Matt Healy from The 1975 : « I am pretentious. And I’m not apologising »

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled « The 1975’s Matt Healy: ‘I am pretentious. And I’m not apologising’ » was written by Simon Hattenstone, for The Guardian on Friday 11th November 2016 13.00 UTC

The door opens, and a bullmastiff greets me. “This is Allen,” Matt Healy says. He licks me all over. (Allen, not Healy.) Allen, I say, that’s an unusual name for a dog. “It’s not his full name,” Healy says. Ah, what’s his full name? “Allen Ginsberg.”

Welcome to the world of the 1975, Healy’s chart-topping band. An Olivetti typewriter is perched on the living room table, a series of 20th-century clocks on the wall. It really does feel as if it could be 1975 at Healy’s home in east London.

You might assume that it was a significant year for the band, but not a bit of it. The name came from a random inscription on the back page of a book of beat poetry by Jack Kerouac (“1 June The 1975”). In fact, the band is most obviously inspired by the 1980s – a nod here towards Duran Duran and INXS, a wink there at Scritti Politti and Yazoo. But that doesn’t quite tell the story, either. The 1975 are the ultimate pop magpies; even Healy calls them copyists. So you’re just as likely to hear the blue-eyed soul of Hall and Oates, the post-punk fuzz of My Bloody Valentine, the garage hip-hop of the Streets, or the boy band pop of One Direction in their music; quite possibly all in the same song.

For ages, the music industry didn’t get the 1975, dismissing them as more human jukebox than a pop band. That’s your problem, they told the industry in response: you don’t understand the way people listen to music these days.

Sure enough, Healy and co were proved right. Their first album, simply called The 1975, topped the UK charts in 2013. Their follow-up, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It, was as romantic as it was wilful. Who on earth would remember that mouthful? Even more challenging was the concept, every song written in a different style. “It’s art,” Healy announced grandly. “The world needs this album.” It went to No 1 in both the UK and US.

***

Healy looks as if he’s just got out of bed, though to be fair, he always looks like that. His eyes are half shut, as if they can’t quite face the daylight. Yet when he starts to talk, there is no stopping him. A torrent of overlapping words, opinions and plans pours forth. He gives me a tour of the house: a Rothko print on the wall; a noticeboard with reminders to pay the milkman, the water bill and council tax on one side and the words “Sit”, “Look at me”, “Stay” and “Leash” on the other. “That’s the dog training for Allen.”

Matt Healy of band the 1975 on stage at Coachella festival in California in April 2016
At Coachella festival in California in April. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

On the next floor is his bedroom, with a mattress on the floor and a crucifix on the wall above. Healy is a devout atheist, but loves religious iconography. Next door is a bathroom plastered in gold and silver discs. The attic is a small room he is turning into a studio. “We’re going to record the next album here.” Has he told the three other band members of his plans? “Well, me and George, when we first looked to buy places to live, we put offers on places next to each other.” George Daniel is the band’s drummer and co-songwriter. Healy points out of the attic window. “In the end, George lives a two-minute walk away. We are completely symbiotic. We write 50% of the songs each. But because we’ve been a band since we were 13, the musicianship of the other guys is ingrained in the way I write and think – so I write for them and it becomes embellished. I couldn’t be in a band with anybody else. That’s why we share all the money.” Equally? “Yes.”

Healy is briefly distracted by Allen, who seems intent on ripping up the staircase. “Oi! What are you doing, you little shit? I would chastise you for that, but there’s company. He really is very sweet. On your bed. Go. Now.”

He’s always been a dog person, Healy says, but not as much as George. “George might as well be a dog himself, he’s so obsessed. He doesn’t have one, and I keep coming home to find Allen not there, and then I see on Instagram he’s having a barbecue at George’s house.”

George steals him? “Oh, me and George are like a married couple. The other day I woke up at 3am, and he was just on the sofa. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he was like, ‘I didn’t have any weed, so I just came round.’”

Tour of the house over, we’re back in the kitchen. Healy heats up some old coffee and sparks up. “I smoke quite a lot. You don’t mind, do you?” He talks about all the times the 1975 were rejected by record labels and the effect it had on him. “It was like somebody saying you’re ugly, it felt really personal.” When the first album came out in 2013, many critics slated them.

He had his right to reply in the video to the band’s 2016 hit single The Sound. It is classic the 1975: Healy is leather-jacketed, heavily mascara-d, corkscrew curls bouncing off his cheeks, performing in a pink neon-lit box. As he sings, quotes from early reviews flash across the screen: “Is this a joke?” “Do people really still make music like this?” “This band thinks it has a charismatic singer… they are mistaken.” “Terrible high-pitched vocals over soulless robo-beats.” “Pretentious.” “Unimaginative.” “Annoying.” “Ridiculous contrived knock-offs.” “Punch-your-TV obnoxious.”

Fans watch the 1975 play Glastonbury festival in June 2016
Fans watch the 1975 at Glastonbury in June. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Is the video the band’s revenge? “Nonono, it was all of us being involved in the joke. It was us saying, that’s the point.” What does he mean? “Well, I am a bit of a knob. We weren’t pissed off – it’s all pop music, at the end of the day.”

The band got together when they were pupils at Wilmslow High in Cheshire. Healy, now 27, spent his early years in Newcastle, but moved with his family to the north-west when he was nine. He joined up with Daniel, bass player Ross MacDonald and lead guitarist Adam Hann to form a band that had various names including Forever Enjoying Sex, Drive Like I Do, The Slowdown, Bigsleep and, eventually, the 1975. Healy was initially the drummer, but became the vocalist when their original singer left. At first they covered other people’s songs, but by the age of 15 he and Daniel were writing their own.

Healy didn’t apply himself at school, and left with three GCSEs. “School was just a tedious imposition, getting in the way of me being a pop star. I was just looking at the clock, waiting until I could go and do it.” He went to music college, but lasted only three months. While the other band members were at university, he wrote songs, worked in a Chinese restaurant and developed a precocious cocaine problem.

From the beginning, Healy felt the 1975 were different from most bands that originated from the north-west. While groups such as Oasis and the Happy Mondays prided themselves on their working-class roots, the 1975 were defiantly middle class, with a love of middle-of-the road music (Phil Collins and Dire Straits, for example). “I liked my story,” Healy says. “The whole thing of bedroom culture, making records, being stoner kids from the middle of nowhere [Wilmslow is just outside Manchester], middle-class boredom. We don’t have parents to fight against, we don’t have the police to fight against. It became the celebration of the mundane.”

But Healy’s background is more exciting than he makes out. His parents, now divorced, are both successful actors: Tim Healy (best known for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and Denise Welch (Coronation Street, Waterloo Road, and then Loose Women). And they were hardly traditional middle class: Tim Healy started out as a welder, while Welch’s father worked as a drag queen in bars and clubs; Welch has talked about her alcoholism and cocaine addiction.

Healy talks about a privileged childhood, but family life sounded pretty chaotic, I say. He smiles. “Mental family. Completely mental. We love each other so much. We’re so close, so tactile, and we kick the shit out of each other. And we throw things at each other, and my parents drank for years. I grew up in a very different house from what my [15-year-old] brother is growing up in now. My mother’s been sober for five years. My dad’s been sober for a while. But I grew up in a party house in the 90s. It wasn’t distressing. It was exciting.”

Matt Healy of band the 1975 (on right) with parents Denise Welch and Tim Healy, and brother Louis in 2010
With parents Denise Welch and Tim Healy, and brother Louis in 2010. Photograph: Matt Lloyd/Rex/Shutterstock

From the age of four, he played drums with his father. His parents were friendly with any number of musicians, who would encourage young Matty. “My dad’s mates were in bands. Brian Johnson from AC/DC, Rick Wakeman, Mark Knopfler and Jeff Lynne, who’s an absolute genius. I’ve got a funny story about him. My mum and I went to his house with a friend called Phil Collinson, who’s a producer. We introduced Phil to Jeff, and he kept asking him, ‘How’s your dad doing?’ and Phil kept saying, ‘Yeah, he’s fine.’ ‘Is he still living in Switzerland?’ ‘No, he still lives in Coventry.’ And Jeff Lynne took me over to the side and he said, ‘Is he Phil Collins’ son?’ I said, ‘No, his name’s Phil Collinson.’ Then he said, ‘Thank fuck, because I hate Phil Collins!’”

Healy grew up surrounded by music. “Black music, really. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack. Gospel music was incorporated a lot on the last record, and this is something my dad introduced me to when I was young. It sounds a weird thing to say, but that was my God when I was growing up. My pantheon was Michael Jackson and Prince and James Brown.”

As a young boy, Healy felt a bond with outsiders. “My dad had his bohemian actor mates, but he’d also have his welder mates. I remember watching a video of Michael Jackson, and all of my dad’s mates expressing how alien it was and how he’s from a different planet, and me standing there thinking, ‘I’m a lot more like him than you.’”

It wasn’t until 2012, 10 years after they formed, that the band released their first EP. By then, their manager, Jamie Oborne, had decided to take matters into his own hands. “I’d been managing them for seven years, and for reasons I couldn’t really understand, nobody wanted to sign them,” Oborne says. “So I set up my own label, Dirty Hit, for them, because I really believed in them. We’ve now created this model where it’s more about artist partnerships than conventional record deals. As people’s way of consuming music has changed, I’ve felt that royalty-based deals have become obsolete and are not really fair.” So Dirty Hit licenses the 1975 out to Universal, and the band have more control over their music.

The 1975 in Seattle in December 2015
The 1975 in Seattle in December 2015 (from left, Ross MacDonald, George Daniel, Healy and Adam Hann). Photograph: Mat Hayward/Getty Images

This is a subject Healy returns to repeatedly. “I create in the same way I consume,” he says. “There is no filter, no linear consumption of anything any more, because of the internet. I want to be an ambassador for this generation, where you’re supposed to have Carole King and Kendrick Lamar on your iPhone. Guilty pleasures don’t really exist any more.”

He is extremely canny, not least in controlling the image of the band. When they were invited to play the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, they opted for the smaller Other Stage. Similarly, at the Reading festival, they were offered the main stage and went for the less illustrious NME/Radio 1 stage. “I said no way am I going on the main stage. I don’t want people saying the 1975 were great at Reading, I want people saying I couldn’t get in to see the 1975 at Reading. That’s how we’re going to move forward.”

After the success of the first album, the band had an existential crisis: they didn’t know whether they could repeat their success, or whether they even wanted to. It was the traditional rock’n’roll cocktail: bad behaviour, drugs and rampant egomania, twinned with paralysing paranoia. Healy started to tell the world that he was a Messiah figure, and that it wasn’t easy having all the world’s beautiful women adore him; he didn’t want to abuse his position. When one woman shouted out at a concert that she loved him, he snapped back, “You don’t have the right to love me.” On another occasion, he was filmed, rather endearingly, smoking a bong with fans, high as a kite. Then there were the rumours that he and Taylor Swift were an item. His response led to accusations of misogyny (“If I had gone out with Taylor Swift, I would’ve been, ‘Fucking hell, I am not being Taylor Swift’s boyfriend!’ You know, ‘Fuck. That.’ That’s also a man thing, an emasculating thing”).

I tell him I want to ask the one thing everybody wants to know about him. “Taylor Swift?” he answers immediately. Yes, I say, did you go out with her or not? “No, did I fuck.”

Did he have any relationship with her, I ask in my best Ken Starr voice. “No.” Sex? “No.” Did you kiss? “No.” So why the huge hoo-ha? “She came to a show and we hung out. We fancied each other, but then we couldn’t have it go any further, because it would be like going out with Barack Obama.” He says there was nothing misogynistic about his comments, he was simply being honest: he didn’t like the prospect of two giant egos clashing and him coming off second best.

Matt Healy of band the 1975 with singer Taylor Swift and DJ Nick Grimshaw at the 2015 Brits party
With Taylor Swift and Nick Grimshaw at the 2015 Brits party. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

What did he mean when he said he was the Messiah? He looks confused and says he’s not sure. “It was maybe about the search for God or my envy of the faithful.” So the quote was taken out of context? Oh no, he says: “There is an element of feeling a bit like the Messiah. Well, not somebody who’s here to save humanity, but somebody for whom the world does truly revolve around them.” Healy has an ego that would fill the Royal Albert Hall; by rights, he should be obnoxious, yet there is something vulnerable, open and likable about him.

In the end, the band decided the way out of their crisis was to up the ante for the second album: ridiculous title, 17 songs, every musical style. This time, the critics loved it. They were even willing to forgive Healy his bombast. In this paper, Alexis Petridis described it as “an album that fancies itself as a challenging work of art, but turns out to be a collection of fantastic pop songs full of interesting, smart lyrics”.

It is Healy’s lyrics that distinguish the 1975. At his best, he is observant and refreshingly self-knowing – a prose poet in the style of the Streets’ Mike Skinner. So, rather than describing his druggy phase in highfalutin terms on A Change Of Heart, he recounts a conversation with his ex: “And she said, ‘I’ve been so worried about you lately/You look shit and smell a bit.’” On She Lays Down, he writes tenderly about his mother’s postnatal depression (“My hair is brown, she’s scared to touch/And she just wants to feel something/And I don’t think that’s asking for too much/And when I go to sleep it’s when she begins to weep”). On Loving Someone, he shows he can laugh at himself, quoting French Marxist situationist Guy Debord and in the same sentence singing, “I’m the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques.”

At times, it sounds as if Healy has swallowed a primer on cultural studies. Did he read loads as a child? “No.” Does he read now because he didn’t then? He nods. “That’s exactly it. I feel stupid a lot of the time, so my life now is about educating myself. They say learn like you’re going to live for ever, and live like you’re going to die tomorrow.”

He lights another fag, swigs his tea and starts talking 10 to the dozen about any number of unrelated things. There’s his synaesthesia (“When I’m writing a song, there’s a colour there”); the guilt he feels at plundering his life for his lyrics (in one song, he wrote about driving to see his dying nan by himself, rather than with the family, just so he could get stoned on the way); how the music press patronises his 17-year-old fans by assuming they won’t understand his lyrics, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at exactly the same age (give or take four years); how you’re never going to get rid of the N word in rap, because “phonetically, it’s perfect… a great sound.” He stops. “Sorry. That was a bit of a digression.”

Matt Healy of the band the 1975, holding sunflowers in front of his eyes
‘I have a polarity. I’m either like this or in my own world.’ Grooming: Dani Richardson. Photograph: Tom Pope for the Guardian Photograph: Tom Pope for the Guardian

I ask if he was ever diagnosed with ADHD. He smiles. “I’ve never been to the doctor about it, but probably only because you wouldn’t be able to get me in the chair long enough to be diagnosed.”

Has he ever taken Ritalin? “Yeaaaah!” he says enthusiastically. “Only recreationally. One time, we did 15 shows in five days and I asked a friend if he had anything that could keep me awake. I thought he was going to give me a ProPlus. He gave me three Adderall. You’re supposed to take a half. Imagine me on Adderall. It’s like a super Ritalin.” Doesn’t Ritalin calm you down? “Not with me. I was bouncing off the fucking walls.”

He does have some quiet moments. “Yeah, I have a complete polarity. I’m either like this or introspective, in my own world.” Is he prone to depression? “Yes, that runs in my family. I do suffer from depression, but I don’t like talking about it, because it is trendy. I see artists romanticising it. It’s so much sexier if artists are in pain, but it can be really, really destructive.”

He says neither he nor his band are in pain at the moment. Why would they be, with things going so well? As for belatedly gaining the approval of a bunch of music writers, “crusty old lefty liberals from north London”, he says he can take it or leave it. What matters is that the fans love them. “If you play 240 shows a year in front of 10,000 screaming young people who adore you, as opposed to people standing there thinking, ‘Impress me’, I can tell you which one you’re going to choose every single night.” Now he’s talking faster and louder. “You know, if you hate our band, you hate our band, but I challenge anybody with a preconception to come and see us live and not enjoy it a bit. We’re a fucking good band, and we’re proper players. And we’ve got an award-winning light show.” Do all these haters actually exist, or are they in his head? “I think it’s something in my head, maybe.” He laughs.

***

A couple of nights later, the 1975 play live at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. They’ve performed in front of much bigger crowds before, but Healy says this is the most important gig of his career: they are playing with the BBC Philharmonic, and it is being broadcast live. He introduces me to the man responsible for the show’s lighting (“He was my best friend when I was 12”) and the guy in charge of merchandise (“He used to sit next to me in maths”).

Unusually, Healy is not swigging from a bottle of wine tonight. Nor is he topless. He is wearing Rupert Bear trousers, swotty spectacles and a Sideshow Bob haircut. “Good evening, everybody, we’re incredibly nervous,” he says, and he sounds it. But not for long. The night starts with the band playing keyboards in a line, à la Kraftwerk. A few minutes later, Healy is singing Sorry by Justin Bieber, and What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction. He’s right about the levels of adoration, and he’s right that they put on a good show.

Band the 1975 at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April 2014.
At London’s Royal Albert Hall in April 2014. Photograph: Christie Goodwin/Getty Images

After the gig, we scramble up to the dressing room, which smells of beer, sweat and spliff. Family members jostle for space as the band change and chat about how it went. Denise Welch tells me how proud she is. “I had no idea when they were practising at our house all those years ago, that one day they would be playing with the BBC Philharmonic.”

Tim Healy is sitting in a chair, quietly taking everything in. “I used to tell Matty he was John Lennon,” he says. Not Paul McCartney? “No! When I saw the passion, I definitely said John Lennon.”

Healy and Daniel tell me that what they really want to do is sit down with Allen Ginsberg and watch the show on iPlayer. Then they’ll know how they’ve done. But Healy can’t hide his relief or delight. “The head percussionist came over and said, ‘Do you remember me?’ and I said no. She said, ‘I was your drum teacher when you were at primary school.’ To hear something you’ve written played on that scale by those musicians makes you feel like John Williams. It was such a powerful experience.”

Healy has been thinking about what he said the other day about the critics, how he didn’t give two hoots what they thought. It’s not true, he says. “If we hadn’t been praised, I don’t know how I would have taken it.”

The music media’s approval is sealed a few weeks after we meet, when the band win best album at the Q awards. They were still on tour, but Healy sent a speech filmed while crowdsurfing a wave of screaming girls. “We are the best band with the best album. Isn’t that right, everybody? We should have won best band also. Thank you. Good night.”

Back at the Blackpool Ballroom, he’s smoking, winding down, giving me a tour of his tattoos. There’s the massive tribute to his grandmother on his chest (“She hated my tattoos, so I said, ‘When you die, I’m going to get a tattoo’ and she said, ‘You better not’, so I did”), Newcastle United, a David Shrigley cartoon, a homage to the William Burroughs novel Queer; on the inside of his lips, it says Wabi-Sabi. “It’s a Japanese aesthetic paradigm about the impermanence of beauty.”

He grins. “I know I am pretentious, but I’d be the first person to tell you that. And I’m not apologising, because I’m bored of indie bands that are terrified of doing anything that could be perceived as aspirational, so they don’t affect the status quo of their little cliquey band world; where everyone has to think that each band is as cool as the other band, and you’re not allowed to play to a show of over 30 people, and everyone has to be a fucking lesbian. It’s way more pretentious to pretend you don’t care about something.”

And now he’s on a roll. “There’s this elite thing, where everybody’s petrified of the idea that you could want your music to reach lots of people, but that’s what excites me. The idea of starting in a room and then bleeding out across humanity, the idea of one of my songs being on in a car while people are having an argument that really matters to them, or a song being on when somebody has that moment when they feel really alive. I want that. I don’t want unaspirational bullshit. There is no time for it in art. I come on stage and go: ‘This is what I do and I’m proud of it.’”

• The 1975 UK arena tour starts on 13 December.

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