Olly Alexander interview: “I’m a convincingly happy human being”

Olly Alexander interview: “I’m a convincingly happy human being”

Years & Years have recorded one of 2015’s best pop albums. It’s got ‘King’ on it, for a start. But is also has other songs. Almost all those songs are of an extremely high quality, so well done Years & Years.

The singer in Years & Years is a man named Olly Alexander.

Olly will be 25 quite soon, but for the time being he is 24 years old. At the start of this week we called him on the telephone to discuss various topics, including:

1. Years & Years
2. Olly Alexander
3. Some other stuff.

Here is how our chat went.

You know Years & Years, right? This band you’re in?

Is it fair to say you were quite shit to start with?
(Aghast) What do you mean ‘shit to start with’?

Well, let’s look at these videos you’ve attempted to remove all trace of from the internet, but which still live on in fans’ YouTube accounts. These videos are not good. 
(Laughs) Yes alright. I agree with you. This is why we’ve tried to eradicate it, and as far as I’m concerned these videos do not exist any more. It’s really difficult to remove videos.


So you were shit to start with, but when did you decide to be good?
Well I think we always had hopes of being good! (Laughs) But the reality is that it takes a while. Maybe some people can form a band and be instantly amazing, but normally you have to make a lot of shitty mistakes before you can do anything good. We were doing a lot of guitar sounds, and I’m not into that. Even as a song­writer, when I first started writing songs, the songs I was writing were not good. I was writing pretty terrible songs. I just didn’t know what I was doing, but the more I wrote, the better I got.

So was there a band meeting? Not so much to say ‘Olly buck your ideas up and write some decent songs’, but…
Well nobody else was writing any!

But in terms of ‘let’s go for a more elec­tronic sound’…
It just sort of evolved. Emre wanted to record by himself and bought software and taught himself how to use it, and we had a couple of synths we started using more. And the music I was listening to myself started to change; at the time I was going out a lot, and going to clubs, so I was listening to a lot more of that kind of thing.

Do you cry a lot?
I do cry quite a lot. I haven’t lately. But I am quite sensitive. I’m getting less sensitive though — when I read people’s mean stuff about me, I used to feel a deep pang of shame inside me, like ‘oh no, now they really know who I am’. But now I feel less of that.

Why do you feel less of it?
I don’t know. Maybe you just get used to it, and it doesn’t touch the same nerve.

Is there also a sense that you’ve had a Number One record, you’ve got a popstar boyfriend and everyone else can just fuck off?
Yeah. Yeah, there is a bit of that. ‘I’ve won’. (Laughs) But I mean it’s not about winning.

It’s alright to feel like you’ve won.
Yeah. What I realised the other day was that if you think about defining your success in terms of winning, you always think there’s a point where you’ll be suc­cess­ful. But you just want to do something better. This is a really obvious thing to say, but if you’re someone who’s ambitious, you’re always thinking ‘what’s the next ambitious thing I could do, and what else can I achieve?’

What are your ambitions now? I mean outside the usual ‘suc­cess­ful album, arena tour’ sort of standard career ladder?
Well I’d like to not be an idiot in the world. (Laughs) I get asked quite a bit now: ‘How do you feel being a spokes­per­son for gay people?’ Which is just weird because obviously I can’t speak for all gay people because I’m just one gay person and there are lots of diverse issues. We come in all shapes and sizes, us gays. But I do want to be able to speak about myself and if that can be helpful for other people then that’s a good thing.

Shine’ was Number One on iTunes earlier today. Is it still there?
I think so. I checked this morning and we were still there. YES! I mean it might not actually be Number One in the end, but it might. Who knows?

At least it’s not a flop.
It’s not a flop! Which is the most any of us can hope for in this life.

Mind you, wait until you release a ballad, then we’ll see what happens.
Then it will be Number One for five weeks!

(Merry chortle)

Are you doing a ballad for your next single?
Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure what’s happening next. I’d like for it not to be. I’d like not to release a ballad. There are more uptempo tracks than downtempo tracks on the album. I’m just not inter­ested in doing that many ballads, really. I don’t like listening to that kind of music. I mean they have their place…

There are a number of slow songs on the album.
There are three slow songs on the album.

That’s like a quarter of the album.
That’s an accept­able number of ballads!

So if you don’t like a quarter of your album, would you be happy with people giving it 7.5/10 reviews?
WAIT. I’m not saying I don’t like a quarter of my album.

You don’t like listening to that kind of music.
Well my own ones are different. My own ones are GREAT.

years and years press

How good would you say the album is, out of ten?
Ten. I’m giving it a ten.

Alright, nine. There’s always room for improve­ment.

So what’s wrong with it?
Features. There weren’t enough features.

Who would you like to have featured on your album?

What do you think Pitbull would bring, lyrically, to a Years & Years song? Traditionally his features tend to dwell on man­hand­ling a lady.
I think we’d have some back and forth about how I think that’s miso­gyn­istic and not a way to treat a woman, and he’d be like [breaks into world’s worst Pitbull impres­sion] “shut up, let me touch this ho”. Or something.

When I met him he was unex­pec­tedly charming.
Was he hot? I think it’s okay to fancy Pitbull. I can’t quite remember what he looks like. Is he bald? Some people do find that hot.

He always wears a suit. That’s good. He makes an effort. Whereas you do not wear suits. In fact you wear the opposite of suits.
I wear an anti-suit: shorts and a vest.

What do you wear in the winter?
I go for layers in the winter.

Two pairs of shorts and two vests?

What’s the lyric on the album that sums you up best?
Probably, from ‘Real’: “if I’d been enough for you, would I be better, would I be good?”

How does that work then?
Well. It’s about the idea of unre­quited love, and this feeling that if someone loves you that will make you a better person. And that’s a really fucked up idea. But I think it’s something a lot of people get them­selves into believing. This idea that you need someone’s love and attention to feel worthy. And a lot of the album was written about that.

Did you often find that you were secondary in rela­tion­ships?
I did, yes. Yes. But I also realised that these people who didn’t want me enough… Well, I wouldn’t have said I was in love with them, really. It’s an inter­est­ing, parasitic rela­tion­ship when you want someone to want you, but you don’t even want them. It’s toxic.

What sort of person do you think you’d have become if you’d found yourself in rela­tion­ships where you weren’t secondary? Because some people seek out rela­tion­ships where they’re always going to be the best person in that rela­tion­ship. They want or need to be the most good-looking or the funniest or the most cha­ris­matic, and so they seek out people who are inferior.
I don’t think that’s what I’m inter­ested in doing, no. I like, generally, or at least my exper­i­ence has taught me this, to be the less good one in a rela­tion­ship. (Laughs) But equality is good, isn’t it? Strive for equality!

That’s a very nice sentiment but who’s best out of you and Neil? [Neil being Neil out of Clean bandit ie Olly’s ‘beau’]
(Laughs) WHO’S BEST? How are we measuring this? What metrics?

The whole lot.
I’ll put it this way, if we couldn’t mix our sperm together and only one of us could donate our sperm for a baby, I’d def­in­itely pick Neil. He has much better genes than me. He’s tall and handsome with good shiny hair and he’s incred­ibly smart. He actually knows how to play music. He wins, genet­ic­ally, for sure.

Does he keep a violin under the pillow in case of emer­gen­cies?
Yes. Yes he does. It’s very tiny.

What’s your debut solo album going to sound like?
‘I Am… Sasha Fierce’.

It’s quite inter­est­ing that there was no ques­tion­ing whether you would or wouldn’t ever release a solo album. Straight in with an answer. 
Well you’re not the first person to ask. (Laughs)

How many Years & Years albums will there be before you make your solo debut?
Four. There are going to be four.

So Years & Years are a quarter of the way through their career?
Yes. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?

What will the next Years & Years album sound like?
It depends how this album does. If it does well, we’ll just do exactly the same again. (Laughs) But no, I think we’ll do something different.

Can I make an early request for the second album?

ZERO songs about being on the road and missing people.
Good request. Is that standard second album behaviour?

Second albums go like this: you go a bit more guitary. You’ve been doing loads of festivals so you make music that will make sense for a live audience. And you write about missing people because you’re on tour.
I see. Can you give me some ideas for other material?

Yes. Songs about being up in the club. Also, more songs that are about love but could also be about cocaine.
(Laughs) Okay. It’s a deal.

You know all popstars seem to be having throat surgery at the moment?

Do you think that in the same way dogs and cats are often ‘seen to’, popstars should have the snip before they start out? The day after you sign your deal, off you go for surgery?
But it’s not a snip is it? What actually happens? I’m quite confused by all this mys­ter­i­ous throat surgery.

What they do is they take your vocal cord and they take about an inch of it out, and they sur­gic­ally graft in a bit of rubber band.


Oh. Well, I suppose getting it sorted out early is probably a good idea. But don’t you need there to be a problem before you sort it out? I don’t know.

What was it like growing up in the Forest Of Dean?
Difficult. Where I was living was quite poor; there was no concept of social mobility. They stay within their town. My dad used to work in marketing for theme parks so we moved around a lot. We lived in Blackpool when he worked at the pleasure beach, then we moved near Drayton Manor. But there was no cultural diversity. If you don’t fit in with the rest, it can be quite difficult, and I was bullied quite a bit at school. When I was 17 I moved to London as soon as I could.

Could you tell your parents about the trouble you were having at school?
No. I never spoke to my mum about that stuff. My parents split up when I was 13 and I just had my mum. I’d never tell her about that stuff. It’s weird — my mum read an interview where I said I’d had a terrible time at school and she wasn’t aware. It was sur­pris­ing to me that she didn’t know. I guess I was quite good at not talking about it.

When did you learn to talk about things? You seem quite express­ive now, at least in your lyrics. But are your lyrics the extent of it?
I am a really open person, mostly. But you can be open in lots of ways. Ever since I can remember I’ve found writing songs very helpful. It’s been my language.

When you said earlier, half-jokingly, that you’ve ‘won’…

Now hang on. That’s surely a valid sentiment, in a sense, for someone who’s exper­i­enced bullying.
Well what I think I’ve managed to do is be quite socially well-adjusted — I’m a con­vin­cingly happy human being.

Convincingly happy’ is quite a phrase.
(Laughs) What I mean is — well, yes, you’re right, I was bullied as a kid and that stays with you all your life, and I always dreamed of being suc­cess­ful and making music, but it didn’t feel like it would ever be possible. So yes, I do feel like I’ve somehow swindled that!

Now we need to be quite careful in this interview because in NME’s review of your album they said you don’t do inter­est­ing inter­views.
What a mean review!

They obviously didn’t read the Years & Years Popjustice interview at the start of the year when you talked about wanking each other off.
I know! Someone actually tweeted us the other day saying ‘Years & Years look like the kind of band that wank each other off’. Which was funny. It’s just something we like to do!

It was inter­est­ing how the NME album review concluded that you didn’t sound like Skepta or Wolf Alice, which must annoy you as that was clearly the sort of sound you were aiming for.
Yeah, obviously. It’s a failure. It’s a complete failure. I like NME, it’s enjoyable to read, but I mean the guy obviously hated it. What can I say? I’m glad he hates it!

I know you’re a former actor yourself, but do you find actors a bit strange?
Yes. But how do you mean?

They just have all their strange acting habits don’t they.
It’s a very weird job, I think. They pretend to be other people all the time and they get confused about who they’re supposed to be when they’re not other people. It is weird.

What’s the best Girls Aloud song?
The song I sing most, still, is ‘Sound Of The Underground’, but I’m not sure if that’s their best song. I also love ‘Biology’. Actually maybe it’s ‘Love Machine’.

When will the world end and whose fault will it be?
It will end in fifty to sixty years. We will have depleted all our natural resources, there will be a big CO2 gas cloud over the world. It will all be our fault.

Would you like to be around for the end of the world?
YES. I really want to be. That’s quite a big goal for me. I love end-of-the-world movies — that being played out in real time would be cool. Also dying’s a little bit more accept­able when you know everyone else is coming with you.

Will you ever write a song as good as ‘Style’ by Taylor Swift?
Do you think that’s Taylor’s best song? I do too. People don’t agree with me. But will I ever write a song that good? Yes I think I will.

What does being in love feel like?
It feels like walking a tightrope.

Please elaborate.
Have you ever walked on a tightrope?

Neither have I!

But I’ve been in love. You’ve got to stay balanced. And you’ve got to cross dangerous, poten­tially life-threat­en­ing terrain. And, er, yes. It was pretty self-explan­at­ory really wasn’t it.

Do you believe in the phrase ‘give the public what they want’?
I don’t know. In terms of music? I don’t think you can tell people what to like.

Isn’t that the basis of the BBC Sound Poll, which you did quite well out of?
Yes but that’s a small number of people. I don’t really know how the Sound Poll works, I think it’s about a hundred people. But that’s a different con­ver­sa­tion: that’s not telling people what they like, because people still liked ‘King’. I don’t think people liked it because they were told to!

Are you a better singer than you were an actor?

Is singing just a phase, as acting was?
Who knows? I’m a creative person and whatever that means I’ll keep doing that in some form or another.

What would you do if you were banned from making music?
I think I’d quite like to do something within mental health or animals.

Do you care about all animals?

Would you let rats live in your house?
I don’t know.

What if you had cock­roaches?
I don’t like killing flies but I suppose no, I’d exterm­in­ate cock­roaches.

So there’s a boundary somewhere between, say, dogs and cock­roaches.

I love frogs. I’d like frogs running around my house.

‘Shine’ is out now; ‘Communion’ is out tomorrow (or today or last week or last year depending on when you’re reading this).

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