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Years & Years are everywhere. Even if you’re sleeping on them, you’ve probably heard their smash hit “King” at some point, whether it was at the club, or blasting on the stereo of a passing car. The London, UK trio makes sincere electro-pop, replete with big beats, vivid progressions, and undeniable hooks. It’s pop music for the future, today.
Emre Turkmen (synth), Olly Alexander (vocals), and Mikey Goldsworthy (bass) push English bass music into a danceable frenzy, stacking confessional lyrics on top of slick, synthetic ‘90s house catchiness. Their debut LP Communion drops today (July 10th) on Polydor, and amidst widespread comparisons to countrymen and electro heavyweights Disclosure, there are mounting expectations for the record to succeed.
We talked to Years & Years’ Mikey Goldsworthy about Communion, the building blocks of pop music, and living in a post-Korn world.
“King” is a monster of a pop song. It went #1 in March, but it’s still everywhere. Can you tell me a little bit about the song’s creation?
It’s quite an old song. It’s one of the first songs we did for the album, but it was really different back in the day. It had a totally different chorus, and it was really melancholy. We ended up taking two sections out of it entirely.
So it really only started to take shape once you locked in on the hook?
Yeah, we changed it three or four times before it became what it is today.
Was there a moment you knew it was going to blow up?
When we finished recording it, and listened back to the mix, it sounded huge. [laughs] I dunno, we sort of had the feeling it had the potential to maybe be a top 10 hit. Then we heard, “oh, it’s gonna be a top 3 hit.” Then it went to #1, and we were like, “oh my god.”
Does that come with the pressure to follow it up with another smash?
Yeah, I mean “Shine” is out now in the UK...
It’s at #1 on iTunes right now.
Yeah, it’s been at #1 all week, so I’m hoping it’s going to chart quite high. We’ll see.
It’s definitely on its way. It was co-written with Greg Kurstin, right?
Yeah, it was.
What was it like working with Greg?
It was really good. We didn’t do much together in the studio, it was more like email.
It must be kind of crazy to have someone who has worked with Katy Perry, Lily Allen, and Sia contributing to your track. Did you know “Shine” was going to be a single when you were writing it?
Umm, kind of! I think with “Shine,” Greg was like, “let’s try this one.” We don’t really know what the next singles are gonna be yet, actually.
What’s the creative dynamic like between the 3 of you? What happens when you sit down and start a song?
It happens numerous ways. Most commonly, it starts with Emre at the piano. Then we’ll actually take out the piano, and Emre might have something on his laptop ready to go that might work with what we’re doing. We’ll just try stuff, and see what fits. I remember “Foundation,” for example, started with me discovering how arpeggios work. [laughs] I just played an E-minor chord, and that was the whole song.
“When you’re writing a chorus, or even a verse, you have to keep it simple. Unless you’re making 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'"
What type of music did you find yourself listening to while making Communion?
We listened to a lot of Little Dragon. That was a big influence on us. I listened to a lot of FlyLo, and Kendrick Lamar. A lot of ‘90s R&B stuff.
There’s a lot of live instrumentation on the new Kendrick & Flying Lotus records.
Yeah, and we definitely wanted Communion to have as many live instruments as possible. Even the synthesizers that we use are all analog. There are no computers. I wanted to make it as organic as possible.
And you guys play with a live drummer, too.
Yeah, we’ve got a drummer with us on tour. He plays a hybrid kit. There are triggers on the drums, so you can layer in different sounds. It adds a lot of energy to the live show. Actually, our drummer is from Canada. He’s from Vancouver.
Nice. Have you guys played there yet?
No, we’ve never been to Canada. That’ll be kind of like a homecoming for him when we make it out there. We’re actually going to Australia in two weeks, which will be a homecoming for me. I was born there.
Did you play in bands when you lived in Australia?
Yeah, I was actually in a lot of metal bands.
What kind of metal? Crab-core?
Nah, one was actually more like nu-metal.
Like post-Korn nu-metal?
Yeah, post-Korn. [laughs]
Does any of that influence show itself in Years & Years?
Not really. Maybe the next album will be metal.
When it’s time to reinvent your sound, nu-metal would be an interesting departure. Everything comes in waves.
Yeah, nu-metal is overdue for a comeback.
What do you think makes a good pop song?
I guess it’s the hook. When you’re writing a chorus, or even a verse, you have to keep it simple. Unless you’re making “Bohemian Rhapsody.” [laughs]
I was hoping that as an ambassador of Years & Years, you could help me identify the best pop songs from specific years, if you’re game.
That’s a good idea.
So, 2010 was the year of “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. We also had “Rude Boy” by Rihanna, “Teenage Dream,” “Like A G6” and “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk…
Wow, I can’t believe “Like A G6” was 5 years ago.
It’s basically a classic now.
[laughs] Yeah, maybe you’ll be saying that about us in 5 years.
With any luck.
I might go with Rihanna.
“Rude Boy” still bangs.
I feel like it’s really catchy, yet really dirty. It’s got a real energy behind it. There’s something about her...
Have you listened to “Tik Tok” recently, though?
No, I haven’t. [laughs] I’ll have to give it a go.
It’s a beast. Let’s go back to the year 2000. The most popular songs were “Say My Name” and “Try Again.” Let’s not forget “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas, which still destroys wedding dancefloors. There’s also “It’s Gonna Be Me” by N’Sync…
I’ve gotta go with Destiny’s Child.
What do you like about “Say My Name”?
It’s got a lot of energy. Everyone loves Destiny’s Child.
I feel like it’s one of those songs that comes on, and everyone in the room lights up. Let’s go back even further to 1990. Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise” vs. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Or, “Ice Ice Baby.”
That’s tough. I didn’t really like “Ice Ice Baby.” I much prefer the Freddie Mercury/David Bowie version. “Nothing Compares 2 U” is great, though.
Anything written by Prince is a safe bet. What about 2015? What’s your favourite song of the year?
I really, really like the Major Lazer and MØ song “Lean On.” It’s just so good. They always bring such massive tunes. Do you remember the song “Get Free” from like three years ago? They always find the perfect formula between the vocals, the sample, and the hook.
I think that relates to what we were talking about earlier, about what makes a good pop song—you’ve got to reduce it to the simplest possible hook. Across all of your picks, they all have really strong vocal hooks.
Right?! That’s what it’s all about.
So, the album comes out tomorrow. How do you hope it’ll be received?
Wow, it comes out tomorrow? That’s crazy. [laughs] Remember when the first MGMT album came out, and then everyone was kind of all about that sound for a while? I mean, that’s setting high expectations, but that’s kind of what I want to happen.