Tom Pallant


Yungblud Doesn’t Care If This Interview Gets Him in Trouble

The singer gets real on his self-titled new album and being controversial “for the right reasons.”

by John Norris
Originally Published: 

If you know your antipodes, and there’s no reason you should, you know that the opposite spot on the globe from New York City is a location in the Indian Ocean not far from Perth, Australia — the very remote city from which the British rock star, actor, and Gen Z provocateur Yungblud has arrived, only a day before I meet up with him on the Lower East Side. He has quite literally just traveled halfway around the world to be here.

“Five hours to Singapore, two-hour layover, 18 hours to New York,” he rattles off, a few sips into the first of three rounds of champagne. Jet lag? What jet lag? The brain of a 25-year-old rock star, it seems, is a too volatile place for that. “My management are so funny — they don’t really like to leave me on an 18-hour flight on my own. For five hours, I’m the best artist in the world, for another five hours I’m the worst artist in the world, and for the rest of it, I don’t even know if I’m a human being! Or how my head works!”

Here at the bar of the Ludlow Hotel, it seems to be working just fine. He talks like a pinball machine, bouncing from one idea to the next as he discusses his engrossing third album, Yungblud, out now. If he relaxes back into his seat, it’s only for a moment, until another thought pops into his head. He’s sporting his usual black eyeliner and nail polish, and his outfit would have fit in nicely on Carnaby Street in London, circa 1975: pink socks, stylish trousers and suspenders, a T-shirt with the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious on it. Before he released music, Yungblud was an actor, and he actually read for an unspecified role in this year’s Pistol, the Danny Boyle-directed miniseries based on Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir. He didn’t get the part — “The casting director said I was ‘too close’ for it” — but, because it’s a small world, he has come to know Jones anyway: Yungblud’s girlfriend, the musician, designer, and Chrome Hearts heir Jesse Jo Stark, counts Jones as an old family friend. “So I’ve met Steve many times, and we get on,” Yungblud says. “’Cause we’re kind of the same, you know?”

“I am a direct representation of my modern generation. We will not be boxed into bullshit.”

For the better part of five years, there have been few figures in music more outspoken than the young man born Dominic Harrison. On the strength of his megawatt charisma, message of radical acceptance, and throat-grabbing anthems, the onetime misfit from Doncaster, Yorkshire, has become an improbable hero to young weirdos everywhere. Or, really, anyone looking for a rowdy good time: Just witness the 20- and 30-something bros who’ve likely never touched an eyeliner pencil or a Manic Panic jar shouting along to his latest hit, “The Funeral,” at Glastonbury this summer. Although he hasn’t reached the chart-topping ubiquity of some of his guitar-slinging peers, Yungblud is not far behind: He packs several-thousand cap venues, has scored gold and platinum plaques on both sides of the Atlantic, and earned the approval of legends like Dave Grohl, who once introduced him at an awards show as proof that “rock ’n’ roll is not dead.”

Such praise would be a dream come true for many artists, but especially for Yungblud, whose love of rock history and iconography sometimes come out in extremely earnest ways. “New York’s got a spirit to me,” he says. “I can feel Lou Reed here! And uptown, downtown — I feel Grandmaster Flash, I feel Debbie Harry, I can feel the Ramones!” He has a lot to say about punk in particular. He’s “turned on” by its anti-fascist roots and grows visibly excited as he discusses the contrast between the aggro-shout of U.K. punk in the ’70s and the more melodic approach of the Ramones and other New York bands. But while he’s worked with many stars of the current pop-punk resurgence, he resists identifying himself as part of the movement. His objections aren’t really on aesthetic grounds — easy labels just go against the Gen Z ethos.

“I am a direct representation of my modern generation. We will not be boxed into bullshit,” he says. “Why do you have to be a part of one idea, or a cliché, to obtain some kind of respect? ​​I don’t want one hit record, like, ‘Oh, Yungblud, the guy who sings that.’ If I am ever one thing, I’m dead.”

Yungblud’s first album, 21st Century Liability, buzzed with anger at a world he was just figuring out his place in, with song titles like “Anarchist,” “Psychotic Kids,” “Kill Somebody,” and “Machine Gun (F**k the NRA).” But things really got going for Yungblud with his second album, Weird!, which explored deeper feelings of otherness as well as sexual discovery on songs like “Cotton Candy” and “Strawberry Lipstick.” It was his first No. 1 album in the U.K. “It’s a fucking culture!” he says of his success. “It’s a movement. And it would be ignorant of people to say otherwise because it just is. I go anywhere, and it’s almost like the kids that look like me, walk like me, talk like me, they come out of hibernation!”

“It’s just not true to say I’m straight when it comes to relationships. If Jesse Jo had a dick, I’d love her!”

His lack of filter and fondness for grand statements are either part of his charm or the source of eye-rolls from the type of people who also complain about how there are no big personalities in music anymore. But Yungblud is candidly upfront about his musical references, and will trace the lineage of everything about him that fans respond to. He peppers our conversation with references to and quotes from Iggy, Gerard, Freddie, Johnny, Sid, Gaga, and his greatest career North Star, David Bowie. To those who say his music is derivative, Yungblud would like to say: “What isn’t?” With his 2021 single “Fleabag,” “I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do something that sounds like Nirvana, four chords, fuck it.’ But that was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins anyway! You know what I mean? So was The Rolling Stones! It’s all nicked.”

“Tissues,” from his new album, is practically a supercut of all his idols and influences — “In the verse, I’m Jagger, and then in the fucking pre-chorus, I’m Ian Brown from The Stone Roses” — right down to the sample of The Cure’s “Close to Me” that kicks it off. “Robert Smith is literally why I wear eyeliner,” Yungblud says. Late one night, after an unproductive studio session in L.A., Yungblud remembered Smith’s alluring panted intro to the 1985 hit and asked the producers to pull it up. They cautioned him against it, wary of the cost of sampling these days, but Yungblud was convinced it would unlock something

“I was like, ‘Watch this fuckers, put me on the mic!’” he says. The lyrics and melody came to him instantly. He pulls out his phone to show me footage of the exact moment, captured by his videographer, and it’s just as described: busting moves in a red T-shirt, swinging his limbs wildly as if possessed.

Tom Pallant

When a musician releases a self-titled album several projects into their career, it usually signals a reset. For Yungblud, it was time to look inward after years of big statements. “I want to cry when I say this, but this is the first time I’ve felt like I’ve not had a fucking hand around my throat,” he says. “The first two records were me speaking, in that moment, about the world: ‘This is fucked about gun violence; this is fucked about Brexit; this is fucked about gay rights, blah blah blah.’ And it’s almost like I looked myself in the mirror and went” — he actually slaps himself here — “‘What about you, man? What do you have to say about yourself?’”

The subject matter on Yungblud is familiar, but his storytelling has gotten more specific. And there’s no more affecting window into the artist than “The Boy in the Black Dress,” the album’s closing track. Inspired by The Smiths’ 1985 song “The Headmaster Ritual,” Yungblud conjures snapshots of his Yorkshire childhood using the actual names of the people who were there. There’s Jed, who punched him in a parking lot: “Masculinity seems to hurt a lot, the first time that you feel it in your jaw,” he sings. There’s Nikki, who “told tales about casual sex” and “taught him things he’d never forget.” And then there’s Mr. Ball, a teacher who took one look at 10-year-old Dom’s painted nails and told him that it was “for girls.” “He was an ignorant teacher from the north of England, he didn’t know what he was doing,” he says. But Yungblud can still recall the shame: “I sat there by the fence, crying, just trying to chew my nail polish off.”

“It’s so fucking easy to stand on a stage and hold a flag up, and take credit for it. But that’s not dangerous!”

Yungblud has been writing about gender and sexual identity from the beginning of his career, in manners both darkly comedic (the casual revenge fantasy in “Parents”) or sparkling with hope (“Mars,” inspired by a transgender fan he met while on the Warped Tour). But because his most high-profile relationships to date have been with women — before Stark, he dated Halsey in 2019 — he’s been accused of queerbaiting, even though he publicly identifies as pansexual. (Other artists who also play with androgyny and queer aesthetics but decline to publicly identify as LGBTQ+ have received similar criticism.) Yungbluds nods to the strange pressure of having to prove your identity on “I Cry 2,” another standout from the new album: “Everybody online keeps saying I’m not really gay / I’ll start dating men when they go to therapy.”

“It’s just not necessarily true to say I’m straight when it comes to relationships,” he says, after we order another round. “Because in the relationship I’m in now, I’m straight. But if Jesse Jo had a dick, I’d love her! If Jesse Jo was a trans woman, or a fucking man, or a trans man? If she wanted to transition tomorrow, I’d love it! Because I fell in love with her. But I’ve had many relationships with guys, sexual, dating. I don’t owe anyone anything, but I am a lover and I love you no matter what you got. And that’s the way the world should be, in my opinion.”

He will risk a Twitter dragging to answer to a greater responsibility. He offers the example of his encounter with Khea, a 22-year-old Argentinian trap artist whom Yungblud is thinking of working with on an upcoming remix. Yungblud learned that as a teenager, Khea was “extremely homophobic on the Internet,” he recalls. But instead of distancing himself, Yungblud set up a Zoom call with Khea to talk about why he did it and understand the homophobic environment he came up in. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m going to do a record with you. Because you’re going to stand next to me, in my fucking skirt and my makeup, in all my glory, and hold my fucking hand, and provide fucking hope for the kids in the ghetto of Argentina.’ It’s so fucking easy to stand on a stage and hold a flag up, and take credit for it. But that’s not dangerous! And the thing about me is, I do not care about being controversial, because I’m doing it for the right reasons.”

At one point, I note that the particular fervor his fans have for him reminds me less of other pop star fan bases and more of the relationship listeners had with, say, the late rapper XXXTentacion, whose music offered devotees an outlet for raw emotions despite a well-documented history of violence and abuse. Yungblud admits he got blowback for saying something positive about the artist.

“People dragged me on the Internet [for what I said about him], but I didn’t give a fuck,” he says. “That kid didn’t have a chance. Here’s a young Black kid from a society that was — he’s like John Lennon. Lennon grew up in a house like me, where I saw my father be aggressive towards my mother. And in therapy, which I go to, there’s two ways you behave as a human being. You learn behavior, or you go against it. And X was trying to do better. That kid was a representation of millions of young people across America who were subject to abuse and who then learn it. And our job is not to ridicule them.”

Some of his mates — members of his management team and his photographer sidekick Tom Pallant — are gathering outside, waiting to head to dinner. But Yungblud could probably go on all night talking about this stuff. He sees himself more as a “communicator” than a musician. “I want to represent one thing, and one thing only: the fucking truth,” he says. “And I don’t care if one year I am in stadiums and one year I am in punk clubs. A lot of people try to tar me with a brush, and a lot of people want to know: Who are you?

Yungblud is the closest he’s come yet to answering that question, but even then, it only represents who he was when it was recorded. At 25, he is proudly a work in progress. “And that’s the point,” he says. “It’s about growing. Because tomorrow? I’ll be a different person than I was today.” When he leaves, he bounds out the door, not ready to stop the night just yet.

Tom Pallant

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