If you can mentally conjure the centre of a Venn diagram labelled “millennial Bond villain’s lair” on one side, and “sexy monastery” on the other, the resulting image is probably not far from Matty Healy’s London home.
When I arrive at the front door (wooden; more ‘garden shed’ than ‘dwelling of the frontman of internationally acclaimed pop-rock act The 1975’), I’m quickly shown inside, and down a winding staircase. I lightly trace its bare, grey concrete walls with my fingers as I go through to the living area where Healy is waiting, wearing a faded black Fugazi t-shirt, pristinely pressed cream flares and a necklace that looks like a bike chain. Silver rings adorn his hands and his wavy hair is pushed artfully back from his face. As he greets me, I’m struck by how he seems to match the decor around him – grey, cream, gleamingly clean. He seems as influenced by his surroundings in practice as he is in his music.
I’m turning up at a fairly pivotal moment for Healy. For one, today “People,” the second track from The 1975’s delayed fourth album Notes on a Conditional Form, has come out (the first, featuring climate activist Greta Thunberg dropped in July, fittingly on the hottest day of the year; the album is due in February 2020). For another, it’s also the day before he and his bandmates, George Daniel, Ross MacDonald and Adam Hann will bring their slick, everything-inflected pop-rock to headline Reading and Leeds Festivals, hallowed rites-of-passage for British 16- and 17-year-olds thirsty for booze and sunburn. For a band who grew up attending the festivals every year (Healy says he “slept at the train station, went ten years in a row”) it will be their biggest set of shows to date – if not in physical size then certainly in emotional stature.
Right now, though, he’s trying not to get in his head about what’s about to unfold. It’s a hot day at the end of August, but the house is cool, and its straight lines and arched doorways feel directly opposed to the close, clammy heat outside. He pours me a glass of water (sparkling) and self-awarely jokes that he’s “keeping it real” as he serves it to me in an aggressively tasteful ceramic cup with a watercolour pattern painted around the sides.
This “keeping it real” quip probably isn’t as throwaway it might seem: Healy is used to talking to journalists, and it’s highly possible that he feels a need to play up his famous candour. Indeed, his willingness to talk about his life and views extremely transparently has meant that he has been profiled to within an inch of his life in the last year or so, by publications ranging from Billboard to The Fader to The Guardian.
I’m initially interested in whether the relentless synthesis of his character by writers has affected him, and how. Healy sits back – we’ve moved to an enormous cream sofa with various Kinfolk-esque fluffy and woolly blankets by the side of it – rolling the question over in his brain a few times, before opening the floodgates (Healy, he would be the first to admit, is medically unable to shut up once he gets going). “I’d have to say yes. In the same way that our relationship with our fans has become almost like, this creative dialogue, because the internet is so inherently aesthetic and creative, I learn a lot from there. The internet works in real time, and I’ve had a lot of explaining to do."
Healy sometimes comes under fire for certain actions (though he’s also known for being totally willing to apologise when he thinks it necessary), and he’s courting controversy right now, in fact. Not long before our interview, at a show in Dubai, he kissed a male audience member, defying laws in the UAE against homosexuality. He was criticised online by conservatives, as well as left-wingers who worried he’d endangered a queer person (videos of the incident were circulated). But he maintains that, as the audience member remains safe, he did the right thing.
“I’ve spent five years on stage, looking at exponentially queerer queerer, and more open young people. If you do that every night, you can’t ignore those kids’ faces."
Ever-forthright, he brings the issue up himself. “I believe that if you are a young person and you’re not representative of your government – if you’re a left-leaning person in an oppressive place – the only common understanding you’re going to get is through art and culture. And if I kiss someone in Dubai or whatever, I have to stand up for ideas that promote equality, and that’s sometimes going to get me in trouble a little bit.”
He has no choice but to act on the big issues, he continues, because if he doesn’t, then none of the other pop stars of his ilk will either. “Shawn Mendes, Harry Styles, whatever. They’re great pop stars, but they – on purpose – don’t say anything. They purposefully don’t stand for things apart from you know, ‘Oh, masculinity: no.’ Or ‘racism: no’ – d’you know what I mean? In a world where people want answers immediately, I’m behaving a lot of the time in ways that contradict certain people’s beliefs, or normally conservative beliefs. So I’m fine with it. I’ll never compromise my values.”
He also feels he owes it to his fans to talk publicly about what affects them. “I’ve spent five years on stage, looking at exponentially queerer and queerer and more open young people,” he explains. “If you do that every night, you can’t ignore those kids’ faces. You know, when people reach at a gig, what are they reaching for? They’re not trying to touch you, they’re trying to connect with this idea that’s bigger than them.”
I think that Healy understands his fans and what they want from him better than the people he “culturally sits alongside”, like Mendes and Styles, because he used to be a teenage fan himself. While the other artists he namechecks became very famous very young, Healy’s formative years involved loving The Get Up Kids and watching metalcore bands like Poison the Well at the now-shuttered Jabez Clegg in Manchester. “I just love music. I love the culture of music, it’s where all of my interests are,” he says.
He’s not joking. Though the walls of the room we’re sat in are bare, there is evidence of music everywhere. In one corner there’s a small Wurlitzer piano; on the floor are three different guitars so shiny that I can see my face in them. There’s another room in the house where he keeps his collection of vintage band t-shirts (among their enormous number are an original Minor Threat Out of Step shirt, and his current favourite, a vintage Mazzy Star top that brings tears of jealousy to my eyes). And though his place stands fairly compact, the ceilings are tall, giving it a cavernous vibe that is acoustically perfect. Sound bounces off that grey concrete like a basketball, and when I listen back to my recordings of this interview, they are crisp and sharp.
"Shawn Mendes, Harry Styles, whatever. They’re great pop stars, but they – on purpose – don’t say anything. They purposefully don’t stand for things apart from you know, ‘Oh, masculinity: no.’ Or ‘racism: no’ – d’you know what I mean?"
Even talking to Healy about music feels like speaking to one of the friends I’d chat shit about bands with for nights on end growing up – only one who’s actually met all the musicians we’re discussing. When he tells me that he’s Twitter pals with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and that he DMs with Walter Schreifels from Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, his tone is one of partial disbelief. “I remember one of our shows in 2014,” he laughs. “I was talking to this guy backstage, and he was like, ‘Oh I used to be in a band, yeah I played drums.’ And I was like, ‘Cool, what was your band called?’ and he was like, ‘Thursday.’” His face contorts in delight at the memory (“I’d seen Thursday a bunch of times!”).
At one point, he refers to himself as “somebody from Manchester who’s a bit embarrassed about the fact that they’re big”, and it follows that his serious music fan credentials might make him self-conscious of his mainstream position. Equally, though, there’s nobody better suited to headlining Reading and Leeds in front of thousands of British teens than someone who – having spent the 2000s drinking in queues outside grotty Carling Academies, and playing community centres, for mates who’d exchanged crumpled fivers for Xs on the backs of their hands – gets them so entirely.
Reading is a university town in southern England. It probably dates back to the 6th century, and was largely affected by the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Neither, however, hold a candle to the carnage now seen on its streets every year over the last weekend in August, when the music festival takes place just outside the town centre.
I get off the train in a gaggle of glitter-adorned teens already hopped up on lager and lack of parents, and check my phone. On Twitter, a video of young 1975 fans in the Reading campsite listening to “People,” which hasn’t even been out for a day yet, catches my attention. Later that night, when the band charge into their set with the track – a Britpop-by-way-of-“The Beautiful People” rabble rouser – the kids down the front already know the words. “Girls, food, gear,” they scream along with Healy’s accusatory sneer. “I don’t like going outside so bring me everything here.” Moshpit ad infinitum.
On stage, the diversity of The 1975’s catalogue means that Healy can freely embrace all of the corners of himself, by turns raucous, mischievous, and earnest. On the sexy, wry second album single “Love Me,” he’s giving it Prince-meets-Posh Spice, gyrating so hard it’s a wonder he doesn’t put his back out. During “A Change of Heart”, the Wedding Reception In a Pub vibe of his untucked-shirt-and-fag-in-hand gait underlines the song’s unfussy sentimentality of the song (from the side of the stage where I’m stood, I see an assistant bringing him regularly timed cigarettes, which: you would if you could).
Unsurprisingly, he also momentarily steps into a more political register, to mention Dubai. “I really liked that boy, and I’m pretty sure he liked that kiss, so it’s not me that needs to change, it’s the world that needs to change. It can fuck off,” he blusters. The mood on stage fizzes with defiance, then, as the band launch into “Loving Someone” in front of a projection of the LGBTQ pride flag. Healy – unburdened now he’s said his piece – shuts his eyes.
“I’ve been getting the shit kicked out of me all morning.” It’s October and Healy is cheerily informing me that he has taken up jiu jitsu. We’re sitting around a dining table in the living area of the Northamptonshire recording complex where The 1975 worked on their last two records, and are now starting the final stage of recording for Notes on a Conditional Form. He’s centring himself while having a soup.
Beatings like the one he received earlier will now be standard for Healy, who, following Reading, Leeds, and an Australian tour, is assuming a more structured existence for the next two months, while he and his bandmates finish the album: “I get up at 9AM, then jiu jitsu 10AM until 11AM, and then we should have a plan for the day that we try and execute, and that goes on until about 10PM, and then we’ll stop, then we go to bed, and we do that again.”
When it comes to places to focus, he could do worse than his current spot, which is the polar opposite to his compact London enclave. It’s massive, for one, and tucked away in the countryside (a pair of ponies graze happily on my way in). It’s also much more like an ordinary family home, with its widescreen telly and lived-in mess. Again, Healy has styled himself for his environment, dressed down today in a big Glassjaw t-shirt, long floral skirt, and red Converse.
Coming off the adrenalin rush of tour, his energy hangs slightly lower today than when we last met. He seems worried by the prospect of finishing the record, especially in the shadow of Reading and Leeds. I ask if the festivals felt like a last hurrah for A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships and he tells me: “It didn’t feel like the end of something, it felt like the start of something, which I think is even more intimidating.”
Despite the precipice that both headline shows represented, however, Healy thinks they went well, even though he was struck down by a “panic attack, super migraine – whatever it was” on the day of the Reading gig. “I told everyone, ‘Listen, I’m just gonna have to like, lie down.’ Like a 50s nan. I was having a proper funny turn,” he recalls, laughing now. “Reading just felt really important for us, in the build up, in the execution, and then after it.” Leeds, the festival he attended most as a teenager, was “one of the most ‘full circle’ moments of my life”.
Now that particular circle is complete, the only way to go is forward. And so we come to Notes on a Conditional Form, which is, by both Healy’s account and mine, having heard a bit of it, not really the world agenda-tackling thing people are expecting. Healy explains: “We’ve made it our probably least self-aware record, that’s what freaks me out about it. Because there’s like a bunch of love songs on it. And people are like, ‘The record’s pretty inward, then? Because we thought it was gonna be, like, outward.’” I ask whether he means that listeners have been expecting a record about the climate crisis. “Yeah, climate record. And I’m like, ‘Fuck off.’ Why would I make a record about the environment? I’ll make an album that’s about everything that I care about, and that’s one of the primary things. But I’m never gonna make a record that’s one dynamic.”
Instead, the album, like all the band’s others, feels like a living documentation of Healy’s many current preoccupations. Certainly the environment figures, on its first track and in references throughout, but there are also nods to phenomena from the cultural (“Birthday Party”) to the personal (“Frail State of Mind” – the album’s third single, which sounds a bit like a sad analogue to The 1975’s 2018 track “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME”), and frequently both at once. The song about the fact that “we live our lives every day knowing that we’re all going to die, but we pretend that we don’t know that” is probably the album’s most straightforward banger.
The 1975, as music nerds with a deep pool of influences, have both plenty to say and seemingly infinite ways to do so, and their methods of expression will continue to include Healy’s outspokenness. “I’m sick of having to pretend I’m not a person. So now I act how I would act in real life all the time. I just try and be honest,” he reasons. He really is the rare open book pop star, willing to talk about whatever you happen to feel like discussing that day. It’s in his music that fans hear this become a truly incendiary quality.
When it’s time for me to leave, Healy says goodbye and asks if I really like the new music, or if I was just saying I did. I didn’t tell him at the time, but I think it’s probably their best material yet – what could confirm The 1975 as the prophetic band many heard on A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. I turn around to wave to him before I walk out of the room, but he’s already sat at the table with a guitar – noodling away at something new, finding voice for something else he has to say.
The 1975 were photographed by Jordan Curtis Hughes in September 2019, in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia.