There has always been a sense that Matt Healy, lead singer and primary songwriter of UK band The 1975, wanted to be more a spokesman for a generation than just a mere pop star. Yet here he is – stuck in the middle between the responsibility of the former and the perceived flimsiness of the latter.
You can be an engaging, intelligent mixture of each, of course, the combined result connecting not only with the chin-stroking nature of the zeitgeist but also the sing-along aspects of a decent tune. The two can easily be merged, he reckons. The problem is getting the music out in a way that will have the biggest impact and the largest reach.
According to Healy, the idea of curating, filtering or deconstructing the interface (which includes various social media channels) between art and the audience has gone.
“Superstars such as Cardi B or whoever they are now,” he says somewhat disingenuously, as if he doesn’t know, “are expected to address their audience in a real-time manner. My issue with wanting to be an artist that needs to be self-expressive in this way is to react accordingly and do the same kind of thing.
“A lot of the big artists who are part of streaming culture have the ability to hold people’s attention for three or so minutes, and they do it all the time via single track after single track. They’re professionals at it, whereas I can stumble across those moments while I’m making a record, but my expressions are inherently long form.”
This is the main reason, he grants, why 1975 albums are so lengthy. The band’s latest, Notes on a Conditional Form, clocks in at a sizeable 80 minutes. It was, remarks Healy, formulated in two different ways.
“The first was to pay tribute to the song, yet at the same time try to create a tapestry of contemporary pop music. It ended up being a very well-thought-out album, yet it’s also quite loose. There are different things going on, but we obviously hope it has a centre.”
That it has. Throughout, there is a sequence of exceptionally fit-for-purpose, often politicised music, the interrelated strengths of which constitute the closest a music act will surely get this year to a bona fide statement on matters far wider than pop culture.
Aligned with the overtly political, however, is the deeply personal. With an unflinching sense of melancholy running through the songs, I ask if this is one of his default settings.
“Oh, 100 per cent. It stems from when I was a teenager, laying on my back listening to My Bloody Valentine, so that’s where a lot of it comes from. I’ve also been inspired by the poetry of Seamus Heaney – he has always been a massive influence because he celebrates the everyday in such a deep way.”
These stimuli, he adds, are also investments. “The very best of the form is when I feel I have been personally addressed. When it comes to songwriting, what I know is what people want, and what they want are truth and relatability.”
If anything, the very likable Healy has pinned down here what many people love about and want from him. Known for outlining his vulnerabilities with effortless candour, he has generated what fans regard as a unique relationship with them.
He talks nine to the dozen and proceeds to hold forth without prompting. From out of nowhere he tells me his social background “is middle-class suburban nothingness and growing up back then part of me made a point of either having no identity or searching for it”.
'Greta Thunberg is the most punk, the most badass person I’ve ever met in my life. She is truly powerful'
He says he makes records that ask questions about certain things he worries about; that hold mirrors up to him and to the world around him. He doesn’t need to provide answers through his work, he implies, but rather a sense of optimism. Is this one of the reasons, I ask, why 1975 – unlike quite a few other high-profile music acts – decided not to hold back their album for release until the autumn.
“Oh, God,” sighs Healy so firmly and evenly you know it isn’t for dramatic effect, “to have held onto this record until September or October would have been a big mistake for us – I’d have been so over it, for a start. Plus, we knew that irrespective of Covid-19 we just weren’t going to delay the album coming out any more.”
It’s the right decision, especially when up to six tracks from it have already been released – the centre could hardly hold out for much longer. The first released last year – and the one that kickstarts the album into as thought-provoking a gear as you could possibly imagine – is the quietly victorious 1975, which features climate-change activist Greta Thunberg delivering a potent speech that is underscored with bubbling ambient orchestral music. She is, enthuses Healy, “real, true, brave”.
This particular track, he says, “isn’t about us, it’s about her incredible statement. I grew up listening to hard-core punk music, and I’ve made it a duty of mine to meet my heroes, the people in those bands whose music has meant so much to me, but Greta Thunberg is the most punk, the most badass person I’ve ever met in my life. She is truly powerful.”
The idea of accentuating her speech with minimalistic rather than dissonant music – or no music at all – was conceived to make the piece “much more emotional. Because of it, you’re transported to a different place. In other words, having the music there wasn’t like listening to Greta just talking on the radio; the blend of the music and her truth is the ultimate combination.”
Talking about Thunberg’s climate-change stance leads to Healy mulling over Covid-19 and the unavoidable modifications that will occur to him in every area of his life. Regarding the music industry, he is (unusually) pithy. “It’s the people at the top of the industry who want musicians to continue operating with minor sacrifice.”
Is Healy really saying we should forget about the Twitter hearts, Instagram Live comments, Facebook likes? Yes, that’s exactly what he’s saying
Beyond such expectations, Healy states that “the world is telling us we need a fundamental change almost on, if you want to call it this, a spiritual level. I know that’s a difficult thing for people to get their heads around, but the idea – and it’s a big departure from anything we have previously considered to be safe – requires sacrifice from people such as myself as well as people who have a much bigger profile. What I mean by sacrifice is this: you can’t be someone who says they’ll keep touring after Covid-19, but not to worry, they’ll also plant trees.”
In other words, claims Healy, “The game is up for so many music acts. The doors are not going to be kicked in from the outside; we need to kick them open from the inside. But how to reinvent live music? F**ked if I know.”
He then throws a line from Thunberg’s speech into the conversation: “there are no grey areas when it comes to survival . . .” and goes on to say it was crucial to have elements on the album that people will be able to find in the (hopefully metaphorical) rubble in decades to come.
“What is on the album is an actual record of what was going on in our time. I don’t think it will become dated, either, because the writing is rooted in real language.”
Real language? Is Healy really saying we should forget about the Twitter hearts, Instagram Live comments, Facebook likes, the deluge of LOLs and the avalanche of emoji thumbs-up baloney?
Yes, that’s exactly what he’s saying.
“It all starts with a speech by Greta. That will absolutely stand the test of time. It’s something that people will find and understand.”
“I think there’ll be a traffic jam of redemption for the rest of the decade. When this situation subsides somewhat and we go to whatever ‘normal’ is going to be, then the restrictions will become normal. The ‘new normal’, also, won’t be normal at all because some commercial enterprises won’t be around. The dystopian nature of the collapse of certain commercial qualities of the surroundings will be what we will be used to. New businesses will arise, of course, but it’s all going to be about adapting to what’s coming down the line, the reconstructing of various work models and social paradigms.
“I think there’ll be a lot of protesting against the reinstatement of certain kinds of institutions or modes of operation that people were previously disenfranchised with. As for gigs? Well, with regard to 1975, the kind of big shows that people have been used to from us are gone. I’m not going to go back after this situation and start loading up the lorries again, that’s for sure. I simply can’t do that. It’s all a bit JG Ballard and Cormac McCarthy, if that doesn’t sound too extreme. What happens next is all about redesigning some kind of utopia from the rubble.”
Notes on a Conditional Form is released by Dirty Hit Records, May 22nd.