The 1975 Care Because You Do
Manchester’s unclassifiable pop phenoms ask fans to take a leap of faith on their mammoth second LP
Yes, this is the line for the 1975 concert. It’s a Friday night in early December, about 45 minutes before the quartet are scheduled to take the stage at Manhattan’s Terminal 5 venue. On an average night, the line out the door might be 10 to 15 fans long. Tonight, it stretches all the way down 56th street, around the corner to 55th street, and around that corner a quarter of the way back up. It seems like there are more fans (and accompanying parents) than can possibly fit inside the 3,000-capacity venue. Once every minute or two, another couple of incredulous fans approach the end of the line in disbelief, meekly inquiring as to whether there might be some other explanation. Nope, get in back.
Inside, the venue is already packed to the fire exits, blanketed by throngs of girls with blowouts and black skirts and dudes in leather jackets and/or makeup — though the females outnumber the males roughly four to one. On the floor and over social media, the crowd buzzes with chatter that the newly minted pop star Halsey is somewhere in attendance. At one point, the lighting onstage shifts, and the pack on the floor rushes to the front with such simultaneous ferocity that, viewed from above, it looks like a tidal wave crashing towards the stage. The band don’t even go on for another ten minutes.
The 1975 are bigger than you think.
“How many tickets can you sell?”
That’s 1975 frontman Matty Healy’s instant response when I ask him how he judges his band’s popularity. He continues: “If you’re talking about emotional investment — which is where I see the value of what I’m doing — then yeah, because that’s the ultimate test: Do people want to come see you? I think if you want to see how big your band is, book a show.”
If so, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around the maniacal crowd response to the 1975, because it doesn’t seem like they should be that massive — not in this country, where their self-titled 2013 debut album peaked at No. 28 on the charts, and never really threatened pop radio. Perhaps more importantly, they’re a proper band, and kind of a weird one — one as influenced by M83 as they are by the Strokes, one whose first LP is labeled with nine separate genres on its Wikipedia page, one who would consider being called the Japan of their era a compliment. It’s been awhile — maybe since Franz Ferdinand somehow got big enough to play the Grammys — since we had a band of style-obsessed, proudly European heartthrobs that was anything more than a cult act.
But the evidence is mounting that the 1975 are on the cusp of stateside stardom. They recently passed the million-follower mark on Twitter. Last weekend, they were the musical guests on the Larry David-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. When they return to New York in May, they will have graduated from the mid-level Terminal 5 to the stadium-sized Barclays Center. They might not even need a crossover hit to be one of the biggest bands in America.
“They are a pop band, and they’re all ‘hot guys,’ but on top of that, they can play their instruments really well, they can write really good pop songs, and they’re amazing live,” explains Amber Bain, who’s opening for the 1975 on tour as the Japanese House, and whose Clean EP featured co-production from Healy and drummer George Daniel. “I think [they] get that kind of crazed boy-band fanbase, but it doesn’t seem so, like, hollow.”
“We don’t sound like any other band from Manchester, ever,” Healy says. “And that’s what being a Manchester band is.”
Certainly, no boy band in history (except, y’know, the Beatles) has ever released an album like the one the 1975 will drop on February 26. I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — more on that title later — is a 17-track, 74-minute behemoth that veers wildly between ‘80s faux-funk, ambient house, gospel-tinged R&B, Autre ne Veut-like fever-pop, and acoustic balladry. It’s impossible to form a credible opinion on it after only one listen, because the album you think you’re listening to shapeshifts unrecognizably about a half-dozen times over the course of an hour and a quarter.
It’s a bold move for any group, let alone a rising one with as much to lose as the 1975 currently have. But the Manchester sensations are defined by their boldness, and they think the proof is in the meticulously crafted, multi-flavored pudding that makes up their sophomore album. “I think that it’ll change a lot of people’s minds about who we are as a band,” Healy predicts of the double-LP, as we talk in New York’s Interscope office, his frizzy black hair forever falling over one eye, his hands digging into the couch like he’s searching for a lost memory. “You can’t not acknowledge the record for what it is. It’s obviously a body of work which a lot of time and attention to detail has gone into.”
One thing’s for sure: “We can’t be regarded as a boy band anymore.”
Though his band may only now be leveling up to stadium headlining, the 26-year-old Healy has been playing arenas since he was 13: At a Green Day show, the young’n was selected from the crowd to join the band on bass for a track off of their 2002 Shenanigans compilation. “Mike Dirnt was f**king there,” he recalls excitedly. “I jumped up, and he put his bass on me… 10,000 people in f**king Newcastle Arena!” The experience was life-changing. “It was a defining moment for me. Looking out and thinking, ‘OK, this is awesome,’” Healy rhapsodizes. “I still have the pick.”
The 1975 — Healy, along with friends George Daniel (drums), Adam Hann (guitar), and Ross MacDonald (bass), who all high schooled together in Wilmslow, just south of Manchester — formed in their first incarnation shortly thereafter. (“We were about five s**tty bands with five s**itty names,” he remembers of the group’s emo origins.) The lads spent their early days decidedly on the margins: “At the time, we were super-nerds,” he relates. “Loads of bands, when they’re 17, 18, they’re like the cool kids and know other bands… We were not that.”
But the group noticed that while their fanbase wasn’t particularly wide, it was already fairly intense. “We were playing clubs to 200 kids, where 100 of them would wait afterwards to meet us, with f**king neck tattoos,” Healy says. “The first bit of our fandom was hardcore.”
The 1975’s original standout tracks — the effervescent nonsense of “Chocolate,” the screaming tension of “Sex,” the cinematic melodrama of “Robbers” — earned them attention from the U.K. press, but not an immediate record deal, largely because it was tough to parse the true identity of the band behind those wildly varied songs. Eventually, they signed to British label Dirty Hit — run by their manager, Jamie Oborne — and put out a quartet of EPs that established the group’s diverse sonic palette, flitting between languorous nü-gaze, streamlined synth-rock, and heady R&B, all while building excitement for their 2013 debut LP. Co-produced by buzz-band pied piper Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, the Kooks, Foals), the 1975’s self-titled, 16-track full length sounded like a million dollars’ worth of studio detail and a greatest hits’ worth of hooks. It debuted at No. 1 in their home country.
Critical reception was a little more mixed; tellingly, the breakthrough stars were nominated for both Best British Band and Worst Band at the 2014 NME Awards, winning the latter. “The critics were very confused about us around the first record,” remembers Daniel, the 1975’s drummer and primary sonic architect. “And they accused us of being confused sometimes… like, ‘This band doesn’t know what they want to be.’ We do, we just want to be different things, because that’s a generational way of creating music… that’s the way that we consume it, so that’s also the way that we like to create it.”
The 1975 also caused some dissonance among Manchester locals for not being obviously indebted to the lineage of legendary Manc bands — New Order, the Smiths, Oasis — that preceded them. (The fact that their frontman is the son of two famous British TV actors didn’t help: ”You’re not cool. You can’t be involved in an alternative band: Your mom’s on daytime television,” he quotes the typical U.K. response.) Healy argues that his group’s refusal to fit a historic mold is the truest way to honor their hometown. “There’s proper Mancunian press people who don’t like us because we don’t sound like a Manchester band,” he vents. “But what they’re forgetting is… The reason [those bands] were good was because they didn’t sound like anything else. We don’t sound like any other band from Manchester, ever. And that’s what being a Manchester band is.”
Regardless of what the tastemakers thought of The 1975, it established the twentysomethings as phenoms, and marked their entrée into a new strata of celebrity. In late 2014, Healy made headlines in the U.S. for his involvement with the biggest pop star of them all: Taylor Swift. It was a short public relationship — “I wore her T-shirt one night, she wore one of mine,” he remembers. “It’s not like we were dating or anything.” But the ensuing media whirlwind made him realize the gulf between his and Swift’s celebrities wasn’t one he wanted to cross. “I think you have to… care a specific way about how people feel about you to want to be in those worlds,” he says. “God bless Taylor Swift… But I couldn’t live that life. I couldn’t be that famous.”
After an experience with another group of superstars in One Direction, Healy learned he didn’t much want to work with people that famous, either. “They got me in, and they said ‘We really like your band. Would you write a song for us?’” he recalls. “They didn’t seem to be actually that interested; they just wanted to play me this song that they said was really, really inspired by us.” That song was “Change Your Ticket,” whose bubble-funk groove was a dead ringer for the 1975’s “Girls.” Healy asked that the group not make his influence quite so direct: ‘“Listen guys, fill your boots, the song doesn’t sound that much like ‘Girls.’ But the guitar and the whole vibe of it is a complete lift. So take the guitars off, and we’re good.” The group agreed, but when the song showed up with guitars and vibe untouched as a bonus track on their Four album, Healy was upset — not because he wasn’t credited as a songwriter on the song, but because the group failed to explicitly say that he didn’t help write it. “It would have been a bad 1975 song,” he explains.
Healy says he bears One Direction no resentment (“They’re nice guys”), mostly blaming their management for the mix-up. But the experience put him off writing for other artists, and when I tell him the group’s new album is basically a game of pop history name-that-tune, he responds: “Oh, well… they’re four guys who queued up outside an arena to sing in front of Simon Cowell. Do they really have any artistic credibility? That sounds like a mean thing to say, but it’s a good question. Like, do they?”
With Healy’s ballooning social status also came an increasing indulgence in (quickly approaching a reliance on) drug use. He’s not overly remorseful about this — when the subject first comes up, he casually mentions, “I’ve done drugs, loads,” checking off that box for our conversation — but he concedes that his habits got bad enough after the band’s years-spanning tour that they started to affect his relationship with Daniel, his 1975 co-anchor. “And then after that happened — which has never really happened before — it all went to f**king s**t,” he says.
In late May of 2015, after posting a cryptic and foreboding comic strip to their Twitter, the 1975 deleted all social media accounts, prompting rumors of a split. “I was just having a kind of ‘poor me’ identity crisis,” Healy says of the Internet experiment. But within days, the 1975 revived their socials, and posted a new letter revealing that they were working on their sophomore LP. Though Healy admits that he “was very close to probably not being able to stop doing [drugs],” he says he was able to find his way back through the album’s recording. “It all started to really come together again really fast, and that momentum provoked this excitement, that then spurred the record on to be what it is.” In October, the group officially announced the February release of I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.
So, yeah, that title. Like many of the 1975’s moves, the name of when you sleep seems designed to make their fans swoon and everyone else wince. It’s a title that’s gobsmacking in its guilelessness, its middle-school poetry sentimentality, and its Fiona Apple-like disregard for 140-character-length musical discourse.
It is also, according to just about everyone related to the band, the most 1975 thing to call this album. Healy says that the phrase — a direct quote of his, offered to his then-girlfriend — was the working title for the record before there even was a record. “There was a time where I was kind of scared about making the next record,” he explains. “The big revelation that I had was that it was all about conviction… I made the decision in that state of mind, that kind of ‘Right, this is it, I’m doing it. This is the name of the album. I know it’s really long, but this is it.’”
The title, and the process by which they arrived at it, encapsulates the group’s impeccable instincts for branding. “We always say, ‘This feels like the 1975 thing to do,’” Healy explains. “It always feels like the same band.” That philosophy extends beyond their music — to the band’s now immediately recognizable box logo, to their minimalist, Chanel- and Talking Heads-influenced artwork and videos, and yes, to an album name that reflects their emo roots in its length and openness. (Healy has gotten very into Connecticut-formed post-rock collective the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die recently: “They’ve got the best name ever.”)
One thing about the title is definitely undeniable: It’s fair advertising for the album. When you sleep is just as unwieldy and unguarded and stunning as its appellation, tripling down on the sprawling diversity of the self-titled album. Where gauzy, instrumental dream-pop made up a couple of interludes on the debut, it encompasses entire bends of the 1975’s new record. The band’s earlier work hinted at disco; on several tracks here, they put both feet on the dance floor. One song features a gospel choir and D’Angelo’s trumpet player. Another loops an operatic vocal into a nerve-racking hook for a rumination on (literally) losing one’s mind. It’s a lot.
And it’s worth asking if it might be too much for the 1975’s fanbase, young lovers of the simple poppiness of “Chocolate” and “Girls” that never signed up for all this. The band, however, has faith. “I give our fans the benefit of the doubt. Teenage girls get such s**t, when some of them are so f**king smart,” attests Healy. “You’ve got to give some value to these kids’ opinions… Because they really f**king care.” This is the unusually symbiotic nature of the 1975’s relationship with their fans: The band trusts that their faithful will follow them implicitly, because they, in turn, try to make the experience of being a 1975 fan as rewarding as possible. “If you’re a proper fan who’s been one from the beginning, there’s so much subtext, and so many Easter eggs, narratively,” Healy says, of the many musical and lyrical callbacks to the group’s EPs and first album that are scattered throughout when you sleep. “It’s the things that add up that make people believe in why you do it, and it’s just about giving back.”
The gang believe that whether they’re doing seven-minute dream-house workouts or schizophrenic synth-soul, it still makes sense because it all feels like the 1975. “I think this amalgam of styles and sounds is part of the band’s overall fingerprint,” says Mike Crossey, reprising his role as the band’s co-producer. “When we get the feel right, it starts to become a 1975 song.” And that feeling is what people really connect to: Their lyrics aren’t as confessional or as striking as the Smiths or the Cure, but fans idolize Healy like Morrissey or Robert Smith because the emotions in a song like the first album’s “Robbers” or the new LP’s “The Sound” feel just as raw and powerful, conveyed by the passion of the delivery and the intensity of the production, rather than the specificity of the words.
Speaking of Moz and Bob: While the 1975’s new-wave inspiration has always been clear through the lush romanticism of their music, the ‘80s references are spray-painted in day-glo across their second album. Hann’s guitar chop on lead single ”Love Me” evokes peak INXS. “Ugh!” boogies over a glossy synth-bass frenzy that’s pure Scritti Politti. “Paris” twinkles and sighs like a gorgeous OMD ballad.
What separates the 1975 from other ‘80s-retro acts, though, is how legitimately unafraid they are to look and sound ridiculous. Healy wears leather pants and prances around shirtless in his performances and music videos, uses words like “Karcrashian” in his lyrics, and gives his albums titles that read like moony-eyed diary scribbles. Whatever: Depeche Mode wore studded jackets and mesh shirts. New Order sang about playing with their “pleasure zone.” Duran Duran called an album Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Even though time has made those bands hip, “cool” was hardly a prerequisite for being into them back then — which is why fans loved them, and why fans now adore these nü-wavers. Appropriately, the 1975 don’t just sound like an early-MTV band — they feel like one.
Knowing the difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness is often the mark of a great pop act, and while the 1975 are as in control of their overall package as any other band right now, they connect on a different level because they don’t ever second-guess themselves. To them, when you sleep isn’t a purposefully difficult sophomore album, appealing to critics and alienating their fanbase; it’s simply more of the 1975 for fans to love. “It’s a better record,” says Healy, definitively. “It’s just more… it’s more than the first record was. It’s the first record, times ten.”
I ask Crossey how he describes the album when people ask him about it. He responds: “I have been saying it’s the best record I have made to date.”
“I always ask girls if they want a picture of me or whether they’re just here for the good stuff,” Daniel jokes to me over the phone, about the shadow Healy casts over the rest of the 1975. Their second-in-command is highly practical on the subject. “It’s not a surprise that Chris Martin’s more famous than the bass player of Coldplay. It doesn’t bother us at all… And [Matty] needs it, he needs that element, and I think that’s partly the reason that our band does so well. Because there’s not really very many frontmen that aren’t scared anymore.”
It’s true that there aren’t many frontmen as brazen as Healy left in rock, pop, or whatever other genre you want to classify the 1975 as. But it’s not true that Healy isn’t scared. For all his game-time cockiness, offstage, the singer is openly neurotic and vulnerable. He fears being seen as pretentious, making fun of himself when he references a Rothko painting. He fears being seen as ungrateful, apologizing whenever he catches himself lapsing into self-pity. Over the course of a recent NME story, he makes four separate allusions to a different something (being retrogressive, provoking ambivalence) looming as his biggest fear.
Chief among all of Healy’s anxieties, though, is the fear of being seen as insincere. The 1975 may dabble in irony and post-modernism; the clever-clever celebrity commentary of “Love Me” (and its Diane Martel-directed, cardboard cutout-featuring video) makes that abundantly obvious. But Healy knows that his band, and the relationship they have with fans — the ones who write him letters, the ones he says hand him their bloody razors so they won’t be able to cut themselves anymore — only works if, at the end of the day, he still appears genuine. If the line for a 1975 gig stretches a quarter-mile out the door, the band has a responsibility to make it feel like your attendance is just as critical to them as it is to you: a truth that a lot of rock stars pay lip service to, but few internalize as dutifully as Healy.
“I hope that you can feel that I really, really care,” he says during the most intense moment of our interview at the Interscope office — not so much speaking to me as to his entire fanbase. “Like I really care… I really, really care, and the value comes from that emotional investment that I get back… the value exists in my day-to-day experiences with all these people who give it back to me. Do you know what I mean?”
The 1975 are more important than you think.