Matty Healy ruffled his grown-out Mohawk and took a drag from a cigarette as he gazed through a window at the spring-green English countryside.
“I suppose I think of this as my second rehab stint,” said the 1975’s frontman, who spent several weeks in a Barbados facility in 2017 addressing his addiction to heroin. This time, of course, he was referring to quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic, for which he’s holed up in a remote studio complex north of Oxford.
“At the beginning, the news was rolling in 24/7 and you’re watching it like it’s a disaster movie. Then it kind of faded into something … else. But familiar.”
Healy, 31, was meant to be touring arenas in the United States right now behind “Notes on a Conditional Form,” the 1975’s brand-new follow-up to 2018’s “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships,” which topped the U.K. album chart and was named album of the year at the Grammy-equivalent Brit Awards.
Instead, he’s been sitting around thinking about himself — about his tendency toward narcissism, his comfort with being depressed, his determination to continue the work of mindfulness that he began three years ago in rehab.
“I needed to upgrade my iCloud storage today on my iPad, so I was going through old pictures, and every time I saw one of me where I’ve got this certain face on, it was like there was someone else there,” he said over FaceTime from the studio. “That inability to be present in the moment — it was like a ghost in the photo.” He laughed.
“Sorry, man, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he said. “I think it’s because I just don’t know how to promote this record.”
How could he?
Even minus the global health crisis leading countless artists to reconsider the machinery of pop stardom, “Notes on a Conditional Form” would be hard for anyone to get his arms around. The 1975’s music, not unlike Healy’s thoughts in an interview, has always been something of a data dump, with sounds and styles and textures pulled from an array of scenes and eras.
And the band’s fourth LP is even more sprawling than usual, with 22 tracks (counting interludes) totaling 80 minutes, including an ecstatic ’80s-soul number (“If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”), a bruising post-hardcore rant (“People”), a tender acoustic duet with Phoebe Bridgers (“Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”) and a jangly ’90s-guitar jam with some big “Empire Records” energy (“Me & You Together Song”).
Oh, and an opening cut that sets an original monologue by Greta Thunberg over twinkly ambient music inspired by Healy’s hero, Brian Eno.
“To be a type of band that plays a type of music — I just see it as cosplay,” said the singer, dressed in a long-sleeved Obituary T-shirt, as he leaned down to pick up the 10-week-old puppy he’s been training while in quarantine. (The dog’s name, Mayhem, nods to a Norwegian black-metal band even more extreme than Obituary.)
As the mastermind of one of the key acts of the streaming age, in which the idea of genre means less than it ever has, Healy says he’s just trying to catch the anything-goes spirit of the day. Lyrically, too, he fills his songs — about sex and religion and celebrity and the internet — with the preoccupations of now, though he insisted, “I don’t like time-stamping my work too much. If you’re putting it too much in the zeitgeist, then you can’t get away from it.
“Like when Katy Perry said ‘epic fail’,” he added with a theatrical squirm, in her hit “Last Friday Night.” “I’m like, ‘Wow, I hate that so much.’
“Love Katy Perry, though.”
For “Notes on a Conditional Form” — which Healy co-produced with the 1975’s drummer, George Daniel — the singer said he tried to remove his ego from the music and just ask questions that amount to: “Is the current set of circumstances, in terms of society and the way it’s impacting the individual, sustainable? Can the center hold?”
“The economy’s a goner/ Republic’s a banana/ Ignore it if you wanna,” he sneers in “People,” which also rhymes “Barack Obama” with “living in a sauna with legal marijuana.”
But it’s not quite the case that Healy’s new songs don’t reflect his particulars. On the band’s breakout album, 2016’s “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It,” Healy was doing a kind of postmodern riff on the self-centered rock star — best exemplified in “Love Me,” which he went on to perform on “Saturday Night Live” in a willfully grotesque display that triggered countless variations on “Who does this guy think he is?” from online commenters.
Yet the 1975’s members — the others are guitarist Adam Hann and bassist Ross MacDonald — quickly became actual rock stars with devoted fans and a clear influence on pop music. Jamie Oborne, who manages the band and runs its label, Dirty Hit, said he can detect the 1975’s impact in the new artists he meets.
“Though I’ve been very cautious not to sign another 1975, only because I don’t think my mental health could take it,” he said with a laugh.
You feel Healy’s recognition of his visibility on the new album; even the songs narrated by characters that aren’t him, like the God-fearing gay kid in “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” seem shaped by the singer’s understanding that when he takes a position, people listen. (The son of two television actors well known in Britain, he comes naturally, perhaps, to the role.)
In quarantine, Healy — said to be dating FKA Twigs, who appears on “Notes” — says he’s been pondering the dangers of his celebrity. “Doing what I do, self-obsession is the fuel of the engine, and of course people don’t challenge you on it,” he said. “I mean, if I’m on smack, the guys will call me out, as they did. But if it’s just being selfish, and that’s part of my process” — here he grimaced as he made air quotes — “then everybody just leaves it.”
True to his restlessly analytical mind, Healy then wondered aloud if knowing you’re a narcissist makes you better or worse than someone more oblivious. And though that’s precisely the type of question that drives the 1975’s deeply layered music, the singer sometimes wishes he could shake the impulse to double back on himself.
One reason he’s drawn to the gleaming surfaces in “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” — also a hallmark of earlier 1975 hits such as the Whitney Houston-ish “The Sound” — is because they remind him of music from the ‘80s, he said, “when pop stars weren’t so encumbered with self-awareness. I know that time had its decadence, but there’s a real freedom in those records.”
His approach to songwriting basically amounts to trying to create the same sensation he gets out of the music he loves. “I’ll hear a song and say, ‘Oh, we should do a song that makes us feel like that,’” he said. “Then George makes a piece of music and I emotionally react to it.”
With Daniel, who’s also quarantining at the studio, Healy’s already started work on new 1975 music — a product of his “weird compulsion to make stuff,” as he put it, as well as the knowledge that the modern pop environment demands constant engagement.
“The days of the NME being like, ‘This is your new favorite band, and here’s one song’ — that’s over,” he said, referring to the taste-making British magazine. “People want a real-time relationship now. When I saw Cardi B communicating with her audience on Instagram with zero mediation, I knew everything had changed.”
As he spoke, Mayhem let out a little squeak, evidently wanting to be cuddled again.
“He’s a proper quarantine pup, this one,” Healy said as he resettled the dog on his lap. “Someday I’ll tell my kids, ‘You don’t even know what this dog’s been through. You want 20 pounds for the shops? He didn’t even have a shop to go to when he was your age.”
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