Years & Years: Olly Alexander on being a gay pop sensation

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Wednesday June 13, 2018
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"My mum really liked George Michael," says Olly Alexander, the gamin lead singer of British pop act Years & Years.

"He was the first performer I was aware of as being openly gay when I was growing up. Now I understand that he had a somewhat embattled relationship with his sexuality, but for me as a kid, he was gay, and my mother liked him."

Alexander, 28, will play the Regency Ballroom with bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre T�rkmen on June 27. It's their first local appearance since a set at Outside Lands in 2016 and one of only three U.S. shows scheduled to build buzz for the July 6 release of Years & Years' second album, Palo Santo.

"Coming across a gay man in pop music was really helpful," Alexander recalls about first connecting with Michael's music.

"Before then," he notes with unabashed affection, "I was drawn mostly to women performers: The Spice Girls, Britney, Christina, Destiny's Child."

Alexander is part of a still-small wave of male musical performers including Sam Smith and Troye Sivan-call them Gen2 GayPop-who are simultaneously aiming for mainstream commercial success and publicly acknowledging their sexuality from the very beginning of their careers.

Unlike George Michael, Elton John, Boy George, Michael Stipe and other pop stars of earlier generations, Alexander and company are not waiting for the financial security of enormous success before coming out publicly. Nor, to be fair, are they contending with the same social attitudes about gay men that challenged their musical forebears (and foretwinks).

But Alexander wants to make it clear that he doesn't consider himself part of any "post-gay" movement of artists, anxious to minimize discussion of their sexuality.

"Whether I like it or not," he said during a recent phone call from London, "people are going to be asking me things that have to do with my being gay. I feel very lucky to have this platform and I believe in helping other queer people succeed and thrive. The world has a long way to go in terms of public policy toward us, so I'm totally fine with being asked about sexuality and speaking about that.

"I think there's a lot that we need to do," he says, tacitly acknowledging a common denominator among those gay pop stars who have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity, "to unpack our own privileges as white gay men."

Years & Years' best-known hit is 2015's "King," a number one smash in the UK and huge success throughout Europe. The song's U.S. impact was largely limited to the dance music charts.

Part of the band's Eurocentric success is certainly due to the fact that, despite the steady electronic dance beats underpinning much of their music, the songs-co-written by Alexander-also incorporate more challenging elements: unconventional structures, theatrical vocals that don't retreat into the mix, and a vein of heightened cabaret style that generally goes over better outside of the U.S.; think Mika, Patrick Wolf, and Bat for Lashes.

The performative, vocalist-driven nature of Years & Years' music is all the more heightened on Palo Santo, most notably on the recently released second single, "If You're Over Me," a bouncy ditty that evokes a vaudevillian English music hall more than the basketball arenas the band nonetheless aspires to headline.

"I do think," says Alexander, "that in the UK and Europe there's more room for different kinds of musical expression to be successful. You don't need to have 10 million fans to be considered popular." He points to singular artists like Rufus Wainwright and Perfume Genius as admired American exemplars of the genre.

Before a curtain rises in the opening sequence of the video for "If You're Over Me" video, an emcee introduces "the amazing and incredible Olly Alexander," with no mention made of Years & Years.

Is this a band, or a solo act?

Alexander laughs.

"We're still a band. I guess we have a unique way of working together. When we started on this album, we spent a few weeks and wrote twelve songs. But I think we've used only one of those on the album. To be honest, I think it's a relief to them that I'm getting all the attention."

In any case, the vision behind Palo Santo is clearly Alexander's.

"Before we even started any music, I knew I wanted to do something very ambitious where it would live inside of a fantasy world. I love science fiction and artists who create worlds: Gaga, Bowie, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood."

The world of Palo Santo-which borrows its name from a South American herbal cleansing ritual-says Alexander, "is a place where things are predominantly run by androids. The few humans that remain are superstars who perform in cabarets. It doesn't matter what your sexuality is. You're a star because you're human."

Years & Years at The Regency Ballroom, Wednesday June 27. $30. 8pm. 1300 Van Ness Ave.