Matt Healy of the 1975: ‘I’m not scared of myself any more’

The 1975’s singer used to hide behind irony and hard drugs – but dismayed with social media and modern relationships, he says he’s ready to bare his soul

At a rural Northamptonshire studio, a young collie named Blue sticks her face over the stable door. A similarly puppyish vision appears on the staircase: Matt Healy peers down, peroxide job growing out, greys catching the light. In a shredded T-shirt, floral jeans and hotel slippers, he offers a tour of the 1975’s home for the past seven months. In the recording studio across the courtyard, their exercise routines are taped to the wall, preparing the Manchester band for their world tour next year. “This is taking shit seriously,” says Healy. “Cos it would be so good to be the best thing, wouldn’t it?”

Back in the living quarters, Healy admits he is driven by how awed he felt by the reception to 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It (ILWYS), which went platinum and transformed the band from critical pariahs to beloved provocateurs. That’s why, he says in a characteristic tangent, he has a good relationship with Twitter, using it for positive interactions with fans. “I try not to talk about things I don’t talk about in my music,” he says.

But then, what doesn’t Healy talk about in his music? ILWYS covers addiction, cocaine psychosis, love, depression, the Kardashians, situationism, his mum’s postnatal depression and the ludicrous magnetism of the rock star ego. The first two singles released from their new album span ageing, STDs, suicide, police brutality, Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Kanye and war. He concedes the point.

Healy says he doesn’t understand opinionated musicians who make prosaic music – nor the demand for artists to be political. For him, music is about changing society by inspiring individuals, “giving them a release from all the bullshit”. Unprompted, he questions whether artists should boycott countries with poor human rights records, a subject most musicians doggedly avoid. “I wouldn’t go to America if I thought Americans were representative of their government,” he says. “I’m always going to side with people.”

Early years … the 1975 in 2013 (l to r) George Daniel, Matt= Healy, Ross MacDonald and Adam Hann.
Early years … the 1975 in 2013 (l to r) George Daniel, Matt Healy, Ross MacDonald and Adam Hann. Photograph: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns via Getty Images

He stops. “You’re going to have to take what I say in context, cos I can sometimes say shit that in print would look mental.” Healy feels safer discussing issues in his music “because it makes it interpretive, which is what I do best”, he says, lighting the first of many cigarettes. “But I think what really affects people is conviction or honesty. I’ve surely made a career of that with the 75.”

The four Wilmslow schoolmates started playing together when they were 13, rehearsing at Healy’s parents’ house (Tim Healy of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and Coronation Street’s Denise Welch). Labels weren’t interested, confused by their disparate influences – though the band knew they were reflecting millennials’ omnivorous tastes. Eventually, they started their own label, Dirty Hit, with manager Jamie Oborne, and Healy began to bare all. “By then I was like: it doesn’t fucking matter.” But then fans started getting tattoos of his lyrics. “And I set a precedent for something that I never had a plan of doing.”

Whereas their self-titled 2013 debut revolved around an inexperienced young man’s projections, ILWYS was more introspective – a revelation for Healy when fans related to its polarised depictions of his mental health. Album three, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, looks outward. It is about optimism, tenderness and growing up, says Healy, now 29. Part of that was abandoning his “postmodern shtick” – “being self-referential, pop-culture references, the denial of sentimentality”. He did it in real life, too, then he read David Foster Wallace’s assessment that cynicism is the fear “of being really human”. “Everything’s so deconstructed, it stops us having a real connection,” says Healy. “I think that’s where the purity in this record comes from. Because I’m not scared to say how I feel about social issues, to be hopelessly romantic or a bit naive. It’s been incredibly real.”

Honesty also meant addressing his four-year heroin addiction, “on-and-off but ever-present”. It’s been “a hell of a time” since the 1975 finished touring ILWYS with a headline set at Latitude last July. “That’s where it all kicked off. It should have been a massive celebration. And it was for me, but it wasn’t for everyone else. I had just got back to the UK and everyone knew the first thing I was going to do.”

They started recording here a month later, when the puppy Blue was almost small enough to fit in Healy’s palm. One night at dinner, he lectured his bandmates on the status quo. “Being a fucking asshole: ‘Hey guys, you need to watch me sabotage myself and still be my best friends and just be fine with that.’” The next day he realised he had to stop, “because that’s not alright,” and spent seven weeks in rehab in Barbados.

‘I think what really affects people is conviction and honest’ … Healy.
‘I think what really affects people is conviction and honest’ … Healy. Photograph: Christopher Baker/The Guardian

He always knew that he would end up addicted. “It’s quite difficult to be quite a large person but scared of being that. So it’s just easier to do those drugs.” He worries that discussing addiction is irresponsible. “It takes this level of a good life to stop,” he says – not just being able to afford rehab, but the promise of connection. It affected the band’s relationships, though Healy’s recovery is “just one thing in a list of a million that’s happened this year with all of us”. A rowing machine whirrs outside as bassist Ross MacDonald, guitarist Adam Hann and drummer George Daniel exercise in the grounds. “We really love each other. And we’ve needed to this past year.”

He pulls up the unfinished, self-produced A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships on the computer. It’s anxious, not cohesive, he says. “There’s a frenetic aspect and desire to get a lot out.” Healy originally planned to end the band after three albums, obsessed with the perfect conclusion. But he doesn’t deal well with change or goodbyes. “I was really lying to myself that the 1975 wasn’t my primary drive.” So he decided to make two albums: Notes on a Conditional Form follows next spring.

He selects a song that doesn’t sound at all anxious. It is surprisingly loose after ILWYS’s gleaming 80s pop architecture: all spilling piano chords, trumpet solos and vocals from the London Gospel Community Choir. It is about forgiving and mending himself. “I’m scared of the world,” he says. “I’m not scared of myself any more.”

Sparkling with Springsteen-like festivity, It’s Not Living If It’s Not With You is about addiction: “Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes,” Healy sings. There is a mellow song about rehab and he reckons their “Drake-y” tropical house experiment will be their biggest hit. The night before, Healy saw James Taylor live and marvelled at the simplicity of his enduring hits. One lounge jazz number on the album is exactly that kind of love song, about passing the age where young people once settled down, and loosely fits the album’s theme of how the internet affects relationships, says Healy. Their marketing campaign posters are stuck to the studio wall. One shows a group of teenagers glued to phones, overlaid with “ISAIAH 6:9” – the Bible verse that warns of the dangers of closing your heart to the world. “They’re quite on the nose.”

Healy expounds on his theory of the impact social media has had. The internet “presents a sense of an egalitarian place for us all to live and exist, whereas that’s not the way that society should be”. Hunter S Thompson became successful because he was the best, he says. “That’s a good process of qualification. Not just, ‘because I’m a person and I’ve got a password, I have the right to be taken as seriously as everybody else.’ I’m not an elitist, but the idea that we have this society where everybody’s opinion is equal on certain things, that’s not true.”

He hesitates. “I suppose that is an elitist thing to say.” What he fears is “the denouncement of people for human error, or saying something that isn’t in the rigid confines of what we accept to be progressive and woke”. He brings up XXXTentacion, the recently murdered 20-year-old rapper with a history of assaulting women. “People were really affected by his music. I found it interesting: do we judge them for grieving? Because grieving doesn’t feel like a thought-out process to me. It doesn’t feel like people went: ‘Well, he was an abuser, but I really liked his music, so, OK, I’m sad.’ It’s being human. I feel like anybody who said RIP became a supporter of abuse. Which is conflating something that’s not true. And people know that.”

His point is that online discourse offers no room for messiness, nuance and reconsidering – for growing up. You would bottle the feeling of being right, he says, but it is more freeing to admit you are wrong. Despite the didactic posters, he is not interested in hectoring anyone to get offline. His response was to make the 1975’s “most humane, real record”.

That means risking misinterpretation. Healy plays a gothic song about “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much, and it driving you so mental that you wanna resort to smashing their head in. Not that I would,” he clarifies. He asks if I think anyone will call him a misogynist: probably. “Fucking hell, how sanitised have we become that I can’t say: ‘Have you ever thought about killing someone?’ It’s just fucking crazy.”

‘Being an artist is so hard at the moment’ … Healy onstage, 2014.
‘Being an artist is so hard at the moment’ … Healy onstage, 2014. Photograph: East News/REX Shutterstock

He loved Kanye West’s recent song I Thought About Killing You: “I know what it’s like to be mental and I don’t believe he’s going to kill Kim Kardashian.” Then again, says Healy, he is not a woman. “I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed. Sounds fucking awful. Imagine me being oppressed – I’d right kick off.” He enters full, funny, self-deprecating flow. “‘Oppress me? How dare you!’”He simmers down. “That’s why I hope I’m also a champion for: ‘It’s alright to not know, but can we talk about it?’ Because if we can’t ask questions, we can’t solve things. Being an artist is so hard at the moment because it’s about being bold, isn’t it? Sometimes you need to expose things that make people uncomfortable.” He is aware of his position: “A white guy talking about the death of culture due to overly politicised stuff. I always think, actually, I’m probably fucking wrong.”

Regardless, he knows that he can’t make “real” music out of a fear of misunderstanding, nor fickle favour. In 2016, the band entered a hostile world, loathed by critics and rock fans. “To make ILWYS, we had to really not give a fuck.” But then people fell in love with them – not that approval will change his approach either. “I know the sincerity and value of my relationship with my fans. We’re the best band in the world.” He says it three times. “I’d bet on me rather than I’d bet on anybody else.”

After hearing Healy sound so sanguine, it’s a relief when his raffish ego resurfaces. That said, Healy’s fine with his suspicion that the new album won’t top ILWYS’s commercial success. But he is daunted by the prospect of large-scale failure. “I get scared that it’s more important to me than anything because it’s been more important to me than my health and relationships at times, quite overtly. When it goes, I’ll figure it out, but I won’t deal with it well.”

In a week, the 1975 move to LA for four months to make Notes On a Conditional Form. Healy says he doesn’t know what it’ll sound like. Daniel has come up. “If you had a reserve tank, you would have used it already,” says the drummer, swinging from the barn’s rafters. There is, however, another playlist containing ideas. He plays a sample, harder and clubbier than Brief Inquiry. The theme is night: “So much really emotional shit happens at night.” After LA they will be back here rehearsing. A two-year tour starts in January. Healy doesn’t have to go home – Hackney – which he would rather avoid. (“I did a lot of shit in that house.”) Eventually, he will move west, near Dirty Hit’s office, and get “wholesome”. “A bit less Hitler ’taches. East London is very in your face. And I’ve loved that community and I loved being a drug addict there, but I’m out of that scene now.”

He’s ready to turn 30 next April. “You always live the present so obsessed with the future and the past, and maybe when you get to our age you start to let go of that and the present just becomes the present a little bit more,” he says. It feels right to him that album four and turning 30 coincide with the end of the 2010s. “The end of an era. And we’ve been the pop band of this decade.”

Come January, when he walks out on stage, Healy knows he will have “a real smile” on his face. He will sing Give Yourself a Try’s first line and “forget that feeling of writing these things in real life” – not least because he won’t be able to hear himself over the screams. “Having a date for that, those things inspire you.” It’s not about ego but knowing he is in the one context where being Matty Healy makes perfect sense.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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