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Copernicus Center

IE Rewind: The 1975

| February 1, 2016

The 1975

It was quite an unusual sight for a winter afternoon in Oakland, California – an entire line of black-garbed, quasi-Goth girls, all teen or pre-teen – snaking from the front door of the sprawling Fox Theater practically all the way around the entire building. It was quitting time, 5:00 p.m., and business folk getting off work and heading to the nearby underground BART train station cast a few quizzical glances at the unusual assembly – it wasn’t some teen-pop phenomenon or the latest boy-band craze that brought these kids here for this sold-out show. 2,800-capacity concert. And to passersby, the marquee proclaiming The 1975 offered no real clues.

But the devil was in the details, so to speak. As more and more cars continued to pull up – mostly mom-driven vans and family-size SUVs – more and more youngsters piled out to take their place in the lengthy line. But the handful of teen males joining the throng offered an unusual preview of the show to come – many had the same eyebrow-obscuring, lopsided wavy haircuts, and were spitting pre-pubescent images of the typically ebony-clad Matty Healy, the charismatic, almost foppish frontman for The 1975, a British band that quietly came to theatre-headlining prominence over the past three years courtesy of its eponymous 2013 debut (with quirk-chorded hit singles like “Sex,” “Girls,” and “Chocolate”) and a grueling tour schedule that could include 300-plus gigs a year. The singer had clambered to fame in some sort of stealth mode after several failed musical projects. And like a king, or perhaps a pop-chart prince, he now inspired that kind of dogged devotion in his subjects. Err, fans.

Before the doors open, the venue’s giant back gate swings wide to allow journalistic entry into a lengthy passageway of dressing rooms. The girls watch wistfully from the other side as security quickly creaks said gate shut again. Inside, in a spacious mineral-water-stocked chamber, sits Healy on his leather-couch throne, dressed in black jeans, thick-soled retro creepers, a baggy turtleneck sweater, with his oft-imitated curly tresses even longer, tumbling past his collar.

He looked like a San Francisco beatnik, freshly beamed in from the skoodle-ee-doo-wah 1960s past. But there was nothing even remotely regal in his demeanor. In fact, had spent roughly the last year questioning his own fame, even deleting The 1975 from all social media last June for 24 experimental hours, just to gauge any and all public reaction. With his bandmates – guitarist Adam Hann, drummer George Daniel, and bassist/keyboardist Ross McDonald – he’s also composed an entire sophomore album on the subject of stardom and its attendant pitfalls, with the unwieldy title “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It.” It begs the existential question: So you’ve accidentally opened the Pandora’s Box – Now what?

For a reflective, 26-year-old deep thinker like Healy – the son of renowned British actors Denise Welch (Coronation Street) and Tim Healy (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) – what began as painful catharsis quickly morphed into an intriguing intellectual exercise. A year earlier, on December 6, 2014 in Boston, he had effectively melted down onstage, angrily responding to a female acolyte who shouted out her adoration that she had no right to love him, none at all, and then growing still more diffident. “That’s when it was like a forensic analysis,” says Healy, struggling to find the proper words to describe what he was going through that particular evening. “I was tired, and I felt very…I just thought….Well, it all got very Shakespearean, and I just thought, ‘Fuck it – if this is what you want, then this is the kind of character I’ve become.’

“I talk a lot about that duality of art and reality on this record,” the composer continues. “Like, Where do I draw the line between who I am and who I’m being? And am I making excuses for my behavior because of that, or am I rationalizing something thinking at least I could get a song out of it? All of those things came into play, and at the end of the last touring cycle and the beginning of making this record, I was just exhausted. I’d been on the road for three years, and we even won some award for the most amount of shows, ever. And at that Boston show, there was loads of girl stuff, all kinds of stuff.

And especially being British, as well, you don’t really spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself. That’s not really a part of our character, so I found it very, very difficult to be upset or angry. So I just took it out onstage, and it was kind of cathartic, to be honest with you.”

Healy had witnessed his faithful followers, gathering outside. And he still wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. On one hand, such fandom was amazing, truly humbling, he notes. He remembered what it was like being a kid, going to see some of his favorite bands, and being in awe when a member pointed at or nodded to him from the stage. It made him feel special, recognized, like he belonged to something elite. But on the other hand? “They kind of freaked me out at times when I first went on the road,” he admits. “Because I went from nothing to everything, and it was something that I was struggling to come to terms with. I was 24, and I’d never experienced anything like that. So it gives you this identity crisis, then it feeds back in to who you are, then that consequently feeds into the material. I’m just talking about the way that I deal with it, especially on the new record.”

Healy wound up hitting some surreal, stratospheric heights. The 1975 debuted at #1 on the UK charts, for starters, before winning the group the Alternative Press Award for Best International Band, as well as Worst Band in the British rock mag NME. The conundrum began; How do you write serious, adult music when your core audience is kids who may – or may not – have learned about you from online speculation that you were dating Taylor Swift?  The rumors were false, sighs Healy – “She was a fan of the band and we just became friends, and we related to each other over how mental our lives were. But when you’re with people like Taylor, there are a million people flying around you the whole time, and this security guard is talking to that guy, and this guy is the new manager. I didn’t like the pace of it, because it makes me confused and I feel like I’m going to miss something. And being perceptive is one of the abilities that I like to think that I have.”

Indeed. Otherwise, “I Like It” might never have existed in the first place. Take, for example, its recent single “Love Me.” Set to a Duran Duran-sleek rhythm, it isn’t some poignant plea for understanding, but a barbed criticism of today’s shallow celebrity culture. And its video, directed by “Blurred Lines” maestro Diane Martel, features Healy canoodling with life-size cardboard cutouts of pop stars like Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles. The social commentary might be over some viewers’ heads, and the writer doesn’t mind if people want to take the song at surface value and just dance to it instead.

This concept became clear to him once he finally got off tour and was surrounded by nothing but deathly quiet, he says. The more he started thinking about the undertaking of a second album, the scarier the proposition became. Especially when he added in how much he’d been objectified by fans. “Then I was like, ‘Right. Okay. Fuck it. It’s about bold decisions and it’s about conviction, and the only way that we’re going to be able to go on is if we make something that we truly, truly believe in. I always say that when you feel personally addressed by an artist, it’s when they expose themselves so much that it puts them on a level of humanity with you, and there’s this kind of humility. And you believe in those artists that you love, and you believe what they’re saying, and you believe that they represent a certain part of you. And the only way I could do that was by being brutally honest and writing about what I cared about. And by writing about the fundamentals – what it’s like to be a person, but through my perspective.”

Another single, “UGH!,” deals with the topic of drugs like cocaine, which constantly swirl around the hazy, pleasure-seeking existence of rock and roll. “I’ve accepted that I’ve got a problem when it comes to consumption,” says Healy, who recently was filmed doing bong hits on the street outside a club. “I’ve just come to terms that it’s part of my life, and there are certain behaviors and indulgences that maybe I can flirt with throughout my life. But there are also certain drugs that I can’t do, ever again, because I don’t really need any more exploration.”  The track “A Change of Heart” metaphorically deals with Healy’s turning point, when he hit rock bottom and decided to stop staring at the looming horizon through a telescope and turn a microscope on his own inner workings instead. He doesn’t keep journals, per se, but he has a stack of books in which he’s chronologically written casual observances, ideas, even quotes that he finds interesting. It helps him keep track of “the way that my psyche is involved in a narrative over that time,” he says.

The 1975’s latest single, the just-released “The Sound,” might be its most slyly subliminal yet. Beneath its bright, effervescent New Wave-era medley lurks some serious darkness, with Healy confronting a nameless girlfriend who can’t remember his name, doesn’t like his music much, but is more than willing to sleep with him simply for the notoriety involved. Or, as he yelp-croons in the lyrics, “It’s not about reciprocation, it’s just all about me/ Sycophantic prophetic Socratic junkie wannabe.”

“I’m obsessed with Easter eggs and subtext within these things, so it becomes like a video game,” Healy explains. “I love the fact that that you can listen to this new record at a completely face value and take from it what you will. But if you’re like, ‘In the gang,’ you’ll know – there are a lot of jokes and little ‘in’ references. On this album, I predictably could have been quite gnarly, quite bitchy, because that’s what a lot of second albums are like. But there’s an acceptance of who I am – a resignation in that and a comfort in it – as opposed to the first record, where there was this constant analysis of my behavior with this disdain for it and a desire to change it. Now there’s this sense of knowing, this wisdom, that’s replaced the hopeful naivety of the first record. So “A Change of Heart,” for example, is also about just changing how you see yourself.”

The frontman’s parents gave him some sage advice, he adds. Growing up, his folks hadn’t hit it big in British television yet – they were just jobbing actors. But his dad was pals with bands like Dire Straits, and – living with his godfather in Los Angeles when he was a kid – some of his more prominent neighbors were Slash and Jeff Lynne from E.L.O. And from a reserved distance, he saw what the presence of fame can do to ordinary lives when he watched his mother enter, then win an overseas season of Celebrity Big Brother. The show amplifies one’s sense of reality, he believes, because every contestant’s move, and counter-move, is trumpeted by the media. Naturally, he never wanted to pursue a thespian career like the folks, so he took out his innate aggression in a series of punk bands before finally hitting upon his unique, David Byrne-ish vocal style – truly one of the quirkiest in the alt-rock world.

Healy understands that part of his allure is his handsome, rakish profile. And sure, he’s been photographed sporting pricey designer duds, he sighs. But usually it’s because the designer is a good friend of his, and he’s been able to purchase their chic togs wholesale, not retail. He’s barely purchased any luxuries for himself, he adds – he’s sunk most of The 1975’s profits right back into the band. “To be honest, the only thing I ever spend money on is stuff that I need for what I do,” he says. “Like stage clothes and the show itself – that’s all I’ve spent my money on lately. Its important to save money so that we can buy property, and not do the whole cliché thing of blowing it all. So we’ve been really careful.” Just wait until you see their meticulously-staged upcoming tour, he promises. Then you’ll understand where all that dough disappeared to.
Another facet of the tour has become of paramount importance. Spinning off from his 24-hour absence from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Healy – who swears he was “just having fun with that”–  now pauses, mid-concert, to address all the kids carefully focusing their cellphone cameras on him instead of actually taking in the performance, first-person.

“And I say to people, ‘I fear that if we have such a desire to document everything, we might miss what’s actually happening. And there’s no point in doing a show for 1,000 people if we’re all going to retrospectively experience it. So fuck everybody else – let’s have me and you and us for ten minutes, and let’s just fucking be here.’ I tell everybody to turn their cellphones off, and if I see one popping up, I tell ‘em to put it down. And the thing is, the room’s energy just changes. It becomes electric, and you remind them that that’s what it’s all about – that shared experience. That’s the whole potency of it.”
When Healy stumbled across The 1975 as a possible name, it was jotted in a vintage edition he found in a dog-eared copy of an old Jack Kerouac book. He had a similar epiphany when he first decided to apply that lengthy title to the latest disc. There was a time before I’d written this record where I was fucking scared,” he confesses. “I didn’t know what to do. But then I had this surge of ‘I’m just going to fucking do it – I’m going to do exactly what I want.’ And I had that line written in my phone, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to fucking call it that, because that’s a really nice line. And that is a decision. And if I do that now, then I’m going to make more decisions like that, and that’s what this record’s going to be like.’ So that’s why I called it that.”

Outside, the kids have begun filing into the venue. And The 1975’s much-copied star prepares to head back to his dressing room to change into his classier stage gear, while countless lookalikes assemble in front of the stage. How does Healy find a decent girl to date amid all this hoopla? He considers this for a minute. “Well, I think you’ve just got to be a good judge of character,” he finally decides. “And you’ve got to understand context. I mean, Where did you meet them? Who introduced you to them? What do you assume their agenda is? I study people, and I’m quite good at it. And the only time I find myself really attracted to somebody is when the opportunity is based on some kind of trust.” He stares at the carpet, frowns. “But it’s difficult. It’s difficult for me. I find it hard logistically, and I find it hard emotionally. So sometimes I don’t even know if

I want to…I don’t know…share who I am…..”
Too late. With the bare-knuckled, diary-revealing “I Like it,” he already has.
Appearing November 13 and 14 at Aragon Ballroom

-Tom Lanham

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  1. Michelle Bruce says:

    THANK You! For this inciteful article on The 1975! I’ve followed this band since early 2013.i was at the FOX Theatre Oakland concert Dec 17,2015!Flew from Arkansas to Phoenix for their Tempe concert on Dec 14, then on to Oakland! I am a 60 old female! and I have tickets to see them in Vegas, Tulsa and Shaky Knees in Atlanta. Matty seems highly intelligent and I know what he means about ” reading” people! That’s what attracted me to this band! They appear genuine, write and play their instruments and they TRULY appreciate every fan they have! I’ve videod every concert, but their first tour Matty was quite insistent that we BE IN the Moment! I get that! I do think they are preferring an older fan base ( not 60 years old) because they realize their impact on the youth. Honestly, if I were to get to meet George, I’d behave like a nuts schoolgirl!!! And I’m 60! Thank you so much! Well done!

  2. Kate says:

    Seconding Michelle’s comment- what a great, insightful article.