YEARS & YEARS
There’s difficult second album syndrome and then there’s what Olly Alexander and co suffered over the last two years. Feel their pain.
Years & Years’ euphoric dance-pop was the breakthrough of 2015, scoring both a Number 1 single and album. Just as striking, was singer Olly Alexander’s eloquence on LGBTQ and mental health issues. The artistic second act is always traumatic, though. And it has been. Laura Snapes feels his pain.
Olly Alexander is in the basement of a Soho gallery looking at photographs of a woman in the Las Vegas home belonging to a former high-flying director of Avon cosmetics. In the pictures, artist Juno Calypso poses like a cyborg Stepford Wife in Jerry Henderson’s 1964 bunker, a pastel-pink pastiche of a 1950s home tricked out to survive nuclear war. The gallery has been styled to resemble the photographs: fake foliage, trickling water features, a conspicuous artificial scent. “I love doomsday preppers,” Alexander says impishly. The concept behind Alexander’s band Years & Years’ second album, Palo Santo (which was trailed by a teaser video featuring a voiceover from Judi Dench, a pal from his acting days) also has something of The Last Judgement about it. At the start of the promo for the single If You’re Over Me, for instance, mildly foreboding text appears on screen explaining that this planet’s “human cabarets” are “attended by androids, all hoping to experience real emotion.” It continues: “Human performers can find themselves dancing the same routines for weeks, months, years…” That sounds like a weary comment on fame. “That’s definitely part of it,” Alexander admits. “Though it’s more ambiguous: ‘Do I love performing? Am I forced to perform?’ Cos it can feel like that.” Even today’s meeting feels a bit end-times. Initially, we were meant to meet at Disneyland Paris in tribute to the theme parks of Alexander’s youth – his now-estranged dad worked on the fairs in various cities – and a life-changing childhood trip to the House Of Mouse that made him understand costume’s transformative power. Then the band’s schedule nixed that. Next best thing was Margate’s lower-rent Dreamland, which was rained off. Instead, we’re in Soho to look at art and eat salad while the thunder provides high-camp blasts of pathetic fallacy.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have made sense to meet at those places so tied to Alexander’s youth. If Palo Santo – and the last few years of his life – is about one thing, it’s breaking free of old patterns and self-defeating behaviour. Preparing for the worst is not really his style. Doing everything he can to imagine a better future – the one he couldn’t see as a young gay man growing up near Gloucester – is more like it.
By anyone’s metric, Years & Years’ debut was a raving success. Their euphoric dance-pop – the kind where there’s far more at stake than the next drink, more Pet Shop Boys than Zedd – won the BBC Sound Of 2015 poll and earned the trio a Number 1 album (Communion) and a Number 1 single (King). But their greatest triumph was perhaps Alexander becoming the voice of a generation on LGBTQ and mental health issues. At Glastonbury 2016, the same weekend as Pride and days after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, he dressed in radiant tassels and urged the audience to “literally shove a rainbow in fear’s face.” He presented an acclaimed BBC documentary, Growing Up Gay, in which he read from his teenage diaries – pages scrawled with “I will not eat bread/ cakes/chocolate” – and cried with his mum, spoke with addicts and attended the UK’s sole male-only eating disorder discussion group to share his experiences with bulimia. In a different era, these actions would have cemented Alexander as a very different kind of star, but he knew he had to move quickly to sustain a second album. Communion was born into a changing industry: as its eight singles attest, today’s pop stars are only as good as their last Spotify stat. After touring, Alexander went to work with LA’s most copper-bottomed songwriters, took a two-week holiday (including a visit to the Taipei town that inspired the theme-park village in Spirited Away), then came back and started work. “I have this real anxiety where I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not working,” he says, “and I also knew how long it could take.” It was harder than he thought. Writing with external parties (including Julia Michaels and Greg Kurstin) put a cat among the pigeons – namely members Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen. “We could never agree on what sounded good or what we liked. Then six months down the line, we still had no songs and the label were really angry and annoyed,” says Alexander. Polydor pressured him to guest on dance bangers to buoy things between albums; he refused (and was vindicated when one song appeared featuring another male singer and flopped).
Not only did he feel as though the album was never going to happen, but that it was sinking his life with it. Outside, lightning bleaches the street white with immaculate timing. While the documentary was a positive experience, it brought traumatic memories to the surface and unresolved issues with Alexander’s father. The label didn’t hear a single. The band were warring. “It was a nightmare. I felt so miserable and I was so angry because I’d worked so hard to be in this position, and it’s very weird to feel like you’re in this fairy tale that’s going wrong and you’re desperate to put it back on the right track.”
hen Alexander was 13, his dad abandoned the family. “He was quite an unwell person who would say that he loved us and then disappear and do really weird things,” Alexander says. They’d always had an adversarial relationship: “Daddy said I never could win,” he sings in Karma, referencing
Whis father once picking him up from an Outreach theatre group – a rarity that saw him arrive two hours late. “He must have been angry because we ended up having a fight. I said, ‘I’ll just quit the theatre group.’ And he was like, ‘You’re always gonna throw in the towel, you’ll never get anywhere.’” The pair had hardly spoken until Alexander, Sr started tweeting his son a few years ago. Years & Years fans spotted the messages and started replying. That was the end of their interaction. Alexander checks to see if the account remains active: it is. He spoke about their relationship for the first time recently and wondered if his dad might reach out. “I don’t think I wanted him to get in touch – but then, maybe part of me did?” he asks. “To be totally honest, I just don’t know.” One song from an early advance copy of the album has disappeared from the final product: DNA, a desperate ballad that seems to allude to a violent incident, Alexander pledging to break with the past. It’s about a traumatic childhood experience that he doesn’t want to go into. “And I so didn’t want to be related to my dad, I just wished I was someone else.” Alexander describes his father as “the big male figure in my life in a Freudian sense”, and wonders how that affected his personal relationships. After two relationships during the Communion era, he started dissecting his past, looking for patterns. On Sanctify, Alexander crystallises the dynamic between a gay man and a straight man – partly to distil his frustration at being used, but also to interrogate his impulse to repeatedly engage in these experiences. There’s a safety cap; self-protection. “It’s like when you meet someone on holiday. You have the most overblown, dramatic relationship because you know it’s got an ending so you can go to all these places that you might not normally go to,” he agrees. “It allows this emotional freedom and intimacy, removing the actually very difficult, mundane realities of relationships with another gay man. It exists completely outside of reality.” He did notice traces of his father’s betrayal repeating itself, discovering that
“It’s very weird to feel like you’re in this fairy tale that’s going wrong and you’re desperate to put it back on the right track.”
certain boyfriends hadn’t been honest. It made him doubt entire relationships. That’s the key change in perspective between Communion and Palo Santo – from puppyish devotion at any cost to biting, defiant rebuttals of dishonesty. “That was quite a radical shift for me personally because I never felt like I could embody someone who was actually a bit ‘fuck you’,” he says. He realised how hostile he was feeling in his therapist’s office. “I was talking about someone I’d been on a date with, and I was like, ‘I’m just angry at men! I think I’m angry at all men!’ He was like, ‘There you go, keep on writing about it.’” Alexander was surprised by how angry some of the songs ended up – almost embarrassed, likening them to the peak of a fight, “when you’re so mad, you just want to lash out,” he says. “I almost feel the same way about songwriting. The songs come from a very intense, emotional energy, but in reality everything is way more complex and multifaceted, so when I listen to some of the songs, it throws me. But it’s as honest as it can be.” Perhaps a song, like a holiday romance or a pre-capped fling with a straight guy, is another kind of contained emotional bomb. “Exactly!” he says, pointing his fork.
Alexander finally landed on the concept for the album: palo santo, a mystical, South American tree that’s often burned to renew “energies” and enhance creativity. (Plus it translates as “holy wood”, a fitting pun, and harks back to his first job in a hippy shop called Moonstones.) If the record has an overarching theme, it’s that people aren’t always trustworthy and that’s hard to deal with – but if there’s any consolation, it’s that honesty is its own future-proofing insurance policy. “That’s the reason it all became quite mystical-themed,” says Alexander. “It felt like this ritualism of burning something and being cleansed. More than ever I’ve wanted to do that in my personal life – get rid of all the negativity and the darkness inside me.” He worked things out with Goldsworthy and Türkmen, who agreed to support his vision. They’re all well therapised and good at processing emotions and disputes: “Ultimately, we do love each other.” The next part is hoping that the world understands his vision. After reading a tweet that said, “Olly Alexander always has to chat about being gay or sing about being gay”, he decided, “Fuck you, that’s exactly what I’m going to do” and made the most sensual record he could. Years & Years made their live comeback at Radio 1’ s Biggest Weekend in Swansea in late May. It was an epicurean performance laced with symbolism, writhing dancers and a 20- metre-long silver cape that dropped from Alexander’s torso to reveal a green sequin jumpsuit. After the show – broadcast live on TV and radio – a BBC employee joked to Alexander that they would have had to crop out certain parts, which seemed callous given that this imaginative display followed Liam Payne bending a dancer over and thrusting at her from behind. Alexander was crestfallen. “I did hear a couple of comments calling it ‘saucy’, which is such an old-fashioned term. It is quite sensual and it has an erotic element, but people find that way more transgressive than, I don’t know, Demi Lovato and her dancers.” It’s hard to reconcile the image of the bold sprite onstage with Alexander’s admission that he didn’t want to be frontman when Years & Years formed in 2010. He knew how exposing it could be and didn’t think he could handle it; he finds old videos of him huddled against the microphone painful to watch. His perspective changed when he was once asked which member of Fifth Harmony he’d want to sleep with – a pretty rank question. He laughed it off: “I wouldn’t, because I’m gay.” The journalist moved on but after the interview someone from the radio station offered to cut it out – “a Sliding Doors moment,” he says. He told them to keep it, then went home and cried. “That moment spurred me on to be more open about myself, more direct about my sexuality.” He took to the frontman thing beautifully – generous with his vulnerability, galvanising in his spirit and performance – but felt a gap emerge between his stage and private selves. “You start thinking everyone loves this person who’s so shiny and glamorous and you feel your interior diminish because you could never live up to someone so fantastical.” For a moment, the two wouldn’t match up. “But then I figured out that it’s all part of the performance – people project onto you whatever they want. There’s really nothing you can do about that.” He’s still “taking leaps of faith every time” he goes onstage, he says; never not reaching for a brighter future.
“I so didn’t want to be related to my dad, I just wished I was someone else.”
Rainbow warrior: Olly Alexander reveals his amazing technicolor dreamcoat, Other Stage, Glastonbury 2016.
“The next Bond? I’ll put in a good word, but...” With pal, Dame Judi Dench.
“Ultimately, we do love each other”: with Years & Years bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy (left) and Emre Türkmen.
The “mysticalthemed” Palo Santo, Years & Years’ new album.