Curtis Pawley and Matty Healy Geek Out on Tár, Brian Eno, and Peter Gabriel
In a New York arts scene where post-irony rules the day, the most radical thing a downtowner can do is be earnest. Curtis Pawley, one half of the recently unmasked film podcasting duo the Ion Pack, should know. “The Pod,” as it’s affectionately known among fans, played an outsize role in shaping that very sensibility. Among the highlights of the past year in Ion Pack history: a 48-hour filmed party with dirtbag auteur Peter Vack that inspired a 7,000-word Substack screed, the planning and subsequent dissection of an “anti-woke” film festival, and no-holds-barred interviews with divisive scene fixtures like Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova. But with his new recording project, The Life, Pawley is trading shitpost-laden irreverence for a more intimate sincerity. “Grace,” the first single of The Life’s forthcoming album, has the upbeat percussion and swelling bassline of a chart-topping love song and is surprisingly personal for Pawley, whose close friend Matty Healy describes Ion Pack as “slightly jaded, maybe?” An early fan of The Life, The 1975 frontman gave Pawley a call to discuss the anatomy of a good song, their musical inspirations, and the perils of trying to make music that’s self-consciously “cool.” —CAITLIN LENT
MATTY HEALY: Yo. How’re you?
CURTIS PAWLEY: How are you feeling, bro?
HEALY: I’m good. How are you feeling?
PAWLEY: Stoked, I think. We’re going to announce the single on Sunday. Me and KJ [Rothweiler] made all the video and teaser shit. And it’s been my manager, Ben [Goldstein] , and Clarke [Sondermann], and then some people that work for Ben. It’s the first time I’ve ever had anyone else work with me on anything besides KJ.
HEALY: It’s sick, man. For context, I suppose people know that we’re friends, right? We talk a lot, so it’s weird to ask you a pointed question. But we’ve spoken about music a lot, and one of the critiques that you have of where music’s at now is how ubiquitous it is. So I thought it was interesting when you were focusing on putting out a record, because it can inspire a lot of apathy in people. Do you know what I mean?
PAWLEY: Yeah, yeah, totally.
HEALY: How’d you feel about that?
PAWLEY: Well, it’s strange. Doing Ion [Pack] made me less precious about releasing things, the whole accidental nature of it. It makes you realize you’re less special than you are, in a good way. You see people talking, you feel internet discourse, and then you don’t relate to it and think, “Am I the only one who thinks like this? Am I the only one who cares about music in this particular way?” You feel isolated. But then two things happened. The Pod started and people started writing to us and I realized, “Oh, most people feel like me.” But just those aren’t the people who are spotlighted, so, it’s not really the narrative you’re seeing about art if you’re just a terminally online person who’s following the conversation. That felt really good like, “Right, if you think something, you’re not such a unique snowflake, you’re not the only person in the world that thinks this way.” And that’s a great thing. Not to go off, but there’s this thing that I don’t really understand, especially with music but in all art. If you talk to musicians, they’re like, “Well, I just had to do this for myself. If no one likes it, who cares? This is just what was in my heart, and that’s all that matters.” I understand what they’re saying, that they’re not doing it for commercial viability, but it still feels like the wrong attitude to have about music.
HEALY: It’s funny. Artists who say that are the ones who have the starkest lack of commercial potential.
PAWLEY: I know.
HEALY: I know what you mean. One of the things that I’ve always said I liked about The Life is that it’s quite optimistic musically. Where it pulls its references and what it’s doing and what it’s in opposition to. I think that’s interesting because it resonates with what you were just saying, where a lot of people will just make something that’s so impenetrable or so left-field, almost purposefully, that in turn it can’t be criticized because it’s so cool or obtuse or whatever it may be. It’s about communication. If an idea is not communicated or a concept is not communicated, it’s not really finished. It’s not really an idea or a piece of art or anything. And I think to make it purposefully difficult for an audience to get into, that’s not where the grit is, right? That’s not where the art is.
PAWLEY: Totally. It’s so funny you say it’s optimistic. I would agree. But I have a strange view on this stuff, because I actually think the best kind of dark art is optimistic, in a sense. Let’s think about “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, a song sonically and lyrically about bottoming out. But it’s about accepting and embracing being at the bottom, embracing hopelessness, which is actually an optimistic thing.
HEALY: I totally agree. With pop music, sometimes the more major and sweet a melody is, it almost becomes saccharine. And then you start to feel this darkness, a smile with a widening eye.
HEALY: And I’ve never said this about Ion, but it’s a bit, what’s the word? Slightly jaded, maybe? And that’s not where its life is coming from. Do you know what I mean? It’s almost like, “Oh, there’s this band from that part of—” I don’t know what we’re calling that part of New York anymore. I don’t even know if we’re allowed to call it that, but that “Dimes Square” area. And someone was like, “There’s a band that’s there.” If I was to guess what I thought they would sound like, it’d be some traditional post-Strokes, Death from Above, some kind of cool shit, right? I’m not saying that The Life isn’t cool shit, I’m saying that it has hooks and it has melodies and it’s optimistic in the sense that it’s ambitious.
PAWLEY: Yeah. That’s something we bonded over early. I’ve always had a self-consciousness because I feel like the music I’m making, despite my being extremely happy with it, is way less cool than things I’m surrounded by.
HEALY: I’d say that I felt like that. I wouldn’t say I’ve struggled with that… I haven’t had to prove anything to myself. I know that I love Neutral Milk Hotel. I’m not worried that my taste isn’t being delineated through my art because it’s popular. So what’s the deal with this record?
PAWLEY: For now, just this first single’s coming out. It started during COVID, so I was by myself, and it was this weird thing birthed from me being alone and filling in all the parts myself. And then the more I worked on it, the more I started to feel like I liked this—I liked it sounding like what it was, which was one guy alone in a room with his limited tools, trying to make something that sounded as big as it could.
HEALY: You were leaning into the tantrums…
PAWLEY: Exactly. It does sound, to me, like a crazed guy trying to do that thing alone in his room. But it doesn’t sound bedroom-y. I like that. The thing that’s really strange to me is when I listen back to this song, I thought I made something very weird. And then a lot of people who’ve heard it are like, “Oh, wow, it’s like pop music. I wasn’t expecting something so commercial and catchy.” That is so not what it sounds like to me. Obviously, it has hooks, because I care a lot about hooks, but to me it didn’t sound traditionally pop in that way. Not to go off on a tangent, but I was really into extreme music, post-hardcore, and then I was deep into noise music and avant garde stuff when I was young. Then this thing happened as I got older where I still enjoyed it. But I saw people who just became lifers in this experimental or abstract realm. And to me, the reason I got into music when I was a kid wasn’t because I heard avant garde music, but it was because I heard radio.
HEALY: You got into music as an art, as opposed to music as music. It’s a different thing.
PAWLEY: Yeah. But all that’s to say that, to me, pop songcraft and strong writing and the little decisions that go into songwriting, the way that parts of the song move into other parts, the way you can combine a lyric with a certain riff to create a certain emotion. To me, that is as extreme as some heavy avant garde music.
HEALY: Yeah. In any field, you normally find the top-end of people who have just gone full circle. For me, you start out with a major chord and then you discover Coltrane and Genesis P-Orridge and go off on this mad tangent. But then you come back to the fundamentals. Did you see Tár?
PAWLEY: I loved it. That was my favorite movie last year.
HEALY: I thought it was sick. I only just saw it. And I thought it was really interesting from a musical perspective. You didn’t like The Whale, right?
PAWLEY: I hated it. Did you like it?
HEALY: I haven’t seen it, no. But say you try to make a film, right? You’ve got to write the script, you’ve got to imagine the scene, you’ve eventually got to cast the actors, set it up, film it. You don’t really know if a scene works until you’ve done all this excess stuff. Whereas, you know if a song works immediately.
HEALY: And that’s the thing with music. Music commands you how to feel. Like ambient music, for example. Every other medium, words or visuals or literature or painting, they suggest how you should feel, whereas music commands you to feel like that.
PAWLEY: Yeah, yeah.
HEALY: And there’s an immediacy with music. And I think that’s one of the reasons I feel way more confident making music, because I’m just going with my gut. That’s the only actual feeling that I have. You do it and you go, “Fuck, okay. Sure, it needs some guitars and some strings and a bit of concept, but I’ve got a thing. A soul or something.”
PAWLEY: Something that I enjoy about writing music is you can follow these emotional rabbit holes. It’s so cliché to compare music to painting, but an abstract painter just gets into this trance, this zone, and they’re following instinct. Whereas, if you’re writing a script, you have to think about the decisions that you’re making for the character. Why does this character feel this way? Why is he acting this way? You have to zoom out.
HEALY: You couldn’t jam a movie and get it in one take and then be like, “Oh, we’ll never get that any better.”
PAWLEY: This reminds me of something I wanted to bring up with you. We’re both big lyric guys. It’s funny, because half of my musician friends don’t listen to lyrics, which I don’t understand. But for me, because I’m also a production and a craft nerd, it’s the way a lyric or phrase is married to those aspects of music, that’s the biggest rush that I can get out of a song. I feel like you’re really good at writing about specific things. For example, on “Too Shy,” you’re writing about this one specific scenario, trying to get back to your hotel to get on the computer and talk to this girl. There might be subtext about a larger relationship you have with this girl or with sex. But the song itself, the lyrics, is taking this one scenario that’s specific to you. Does that make sense?
HEALY: It does. That’s how I like writing and I was always trying to articulate what that was. I’ve told you about this night in variations, but it was one of the nights where me and Mike Skinner were out together and I remember just being like, “‘Blinded by the Light’—there’s no song that’s as good of a narrative story as that song.” The way he goes to the nightclub, he can’t get in. He’s looking for his friends, he takes the pill, he still can’t find them, he comes up before they even meet, and then the music all happens at the same time. And he said to me, “Don’t leave the kitchen. If the song happens in the kitchen, you stay in the kitchen.”
PAWLEY: Yeah, exactly.
HEALY: That’s what we always call it, “staying in the kitchen.” Ask somebody what There Will Be Blood is about, they won’t say it’s about oil. Because what I fucking hate is when somebody writes really brilliant, quite open-ended emotional songs, or songs that do stay in the kitchen, then they come out and go, “No, this is what the song’s about.” And I’m like, “No, no, no. Let me play as well.” Once you give a song up, it doesn’t really belong to you. Don’t be like, “It’s not about your specific situation, it’s about mine.” It’s like, “No, let them apply it.” People who have kids have done that with my songs before, where I’m like, “This is what the song’s about.” Then a kid smarter than me comes up and they’re like, “Oh, I thought it was about this.” And then I’m like, “Fuck, I think that actually might be what it was about, from a deeper place.” So you can’t have too much ownership of your vision.
PAWLEY: I totally agree. And I think audiences are smart enough to get that. For me, I don’t normally get inspired to write based on an event. You’re going through a breakup, that situation is imbued with so much more than just the relationship between you and this other person dissolving. It brings up all this other stuff. A breakup is not just about the two people, it’s imbued with all these other emotions that come from different contexts in your life that have nothing to do with the relationship. And that’s how I think about writing lyrics. For example, maybe you start to think about how you’re self-destructive. So then I want to write a lyric about being self-destructive, but that’s a really broad thing. Then it could be that you use the breakup as a catalyst, as a subject in the song, but the song is not about the breakup. The song is about your proclivity for self-destruction.
HEALY: Oh, one hundred percent. The best example of that is “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. The ninth time he’s like, “I’m not in love,” you’re like, “This guy’s so fucking in love.” That’s a really clever device in that song. It takes a lot of confidence to let the audience give you the benefit of the doubt and not over explain. And at the risk of sounding corny, that’s what I worry about in my work as I get old, as I become a more mature person. Things simplify in your life and my songwriting has refined itself a little bit. And with that, I’ve lost some of the verbose elements. I give myself less room to just get it all out. I desire more concise stuff.
PAWLEY: Exactly. But also, as you mature, you have more vehicles when you think of an emotion or a place that you want to write from.
HEALY: You’re American as well. You can get away with different shit. In the UK, my whole thing has been a celebration of the mundane. It’s taken me five albums to say, “I’m in love with you.” I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even if the music was saying that. I’ve always had to cut myself off. But if we weren’t big in America, I probably wouldn’t be like that. I wouldn’t be as earnest as I have been on that last record.
PAWLEY: To me, the most exciting thing about writing, as opposed to this traditional storytelling thing, is the subtext story that’s coming out.
HEALY: Yeah. I’ve been waiting for a really young band of 16-year-olds to blow me away for a decade now. Recently, I’ve felt like there’s got to be a kid. I’m trying to think of what the next revolutionary form is, because we had bands and we had rappers, and female pop stars being the rock stars of the past 15 years. And when rock music or rock culture is being referenced in the mainstream now, it’s all references to 2000s pop-punk or really on-the-nose references to the ’70s. People have been talking about, “Where’s guitar music at?” for so long.
PAWLEY: I’m not trying to be a boomer complaining about music. But I think maybe the reason there hasn’t been that young revolutionary thing is because that’s what artists, especially young artists, are trying to do. They go into it with an attitude of, “I’m trying to push music forward.” And to me, that shouldn’t be the end goal. Doing something in a new way is a vehicle. It makes musicians overlook all the shit that we were just talking about, like the DNA of a song.
HEALY: The reason that The 1975 was so poppy was almost the punk aspect. We were really leaning into it in a kind of ironic way. And then another thing to talk about that you mentioned, Adele is proof that basically since pop culture started selling the song, we’ve gotten all these different genres. We’ve gone, “What about songs like this, and songs like that?” Pop-punk, vanilla pop, punk, reggae, blah, blah, blah. I think what we really want is a great voice, a great melody, and a great story, with not much stuff getting in the way. And that’s why you have Adele and a piano being the biggest thing of all time, because it’s what everyone wants, really.
PAWLEY: I’ve said this on the pod before so I’m definitely repeating myself. But why was Peter Gabriel so great? He got access to the Fairlight and all this other new technology at the time. And then he started exploring that technology and he got ideas from the sounds and textures, whatever he was making in the studio that informed his songcraft. So what does the average musician do? They try to recreate those sounds and that vibe. But it’s not about nailing that vibe. That’s a cool thing to do as a fan and a nerd. It’s fun, but that’s not why that music’s so great. It’s not just because the sounds are good, it was the way he took the songwriting craft that he had and used the things that were at his disposal, that were new and inspiring, to level up the classic songwriting craft that he had. That’s what I’m trying to say. Now, in this nostalgia era, I feel like even really talented musicians—I’ve definitely been guilty of this, too—they’re like, “Ah, man, I love synths that sound like that. I love guitars that sound like that. I got to do that.” But the records you love that do that, they use those sounds that you love to elevate their song craft. You’ve got to get the songcraft down.
HEALY: Everything that’s ever really changed culture has been new. I think that takes a lot of confidence. I don’t want to be self-effacing. I work really, really hard. I’m obsessed with what I do, way more obsessed than the majority of people that I know are. But there’s an element of luck to it as well, in regards to how you look, where you’re from. If The 1975 were from Serbia, we wouldn’t be big. There’s this new thing on TikTok and Instagram where it’s essentially session guitarists or failed musicians saying, “Here are the tools that you need to build your audience,” and treating shit algorithmically. It’s this ironic understanding of the ephemeral qualities of art that draw people into it, and [they’re] just saying, “No, it’s all math.” It really fucking isn’t. A lot of stuff is just feeling. And you can’t tell someone to listen to your music, bro. That’s not how it works, you know?
PAWLEY: It’s funny because one of our mutual favorite musicians is actually quite theoretical, and that’s Brian Eno. But the reason Eno’s theoretical tendencies can translate to good music is because he boils them down. Think about Oblique Strategies. Those are sensual instructions as opposed to this algorithmic instruction that we’re talking about.
HEALY: A hundred percent. They’re evocative. They’re not didactic, they’re not mathematical. They’re not telling you how to construct the song. Eno is an interesting subject. He’s quite theoretical, but then again he also doesn’t know that much about music, which is nice. There’s a lot of people that are like that. Like your boy from The National, who will refuse to even learn how to play chords because he feels like he’s tarnishing his purity as a songwriter. I like people who have reverence for that.
PAWLEY: Yeah, same.
HEALY: Eno had such good taste and he was around at a time where you could imbue so much mystery and wizard robes onto people. Eno is one of those artists, like lots of artists that me and you love, that their law is a huge part of who they are.
PAWLEY: When I was studying music theory young, it made it so when I would hear too simple of a pop song—I mean, I don’t think like this at all now—I was like, “This is too simple, I need to spice it up.” But then when I sat and tried to be like, “Well, how could I modulate the key here? How could I do something to make it more interesting?” It’d just trip me up. I went too deep into the rules rabbit hole, and now I can’t write a song. But then it got to the point where I just knew those things. I wasn’t thinking about them actively. I’m just like, “All right, we’ve got to move to a new section here.” And the next thing I know, I made a nice little progression. But I didn’t think about it. It just came out of this reservoir somewhere. But also, probably, most of my favorite musicians had no idea what they were doing.
HEALY: Exactly. I mean, I’m from Manchester. It was just basically that The Sex Pistols turned up one day and it was just a domino effect. What time is it? How long have we been talking for?
PAWLEY: It’s been like a good hour.
HEALY: Did you see they’ve done a “When We Were Young” for 2000s R&B music?
PAWLEY: Oh, really? Whoa.
HEALY: Yeah. It’s Nelly, 50 Cent, Lil Kim, fucking Busta Rhymes, Boyz II Men. I think it’s in Vegas, a festival in Vegas.
PAWLEY: I love that kind of shit.
HEALY: It looks fucking dope. What was that Nelly and Kelly tune? There’s so many big songs like that. Or another big major key banger was “Come On Over” by Christina Aguilera, a big influence for the sound that we have.
PAWLEY: Wow, true. I never thought of—
HEALY: Yeah, that’s what I was doing. I was doing “Come On Over,” the big stabs on the ground and shit like that. So, tell me what you’re going to do. You’re going to put out this single, “Grace.”
PAWLEY: Yeah, so this comes out on the 25th.
HEALY: Are you going to play some shows?
PAWLEY: Yeah, there’s going to be a release show on February 4th.
HEALY: Oh, yeah? You’re playing on the 4th of February? That’s the day I get out there.
PAWLEY: Oh, really?
PAWLEY: Sick, sick.
HEALY: I’ll come down to that if we can get there in time.
PAWLEY: We’re solidifying a very strange venue. It’s sick.
HEALY: Well, don’t talk too much about it anyway. The music’s great. Just do what you do.
PAWLEY: I’m allergic to promotion.
HEALY: Exactly. As you should be. Just put it out. Then I’ll direct people to this interview.