U.K. electronic band Years and Years jumbles together an unlikely mix of sounds, including some that don’t seem particularly fashionable — think Hot Chip and the Wanted covering Savage Garden, with a dash of Jamie Woon. They have several major hits overseas, the biggest being anthemic summer jam “King,” but their next stop is the United States: The single recently charted in the lower reaches of the Mainstream Top 40 and earlier this month, the group released their strong full-length debut, Communion.
Rolling Stone met with the band’s Olly Alexander, Emre Turkmen and Mikey Goldsworthy at their room in the Standard Hotel on Manhattan’s West Side. Black leather covered every piece of furniture, and myriad disco balls hung from the ceiling. The most prominent feature, though, was a large hot tub, which the hotel staff began to fill halfway through an interview in which the group discussed songwriting, making their first big record on a toilet and the pros and cons of orgies.
If you’re telling somebody what you do, how do you explain Years and Years’ sound?
Olly Alexander: I’d say, “Have you ever heard of the Pet Shop Boys or Rihanna?” And then, “Maybe somewhere in the middle.”
Mikey Goldsworthy: I just had that experience in the café. She was like, “What’s your music like?” I was like, “Uhhh — like electronic dance?” I just told her to watch The Tonight Show tomorrow. She was like, “Alright, I will!” So I thought that went pretty well [laughs].
How did you guys meet? What did you sound like at first?
Emre Turkmen: [In] 2010, me and Mikey met online on a band-website forum and started making music. Mikey went to a house party at Olly’s house through a mutual friend, got drunk, passed out on the couch, woke up, and Olly was singing in the shower. And Olly wanted to join the band. A few days later, the three of us were in his living room, working on this song idea he had.
Alexander: Our first song had a little distorted guitar.
Turkmen: We were very indie.
Goldsworthy: Yeah, indie: Beirut, Fleet Foxes.
Alexander: We only had one synth at that point.
What pushed you guys toward a more dance sort of sound?
Goldsworthy: You [to Turkmen] got into making beats, and I got into buying synths.
Alexander: And I got more into dance music. Because I’d started listening to it when I was a teenager. And U.K. dance music just exploded at that time — SBTRKT.
Goldsworthy: Little Dragon, as well, really pushed us towards that.
Alexander: And Emre was recording our stuff, and brought a laptop and software, and you were like, “Oh, I can make music this way.”
Turkmen: With the laptop, it was like a sandbox. Whereas I’d been writing guitar music since I was, like, 14, and every time I would pick up the guitar I would feel really — I couldn’t even put two chords together without thinking, “This is just so boring; I’ve done this before.”
How did you arrive at the current Years and Years sound?
Turkmen: We just started making music in a certain way, got bored with some of the ways we were doing things before, guitars and things. And then started getting lost — because if you’ve ever played a synthesizer, you’d know that it never ends; you can buy a new one every week and you’d still want another one, another one. Olly started getting into clubbing music, I started getting into making beats, because we didn’t have a drummer at the time, and it just sort of came that way. I think the way it works now is, like, genre is less and less relevant. And it’s less relevant to us. We were quite keen to have our own sound, but we didn’t know what that sound was until we did a song called “Real.” And it’s kind of been quite natural, unforced.
How did you put “Real” together?
Alexander: I had the song on the piano, and I had this kind of four-chord verse, and it became a slightly altered four-chord chorus, and a hook, and I just thought it was good, and you [to Turkmen] had a beat —
Goldsworthy: Which you made in a toilet—
Turkmen: [Laughs] Yeah…
Alexander: And a synth sound, and we put the two things together and it seemed to work: This is how the music should sound. It had come together. Your production idea and my songwriting.
You made the beat on the toilet?
Turkmen: Oh, shit, yeah [laughs]. Well, I was at work. I wasn’t actually [just] on the toilet — I made it at work. I went to the toilet and made it because I was bored, on my phone, then under my desk while my boss was trying to tell me stuff. And then I went home and added the synths on the iPad and put a sidechain on it. It just happened really quickly, a cute little thing, and Olly played me this song. We were in this rehearsal studio. Put it together, and he liked it. It happened pretty quickly, and then Mikey came and did his weird jazz bass solo [laughs].
Goldsworthy: I’d just bought a jazz bass. So I decided to put a jazz bass solo in it [laughs].
How did you put “King” together?
Alexander: When we recorded it, no one felt good about it. It sounds lame! And we could never fix it. We shelved it for awhile. When we came back to it, we just took a different approach: “Let’s try to make it an Eighties dance-pop track.” And we just started out with that, cut it all up, arranged it. Used that balearic flute vibe, like a bird in the forest.
Goldsworthy: That’s actually Olly’s voice sampled and fucked up.
The “King” video is very unique. Were you heavily involved in making that?
Alexander: We always try to make the videos ourselves.
Goldsworthy: We wanted dancing.
Alexander: We always wanted dancing. Ryan Heffington, the choreographer, just got in touch with me on Instagram. He taught “Real” in one of his dance classes; they danced to it.
Olly, who are your songwriting influences?
Alexander: I love so many different genres of music, and I love pop music, but I went through a really big singer-songwriter phase. I really fell in love with Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. That’s how I learned to play piano, as well; I was playing their songs. Some of them are really complicated — Stevie Wonder loved key changes. But all the best songs are simple. I just love all those late Nineties, early 2000s R&B songs: Aaliyah, TLC, Destiny’s Child. Even though Years and Years isn’t really like that, for me they were pretty perfect pop songs. Or even a Rihanna or Beyoncé song. I think there’s a tendency to think if something’s hooky, it’s not cool. But I think the opposite.
Turkmen: I grew up listening to the Beatles and stuff like that, and kind of taught myself music by listening to the Beatles and copying it. We have very varied tastes. I love rock music and Nineties grunge. Mikey loves the jazz and shit. But it also filters through in the way you work, not necessarily the way you sound. We don’t sound like grunge, but when we started, we were like a band, an indie-band ethos, even though we make pop music. That sort of way of thinking sticks with us.
Goldsworthy: My dad was a music teacher. He taught Latin music, a lot of Cuban stuff. He used to take care of me when I was young, I used to go to his lessons. He forced me to learn piano when I was four, so I got into it at a very young age. I absorbed every music genre you could until I was 16. A jazz phase, classical, blues. I kind of missed out on R&B. The whole Nineties is like a black hole in my mind. The only bands I can remember are the Offspring, Korn, Papa Roach.
Alexander: Do you remember Staind?
Goldsworthy: Staind, Slipknot, Crazy Town.
One of the most beautiful songs on your album is “Memo.” How did you put that together?
Alexander: I was sharing a dressing room with this guy who I thought was really fit. I used to sit in front of the mirror on my side, he would sit in front of the mirror on his side, and he would always look at himself, and I would look at him looking at himself in the mirror from my mirror. And that’s just what that song was about, fancying that guy. I totally built up this fantasy — nothing ever happened.
Alexander: I was going off those four chords that were in the chorus. They’re the same chords to, like, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Changes.”
Alexander: Tupac! [Bruce Hornsby’s] “The Way It Is.” I love that chord progression; that chord progression’s great. I was just using that and singing over it. And I sent it to you [to Turkmen] on a voice memo, because on the old iPhones you used to record and save as memo.
Turkmen: That’s why it’s called “Memo.” A lot of our songs are like that. “Real” is called “Real” because of a synth patch I used.
Goldsworthy: “Foundation” is called “Foundation” because of a synth patch.
Turkmen: “Border” is also an app I used on the iPad called Borderlands.
This hotel room feels a little like the kind of place where someone would have an orgy. . .
Turkmen: But maybe not the kind that you’d feel good about.
Alexander: Do you ever feel good about an orgy?
Turkmen: I’ve never had an orgy. But I would suggest that they are better in here [points to head] than they are in the real world.
Alexander: Because you have a fancy orgy expectation.
Turkmen: I think I’d feel terrible about myself. . .
Alexander: I’d worry about hygiene.
Turkmen: I would worry about splashback.
Alexander: I think I’d throw away my clothes. But at least once in your lifetime. . .
Turkmen: You should have an orgy.
Alexander: As long as it’s safe. Safe and consensual. Very important. I think we’ve gone off-topic.