It’s rare, for most people, to reflect on the significance of a moment at the same time as you’re experiencing it. Not so for Matty Healy. I meet The 1975’s frontman in the kitchen of his Brutalist new house, on the eve of the release of their third album – an effervescent and experimental record that’s set to elevate them from well-loved British alt-pop act to one of the country’s most boundary-pushing, internationally acclaimed bands. As he speaks in free-flowing monologues, Healy demonstrates constantly that he’s also thinking ahead to what this conversation is going to look like as an article. “We’ll have intimate, tactile memories of this past hour and a half,” he says, gesturing to the vast, sleek lines of the grey walls; the wide open French doors next to us, which he is blowing smoke out of; the paintings that are waiting to be hung. “Like the breeze, the echo, and you putting up with me smoking so much. But then it’ll become this other thing, and that will be digested by everybody else.”
What Healy’s describing is how it feels to put his album out into the world. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – out today, November 30 – contains a few over-arching narratives that have dominated the press cycle: it’s the story of Healy coming clean from a heroin addiction, by attending rehab in Barbados last year. It’s the story of his abandonment of postmodern irony, and embracing of sincerity; the story of how technology mediates all our relationships now.
In reality it’s all of this and more: it’s a very human, very contradictory, and very fun collection of electronic indie-pop bangers with a raw, beating heart. The earnestness is plain to see – the standout single “Sincerity is Scary” comes complete with a lush jazz instrumental and choreography worthy of the West End. A track title (“Surrounded by Heads and Bodies”) and several visual cues give away the album’s debt to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which a key plot point is how losing cynicism, and embracing earnest cliché, is the surest way for an addict to recover. With its bright-eyed optimism, the record feels part of a bigger cultural moment: like the other biggest pop album of the year, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener, it turns a time of crisis and pain into a soothing, near-blissful experience that preaches the importance of accepting the good with the bad.
But despite all this, the record is also as ironically funny and as self-aware as Healy is in person (at one point he pauses dramatically mid-speech to ask, “Do I sound like an arsehole?”). For Healy, there’s always a fear of leaning too hard on any singular narrative. “What I do get scared about is the kind of finality that is spoken of in the press, of my graduation into sobriety and positivity,” he says. “Like, I don’t fucking know. I’m trying. But I never intended to be some kind of beacon of reformation.” For all its joyous peaks, the album isn’t an answer, but a series of new questions. Over the course of two hours in Healy’s kitchen, we burrowed down many different rabbit holes, including his mixed feelings about technology, the snobbery that has historically been shown towards his teenage fanbase, and why he’s already deep into making his fourth album for early 2019.
The album is getting such good reviews so far. NME and Pitchfork have both mentioned OK Computer in theirs. What’s your relationship with that album?
Matty Healy: That time is really resonant to me. I wasn’t part of Britpop, but I was in the house while the beer swigging garden parties were going on. I remember the whole thing. Listen, by the time it got to A Brief Inquiry, I was literally like, ‘Write what the fuck you want, man’... We didn’t want to be in a punk band, because it’s not punk to be in a punk band. Punk is about the subversion of form, and I couldn’t subvert a form that is already got loads of men shouting in it. I didn’t want to be in an alternative band, I wanted to be played on the radio next to Ariana Grande, to say something different, you know?
OK Computer, Sign o’ the Times, all my favourite records are about life. You can’t leave out the dancing, you can’t leave out the sinister stuff – you also can’t make a record in 2018 that is about life, and therefore about your relationships and how they’re mediated, without making the record about the internet by proxy.
OK Computer is very much pointing to a dystopia; this record feels a lot more hopeful.
Matty Healy: (The record is) just a question, really. I think even in “Love it if We Made It”, my most vitriolic, shouty (song), I’m not really expressing many opinions – I’m signposting, I’m asking questions, and I’m obviously very scared. But I’m never judging anyone on the record, and I think that if you intend to make a record to ‘look at the dystopia that we’re in’, you judge people, because you try and exempt yourself from that. Some artists are like, ‘Put your phones away (at gigs)’, and I’m a bit like, but what are you like with your phones? As soon as I see something cool or beautiful, I get my phone out. I’m on my phone just as much as the people I’m talking about. I’m part of it. I just wanna ask more questions about it.
If we had said to someone ten years ago, ‘The effect of the internet on human experience is so total that all communication will be done through it in some way’, we’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s mad, why?’ This whole Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships – semantically, we have to change how we see it, because when you say ‘online relationship’ you think of Tinder. But most people’s main relationship with their friends is in a group chat, or the broader reach of people is on their Instagram Story. These are online relationships.
A lot of the nuance gets lost in how we talk about things online – things are only either extremely good or extremely bad. That includes how we talk about our relationship with technology.
Matty Healy: Everyone’s addicted – you have to treat that really delicately. I’ve read a lot of the research on addiction. You pick up on patterns of behaviour, and it’s really funny that it’s in line with things that are so just socially normal – when you go to the pub, there’s two things you can’t really talk about: Donald Trump, and how we’re all addicted to our phones. That is grandad territory. It’s boring, it’s like ‘Yeah whatever, I’ve seen Black Mirror.’ But it’s funny, because we immediately get defensive about it, we immediately say that it’s a lame old perspective. We all say, our relationship (with our phone) isn’t like that, everyone else is like that. ‘I’m on it because everyone else is on it. How could I work if I wasn’t on it, how could I operate without it?’ It’s the rhetoric of a heroin addict when you try and take their heroin away from them. It’s exactly the same.
But their claims are actually legitimate – what would happen if we all put the phones down? We talk about ‘social media’s bad’ and that – social media can create insecurity and distrust and a weird kind of unforgiving set of social circumstances, but it also gets aid to countries quicker, and it pulls people out of poverty. This the reason that we’re not living in a dystopia. As soon as I start getting a bit Modern Life is Rubbish, I go to myself, ‘Tell me a time and a place, explicitly, in human history that you’d rather live than right now? Is it the 1900s? Is it before the civil rights movement?’ Let’s be honest. We can see everything now, so we can see all of the beauty and injustice and chaos. To create an algorithm that reminds us of that the second we get up to the second we go to bed is going to make us feel really weird. But there’s lots of things that are way better than it ever has been.
“Who’s got better taste in music? Young women or old men?” – Matty Healy
Do you read about yourself online?
Matt Healy: I do. It's exciting. It's not deep-seated... I obviously care. But the reason that my self-esteem isn't as wrapped up in it as other people is because, for young people, it’s, ‘This is who I am’. For me, it’s, ‘This is what I do’. You've got kids who are famous at school because they have 100,000 followers.
Counter-culture will always exist. If loads of teenagers see grown-ups screaming into the internet then they’re probably going to go, ‘I’m not going to do that, because that’s for grown-ups.’ That's kind of how cultural movements work. There’s a reason that every single teenager has a Polaroid camera now, and we sell vinyl at a rate that hasn’t been as big since the 80s. There’s this reversion to tactility and authenticity, and it’s a counter-cultural movement that’s really interesting.
People often describe you as making music for teenage girls. Billboard recently called you the “Father John Misty for teenagers”. Throughout your career, have you felt there’s been snobbery or a derogatory attitude about your music because of its audience?
Matt Healy: Being derogatory about me, or being snobbish about me… I love it. It exaggerates my character that I already play with. The fact that people will say that kind of shit, but also know that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 17 (Ed: she was actually 18) – and Bowie, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones... Who’s got better taste in music? Young women or old men? I’ve met countless young women who are way, way smarter than me, way wiser, way more worldly than me, who are into the band and bring me books.
There’s this amazing dialogue between me and my fans. There’s an interest in the sharing of intellectual ideas based around art. I’m informed by them – the reason that the last album is pink is because, when the black-and-white era finished, I went on Tumblr and everyone was re-editing pre-existing images and making them all pink. You don’t get that with old men. You don’t move culture with old men.
I always think a passionate teenage fanbase must be the most intellectually satisfying people to be making music for.
Matty Healy: Because they care! As well, right, my job as a grown man is to go into rooms every night and do a performance. Do I want to do that to the comments section of the Guardian? Or, do I want to do that to loads and loads of young people who are so fucking excited about life that they can’t contain themselves? Which one do you think I would choose? Regardless of whether I’m going to be put on a Mojo list with Graham fucking Coxon. I don’t give a fuck.
You described this album a lot as your really sincere record, but what I love about it is that there’s still a lot of humour in there – like “Give Yourself a Try” works on a surface level, but you’re also taking the piss out of yourself.
Matty Healy: When I started doing interviews (for this album campaign), we did the first one before the album was finished… and I was very much saying, ‘Oh no, there’s no gags on this record, it’s really sincere’. And then I realised, there’s loads of gags! It’s still me, I still can’t help myself taking the piss out of something that I said or something that I did. But then, you know, I’ll do “Be My Mistake”, or “Surrounded by Heads and Bodies”.
Self-love, and looking after yourself, and celebration, and not taking the piss, letting go, allowing yourself to look like a knob in front of your mates, these are things that are starting get embraced… I think people (are) honestly owning their fears and their insecurities. But, being open about it is even becoming more attractive to people. Because we’re so aware of it now, we’re aware of how much society deals with mental health issues – but also how popular it is as a subject. We all know this stuff. I don’t have a problem with it, I just have a problem with it where you have an artist that says fuck all, and then wants to do an interview about their perspective on a serious subject. Like, why?
There’s a knife edge between, it’s amazing that we have these dialogues around mental health and that people feel empowered to post to Instagram about the things they’re going through, but on the flip side… you get thousands of likes for posting to Instagram about what you’re going through.
Matty Healy: The whole thing that annoys me is the idea of speaking about issues because we’re posturing about how much we want to be perceived to care about those issues. An example – Piers Morgan saying something about that girl from Little Mix posting a photo on Instagram where she’s wearing her knickers or something. The idea that Piers Morgan wants us to believe that he is outraged, because this is creating a social environment that his daughters are growing up (in) that is profiting on being salacious and sexual... Maybe you figured that opinion out after you realised it was a vehicle for you to get attention. So instead of spending half an hour on Good Morning Thingy where we’re pretending to talk about “body positivity” or “freedom of expression”, let’s talk about what levels of attention-seeking are worse: putting a photo up that may be slightly salacious to celebrate yourself as a woman, or denouncing a woman on public TV because you know that resonates with an audience that already like you? There’s so much bullshit going on.
My thing with Piers Morgan is like, listen mate, if you’re a beacon of traditional masculinity, why has the public only ever seen you with a face of make-up on? Maybe I’ll tweet him. I really want him to get me on the show, because he would hate this album more than anybody.
“I’ve never been here, at album release time, whilst making a record. It is mental, doing all this shit by day, and then at night making another record” – Matty Healy
You’re already working on another album for early next year – could you describe it?
Matty Healy: You know what, I’ll be totally honest with you… I freak out a lot about shit. I’ve never been here, at album release time, whilst making a record. I’m fucking nervous. It is mental at the moment, doing all this shit by day, and then at night making another record. But it’ll happen, I’m gonna make another album, and it’s gonna come out before August. There’s some stuff on there that I love already. There’s one of my best lyrics ever in it.
There’s a song on it called “Frail State of Mind”, which is a UK garage, sad, Burial kind of thing about social anxiety, you know, going out. I’m better at it happening, (at) me and you sitting down and having a conversation, than thinking about going to do the conversation. The social event’s normally always fine, but the build up to it, I hate it.
There’s a song called “The Birthday Party”, that’s just about the interesting social minutiae of house parties. I was gonna do a song that was like, ‘What it was like to be at a house party at 20, 25, and 29’. But then I realised I don’t need to do it, I just need to do what it’s like now, because my career has been what it’s been like to be at a house party at 20, 25, and 29. I think (the album will) be similar in the way that Brief Inquiry can be quite deconstructed – there’s big, bombastic elements to it, but it’s a very stripped, pure version of The 1975. The older we get, the more Scandi we get with it, pop-wise. There’s still a lot of anxiety on the record, but there’s some big bits. Oh God, I don’t know, I’m fucking stressed about it.
My only fear is that because I’ve put this umbrella over both albums, they’ll be perceived as intrinsically connected. The only connection is that we live in a culture where we’ll watch the best thing we’ve ever seen on Netflix, and be like, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen”, and then just wanna watch something immediately next. The only reason there’s two albums is because my attention span, like everyone else’s, is shortened. It’s definitely going to have a relationship with (the previous album). But that was never my intention; I’m just making records. I’ve gotta always want to be making my masterpiece. Otherwise, what’s the point?
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is out now