With the release of their debut album, ‘Communion’, Years & Years became the biggest British band of 2015, garnering a huge gay following, not least because frontman Olly Alexander is out and proud. Conor Behan catches up with the trio to talk about the rocky road to success, courting their queer following, and why their cover of Britney’s ‘Toxic’ didn’t go down well with everybody.
When a band hits it as big as Years & Years did in 2015, things change pretty fast. Frontman Olly Alexander puts it succinctly, talking about watching a clip of the band singing live in 2014, when they played support to Clean Bandit. “I was like, ‘it sounds so clean and clear, I can actually hear all the instruments and my voice,’ and then I realised it was because no-one was singing along.”
Now, singing along is guaranteed at a Years & Years show. Their debut album Communion, bolstered by breakthrough hit, ‘King’, and fan favourites ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Desire’ have given them considerable commercial success, including topping the Irish albums chart and two massive top ten hits.
I catch up with the band, which alongside Alexander includes keyboard player Emre Türkman and bassist Mikey Goldsworthy, backstage at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre the day after playing to a packed house made up of swooning teenage girls and young gays identifying with ‘out’ lead singer, Alexander.
“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that they have embraced the music and like us as a band,” Alexander confides, discussing the number of young gay fans the band have garnered. “I’m just so happy to feel accepted by them.”
Despite Alexander’s year as a burgeoning out celebrity (including a short-lived but public relationship with Clean Bandit’s Neil Milan), there’s no sense that this is a band with an egocentric frontman. The trio happily swap in-jokes and there’s a continual banter that suggests the time put in prior to their success is standing them in good stead now that things have blown up. There’s plenty of pulling the piss out of each other too.
“I’m still trying to get out my solo material,” Alexander jokes when discussing how the band became the trio we know today.
“I feel like you’d be more of a Gary Barlow than a Beyoncé,” Türkman laughs, prompting a gasp of indignation from Alexander. “That’s the meanest thing you’ve ever said to me!” he yelps. “The shade!”
Although it seems as if Years & Years appeared fully formed overnight, there was a lot of chopping and changing before they arrived at the currently successful incarnation.
“For ages we were changing the music styles and changing lineups and not really knowing what we wanted to do,” says Alexander. “Then we wrote ‘Real’ and ‘Take Shelter’ really close to each other and we became a three-piece. We were like, ‘Well, we really like these songs. We feel like this is what we should be doing.”
“We had a terrible rehearsal studio behind an Afghan restaurant in Westbourne Gove,” Türkman recalls. “And it would be quite a hassle. There’s so many times we could have just given up. But it was fun too, even though we struggled.”
The band have pooled a number of different musical styles to form the Years & Years sound, a giddy cocktail of pop choruses and swirling electronica, with a dash of R’n’B.
“It’s a combination of the things that we like,” says Türkman. “It’s the way it comes out and luckily, we’ve found a sound that we enjoy, and that people like.”
That combination sees them happy to play with pop references, and at one point during the interview, as Türkman is holding forth about Years & Years’ younger fans, X Factor-bred girlband, Little Mix get a mention.
“I think in general kids can really smell when something is contrived,” Türkman is saying, when Alexander interrupts: “But sometimes you accept when it’s contrived. Like Little Mix. You don’t care that Little Mix don’t write their songs. It’s funny what you find acceptable or not, and I love Little Mix.”
Next pop act up for mention is Grimes. “Her new album is amazing,” Alexander gushes. “We should all try and be a bit more like Grimes everyday.”
A highlight during Years & Years’ 2015 tour was a slinky, synth-laden take on Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ that sounds both faithful to the original, and utterly within the band’s own style. “I think some Britney fans were a bit upset that I deigned to touch ‘Godney’,” Alexander says with a rueful laugh.
“Yeah, but it’s like you could save a puppy from drowning and someone on the Internet would be offended,” Turkman interjects.
“It’s kind of weird in a way because it almost feels like an old song,” Alexander continues, still on the ‘Toxic’ groove. “Some of the young fans are like, ‘What?’ when we play it.”
Years & Years are among a number of bands who have connected to young fans via YouTube, carrying out a constant, almost casual conversation with a generation who access all their cultural information through social media.
“In the beginning, when we weren’t having to do posts for promo, I was just chatting to the fans,” Alexander says. “I wanted to have a genuine relationship with them and I tried to keep that tone the whole way through.”
There’s cross-pollination from the interaction too, which Alexander is keen to point out, defending Years & Years’ online cohort of fans along the way.
“The only reason I’m up-to-date on anything current is because of them,” he admits. “People really hate on kids on Twitter and think that they’re stupid, but they’re really not. They’re smart and they’re really awake.”
With a jam-packed year behind them, plans for a sophomore album are still in the early stages.“We haven’t really thought about it,” Türkman admits. “We haven’t had the time, to be quite frank.”
Alexander is working, though, although he’s not sharing anything. “I’ve got a lot of notes on my iPhone that are really embarrassing possible song lyrics,” is all he’ll say.
Given the reaction to their first album it’s a safe bet that said lyrics are likely to be sung back to Years & Years in a packed venue before we know it.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN GCN ISSUE 314.