Cover Feature 2015: The year of Years & Years

Battling convention, shunning acting, quitting jobs in plush restaurants - Years & Years’ story is one of sacrifice and (imminent) success.

How the three members of Years & Years ended up here is anyone’s guess, but together they stand on the brink of being 2015’s success story. Frontman Olly Alexander’s had his fair share of success in acting, shunning a similarly promising path to focus on this project when he had to choose between the two. Bassist Mikey Goldsworthy and gadget-wizard Emre Turkmen had to make big decisions too. The former worked in a Michelin star-rated restaurant, the latter studying architecture.

And when you begin to consider previous bands they used to be in, the story makes even less sense. Goldsworthy was once in an experimental outfit with fellow Aussie hype-magnet Oscar Key Sung. “It was a weird Sigur Rós-inspired band. We used to play the drums with a bow,” he lists off, current bandmate Olly rolling his eyes and giving a very frank “I hate you” verdict. “I’ve been in quite a few,” he continues. “Some metal bands. Some jazz bands. Some Argentinian tango bands… That was with my dad.” None of these got very far, he admits, except for one. But things unfortunately and somewhat hilariously hit a wall because “I was in too many bands!”

Sometime in January 2014, this fragmented history took a backseat and gave way to a bright future. A video for ‘Real’ (starring Olly’s actor mate Ben Whishaw) began to take off, the song itself even more so. “We thought, ‘Oh, hopefully the video will get some hits!’ But the actual song - you could see it on SoundCloud. The numbers going up and up. That’s what started everything,” says Olly. Within weeks they were signed. Mikey remembers all three members being in his old restaurant digs when they first heard of interest. “I don’t think any of us thought it would happen,” he confesses. “It came out of nowhere.”

We’re really just fumbling through it, aren’t we? Mikey Goldsworthy

From then on, things careered skywards, towards the big-deal support slots, the Jools shows and the undeniably massive follow-up singles. “As soon as we got signed, our manager was like, ‘The hard work starts now’. We were like, ‘Yay we got signed! We can quit!’” Olly jokes. “It’s been way, way more intense than I thought it would be.”

Wait until they find out what happens next. Years & Years have shot up into public consciousness with singles that build on ‘Real’’s heady, emotion-juggling take on dance. ‘Take Shelter’ made playful pop come off like an ominous siren, follow-up ‘Desire’ balancing its certified, Ibiza-ready blast of energy with unhinged invention. That’s the thing with these three: they unite in their ability to pen monster hits, but each contributes a drastically different shade. Olly’s vocals are a head-turning pitch, a giddy glue to Emre’s production and Mikey’s similarly complex dynamics. There must be a temptation to dive straight into chart-topping singles for the hell of it (the ingredients are there), but Years & Years seem determined to forge their own route.

Now it’s just a question of keeping their own heads. Fortunately, they’re all rubbish at partying - they’ve had one collective night out (“we had a terrible time,” says Olly, Emre quietly disagreeing), with Mikey sticking to his roots by saying “I’m more of a restaurant guy.” So there’s no danger of the trio veering off course into a drug-addled stupor. The extent of their inter-band madness stops short at the “Y” tattoos both Olly and Emre decided to adorn themselves with on a whim. Mikey didn’t get one. Again, all about the restaurants.

It’s a bit like a training camp or something. Olly Alexander

Self-discipline comes into the equation for the frontman especially. “I get really paranoid about getting sick,” claims Olly. “You never want to do a show hungover. I feel terrible but it’s also not good for people to see some hungover, shambling idiot trying to sing. I’m such a hypochondriac. I’ve read stories about Jared Leto wearing gloves to touch someone because he was so scared of germs. I’m not that bad…”

He mentions Leto without being prompted, which is interesting given the actor-musician complex he’s quickly been tagged with. There’s no traditional route for these things, but when offered the choice between a lucrative career in acting and a good old fashioned slog in the music business, most talented individuals would opt for the former. Olly was at a crossroads towards the end of 2013. “It was all happening at the same time,” he remembers. “I don’t know what the right word is, but I got a bit fed up of doing work that I didn’t really believe in. And I wanted to be with the guys making music. Towards the end of last year I decided to focus on music - I didn’t want to do any more acting. And then early this year, ‘Real’ happened. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to go back.”

His bandmates then list off every actor and musician combination they can think of, Justin Timberlake and Billy Bob Thornton being the highlights. Olly’s career in acting wasn’t as high profile as Years & Years are right now, although appearances in Skins, US series Penny Dreadful and Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl pointed towards a bright future. It seems as if he’s made the right choice, though. And he’s not ruling out future roles. “It’d be cool to do something else in the future. Maybe make our own films.”

“It’s been way, way more intense than I thought it would be.” Olly Alexander

2015 is when things get serious. Talk’s centred around an album for some time, but now it’s truly happening. The trio claim they’ve been in “album mode” for months, but Olly admits they’ve had to be “single-minded”, no pun intended, with 2014 output. “It’s because of the music industry, and the type of act we are. But we all really love albums. We all grew up listening to albums. And vinyl is selling more than it has in the last twenty-five years. People want a body of work from an act they love.”

Asked if there’s anything that unites a first record’s material, it’s the first time Olly squirms in his seat. The answer’s direct, though. “Unrequited love,” he says. “It’s really a bitch. That about sums it up. I really resent having to say they’re all heartbreak songs. But they’re all personal, lyrically referring to the last three years of my life. It’s a personal therapy.”

But nothing’s set in stone. A full-length will either consist of “ten power ballads” or, in more serious terms, a cohesive piece that showcases something different. “Our live set is always really uptempo. We want to have a bit of variety,” Olly says.

If things got ‘Real’ with this year’s breakthrough single, the opposite followed. A series of surreal experiences, one after the next, from meeting Robert Plant at Later... With Jools Holland to seeing singles hit the million-plus listener count. But there’s a sense that back in 2013, even if they “never” thought they’d get a record deal, this whirlwind experience is something all three collectively and subconsciously signed up for. 2014’s more than suggested that they’re ready - 2015 looks set to be the making of this brilliantly diverse bunch.

Tags: Years & Years, Class of 2015, Class of…, Features, Interviews, Cover Features

As featured in the December 2014 / January 2015 issue of DIY, out now.

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