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Years & Years talk about their new album, Palo Santo, horoscopes and death

Years & Years talk about their new album, Palo Santo, horoscopes and death

Palo Santo

Text: Megan Koh


The British synth-pop band returns with their sophomore album, Palo Santo. 14 songs rich with spirituality, sexuality and self-expression, Years & Years have outdone themselves again

You probably recognise them from their hit single 'King' from their debut album, Communion, that topped the UK Singles Chart in March 2015 and peaked within the charts of 10 other countries. Following their success as a UK band that held the record for the fastest-selling debut album of that year, all eyes are on singer, Olly Alexander, bassist Mikey Goldsworthy and keyboardist Emre Türkmen as they release their second studio album, Palo Santo.

But instead of a delivery tense with expectation, their new sound is freed with story, adventure and interpretation. Palo Santo enters into a dystopian world where humans share space with the growing androids. Years & Years play with the imagined realm to unravel narratives unique to their techno-pop tunes and unique branding. Songs are steeped into an emotional high but wrapped in a self-aware cushion. It almost feels like a confession - mature with age, thought and grace.

Just as their boundless energy in their music, the band is just as candid in real life. Olly confesses that they watched Love Island - a British dating reality show during lunch. Mikey enters explicit mode as he explains what the show is all about, while Emre makes it clear that he hates the programme.

They're far from being peas in a pod but that is where all the fun lies.

What was your favourite part about making Palo Santo?
Olly: Going out to Thailand, shooting the music videos and making the short film. It felt like the whole concept and the visuals came to life. It felt very magical especially because I've been thinking about it for so long. To go out there and to make it, it was really special.

So it was the location for you?
Olly: Yeah, I think it's just such a huge amount of work that goes into just getting the film crew out there, getting the cast together, getting the script together, getting all the locations right and I worked so closely with the director, Fred Rowson by writing it that I was just couldn't believe that we managed to pull it off. It was a really special moment and by that point, the music had been finished so it felt like it was really happening then.
Mikey: One nice moment was when we wrote 'Hypnotised' in London, Baz Luhrmann, the director came in said 'hey', gave us some morale and feedback. I studied him at school because I'm Australian and he's an Australian icon so I was a little star struck over there.
Emre: I enjoyed that little trip we took to a little cottage in Sussex to do a little bit of writing.  It's in the south countryside of England. That was fun.

What came naturally when making this album and what were the challenges?
Olly: Ideas for songs always come naturally but I find finishing songs to be quite hard. I really love the flash of inspiration and the kind of creative work you get when you are making something but when it is done, I want to move on to the next thing. But actually, finishing a song takes time and you have to consider all these different things and that was the challenge.

I'm just curious, what's your horoscope?
Olly: Cancer.
Emre: Gemini.
Mikey: What's yours?

I'm an Aries.
Mikey: Same!

And we don't tend to finish things-
Mikey: That's so true!
Emre: It's true for everybody. Everyone struggles with that. If they gave you a deadline to do something - say to finish it by Friday, you'll be working like mad on Thursday night. But if they say the same thing just that you have to finish it by Sunday, you'll still be going crazy on Saturday night. It's just a human condition.
Olly: I have a moon in Aries so-
Mikey: You have a moon in Aries? How do you know your Moon?
Olly: I just calculate my birth chart, I'm a Scorpio rising.
Mikey: Isn't that just all of the above though?
Olly: Cancer is my sun sign, Scorpio is my rising sign and Aries is my moon sign.
Emre: The hell? It doesn't just end with your sun sign?

What about you guys? Was it also about being patient with the process?
Mikey: I'm lost. I'm still thinking about Aries. There's a lot of movement and many goalposts. There is always a deadline for everything.
Emre: Yeah, it's better to have some limitations and to just focus on yourself otherwise it's really easy to get lost and the results are generally not as good. We tend to be a goals-oriented band from day one. We will always be like 'okay, we are going to make our first song now, we're going to make our first music video'. After a while of scrambling around, we had to sort of hunt it down and say, 'let's get it done like this' so that was challenging but it's all part of the learning process.

Would you say that music is also a business?
Emre: I won't say business, I would say editing. It's like generally 10% inspiration and 90% preservation. Personally, I've found that we have evolved into a band that has become far more brutal and good with our editing. Say this bit is not working, we just get rid of it. There's no point in getting attached to it.
Mikey: I get attached.
Emre: Sometimes you just have to pick your battles and pick what you get attached to.

Okay, but how do you guys come to agree?
Emre: We don't. We really don't.

Then how do you settle the disagreements?
Mikey: Rocks, scissors, paper.
Emre: You either sort of end up somewhere or someone has to make a decision and usually that is Olly.
Olly: I have to put my foot down and be like 'this is what we're doing' because otherwise you sometimes just never go anywhere.

How do you think you've grown with this release? Is this album the definitive sound for Years & Years?
Olly: I think you make the work that's right for the time that you made it, you know? I'll say this was the right album to make at the right time. I couldn't have made anything else. And for that reason, I have a different relationship to it then Communion because even though I feel the same way about the album, you have learnt so much from the process of making music, making songs, being signed to record labels and putting out music. I think I'm just proud that we are still together, that we made a second album that I'm so happy with. It means so much to me that I wouldn't want to dictate what it means to anybody else. I just hope they enjoy some part of it.
Emre: I think that you can't control what an album will mean. It's stupid to try and say 'this is going to be our big one now'. I think you have to let that stuff go and do your best.
Olly: Go with the flow.
Mikey: Go with the flow.
Emre: And also, I think albums are becoming more and more rarefied.
Olly: Yeah, no one wants an album really.
Emre: We don't really listen to music like that anymore. In the past I would just consume one thing and go over and over it. Now it's done in a very different way. People have a different relationship to music.

Do you guys listen to your old album and just find yourself hating a song or growing into one?
Mikey: 'Lucky Escape' was that for me. I sort of forgot about it for a while and when I heard it again, it just jumped to my number one thing to listen to. It took me by surprise.
Olly: The songs I like to listen to change. They swop places with each other because you find little bits that you like more now. Things that you didn't notice before. But I don't have any songs that I hate.
Mikey: You don't like the sound of 'Border'.
Emre: Oh, don't get me started. 'Border' is a disaster on the record.
Olly: Border is not my favourite recording but-
Emre: That's just the way it is.

What is one thing you constantly find yourself up against?
Emre: It is generally myself that I am buttheads with.
Olly: I know that if I dress a certain way, act a certain way, dance a certain way or if I say certain things, it's going to makes people a little uncomfortable and it makes certain people think that they're losing money. I'm aware of these people and I feel that I'm up against that a lot.
Mikey: I'm up against time.
Olly: We're aging.
Mikey: We're dancing and I quite like that.
Emre: Life is just getting interesting.
Mikey: Yeah, I'm just getting into it. I'm having a good time.

But science is progressing.
Mikey: I think I might just miss that hope.
Emre: I started reading this book called 'When Breathe Becomes Air'.
Mikey: Is it good?
Emre: It's a really good book. It's written by a now deceased neurosurgeon who died just before he got his doctorate. Is for his wife and his child but the book is about his experiences on dying, the brain, neuroscience and living. I'm at the beginning where he's talking about his career as a neurosurgeon before he found out that he got brain cancer ironically. And then he ended up at the hospital and it's tough.
Olly: You're up against life.
Emre: I'm up against death actually.
Olly: Meaning. Existential dread.
Emre: Meaning. Been trying to work out what meaning is.

That's too depressing.
Olly: What's your favourite emoji?

What's next for your band?
Emre: Death.
Mikey: We're joking.
Emre: We're taking Palo Santo on the road. We're bringing some joy to people.
Mikey: Even if we are miserable.
Emre: We'll bring our stuff, maybe we'll walk up to their town, set up a shop and they can come and join us in our little world for a night and have fun.
Olly: Spread a little magic.
Mikey: Hopefully another Asia trip next year because Asia's fun.
Olly: And more videos.
Emre: Asia's fun!
Olly: More dancing!

Listen to Years & Years's sophomore album, Palo Santo, here.

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