can’t have an experienced unshared. People capture now to experience later.
Does that bother you at concerts?
I don’t get annoyed because I understand it, but I take a moment to say, “Let’s all take a few moments to not live the moment retrospectively.” But then the phones do come out by the end. I try not to get upset over things I have no control over. But I like to remind people we’re all there and we’re all people.
That’s fair. You can’t totally fight it. Although I’ve seen Jack White try to at concerts.
It isn’t the ’60s dude. It’s not, people have phones, you’re alive now and you have to deal with it to a certain extent.
In the song “She’s American” you have a line about “fixing my teeth.” Is that something you notice as a big difference between the U.S. and U.K.?
That song is playful. Not a snarling takedown but it’s about being in an English rock band and the nuances of the courting process between American girls and British boys. Teeth are a big currency in America.
The song “If I Believe You” reminds me of Kanye. Is hip-hop a big touchstone for this album?
Massively. We come from black music. That’s what I grew up on. We spent time in a real emo, Sunday Day Real Estate band at 15, but groove based music is The 1975’s thing. If you take “Sex” out of our arsenal, we’re a totally different band. “Sex” has defined us as an indie, but our records are groove-based rock.
More like the Prince version of rock.
Exactly. Moments on this record get Mazzy Star, My Bloody Valentine, Sigur Ros, but we’re producers as well and we value production very much. We look at Kanye or Travis Scott, people we feel are making the most leftfield yet commercially acceptable music. You really just need to look to Atlanta. Trap is the new pop and new punk at the same time. A truly alternative, counterculture movement that’s also the pop thing. Fetty Wap, he’s the biggest thing in the world. What I love about the trap scene is it comes from DIY. There’s grandeur and bombast and money, juxtaposed with DIY ethos of making your own beats. I relate to being ambitious on a small scale, using what you have. The hip-hop world is the most influential to us. I stand by this as a progressive record for pop music.
How do you compose songs?
Me and George [Daniel] write the songs. It will start with George making a soundscape that inspires me and then I’ll start writing on it, or we’ll work the other way around, and then when it gets to recording, the guys — who have been in the band forever — get to their parts and their identities come into it. There’s collaboration in that sense but the songs themselves are written by me and George.
Where did you write the songs on this album?
Oh, tour buses and back lounges.
That wasn’t hard? A lot of artists say they can’t write on tour.
That’s an excuse though — it’s bullshit, isn’t it? When I get it, when I have that moment… I put that in with sexual desire. It’s like a carnal desire for me. It really turns me on. The idea of being in a band, leather jackets or chicks, it’s not even there for me when I’m writing. Writing music is cathartic for us. I love doing a show and then coming off, getting in the back lounge and working on something new. That’s all I do, it’s my life. I don’t even go out. We’re very grateful of where we are, the opportunity we have, and that manifests into our desire to keep going. George and I are going to be doing lots of stuff after this album. We’ve always flirted a lot with dance music, darker leftfield dance music for ourselves, but not put it out.
Will you put it out?
Yeah, I think so. I think we’re going to remix some of the songs on the record, but not get anyone else — just do it in house, maybe under the name of our side project. But we’ll see.
Is your approach to writing dance music different?
No, it’s weird. We did it quite a few times, wrote music for our side project, but The 1975 started getting so eclectic, we’d put it into The 1975. Now it feels like we’d have to do something so, so alien for it not to be a 1975 track.
What’s the project called?
It does have a name but not one I’m disclosing yet. We’ll probably make a big deal out of it.
What dance music do you listen to?
DJ Tim Green is one of my favorite producers of all time… Mary Jane Coles… I grew up listening to garage music. Sunship, Craig David and the Artful Dodger. We love Gesaffelstein; our tour manager is an artist called Sequel who makes heavy arpeggiated bass, almost like the Tron soundtrack. We like deep house.
Your album has a song called “Paris” that was written well before the attacks. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks, do you think that will change your approach to it at all? Or how you’ll introduce it at shows?
I don’t know. I mean… fuck that, that’s what those people want. If we’re going to start pandering to people like that, if they take away our liberties and freedom and it means we compromise our art because we’re scarred… They want to destroy social cohesion so people get at each other’s throats. I’m not going to play a part in that. I had nothing to do with that. I’m writing about a city I love, and that’s what I’m going to remember, I wont let Paris be defined by that. At least, as long as I’m not being insensitive. I’m saying this with vitriol to you. But I haven’t thought about it enough. It might be different [playing in Paris]. I’m not from there, I wasn’t there. Part of me wants to say, “no, fuck you” — not to you, to them — but the other part of me says it’s such a contentious thing that I have to think about it. And I will think about.
A closing question: Why is the album title so long?
At the time I started making the record I was scared about a lot of things. And I realized the only thing that will define this album is its conviction. The title was something I said to a girlfriend. Not in such a poetic situation — not on her four-post bed as I leaned out the window with a cigarette — but I remembered it and wrote it down. And before I made the album I made the decision, that’s the name of the album. Because it makes me feel slightly uneasy. I believe in it and it just feels right. If I make this decision now and stand by it, then that becomes the ethos for the album.
The label didn’t fight back?
We’re signed to Interscope in a way. But we were signed to our own label before we got popular. Then when “Chocolate” got big the labels came back and we got distribution deals. So I’m in this amazing position where I get to utilize major labels but don’t have to creatively compromise. So we delivered everybody a finished album, no questions. It’s what makes art art. There’s no room for democracy in art — Picasso said that. One person’s vision will always be more palatable and concise. This really is…well, calling yourself an artist makes me cringe, but this is my art.