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The 1975 Would Like to Invent the Future

Matty Healy and his closest collaborators talk about ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ and why the band isn’t close to done evolving

Jordan Hughes

Matty Healy knows exactly how and why he’s just been canceled. It’s Tuesday afternoon, about an hour after Notes on a Conditional Form, the sprawling, undefinable fourth album from his band, the 1975, leaked online in full. Some of the band’s most hardcore fans — people who couldn’t wait the last few days for the album’s official release on May 22nd — are already buzzing about “Roadkill,” a folksy Americana-ish song on which Healy recalls a homophobic slur that was once wielded against him.

“A lot of them are coming at me, being like ‘There’s a line in the song that’s fucking not cool. You can’t say that shit,’” Healy says a few minutes into our Zoom call. “First of all, you just stole my album and then came to me and complained about it? You’ve got some fucking balls there for a start!”

Healy is at the residential studio space in rural England where he’s been quarantining with his brother Louis, a producer friend named Joe, his creative partner and bandmate George Daniel, and a cane corso puppy named Mayhem. His mohawk of the last few months has been partially shaved off, leaving behind a rat-tail/mullet hybrid. As we talk, he rolls a blunt and sips from a bottle of Coke. “Some days I’m cool with getting canceled every week,” he says. “Some days I’m not cool with it.”

As he continues to explain this latest controversy, he doubles down on his lyrical intent. “The context of that line is that my personal experience was as an effeminate gay-rights activist with long hair, a skirt, and a rainbow t-shirt, in an airport in middle America late at night,” he says. “A drunk conservative guy called me a fag. You don’t get to take that experience away from me.”

Not too long after we hang up, Healy makes a few jokes on Twitter and shares some memes about fans going to “1975 jail” for listening to the leak, but he doesn’t say anything about the blowback to “Roadkill.” After years of successfully getting attention for his music by making outrageous statements in any platform that will have him, he’s learned that tweets are not his preferred mode of expression. Nor, he tells me, are interviews. He’d rather focus on “longform statements” like the 1975’s albums, and cut back on everything else: “I’ll write my lyrics, and you decide if you want to listen to them or not.”

Notes is already proving to be the 1975’s most divisive endeavor yet. Intentionally long and winding, it’s meant to complement but not resolve their more direct, cohesive 2018 release A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. Even the name of the new album is meant in part to “subvert” any expectation of clean, tidy finality set up by the previous record’s title. “[A Brief Inquiry] was to control people’s perception of the record,” Healy says. “It was like an essay. I gave them a framework of understanding that they could hang their opinions off of. Notes on a Conditional Form is the opposite of that. It’s called Notes on a Conditional Form. It literally means nothing.”

Doing the opposite of what’s expected has long been Healy’s M.O., going back to the 1975’s 2013 self-titled debut — a sparkling, maximalist pop-rock production that locked the group into a wave of Eighties New Wave nostalgia. That sound was an “anomaly,” per Healy’s description, in their own musical vision, though tinges of it have popped up on every following release, most notably on Notes‘s glitzy, Duran Duran-esque single “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know).”

“The first album was very much executed in a different way to any of our other records,” he says, noting that a through line of “glitchiness, weirdness” is heard across their early EPs and latter three records. “Doing a first album didn’t feel like a first album. It felt like curation of 10 years worth of work, and we decided to not waste the big album session and make a big fucking record. Then everyone heard it and were like ‘Who the fuck’s this Eighties pop band?’ We’re not actually that. But I suppose we are.”

If The 1975 was an impressionistic, John Hughes-inspired ode to youthful romance and rebellion, Notes is its hyperrealistic opposite, inspired by the music and parties of the band’s early years between Wilmslow High School, where they met, and Manchester, the city where they came of age. Described as a “U.K. nighttime record” when it was announced two years ago, much of the project still pulls from their country’s vibrant house and garage scenes, but it’s placed largely against the “emocore” sounds of Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes that inspired the earliest incarnations of the band. Underneath it all is a taste for ambient music, borrowed from Healy and Daniel’s personal heroes Brian Eno and Steve Reich. Healy spoke with both for a recent conversation podcast series he recorded, and adds that Music for Cars — a phrase the 1975 first used for a 2013 EP, and have brought back as an umbrella title for the era of their two most recent full-lengths — is a direct reference to Eno’s Music for Airports and Music for Films.

“Ambient music is my favorite art form because there’s no interface,” he says, with the same music-technique nerdiness he displays in the podcasts. “It just commands you how to feel. There’s no suggestion of lyrics or visuals, it just tells you, in its own abstract way. You feel it, and it moves you.”

Another new influence on Notes was modern country music, which informed their chord shapes and even Healy’s own singing at times. Songs like “Roadkill,” “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” and “The Birthday Party” all borrow from the genre, while suggesting a critique of the American culture it’s rooted in. For Healy, country music is not far off from his own emo roots.

“There’s a real earnestness to country music that I appreciate,” he says, citing a viral tweet from last fall about how both country and pop-punk are both about living and dying in your hometown. Where he grew up, he adds, hearing country music was rare. “For me, fucking country’s always seemed kind of exotic and pioneering.”

On “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy),” he returns to some of the same R&B and Aughts pop influences that have peppered past 1975 albums, like I Like It When You Sleep…’s “Somebody Else” and A Brief Inquiry’s “Sincerity Is Scary.” The new song samples the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and is an album highlight, with Healy smoothly pining for a former flame over a slow jam beat.

“That song is College Dropout Kanye meets Backstreet Boys,” he says. “When I was growing up, the rich melodic music was Brandy, Whitney, SWV, TLC. CrazySexyCool is a record that’s just broken now from the amount that that got played when we were younger.” Healy always liked the “guitar-and-b” label that’s sometimes been applied to the 1975, especially since much of the band’s guitar influence is pulled directly from contemporary R&B.

If that sounds like a lot of influences for one album, it all makes sense to the 1975. “There’s certainly four or five phases to the record,” adds Daniel, who co-produces the band’s music with Healy. “It’s even more frenetic than ever, but in a kind of ambitious way, I hope. But there’s no rules. There’s never any rules.”

“Ow! You fucking shit,” Healy yaps. Mayhem is biting at his back, and it becomes clear after a while that the newly adopted puppy wants his collar taken off. “Don’t bite, man, it’s fucking unbecoming!”

Healy adopted Mayhem not too long after he touched down at Angelic Residential Studio, a country estate he compares to Downton Abbey for the sake of his American interviewer. Healy and Daniel knew it would be a safe, secluded and productive place for them to be, especially since they had written and recorded most of their Music for Cars era in the same spot.

“To be fair, we’ve been in this state before, it’s just an exaggerated version of it,” Healy says of their experience in isolation. “Me and George never really leave each other’s side.”

Daniel isn’t too far away from Healy during our interview, weighing in sporadically. Though Healy has often taken a position as the band’s main spokesperson, their closeness is a hallmark of the group’s dynamic. They met as teenagers, and the Notes closer “Guys” etches their brotherly love into stone. On the song, Healy tenderly recalls the apartment they shared during the band’s early, post-high school years and a trip to Japan that they took together, celebrating over half of his lifetime being spent with his bandmates.

“It’s not new for us, it’s just the first time that we’ve nailed that in a song,” Healy says of the song’s sincere tone. “The only posters that you can get of us are photos of us fucking hugging in a really tender way. Every time we do a campaign, we hold each other tight, physically, and then sell that image. I’d been trying to put that into a song for ages.”

Daniel credits a general lack of ego, dating back to those early days, with helping keep them bonded. “We were so young when we met that we weren’t in competition with each other,” he says. “We weren’t in our twenties with our own creative agendas.”

Matthew Healy of The 1975 performs at the Bunbury Music Festival, in Cincinnati 2019 Bunbury Music Festival - Day 3, Cincinnati, USA - 02 Jun 2019

Matty Healy onstage at a 1975 show in Cincinnati. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock)

Their other two bandmates, Adam Hann and Ross MacDonald, are currently quarantining in their respective homes in less-secluded parts of the U.K.  “I’m sure we’ll regroup slowly,” Daniel continues. “We just don’t want to put any more pressure on ourselves to make more music right away because we don’t need to. When you take that pressure off, that’s when stuff naturally happens.”

After they first formed, the 1975 began playing local clubs and cycling through appropriately emo names like Me and You Versus Them and Drive Like I Do. Their longtime manager Jamie Oborne heard of the band through word-of-mouth recommendations and eventually contacted a teenage Healy through MySpace. Even though Oborne was busy with Dirty Hit, the indie label he’d recently launched at the time, he knew the 1975 had the potential to become a massive act.

“We always thought they did need a bigger record company, because I knew what kind of album Matthew wanted to make,” Oborne says, calling from his home in London, where he’s isolated with his family. “We didn’t really have the money to make it.”

Getting that record deal wasn’t easy at first. “Literally every record company in the world passed on them twice,” Oborne says. “I could really feel Matthew’s disillusion with the business side of the record industry. It was damaging him, meeting these people who didn’t really follow through on their word. It was impacting his mental health.”

Oborne ended up signing the 1975 to Dirty Hit, and the band began releasing music through the label in 2012. Their early EPs got them a distribution deal in America through Interscope, but the band was able to maintain their sense of artistic freedom by staying on Oborne’s label.

“I’ve never been a fan of conventional record deals. I feel like they’re not very fair to artists,” Oborne continues. “When I first started, I thought I didn’t understand them because they were just so shit! I thought I must be missing something. But I actually did understand. They’re just not very good deals.”

Over the past near-decade, the 1975 have become integral in growing Dirty Hit. Healy acts as the label’s “creative director,” helping bring on new signees. While quarantining at Angelic, Daniel has been working on several projects for labelmates No Rome (who co-wrote “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)”) and Japanese House. More recently, they’ve seen Dirty Hit acts Beabadoobee and Rina Sawayama become runaway successes, following a similar buzzy build to the one the 1975 thrived off of.

“They’re like the grown-ups now,” Oborne says, lightheartedly shocked at his own words. “That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? I’m sure Matthew would hate me saying that.”

Healy has a simple philosophy in his work for the label: “I only sign stuff that I fucking think is dope and that I’m a bit jealous of.” His pinned tweet on his Twitter profile for over a year now has been an open call to young musicians, with his Dirty Hit e-mail address readily available. “I’m never in a room with somebody who I think I’m gonna have to draw blood out of a stone,” he says. “I go into rooms, get excited about their music with them, and tell them they can do whatever the fuck they want.”

It’s easy to imagine what Healy is like in a room where art is being made. He speaks at hyperspeed about almost every topic that comes up, gleefully listing off all the content he’s been consuming during isolation: Alex Garland’s Devs, Adam Curtis documentaries, war reportage, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. He’s become increasingly infatuated with tech, looking into virtual reality partnerships and feeling curious about getting into the video game industry. Just this week, the 1975 launched the virtual world of Mindshower, as previously seen in their video for “The Birthday Party,” where fans can create new content using the band’s art and demo stems.

As they have been for nearly two decades, Healy and Daniel are on the same musical wavelength. “We’re getting very into music that is a byproduct of something that you’re looking at,” Daniel says, citing Eno and Reich once more. “There’s this idea I have in the back of my head that I’m gonna build an instrument, but also that I’m too busy to do it right now. We’re just buying strange things and trying to build stuff and think about more — this sounds pretentious — in a way that music could perhaps be on and not necessarily listened to as a song.”

Healy and Daniel are also thinking more acutely about the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg appears on the new album, providing a monologue about the necessity for immediate action on “The 1975” (each album begins with a self-titled overture). Healy has been thinking a lot about what a 1975 concert will look like once large gatherings can resume. The band has scrapped their lighting-heavy production and are considering ways to do shows that rely on more natural energy sources. Fabric backdrops and daytime shows are just a couple of the ideas he throws out.

“People aren’t there for the light show. It’s great, and to be fair it’s really been my artistic statement that I’ll stand by, but it’s time for a new one,” he says. “You can’t make an outdated artistic statement.”

As for the artistic statement he’s putting out into the world right now, Healy couldn’t be prouder of how “indulgent and long” the 1975’s fourth album is. “Some people don’t really like it,” he says. “I don’t think you can make a record that is that strange and have it be universally palatable. I think it’s our best record.”