Years & Years’ Olly Alexander interview: I’m still committed to being ridiculous

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 (Hugo Yanguela)
(Hugo Yanguela)

Nobody really tells you about the everyday reality of being a pop star. Shortly before the release of Night Call – Years & Years’ third album, which captured the restless yearning of two years stuck inside, and shot straight to number one – Olly Alexander got to experience it first hand as he heaved a massive, industrial pallet of records into his building’s lift, and all the way down the long, seemingly unending corridor to his flat.

“The pallet broke in the hallway and thousands of these albums fell out onto the corridor, booklets everywhere,” he says, “and then of course my neighbour came home.” Greeted by the sight of one of the country’s preeminent pop stars wading through an ankle-deep pile of albums – each one bearing an image of Alexander, posing as a merman no less – the neighbour quickly scurried off, while the singer began the undignified task of ferrying each box inside, one by one. “It was amusing to me,” he laughs. “I thought, oh, if only people could see me now.”

Just a couple of days ago Alexander was back in full-blown stardom mode again, sweeping around the Baftas with dramatically bleached eyebrows, a gigantic cape and platform boots, where he reunited with his fellow castmates from Russell T. Davies’ painfully affecting Aids-era drama It’s A Sin. The seismic show bagged eleven nominations, and opened up an important dialogue about the advancements in HIV and Aids treatment that have happened since, but left the awards empty-handed; Alexander insists he’s just grateful to have been cast as the show’s stubbornly charismatic lead Ritchie in the first place.

The striking new look he debuted at the ceremony – resembling a cross between an intergalactic vampire and a minor character from The Matrix – is here to stay for Years & Years’ upcoming tour, which kicks off next week in Brighton. Today, it’s sometimes difficult to look away from Alexander’s transfixing eyebrows as they wiggle upon his expressive forehead like two very chic, sunkissed slugs.

“Eyebrows…” he muses, before taking a contemplative pause for thought. “Wow, they really are the nipples of the face,” he observes, paraphrasing the eternal words of Drag Race UK legend Bimini. Having finally unveiled the transformation is “a huge weight off my shoulders,” he adds with a theatrical sigh: in the run up to the awards Alexander had to embargo all of his selfies. “So, you know. I’m still committed to being ridiculous.”

As it happens, ridiculousness is something that Alexander does extremely well, and in a landscape that sometimes feels dominated by earnest, acoustic guitar-wielding indie lads singing soul-lite-inflected songs about getting dumped, Years & Years capture a sense of over-the-top, winkingly absurd fun. And from the sexual power dynamics smuggled into the energetic core of early hit King to the masochistic lust of Night Call’s Crave, the music straddles both infectious, radio-ready dance pop, and a darker, subversive underworld. After initially rising up the ranks as a three-piece – breaking through with their number-one-charting debut album Communion in 2015 – Years & Years amicably transformed into a solo project last year, with Alexander now fully at the helm.

Debuting his new look at the Baftas (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
Debuting his new look at the Baftas (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

On tour for previous album Palo Santo the artist writhed behind a stark backlit screen, before rising 20ft into the air on a hydraulic platform under the glow of a giant moon, while his shimmering cape fell all the way down to the stage floor. At his biggest show yet, at London’s O2 Arena, the artist curated an entire night of queer acts, which he billed as a “rendezvous”. The openers ranged from the unstoppable Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama to the voguing troupe Kiki’s House of Tea, while the entire giddying evening was compered by the model and activist Munroe Bergdorf. “I just want to have my own queer festival, everywhere I go,” he says, reflecting on the experience of putting the show together.

And so, the blueprint for the Night Call tour was born: alongside Years & Years, the all-queer line-up will host rising newcomers L Devine, Eddy Luna and Cat Burns, alongside the radical dance collective Queer House Party, which started in the early days of the pandemic as a virtual club night, and later evolved into a physical space. Alexander’s previously appeared at the night as a surprise guest. “I’m so happy that they’re going to be there because they put on a great time,” he says of the latter, “but they’re also committed to activism and advocacy. I’ve been so inspired by what they stand for – particularly supporting trans people, people of colour and marginalised people within the [LGBTQ+] community.”

The Years & Years ringleader is currently six weeks deep into gruelling tour rehearsals – this week, he’s been busy consulting with a magician in order to try and pull off a death-defying illusion live on stage, and has been mulling over how to switch seamlessly between his costumes, by the Irish designer Rory Parnell Mooney. “You need a lot of zips and poppers…” he says with a frown, before erupting into laughter. “Expect lots of poppers!”

“My big inspiration for the tour was the movie Showgirls; especially the iconic scene towards the end where there’s lava onstage and they’re all in gold lamé and it’s just insane,” he enthuses, of his collaborations for the tour with visual artist Theo Adams. The film director Bob Fosse – particularly his 1972 Liza Minelli-starring classic Cabaret – were also pasted on the moodboard, along with the gay art-house film Pink Narcissus.

“Theo’s vision is super visceral and dirty, and a bit of a twisted take on a night out.” Alexander says. “We have toilet cubicles on stage! As far as bang for your buck, a toilet goes a long way,” he adds. “Visually they have a strong place in queer history as a place of hook-ups, love, lust and shame, as well as being this bodily space that we’re slightly repulsed by. I have a lot of memories of being in bathrooms: at school I would go there and hide instead of going to my lessons. Seeing all the graffiti in public bathrooms, really early on, I was like: oh, men love other men, I can see them writing about it on the walls. I don’t even want to give airtime to the political dimension,” he adds, referencing anti-trans campaigners’ current fixation with gendered bathrooms, “but it’s there.”

Alexander views the focus on such issues as a deliberate distraction from the serious inequalities and barriers faced by the trans community, including prohibitively long waiting times in order to access gender-affirming treatment, and trans people being excluded from the government’s bill to ban conversion therapy. “I despair at the way the media in this country reports on trans people. It just seems to be getting worse, and it’s f***ing outrageous and so scary, and so sad,” he says. “I don’t really understand how it’s become this bizarre culture war. It feels like people have forgotten that trans people are human beings – it’s actually very simple. In every argument I see online, I feel like I see trans people being spoken about like they don’t exist.”

The Night Call tour has a ‘super visceral and dirty’ look (Hugo Yanguela)
The Night Call tour has a ‘super visceral and dirty’ look (Hugo Yanguela)

“It’s completely confected and not right to say that there’s a conflict of rights versus trans people and whoever else,” he continues. “[The author of 2021’s The Transgender Issue: An Argument For Justice] Shon [Faye] is completely right: liberation of trans people liberates everybody.”

And while the upcoming Night Call tour is set to be a theatrical, neon-lit feast for the senses, Years & Years are ultimately setting out with a more basic goal, too: to bring people together for his big, overblown celebration of LGBTQ+ talent. “I know it’s going to be a really wild, fun experience,” he grins. “The more queers the better, as far as I’m concerned!”

Years & Years’ UK Tour starts Thursday May 19 in Brighton. Night Call the album is out now on Polydor Records

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