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Attitude interviews Years & Years’ gay frontman Olly Alexander

By Aaron Tamazou

Olly Alexander went from occasional shower singer to breakthrough number one artist with Years & Years. In this in-depth interview, he speaks to Attitude’s Aaron Toumazou about adversity in his childhood, King’s lost ‘butt dance’ and his favourite songs to fuck to…

She’s quite an incredible woman,” declares the Years & Years frontman regarding formidable retail guru Mary Portas. The unlikely subject crops up as Olly Alexander describes the highlight of his week of celebrations for number one single King; a cosy night in. Secret Shopper isn’t his favourite though. In keeping with an apparent affinity for business consultancy on screen, that accolade goes to Ramsay’s Hotel Hell, closely followed by Comedy Central sitcom Broad City, which a friend recently recommended. His telly tastes are a well curated combination of popular primetime hits and acclaimed niches, much like his very chart-friendly, leftfield electro pop.

Y&Y #2 (Jan 2015) (Mike Massaro)

Olly has a natural glow to him, sitting in the courtyard of the Hoxton Hotel, either the upshot of his recent admission to the number one club, a long-needed night in, or the questionably neon peppermint tea he’s cautiously sipping. Management informed he and his bandmates that a number one was probably on the cards a week prior, so they never really experienced one joyous moment of realisation, but before that they were categorically told a number one simply wasn’t achievable amidst the relentless and seemingly unabating chart success of the 50 Shades soundtrack.

“I think they always go by worst-case scenarios. I don’t think they want to get your hopes up,” says Olly. “There’s this article on the BBC website my friend sent me where they quote me saying something like, ‘They told us we would never be number one, they just said it wouldn’t be, but then it was,’ like I had nothing more articulate to say when we got to number one.” He chuckles, “Oh well.”

This apathy does no justice to the enthusiasm that radiates from Olly in almost everything he talks about, from his art to a TV show about struggling hospitality outlets. But the number one is just the latest in a long line of serendipitous moments in the Years & Years journey, the first being getting discovered in his own shower: “My starring moment,” he scoffs, then cracks up when I deem it inspirational: “Yeah, all you shower singers out there, just keep going, because you never know, could get a number one!” It was five years ago after a house party at his that bassist Mikey Goldsworthy – who’d been making music with synth player Emre Turkman and worked with Olly’s housemate – crashed on the sofa and heard Olly singing away in the buff that fateful morning. “Mikey was the first person in London who wanted to be in a band,” he recalls. “I’d been in bands at school but I moved to London when I was 18 and I didn’t know anyone. I just moved down and had no friends or whatever. I was desperate to start making music and I kind of just forced my way in to what Mikey and Emre already had going on.”

Y&Y #1 (Jan 2015) (Mike Massaro)

The year before, Olly upped sticks from Forest of Dean, where he spent most of his childhood, to pursue a career in acting. “I wanted to get out of my rural town as soon as I could,” he admits, with intentions of taking shelter in London from an early age. “I’d made enough money to support myself when I was 18, to rent a flat at least, so I just moved. Now that seems crazy to me. I was so young. All my friends were going to uni and stuff and there was me in my room with no windows, this terrible flat off Brick Lane. It was so bad, but it was fine. I thought I could work as an actor and… I don’t know, just get away.”

And that he did, landing roles in Skins and last year’s The Riot Club, among others, in between bar and restaurant jobs. Six years on and you’d be forgiven for thinking Olly was a born and raised Londoner, from his distinctly East London sense of style to his encyclopedic knowledge of a good night out. So how often does he make it back to the small town he grew up in? He sighs, “Not very. Last year I only went back at Christmas. I don’t really have any roots there any more, I was born in Blackpool. My mum lives there now with her boyfriend, and my brother lives with her still. I should go back more really, but it’s quite difficult because it sort of feels like you’re digressing, and that’s quite painful for me.”

A busy year in 2013 means we may be seeing Olly on screen again in the near future, though he claims acting is well and truly on the back-burner now. Nonetheless, he’s putting his skills from the trade to good use in Years & Years music videos, a creative process whereby he enjoys getting his hands dirty. “I put together an initial, kind of mood board. Well, for Real and Take Shelter I was a bit like: ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ and for Desire and King I came up with lots of different ideas and images and directors and themes,” he explains. King’s particular ‘mood board’ saw them in contact with choreographer Ryan Heffington, the man responsible for the iconic Maddy Zeigler routine in Sia’s Chandelier video. “We knew we wanted dancers in the video and Ryan had been in touch, saying he liked our songs, so of course I was like ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing.’ We wanted to show I was being manipulated by something. The song, King, is about a relationship I was in, and it all came together like that.”

Heffington has also choreographed the more experimental routines of R&Bs hottest property FKA Twigs. On the mention of her name Olly’s eyes double in size, and he recounts the story of when he approached her in a Tesco Metro a year and a half ago to gush about her first EP, only for her to drop her purse in astonishment causing him to scutter across the floor in order to pick up her loose change. By chance, I’d bumped into Olly before her especially elaborate Congregata show at Camden’s Roundhouse in February. “I didn’t know how to process it,” he exclaims. “What was cool about it is I was expecting to go to a gig and it wasn’t a gig, it was a show. It was a dance/art piece. I find her so so fascinating. She just has something about her. We have so many people who are pop stars who I don’t think are STAR stars. It’s so rare to have that quality, but she has it.” Known for her staggering contortion and a knack for voguing, did Ryan Heffington attempt anything quite so radical with Years & Years? “He had this one idea where he wanted to do this butt dance. He wanted to film really close to all the dancers’ butts doing this butt dance, but it never ended up in the video.” Olly’s gesticulation of raised arms and pursed lips reads: ‘WhatYouGonnaDo?’, “Maybe next time! It’ll happen at some point.”

Well, that’s something to look forward to in the next of an already impressive line of music videos, which emerged as something of a forte for the band on the release of Real, where Olly drew on his acting ties to enlist Ben Whishaw and his somewhat eccentric dance style. “I met him when I was 17 because I played his brother in Bright Star, which he was in, for like one scene…” he explains, abruptly chuckling: “I was in one scene. He was the main character.” Though Olly’s not certain about any future cameos, he’d love to get someone cool involved, having recently admired the casting of Tom Hanks in a new Carly Rae Jepsen video. “They all want to do it, I guess.”

Gimmicks aside, Olly attests to being “as personal as possible” in his lyrics, before deeming that “a bit of a weird phrase.” There is a degree of ambiguity he holds dear, but in no way has this been an attempt to keep his sexuality under wraps. That said, I’m interested to see what Olly makes of the fact that lots of his fans aren’t aware that he’s gay, without anything to document it in the public domain. “No one has explicitly asked until quite recently, which I thought was kind of cool, because either people knew I was gay or it just didn’t matter to them,” he says. “It’s so weird. It’s a really strange thing. I mean, I sort of think, for starters it’s such a personal thing for whoever, in whatever industry. It’s your choice to deal with it however you want to deal with it. I sort of assumed everyone already knew, but then people were telling me that people don’t know until you tell them.”

Y&Y #3 (Jan 2015) (Mike Massaro)

With PR hush-ups of rising pop stars and actors’ sexualities still very much a feature of the industry today, Olly has been a modest and unassuming exception to the dated notion. “I’ve kind of got that impression from certain people. Not with anyone I work with, but people have been like ‘Are you not afraid of turning people off?’” he explains. “But I actually think those people are really out of touch and don’t know what they’re talking about. I was never worried that it would be a problem. I don’t think it is a problem anymore. I think it’s a really outdated thing to think that you have to sell this romantic fantasy that a singer is straight so that girls want to sleep with them. It’s insane. Anyway, Sam [Smith] has proved that you don’t need to be straight to sell records.”

Regardless, Olly is fast to point out where his sex appeal is being directed when I bring up his growing status as “a bit of a sex symbol for fifteen year old girls,” he agrees, in hysterics. “I guess… I think we should think about what it means when you say that though… ‘a sex symbol for 15-year-old girls.’ I don’t know if it’s sexual. It’s a really strange thing to be able to answer a question about this because I’ve not designed myself in any way to be attractive, especially to that section of society. It’s just something that happened that’s an interesting by-product of Years & Years.” Of course, it’s not just adolescent girls drawn to Olly’s quirky magnetism. He’s gathered enough swooning fans to warrant a Tumblr account in his honour. Fuckyeahollyalexander: The ultimate sign of hotness. “I know! It’s kind of amazing. It has all this content that I’ve never seen before. I’m always like, ‘Wow, where have you found all these pictures.’ It’s so dedicated. I think it’s a guy who runs the blog. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Did Olly not find himself fighting off love interests in quite the same way as a teenager? He replies with a bashfully schoolboy “Noooooo-uh!” “I definitely never felt like people fancied me, ever,” he’s adamant. “I was bullied at school; I had a terrible, terrible time. I was a bit of a misfit – I would go to school wearing eyeliner, or I’d wear a choker necklace or something. I wanted to be different. I think a lot of that was because I was trying to find my identity. I was small and weedy. Kids always know how to target the more vulnerable ones. But you know… it builds character.”

The release date of the next single Shine is currently up in the air, with King still very much part of the furniture for most radio stations. It’s Olly’s idea of the only “slightly positive” song on the impending debut record, the rest having been written “post-breakup, post-relationship and post-rejection.” Shine was written in the optimistic beginning phase of his relationship with his current boyfriend of nearly six months. “It’s a really euphoric song but I actually find it really emotional,” he says. “I found it quite difficult to be honest in a hopeful way. It’s about hoping something works out. For me it’s hard to be that vulnerable without feeling a bit desperate.”

When posed with the hypothetical question of three songs to hear for the rest of his life, Olly goes for Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, for its portrayal of quite the same vulnerability he’stalking about, alongside Get Free by Major Lazer and Jasmine by Jai Paul. My attempt to decipher Olly’s ‘type’ by asking his celebrity crush is met by him repeating “Celebrity Crush!” as though he’s voicing the title of a bonus round on The Price Is Right, before eventually deciding on “an alive River Phoenix.” Emphasis on the “alive”. The last song he had sex to was Hotbox by Raye, but he had to have a look at his Hype Machine playlist to figure it out because he claims to only put music on during sex in the very early stages of a relationship. What makes it so good for doing the dirty? “Well it’s all in the name!” he giggles. “It’s a bit dirty but it’s very chill. It’s not like 160 BPM pneumatic drill. You can take it easy. You don’t have to stress or be anxious about your performance. I highly recommend it.”

Half-expecting that question to fluster him, it’s me that’s come out the other side rosy cheeked. Back to the band: Has chart success with King pushed him to “want more?” Olly interrupts. “I mean, I don’t know that anyone expected it to do that well. I think we’ll just carry on as we have been. I love writing pop music. I love pop music. We’ve been quite lucky in that some of our music has been called alternative and left but it’s also fit really easily on the charts. We’ve tried to embrace that because we love Flying Lotus and Radiohead but we also love Rihanna and Beyonce. It’s good to have both those things and live in both those worlds. If we never have chart success again that’s fine. I’m just happy we get to make the album. At least some people will listen to it now.”

Years & Years’ debut album Communion comes out in early summer.

Words by Aaron Toumazou

Pictures by Mike Massaro