Before Matty Healy could go forth and do battle with the world again, he had to get the small matter of doing battle with himself out of the way first. The 17 songs on The 1975’s remarkable, incandescent new album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it give some hints as to what that battle involves. Now, I could make a few guesses about what goes on in Matty’s head but they’d be stabs in the dark – besides, I’m not sure even Matty knows what’s going on in there - or he does, but it changes from minute to minute - so how could we? Confidence, anguished self-doubt, morbid introspection and ceaseless self-laceration surely play a part; ditto arrogance, urgency, passion, panic; add to that already over-crowded space ambition, exhaustion, elation and dejection. As one of the bands inner circle says, “Matthew has what every great frontman has: a massive ego, and extremely low self-worth. That’s great for a frontman; for a human being’s mental health, though, it’s debilitating. His confidence is sky-high but wafer-thin. He has amazing self-belief and resilience, and a huge work ethic, but all of that is shadowed by a darker side.”
When Matty sings on the new track If I Believe You, “If I’m lost, then how can I find myself?” his fans will identify at once. The relationship between The 1975 and their fanbase is built on an empathic, almost telepathic understanding. It helps explain why the band’s gigs have the fervour of a revivalist meeting; and why, no matter how big The 1975 have become, they remain conscious of the vital part their fans play in everything they do. The thought of being aloof, remote pop icons inaccessible behind a velvet rope, is anathema to them. “We’ve got fans, and then we’ve got fans. Why would you want to feel above that? So much of the power in what we’re trying to do comes from their emotional involvement in and understanding of the way I feel things. I’ve never dramatised or fetishised the reality of addiction or flirted with the idea of suicide and subjects like that, but nor have I shirked them, and I think that’s why they relate to us. I’m convinced that what people really want to invest in when it comes to music is something they can genuinely identify with. Otherwise, what? It’s a backdrop to our lives? Music is more than that. It’s everything.”
That attitude informs every note, word and texture on the new album. It is as if everything the band have ever done, every setback and triumph they’ve experienced, has been leading up to this point. From the opening bars of The 1975, a reworked version of the track that opened their debut album, to the rough-demo acoustica of She Lays Down, via the monster earworms Love Me, She’s American, The Sound and This Must Be My Dream, the ineffably beautiful ballads Change of Heart, Somebody Else and Paris, the incredibly fragile and poignant Nana, which Matty wrote about his grandmother’s death, the crepuscular ambience and troubled self-inquiry of Please Be Naked, Lostmyhead and the title track, and the anguished stock-taking and reckless candour of The Ballad of Me and My Brain and Loving Someone, the album embarks on a journey of twists and turns, its unorthodox but brilliantly realised sequencing – and that insanely long album title – is a thrilling affirmation of what makes this band so defiantly individual and steadfastly indifferent to the tired old formulas of the pop machine.
When The 1975 first emerged in 2012 with the Facedown EP, it was instantly clear that this was a band that were going to be controversial, even problematic, for some. Their sound was unashamedly glamorous (one of Matty’s favourite words), the lyrics heart-on-sleeve, spill-your-guts confessional, their music brazenly diverse. And, in their frontman, the band possessed a singer who saw live performance as a precipice just asking to be jumped from. Matty’s head might be a mix of impenetrable fog and startling lucidity, but he has always been totally clear about the primacy of unabashed charisma and fierce commitment in the makeup of a lead singer. Never apologise has, he says, long been the band’s mantra.
The four school friends who formed a band 13 years ago in Wilmslow, south of Manchester, may be unusually accessible to their fans, but they retain a fierce, circle-the-wagons mentality when it comes to their creative space, and their dealings with the music industry. “We are very much a product of our environment,” says Matty. “We’re like brothers, we really are. For 13 years we’ve been in the same room together. The band has always been the nucleus of everything.” This mentality is also the product of their unhappy experiences, in their early days, of record label indifference. “There’s still this misconception out there,” says the band’s manager Jamie Oborne, “that they had it easy, that they signed a massive record deal and immediately had a hit single. The truth is different. No one wanted to sign them – no one. Labels, agents, publishers, none of them wanted to know. I tried for about four years to get someone to help us facilitate and support our vision. All I was met with was, ‘We don’t understand them; they sound too different from one song to the next. Radio will hate them,’ and I always thought, ‘but that’s exactly what’s amazing about them’, Matty’s mantra of how they create in the way they consume.”
When the band’s self-titled debut album – released on the independent label Dirty Hit, which Jamie had set up specifically for The 1975 – entered the UK chart at no 1 in September 2013, there was certainly a feeling of vindication. More importantly, it cemented in their minds the sense that, if the band were to mean anything, they had to stick to their guns, trust their instincts and resist outside interference. 10 years of raised hopes and broken promises, of missteps and false starts, had hardened the four friends, and now, with the prize suddenly within their grasp, they weren’t about to change tack. That old “they sound too different from one song to the next” response had been thrown back at their detractors, after all; and, as the saying goes, he who laughs last laughs longest. As Matty says with real fire, such attitudes strike the band’s generation as prehistoric. “The historic adherence to one type of anything is so pointless, and it’s not something that ever enters my mind. If I’m inspired by something, my attitude is, ‘I’m taking that’. If anyone has a problem with that, well, I don’t care – nobody cares about that sort of thing anymore. Besides, in 2016, everything has been done. You just have to try and do it better, which is what we’ve done. My generation consumes music in this completely non-linear way, and we reflect that because that’s how we create. Fifteen-year-olds are listening to A$AP Rocky but also to something way over on the other side from that. Why create one type of music when nobody consumes one type of music? The idea of rules is completely farcical.”
That’s not an official manifesto, but as I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it demonstrates, it could be. Who else but The 1975 would follow the pop-perfect FM-radio groove and arch, self-knowing lyrics of She’s American with If I Believe You? The latter song billows with gospel choirs, cascading harp and haunting trumpet: a devotional hymn of tormented, existential inquiry. Most bands, beholden to major-label caution, would have buried If I Believe You at the back end of the album. Not The 1975, and they’re right; placed as it is, the song is devastating precisely because of the contrast.
The band’s beloved 80s sonic palette dominates the new songs, with echoes throughout of Peter Gabriel, Scritti Politti, INXS, Hall & Oates, Jam & Lewis and Tears For Fears; but there are other reference points that darken the brew – both Lostmyhead and the title track I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it have a Sigur Ros-like expansiveness and complexity - testament, as is the whole album, to the role played by George Daniel, a sonic architect of extraordinary inventiveness and ambition, with whom Matty wrote the album. As Matty is quick to admit, recording sessions were often fraught and always intense, though they were joyous, too. In the early stages of recording, both he and George were, he says, “in different ways, in a very bad place”. Years of solid touring had taken their toll, and there were moments where the pair struggled with the burden of creating a follow-up to their debut. “George and I are like brothers, we had never left each other’s side. We complete each other. And my problems at that time separated us a little bit. It catalysed the troubles that he had and solidified all of the issues that I was having in return, and it became this really dark time. And born out of that was The Ballad of Me and My Brain. So, now, retrospectively I can think it was all okay, but it really fucked us up as a couple – because we are a couple, really. The distance that we travelled away from each other turned out to be a really important part of the album. When George got better, the unity we felt when we both got back together was like I’d been away from my wife for six months and I’d just picked her up at the airport and it was sunny and we were going on holiday. I know that sounds mad, but it’s true”
“The vocabulary that George and I share is unspoken, it’s like shorthand. There is a bit in Nana where it all stops, and I remember George saying, ‘Let’s just put a memory in there; let’s just have it open up and your vocal can become distant and you can put a memory in there’ and I was like: ‘Fucking hell.’ And we’d often get what we call these phantoms – little harmonics and ghosts notes, moments that are created by harmonies of certain things playing into other things. Sometimes I’d say to George, ‘Turn that bit up,’ and he’d say, ‘There is nothing there.’” These sessions were, Matty says, all about trust, all about the bond they first forged back at school. “There are all these big-name producers, but for me they’re not doing anything as interesting as George is. He would always say that he didn’t know what he was doing, and I’d be like, ‘That is where our band comes from; that’s the beauty of it.’ What we were in pursuit of was how we used to feel when we made music originally, unburdened by any fear, or thinking ‘Grown-ups are going to hear this and they’ll probably slag it off.’ It took us a while to get into that head space, but once we had made our world, one studio, four walls, four months of not leaving, just living there, we found it. The painful bits were done.”
Lyrically, the new album reflects the upheavals, triumphs, traumas and losses in Matty’s life over the past three years. His lyrics are alternately catty, tender, merciless, cocksure, self-recriminatory, pleading, narcissistic and remorseful – a distillation of the conversation that goes on unceasingly in his head. “I think our fans understand the vulnerability because it’s very much their vulnerability as well. They recognise this weird loner who flirts with these things and gets it wrong. I used to think, ‘If I’m successful I am going to be able to go into all of these cool rooms, and I’ll just be one of them, but I’m not, I’m still me and still an idiot and I still get nervous about stuff and change my personality a little bit to talk to somebody new. Have you spent any time with modern pop stars recently? You stand there and think, ‘You’ve got a beautiful face, but what have you got to say? And can you really be best friends with every popular person on Instagram?’ Remember at the Grammys when you’d have Paul Simon next to George Harrison and David Bowie? That was what that used to be reserved for – people who had worked at their craft to get to the point where people wanted to look at pictures of them together because they represented something, an ideal that had been worked for and achieved justifiably, as opposed to having an iPhone and a fucking record deal.”
Letting other people in remains as big a problem as ever, Matty admits (and several of the new songs address this). “There was this time when my ex-girlfriend called me, and she said, ‘You lack all that you admire.’ And I was just like, ‘Wow.’ And this is my whole thing about self-obsession: why am I so self-obsessed that I can’t even have a girlfriend because they then become an ambassador for me and that makes me uncomfortable; because I can’t have anyone running off and being an ambassador for me.” Characteristically, Matty lets out a self-deflating chuckle as he says this, before continuing, “What I’ve learnt with happiness is that those who seek happiness for themselves seek victory without war. It’s the journey that’s the thing, the whole point of it. I have this thing with living in the moment and being happy; I find a lot of the time I miss the notion of ‘now’ in my day-to-day life because I am so worried about being happy and in the present. I just fucking miss it. I have that all the time, this constant issue. I’ve lived my whole life retrospectively romanticising things and writing about them.”
What’s going to be interesting now, says Jamie Oborne, is the fact that, “Matty’s been looking inwards for the entire year, and now, all of a sudden, his gaze is outwards, and he has to become what he sees as a salesman. So there’s that stark duality. He labours over his art so much, the whole band does, that we all struggle to be in the present. He lives his life by extremes; he’s either totally committed, or a chronic procrastinator. It’s a cyclical thing. He judges himself extremely harshly. The further we go, and no matter how many opportunities he gets to bash away at what he always calls ‘the pursuit of excellence’, he will always want to better himself, to make the band better.”
Matty, Ross, Adam and George have made an album of breathtaking scope, ambition, depth and beauty, an album that will come to define 2016, and be looked back on as a game-changer. You sense that, on one level, Matty sort of knows this. For him to 100% believe it, though, well, that wouldn’t be Matt Healy, would it? The question we need to ask ourselves is this: would we have it any other way?