Matt Healy’s had the multiple hair-dos, the dazzling colour changes, the fashion makeovers, but what shines through this almost Bowie-esque chameleon is his intelligence of thought. Jeff Hemmings finds out more about The 1975 frontman’s issues with addiction, celebrating the mundane and breaking perceptions.
The 1975 frontman Matt Healy is a very smart boy, albeit one caught up in the temptations of the human mind, exaggerated by the pleasures and pains of being a bit of a rock star. Yet, like all 20-somethings, he has energy, passion, and confidence in abundance. Along with the help of his childhood friends and bandmates, he also has the wherewithal to channel these qualities into artistic pursuits, that while having countless detractors, is pure and brilliant enough for The 1975 to become perhaps the biggest and most important indie band of the decade, a very rare beast of an alt-pop band to be still having top 40 single hits. If they can keep it together, there could be no stopping them becoming bigger still, perhaps the biggest 21st century band of them all.
However, while it’s been easy to garner fans, it’s not been so easy to win over critics, or an industry that had a hard time getting The 1975. With minor celebrity-actor parents (Tim Healy and 2012 Celebrity Big Brother winner Denise Welch) no doubt helping to handsomely feed a media-savviness and articulate bearing, whilst growing up in a wealthy middle class area of Cheshire (part of the so-called Cheshire Golden Triangle), there had been a decidedly frosty and cynical attitude to a band the polar opposite of an Oasis or a Happy Mondays, both from gritty, working class families in nearby Manchester. However, you can’t help where you are from. It’s what you do with it that counts, and The 1975, whilst sometimes slyly underplaying their privileges, never shied away from expressing their love of all things middle-of-the-road, from Dire Straits to INXS, the Aussie band who The 1975 are most often compared to. Nor should it be forgotten that Healy’s parents are from a mix of extrovert/working class stock themselves. They just happened to make quite a bit of money, and Healy is unapologetic. “I liked my story,” he has said. “The whole thing of bedroom culture, making records, being stoner kids from the middle of nowhere, 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.”
Whilst ‘celebrating’ this mundanity, Healy became a young cocaine abuser, and drug use/misuse has plagued him ever since, including a recent spell in rehab courtesy of heroin, perhaps fuelled by witnessing the party days of his parents’ house, where thanks to his father’s role in the TV cult hit Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, many-a-star would be present. “I grew up in a party house in the 90s. It wasn’t distressing. It was exciting… I was 18, I dabbled in everything. I wanted to be Jack Kerouac. I thought I was as decadent as all of that. I thought ‘the world will catch up’. And that stems from this: I remember once, I was sat in front of the TV – I must have been about six – and my dad’s mates are all welders. They were sat behind me watching a video of Michael Jackson. And they were expressing their opinions about how alien he was, how unrelatable he was. And I remember thinking, ‘I’m a lot more like him than I am you…’
Healy seemed to know what he wanted, was aspirational, and apologising wasn’t a factor. “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.”
I would wager hard cash with anyone that there will never be another universally approved star band. Perhaps the Artic Monkeys were the last ones, a band who came into being when Facebook was still in its nappies, and smartphones had barely entered the lexicon. They grew up in a time when it was not possible that every Tom, Dick and Harry could put their tuppence in, and comment sagely or otherwise, about the merits of a band. Both slated and feted, The 1975 are a band who have survived crisis’ of confidence, and Healy’s intermittent drug dependency, to become respected by many of those who didn’t care for them in the beginning. They are, after all, a foursome who have been together since their early teens, making music for fun.
At first though, the band (made up of Healy, Ross MacDonald, George Daniel, and Adam Hann) had no real idea of who they were, or whether it would work. “The first album just happened, behind closed doors. No one knew who we were, I hadn’t done it before. All these things aren’t real until other people know them. As soon as people heard it, I had a vocal style, I had a thing. We had an identity.
“Weak messages create bad situations”, it says on the tattooed arm of Healy. “There’s no room for weak messages. I want strong messages, and I want people to really believe in them. I don’t want people to not care.”
With a dog named after Allen Ginsberg, a band named after the scribbled date in the back jacket of a second hand Jack Kerouac novel, a proclaimed love of art, and a direct quote from contemporary British artist (and last year’s Brighton Festival Guest Director) David Shrigley, emblazoned on the aforementioned forearm of his, it is perhaps no surprise that the music industry simply didn’t get The 1975. They were dismissed as more of an arty human jukebox than an actual band, wrapped up in artistic statements and beliefs that simply went over the head of the many who first came across them. Yet, credit to Matt Healy and co, they didn’t pay much attention to that. They knew that, even in the late 2000s, big labels (and cynical journos) were still staffed by old-timers, those not fully appreciating the massive and irrevocable changes that had and were continuing to be made via the worlds of the internet, social media, tablets, smartphones, and streaming.
With tastes fragmenting, and clunky tribalism all but disappearing, concurrently with the rapid demise of the traditional industry gatekeepers, the time was ripe for a difficult-to-pigeon hole band such as The 1975 to emerge. The band felt that the industry simply didn’t understand the way that people now listen to music. After being rejected by the industry, their increasingly exasperated manager, Jamie Oborne, decided to set up their own label, Dirty Hit, and work towards licensing deals. Healy said, “It was like somebody saying you’re ugly, it felt really personal.”
After the quick but steady release of four EPs, the band dropped their self-titled album in 2013, which proceeded to top the charts. 2016’s follow up featured the ridiculously long and unwieldy album title I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. Even that didn’t stop it reaching the top of the charts either, both here and in the US. Nor did the fact that each song was in a different style. “It’s art,” Healy said. “The world needs this album.”
To blatantly emphasise the chasm between the band and their fans, and the so-called tastemakers and gatekeepers, The 1975 really let rip on a single released from that second album, ‘The Sound’, with quotes from early reviews and naysayers flashed on 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.” And so it went on.
With wide-ranging influences from gospel and soul, to INXS and Genesis, and from Talking Heads and Brian Eno, to Jamie xx and Michael Jackson, The 1975 have continued, via their third consecutive chart topping album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, to do whatever they bloody well fancy. “Whatever song we heard we loved, let’s make that song,” Healy explains. “If it’s a pop song, an r’n’b song, a dance song, it doesn’t matter. If we loved that song and it inspired us, let’s remake that song. How could we steal this and get away with it? There is no restriction. There is no rule.
“(The band) really is a sum of all its parts. It doesn’t work without one of them, especially with writing. It starts with me saying we should do a song like this, (the band’s musical lynchpin) George making his version of it, then me grabbing it and working on it. We don’t usually write live, in a room playing together. (But) the other guys have to be there to make their feel for the record.”
A Brief Inquiry… is as much about millennial social media and internet-driven angst as it is an honest study of a young man on the brink of his 30s. The internet “Presents a sense of an egalitarian place for us all to live and exist, whereas that’s not the way that society should be”, Healy says. It’s big in ambition, creativity and execution. It’s the album that finally saw them reach previously uncharted creative peaks, and which the critics almost invariably gave the thumbs up to. It is outrageous and eclectic, veering from the jazz-based balladry to the sharp electric urban rock grooves of ‘Give Yourself A Try’, an anthemic call to arms, couched in various story vignettes, with authenticity and honesty at its heart. Part autobiographical, part observational, there is also plenty of humour in there. It cemented Healy’s role as an unelected spokesperson for millennials trying to get a grip on things, and just wanting to have fun, but also to try and understand themselves better.
“I write about fear, sex, love, god, addiction, and talk about them in a conversational way. The biggest struggles I have had are addiction, mental health and religion. Writing music is my catharsis. It’s almost dangerous sometimes, because as soon as something particularly emotionally engaging happens… this is what I do and I have a license to do it. If something bad happens, I turn it into art. There’s the content, there’s the catharsis. Whether that is healthy or not, I don’t know. I try and make sense of things, and then share it with people, and see if they understand me. And they seem to.”
With a strong marketing nous, a bold, ever-evolving image, and a true band aesthetic headed by the weak-yet-strong head of Healy, that resonates brilliantly with the young public, The 1975 have certainly captured the zeitgeist. “If you shine a light on yourself, you shine a light on other people. I’m more comfortable about talking about the things that make me uncomfortable. From what I’ve learnt, from a lot of the young people I meet, it’s quite empowering. I talk about parts of my personality that don’t make me out to be a great person. But, in doing that, it gives people permission to accept that part of themselves. We’re all humans. We all fuck up. And I fuck up loads. People have hard lives and I’m faced with that quite a lot. So I feel a responsibility to be honest, and to make them feel it is okay to be how they are.”
The 1975 are weird, yet wonderful. A reminder that alternative pop can still forge interesting avenues in the right hands, with a frontman as extrovert and thoughtful as Healy, one who is not afraid to express his naivety, nor his new found knowledge. There is no saccharine froth to the band, just an exploration of what it means to be alive in the 21st century. For Healy, music is about changing society by inspiring individuals, “giving them a release from all the bullshit.”