An Interview with Matt Healy - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Matt Healy

Musician

“If you want somebody to pay attention, present them with something beautiful. Then they’ll sit up and listen and you get the opportunity to truly subvert ideas.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Samar Haddad
header-image

An Interview with Matt Healy

Musician

“If you want somebody to pay attention, present them with something beautiful. Then they’ll sit up and listen and you get the opportunity to truly subvert ideas.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Samar Haddad

An Interview with Matt Healy

Ross Simonini
124 Snaps

In the golden era of rock and roll, originality was the only true goal for an honorable musician. But now, when the Beatles have lost their dominance over pop, the few bands that still thrive seem compelled to retell the story of music, to keep the tradition alive. For them, the illusion of reinvention is just a frivolous obsession, and the true aim is simply to produce great music. 

Many artists might fit this description, but among the most ambitious are Britain’s the 1975, who offer up expertly crafted pop songs, each in a tightly packaged, discrete style: acid jazz, Huey Lewis synth anthems, ’90s grunge, emo ballads, garage punk, auto-tuned experiments, et cetera—though not so many nods to the ’70s as their name would suggest. Their influences are transparent, which seems to be their point. They collage genres like other artists arrange chords, evoking subcultures, fashion, and ideologies as needed. For the 1975, nostalgic satisfaction is the Trojan horse that sneaks subversion into the mainstream. 

The singer, primary songwriter, and most public persona of this band, Matt Healy, is a self-aware, postmodern front man. He seems to relish playing a role that the rest of us thought was archaic. Onstage, he peacocks like Jagger and projects the blinding bravado of Bono. His band has won some of the industry’s biggest accolades and are undoubtedly one of the most prominent British rock bands of the last decade. All four of their albums have reached the number one slot in the UK, and their last two (A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships and Notes on a Conditional Form) have led them away from their emo roots and further along the deconstructed art-rock path once tread by Radiohead. These albums, and many by their collaborators, are released on Dirty Hit, the band’s co-owned label, which Healy calls a “free-form creative environment” for his larger vision of music.

Like his music, Healy’s personal style is protean. His hair and clothing change radically from picture to picture, as if he’s picking trends at random from the last forty years of pop culture. Online, he posts provocations and sententious jabs, and recently he started a podcast (with The Face magazine) in which he speaks with his musical heroes Stevie Nicks, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, and others. In some ways, the blazing confidence he displays in all these outlets is his primary art form, and the aesthetic choices are simply the ornamentation. 

I spoke to Healy on the phone in summer 2020, just after the band released Notes on a Conditional Form. Moments before, he had finished another interview in his harried press slalom. Despite this, we spoke for an hour and a half. At times he was deeply engaged, unabashedly opining; at others he was blatantly distracted. He shuffled around the house where he was then living and working with his bandmate George Daniel, perpetually fiddling with things in the background. He yelled at his dog, then spent a few moments looking for it. At the end, he sat down to a meal and responded between bites. 

—Ross Simonini

I. REALITY IS CHAOS

THE BELIEVER: How do you normally deal with releases? Do you experience the Phantom Thread postpartum letdown?

MATT HEALY: Yeah. I’m normally having a manic breakdown. I am the stuff that I have within me, and when a record is out, that isn’t anything at the moment. So I tend to start harassing people about new creative ideas right about now, because the energy of the release makes me feel stuck.

BLVR: New work is a distraction. 

MH: Yeah. But, fortunately, it always materializes in some way as my next creative statement. 

BLVR: Does it feel strange to release something in a pandemic that was created before the pandemic?

MH: That record [Notes on a Conditional Form], it’s a time capsule of that old world we’re no longer in. I think my past two records have really been just asking the same question: Can we sustain on an individual level, on a wider societal level? Can the center hold? And it seems like that’s been answered for us: no.

BLVR: How has the release reached people differently during COVID?

MH: I think I’ve made a real allegiance with the online world. For me, it is the world now. I’m so invested in it, and I suppose, subconsciously, I don’t really think of a world outside of it. I think of things being released only, like, on the internet. I’m sure there’s TV shows I can’t be on, but no one can be on them. So it’s all in the context that everyone’s doing the same kind of thing.

BLVR: No more FOMO. 

MH: Exactly. And if you’re going to release a twenty-two-track record, it’s cool if people can’t leave the house.

BLVR: You sound comfortable with the internet consuming the world.

MH: I don’t think I am comfortable with it, but I accept it for what it is. Is this healthy? Probably not. But I’m just obsessed with, like, how it can be utilized to expand human experience. Reality is chaos, and we’ve created an algorithm that keeps us informed of as much of that chaos as possible, from the second we wake up to the second we go to bed, and then we wonder why we’re anxious. I’m not saying that, like, freedom of information is a bad thing. I’m just saying you’re going to have less anxiety if somebody chooses the news you get. If somebody’s curated reality for you, you won’t feel like you’re spinning around in an abyss of chaos and nothingness. You’re not supposed to understand that much stuff. 

BLVR: What’s your internet diet like? 

MH: I watch a lot of documentaries. I didn’t really go to school, because I was fucking about, so I suppose I tried to educate myself over the years, and I suppose the stuff I really enjoy is stuff I find helpful and informative. But when I was making A Brief Inquiry, my YouTube was a cesspit. It was a nightmare. I was trying to have this centrist view, and was watching everything: all the far-left shit, all the far-right, and all this stuff in between. I was interested in how we were communicating in this space and what dialogues were being had. So I also spend a lot of time looking into, like, weird parts of Reddit or 4Chan and seeing what exists in those subcultures. Otherwise, all my internet presence or the places I go on the internet are about me as an artist. It’s like my relationship with social media, for example—this is what I do, whereas most people are like, This is who I am. And they’re two very different things.

BLVR: So are you saying you don’t identify with your persona as a musician?

MH: To be fair, I suppose my record is very much who I am. The fact that I don’t actually have a constructed presence in the media—well, I don’t have that mainly because it would be too stressful for me to try and uphold some kind of constructed image that wasn’t real, that required loads of maintenance. I just try to tell the truth, because then I don’t have to worry about what I’ve said. Then I don’t have to intellectualize it. So I suppose on the internet, I am, in fact, myself.

BLVR: Your stage presence is quite flamboyant. Do you see that as the same personality you display online? 

MH: Over the past couple of years, my social media presence has become just jokes or information. I don’t express opinions on social media anymore. I’m not really interested in short-form expressions. So I suppose I’ll just fuck around a lot on social media to draw people’s attention to my releases. When I’m genuinely expressing an opinion, I save it for long-form statements, whether it be a proper interview or my work, like my music or my podcasts.

BLVR: How about this conversation?

MH: Yes. Exactly.

BLVR: And you see your songs as expressions of opinions? 

MH: No, I don’t. For me, my records are anathema to that idea. My records are just asking questions. I think that’s how I get away with it. Especially “Love It If We Made It.” I couldn’t have made an opinionated song, hectoring like that. It had to be more of a reflection. So you’re right to call me up on that. I don’t express opinions, but I still manage to bring subjects to the table. There’s no position in that, whether I’m giving a direct opinion or not.

BLVR: Do you dislike art that expresses opinions?

MH: Honestly, I love art that expresses opinions. I just want to save important subjects for long-form environments, where I can actually say my piece.

BLVR: And podcasts offer that long-form space for you.

MH: Yeah. And I’m going to do more. I think the podcasts were nice because they were literally talks with people I’d wanted to talk to my whole life. I could have talked to them for two hours and never made it about me. Even in the moments when Stevie Nicks or Brian Eno would try and turn it around and talk about my music, they almost had to stop me from gushing. And I think that’s the perspective I want to be coming from: [that of] a music fan.

BLVR: Do you have a separate, private self you’re hiding away from the world?

MH: I don’t think so. To be honest with you, I’d like to say there is a big divide [between my public and private selves], because I think that would be a healthy place to be, but I also don’t like oversharing, ’cause that can be a fucking schtick in itself. It seems like every time I made a record, I put everything into it. And with this last record, I remember writing down either stuff that made me laugh out loud or stuff that made me feel fucking seen. Like, Oh shit, that’s not a good part of me. I really do believe that’s a good approach, as long as it’s not in a fucking soft-boy kind of way. If there’s something in me that thinks: I should take that out because it’s not good for my ego—well, that’s probably the stuff I should leave in. That’s usually true: the stuff you think you should take out is probably the stuff you should leave in. If it’s too true, I think that’s where real communication lies.

II. THE UNIFIED, NONLINEAR CONSUMPTION OF CONTENT

BLVR: You’ve referenced David Foster Wallace in songs, and I know Vonnegut was important to you. Are you a regular reader?

MH: During all this, I’m buying a lot of books and then putting them in a nice order and then saying, I’m going to read that tomorrow. And then I’m going to read that one after it. But I actually am reading Brian Eno’s old diary A Year with Swollen Appendices, which is really great. I am reading this Daniel Boorstin book, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. It’s about the dawn of creation and the great minds of our time. And that was always a fundamental thing I wanted to read. I’m reading a beautiful but quite heavy book called The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić, which is a classic book about Bosnia. I find European history really interesting. I’ve been trying to read a lot of history and just see how and why things arise. And a lot of sound-art books, like Alan Licht’s Sound Art Revisited.Music as art has always inspired me. I think, like, my love for Eno is an obvious example of that, and I keep talking about this thing called “a new experience.”

BLVR: What’s that?

MH: OK, stay with me here. So I find there’s always this kind of hierarchy when it comes to media forms [in an interdisciplinary context]. There’s always a primary one and a secondary one. So you’ll have a film and then you’ll apply music to the film, but you’ll be applying music to make the film better. The film is primary. And then, if you make music, you’ll make a little music video, but the film is there to exaggerate the music. Music is primary. If you’ve got a video game, you’ve got music to exaggerate the game and you’ve got a scene of film to exaggerate the game. The game is primary. But I want to create an experience that’s not based on [a hierarchy]. Music touches us in a way that film doesn’t; film touches us in a way that games don’t; games touch us in a way that literature doesn’t; literature touches us in a way that music doesn’t. Reversing all of those doesn’ts with a positive is what I want to do. That experience is out there, in the ether. It’s a possibility: this unified, nonlinear consumption of content. Because we’ve separated content into certain [categories]. We’ve invented cinema. We’ve invented albums. They’re all just constructs.

BLVR: Right. Way back when, music wasn’t performed as a concert; it was part of an event where many different elements were present: dance, ritual, story, religion, community. 

MH: Yeah, and I think that with the internet, we have an opportunity to really challenge our ideas about this.

BLVR: Is VR an example of what you’re talking about?

MH: Yeah. I think so. A lot of people get down on VR, and it’s because VR hasn’t come into its own yet. At this point, it’s not actually that incredible, but it still fucking works. Like, if you can manipulate people’s eyes, you can make them feel so many different things. So when that technology gets better and you can integrate memory or nostalgia, and you can take an old man back to that beach where he met his wife and the temperature’s the same… If we don’t die of a disease—lol—this will happen, because technology gets exponentially better. That is the nature of technology. We will approach a place where we can’t decipher the difference between a virtual reality unit and our reality. That has to happen. Logic would dictate that.

BLVR: Elon Musk’s Neuralink seems like it would ostensibly be able to do what you’re speaking about. He’d plant a chip in your brain that could control your entire experience. Is that of interest to you?

MH: Bring it on, man. Do you know what I mean? I’m so into this kind of shit.

BLVR: You are fully embracing the future of technology. 

MH: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. 

BLVR: Is there any specifically musical technology you’re working on right now?

MH: I’m into making some. I keep referencing Brian [Eno], but he’s kind of the person we’ve been in close contact with, and he’s made, like, this humancipator, these MIDI randomizers that I think about a lot. But right now, for me, white noise and sounds from, like, our objective reality are emotional. And I feel like I spend a lot of time in the modular synth world, trying to bring those sounds out. The 1975 creates this digital utopia, but by using real sounds or real white noise or real things from obscure environments. Like, we use the Miku stomp box, where you can play into it and transform your guitar into a fucking Japanese virtual pop star voice. That’s fucking sick.

BLVR: “Digital utopia” is an interesting phrase. You and I both grew up during the “change the world” era, when there was a certain kind of ambition that pointed toward utopia. Do you still feel that way?

MH: Yeah, totally. I mean, I came from the later end of punk and hardcore, where it was like, Change your fucking self. Like, let’s change this world in the venue, and then let’s spread that vibe. It was very much about, like, if you can go onstage, you fucking better tell me something about yourself or tell me something about the world. And we would all stand against ideas that promoted inequality. That’s why we’re here. That’s the fucking vibe. Soul music was like that too—people like Wilson Pickett or Donny Hathaway or James Brown. Or Coltrane. People that fucking meant it. It’s always just been about meaning for me. Everything else is surface. 

BLVR: Your music is quite different from soul and punk. Do you feel it’s still well suited to this goal?

MH: We are a heavy band; that’s where we came from. We started out a heavy band and we watched heavy music die in our hands. By the time you get to, like, Limp Bizkit, heavy music was no longer rebellious, really. It was commercialized rebellion. It was the opposite of what the impetus was. So I wanted to make beautiful music because its beauty would be the sharpest tool in the box. If you want somebody to pay attention, present them with something beautiful. Then they’ll sit up and listen and you get the opportunity to truly subvert ideas. If you make something beautiful that people want to listen to because it’s beautiful, and then you present them with ideas that aren’t beautiful, you present this ethical dilemma that you don’t really get to do in heavy music nowadays.

BLVR: You often say you want to make only positive art. Is this what you mean when you say that?

MH: Yeah. I think so.

BLVR: The genre of heavy music once had a particular community around it. Now, when music has exploded on the internet, genre doesn’t seem equal to community anymore. 

MH: Finding your tribe is a formative part of being young. And a lot of these movements are based on youth culture, so they become quite tribalist, and back in the day, you could, like, walk down King’s Road in London and there’d be all these different subcultures. And I think the internet has created this individual subculture where people now are their own subculture. Because back then you had linear, curated forms of media. So NME [New Musical Express]would, like, put a band on the cover, and then there’d be this new fucking scene around them. But you don’t have those linear constructs anymore, and people are discovering stuff for themselves and they want to feel like individuals. And individualism is the thing that consumerism is trying to serve. That’s the game we’re in. We’ve been taught to be individuals, but we don’t actually have much framework for that, spiritually or socially. So we just adopt a model. And consumer capitalism says, Oh, you want to express yourself? We’ve got loads of things that can help you do that. Here’s a fucking car.

BLVR: Do you try to address that problem in your music?

MH: Um. [Long pause] That’s not my job. I just point toward the utopia. I can’t devise it. 

BLVR: Do you have an idea of what this digital utopia is? 

MH: Actually, I don’t know what I really mean. I call it, like, a digital utopia, the stylistics of my band, because I don’t know what else to call it. It’s not for me to judge. I’m interested in the result of humankind. Everything is just an effect of who we are. Maybe this is the utopia.

III. “WHAT IS MY INSTINCT?”

BLVR: The aesthetic of your records suggests they are built around a theme, but the music is often so disparate. Do you see your albums as unified artistic statements or simply as collections of songs?

MH: Well, Brief Inquiry and this record [Notes on a Conditional Form] are opposing in a way. With Brief Inquiry, I told people about the thing in the title: A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. Like, is that a title of an essay? I was basically telling people, This is what it’s about. Formulate your opinions based on that. I gave them a frame to hang opinions on. Whereas Notes on a Conditional Form was the most open-ended phrase I could think of. So it’s to be interpreted openly. I think some people are really struggling with Notes because I’m not telling anybody what to think, even remotely. You have to make up your own mind. And it’s so long and it’s so messy and people don’t get it, which is cool.

BLVR: People are struggling with it? 

MH: It’s splitting people down the middle. We get these five-star reviews and then we get, like, a bunch of two-out-of-ten reviews. It’s a divisive record, but I don’t imagine I could make a record that’s this odd that’s also universally palatable. 

BLVR: I always look for Rotten Tomatoes scores that are exactly 50 percent, because then you got the lovers and the haters, which means you might get something electric.

MH: Exactly. 

BLVR: You consider these last two albums part of a series called Music for Cars, and the previous name of the 1975 was Drive Like I Do. What’s the deal with cars and driving? 

MH: That’s where my subculture existed. Most of the shit that happened—before you could go to a bar—happened in cars. The music we listened to or the weed we would smoke, it would all be [experienced] in cars. And I think it’s about this kind of romantic ideal of that time. And Drive Like I Do was an emo band. So the name had to be “Drive Like,” or “We Are,” or “the Early,” or “the Late.” [Laughs]

BLVR: Car culture encourages individualism too. You exist in these little bubbles. You and your three friends create a microculture.

MH: That’s so true. Yeah. A hundred percent. I mean, it’s even in the psychology of how when we’re in our cars, we’re in our own little world, and we scream and shout at people we would never scream and shout at if they stood next to us.

BLVR: Are you making coffee? I hear noises over there.

MH: I’m just sorting out my food.

BLVR: What are you going to eat? 

MH: Chicken satay. But I shouldn’t be eating chicken, really. 

BLVR: Why’s that? Environmental reasons?

MH: No, ’cause I fucking hate chicken. I hate them. 

BLVR: You don’t like them as animals?

MH: No. George [Daniel] doesn’t care about eating chicken ’cause he says they’re dumb. But that’s not a moral position on chicken. I am going to eat it. 

BLVR: What are you working on these days?

MH: Producing a couple of records. And for 75 stuff, I spend a lot of time just thinking and prepping, so I’ll probably spend the next six, seven months thinking of what I want the next thing to be, and then start it.

BLVR: What kind of thought emerges from that process? An aesthetic? 

MH: Yeah, maybe it’s an aesthetic place. I just start writing and letting myself be inspired by stuff and not thinking, Oh, well, this doesn’t match up with this or anything. I don’t actually have that many stages where I sit and think, like, What is the record? I just do it. It’s the only option I have, because we don’t have a blueprint for what a good 75 record is. So I just have to basically trust my instinct. I have to think, Fuck, what is my instinct? 

BLVR: How much material do you throw away?

MH: There were probably about ten songs that didn’t make it, but also we’re at a time now where if we take an idea really seriously, we normally finish it. But, you know, then a lot of stuff will turn into other things and there’ll be a song that just gets cannibalized. Like every time you work on a new song, you go back to this song, you steal something out of it.

BLVR: You’re producing records for other people. Do you want producing to be the future for you?

MH: I suppose I kind of am doing that anyway. It seems like a natural evolution for me. I don’t know if that means it’ll stop me from doing anything else or that it’ll become some primary statement.

BLVR: Producing can mean so many things. What does it mean for you? 

MH: Just facilitating other people’s ideas and visions. Curating stuff and bringing that to the artist and getting excited with them and letting them do whatever the fuck they want. Me and George work as a team. I’m a hands-off producer. He’s the hands-on producer. I just love music and it’s nice to have people who are genuinely exciting around you.

BLVR: You work with your own label, right?

MH: Yeah, the band co-owns it. So it’s our baby. We signed ourselves, really, and now it’s just this free-form creative environment. 

BLVR: It sets up a 360-degree life as an artist.

MH: I’ve tried to keep my finger on the pulse of the direction I’m going. [Chewing]

BLVR: You don’t want to be stuck as a performer forever if you don’t want to be. 

MH: We all just want the freedom of choice. I think that’s what real freedom is.

BLVR: Do you have any models for that?

MH: No, not in music, and I don’t really have any heroes in business. I never was, like, a budding Steve Jobs or anything like that.

BLVR: No Kanye West ambitions? 

MH: Well, that’s different. That guy lives like he’s going to die, which is a way that none of us live. And it’s pretty inspiring to watch him do that. But Kanye is on another level. I don’t know if I want to go to that level of commercial entrepreneurship. It seems like a quick route to burnout, which it seems like he struggles with, for sure. And, you know, this whole thing where he’s going to try and get in tax breaks… [Chewing sounds]

BLVR: Are you still eating the chicken?

MH: It’s a French toast now, for dessert. With strawberries and a bunch of shit. 

BLVR: Do you have a chef making this for you? 

MH: Yeah.

BLVR: It sounds like a pretty heavy combo. 

MH: Yeah, a bit heavy.

BLVR: Can you sing after all this food? Or are you just zombied out? 

MH: Maybe I’ll just make some ambient music and lie on my back. Just tonal shit. Bliss out. Or I’ll probably just hang out and watch George play Grand Theft Auto, which is what I’ve been doing for ten years now. I don’t play video games that much, but I love them for inspiration. They’re a model.

BLVR: And entertainment while you digest.

MH: That’s right. I am feeling heavy now.

BLVR: In traditional Chinese medicine, they talk about how you absorb the energy of what you eat. So chicken energy is quick and peckish. I guess French toast would be egg and bready energy. 

MH: Is this your thing? Have we found your thing?

BLVR: It’s like food, clothing, and architecture are the basic art forms we all can’t escape. Everyone engages with them.

MH: Yeah. That’s so true. The trifecta. You’ve given me an idea. I’m going to steal your ideas. 

BLVR: OK. But credit me if you can.

MH: I will. I’ll do it when I’m giving my Nobel Prize speech.

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