The 1975’s Matty Healy Is Still Trying to Be Funny, Sincerely
The last time the British pop-rock band the 1975 put out an album, it was 2020 and things were messy. Already known for its genre-melting sprawl and the unrestrained chatter of its charismatic frontman Matty Healy, the band released its fourth album — an 80-minute, 22-track saga called “Notes on a Conditional Form” — into a roiling global pandemic, attempting to land all of its tricks at once.
Amid the anxiety of Covid and various other apocalypses, the album set its grand tone with an opening song based around a monologue by the teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg. But soon after its release, Healy was “soft-canceled” — his term — after linking the murder of George Floyd to one of the 1975’s topical songs in a tossed-off Twitter post. As the band and the world were teetering on the edge, Healy was also busy falling in love.
Most of that is now behind them. The new 1975 album, “Being Funny in a Foreign Language,” out on Oct. 14, is the group’s most focused to date at just 11 tracks, with most of them sticking to timeless themes and a live-band sound that gestures back to the shimmering 1980s. Pop music’s reigning artisanal super-producer Jack Antonoff joined Healy and his bandmate and songwriting partner George Daniel to produce the album. (The 1975 also includes the guitarist Adam Hann and the bassist Ross MacDonald.)
Yet even as Healy, now 33, has tried to rein in his most chaotic impulses, he is still the guy writing lines like: “Am I ironically woke?/The butt of my joke?/Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke/calling his ego imagination?” Then he dares his audience to flinch by making that song, “Part of the Band,” the album’s opening single.
In a recent video interview, between the ritual relighting of a sturdy joint, Healy discussed paring back, not selling out and the advantages that come with being in a band with your childhood friends for the past 20 years. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Did you set out to write your most cohesive album after “Notes,” which was maybe your most unwieldy?
The one thing we knew we didn’t want to do was a continuation of whatever we’d just done. But there were so many ideas in that record, what are you going to do? It became about rules, and it took about a year to figure out what the rules were. It went through one period of only using one drum machine — a very minimal, kind of electronic but tiny thing. And then we started hanging out with Jack Antonoff because of conversations with beabadoobee [who is signed to the 1975’s label, Dirty Hit].
What ended up being the main rule?
It was “Play it and record it.” Real instruments. You can always find something in a computer that can do the job. Let’s just not do that. Everyone can do all of that and no one cares anymore. Fifteen years ago when you heard XXYYXX, you thought, “What are these sounds? He made them on a computer?” Now you know that any kid can make a bedroom thing that sounds crazy. What you can’t do is have been in a band for 20 years and be great players and go into a room and have that freedom.
Why was Jack right for this project?
He didn’t get paid [laughs]. Well, he did but not like, paid. To be honest with you, dude, when I’m making a record, it’s very personal. I don’t give a [expletive] about what people on Twitter have to say about Jack Antonoff. Because go and have a half-hour conversation about music with that person, then go have a half-hour conversation about music with Jack Antonoff and see which one leaves you feeling more inspired.
I’ve never done anything for clout in my life. It costs a lot of money to be the 1975 and not take all of the offers that we’ve had. We’re not interested in that, we’re just interested in doing what’s best for us. Jack, at that time, was the best thing for the 1975. He gets a reputation for being busy, but what he actually is, is just good. If you met the guy and worked with him, you’d realize why people want to work with him.
Since you and Jack both trade in references, what were the touchstones for “Being Funny”?
Retrospectively, we’ll tend to go, “Oh, you know what we’re doing there? We’re doing ‘Dream, Baby, Dream,’” or whatever we were going for. When I was trying to perform “Part of the Band” and we had this stabbing string thing, it was quite angular. I couldn’t figure out how to sit on top of it. And then we were like, “‘Street Hassle’ — that’s what it is! Got it.” And I went for that. You know how like “Graceland” is really loose, but really tight? I think those parts of “Still Crazy,” “Graceland” and the Paul Simon influence always comes out in my stuff.
And you have to acknowledge my obsession with “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem as a song throughout my whole career. The reference is the first thing you hear on the album. Of all the solidarities, generational is probably the weakest, but there’s something about men my age and that song — I think it’s the most requested funeral song. It’s a set of rules and a genre in itself.
You’ve written a lot of lyrics over the years with proper nouns, current references and pop-culture allusions. Do you think about how those will age?
I really, really do. What you’re talking about is like when Katy Perry says “epic fail” on “Friday Night.” It hits you and takes you out of the world. Sometimes I am scared of doing that. Funny is what I care about. I’m at my best when I’m at my funniest and most observational comedy is topical. But anything forced, it stings or reads as insincere.
We have the cringe rule in the band. Like, if anything makes any of us cringe, we don’t have to explain why, we just call “cringe.” And then we can call a debate on that if we want to.
You must have a high bar, as a band, for cringe.
It’s true. We’re not embarrassed about much. One could criticize me for loads of things, but you can’t criticize me for being insincere. Annoying, whatever. But I’m not insincere. The cringe means insincere. Their attitude is, if you’re going to go there, go there. The only time you’re going to slip up is if you pull the punch a little bit.
Other than “I” and “you,” the most common word on this album might be “love.” Did you make an album about falling in love?
I think I’ve realized what I do: I write about how we communicate interpersonally in the modern age — mediated by the internet. Love, loss, addiction. That’s what I always do. Every other record has been a bit like, “Love! And me! And this! And that!” I think “Being Funny” is the first time where I’m a bit like, “OK, right, love. Let’s do love.”
The hangover that I have from all of the postmodernism of my previous work and the past 50 years of culture is the irony as a shield. I can’t be bothered doing that right now and I can’t be bothered listening to people do it. I’m just looking for the truth. All those tropes of being nihilistic and sexy and drug-addled and all those kinds of things, that’s very cool and maybe appropriate in your 20s, but it’s going to make way for a more personally and socially forgiving set of values.
You’re one of the best contemporary writers — especially outside of rap — on the process of consumption, whether it’s drugs or culture or goods. Where are you with your sobriety journey as a lyrical subject?
I find sobriety, like drugs — if it’s your personality, it’s very boring. I’ve struggled with sobriety as a persona. They call this “California sober,” right? I smoke weed and I don’t do anything else. I’ve managed to get to a place where I know nobody around me is particularly worried about me running off and scoring. So I think it’s becoming a smaller part of my writing as it becomes a smaller part of my life.
Are you ever consciously trying to write like a rapper?
I’m like Mr. Cultural Reference, but I’ve got so many that it’s very difficult to see what my actual DNA is. I’m not very inspired by writers. I never really think about that. I think about comedy a lot — jokes, how they work, how much fat they have on them. But when I first heard the Streets I was like, OK. He kind of said, if you are searching for an identity that is kind of an identity in itself. The way that I rhyme — the Streets is the biggest influence and then maybe Paul Simon.
So still rhythmic and wordy.
“Sincerity Is Scary,” “So Far (It’s Alright),” “The Birthday Party” — I always call them long-form songs. Long-form songs to me means where I’ve got a long rhythmical phrase where I can get a lot out. I find these songs, the ones that actually seem cleverer, a lot easier to write. People have spoken about me rapping and I’ve never really thought about it as rap. But I think it’s because the Streets gave me license to think about rhyming rhythmically with an English accent as being quite an English thing.
What are your commercial ambitions these days? Do you think it would be fun for the 1975 to have a No. 1 hit or a TikTok moment?
It’s difficult to be big and say — genuinely — that I have zero commercial ambition. There’s definitely a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of thing, which is where, listen, we’ve never known what to do and we’ve never tried to do anything. So the second we stop doing that, we’ll probably [expletive] up. I tend to say no to stuff for money.
I don’t know how you can write this up without it being rude or inappropriate, but I just got offered a four-month tour next year of stadiums with the biggest singer-songwriter in the world that would’ve made me money that I’ve never even seen or heard of in my life.
Yeah. And I got offered to be main support and do whatever I want. Think about the money you think I’m getting offered — it’s not just offered, it’s what he can afford because of what he makes for shows — and then just triple it. It’s insane. The thing that’s stopped me just doing that is because — I don’t care. It’s not worth it. Not because I don’t like Ed Sheeran. I think he’s, in a lot of ways, a genius. And he does what he does better than anybody else. But opening up for somebody and not just being real, that’s the kind of stuff I think about.
The album is also sprinkled with lyrics about your so-called cancellations. How do you look back on that part of 2020, both for yourself and in general?
To be honest, the one thing that annoyed me a little bit when I finished the record, after I’d done the last song, “When We Are Together,” that had this “canceled” line in it, I realized, “There’s too many ‘canceled’ lines. That’s going to be a thing that people think I’m really bothered about.”
I was soft-canceled, you know? Also canceling isn’t a thing. If you do something criminal and loads of people find out about it, that’s not being canceled. That’s just what happens now if you’re a criminal. Saying something and people trying to censor you, whatever.
The deletion of my Twitter was not because I was scared. I was mainly like, I’m just about to start writing about this culture war, and I feel like I’m being made a pawn in it. All it’s going to do is debase my ability to make points with context. And the context that I have and that I own is my music.
The refrain of the first song on the album is, “I’m sorry if you’re living and you’re 17.” What are you sorry for?
I mean, you know what I mean. I empathize with people that are living now. I used to make the joke that on the first two records the 1975 was like the apocalyptic sense of being a teenager in a major key. I was talking about, like John Hughes’s apocalyptic sense of being a teenager where the future seemed so enormous that you couldn’t deal with it. And then we just essentially took away the future of the 17-year-old brain.
I just feel sorry for kids that are drowning in whatever: self-hatred, the burdens of social media, even wokeness. All of these things that are just vessels for people to feel better about how [expletive] their life is. I am genuinely sorry if you are having to think about this [expletive] that I’m thinking about at 17 years old. That’s not cool.