Matty Healy of the 1975: ‘If you’re still making art in your 30s you’re either wadded or good – and I’m both’

As his band prepare to release their fifth album, he talks courting controversy, cancel culture and getting clean

Matty Healy is sitting in a restaurant on the top floor of a Tokyo hotel – the same restaurant, as he excitedly points out, where Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s characters meet in Lost in Translation. It is the night before the 1975’s first live show in two and half years, headlining Japan’s SummerSonic festival, and Healy is talking expansively – Healy always talks expansively – about the 1975’s ability to reflect their era, a skill that has propelled the band to vast sales and something approaching global stardom, and which has caused the 33-year-old to be pegged as a spokesperson for the millennial generation.

He talks about the curious coincidence that saw them release their previous album, Notes on a Conditional Form, its lyrics transfixed on the notion of what Healy called “a global anxiety attack”, precisely as the world went into lockdown. He also says he “tries to think that I’m just doing my own thing, but every time I look back it always really makes sense in that time”.

And then he looks earnestly across the table. “I’m constantly looking for things to reaffirm what’s going on and give me some confidence,” he says, “because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

This seems a deeply unlikely thing for Healy to say. The 1975’s career appears to have gone without a hitch from the moment they chose to stop being a punky emo band as teenagers and settled on their signature sound: a sleek, 80s-influenced pop-rock hybrid. Their eponymous 2013 debut album went platinum in the UK and the US; they began headlining festivals, a feat of crowdpleasing unimpeded by releasing albums as confounding as Notes on a Conditional Form (22 tracks, a contribution from Greta Thunberg, experiments with abstract electronics, gospel, screamo, UK garage) and the years Healy spent addicted to heroin.

They have also remained unusually self-aware. The adjective “knowing” frequently crops up around the 1975 – inevitable when you perform at the Brit awards in front of a huge display of your most cutting negative reviews; or have a penchant for writing songs in which, as Healy says, “there are so many self-references – it’s always me in the songs talking about being in the song, like a character in a film that knows he’s a character in a film”.

Moreover, Healy seems rightfully proud of their forthcoming fifth album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language. After a lengthy gestation – at one juncture, they considered recording the whole album using only one ancient drum machine and a synthesiser, the results sounding like “Suicide and Frank Ocean” – they dramatically changed tack, conscious of preserving what fans love about the band. “I kept saying: ‘What people really want is remarkable stuff that doesn’t require a lot of technology,’” says Healy. “The synthesis of art and technology has now been going on for so long. You can watch a film with incredible CGI where King Kong kills a thing and it doesn’t even move you because you take everything for granted. Twelve years ago, if you heard” – he imitates a bubbling electronic noise – “and the producer was 16 and he made it on his laptop, you’d be like: ‘What the fuck is this?’ It’s not the same any more.”

The 1975 on stage in Anaheim, California in December 2019.
The 1975 on stage in Anaheim, California in December 2019. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Half the length of its predecessor, co-produced by Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey collaborator Jack Antonoff, the resulting album is packed with gleaming, anthemic pop songs that Healy thinks are more direct and emotionally open than his previous work. He is particularly proud of the entirely unironic I’m in Love With You. But it’s all relative: he still occasionally breaks the fourth wall (“enough about me – ‘you gotta talk to the people now, baby’,” Healy sings in a mocking voice on Part of the Band) and revels in provocation: “I like my men like I like my coffee – full of soy milk and so sweet they won’t offend anybody.”

Healy is so confident in the band’s abilities that he has bullishly named their forthcoming world tour The 1975 at Their Very Best. “Not from us being cocky, it’s genuine,” he says. Guitarist Adam Hann had a baby, while Healy says: “I’ve been clean for ages, I’m at the gym all the time, everyone feels good.” He smiles. “Even though I started this interview saying I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Perhaps Healy’s indecision stems from the preceding week in Tokyo, in which the band attempted to rehearse through jet lag. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the hotel room, I’ve been thinking a bit too much, I just need to loosen up,” he says, a situation not helped by Japan’s stringent laws regarding marijuana. Healy ordinarily smokes “all the time”, he sighs. “I’ve got a tiny little bit, which I got after about six months of negotiation.”

Or perhaps it is just Healy being “Matty Healy”, or at least being Matty Healy with the microphone on. He says his attitude to interviews was formed by his actor parents’ fame – his father is Tim Healy, his mother Denise Welch. “I was so witness to talking to the media, I made a subconscious decision when it started happening to me: ‘I’m just going to have a conversation.’ I’ve got too much history of thinking about how you present yourself. I think that I get known for being a motormouth, but when introspection is provoked, I can’t help but make it a bit of therapy.”

He reserves the right to change his mind: in recent years, he has announced that he was giving up talking to the press and that the 1975 might be splitting up, before hastily backtracking. Today, he prefaces answers with caveats (“let me tell you an anecdote and we’ll see if it makes any sense”), veers wildly off point, changes his mind mid-sentence (“I don’t really know what I meant when I said that”) and frequently contradicts himself. He alternately talks about being plagued by self-doubt and makes swaggering pronouncements: “I’m a good artist because I’m still doing it in my 30s and if you’re still doing the art thing in your 30s you’re either fucking wadded or good. And I’m both.” He is concerned that the negative online reaction to the 1975’s announcement as replacement headliners for Rage Against the Machine at Reading and Leeds may affect their reception on the night, then announces that he hopes it does: “I can’t wait for people to fucking throw shit at me at Reading.” (When they perform a fortnight after we speak, no one throws anything.)

He is wary of talking about his years on heroin – worried about sounding cliched or “intellectualising it” – but he raises the subject himself and admits that he “loved” the lifestyle of being an addict. “Council estates in Acton, being with people who were throwing it all away. I’ve never felt generational solidarity or much social or cultural solidarity. I’d always been Denise Welch’s son, I’d never just been in the 1975. And when I was smoking heroin in houses with people, I was just a smackhead.”

He recognises the level of security he had in comparison with those associates. “When I went to rehab, somebody said to me: ‘You’re so lucky – normally most people that come here have lost everything and they have to rebuild.’ I hadn’t really lost anything. I just lost a little bit of respect from my mates.”

* * *

Healy tells me the 1975’s manager once described him as “a combination of limitless ego and zero self-worth”. Certainly, he is hugely engaging, charming company, fizzing with ideas. He sometimes seems oddly old-fashioned: authentically horrified by algorithm-based streaming, shortening attention spans and social media influencers; a staunch believer in rock’s transformative power in a world where rock has patently ceased to be youth culture’s driving force. And he sometimes seems like a very 21st-century rock star: conversant with the late cultural critic Mark Fisher’s theories about the stalling of cultural innovation; concerned that rock and pop music might be out of ideas (“pop culture is a vocabulary that we’re all so familiar with now, we know what a rock star is, which is why I’ve always taken the piss out of it – we’re going to come to a point where we know the jig is up”) and absolutely obsessed with the internet.

There was a time when Healy seemed to delight in causing controversy online, but in 2020 he deleted his Twitter account after yet another uproar, this time over a tweet he posted about the Black Lives Matter protests that included a link to a 1975 song and saw him accused of trying to profit off the movement. Today, he dismisses Twitter as “a fucking game for grownups, an app you download where you go and collect as many hearts as possible, your behaviour dictates how many hearts you get”.

Nevertheless, he mentions being cancelled so many times over the course of Being Funny in a Foreign Language that it suggests the incident been playing on his mind. He shakes his head.

“I’m always talking about the internet and what’s happening now, so cancel culture is something I’m interested in as a phenomenon, but I don’t want it to come across like I’m butt-hurt about it because, honestly, I don’t really care. Because what is cancelling? People start a social media account and once they get more than 300 followers they can’t see their audience as anything but an audience, something to be performed to – which is why you get the weird thing of your mate who works in a brewery talking on Facebook like he’s talking to a packed convention centre. When you’re performing to an audience, the only human inclination is to be the benevolent protagonist. You’d never assume the role of the antagonist – that’s why trolls exist with anonymity. People who actually put themselves out there, online, their role is to be the good guy. We’re not aware of the solipsism of this behaviour because we’re all doing it. So once a week, culture generates a baddie so all the good guys can go: ‘Look how good I am in opposition to how bad he is.’ And the reason we forget about whatever morally [dubious] thing that person has done a week later is because we don’t care. It’s all literally a performance. There’s a purposeful removal of context in order to seem virtuous that happens so constantly that people can’t even be arsed.”

Another striking line on Being Funny in a Foreign Language comes on its opening track, titled – like every opening track on every 1975 album – The 1975. “I’m sorry if you’re alive and 17,” he sings. It is an odd thing to sing as a band with a sizeable teenage following. “When I was 17, all the cultural ideas that I was sold were about the future,” says Healy. “Being 17 now must be terrifying. You must look at the state of the economy and the world and you don’t know if there’s going to be a future. If I was 17 now and I was having to deal with the things that young people are expected to deal with – you need to be informed on racial issues, how economies work, all this stuff … When I was 17, I was getting stoned, and there was no one shouting at me on the internet that I wasn’t doing my part. It felt like the apocalypse anyway, because of some girl or a lack of weed or something like that. It wasn’t like trying to understand these huge ideas and being expected to have this pre-signed-off opinion on anything.”

Despite that, he says, he “found being young really hard”. “I already had my own issues with mental health, or trauma as the buzzword is now, when the band started taking off. I think that just becoming known for who you are, and that’s not someone you like much, was tough.”

He pauses. “Fuck it, I’ve never said this before, but I’ll be totally honest with you. I’m not going to be specific, but I had some early sexual experiences that, as I got older, were really, really difficult to deal with. It wasn’t to do with anything that happened in my family or at home, it was these … different things that happened. So my mental health had come through the negotiation of sex as a teenager and a young man, and romantic relationships.”

The 1975, from left Ross MacDonald, Healy, George Daniel and Adam Hann.
The 1975, from left Ross MacDonald, Healy, George Daniel and Adam Hann. Photograph: Samuel Bradley

When the 1975 got popular, he says, “people were having a romantic relationship with the band, I was sexualised to a certain extent; it was sexy, in the way that leather jackets and smoking and all that kind of shit was sexy. And I think [I had] an inner dialogue where I just hadn’t dealt with things, I probably hadn’t done the right amount of therapy. It’s hard to have romantic relationships with people when you’re on tour, so the one part of my life that I found difficult got really hard, and I would focus on it, so I would never be in the moment. I’d be on the side of the stage in Madison Square Garden, thinking about this one thing that I’d done in a relationship or something like that.

“I used to get really defensive about the word ‘depressed’ back in the day because my mum was clinically ill – fucking hell, mate, if you’d seen depression, you’d know it. And I feel like that a bit about trauma – I don’t want to gatekeep trauma, but … I was really traumatised.”

He says he’s “much more happy in myself nowadays”: in therapy, off hard drugs, supported by his bandmates despite the fact that he must be “quite a difficult person to facilitate”. No, he says, there is never any resentment about his place in the spotlight – the others seldom give interviews – or about his occasional controversies.

“There was never a jostling for position about who was going to lead the band. The guys believe me, we love each other, they trust me and I trust them. They trust in me to know what I’m doing.” He pauses for breath, a rare occurrence. “Even if I don’t know what I’m doing.”

• Being Funny in a Foreign Language is released by Dirty Hit on 14 October


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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