The 1975: “I’d rather be a pretend supervillain than some pretend hero”
Matty Healy is nonchalantly going for a kickflip on a skateboard, one that’s branded with his band The 1975’s new logo, for the cover of NME. Shortly after, tongue knowingly in cheek and with all the piss for the taking, he jokes that this look might be “getting a bit close to cultural appropriation” of an alternative scene. Fortunately, he’s not wearing a wallet chain.
For the remainder of our photoshoot for The 1975’s eighth NME cover, the frontman surfs on an office chair and cuts some Bowie-esque shapes in a series of dark suits. It’s all in keeping with the monochrome aesthetic for the Manchester band’s fifth album ‘Being Funny In A Foreign Language’. With a simple black, white and pink colour scheme and sad pop songs, they’re living “an impression of a 1975 album campaign” – with “big, bold, minimalist statements” that “lean into the band’s iconography and mythology”.
After the scattergun genre approach and opulence of 2020 predecessor ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ (a sister record to 2018’s ambitious and masterful ‘A Brief Inquiry To Online Relationships’) this is The 1975 in their purest form; miles from the ripped jeans, undercuts and leather jackets of their 2013 self-titled debut, but with the same romance and spirit intact. Having wrestled with fame and heroin addiction, Healy is comfortable in his own skin. “I’m not 50,” he bursts. “But I’m not 19; I don’t want to be. I’m in my 30s. I want to be a grown-up.”
That said, Healy certainly ain’t growing older that gracefully. As we leave the east London photo studio for a lengthy kerbside chat so he can smoke a joint, conversation turns to one of his favourite topics: shitposting. Google defines the term as ‘the activity of posting deliberately provocative or off-topic comments on social media, typically in order to upset others or distract from the main conversation’. It’s something that Healy has shown a sensei-like mastery of on Instagram since returning from his social media blackout (more on that later).
His Instagram stories have been awash with eyebrow-raising jokes, artful trolling of hardcore fans, and explicit attempts to get cancelled. The weekend before our interview – the first days of mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth, coinciding with the anniversary of the attack on New York’s World Trade Centre – Healy shared a text from their label manager Jamie Oborne pleading for him not to make any jokes about The Queen or 9/11, swiftly followed by a meme of Her Majesty’s face superimposed onto the Twin Towers. Crikey. We ask the singer how he’s enjoying the life of a shitposter.
“That’s probably the right question for me!” he laughs. “I think it’s fine. You can’t do both. I’m not a baddie, but I’ve never pretended to be perfect.”
You’d be forgiven for holding that misconception. Through music, interviews, Tweets and awards speeches, he’s used his platform to call for equality and worthy causes that have branded him a millennial spokesman to some, and a punchable preacher to others.
“I care about art and I care about funny”
“All that woke shit that I used to crack on about…,” he shrugs. “I come from art”. Yes, his parents are Loose Women star and Corrie’s own Denise Welch, and Auf Wiedersehen Pet actor Tim Healy. “My grandad was one of the first drag queens in the UK. I genuinely believe that a lot of the best art comes from transgressive communities like the gay community and cultures of colour. If you want good art and good shit then leave people alone, let them do their thing! Don’t be racist and don’t oppress women! I’ve not said anything revolutionary…”
It’s all part of the package with one of the UK’s most divisive bands; critical darlings, but doubt forever remains if they want to be taken that seriously. “I think that the ’75 balances between this austere, really well thought-out thing, and then the chaos of me just doing what I want,” Healy admits. “I care about art and I care about funny.”
The 1975 were a band born of the social media age. Their Insta-friendly boyband good looks, Tumblr-era aesthetic, millennial sloganeering and a genre-hopping approach made them an online phenomenon for the press to catch up with. With staggering pop chops and lyrics reflecting the anxieties of a generation raised online, they became the band of their time – and Healy a sabre-rattling chief among the Twitterati. Eventually, he was exiled by the digital kingdom he, if inadvertently, helped to create.
Following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a US police officer in 2020, Healy fired back at those declaring that ‘all lives matter’ on Twitter by asking them to stop “facilitating the end of black ones” alongside the video for The 1975’s single ‘Love It If We Made It’. The track is a diatribe of all the ways in which “modernity has failed us”; a world in which we’re “selling melanin and then suffocate the black men – start with misdemeanours and we’ll make a business out of them”.
Twitter users accused Healy of appropriating Black Lives Matter to sell and promote his own music. He apologised for any upset, deleted his account, and walked away from the screen.
Healy tells us today: “By that point, my reaction in the room to all that Twitter shit was like, ‘Oh fuck off! You know that I’m not using this as an opportunity to monetise the half-a-pence I get paid for a fucking YouTube play’. What I’m saying is, ‘Here’s something I’ve really thought about’, and all you’ve been asking for four days is ‘Say something about it!’ So I said, ‘Here’s what I think’.”
Arguing that a song is more considered than a Tweet, Healy proudly declares himself as “the best writer in music on consumption within the internet”. Still, he needed to remove himself from the theatre of conflict. “I was like, ‘You know what? If I’m gonna write about the culture war then I’m not going to be in it anymore. I’m certainly not going to become a pawn in it’ – that’s what I was starting to become: very much this beacon of the left, which was pissing me off. Not as much as the right, because there are Nazis in the right, but the left was starting to wind me up.”
Having lived and died by social media’s sword, we wonder how he feels about co-existing with this hyper-conscious online culture and community. Is there a burden to never make a mistake?
“Yeah, but that’s a standard thing that an entire generation has set up for themselves,” he replies. “The problem with Gen Z is that they’ve set up this moral standard that they can’t even live up to! They’re starting to realise that as they’re getting into their mid-20s.”
He continues: “When you’re an idealistic 18 or 19-year-old, sure! But you will make mistakes, you will hurt people, you will do things that some people will perceive as rotten. It’s this standard that I’m trying to break down. I’m just a bloke, so are you. No one’s fooling anybody.”
Does Healy feel envious of an artist like Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, for example, who came about before the social media age; an artist who one assumes is on the right side of history, but is allowed to remain apolitical?
“If I’m gonna write about the culture war then I’m not going to be in it anymore”
“I’ve never thought about that,” he replies. “We used to want our artists to be cigarette-smoking, bohemian outsiders. Now, we want them to be liberal academics. Well, on Twitter we do, but then I get really popular all of a sudden when I come back. Why’s that? Is that because I’m not pretending to be a liberal academic and there are real people who have actually got something to say instead of just continuing this infographic-sharing era of the same shit that we all fucking know?”
Paraphrasing a Nick Cave quote about activism, Healy reasons: “I refuse now to comment on the morally obvious. I’m not proving that I’m not racist. I’m not proving that I’m pro-women. I’m not proving I’m on the left. I’ve done that dance, I’ve done that game, I’ve done the work. I’m not interested in any insinuation that I am bigoted or racist or sexist for the enjoyment of someone on the internet.”
Even in his most “woke” days-gone-by, Healy tells us that he was always willing to be challenged, corrected and to apologise. Our imperfections are what set us apart. “I do feel very free. I own my own record label,” he says of the pioneering Dirty Hit, home also to Beabadoobee and Rina Sawayama. “I don’t have a boss. That speaks to people because everything is so manicured [these days]. I’m not saying we’re the fucking Sex Pistols. I don’t think I’m even being that transgressive. It’s just that jokes are funny.”
These days, Healy’s present on socials but he won’t engage. When the world is too absurd for politics, hit back with comedy and what’s real. That purity is a driving force behind ‘Being Funny In A Foreign Language’ – an album which finds The 1975 at their most direct. “There’s no deflecting on this record,” says Healy. “Because I wasn’t on social media, I had no cues to be insecure.”
Predecessor ‘Notes…’ was a tad chaotic at 22 tracks, 80 minutes and the kitchen sink; but musically, there’s no fat on ‘Being Funny’. From the slick pop euphoria of ‘Happiness’ to shoulder-padded ‘80s bombast of ‘Looking For Somebody To Love’, and the bare bones ballad of ‘Human Too’, the songs are the most sophisticated form of The 1975’s finest elements.
On the one hand, you have humour. ‘I like my men like I like my coffee: full of soy milk and so sweet, it won’t offend anybody,’ he spits on the gorgeous ‘Part Of The Band’. ‘Wintering’ calls upon a character called ‘John’ who’s “obsessed with fat ass” but he’s just “10-years-old”, and you’ll also find some titillating lines about QAnon, getting cancelled, and your mum.
On the other, you’ve got a direct route to Healy’s emotion without distraction. “There are songs with the right moments for the jokes, but the hardest thing was to be really earnest,” he says. “This is the era where I’ll say whatever I want manically on the internet, but on my album I’ll say, ‘Just tell me you love me, because that’s all I need to hear’ or ‘The only time I feel it might get better is when we are together’. I’m not going to take the piss out of myself for saying, ‘Do you think I’ve forgotten about you?’
“On every other album I would have gone, ‘…not!’ at the end or made a dick joke. I’d have gotten close to sentimentality and then debased it. When I came back, I was confident.”
“We could still be the most important band of the ‘20s – I’ve got a prediction that we will be”
You’d have felt that confidence oozing out of The 1975 when they headlined Reading & Leeds in August. “Oh Reading, please welcome your favourite band,” Healy beamed from the main stage. Flirting with the crowd en masse, in full wedding band mode, Healy kept it simple and proved, as NME decreed, that “they know their way around a pop song and putting on a show”,
“Making the record – once we decided what it was – was a fucking breeze, but getting there was dreadful,” says Healy. “It was rife with near relapses, mental health, and difficult, difficult times. When we got back on that stage we were like, ‘Haha! Right! This is what we fucking need, man! We’re comfortable here!’”
It wasn’t without incident, though. During their Leeds set, Healy’s comments about stepping in to replace Rage Against The Machine didn’t land as planned: “I’m sorry we’re not Rage Against The Machine but who’s Rage Against The Machine?” he said, fluffing his words for once: “Who can be Rage Against The Machine”, he meant to say. Social media lit up in anger, and then came a post-show Insta Stories explanation of Healy telling people to calm down. Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
Healy tells us: “I watched it back and I was like, ‘That delivery was so bad! We fucking love Rage so much. I think I was so conflicted by how weird it was for me to even accept putting myself in the same league as them that I couldn’t even get my words out right.”
His devil-may-care side returns: ”If I’d have slagged Rage off then I would have leaned into it and had a bit ready. I’m not scared of doing that!”
Healy asking the Leeds faithful to “give it up for the greatest rock band of the previous generation” in his misfired tribute to RATM had echoes of comments he once made about another fellow R+L 2022 headliner. Speaking in 2018, Healy hailed Arctic Monkeys as “the band of the 2000s” with The 1975 the defining band of the 2010s. But what about this new decade?
“I think we could still be the most important band of the ‘20s,” Healy argues. “I’ve got a prediction that we will be, but we’re starting to get into a semantic argument”. Admitting that “Arctic Monkeys are still relevant and making amazing records and are still a band” who could “always be around if they wanted to” (and that he’s “obsessed with bands like Fontaines D.C.”), the singer claims that culture is no longer leaning towards a point of “white guys with guitars changing the world”. Also, that’s not even a pond that The 1975 should even be swimming in.
“Growing up? Now it’s kind of the sexiest thing about us”
“With us, you need to take us out of the ‘bands’ world and put us next to Lana [Del Rey], Taylor [Swift], Frank Ocean and Kendrick [Lamar],” he goes on. “These are artists that have existed for a decade, and no one is asking them questions about why they’re still relevant. We’re only a band in form. We’re a lot less formal than the last traditional band, which is Arctic Monkeys. We’re post-Arctic Monkeys.”
‘Being Funny…’ also marks the first music the band have written as 30-somethings. Far from the lusty youth of their debut, but the singer argues that The 1975 were never dealing in the currency speaking about being young, but “the currency of speaking about where we are”.
“When I made ‘A Brief Inquiry…’, we’d grown up a bit. The idea of The 1975 continuing to grow up wasn’t a fear because it wasn’t unsexy. Now it’s kind of the sexiest thing about us. That’s why the tour is called ‘At Their Very Best’. We’ve got our shit sorted.”
That coming of age wisdom kicks off ‘Being Funny…’ on their traditional self-titled opener – always intended as “the aesthetic or the lyrical status update” of the record. In a more subtle state-of-the-nation address for The 1975, Healy reflects how he’s “Sorry about my 20s, I was learning the ropes”. Finding himself in a world “using young people as collateral”, he ends: “Sorry if you’re living and you’re 17.”
“This is the culture that I’m seeing, and now this is how it’s making me feel and what it’s making me pursue,” he tells us of the track, which also riffs heavily on the duelling piano rhythms of LCD Soundsystem’s timeless ‘All My Friends’. A fitting choice as what Healy calls “the most reflective, celebratory, present, nostalgic song”. “It’s the best song ever. Especially for guys exactly our age. It’s our song. It’s the cool guys’ ‘Mr Brightside’.”
Having previously paid tribute to LCD and ‘All My Friends’ by opening their first album’s single ‘Sex’ with the same lyric of ‘This is how it starts’, Healy opted to remove a line this time about “owing James Murphy per cent of this song and your career” to not seem too desparate to meet an artist on his bucketlist.
He’s not lacking in famous pals, mind. There’s Phoebe Bridgers who recently made a cameo in the video for ‘I’m In Love With You (“I feel like we see a lot of ourselves in each other,” says Healy of their kinship), Sam Fender (“I judged him in a talent show when he was 16 and he won!”) and he boasts of having comedians Jamie Demetriou and Bo Burnham in his phone to “get a reaction” on his material.
Of those, who would he least like to butt-dial? “Let me think, shall we look through my phone? At the contacts of a rockstar?” Go on then, we insist, before landing on a text exchange with Healy requesting permission from Chris Martin to screenshot a conversation, who politely obliges. Of course, it’s part of a grand “Coldplay shitpost idea” Matty’s been cooking.
The freedom to have a laugh at our expense and be real is Healy’s be-all-and-end-all. As he puts it, “I don’t know where we are, but I’d rather be a pretend supervillain than some pretend hero”.
‘Being Funny In A Foreign Language’ is out now via Dirty Hit
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