In an alternate universe, singer/guitarist Matthew Healy would be onstage at Madison Square Garden with his chart-topping, Grammy-nominated band The 1975 delivering for 20,000 fans the foursome’s canon of songs that run the gamut from shimmering electro pop to snarly, punky rock.
Instead, Healy’s excited, rapid-fire, articulate musings on music and culture — specifically The 1975’s new, fourth album, “Notes on a Conditional Form” and its previous, sort of counterpart, 2018’s “A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships” — are interrupted by unholy shriek. It seems a bird has flown into the recording studio in Oxford, England, narrowly missing the singer’s head. “It really freaked me out! My heart’s going!” he says, breathless, before quickly charging back into the task at hand.
It’s an apt interruption for a singer who can turn on a dime from a whisper to a scream. The 1975 is unarguably more popular in their home country of England where they’ve won at the Brit Awards and Ivor Novello Awards and earned a Mercury Prize nomination. But Spotify streams of 345 million for 2016’s “Somebody Else” track, and the strength of the lilting, summery “Me & You Together” from the new release, have brought arena-sized success Stateside.
With “Notes on a Conditional Form,” the band members — Healy, drummer George Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann and bassist Ross MacDonald — have created a mysterious, 80-minute masterwork, which they’re obviously currently unable to support on the planned American arena tour. But any disappointment was quickly tempered by gratitude. “We got quite appreciative of the fact that we make music and can continue to do that,” says Healy. “We knew there was a [studio] environment where we could go and feel safe, so we were counting our chickens in that regard, as opposed to the amount of people who completely have had even their ability to ‘be’ dismantled. We’re in a privileged situation, you know?”
As a singer-songwriter whose mind is in overdrive and who loves the creative process — Healy has sought various, sometimes illegal chemically induced means to quiet his brain — he’s finding grace in the pause. “The past couple of years my presence on social media has become quite binary in regards to the way that it will be like a joke or some information,” he explains. “It will very seldom be an opinion.” Now Healy has the definition of an LP — long playing record — and press platforms that allow him to ruminate in more measured terms, as he did recently with Variety.
The album opens with a spoken word track by Greta Thunberg. How did that come about?
Well, it kinda came from the fact that our albums always start with that same piece of music; in the way that like Sega or Microsoft has a startup sound. That was kind of the idea. … We were talking about what it should be this time; what would be the most modern version of that? That very quickly became ‘what is the most modern statement?’ Then, ‘who is saying the most s–t?’ We kind of had the same moment we had with “The Man Who Married A Robot” on the last album, because I was going to read that spoken word, and then we were like, ‘What if it was Siri?’ We were ‘ha ha ha.’ Then: ‘oh, shit, no, that’s legit.’ So we said, ‘What if Greta Thunberg read the words to “The 1975’?” And we were like, ‘ha. But wait, what if it was Greta saying the Greta speeches that we send each other where we’re like, ‘bro, this kid’s crazy, she’s wild.’ We love her.
Had you met her previously?
I met her and it was crazy. I come from punk and hardcore, right? I’ve kind of made it not a duty, but I’ve tried and managed to meet a lot of my heroes from that scene. They’ve all been bad-ass. But the most legit person I have met is Greta Thunberg. Straight up, in regards to no time wasted, no words wasted. It’s just really inspiring.
After that happened, you do interviews and people ask you ‘why?’ You don’t think ‘why’ a lot in your life. I mean, we’re talking about like purpose and stuff. But I think the thing that I’m proudest of is that I really wanted to capture her words in a formal way in pop culture, because I think there’s been countless endorsements and thumbs up and retweets and ‘likes,’ but this is a record that people can find in 500 years and understand what people were striving for. Like, you’re not going to find like a tweet in the rubble. You’re going to find artifacts, and this is like our record of a time.
It seems like she doesn’t really care about popular music.
I asked her what was the last thing she listened to and she looked at me really confused and said, “the radio.” I was like, “I didn’t mean literally, but okay, cool.” She doesn’t give a f–k, man. She just wants to save the world. I met her at a studio in Stockholm. She turned up on her bike with her Dad. She’s just real. I really appreciated the time.
At what point in your writing and recording did it become clear that you felt you needed to do two records sort of back to back? Was there a dividing of the songs?
Not at all. Probably a lot of artists can work like that, but if I [did], I would see that as me coming from a place of fear. For example, saying, ‘Oh, I’m not going to put this really good thing on this album, because I want to spread my good stuff across two.’ When we were making “A Brief Inquiry,” we were making “A Brief Inquiry.” After we’d announced that we were doing another album, every Friday before we’d finished the first one of the two, we would sit there and be a bit like ‘fuuuuck, this is crazy.’
But… I knew that that was the statement for now: one album. It’s not that it wasn’t enough, it’s just that ironically, I wanted to tour for however long and I wanted to basically exist in the modern era in the way that the best artists do. People like Drake can feed into and be part of the zeitgeist because, partially, they’re also singles artists, so they can just be dropping single after single after single. They’re professionals at holding people’s attention for three minutes. For me, I was thinking, ‘well, I’m not a contemporary artist unless I have a presence.’ Or what I feel like is a prolific presence. But I don’t really do singles as my thing. So I suppose I just think: two records.
The song “The Birthday Party” is harrowing lyrically: “I depend on my friends to stay clean, sad as it seems,” and “impress myself with stealth and bad health and my wealth and progressive causes / Drink your kombucha buy an Ed Ruscha.” A lot has happened since you wrote it…
The reason it was inspiring is because I have kind of two ways of writing. It’s either really short-form or really long-form. So if I find a piece of music—like ‘Sincerity is Scary’ or ‘The Birthday Party’ it basically gives me an ability to use a lot of words, and to be able to express myself in that long-form way. I think because it was the first song, my fears would be, ‘do I have another album in me?’ But then, ‘Is that even a genuine concern?,’ seeing as I believe that if you turn up it will happen. So I just started turning up and it started happening, and I was like, ‘Oh f–k, yeah. This is cool.’
If ‘The Birthday Party’ was first, what was the last song written?
“Bagsy Not in Net” which is just before the end of the record. I was so excited, basically just in this studio or on tour making a record. So whenever Reddit was like, ‘Oh it’s been delayed,’ I was like, ‘I don’t f–king care. It’s like my best record. I’ll finish it in a minute.’ But I do run a label and understand how it works. So I delivered the track list cause Apple were a bit like ‘come on!’ I told them it was 22 tracks, which it was. So we’re finishing the record, then mastering it. And there were 21 songs. Me and George were looking at each other.
Then we realized that an intro had become a track or something like that. And so for, for two minutes we were in this, in this place of like, “f–k, we don’t have a song.” But then I said to George, “do you remember last night when we were listening to music, some yacht rock compilation and ‘Sailing’ by Christopher Cross came on?” The intro to that song, “Bagsy Not in Net,” is just the strings from [“Sailing”] with a weird beat.
I told him, “Remember when we heard this when we were teenagers? We said, “Wouldn’t that be an amazing sample for a kind of garage song like ‘The Streets’ kind of song?” When I reminded him of that, George was like, “f–k yeah.” That’s an idea I want to do regardless of whether we’ve got a hole to fill on the album. So we got it up and made it really crudely; sometimes that level of excitement can really, really inspire. Sometimes things take two years, like ‘what should I say?’ And sometimes things take just a minute, and it was just this moment in time and that’s it. The reason that we knew it was it was because you never know what your album is until it’s kind of done.
And 22 songs is a pretty hefty collection.
We understood what this record was — us trying to capture that feeling of garage music when we were younger. And that sample was almost like the lost sample of the album. We used it, then we get in touch with Christopher Cross. With everybody I’ve sampled — The Temptations, Joy Division — I normally just say, “Hey guys, we’ve used this bit of the song. What publishing do you want?” No one ever goes, “You can’t use it.” But Christopher Cross’ team comes back and goes “No.” I’m like, “What do you mean ‘no?'” They were, like, “Hard, no, don’t do it. If you fu–ing do it, we’ll go mental.”
What a bummer; do you know why?
I was like, “What’s going on? Like just Chris Cross surely doesn’t… I’m not like a bad…. this is really confusing!’ We just kept going back to them and trying to explain ourselves. He also had Coronavirus at the time. So it’s just like a f–king nightmare. So I can’t like ring him and be like, ‘Hey Chris, I know you’re probably feeling a bit bad, but…’ So I get in touch with Curt [Smith] from Tears for Fears. He’s a friend of mine, weirdly. And so it’s the most ‘80s fucking thing in the world.
I’ve just released “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” I’m ringing Curt to get in touch with Chris Cross. I got in touch with his manager and he said, “Oh, that song has been sampled so much in so many kinds of bad ways.” They basically get a request that every week and just say no. Then his manager was like, “I get it. When [Chris] gets better, let me actually take it to him.” Anyway, it was fine in the end.
Wait, if he had COVID-19, this was a few weeks before the album came out?
Dude, I was going to pull the album! I’d been fronting for the past month. It was like I delivered it to fu–ing iTunes. It was out there. I already pressed it onto vinyl. It was on its way to people’s houses. I had made such a massive assumption.
Greta’s speech is a reminder that there exits music which incites change. Were people like Bob Geldof or Joe Strummer influential to you as a kid?
Massively. Joe Strummer in particular. The Clash for me, are the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll band. When I got to 13, I got involved in like scenes; I got into emo music, alternative music. But the impetus of what I love is conviction. So that’s why I was drawn to punk. My dad, or even my mum at times, I recall being almost sat down, and listening to Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, real important artists in black music.
Or white artists that came from black music, like Joe Cocker or the Rolling Stones. Protest songs were present in my real life. Music to transform has always really inspired me. I think that what’s interesting about my band now is that I kind of come from soul music into heavy music, which you find with [a band] like the Jesus and Mary Chain. We are inherently a heavy band, and it’s kind of been misinterpreted a lot throughout our career.
Not so much anymore. Heavy music as an alternative died in my hands when I was part of it. By the time you get to Limp Bizkit and true commercialized rebellion, it was no longer an antidote to commercialism. So basically the reason that my band makes — in air quotes — beautiful music, pretty music, is because it’s the sharpest tool in the box. If you want people to listen, present something beautiful; they sit up and they listen to it. The thing is, I’ve got heavy songs like “People.” They’re great, but they’re linear. They’re easy; it’s like aggression met with aggression. You don’t get to present the ethical dilemma that you do in beautiful music, that if you make something beautiful and then provide ideas within it that are not, then there’s this amazing subversive, ethical dilemma that it puts people through. You don’t get to do that three-chording your whole life and just shouting.
Was the sequence for these 22 songs immediately obvious? Is “Guys,” your “love song to the band,” the last track so as to open the door for a fresh start or what’s next?
That was always going to be the end of the record. I just knew, because it was the first time that I’d ever looked back on myself as this character who’s not necessarily in the band. I’ve never really made a retrospective statement like that and I think it was important that it came at the end, because it was a really beautiful reflection. At the time I was thinking that this was going to be the end of The 1975 for a significant amount of time. But it’s a different world now. I feel like that record was relevant in the old world and it’s amazing that it’s coming out now. But I wouldn’t be comfortable not focusing on a statement that is about now.
English majors will remember that “the conditional from” is sort of an imaginary “if this, then that” construction. Is that how you think in general?
That’s a whole conversation for another day! I think that my records are very much about the search for the definitive itself. Like ‘Who the f–k am I?’ And ‘if I am this, then why am I like that and why am I also these contradictions?’ I think that “Notes on a Conditional Form” is me opposing “A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships,” which was very much me telling people what to think. It was like the title of an essay. It gives the idea of “this is what this is about. Form your opinions based on that.” So I give people a framework to hang their opinions off.
With “Notes on a Conditional Form,” I created a title that was literally unable to express anything. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to challenge people that ‘I’m not telling you what this is about’ and that’s why some of the reviews are five stars and some of them are two stars, because people are bringing their own s–t to it. People are like, ‘It’s got no direction’ or ‘It’s a beautiful mess’ or whatever they’re saying. It’s because it’s so interpretive, this record. That’s what really excites me.