The 1975 are nearing the end of a mostly sold out two-month tour across the US, and John Boles (Align in Time) had a chance to speak with frontman Matthew Healy about their success in the US and abroad, their songwriting process, the increasing pressure of life in the public eye, and what comes next for the band.
To start, what’s it been like touring the US, after you guys went number one in the UK? I imagine touring over there is huge. You’ve been selling out shows here, but have you found that it’s started to level out a little bit, that people in the US are really starting to catch on?
Very much so, we’ve felt the acceleration in our popularity coming to America, because in the UK, it’s like, I don’t know, I suppose a good analogy is if you spend time with a person every day, you’re not going to notice them losing weight. You’re not going to notice them changing as a person. I think, with every small step we took in the UK, it went from bigger show, to slightly bigger shows, to bigger, to bigger, to bigger, until we found ourselves looking back and thinking, ‘Fucking hell, that’s actually quite a big step.’ Whereas in America we played tiny shows and then we came over and we played fucking crazy shows. There was a big polarity between the two types of shows that we’re doing. Like now, we’re doing sold-out theaters of over a thousand, two thousand people booking up shows for full. In the UK, now we’re doing some shows booked for next year that are massive; we’re already doing three nights at Brixton. That’s fifteen thousand people. It’s amazing, it’s all…I don’t know. I’m a bit insecure, kind of all over the place, so I don’t really know how I feel about it all, but pretty sure I feel positive. I won’t know for a couple of years.
Do you think there’s any correlation between the way you guys have had success in the US and the fact that the album is the first thing that many people in the US are experiencing, versus the EPs?
I don’t really know. I think that our foundation, the foundation of our hardcore fan base, wasn’t really based on geography. Because it was the Internet, and because so much of the core foundation of our band is a testament to the power of the Internet. I think that we, ourselves, as a band were very geographically ambiguous in regards to the way that we sounded and the way that we acted. We didn’t really, we didn’t have an adherence to any certain place. And I think that a lot of the kids who still come to our shows in America were kids that did find the EPs, because the EPs…you could buy them on iTunes, but they were Internet-based things. It was our Soundcloud and our YouTube that were the ones that were getting all the hits. People were downloading those EPs through any means necessary, and that provided…the EPs did get quite big in the UK. They charted really highly and stuff. I think, yeah, the American fan base has been hit a bit quicker, like with the debut album. We didn’t want to do that in the UK, because we thought, ‘People will be too confused.” This album spans so much sonic and stylistic, such a big kind of plateau-thing, that we can’t just come out with it, because it would be too audacious. In America, it’s kind of worked, because Americans like that kind of big, ambitious, bright, you know?
“Romantic,” as you guys have described it.
That’s been one of the joys of sharing you guys with other people. I’ve found that it works for everyone…people are drawing out completely different things. There are so many layers and there’s so much depth to the music in terms of the artists you’re referencing musically, the narratives you’re working into the lyrics. Can you talk a little bit about how that process works? Is that something that’s intentional when you’re writing songs, that you create all these different layers and get to see how far down people will dig? Or is that just what happens naturally?
I think that what you described is a personality. The idea of a dimensional, layered character, that’s what a personality is. Do you know what I mean? And I think that this band, through its narratives and sound and every single thing of it is an extension of my identity, it’s an extension of my personality. I think that all of these things, I can reflect upon, but I think they are quite subconscious. So I don’t make music with a particular agenda. I find that I have a very, very firm understanding of exactly who I am and what I want to do and what I want to achieve whilst writing, but it comes from a subconscious place. I’m not actively using a formula to acquire…it comes naturally to me, but I think that a lot of people get very deluded that they may have this divinely decreed, this kind of power that is divinely decreed, this natural ability that is totally innate. It is innate, but it’s also learned. It’s like having…I have a natural ability with self-awareness. I’m aware that what I do has a formula to it. Maybe it’s a slight digression, but the emotional element of our music is partially due to the fact that it’s a natural form of creative expression, and it’s very direct, but it’s also because I know certain technical and musical formulas and techniques that you can use in order to acquire an emotional response from somebody. A certain chord change, a certain timing of something. It’s all very well to be a natural genius and a lush for the language which you use, but you need to truly understand it to use it to its potential. I think if you had a job where you worked at a typewriter all day, 24/7, it doesn’t mean that you would be a good creative writer. But if you were a good creative writer, that would fucking help.
One thing that you guys have discussed as something that you strive for in your songs is achieving a sort of offset dynamic where you have more upbeat, uplifting music paired with darker lyrical themes. That seems like a good description of the album, which is very upbeat, wears its influences on its sleeve, whereas the EPs have some much darker musical content, tracks like “Me” and “Undo”. Is that somewhere you see yourselves heading? This might be jumping the gun, but in terms of the music you said you’re working on for the next album, for example, do you find yourself having a more direct mirror between the lyrical and musical feel or vibe?
This is a very interesting, good question. Two things first of all: the juxtaposition in the music is something I always talk about, for example I always say my idea for my perfect song would sound like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston, but convey the message and the conviction and the lyrical narrative of something such as “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. That composite of ideas, that juxtaposition of a musical formula that provokes you to feel uplifted and is life-affirming and relies on pop sensibilities and syncopation and things that make you feel good, juxtaposed with a narrative that provokes you to be at your most introspective, your most bare. That’s a beautiful idea. And that lends itself from growing up around stuff like cinema, because that gets really explored a lot, you know, the idea of a “goodbye.” A “goodbye scene” that is tinged with sadness and remorse and regret and yearning, dueled with a really uplifting piece of music, provokes you to feel such a certain way. I go for that a lot with our music, and I think to be honest with you, no, I don’t think that I will lose that as an inherent formula for writing music as we move on to the next album. I certainly haven’t thus far, with the stuff that I have written.
So would you say that the stuff that you have written is of the same ilk as the album? Because it seems like the album and the EPs [which were written after the album] are very different, stylistically.
They are very different, and I’ll tell you what it is. As you know, the album preceded the EPs, and the EPs were written in a week. They were written and recorded in a week, each. So, Facedown, we had the songs off the album. We had “The City”, we had “Sex”, we had “Chocolate”. We decided that those three…we weren’t thinking about singles, which is why we ended up doing EPs, but we decided that those were going to be the three songs to really cement our identity, they were going to be the three songs we put out. We decided then to surround them with EPs, so we took “The City”, and we wrote and recorded Facedown in a week, around it. We then took “Sex” and wrote and recorded that EP, in a week. Same with Music for Cars, wrote and recorded it in a week. Same with IV. I think that accounts for the fact that they were genuine Polaroids of where we were at the time. I wasn’t taking into consideration a narrative that spanned an entire record. They were genuine little moments, so maybe I was more up, maybe I was more down, but there was no intention for the EPs to circulate around darker themes.
So maybe not darker, but more pensive, or atmospheric, less structured?
Yeah, yeah, I think the narrative of the lyrics was definitely…I haven’t really thought about it, it’s quite interesting you’re making me think about it. I suppose that because we knew, and we wanted, at the time, and we were actively making the EPs more alternative bodies of work to express where we were, where we came from…you know, we knew that the album was going to be really poppy, so we really wanted to express that element of our band first, and to put forth the idea that we’re an alternative band and that we had been making alternative records, musically, probably provoked me to be a bit more alternative lyrically, in regards to the themes I discussed. The idea of writing a song like “Girls” at that time just wasn’t really in my kind of mindset.
The cohesion is so important for those EPs; that was the first thing the really got me hooked on you guys, when I first registered that you could listen through Music for Cars, for example, and you could hear the beginning of a night, right, and “Chocolate”, the rebelliousness of driving around with your friends and doing drugs. And then the sort of self-doubt that comes in once things are a little off-kilter and you’re looking at your friends in a different way and reevaluating the romantic situation, obviously, and then hitting a low, towards the end of this crazy night, where all of sudden your reflecting on your whole life, your family, where you came from. That element, I think, is what the EPs and the album have in common, that focus on drawing thoughts together, except on the album it’s in sections.
Yeah, absolutely…”An Encounter” and “Robbers”, it’s the same thing. With all the guitars and the drums taken out, muted. And that’s what I love about it, I think the album works in three parts. The first part is us solidifying our identity with stuff that you’ve come to know and what sounds like the formula of our band. Then it moves into the more kind of 80s movie-inspired part, which leads with “An Encouter” through to “Girls”, and then from “12”, it starts with…it’s more like modern soul, really. If you look at “Pressure” and “Menswear” and “Is There Somebody Who Can Watch You”. It’s kind of gospel, it’s all about…that part of the record is all about my family, all about my struggles with my family and the idea of religion, the lack of religion, that led to the amount of gospel influence, and our love for gospel music, just as music. There’s a lot of that on the next record, I can tell you that. More gospel.
Speaking of “Pressure”, I know you said you wrote the album first, but the lyrics almost sound like they could have been written now, as you’re dealing with this rapid success.
It’s dealing with the idea of fame and having an elevated social status that allows people to peer into your life. I’ve been around that my whole life; it’s about my mom and dad being actors, and famous. It’s all about living your life slightly in the public eye. I never did; my parents, you know…“Stay tuned, listen to the news, and try to fall asleep at night. Because I’m living in a house with just three walls, so I’m always getting recognized.”
So have you reevaluated those lyrics now, in your new context?
I think that once they actually were validated by people, and I saw that they connected, it made me realize what everything meant. I still don’t know, I still don’t know, man. I’m so lost, so lost with everything. I just fucking, I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I really didn’t…it came from such an indulgent place. It wasn’t…I didn’t even go outside. It wasn’t me…putting out the first record and stuff, the thought of doing any of this…I sat there with my glasses, on the Internet. That’s all I did was make records with George on a laptop, look at the Internet, look at what was happening. And it was almost like we were kind of like, “Well, let’s put a record out. Why not show it to people?” And it was just like that [snaps his finger]. This whole thing that makes people really nervous; they don’t know whether to like us because we have…everything is so stylized, but it’s only because we really like doing that. Same reason that you wear the type of clothes that you wear, same reason that you do anything, you know? You don’t stylize your house for other people, and you don’t care about how you do it, because it’s for you. Our band is for us.
And that’s where you sense some suspicions coming in, people looking at the speed of your ascent? Like with the “Girls” video…because of how rapidly you’ve come into the public eye and how perfected you are, image-wise, it leads people to inherently distrust that image, which is a tough place to be.
Of course! Which is sad, because people who are suspicious…the only question, if you’re in a position where it’s necessary to be judgmental about people’s creative output, the only question you need to ask about whether you should like it or not is, “Is it a genuine form of expression or not?” If it is, then, do you know what I mean? Why be scared of it? Why slag it off? Just invest yourself.
So, even if you’ve been authentic until now, the pressures of a great deal of success could be a breaking point, could be the point at which you start to abandon some of that indulgence you mentioned, the personal compass that you have. Have you felt any push from any direction, internally or externally, to alter your course in an artificial way?
No…[long pause] yeah, yeah I have. But only because I’m scared, only because I’m scared of everything in regards to kind of second-guessing everything that I do. And I think that the only thing that I have to do now is…I’m trying to answer it properly, because it’s a really good question, and it’s something that I’m really trying to figure out at the moment. Because with writing at the moment, that’s where I find a lot of my solace, so the way that I’ve found is that, when everything started happening, and the band got popular as we were finishing off the album, I kind of became a parody of myself. All of these elements of my personality that I’ve spoken about on the record were being validated by people really liking it, so I was becoming more and more like that, an excuse to be at my most, you know, polarizing and my personality, that was being endorsed by those people, and it’s even more like that now. If I wanted to, I could become more and more and more like myself; I’m very aware of that, I’m very aware that I could be fooling you, in the person that I am now. I could be totally different, I could have totally different mannerisms. I could be, like, a total façade. I’ll be honest with you, because I like you, which is why I don’t know how long we’ve sat here for.
[Laughs] I apologize…
No, no that’s the point! I didn’t even notice. This is… I am exactly who I am with you, but I’m very aware that I could not be. All of these things make you in the moment think, ‘Well, God, do I want to let that many people in?’ But this is who I am…I don’t really care about anything else, I’ve realized. All of the statistical and material things that you acquire, they don’t mean anything apart from how you feel about the music. The feeling of getting a number one album is amazing, very flattering, very humbling, but it’s nothing like the moment you finish a song and you believe it’s a number one record. That is a good feeling, that’s a real feeling. Other feelings are nice, but they’re more material. That’s innate, that’s purely indulgent, that’s why I started making music, and that’s all I’m in search of now. So I’m not really too worried.
Do you feel you’ve reached a point of satisfaction, to a degree, or are you already looking ahead to the next…?
No, no, I’m never satisfied. I’m never satisfied and that’s kind of, that’s probably my defining factor. Besides perfectionism when it comes to everything. I don’t know, I just…I think that all of these records are depictions of my self-analysis, so as long as I’m alright, as long as I’m managing, I’ll just stay as neurotic as I am, I imagine, and just talk about it.
So when you look now, maybe slightly prematurely, a year ahead, two years ahead…I know some fans, including myself, are already wondering what’s next. Will there be more EPs, will it be another album?
It’ll be another album.
It’ll be a full album, you think?
If it’s everything that I hope for, it’ll be another album two years to the day after the first one came out. So, is it sixth of September, two thousand and…? 2015.
You guys have already written, what, seven or eight songs?
Oh, I don’t know. They’re never written until they’re recorded.
So how much a part of the writing process is actually recording, the production side of things?
It’s all the same. It starts on the computer, with a sound. The creation of a part, it’s created in a project, so it becomes the song immediately. And then we’ll take a rough version of the song, I’ll put it on an iPod or something, and I’ll have it, and I’ll lie in a room and listen to it a thousand times over.
I listen to music that I’m working on all the time, and I’m always trying to pinpoint…it takes fifty listens before you determine that that one snare hit needs to move.
That’s the whole thing about inspiration. People have no idea what inspiration is. People genuinely think that inspiration comes easier for you, but it doesn’t. Inspiration is being four hours in playing the same keyboard sound that everybody in the building and room is sick of hearing, but then there’s one moment, there’s one moment where you go, “That’s never happened before. What was that?” And that moment can be a number one record, and we’re a testament to that. The thing in “The City”, the [mimics siren noise], that synth part was because I was leaning out of the window smoking, with George, and we were making that record, and a lorry down the street—a truck—put its breaks on, and it was in-key with the track, and it was really, really high-pitched, and I, for a second, got confused and thought it was George. I said, “That’s so cool!” He was like, “What?” I said, “That noise.” He said, “Oh, I think it was a truck,” and we just kind of found the pitch and based a note around that, and that song would be totally different without that part.
With the programs that we have access to now, musicians are always thinking in terms of tracking. It’s always…I shouldn’t say always, but for many musicians you’re thinking terms of parts, and layering, and recording.
That’s where it comes from. It’s all about syncopation and being able to see…I’ve always been very visual. My information’s based on looking at stuff, so when I’m writing a song, I look at it.
It’s almost reverting to a new form of sheet music, in a way.
It is, from a mental perspective. When I’ve got a project, or I’m thinking of a song, or I’m writing, or I’ve got a song on, if I have my eyes closed and I look at the project and then, if it’s moving along, then I can think about what needs to be doubled. It’s like, for some reason I’ve always known the alphabet, I’ve always seen…I think about most things normally, but every time I think about the alphabet, I’m such a visual thinker, I’ve always known it backwards. [Recites alphabet forwards, then backwards]
That would take most people a lot of practice…
Well, it’s that kind of thing, that’s why I’m so obsessed with syncopation, because when I listen to stuff and I can see where stuff doesn’t fit and does fit…
[Manager enters to take Matthew to another interview]
He’s going to tell us we’ve got to stop.
Alright, one more quick question: if you had to tell people something to look forward to, people that are just hearing your album for the first time and are digging deeper and finding the EPs…what can they look forward to either when they see you guys live or when they hear whatever comes next?
Themselves. I really hope that they find themselves, whether it’s the stuff that’s discussed on the record or the things that they hear in the music or the way that they feel when they come to the shows. We like the shows to be really, really consistent with the album, with regards to the way it sounds and the way it feels, it should be like being at your prom. And that’s the best thing about our band, what I’ve learned is that so many people invest themselves so much in it and they see so much of who they are in it, like you. I think if they’ve had that feeling before, then, you know, come on board.
Great interview. Having heard countless cookie cutter questions being asked in other interviews and at a typical radio meet and greet Q&A I was at this week, this was really refreshing. I would love to get inside Matty's head.