I had two piano lessons from a teacher, before they ran away and never came back.
It all started by chance. Vocalist Olly Alexander was “discovered” by his now-cohort Mikey Goldsworthy, who woke up after a night of heavy partying to the sound of someone singing in the shower. With founding member Emre Türkmen rounding out the electropop trio, London’s Years & Years was born. That was some five years ago, and since then, the boys have managed to consistently hit pop’s sweet spot and put forth four robust EPs—Traps (2013), Real (2014), Take Shelter, and Y & Y (2015)—steadily building a rabid fanbase with a meteoric rise on the horizon.
If chance played a role in the band’s inception, Years & Years’ colossal succession of wins in 2015 is their own doing: Their stunning video for “King” has raked in over 70 million views on YouTube. They took the BBC Sound of 2015 title, a prestigious honor previously given to the likes of Sam Smith, HAIM, and Ellie Goulding. Their most recent single “Shine” is arguably one of the strongest tracks in their repertoire to date. Communion, the boys’ full-length debut album, charted at No. 1 in the UK, outselling the rest of the top five combined in its first week of release.
And if data isn’t your kind of thing—What are you? Some kind of monster?—we implore you to check out one of their spirited live sets on their massive world tour, which is currently underway.
Years & Years’ debut album, Communion, is now available through Polydor Records.
So you were the last person to join the band after Mikey [Goldsworthy] overheard you singing in the shower? I’ve never met anyone singing in the shower who sounded good.
What were you singing? Do you remember this?
I think it was “Killing Me Softly.” The Fugees, yeah. That’s my official go-to shower song.
How old were you when you started singing for your own amusement?
I ask my mom this question and she tells me I was a toddler age, just singing in the grocery store and annoying her. I think I was around 9 or 10, that’s my confident memory. She would play stuff like Joni Mitchell in the car and I would sing along to that.
So your mom’s music was your earliest influence.
For sure, yeah. Then we got into stuff like Stevie Wonder and soul music. I was also into bands like U2 and Coldplay, but that was later on.
What’s the first instrument you picked up?
It was pretty much the piano from when I was 10.
That was the piano you inherited from your grandmother?
Wow. That’s crazy you know that.
I wasn’t sure that was your first piano. Did you take lessons or are you entirely self-taught?
I was pretty much self-taught. I learned to play some chords. I learned to play some simple chords from The Beatles songs and all traditional songs played on the piano. I had two piano lessons from a teacher, before they ran away and never came back. [Laughs]
Congratulations on topping the charts. BBC Sound of 2015? Damn. “King” has amassed over 70 million views on YouTube? It’s insane.
Thank you! Yes, it’s been pretty intense.
Rita Ora and Nick Jonas have covers of “King” up on YouTube. Have you seen it?
Yeah, I get such a kick out of it. It feels like you made some sort of an impact. It’s cool because it makes you feel like you’re part of the music landscape. I really love it.
I don’t think it’s very difficult to be great once or twice, but it’s extremely difficult to be consistently great. You guys make consistently great pop music. What’s the secret?
It happens in different ways because we end up with a lot of material that never gets finished, never gets passed the demo stage. A lot of the songs start with me at the piano. I will write down a couple ideas or a whole song, take it into the studio, and Mikey and I will work on it together. Then Emre [Türkmen] will come up with a beat or something and I’ll mix that. We try to make sure that we have a lot of stuff and, if it sounds really, really good, that goes on the album.
“Shine” is a real standout. Are the tracks pretty autobiographical?
Yes, all of it. I pretty much batched up the ways I’ve been feeling for the past couple years.
Do you ever find yourself holding back because what you’re projecting feels too personal?
I guess it’s kind of like, it doesn’t at all feel that personal in a way because, as soon as someone else hears it, they have their own interpretation of it and compile that story. They’ll never know what it was for the person who wrote it, taking my idea and trying to code it in that way. It’s almost more personal, more rewarding, and satisfying to write because of that.
That’s something musicians always talk about: there’s a danger in revealing too much. Fixed ideas and intentions take away the mystery and the world of a song gets much smaller. And yet, you can’t help but be curious about where the artist is coming from, either.
It’s just weird! [Laughs] I don’t know if I can explain it, but I’ll never totally explain the intricacies of a song. And it’s something that gets lost with time, you know?
Are you constantly writing new material or do you keep that separate from all this touring?
Logistically, it’s hard to do at the same time and budget plays a factor. Also, I was just playing so much while making a new album, turning out a lot of crap that didn’t work. You need to slow down and have a break from constantly generating songs. I hadn’t written anything for a while, for at least a couple months, before feeling excited to work again.
You guys were at Glastonbury not too long ago. When you play to a crowd that big, what’s different about it from your point-of-view as a performer?
When you play at smaller venues, you can really feel everyone looking at you and it’s a very palpable feeling. It can be quite uncomfortable, I find. It’s a little scary a lot of the time. When the crowd is bigger, that kind of feeling dissipates and you can get lost a bit and just perform. I don’t know… The more people there are, for me at least, the less scarier it is.
Have you sensed that, as you become more successful and more famous, people want to ask you invasive questions? There’s been a lot of coverage in recent months about your sexuality.
Well, I think you just have to be really strong about what you want to give out and what you’re comfortable with. The more into your career you get, the more of those questions come to you, certainly. It’s about having the awareness about what the journalist wants from you and what the interview is for. You have to be in control of what it is you’re saying. I think I’m just playing it by ear as well. It can be okay, as long as you’re able to say, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ [Laughs]
So we first met last year when you were promoting the film, God Help the Girl.
That was way cool!
I feel really embarrassed about having downplayed your band. I had mistakenly thought that music was a side project for you, when in fact you took that way more seriously.
What’s going on with Funny Bunny?
I don’t know, actually. I think it maybe did its thing already. It was very low-budget. I think it went to festivals and it was seen by some people. I’m sure it will be available in some form or another.
Is acting on the back burner these days?
Basically, at the end of 2013, I told agents that I don’t know when I’ll have free time. I told them, ‘Don’t consider me for anything.’ I might do it again someday, but I’m sticking to music.