Striving for boldness (and avoiding boredom) with The 1975
On The 1975’s genre-fleeting new record Notes On A Conditional Form, the UK band attempts to make sense of the madness.
Nothing screams The 1975 more than dropping an album during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.
The larger than life Brit-pop-rock-whatever band have always found themselves on the pulse of millennial culture, a track record that spans from their 2013 self-titled debut album to their critically acclaimed sensation A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. Even just a glance at their technicolour, synth-heavy backlog sees them explore drug usage (Chocolate, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)), the ups and downs of young love (Sex, Be My Mistake) and encapsulate the baffling state of politics - notably Donald Trump’s bizarre fever-dream tweet “thank you Kanye, very cool” in year-highlight Love It If We Made It.
The 1975 have made a career out of reflecting the world around them in cathartic, uplifting measures. They don’t actively try to be a voice for the people; they don’t try to be anything, really. But, considering the outfit is led by a flamboyant, shameless, compassionate and deeply aware man who spends his time diving into worlds unparallel to him – just to try and understand their point of view - it shouldn’t be surprising just how often their collective finger is on the pulse of what people need.
Need to hear, need to feel, need to express… Fans turn to The 1975 for a multitude of reasons. Their 2018 release, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, is exactly as the title suggests: a 15-track dive into how we live and interact online, anchored with glossy heroin proclamation It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) and the hazy, agitated, Grammy-nominated single Give Yourself A Try. The whole release was one of the most reflective and responsive of the year, as they saw a target on the backs of first-world youth and embraced it, surrendering to stereotypes of the ‘digital generation.’ Here, The 1975 were as fleeting and indulgent as the youth culture they represent, progressing through acoustic ballads, 80s-stained pop moments, six-minute ambient tracks, a story told entirely through Siri and a tear-jerking cinematic closer. Fans found comfort in spending time with a band who was as conscious and varied as themselves, latching onto “modernity has failed us” as an anthem of discontent for the ages.
The 1975’s latest album, Notes On A Conditional Form, lives in the shadows of its predecessor, but it’s happy to be there. As the second half of their Music For Cars era, Notes On A Conditional Form acts as an extension of the high-tech lens they took to life, in all its wondrous, confusing and outrageous glory. This album sits, perhaps, a little too close for comfort in the way it explicitly talks about climate change, civil uprising, cybersex and staying at home. And, although there’s no way the band could’ve predicted they would be releasing their fourth album during such unpredictable times, their music feels timelier than ever.
Notes On A Conditional Form opens with its usual eponymous track – this time a straight-forward speech from Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, whose actions have sparked a global movement in School Strike 4 Climate. The five-minute track (which The 1975 played in full during their Laneway Festival sets across Australia earlier this year) is then promptly followed by People. Here, the war cry rings loud and clear, “the young surprise people/stop fucking with the people.”
“As much as it’s striving to be bold, it’s also avoiding being boring.” The voice on the end of the phone is Matty Healy, crackling down the line from a studio in London where he’s isolating. The 1975 were meant to be performing across the US throughout May, with Phoebe Bridgers and label-mate-turned-TikTok-star beabadoobee, but clearly that didn’t go to plan. Instead he sits, explaining the double-edged sword of writing an album to purposefully make waves in an overflowing musical landscape, but also not wanting to be bored as hell. The 1975 have been operating as a band for almost 18 years, although their beginnings were much humbler than the stadiums they’re used to now. When Healy talks about Notes On A Conditional Form, it’s always in a way that emphasises their music is for them – fans are free to come and go as they please, with the changing waters of each album.
Notes On A Conditional Form is the most ambitious of the lot, clocking in at almost an hour and a half with 22 tracks. There are plenty of things to fawn over in this album, including their most recent single If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) which, at the time of writing, had tipped over 10 million streams on Spotify in just two weeks. It quickly became the band’s highest-charting single to date, laden with a huge blossoming chorus that speaks of sexting and online flirtations. On the day of its release, their manager, Jamie Oborne, tweeted saying “imagine if we had our biggest song in the pandemic, that’s such a The 1975 thing to happen. So much drama.”
The drama doesn’t stop here though. Notes On A Conditional Form has its fair share of polarising moments, as the tracklist whips back and forth between their usual punchy 80s synthpop numbers and a whole degustation of genre-defying songs. I Think There’s Something You Should Know is a key example of the “sad banger”, with its slick moonlit production that could transition from daytime ambience into a nightclub setting with ease; Roadkill sees The 1975 at their most tongue-in-cheek with a country twang, and Don’t Worry is a more vulnerable moment, adapted from a song Healy’s father wrote.
Notes On A Conditional Form never strays far from the overarching Music For Cars theme, which Healy maintains is about “the consumption of dance music in the UK, smoking weed in cars and night time.” The boldest example of this is Shiny Collarbone, a track deep into the album's duration featuring 90s dancehall legend Cutty Ranks. It’s the furthest drift from the quintessential The 1975 sound – rooted in dark, bass-heavy UK grime - and yet has one of the strongest payoffs. On top of this, we have ambient interludes. Several instrumental pieces sit in-between some of the more heightened points of the album, like The End (Music For Cars), which follows the anarchy of People. When I speak to Healy, he tells me these interludes are the songs he’s most proud of.
If you stick with this album, digesting it bit by bit, you’ll find there really is something for everyone. Features from indie sensation Phoebe Bridgers and the ever-avant-garde FKA Twigs only add to the muchness of Notes On A Conditional Form, in the best way possible. It’s an album that doesn’t set out to be any one thing and successfully ends up being everything. Here, The 1975 continue to push forward and create ripples of intrigue that entice listeners in before being hit with the healthy dose of authenticity that makes them stay. The accidental poster boy that is Matty Healy is at his boldest this time around, ditching sweeping motives for direct statements in a way that bluntly says the band aren’t playing around anymore.
It’s 2020, and The 1975 have something to say.
Images by Liam Fawell for Pilerats, at Laneway Festival 2020.
I wanted to start off by saying, really quite genuinely, that this album is one of the most exciting and interesting albums I’ve heard in so long, and I think part of that comes from the fact, I really thought I understood and ‘got’ The 1975 and this album shattered that. There’s this evolution to Notes On A Conditional Form that I don’t think we’ve heard from you before. How natural does this album feel to you?
Well, very. There are loads of ways I could talk about it, to be honest with you. I think our first album still may contain more of a coherent pop moment but it’s [also] our weirdest album in regard to... it’s still the most different to our other records. On I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, which is our second album, it does have this pop sheen but there’s a lot of ambient experimentation and stuff like that. [From that] to A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships then to Notes On A Conditional Form, it’s like you said, it’s fucking all over the place.
Our early four EPs were kind of like that; each one of them contained a song that went on the first record, so let’s say a big song, a single – well, none of them were really big, Chocolate did quite well – but there was this inherent sense of experimentation and no rules and not really caring, due to the fact there wasn’t really an audience that existed in the first four EPs, that [now] exists in Notes On A Conditional Form. I think if you got rid of our first album and we went from our first EP to our second [album] to our third to our fourth, it would make a bit more sense.
It just feels like because our first album felt very constructed, any deconstruction after that has felt a bit like ‘Woah, they’re really letting off the shackles!’ whereas our first record was kind of a concept record; we’d been a band for 10/11 years, and we thought let’s put all of the poppiest, biggest songs on an album and make a John Hughes record, [thinking] no one’s going to hear it, because we couldn’t even get signed. Then we did and it’s this whole thing… but yeah, Notes On A Conditional Form is like our first four EPs. We didn’t care. We had just come off A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships which, to us, was so successful and critically acclaimed, all of these things, so we had the opportunity to look back at that and think: Do we act accordingly? Do we act like a ‘big band’ - whatever that means – or do we just close the doors and go home and make whatever we want? And that’s what we did, which is why Notes On A Conditional Form feels like that.
I can definitely see the similarities with those EPs in the past, but I still think Notes On A Conditional Form has the most expansive sound and texture you’ve had-
You have classical and ambient interludes, Roadkill has an almost country twang, Shiny Collarbone dips into that quintessential UK grime scene… Do you feel like this variation might leave some fans feeling alienated or overwhelmed?
No, no, no! That would be patronising, and people are really, really smart when it comes to music. I want a strict door policy when it comes to my music anyway, I don’t want everybody loving it because that would make me suspicious. It’s not for everybody, it’s not music for the gym, it’s not for the person who buys two CDs a year for his car on his way to work. It’s, you know, it’s my album. No, we don’t think about anything. What I don’t like is mystique and robes on people, you know what I mean? [In terms of] all the biggest artists, everyone’s brilliant and everyone’s clever, but at the end of the day, things come from day-to-day weird wanks with this whole idea that we reach, and we aspire.
And we do – I take it really seriously and I think music is my life and it’s something that I put all my love and effort into - but the reason why we don’t have a genre is, we’ve been a band for nearly 18 years and we’ve spent nearly every day with each other and then when we make a record we also live with each other, after just being on tour with each other. We get up every day and make music, so if we made the same food every day or played the same game every day, it would be boring; making the same music every day, would be boring. As much as [Notes On A Conditional Form is] striving to be bold, it’s also avoiding being boring. I don’t know how we do this, there’s no blueprint for a 1975 album but the only thing we can do that is set is really enjoy ourselves.
There are those expectations that have come with all those albums and especially with this one. You had that first self-titled single with Greta Thunberg speaking all through it, and I think that being so politically charged, coupled with the fact our current climate is so chaotic at the moment, it’s pretty safe to say people were expecting a political album from you or, at least one that has something to say about the world. Do you think it’s defiant to create an album of songs about love and struggle and almost the normalities of your life when people are expecting this big global gesture?
The best way of putting it - and it paints me in a good light - I think that it’s really just about me. When I put out those first two singles people were like "oh it’s going to be 'the climate record', it’s going to be 'the this record'…" It was always going to be a record about me because that’s what my records are about – they’re about my loves, my fears, my desires, the things that scare me. All of those things are in there and all of those things are inherent and universal, which makes it relatable but I don’t really think about using it as a kind of catharsis and I just, the stuff that I get scared about or upset about is what I write about.
Do you have a pretty good relationship with fear then? If you’re happy to write about the things that scare you.
I mean I probably don’t have a better relationship with fear in my normal life than anyone else does. I’m not scared of telling the truth. Well, it’s weird because I’ve spent a lot of years as a drug addict, so I’ve definitely partied, so… it’s always a bit false, is all. In regard to fear in my music, I suppose my rule is, if I lie… they want me to tell the truth. I can always back it up and I can always extend it through my words or more lyrics, so it’s kind of like, telling the truth is also an art. The bits that you feel like you should leave out are probably the bits you should put in.
I know a lot of artists don’t look at their social media or read through fan comments but do you understand the gravity of your fan base and how much they look to you for guidance and commentary, or just to have their feelings validated?
I don’t think about it from the perspective of me, but I understand what it’s like to be super into music and the community that breeds. When you feel like you’ve found your tribe it’s like the most powerful thing in the world, so creating a vessel for people to create a wider community is really, really important to me [but] I don’t want people to hang on my every word – the reason why I talk about the things I talk about is because I’m going to die and it’s what I feel.
I could stamp around and fucking worry about my ego or whatever or worry about my responsibilities but I’m stood on a fucking stage and some people are there - and they know why, it’s really clear to them - but for me, I understand why people really, really like my music but sometimes when I stand on the sides of stages, I don’t really understand why I’m there or how I’m there. I’m kind of laid bare and just the truth comes out and you know what, fuck it, just tell the truth mate.
I think that’s another reason of exactly why you do have so many fans who connect so personally because, like you said, your fans are intelligent and switched on and aware of things happening in the world, so they appreciate that truth.
Do you often dive into The 1975 fan forums and Reddits, or those kinds of groups?
Yeah, I do. I stay away from Twitter, [but] it’s kind of like my job, you know? I have certain things that I do and, maybe I shouldn’t or don’t need to as much, but… spending a lot of time in the depths of the internet was kind of how I researched A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. My YouTube became this chaotic place because I wouldn’t just watch things that I was in agreement with, I wouldn’t have loads of left-wing items. I would delve right into the right-wing YouTube holes and all these kinds of things. I kind of got fascinated with culture and kind of became a voyeur of it.
There’s still a lot of that in my work, like with The Birthday Party video, it was a lot of that looking into those worlds. I’m really interested in the concept of a meme, scientifically, and I think that it’s really, really funny how all these natural phenomena happen in the world because the internet is its own little world with its own physics, almost. I just find it interesting how it works.
Honestly, I’m not surprised that you say you’ve spent all this time on the internet - especially during the last album cycle - because it’s almost as if it’s a case study for you to be online and see not only your relationships online but the dynamics of others, and the internet is fucked right now. It’s so crazy out there.
Yeah, it’s insane.
I found this one fan theory, where she had taken all the singles you’ve released so far in the Notes On A Conditional Form cycle and prophesied that they were all part of this bigger apocalyptic album that was going to be about the world falling down around us, which I think to be honest, people are really feeling like that’s happening right now. Have you given any thought to how the album is going to be received in this unusual context?
A little bit, I suppose it can sound quite prophetic because it has a lot of foreshadowing. There’s a lot of metaphors about staying inside and the world changing, but it's only because I’m just asking the same questions I’m asking on the last record. The last record was internet-specific, [but] it’s the same question on this record: Can we sustain what is going on? The world seems like a very odd place.
Let’s go back to the Notes On A Conditional Form itself. When I first listened to the album in full, I had immediate favourites. Are there particular songs you are drawn to most or are proudest of, in this album?
To be honest with you, ambient music is my favourite art form. I feel like ambient music is so abstract like, literature or words or visuals, they kind of suggest whereas ambient music tends to have no interface between hearing and understanding. I think that it makes it so interpretive that people put their own emotional history on it. The things that connect to me would be Streaming or The End (Music For Cars) or Having No Head because to connect with your own words, objectively, is not possible. It’s kind of like watching a home movie and listening to your own words or your own talkback.
What about the interludes in this album? I found that whenever they came along, it sort of forced me to sit and digest that portion of the record. Did you time these in a certain way?
Oh yeah, it’s a bit like sitting in the car after an argument then deciding to drive again or something. It’s like, ambient music for us is like the engine of our band; it’s what generates the emotional ideas because it’s what comes first, then the music comes as a song, then the lyrics come after that, so it’s this generative thing. The ambient parts of the record are like the engine running, do you know what I mean? It’s not in-between songs that are silent, it’s in between songs where you can hear the engine running then you’re off to somewhere else.
I also wanted to touch on Shiny Collarbone – it seems so different to anything The 1975 have previously released and yet so in touch with iconic British music culture. How did this make it onto the album?
I don’t know, I think that’s kind of the music that - not that we’re into, we’re into every type of music – but this record was very much about going home. Music For Cars was about the consumption of dance music in the UK, smoking weed in cars and night time. A lot of the record was about that. Me and George were just like making music that we really, really love and not thinking about what the context was, and a lot of those pieces of music became what we’ve put out for Notes On A Conditional Form.
We make loads of stuff, we make a lot of really aggressive techno – way more aggressive than that stuff – so it was just one piece of music that felt like part of Notes On A Conditional Form. We were massively involved in scenes with American emo-core when it made it over to the UK.
It was just so visceral for me. I heard that song in particular and was instantly transported to – you know the British show Skins? – I instantly thought of that. It was the most vivid image of warehouse parties and underground dance culture.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! Awesome, I love that.
To finish off, we’ve recapped a bit of the album as a whole and how fans have or might interpret the songs but is there anything that you personally want people to know about Notes On A Conditional Form?
We’re trying - we’re just trying - and everyone’s just trying. Notes On A Conditional Form is us just trying to look for the best.
The 1975's new record, Notes On A Conditional Form, is out May 22nd via Dirty Hit / Sony Music Australia.
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