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Years & Years
Years & Years’ Olly AlexanderPhotography Till Janz

Olly Alexander on harnessing the power of sexual fantasy in pop

The Years & Years frontman talks about owning his queer sexuality in the mainstream and writing a twisted disco album about ‘holy wood’

“It’s like my Rihanna Loud era,” declares Olly Alexander, before breaking into a laugh. The Years & Years frontman is referring to his cropped curly hair, which is freshly coloured to the hue of a nice Merlot. It’s a cold February evening, and he’s puffing on a roll-up while huddled in the fire exit doorway of a Camden venue. His new dye job has to be kept under wraps, he explains, until its official unveiling in the band’s new video. “It’s so stupid,” Olly says with an eye roll. He then flashes me a grin, suggesting that this moment of starry subterfuge is not entirely unwelcome.

Olly Alexander really likes being a pop star. He says that it’s full of “fairytale” moments, like when his Years & Years earnings enabled him to buy his mum a house, or when he and his ex-boyfriend, Neil Milan (formerly of Clean Bandit), became embraced as British pop’s new golden couple. After winning the BBC Sound poll in 2015, Years & Years’ earworm synth pop was everywhere. They had an inescapable number one single, “King”, and their album Communion was the fastest selling debut that year from a signed British band. Olly says that there are downsides to the tabloid headlines and Twitter trolls that come along with being “a public gay man” – a phrase that he puts in self-deprecating air quotes. But right now, those pressures feel far away, as he prepares to change into a bright pink boiler suit and play to a boozed-up Saturday night crowd, at an Annie Mac-curated showcase. Or, as he put it on Twitter earlier today: bring his “gay agenda” to The Roundhouse.

Years & Years’ great new single, “Sanctify”, contrasts lurking vocals with an ecstatic synth-fuelled chorus, and is as unapologetic as any of Olly’s pithy social media posts. He was newly single when he wrote the song, and reading Andrew Holleran’s 1978 chronologue of gay desire, Dancer From the Dance, had got him thinking about a couple of hookups he’d had with straight-identifying men. “It would always be under darkness,” he says. “It had this added layer of eroticism because it was somewhat forbidden. But (being with me) was a window where they could be themselves, and I felt responsible not to fuck them up.” Those conflicting feelings come through in evocative lyrics about obscuring masks and sinful confessions, with a climax that’s about as on-the-nose as chart pop gets. “I sanctify my sins when I pray,” says Olly, quoting the chorus’s payoff. “What do you do what you pray? You get on your knees. So is it a sexual baptism?” He laughs. “I was just like, ‘There’s a lot to work with here.’”

Years & Years are a three-piece, but the other two members, Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, tend to hunker down behind synths and let Olly take centre stage. His soul-searching lyrics give the band’s maximalist pop its heart, with a singing voice that pierces through a constellation of synths. Their videos bring acts which are often shrouded in darkness into the light, showing the singer cruising in a dank car park, or at a pansexual orgy. The new “Sanctify” visual riffs on dom/sub culture, with an elaborate sci-fi plot that is a device for Olly to perform “Slave 4 U”-inspired dance moves to an audience of androids. When he was commissioned to write a song for the Bridget Jones franchise, he made it about bottoming. “I have sex, I enjoy sex,” he says flatly. He’s sitting in his cosy dressing room the Roundhouse, which rumbles with bass as Disclosure and Mabel soundcheck next door. “In the past, I think gay men (in pop) have often shied away from being overtly sexual, or being commanding of their sexuality. But I believe that our sexual fantasies are a big drive for us all. Exploring that side of yourself is super empowering.”

In the past year or so, many well-known LGBTQ artists have begun to bring queerness into their music in sex-positive ways. Pop’s boy-next-door Troye Sivan strapped on Tom Of Finland leathers for a back alley moment with well-fluffed trade, Janelle Monáe caressed women’s bare thighs, Fever Ray returned with a concept album about queer kink. For better or worse, Sam Smith is now calling himself a “dick monster” on primetime telly. “Sometimes seeing a man express themselves in an overtly sexual way, especially a gay man, makes certain conservative people feel a bit uncomfortable,” Olly says. “I always wanna keep people a little uncomfortable.”

“I believe that our sexual fantasies are a big drive for us all. Exploring that side of yourself is super empowering” – Olly Alexander

Years & Years are far from the first mainstream British pop act to proudly put gay sexuality at the centre of their music – that’s a lineage that runs from Will Young to George Michael, Pet Shop Boys to Bronski Beat, and beyond. But Olly’s performances are a reminder that mainstream pop can be open to explicit queerness (at least, when it’s embodied in a handsome white cis man). Olly has faith that you don’t have to be “generic to be palatable,” and that “straight guys can hear a song that I’ve written about being fucked by another guy, but still relate.” LGBTQ+ people like me grew up seeing straight culture pretty much everywhere; seeing more of our community thrive is crucial.

Growing up in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Olly was a flamboyant kid. That got him bullied at school, called a “batty boy” before he was even aware that he was gay, and meant that he retreated into drama lessons. While acting, he felt it was okay – a good thing, even – to be expressive. He always nurtured a passion for music, too; he taught himself how to play Joni Mitchell songs on piano, and obsessed over “Dirrty”-era Christina Aguilera. An early performance at a year six assembly blended intimate songwriting and outré entertainment: Olly played piano and sang lyrics about lost love, while two of his friends did a dance routine.

In his late teens and early 20s, Olly cropped up in whimsical micro-budget indie films like 2011’s The Dish And The Spoon, alongside Greta Gerwig, as well as Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void, and Skins. But his early experiences at school stayed with him. “Your first encounter with your sexuality is often from people bullying you and calling you the thing that you just pray to god that you won’t be – but deep down suspect you might be,” Olly says. “Well, no wonder we have an incredibly conflicting relationship with our bodies and our sexualities, because we’ve had to experience all of that.”

Reflecting on these difficult early years in his dressing room, Olly speaks openly about his own decade-long experience with depression, and the inadequate NHS provisions for those who are struggling with mental health. LGBTQ+ folks disproportionately struggle with depression and substance abuse, he recognises, and there’s only one UK organisation, London Friend, that caters directly to the specific needs of the queer community. “I’ve been there,” says Olly. “They’re amazing, but they are over-subscribed, with a tiny office, old chairs, and not a lot of money. When you’re seeing that people aren’t getting the help they should be, there’s an issue there.” That’s something he knows from first-hand experience. Last year, Olly fronted a BBC documentary, Growing Up Gay, about young LGBTQ+ people struggling with their mental health. His openness around the subject made him a kind of ambassador for those struggles, and he’s trying to work out how to deal with the “almost daily” DMs he gets from people at their lowest moments. “I feel very privileged that someone is wanting to share that with me, but it’s frightening,” he says. “We’re all in fucking pain, and I don’t know if we’re communicating with each other that well.”

“What do we expect a male pop star to do? As a society, how do we want them to behave or present themselves?” – Olly Alexander

Years & Years’ second album, out later this year, mixes gliding pop melodies with churning bass and twisted disco. The new songs feel more varied and exploratory than Communion, thanks in part to new collaborators like current pop’s minimalist masterminds Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, as well as Greg Kurstin, who co-wrote “Shine”, Years & Years’ best song to date. The album’s centred around a motif of Palo Santo, a healing incense-like wood that you burn and waft around a room. (Olly dramatises this with hand motions as if he’s conducting an invisible orchestra.) Perhaps Palo Santo, with its power to expel evil spirits, could be a metaphor for the songwriting process? Maybe, Olly says. “But (when writing the album) I was angry about loads of things, particularly men. Palo Santo literally means ‘holy wood’ and I was like, ‘This is fucking perfect.’ Like, thinking that your dick is holy? I’ve known guys like that.”

Years & Years’ renewed vision also extends to creating a futuristic universe for their new music to exist in. That’s an idea that Olly’s idols – “Bowie, Prince, and Gaga” – have embraced, and “Sanctify” is the first part of an interconnected series of “weird, wonderful” videos. It marks the next step for a band aiming to join British pop’s pantheon, at a time when Olly, too, has been reflecting on his place in music. “What do we expect a male pop star to do?” he questions. “As a society, how do we want them to behave or present themselves? If I was asking myself, it would be like, ‘Well actually, I’ve always loved this kind of popstar. Maybe I should just be the pop star I want to see in the world.”