‘Suc­cess is over­whelm­ing’

Years & Years front­man Olly Alexan­der opens up on pop star­dom and anx­i­ety

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front Contents -

Olly Alexan­der, the front­man of the Bri­tish band Years & Years, has blood­red dyed hair. He wears a brass safety pin through one ear and some­times grins so widely, so wildly, that the edges of his mouth seem to dis­ap­pear around his nar­row, fine-boned face. What soon draws the eye is a scar on his fore­head. “I ran into a brick wall as a kid,” the 27-year-old says over lunch at a cafe in Lon­don. He touches the scar. “I was play­ing at be­ing a Power Ranger. Ouch.”

These days, Alexan­der plays at be­ing a pop star – and on the sur­face, at least, it seems like a game that’s go­ing well for him. With the launch of their first al­bum in 2015, Years & Years en­joyed a re­ally re­mark­able few months. They were named BBC Sound of 2015 in Jan­uary, promptly go­ing to No 1 in the UK sin­gles chart in March, and like­wise top­ping the al­bum chart in July. The band’s propul­sive, 90s-nos­tal­gic dance pop (like Dis­clo­sure or Clean Ban­dit, only up the randi­ness and add a little disco) caught on. And Alexan­der made a quick Meghan Markle-like as­cent to some­thing like pop roy­alty. “One of the most in­flu­en­tial gay pop stars of this gen­er­a­tion,” the Gay Times wrote. “All hail the King!”

Years & Years are a three-piece – also made up of key­board and synth player Emre Türk­men and bassist Mikey Goldswor­thy – but it has al­ways been clear that Alexan­der is the band’s guid­ing force, their chief lyri­cist, a Gaga-like taker of risks when he per­forms and a po­lit­i­cal voice, off stage, who has an ap­peal­ing, glit­ter-speck­led sense of ac­tivism. A pithy and witty speaker on LGBTQ+ rights, Alexan­der has also opened up en­gag­ingly about his strug­gles with men­tal health. “A life­line to trou­bled young peo­ple,” the Ob­server wrote of him, in 2016, around the same time that Years & Years played at Glas­ton­bury. There, Alexan­der wore an over­sized choir­boy smock strung front and back with rain­bow-coloured rib­bons – it was Pride week­end – and made a widely ad­mired speech about bat­tling prej­u­dice. “Shove a rain­bow in fear’s face,” was how he put it.

Mu­si­cians must pray for de­buts like this – to come over cred­i­ble, com­mer­cial, with real-world clout. No brick walls clat­tered into, no ob­vi­ous “Ouch” mo­ments. Or were there?

Years & Years are al­most done on their sec­ond al­bum, due this sum­mer, and from the demos I’ve heard the new mu­sic ad­mits a brit­tle­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity in Alexan­der that wasn’t so ob­vi­ous on the 2015 de­but. He is still a fab­u­lous and steely man when in pop-star mode (at the pho­to­shoot, he prowls around in heels and a col­lared lace body­suit that make him re­sem­ble a steam­punk, space-bound Queen El­iz­a­beth I), but he cuts a shyer and less cer­tain fig­ure at lunch.

He ar­rived with a cig­a­rette pushed be­hind his ear, and smoked it out­side with quick, jit­tery puffs. Now he hunches over a salad, an el­bows-in kind of eater and a ner­vous gig­gler. Of his pop­mode con­fi­dence, he says, “I wish I car­ried that around with me in my day-to-day life. But I don’t.” He’s wear­ing a pair of dun­ga­rees that he likes, he says, be­cause they feel “like clothes that give you back a hug”.

As Alexan­der eats, he talks about what hap­pened in the af­ter­math of that fa­mous Glas­ton­bury per­for­mance, once he was out of public sight. The band had been cheered off, a ca­reer high. And once back­stage, the mu­si­cian re­calls, he sat down and wept. In­con­solable, feel­ing lower than he’d been in months. “It hap­pens,” he shrugs. “A fall­ing off a cliff. The pendulum swings.”

“When I was younger,” Alexan­der says, “I thought that if you were fa­mous and suc­cess­ful, it would mean that you just felt happy all the time. That you would be­come, like, this mys­ti­cal crea­ture that peo­ple just adored. And so you would adore your­self.”

Alexan­der doesn’t al­ways make eye con­tact, and he ad­dresses this next bit at the nap­kin dis­penser be­tween us.

“Ob­vi­ously I re­alise how ridicu­lous that sounds. But it wasn’t un­til our al­bum got to No 1 that I re­alised I still be­lieved in it. We’d ba­si­cally won the lottery. I felt like I’d won the lottery. And at the same time I still felt like the same per­son I’d al­ways been. And all the things that I as­so­ci­ated with my de­pres­sion, and my anx­i­ety, those pe­ri­ods of feel­ing re­ally low, they were still there. And I was so an­noyed at my­self. ”

Alexan­der talks about first dis­cov­er­ing the trans­for­ma­tive, strength­en­ing power of a good cos­tume. It was on a trip to Dis­ney­land, when he was nine. “The great­est ex­pe­ri­ence of my life up to then,” Alexan­der says. “The pomp! The whole make-be­lieve na­ture of that place. It was very pow­er­ful for me. Peo­ple were all wear­ing cos­tumes, play­ing char­ac­ters. It was this other re­al­ity where fun things hap­pened, more than →

At Glas­ton­bury, the band had been cheered off, a ca­reer high. Once back­stage, he sat down and wept, in­con­solable. ‘It hap­pens,’ he shrugs. ‘A fall­ing off a cliff. The pendulum swings’

they seemed to in real life. And I just re­mem­ber want­ing to be a part of some­thing like that.”

Theme parks were a big fea­ture of his young life. Alexan­der grew up liv­ing next door to them, not one but three, first Al­ton Tow­ers, then Black­pool Plea­sure Beach, then Dray­ton Manor. His fa­ther helped launch and mar­ket new rides in these places, and the fam­ily moved wher­ever the work was.

He was born in 1990, the younger of two sons. His mother ran com­mu­nity craft groups. His fa­ther, while em­ployed in the theme parks, tended side dreams of be­ing a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian. Of his fa­ther he says, cau­tiously: “Quite a dif­fi­cult man... Def­i­nitely not happy within him­self.” Alexan­der is more ex­plicit about his own early trou­bles. “I used to have hal­lu­ci­na­tions and hear voices and stuff as a kid. Which sounds alarm­ing, but it’s just the way it was.” Also: “I had what would now be called sleep paral­y­sis, from six years old un­til maybe I was 16. Ter­ri­fy­ing dreams.”

His par­ents sep­a­rated when Alexan­der was 13, a daunt­ing and con­fus­ing pe­riod for him. “My dad had been very ab­sent, even when he was there. Then he left the fam­ily and moved away. Our re­la­tion­ship, it feels to me, ended when I was 13.” With his mother and brother, Alexan­der re­lo­cated to a sleepy vil­lage in Glouces­ter­shire called Cole­ford.

Part of Alexan­der’s con­ver­sa­tional charm is that he’ll veer be­tween the frank and sober dis­cus­sion of the self-doubt and dif­fi­culty he ex­pe­ri­enced as a young man, into bril­liantly catty and droll little anec­dotes about his up­bring­ing. Here he is, de­scrib­ing his first paid em­ploy­ment – a Satur­day job in a Cole­ford shop called Moon­stones. “We sold in­cense, can­dles, spell­books. Um, bongs. Cho­co­lates shaped like penises. Ev­ery­thing you’d need re­ally – a one-stop shop.”

He wasn’t a pop­u­lar teenager, and was bul­lied at his sec­ondary school in Cole­ford just as he had been at his old pri­mary schools. He mar­vels, think­ing back, at his re­sponse to this. “I started wear­ing eye­liner to school. Nail var­nish. Choker neck­laces.” He put on a cos­tume: a counter-in­tu­itive form of self-de­fence. “I’d been bul­lied for years and all I wanted was for that to stop. But at the same time I had this sense that I was dif­fer­ent, I was weird, and wear­ing makeup and crazy clothes was my way of try­ing to find an iden­tity, in the face of peo­ple who were go­ing to rip me apart any­way.”

What brought him out of his “goth phase”, as he calls it, was the mu­sic. Alexan­der chuck­les. “I could never re­ally get on board with the bands you were sup­posed to like.” He couldn’t shake the love for pop mu­sic he’d de­vel­oped as a pre-teen, when pop bands would visit the theme parks his dad worked for. “Re­mem­ber [the Ir­ish pop band] B*Witched? They came to open a ride once. Then Steps – I got all their au­to­graphs.” So when it was time for the school tal­ent show, Alexan­der chose to sing a TLC song. At home he ob­sessed over Christina Aguil­era videos. He was pop through and through, and wanted to be a star in the mould of all these he­roes.

Half by ac­ci­dent, he em­barked on a dif­fer­ent artis­tic ca­reer first. At 16, Alexan­der au­di­tioned for the Chan­nel 4 drama Skins, and was in talks about a role. The job didn’t ma­te­ri­alise un­til he was well into his 20s, when he was cast as a creepy stu­dent pho­tog­ra­pher, but mean­while his agent put him up for other stuff. By the time he’d fin­ished his A-lev­els and moved to Lon­don, he was get­ting var­ied work – in Gas­par Noé’s En­ter The Void and Laura Wade’s The Riot Club and a cor­po­rate video for Google, play­ing a con­fused con­sumer who didn’t know how much he needed the ad­vice of a re­ally good search en­gine. Prob­a­bly his peak as an ac­tor came in 2012 when he was cast in a Michael Grandage pro­duc­tion, Peter And Alice, along­side Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw.

This West End run co­in­cided, in Alexan­der’s breezy telling, with the busiest pe­riod in his ro­man­tic ca­reer. “Lot of sex.” He had known that he fan­cied boys from the age of about

10, though the con­cept of be­ing gay was some­thing only in­tro­duced to him via play­ground in­sult; he can re­mem­ber draw­ing stick fig­ures in a ge­og­ra­phy text­book, be­wil­dered, try­ing to fig­ure out how two men could ever even man­age it. These days, Alexan­der says, “my sex­u­al­ity is part of my mu­sic, part of my iden­tity”, but this was a clunky jour­ney in its early phases and it wasn’t un­til he ar­rived in Lon­don and got into a first re­la­tion­ship, with the brother of a friend, that he felt he could prop­erly come out to those clos­est to him.

Af­ter that – whoosh. “I fig­ured out that I could pull, ba­si­cally. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was go­ing to be. I re­alised that, ac­tu­ally, ev­ery­one’s pretty horny, pretty des­per­ate at times, and all you needed to do was main­tain eye con­tact and be →

Af­ter he came out – whoosh. ‘I fig­ured out that I could pull. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was go­ing to be. I re­alised that, ac­tu­ally, ev­ery­one’s pretty horny’

con­fi­dent and that was kind of it.” Since then, he’s sam­pled ro­mance in many of its forms, be­ing sin­gle and shag­ging a lot, be­ing sin­gle and not shag­ging so much, be­ing in an open re­la­tion­ship, be­ing in a celebrity re­la­tion­ship (with Clean Ban­dit’s Neil Amin-Smith), be­ing in a qui­eter re­la­tion­ship with some­body un­known – that was the most re­cent, and it came to an end about 18 months ago. What has he learned? “That the longer you’re sin­gle, the more you no­tice how ev­ery­one else is in a re­la­tion­ship. But that’s a whole other thing.”

He says he finds it harder to pull in clubs with­out the free­dom of anonymity he used to en­joy. “I’m hav­ing much less sex than I did in my early 20s, for sure.” He’s tried the hook-up app Grindr, but the men he mes­saged with wouldn’t be­lieve he was who he said he was. “So that didn’t go very well.” Af­ter years of liv­ing with flat­mates, he re­cently moved to live on his own, in a flat in east Lon­don. “The last few months I’ve been won­der­ing, ‘Will I just be alone, for ever? And would I be OK with that?’ I want to be OK with that.”

Think­ing of how ill-in­formed he felt as a kid, and of the anx­i­ety he might have been spared had he only known more and known bet­ter, Alexan­der has re­solved to be a public fig­ure who is as vo­cal and open about his sex­u­al­ity as he can be. As soon as he was asked, in an early-ca­reer in­ter­view for a blog, he said he was gay. (This was ac­tu­ally how his beloved grand­mother found out: Alexan­der hadn’t yet got around to telling her.) Last year, he made a BBC Three doc­u­men­tary, Grow­ing Up Gay, that is still on iPlayer and gets broad­cast around the world. “I get mes­sages about it at weird times of night.”

Soon af­ter our lunch, he’s due to give the key­note ad­dress at an an­nual Stonewall event. He hasn’t writ­ten his speech yet, and is still toy­ing with points of view he might want to get across: that LGBT-in­clu­sive sex education should be com­pul­sory in schools; that LGBT sup­port groups need more gov­ern­ment fund­ing than ever; “that yes, we can get mar­ried now, but that’s not the end of the story, that’s not gay rights done.” When the event does take place, Alexan­der will speak about how, as a young ac­tor who went through me­dia train­ing, he was told it might be best not to speak about his sex­u­al­ity at all. (“I ig­nored ad­vice.”)

Alexan­der made an in­ter­est­ing choice, in 2013, when ma­jor la­bels started show­ing an in­ter­est in Years & Years. He en­tered ther­apy, specif­i­cally in an­tic­i­pa­tion of what a front­line mu­sic ca­reer might do to his frag­ile emo­tional state. Poly­dor were still six months from for­mally sign­ing them. He knew fame was com­ing, though – that early?

No, he says. But if there was a chance of the band mak­ing it, how­ever slight, he rea­soned he’d bet­ter be pre­pared. “And I’m grate­ful I made that de­ci­sion. I’ve been see­ing the same ther­a­pist through the whole process.” Through the band’s kick-start­ing anoint­ment as the BBC Sound of 2015, then their smash No 1 sin­gle King that spring, then their No 1 al­bum Com­mu­nion that sum­mer. “To go from zero to 100. To have an idea of what suc­cess is, your en­tire life, and then it hap­pens to you. It’s over­whelm­ing. There’s a lot of noise. And peo­ple start talk­ing to you dif­fer­ently.”

Which peo­ple?

Alexan­der laughs, frowns – speaks at the nap­kins again. He starts talk­ing about his dad, with whom Alexan­der went through an awk­ward episode af­ter Years & Years topped the charts. By then, fa­ther and son had no re­la­tion­ship to speak of, Alexan­der says. They hadn’t said a word to each other in seven years. “And, um, my dad started tweet­ing at me.”

A pause. “It’s hard for me to talk about. It’s a hard is­sue, be­cause it’s tied up with my fam­ily, and also his new fam­ily. I want to be re­spect­ful.”

He doesn’t sound sure whether his fa­ther even knew whether what he was do­ing was public; but any­way, he mes­saged him over Twit­ter, in full view of so­cial me­dia. “And it got re­ally, re­ally messy. There were some Years & Years fans who started tweet­ing him back, trolling my dad. He was talk­ing back to them. It was a real head-fuck.”

How­ever clumsy the tim­ing and the method, was a part of Alexan­der grat­i­fied that he got in touch?

“The best way I can de­scribe it is that when me and my dad last knew each other, when I was 13 or 14, that’s frozen in time for me,” he says.

And back then, he con­tin­ues, he couldn’t have imag­ined any bet­ter fu­ture for him­self than be­com­ing a pop star and hav­ing his fa­ther want to be a part of his life again. “But then he did get in con­tact with me. And it was then I re­alised that what that 13-year-old wanted, that wasn’t ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble. Not any more.”

What did the 13-year-old want? “I re­alised that a part of me wanted to be suc­cess­ful in mu­sic be­cause my dad wanted to be a mu­si­cian. That a part of me thought, if I be­came a mu­si­cian and I did well, he’d be proud of me. Or he’d, y’know, be so sorry for not be­ing the dad I wanted him to be.”

But that’s not how it felt?

No, he says. When they did come to­gether, Alexan­der no­ticed that, “I’d be­come some­thing that my dad was sort of in­tim­i­dated by. →

Yes, we can get mar­ried now, but that’s not the end of the story, that’s not gay rights done

I’d been want­ing to be suc­cess­ful, in part, be­cause I wanted to prove some­thing to him. And when that hap­pened, I re­alised it didn’t feel good, it just felt like… like I’d tricked some­body.”

Lis­ten­ing to demos from Years & Years’ new al­bum, there’s a sense that fa­ther­hood has been much on Alexan­der’s mind in the af­ter­math of this episode. Per­son-to-per­son, the mu­si­cian says, he and his fa­ther “have very, very min­i­mal con­tact” right now. But a dad fig­ure stalks the new work. On one song, Alexan­der sings about break­ing with his DNA. On an­other, it’s as if karmic ret­ri­bu­tion is be­ing sum­moned and di­rected at a “daddy [who] said I never could win”.

Yeah, he says, his fa­ther was fore­most in his thoughts when he wrote that one. But he’d been think­ing, too, about past re­la­tion­ships, those var­i­ous boyfriends he’d dumped or been dumped by. Alexan­der sees a clear thread running through it all, from parental to ro­man­tic dif­fi­cul­ties. “I guess at its heart it’s just not re­ally be­ing able to trust some­one who says they love you. If that’s some­thing that’s in­grained in you, then I think it’s hard to get past that.”

We’re fin­ished with lunch. Hav­ing trav­elled deeper into his psy­che than he ex­pected to – “nor­mally I would have these men­tal con­ver­sa­tions alone with my­self, in my flat” – Alexan­der starts to won­der about an­other cig­a­rette, and pats the pock­ets of his dun­ga­rees. I tell him that, yeah, I can see why he might choose to wear clothes that feel like they hug. He smiles.

Be­fore we stand up and gather our things, he asks to add a cou­ple of “book­ends” to what’s been dis­cussed. That he ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of love and sup­port, grow­ing up, from his mother and grand­mother. (“I feel I have to say that: My mother loved me! She tried her best!”) And also that he’s pro­foundly grate­ful to mu­sic, to his band and their fol­low­ers, to the rain­bow smocks and lace body­suits and the whole pop palaver, for the re­lease-valve it has of­fered a trou­bled mind.

“There’s a lot of quite raw emo­tion in­side me,” Alexan­der tells me. “Ob­vi­ously. And most of the time it can only come out in these tiny little cracks. One of those cracks – that’s the mu­sic.”

Years & Years new sin­gle Sanc­tify is out now. Their sec­ond al­bum will be re­leased in the sum­mer on Poly­dor Records

‘A part of me thought, if I be­came a mu­si­cian and did well, dad would be proud of me’

Top: Late Night With Seth Mey­ers, 2015. Far left: at Glas­ton­bury in 2016. Left: with bassist Mikey Goldswor­thy

Clock­wise from top: in The Riot Club, 2014 (on far left); in his doc­u­men­tary Grow­ing Up Gay; and with fel­low Peter And Alice cast mem­bers

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