I’m sweating, pressed tightly between shoulders and backs of dancing, cheering strangers. The nearly constant dust storm has been picking up pace, and making me squint through the grit caught in my eyelashes. It’s my first Coachella, and my first introduction to Years & Years.
In this massive throng of die-hard fans, I’m an outsider. Every set of eyes is fixed on the empty stage; hands raised in anticipation, while my own are busy wiping some of the desert dirt from my face. When Olly Alexander (lead vocals and keys), Mikey Goldsworthy (Bass) and Emre Türkmen (Keys) come out, the crowd erupts. I wonder if maybe it’s the fact that it’s only Friday, and no one seems too hungover yet, or if perhaps it’s the fact that Olly has a face Michelangelo would beg to sculpt. But as soon as they start to play, I realize that it’s something else entirely. Between their soulful, angsty melodies, poppy, upbeat feel and powerful synths, Y&Y is next-to-impossible not to love. They transcend both genres and expectations. There, in the middle of thousands of sweaty bodies, all staring in cult-like awe, I instantly become a fan.
By the time Olly and I speak a few days later, I’ve listened to almost every song on repeat. As I gush to him about their performance at Coachella, he remains surprisingly humble about the weekend’s success. “[Coachella] definitely exceeded my expectations because I think we've only really played like a very small handful of festivals in the US, so we were a little nervous if people we gonna show up and if they would even know any of the songs,” he says. “I was really pleasantly surprised by the reaction and the response of the crowd. There was a lot of love in crowd which is amazing.”
It’s not only Y&Y’s crowds that have been giving them a lot of praise. Since the band’s inception in 2010, they’ve hit number 1 on the iTunes UK Singles Electronic Chart, won the BBC Sound of 2015 award, and been nominated for BRIT Awards, MTV Awards, BBC Music Awards and more, as well as having their album, Communion, hit number one on the UK Albums chart last year. Not bad for a band that got their start by meeting online.
But what appears to be a constant stream of success as musicians isn’t the reality. In the beginning, Olly juggled Y&Y with a promising acting career and even some script-writing collaborations to pay the bills. “I was kind of an actor when I was younger, like sixteen or seventeen. I sort of fell into acting and worked for quite a while really doing that and then I collaborated with a director on some scripts. I mean, I wouldn't ever call myself a scriptwriter because I wouldn't know the first thing about writing scripts but it was a really fun process. For a while I was doing both but then as soon as the band became really busy I decided to dedicate all my time and energy to doing music and that was a really easy choice.”
But that doesn’t mean another acting gig is completely out of the question for Olly. “You know I guess if there was an opportunity and something really amazing came up and I had some free time and got to be in a David Lynch movie then I would consider [acting again], but I don’t have my mind set on being the next Channing Tatum- as much as I love Channing Tatum.” We both laugh, as I imagine Olly dancing in the next Magic Mike sequel.
For now, free time is a thing of the past for the enigmatic front man. And if their steep and fast-paced climb toward stardom is any indication, things won’t soon be slowing down for Y&Y. This is only the mid-point of almost two years of non-stop touring. Next up will be a group of shows with Ellie Goulding, who’s been fond of the trio for quite some time. "Ellie was a really early supporter of the band before we'd ever done anything. She was a big supporter and we've been grateful for her kind of support," Olly explains. "She does this charity show in London at Christmas time every year. She's asked me to come play a couple times and we sang a duet last Christmas which was a great moment. She's just a really lovely, humble artist. We've actually done a few shows with her already on the tour and her crowds are really responsive and it's been really good. She has a massive pop show now. She's taking it to the next level. It's inspiring to see an artist grow, you know?”
It’s a fitting view for him to have, considering how much Y&Y themselves have grown as a band. When I speak to him about their evolution, his response is both passionate and simplistic. “You start in one place and end up in another and that's just the organic and natural way it kind of goes. It’s sort of inevitable. I think it’s good to kind of push yourself and seek new directions and inspiration from new places but I feel if you force it, it always ends up feeling forced. We’ve changed a lot over the few years, I imagine that'll keep happening, but I'm just not trying to dictate that evolution.”
Inspiration, it seems, is something that not only comes to Olly from new places, but a nearly endless array of sources. “I kind of try and take inspiration from everything and anything--literally anything can inspire me. I find recently I've been getting really inspired by cult imagery, witchcraft, sexual magic and sexual politics.”
They are influences that can be clearly seen in their most recent music video for their single 'Desire' [Featuring Tove Lo]. The video is all at once dark, mystical, highly sexual and stylized. Add to that some impeccably dressed extras, and there is no mistaking what a huge part Olly played in the vision and execution.
“I wrote the treatment for it basically,” he tells me excitedly. “The director, who we've worked with a couple times, Fred Rosen, has a brilliant mind- he really got what I wanted and added his own ideas. But especially with ‘Desire’ I kind of had an involvement in every step of the process in making that video just because I really wanted to; it was super important to me.”
Not only are Olly’s visuals perfect for the song, but Tove Lo’s signature style also adds a sexy, unique and catchy quality to the final product. “I met Tove last year at some festivals. We were on a lot of the same line-ups and we're both fans of each other's work, and got along really well. I really like her a lot as a person. We spent some time together. Then [when] we were thinking about some people who'd be good to be on the track, she was my first choice. I was really happy she said yes. I think she's a really great writer, so I always had trust. I was like ‘do what you want with it,’ and that was
With fans like Ellie Goulding and Tove Lo in their court, it’s understandable why the rest of the world has been catching on. And while I thought his fans at Coachella were ravenous, Olly tells me it’s Y&Y’s UK and European fans that he expects to be the most die-hard during tour. “We have fans- really die hard fans- in the UK and also in Europe, like Belgium and Holland. We have fans that travel with us everywhere and come to every show, even in places we've never played like Russia. When we've played shows in Europe, I often see all the same faces in the front row. In the U.S. it’s kind of different because we don't get out here as much and we're still pretty new. I'm kind of just excited to see who’s gonna be at shows.”
It’s refreshing to talk to someone who maintains so much excitement after such a long time on the road. Even their pre-show rituals haven’t begun to bore him. “We normally put on some music, like ‘Little Dragon’ or some 90’s R&B and then I like to put lotion all over my body so I feel oiled up and ready to go,” he says while laughing. “Then I put on an outfit and we all give each other a hug. That's our one superstitious thing.” He goes on to tell me how he maintains his sanity in the months on the road. “[Touring], like anything, kind of has ups and downs. There's not really a lot of routine and you're always in a different environment, but I actually really love touring and really enjoy living on the road. I've always been like that. I'm not a very ‘rooted in one place’ kind of person. I love to travel and meet new people. I find it invigorating, but it can also really burn you out and you feel very much like, ‘Oh my God, I don't belong anywhere, and I don't know where my home is and I haven't seen my friends or my family for like six months,’ but I think it’s a very unique, incredible opportunity, so I've got to try to make the best of it, you know?”
When times do get tough, Olly’s very vocal support of LGBT rights is a driving force for him to keep going. “[LGBT rights] are something I'm super passionate about. It’s something that’s driven me to get up in the morning throughout my life, that's part of Years & Years, but also part of the reason why I want to keep going in general. So it filters in through almost every experience and every reaction if that makes sense.”
Like everything Olly and I talk about, it makes a lot of sense. His simple yet profound views of the world are inspiring, his passion infectious. It’s easy not only to be a fan of Y&Y, but Olly himself.
Before we part ways, I ask him if there’s anything people would be surprised to find out about him. “I'm actually stronger than I look,” he laughs, “I have really good core strength - really good stomach muscles.”
Check out any pictures online, and you’ll quickly learn the boyishly handsome singer isn’t lying. And with a vast number of tour dates still on the horizon, and preeminent success in their future, you still have plenty of time to catch those amazing abs, along with Y&Y’s incredible music, in person. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
Story by Lauren Hoover
Photography by Easton Schirra
Styled by Gorge Villalpando
Grooming by Dillon Pena
BTS video by Spencer Byam-Taylor