Thirty seconds into our first Skype chat, Matt Healy removes his top, and he remains shirtless until we say goodbye. Healy takes off his shirt like most people take off their glasses – wordlessly, without fanfare – and it’s one of the only things that will go unspoken this afternoon. He is frank in the way decent popstars often have been, but he’s sincere about politics, addiction, sexuality and mental health in a way we’re maybe not used to. It takes about 60 seconds for him to bring up his treatment for a heroin addiction. In an era where most popstars worth your ear-space are quietly powered by uncertainty, Healy lets everything float to the surface.
We have two chats over Skype because he’s in LA, holed up in a mansion with the other members of The 1975, recording the album they’re planning on releasing after their new album, the genre-splicing A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. It sounds like everything from Drake to Belinda Carlisle and comes out in a couple of weeks, but then there’s a new new album, the band’s fourth, which is due in spring 2019 and was announced before its predecessor was even finished.
An unusual way of doing things, but very Matt Healy. His hair is black today, but in the past few months it’s also been bright red and bleached blond – the pop rulebook clearly states that you shouldn’t change your haircut during an album campaign, but here we are. And there Healy is: top off, lying on a bed in a sun-drenched room, rolling a joint and talking. And talking, and talking.
“My perceived ideas of masculinity stem from my first idea of sexuality”
“There’s an apocalyptic element built into human civilisation,” is one of the things he’ll say. Also: “It’s hard to be human, but it f*cking should be really, if you’re doing it properly.” And: “I’m not a particularly vain person.” Then: “I have quite a large ego.” Conversation changes direction as unexpectedly as tracks on a 1975 album: he had a dream last night that he bought a Nokia 3210; he will “probably” marry his girlfriend and reckons he might start a family in 2020. He thinks ShortList readers should read a book on Japanese aesthetics called Wabi-sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. “You’ve got to remember,” he says at one point, “I’m slightly Peter Pan-ish.” His new house, a Brutalist affair in west London, is “like a beautiful car park”. Does one of his new songs sound a bit like Whitney Houston? Maybe, but he was actually going for “a more authentic Michael Bolton”. On the topic of pretentiousness, he doesn’t mind being perceived as “a bit wanky”. The big thing is not to be – he delivers this with a flourish – “a wanker”.
Musicians and popstars are two very different things. It’s all about what they do once they leave the recording studio, and with Healy at the helm The 1975 have become very good at seeing their music as the beginning, rather than the end, of a conversation. Healy says he learned a lot from watching Michael Jackson videos in the mid-Nineties with his dad and his mates. “They were standing behind me, expressing how they thought Jackson was an alien. I thought: ‘Even though it’s mental, I get that more than I get your vibe.’ I was, like, ‘I’m more like him than I am like you.’”
Since the spring, UK cities have been fly-postered with arty posters for The 1975’s new album: think sans-serif typography, jarring imagery, oblique slogans. A baby in a VR headset with the words ‘modernity has failed us’ is one example.
It’d be easy to see all this posturing as a bit ‘My First Banksy’, but it complements an album that finds Healy battling the noise of modern life and rediscovering his own humanity, perhaps even unearthing it for the first time.
He explains how he was turned off by regular guitar music’s “masculine fear”. Apart from gardeners, most of the people who visited the Newcastle cow farm on which Healy grew up were from the world of showbiz, his parents Tim Healy and Denise Welch being actors. He doesn’t remember Newcastle being particularly cosmopolitan, but his home life was a window into a diverse world of, as he puts it, “infinite gay and black people. I was aware that my family was a bit different,” he says. “I never really had boundaries of what was…”
He drifts off and pauses. He’s wondering whether to say what comes next, because he sort of knows how the conversation will pan out. He says it anyway: “The first passionate kiss I saw was between two blokes,” he says. It was backstage at the Manchester Apollo; two of the dancers were friends with his mum. “I remember it vividly.”
What did he think?
“How intimate it was, and I wanted that intimacy. It was an erotic and sexual presentation to do in front of a child, now I think of it.’” He pauses, then carries on. “I just saw it as sexy. As a kid, if you see two grown-ups kiss properly, you’re a bit like: ‘What’s that? What’s that feeling? I didn’t know we did that with each other.’ I think my perceived ideas of masculinity stem from my first idea of sexuality.”
He’s not conflating masculinity and sexuality, he adds, but it seems he’s never been bothered by the baggage of either. Discussing sexuality in a radio interview a few years ago, Healy said: “The idea of a conflicted sexuality is something loads of people go through.” He added: “I’m still asking myself questions.”
I ask him what questions he was asking, and what answers he came up with.
“Well, you can look at whether sexuality is a social construct – which, of course, it isn’t. But when I was a kid most of the people [around me] who were successful and doing what they wanted to do were gay. I associated that freedom of self with freedom of expression. I think I looked up to them, not as pariahs or outsiders, but as people who were truly themselves. I’ve always found that engaging. I’ve thought: ‘Maybe it’s unusual to be as flamboyant as I am, or unusual to be as in the gay world as I am… What does that mean? Am I a bit gay?’ And then I was, like, ‘No, that’s not how it works!” He pauses. “It comes down to who you want to f*ck.”
Are you attracted to men?
“Yes, but not in a carnal, sexual way,” he says. “The other sex is still attractive, it’s just that sex is weird, isn’t it? Do you know what I mean? It’s, like, Do I want to do blowjobs with a guy? No. Do I want to kiss a guy? Yeah, kind of…”
“I did choose cool people for my f*cking music video, I’m not a f*cking idiot”
Has he kissed a guy?
“Yes,” is his reply, but this is the press, he adds. He doesn’t want to start being provocative. Also, he doesn’t want to annoy his girlfriend by talking about it.
There’s not much Healy isn’t comfortable discussing and there have only been a couple of times during our conversation when he seemed uncertain. When I asked about the self-conscious diversity of the fans featured in the recent TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME video, he seemed uncomfortable. He knows what I mean – “like a Benetton advert?” – but is lightly dismissive at first: “It’s such a boring criticism, isn’t it?” Then exasperated: “I did choose cool people for my f*cking music video, I’m not a f*cking idiot.” And later, when I ask how it is that despite The 1975’s success – at one point he refers to them as “the biggest band in the world” – their streaming numbers suggest a disconnect. On Spotify, they’re the world’s 322nd biggest act. The band’s music isn’t passive, he says. A lot of streaming numbers represent background listening, ‘sonic wallpaper’. So why would he want streams to signal his band’s success? “What I really want is for people to sit down and listen to an hour-length album in its entirety,” he says.
“I always feel that if I talk to somebody, I can get them to understand what I’m going on about. Do you know what I mean?”
By the time our chat comes to an end, I think I do.
Last year Healy decided that, as his twenties were drawing to a close, it was time to “take life a bit more seriously” – the long and short of which is that ahead of recording the new album he spent seven weeks in a Barbados rehab centre. It had been coming for years; he’d been smoking heroin and doing benzos. He was, he admits, being a bit of a wanker. “It was, like, ‘I want to do it better. I want to do everything that I’ve been doing, better.’”
Over in Barbados, things didn’t immediately go to plan. “They put me in a field with a horse. For two whole days it’s me, rolling my eyes next to this horse, going, ‘This is f*cking daft.’ And there’s this horse whisperer going, ‘Be with the horse! Talk to it!’ Ridiculous.”
As is often the way with these things, it was ridiculous until, quite suddenly, it wasn’t. After several days there was a breakthrough. “It was f*cking weird – suddenly I got it,” Healy says. His voice has softened now and his arms have stopped waving around. Which is unusual, because he usually speaks as though he’s delivering an extremely urgent TED Talk.
“I started to envy the horse’s ability to destroy, but its intention to hurt nobody. So strong, and so good to himself, and so forgiving of me in his space. I envied all these fundamental traits that he didn’t have to think about.”
It’s easy to envy animals, I suggest – they’re having a laugh most of the time. “Be a f*cking horse, mate,” Healy advises.
A week later, we meet on the set of Healy’s ShortList cover shoot in a converted multi-storey car park in Peckham, south London. The staircase has been painted pink by a local artist. Some of the area’s newer residents come here to spend as much on a vegan pizza as their neighbours can spend on a week’s food. Until recently, one of the band’s ‘MODERNITY HAS FAILED US’ posters was slapped on a wall just round the corner, which feels appropriate. Healy turns up clutching an artisanal sausage roll: real meat, he confirms, a little guiltily (he’s trying to go vegan).
Healy seems well equipped to deal with being famous, or more specifically, with Being Matt Healy. Certainly more so than two years ago, which he attributes partly to his upbringing. “I’ve seen up close what fame can do,” he says. “If you want to share your craft with so many people, your name becomes well known by proxy. But as something to aspire to in and of itself, for no reason, it means nothing. It’s all about the reason.”
He seems remarkably untroubled by the prospect of releasing two albums in the next seven months. But, as has happened numerous times, he eventually concedes that it’s quite an undertaking. “It’s not as though I’ve spent the past year going, ‘Oh yeah, it will be fine, I’m a genius.’”
He pauses, and laughs.
“Well, I have been a bit like that.”
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is out on 30 November
Photography: Mollie Rose
Fashion: Sam Carder
Fashion Assistant: Itunu Oke
Grooming: Kim Rance using Kevin Murphy
Photographed at Bold Tendencies
Black leather coat £8,000 by BERLUTI
Multi-coloured sleeveless knit £540 by MARNI; marni.com