ABOVE: YEARS & YEARS’ (L-R) MIKEY GOLDSWORTHY, OLLY ALEXANDER, AND EMRE TURKMEN
We first heard Olly Alexander of Years & Years at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where he opened a Belle and Sebastian show with a solo keyboard cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” It is, unfortunately, nowhere to be found on the band’s Soundcloud, but what they put out as a group might be even better. It has the same soulful vocals (Alexander grew up on Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder), but they’re backed by slinky synths and antsy, emotive drumbeats. “We all come from a live-band background,” the frontman (whom we also know as an actor) explains. “Recently we’ve used more and more electronic. We’re trying to make dance music, but then keep a kind of heart to it.”
That’s what a lot of dance music tries to do, but Years & Years does it exceptionally well. Their new EP, Real, features a single by the same name and a B-side titled “Eyes Shut.” On both tracks, Alexander brims with anxious, earnest energy as he confronts his insecurities. “Real” hears him plead repeatedly, “I’ll do what you like if you stay the night/You tell me you don’t think you should/I think you should.” Add effervescent synth lines and hard-hitting bass by bandmates Emre Turkmen and Mikey Goldsworthy for emotional relief, and the record takes on that contagiously happy-sad quality that makes good dance music stick.
Alexander probably won’t be back at Sundance anytime soon. At the end of last year, he decided to concentrate on his work with Years & Years for a while. “I don’t feel right if I’m not 100 percent focusing on one thing,” he says. “It feels a bit false otherwise.” That single-mindedness is paying off: So far, 2014 has seen the band book a couple big London gigs and release a new music video starring Skyfall‘s Ben Whishaw and Misfits‘ Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. We got on the phone with Alexander to ask what else we could expect from Years & Years in the near future.
ZACK ETHEART: Did you see anything you liked at Sundance?
OLLY ALEXANDER: No, I didn’t see anything, unfortunately. There really wasn’t any time. And I also felt—maybe it was all in my head—but the altitude made me feel delirious. [laughs] I also took way too much Valium on the plane when I came over, so it took me a day or two to recover, and then by that point I had to leave again.
ETHEART: I think all week everyone was blaming everything on the altitude.
ALEXANDER: [laughs] Yeah, it was a great excuse. I was like, “I’ve had one beer and I feel crazy! It must be the altitude!”
ETHEART: “Eyes Shut” is a lot softer and sadder than some of your other stuff. Is that a direction you want to explore more in the future, or was it more of a one-off?
ALEXANDER: It’s kind of difficult when you release like an EP and you want to choose a B-side, because you have all this material, and you want to release something that complements the track you’re releasing, but maybe is also a little bit different. We had a lot of options and we ended up going with “Eyes Shut” because, A, it was finished. [laughs] But we’ve also never played that song live. We thought it was quite different to the music we’re making now, but it would probably never get heard unless we put it on this B-side. So we went ahead and did it. When we make an album it’ll be quite diverse, I suppose. But yeah, it’s sort of a different direction than what we normally do.
ETHEART: Does each of you bring different tastes to the table when you’re writing a song?
ALEXANDER: I think so. I definitely think so. We have music and tastes that we all love, but we all differ as well. Like Mikey, he really loves Flying Lotus—we all love Flying Lotus—and he also loves his bass. And Emre is really interesting because he kind of exists in his own world. He used to be an architect, so I feel like that’s how he builds music: in this very structured, well-rounded way. And I listen to a lot of new music and R&B, so I’ll try to feed that in. Emre and Mike are a bit more into, like, Radiohead, so they may try to bring in a more classic influence.
ETHEART: Do you guys have any plans to do a full album anytime soon?
ALEXANDER: [laughs] That’s a good question. Yeah, we’re gonna do one at some point. When that will be, I’m not totally sure. We’re in the process of deciding on a deal at the moment, and then once we know what that is, we’ll hopefully know when an album is coming. We’ve just been writing a lot of material, so I think from our perspective, an album is not that far away. But I don’t know. There’s this magical world of the music industry that dictates when you release your album.
ETHEART: How did you all meet?
ALEXANDER: I met Mikey first, like four years ago. He was working with a girl that I was living with. I’d moved to London maybe a year before, and he’d just moved to London a year before as well, from Australia. I’d been in bands and stuff when I was younger, but I hadn’t done any music for a while, and I really wanted to be in a band again and he was in a band. He’d just started a band with Emre and I basically forced my way in. [laughs] I said, “I want to be in a band. Let me sing for you.” And that’s how it started. Years & Years went through different transformations. We had a girl for a while, and then we had a drummer, and then we had different drummer. It’s had a journey already until it’s got to this point.
ETHEART: So do you think that this is its final form?
ALEXANDER: I think so. I think we’ve got to a place where it seems to be working. We know each other so well now. I think it’s good to spend that time figuring out how you work creatively. I’m always quite surprised at bands that form within six months, and then they’re suddenly touring and writing all this music. I think it can work, but it’s good to lay the foundations. It took us a while to figure out what we wanted our sound to be, and we’re still figuring that out.
ETHEART: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the idea behind the video for “Real.”
ALEXANDER: I’ve known Ben for a really long time, and he’s just a really good mover. He has this weird sort of thing where he looks like an octopus when he moves. [laughs] It’s like has no backbone or something. And then the whole idea came about because I took a lot of inspiration from Twin Peaks and David Lynch and that video that The Knife did, “Pass This On,” where someone starts dancing and this kind of magical, mystical thing happens. People sort of come out of their body. There’s this kind of strange element to someone losing themselves when they’re dancing, I suppose. And then, because the song was all about me feeling like I wasn’t good enough for someone, I thought it would be kind of cool if I was the one judging other people. So the whole card thing was kind of arbitrary: “You’re good,” “You’re not good enough.” I don’t know, there’s a lot of meaning! At one point we were all sitting around and we were talking about heaven and hell and purgatory, and this dancehall being purgatory. [laughs] It’s all over the place.