Photography by Perou
Three hours before he’s due onstage to headline the Paradiso in Amsterdam, Olly Alexander has a confession to make. “I miss my boyfriend,” he says. “Really badly.” Alexander is the frontman of the British pop trio Years & Years, and he’s the charming, open type. “Thank God for FaceTime,” he says. “It’s the savior of relationships, I swear.”
The last time Years & Years toured Europe was to support Sam Smith, the gentle giant who last year casually restructured the commercial consequences of coming out in the global music industry. “What’s interesting about Sam,” notes Alexander, “is that he lets people in. You can almost feel his audience on the journey with him, discovering the gay man he’s going to be.”
Alexander, 25, is a touch older than Smith, and noticeably more experienced. While realizing his teenage musical ambitions, he found early success as an actor. He’s been directed by Gasper Noé and Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, and he had an acutely conspicuous part of the British TV generational bellwether Skins. He’s fully fluent in the language of the outré East London gay demimonde, which is populated by endless fashion superstars who have struggled to find a proper crossover pop figurehead — despite the valiant efforts of Bright Light Bright Light, Frankmusik, and Patrick Wolf. Alexander may be it. “That whole scene is free and creative and has a true relationship with the avant-garde,” he says. “I’d love to be able to articulate what it does to you.”
Mikey Goldsworthy, Olly Alexander, and Emre Turkmen
Alexander began talking publicly about his boyfriend as Years & Years’ breakout hit “King” — an irrefutable burst of early-spring sunshine — hit hard on U.K. radio, and earned them their first number 1. “I enjoy talking about him,” he says. “People said it would affect the way female fans treat you, but after touring with Sam, it was clear most of his fans were women anyway, and they weren’t bothered in the slightest. There aren’t many gay frontmen in bands, which I always find quite strange. What does it mean to be a gay musician today? These are things that I’m genuinely interested in finding out.” Alexander’s openness doesn’t seem to have dinted Years & Years’ success so far. “We can’t walk down the street in Poland,” he says, only half-joking.
Alexander’s two musical henchmen, Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Turkmen, have ideas as to what is attracting the group’s fervent fan base. “Olly’s someone who people like and remember,” says Goldsworthy. “That’s just happening on a bigger scale now with the band. He has a great pop sensibility, but he’s warm, too. He sings about desire, sex, sadness. That’s universal.” Adds Turkmen, “These are subjects everyone can relate to. We straight people go through exactly the same ringer when it comes to trust, relationships, sex, and yearning.”
The group met at a house party and dabbled in different soundscapes before settling on their subtly buoyant electro-pop. They sound a little like Hot Chip with the central heating turned on, or like a more candid Pet Shop Boys. Alexander’s lyrics reveal first-person storytelling, not generic, crowd-pleasing clichés.
For Alexander, Goldsworthy, and Turkmen, harking back to the songwriting school of the ’80s is an emotional pull, not a stylish affectation. “Pop music is meant to grab you,” says Turkmen. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be unique. Olly’s voice and words are amazing, sad, confessional. They touch people directly.” But there is one downside to Alexander being so open, in song as in life. “No one asks me about my sexuality, and it’s just as interesting,” Turkmen says. “Honestly! But nobody gives a fuck.” He laughs. “There were things that have made me feel just as much of an outsider as a teenager as Olly. When I was 10, I moved from a different country.” His Turkish parents shifted the family to London. “It was a big deal at a tender age. It made me introspective and gave me the same strain of otherness that Olly and Mikey experienced in their own ways.”
Alexander is perfectly aware of the conservative constraints wrapped around a nervous 21st-century music industry model. He intends to quietly defy them. “I know it’s a small triumph, but I’ve got male pronouns into two of the songs on our album, Communion,” he says. “We’re only ever going to get one chance to make a debut album, and it has to be right. It has to be this. I couldn’t be any prouder of it.”
Watch the video for 'Shine' below: