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13th Mar 2018

“We’ve always needed pop escapism” – JOE meets Olly Alexander of Years & Years

Dave Hanratty

Olly Alexander Years & Years Interview

“I think we’re moving forward, but there are always going to be challenges and we have to remain vigilant.”

The story goes that Olly Alexander landed the role of Years & Years frontman after being overheard singing in the shower.

Think of it like The Voice, only with less fancy chairs and more mundane everyday routine. In the following years (and years) it became apparent that Alexander was destined for bigger and brighter stages.

The numbers, they do not lie – millions of sales, billions of streams, and an ever-expanding legion of disciples. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that the imminent follow-up to 2015’s Communion album centres around a futuristic fantasy world of Alexander’s own making.

‘Sanctify’ is the first such taste, calling on early Justin Timberlake while retaining that signature, searching Years & Years character.

Clip via YearsAndYearsVEVO

JOE caught up with Alexander some hours before the song’s official bow to get his thoughts on his new material, his status as a role model in a changing world and what Irish TV show he’d like to soundtrack…

JOE: Hey Olly, how are you today?

Olly Alexander: I’m good, thank you, how are you?

Slightly hungover, but I won the office film quiz last night, so that’s taking the edge off quite nicely.

You did?! Oh my God, congrats! Such a good feeling when you win a pub quiz.

Why thanks, I’m quite pleased about it. Congratulations on the new single, I think it sounds a bit like Justin Timberlake, the good version of him, anyway.

Oh, that is just music to my ears, thank you. I’m a big fan of early Justin Timberlake, and he was definitely an inspiration, as was Britney Spears. All the greats!

You’ve said that you want to take people on “a wild and wonderful adventure through my dreams to a world that’s very different from our own”. Are you much of a dreamer?

I used to have recurring dreams, but now I tend to have random and quite insane ones where I’m in space or milling about in some underground world. I’ve always day-dreamed, though, and still love doing that.

Do you think that we need pop escapism now more than ever?

Well, I think we’ve always needed pop escapism. It’s just for me, I guess I wanted to escape there, and I’m hoping that other people will, too. I was thinking about the things that are really important to me, and the message that I put into everything I do, which has a lot to do with my identity as a gay guy.

I also thought, ‘Well, why don’t I just create a world that has completely different rules and societies than our own?’ So, it doesn’t matter what sexuality you are, it doesn’t matter what gender you are, everything can be fluid and we can make that space for ourselves.

It sounds like you’re effectively creating your own utopia on this album.

I don’t know if I would call it a utopia, but I’ve definitely liked playing around with possible ideas for the future. Maybe!

Society has become more progressive in certain respects, but there are still conflicting aspects. How do you find navigating it as someone who is an icon for a lot of people?

I think we can feel good about the progress that we have made. We’ve made incredible strides in terms of progression towards equality, particularly with LGBTQ rights, we’ve made leaps and bounds to get to where we are now. But I think maybe because of the way we interact with technology and communicate with each other, that everything has become a lot more exposed.

I think a lot of people do still harbour prejudices about whatever, and now they’re getting exposed because we have so much online hyperbole all the time, and people fighting with each other, so it can feel quite chaotic. But that’s not always a bad thing. It’s good that we’re seeing these things that might otherwise have been hidden before. I think we’re moving forward, but there are always going to be challenges and we have to remain vigilant, as it were.

Clip via YearsAndYearsVEVO

I feel like our generation and the generation coming up are facing such challenges for the very first time. Our parents never had to deal with this kind of communication and the various misfires and pitfalls that come with it. It’s like we’re fighting new ground, and that can get lost in the crossfire.

Totally. There’s a lack of understanding inter-generationally, if that’s a sentence that even makes sense, because there does feel like a lot of new technology moving through the world that we all have to navigate, and there isn’t really a guidebook for it, so I’m not surprised that it’s causing a lot of anxiety and stress.

As it happens, you have been described as a ‘once in a generation frontman’. How does that sit with you?

Oh God, who described me as that?

It’s in your press release, mate.

Oh, it’s in my press release, great! Well, it’s very, very flattering. I feel a mixture of things about it; a little bit embarrassed because it’s always a little bit embarrassing to be described as something like that but also… I don’t know, it’s kind of really cool, so I’m actually quite grateful as well.

Before I let you go, a couple of years-related questions, if you don’t mind?

Yes, of course, go for it.

2018 is the year of the dog. You were born in 1990, the year of the horse. People born on that year are said to be warm-hearted, enthusiastic, and positive, but also a little self-centred. As they are lively and active, running in broad areas, so it is also the symbol of independence and freedom. Does that accurately describe you?

Yeah! I was thinking ‘spookily accurate’ as you said it.

“Not much has changed but they lived underwater” is a line from what song?

[Sings it back] That’s ‘Year 3000’ by Busted! I went to see McBusted before the official big Busted reunion. I actually love Busted. The songs were really good.

Do you think 12 Years A Slave deserved the Oscar?

I mean, I haven’t seen it, but I think so? I don’t know! The Oscars are ridiculous. I didn’t watch it this year, I find the Oscars really boring and I never watch the movies that are nominated. It’s not really for me.

‘Years’ rhymes with ‘fears’ so what’s your greatest fear?

I always worry that if someone doesn’t pick up the phone, or if they don’t text back really quickly, that they’re dead.

That’s heavy. I was expecting spiders or something.

I don’t like spiders, I’ll be honest, but I’ve gotten much better with them. They’re kind of cool, like little aliens.

And finally, are you familiar with Irish institution Reeling In The Years?

No, what does that mean? It’s a television show?

It is. Can you guess what the premise is?

Is it a trivia show about the past?

Er, that sums it up quite well, nice work. They always play songs from the specific year in question, and there’s usually some belters.

Wow, that’s cool.

So, if you could get one Years & Years song onto Reeling In The Years, which one would you go for?

I think I’d go with ‘Shine’. Yeah, I’d like that one played.

Alright, I’ll get onto RTÉ and see if we can make it happen.

Yes! I appreciate that, thank you.

Clip via YearsAndYearsVEVO

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