The 1975 & Jamie Oborne: The Music Week interview

The 1975 & Jamie Oborne: The Music Week interview

To kick off our mammoth Q4 special, Music Week jets to Los Angeles to meet The 1975, the band responsible for the boldest album on its calendar. Here, we join star frontman Matthew Healy and his manager, Dirty Hit boss Jamie Oborne, to unravel the bond behind their rise to the top of the world…

Matthew Healy is shouting in Music Week’s ear, his fiery eyes glancing towards the sun-baked Los Angeles skyline that stretches behind us towards the horizon.

Healy may be a little baked too, thanks to a morning joint, and he’s raising his voice to combat the gargantuan sound of The 1975’s new album, which is is spilling from the speakers in the control room of the band’s hilltop Hollywood studio.

Due on November 30, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is primed to be one of the blockbuster hits of music’s biggest period. As illustrated in our bumper preview, there are many huge Q4 releases coming, but none has generated as much excitement as The 1975’s. Every detail of the plan behind it has been dreamed up by Healy and Jamie Oborne, who manages the band through his All On Red company. The pair, who communicate via wild iMessage threads and emails, promise a Q4 campaign like no other. Pre-orders for the album have already topped 20,000.

The record is coming via Dirty Hit, the label Healy founded with Oborne nine years ago. As we listen, the manager watches on, smiling.

“This is a banger, mate,” Healy enthuses over the joyous pop barrage of It’s Not Living If It’s Not With You, which is so catchy you imagine visions of screaming fans flickering in his eyes as he describes it. The song also exemplifies the many contrasts on the record, as its lyrics deal with Healy’s struggles to kick smoking heroin, an addiction that blighted the band’s victory lap after 2016’s smash hit album, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It, which has 321,547 sales, according to the Official Charts Company.

Next to us on the desk, are three stickers bearing messages about “personal space”. Healy is keen to share his. “This one’s a fucking tune, straight up,” he yells, leaning in closer still before the more restrained but no less impactful Mine, which demonstrates the obscenely widescreen approach adopted by Healy and George Daniel, The 1975’s pony-tailed drummer and production brainbox.

Daniel is having physio in the house next door, where guitarist Adam Hann and bassist Ross MacDonald are kicking around in a huge living room in black running gear, sipping smoothies. We’re separated by a swimming pool, which Healy will later plop into – in biker boots and torn denim – for our photographer.

Matthew ‘Matty’ Timothy Healy is frontman and mouthpiece for The 1975, and he revels in the role, now more than ever. Those stack-heel bright red cowboy boots in amongst the weights by the patio door? His, of course.

Together, he and Oborne are a whirlwind of grandiosity and idealism, egging each other towards weightier explanations of what they do. But, they insist, what they say is real, they’re not cool guys. “For people who don’t like putting our heads above the parapet, we act like we really do, don’t we?” muses Oborne at one point. They really do, and it’s no shock to hear that Healy took career advice from his pal Mick Jagger after a Rolling Stones gig.

 

 

Back in the studio, between swigs of Coke and bites of a sandwich, Healy continues to talk us through the new album. Both men appear blown away by the music, which blasts, oozes and explodes around us, by turns delicate, heavy and overtly poppy. The Man Who Married A Robot/Love Theme is narrated by Siri of iPhone fame, and its portrait of internet addiction is bizarrely affecting. Healy sliding his phone from his pocket and scrolling away intensifies the impression of an omnivorous band of magpies, always consuming, absorbing.

Healy dances, then wheels round to chat as he hits play on song after song, and the noise is a little like watching MTV back in the day, or manically flicking through a playlist now, only the threads of pop, hip-hop, UK garage, house, major guitar chords, electronics, jazz and more knit together to form a cohesive whole. It’s just under 60 minutes long, and much is packed into its 15 tracks.

But as the stacks of guitars and gear in the live room next door illustrate, The 1975 aren’t just in Hollywood to make one record. They’re finishing Notes On A Conditional Form, which will follow A Brief Inquiry… as their fourth album in the spring.

Expectations are high, not least from Polydor, who support The 1975 as part of a joint venture with Dirty Hit. The BRIT Award-winning foursome, who formed in 2002 as pupils of Wilmslow High School in Cheshire, topped the charts with 2013’s self-titled debut (573,795 sales, OCC) and hit No.1 both here and in America with I Like It When You Sleep…. Chocolate, their biggest single, has 955,977 sales.

As well as all those pre-orders for A Brief Enquiry..., the four singles released so far are racking up the millions on Spotify (Give Yourself A Try leads the way with 22 million).

“It’s only right that The 1975 are the band that makes the biggest statement about what an album is in this current situation in our history,” says Oborne. “Who else would?”

No wonder, then, that Healy and his manager are charged with excitement as we take refuge on the terrace to trace their journey, which encompasses rejection, success, drug abuse, wild ideas and the tortured, euphoric pursuit of changing culture forever. Sunglasses on and cigarettes lit, they wind the clock back to suburban Cheshire, 2008.

 

 

Matthew Healy’s parents’ garage was where you’d mostly find The 1975 in those days, back when they went by Drive Like I Do. It’s where they were when the singer’s phone first buzzed with Oborne’s number.

“I had my first experience of trying to get hold of Matthew,” the manager remembers with the first of a litany of giggly laughs. “I tried for a week, it felt like a long time.”

Oborne likely felt the minutes drag because he was so keen to find out more about a band he’d been sent via Myspace.

“The first thing I was struck by is something I’ve heard you say before,” he continues, looking across at the singer. “It was the pursuit of four friends making music, it had no agenda other than that. It was joyous and pure. I immediately offered to manage them and [laughs], they said they didn’t have any money; they wouldn’t be able to pay me. You looked gutted…”

But the connection was instantaneous, Oborne was struck by the “humanity” of the music and the band recognised the same reaction they’d seen in the most passionate faces in the front rows of their local shows.

But although The 1975 have always had a cult following (“the amount of tattoos that exist of The 1975 is mindblowing, even since the start,” says Healy) the wider world took longer to catch on.

A&Rs would visit and say they lacked “a viable artist proposition”, put off by a borderless approach to genre and the “textures” of the group. Healy – who “wanted to write Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen that sounded like Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), and look like Nine Inch Nails but sound like Prince” – says the only way to “be a big band” at the time was to sign to a major, but none were interested.

“The problem was that we were sitting on all of this music I loved and was proud of. It was so much who I was by that point, so when a label would turn up and say it wasn’t good enough it was like I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I took it quite hard and Jamie took it slightly more pragmatically.”

Enter Dirty Hit, the label the pair devised to execute their plan for the band. Healy now functions as chief creative officer, and is also working on music for his signing New Rome out here in California.

“That’s why we started it, do you remember?” says Oborne, turning again to Healy. “The last time [rejection] happened you said you didn’t think you could do it anymore. It was destroying your confidence and you decided to do it only for yourself.”

Healy picks up the story. “Yeah, I didn’t go on any kind of redemption streak, I thought it was bullshit, that I knew better. I felt that I was representative of the culture, not the other way round. The 1975 with no context was a jarring proposition, I understand that. But it was being met with fear and trepidation, the opposite of what we were about.

“It was a blessing really and we don’t look back at that time as being that negative. As soon as we started to do what we knew was right, everything started to work out.”

 

 

Didn’t it just. Right now, The 1975 are on the brink of superstardom. Healy noted earlier during the new record’s epic closer I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes), “Glasto, that’s what I want.” He’s imagining pyrotechnics, choirs and a Pyramid Stage headline slot.

The ethos and ideology that this group have cultivated stand to help them achieve whatever they like.

“We both love culture and cultural references,” Oborne explains. “And we love history and ideology and…”

“Iconography,” Healy cuts in.

“Yes, and we often talk about having the desire to leave a print on the world,” Oborne says. “I could never do the things you do. I’m too self-obsessed, too self-conscious. We had a conversation recently along those lines, it was such a sweet sentiment…”

“You said you had a real desire to be loved but a real fear of being seen,” Healy replies, sparking more laughter.

“That wasn’t what I had in mind!” his manager says. “When I see Matthew on stage I see you completely in the moment, when you’re in that zone I see the mentally free version of you. It’s fucking inspiring; it makes me want to do better things. What a manager gets out of the relationship is of far more value than any commercial gain we could ever achieve.”

Healy nods in agreement, brain whirring.

“If you see music as a means to make money or advance in a business way, that’s one thing,” he says. “If you see it primarily as a cultural exchange you get to be part of, it’s incredibly different.”

Flicking his lighter for another smoke, the singer continues, sentences spewing faster and faster.

“We’re essentially two ex-punks from two generations of punk who became record label executives, and all the things we’re obsessed with, ethos, sharing of culture, embedding subtext within a form that doesn’t normally allow people to experience it like that, that’s because we come from punk.

“Our relationship with culture is because we’re really culturally informed and a lot of people aren’t. And it’s not that they’re not good within the industry, Jamie would try and make every manager in the world understand the philosophical value of being part of something that’s truly inspiring is of the same value as [money]. It’s value and worth, those are the two things.”

Healy and his manager have never once questioned the value of this project, both admit it pretty much forms the basis for their entire existence. The singer says he “doesn’t question anything anymore”, such is his belief in the band.

“Every time I do what I really want [with the band], the reaction that I get is making people happy,” he explains. “Of course it’s all worth it. I only talk about sacrifice because it’s one of the main things about negotiating being The 1975 – producing numerous records, headlining festivals, going off to rehab, doing all these things at once is a series of personal sacrifices for the greater good.”

It’s just, lately, sacrifice has come to define The 1975.

 

 

Matthew Healy barely even thinks of his own happiness anymore.

“To be honest, when your purpose is wrapped up in your behaviour and what you do, striving for happiness is silly. When you get it right, OK, there are moments of adulation, joy and excitement, but the majority of it is pain,” he says.

Leaning forward and allowing himself a long pause, this spindly pop star launches into a tirade against happiness (“It’s overrated, ‘Oh I should be happy!’ You probably shouldn’t”) that prompts Oborne to call him a nihilist.

“I am a slight nihilist,” he replies. “But there’s an apocalyptic element built into human society, so it’s not gonna be breezy, especially if you’re doing something you really fucking care about.”

Oborne points out that the hard times are punctuated with positivity, and stresses the worth of savouring it. This can only have helped when Healy went to rehab in Barbados, after his drug use came to a head. “Given a choice of having the band or Matthew, there was only one choice,” says the manager. “I felt you realise that.”

“Yeah, and it was the knowledge that I’d probably make the other choice,” Healy says. “It’s very easy to be Peter Pan when you do what I do, and of course you’re gonna be Peter Pan! But you have to grow up, nobody likes an old infant, it’s a very ugly thing.”

Oborne laughs as this rather absurd quote sinks in, but the gravity of the situation is etched on their faces.  The 1975 and their manager are a family, and their bond has brought them to a point where they’re able to release what they believe is their greatest album yet.

“This is not the norm,” Oborne continues. “I couldn’t have this relationship too many times, you have to give so much emotion.”

Healy’s experience with prescription drugs veered back into focus following Mac Miller’s recent death after a suspected overdose. Miller had spoken openly about his battles with substances and mental health, and Healy met the rapper shortly after he began using himself.

“It’s just so desperately sad. I don’t know what happened with Mac but this is where we are,” he says. “I’m here in LA doing my third album, there’s billboards for it on Sunset Boulevard and I’m alive, and it was the same for him [musically] but… He’s not.

“Of course I think about it. It’s very shameful for me, that’s what I deal with. It’s fucking crazy that a contemporary of mine who was engaged in exactly the same behaviour is now dead, and I’m not.”

Healy’s opportunity is precious, and he knows it. “It’s difficult to deal with, but we’re a family and that’s what the unit is built for, to withstand. We started our band at 13, I’ve known Jamie for 10 years.”

Now, they stand on a cliff edge. Never mind this Q4 and Q2 next year, The 1975 are in this for life.

 

 

There’s no ceiling,” says Healy. “The thing with The 1975 is, it’s so generational and I already feel how important we’ve been to a generation of young people and I know how that feels and how I feel about those bands that did that for me. I already know that we will be one of those bands.”

What comes next is longevity, and the path begins with the plan to release two albums within six months – which Healy doesn’t think is all that radical, by the way.

“We were talking on the phone and Jamie was dealing with my shit and we had a lot of ideas, it was exciting and we saw a path towards some kind of greatness,” says the singer. “We wanted to be the best version of ourselves, we said doing one album now is like a cop out. It’s not good enough is it really, now? ‘Oh, an album? Great!’”

Oborne puffs his cheeks out, perhaps thinking of their workload. “Making these records is a committed thing, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

By now, we’ve been talking for hours and the morning sun has heated up into an afternoon inferno. But Healy and Oborne continue, tangled up in stories and dense explanations. The singer picks at some chicken nuggets and explains that he couldn’t relinquish the “primary driver” that may enable him to make songs with the reach of Ed Sheeran or Drake. But The 1975 aren’t far off, messed up and contradictory as they are.

Oborne is targeting big numbers, but Healy shrugs, he’s already felt those feelings. “I have an environment where I can say and create whatever the fuck I want. I’m not gonna moan that everybody doesn’t fucking love it,” he reasons. “That’s not my job. I get the reaction I want, people want to come to our shows, people cry. I care, I love that [they] care, let’s keep the exchange going.”

In case it’s not screamingly obvious, both Healy and his manager believe their band is the best. “I believe we’re the best band in the world, only because if I didn’t, then why do it?” Healy says, before checking himself, slightly. “I don’t think my talent is divinely decreed, I don’t think I’m more important than The Velvet Underground or all the things you could associate with me saying that.

“But in regards to bands that are in our lane, that exist in the way we do? I mean, most of them are rock bands, and that by proxy makes them not as good as us.”

Needless to say, he rejects the notion of The 1975 as a rock band (“Our last two albums had every single genre except that”) but, really, genre has simply never mattered.

“It’s not that we know or care about being representative of the culture, it’s that culture doesn’t care about compartmentalising and analysing what it is,” offers Healy. “It just is, and then it changes.”

And The 1975 will continue to change, too. As we leave them and Oborne to their hilltop pool and head out to walk among the bizarre mix of tourists, weed haze, health mania and dogs carried in bags that is West Hollywood, you can’t help but think this is the perfect place for them. But only for now, The 1975 will always keep moving. And ahead of their third (and fourth) albums, Healy is dreaming big.

“We want to do everything,” he says, blowing smoke into the sky one last time.

[Photo: Matt Salacuse] 

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