It sounds like the start of a joke: an Englishman, an Aussie and a Turk walk into a recording studio. But Years & Years are exactly this mix, and they are making serious waves as Britain’s next big pop band. With the buzz around them reaching deafening levels, and a major show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire selling out so quickly that they immediately had to add a second, I catch them with their heads down, putting the finishing touches to a June debut album that will surely be the sound of the summer.
“I try not to think about the hype too much,” says laptop whizz Emre Turkmen. “If I did I’d just be weirded out.”
They’re a trio who could only have found each other in London’s melting pot. Two now live together in London Fields: singer Olly Alexander, born in Yorkshire 24 years ago but raised in Blackpool and the Forest of Dean, and bassist and keyboard player Mikey Goldsworthy, 26, an Australian whose mum is from Manchester and dad is from Boston. Turkmen, also 26, spent his early years in Turkey but was born in Holland, and now lives in west London.
Got all that? They’ve come to their sound in a roundabout way too. They weren’t always the sharply dressed synthpop heroes you see before you today, hipster Inbetweeners with a sound so appealing that they’ve just followed Sam Smith, Adele and Ellie Goulding to victory in the influential BBC Sound of 2015 poll. “I advertised for a guitarist and got a laptop guy,” says Goldsworthy of the online message placed in 2010 that brought Turkmen into his life.
But they did start out with guitars, and even ukuleles. Listening to them now, it’s hard to believe that rootsy Americana band Fleet Foxes were an early inspiration. The next single, King, is light-as-a-feather electronic pop made special by Alexander’s high, emotional vocals. Goldsworthy, a former waiter at the River Café (order the pork cooked in milk, he suggests), met him through a fellow staff member, and invited him into the band after overhearing him singing in the shower the morning after a house party.
That voice, with a soulful sweetness that’s in the same ballpark as Justin Timberlake and other US R&B stars, is what sets the band apart from the hands-in-the-air dance acts. It brings a slight sadness sitting next to the euphoric synths, with romantic troubles the major theme.
Are relationships the most fertile lyrical territory for you, I ask him? “Good word, fertile,” he replies. “It’s always something for me to mine inspiration from. The songs are about more than one person. I’ll have to get in touch with them all! But they’re all about me, really, and my life. I am in a happy relationship now, but that’s inspired other feelings of inadequacy and insecurity — so the songs will be fine.”
“Don’t worry, we’re an inadequate band,” adds Turkmen. He’s the band’s driest wit, a bespectacled former architect who was involved in the construction of Brighton and Hove Albion’s Amex stadium. He quit his job with KSS Group, decided to give music a real go for “a few months at least” and used his savings to pay for a video for the band’s song Real this time last year.
This was before they had a record deal, so they had to call in all the personal favours they could. Alexander’s was undoubtedly the big one: he persuaded his old acquaintance Ben Whishaw, currently Q in the Bond films and the big-screen voice of Paddington Bear, to spend the clip doing his craziest dancing. “I met him when I was about 17,” says Alexander, a former actor who has been in E4’s popular teen drama Skins as well as films including The Riot Club, Enter the Void and God Help the Girl. “I was just so grateful that he did it. I felt really bad making him do all these weird things.” The next challenge is to persuade Dame Judi Dench to get her YouTube groove on — in 2013 he appeared with her and Whishaw in John Logan’s West End play Peter and Alice.
The video caught the attention of major record label Polydor, who snapped them up. Alexander’s acting background has continued to be helpful. With his innocent child’s face, big hair and nose piercing, he’s magnetic in their other videos as well. He tries shirtless modern dance in King, and is a writer with dark thoughts in Desire. “We’re very aware of our strengths and weaknesses,” says Turkmen. “If it was me having to do the kind of things that Olly does in front of the camera, we’d be f**ked.”
But unlike some hyphenate actor-musicians, Alexander has nailed his flag firmly to the music mast. He hasn’t done any filming since 2013, though one more indie movie, Funny Bunny, is still to be released. “I always wanted to sing, and I’d always been writing songs,” he tells me. “I wrote a song for my Year 6 assembly. I was in bands at school. The acting was more by chance.” Instead of sixth form, he started a performing arts diploma at Hereford College of Arts, focusing on music, and after a year there he went to an open audition for Skins. He didn’t get the part, and in fact would only end up in the show for two episodes six years later, playing a stalker photographer. But the casting director set him up with an agent, he quit his course and one thing led to another.
Luckily, he still sang in the shower. Now he’s living his original teenage dream. Not that being himself on stage is easier than plays and films. “It’s definitely more intimidating being in Years & Years. On stage there’s a script and someone telling you what to do, so it feels safer. I’m still working out how to do this confidently. Lots of front people put on characters when they perform. It’s one way of dealing with that demand. But I never figured out what I wanted to be quick enough. I’ve felt like I don’t really have a defined character. I just try and enjoy it and be as authentic as possible but I don’t really know what that means.”
Turkmen reassures his fretful frontman, probably not for the first time: “I’ve seen you get much better at it, especially when we had to do it night after night for two months.” Well-placed support slots with two of the biggest acts of 2014, Sam Smith and Clean Bandit, have prepared the trio for a year on the road as headliners, including four London shows in the diary so far.
These citizens of the world are now going to see the world from a tour bus, and their feet won’t touch the ground till Christmas. Catch them if you can.