Why So Serious?
They say the freaks shall inherit the earth, and for five nights, London has fallen.
The joker stands before his people with lips painted in black tar that stretch into a loud, elasticated grin, his darkly lined eyes darting wildly across the stage to behold a sea of two thousand faces, glazed over with glee, perhaps, or a frenetic madness. He’s both clown and ringleader with a god-given gift for theatrics, playing a garish game of peekaboo one minute, the next, smashing his guitar in an anarchic call-to-arms. He never misses a beat, and try as you might, you can’t take your eyes off him.
Pull the joker card from the tarot and you’ll learn it’s meaning is loaded with contradiction: does he represent childish innocence, or deep wisdom? Stupidity, or genius? In his rejection of society with an insatiable appetite for change, maybe he’s nothing more than a fool, but no matter which way down you place it, the one thing that can’t be denied is that the joker is the most powerful card in the deck.
After a year of chaos, Yungblud is at last here to fulfil his promise: what began as the “OCCUPY LONDON TOWN” tour, with three dates at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town, would buckle under the weight of demand to be rebranded as “OCCUPY THE UK”, sprawling across the country with two more shows in the capital to make up a five-night residency. Though 24-year-old Dominic Harrison is - whether by accident or design - a cultural pariah, inviting everything from lip-curling disdain to almost biblical levels of worship, we have reached a point where, no matter how the world feels about him, Yungblud is simply too big to ignore.
Everything about Dominic Harrison is almost precision-engineered to get on your last nerve. From his shock of red hair and cartoonish expression, to his cropped Cramps t-shirt and leather mini skirt - not to mention his Doncaster accent which is as strong as a stewing Yorkshire tea bag, no sugars, no milk, punctuated with “fookin's" that fall from his mouth as naturally as he pauses for breath. A person so unapologetic is bound to be accused of being contrived, like a child playing dress-up in their mother’s heels and lipstick, a plastic imitation of the idols he looked up to on his bedroom wall. To be provocative – or, indeed, straight up infuriating - in a time where the world prefers brain-smoothing placidity, is Harrison’s way of putting all his chips on the table. It’s worth pissing you off: that’s how much he believes in what he’s doing.
When someone courts controversy this way - playing a character that is larger than life, stranger than fiction - it raises the question of just who the man behind the curtain is. I’m told I’ll be talking to Yungblud - but the person I expect to meet is Dominic Harrison. His eyeliner is smudged, betraying a weariness in his face from living a life stretched thin across minutes that are always accounted for; his voice is hoarse from wringing out his vocal cords in soundcheck with Bring Me The Horizon frontman Olli Sykes, who he’ll bring onstage tonight as a surprise for the encore. There are more shareholders in his time than ever before, but spend a stolen minute in his company and you’ll learn there's no projection, no persona. While he’s relatively restrained in his downtime, I realise that Harrison is a fizzy drink, always violently shook-up, daring you to take the lid off.
The cover of his latest record weird!, released amidst the turbulence of 2020, shows seven different versions of himself, all of which he explored publicly and relayed artistically during a time when we were all forced to confront our own reflections. But the only thread that binds the seven faces of Dominic Harrison together, the only law of nature that grounds the chaos, are his fans. Before we begin the interview, his ride-or-die photographer, Tom Pallant, passes him a coffee. “Thanks Tommy. Love ya, kid,” he flashes a smile with bulb-shattering brightness. But then he asks, suddenly concerned: “How are my kids? All right?” His ‘kids’ have been camping outside the venue for four days now, black hearts painted on their cheeks, pink socks rolled around their ankles and hair dyed the colour of pick’n’mix. Harrison rejects the idea of ‘fans’, instead intent on calling it a community: The Black Hearts Club, named for a tattoo he has on the middle finger of his left hand to honour them. He says, “I think it’s such a fucking lame thing to call them that. It puts me on a pedestal, when I’m not – I’m one of them.”
He talks about Yungblud as an entity, separate to himself; not a single person, but a place you can go. “Yungblud isn’t me,” he explains. “Dom relates to Yungblud.” Mention his community and he's instantly galvanised, perking up from a slump to the edge of his seat. He’s excited for our interview because it promises to put his fans at the centre, the first to represent the inextricability of their bond, where they are not separate, but one and the same. “It’s really easy to say,” he tells me, “but they are everything to me. I felt fake my whole life. I felt like the world wasn’t real. Every conversation I had, it just all seemed like a blur. I wouldn’t get up – I’d just want to go back to bed, couldn’t wait to sleep.” There is a second tattoo on the middle finger of his other hand: a broken heart to represent the time before. “And then I found them,” he smiles. “This is a safe space to talk and express yourself and make mistakes and fuck up and learn. It’s hard for my generation, because everyone’s gotta grow up so perfect…”
"If you’re looking at the surface level, you have no fucking clue about me."
Look at any interview with Harrison, and you will hear the same spiel regurgitated from the same soapbox. He tells the story of his rainy Doncaster beginnings (“the rain waters the flowers of fucking tunes”), the torturous teenage years of defiantly wearing his makeup at the bus stop, steeling himself against the shrapnel of words and fists. It’s a story he tells with the passion of a manifesto, almost like the rehearsed opening statement in the battle for hearts and minds. It’s a crime he isn’t an actor, I tell him, because he doesn’t speak; he recites with a kind of poetic instinct that demands to be heard, whether you like it or not. But when he says, “I spent 16 years of my life inside my own imagination,” it cuts closer to the bone, breaking through the theatrics. “All I wanted to do was build, purely selfishly, a culture where I could exist. I felt like if I don't belong in this world - or can't belong in this world - I'm gonna build a world where I fucking do belong.”
You can call his music shit, if you want – there’s really nothing you can say that he hasn’t already heard before, but one thing he won’t stand for is people questioning his authenticity. “If you’re looking at the surface level, you have no fucking clue about me,” he spits. His eyes, now, refuse to break contact, glassy with fury and a fuck-you. “A lot of people are like, ‘Yungblud ain’t even punk – he wants to be punk’. I want to ask that question to people: ‘What’s your definition of punk, then?’ Because mine isn’t spiked bracelets and mohawks and eyeliner. Punk is freedom, man. You’re saying I’m not punk, so what the fuck are you saying to me? You’re saying I’m not free?”
Harrison starts frothing with excitement, getting wound up tighter and tighter at the idea of “the old rockers in Def Leppard t-shirts” calling him a “fake fucking poser”, like a rabid dog lunging at the postman. “Fuck you, man. You come to my show and tell me I’m not free. You stand in that mosh pit and tell me I’m not fucking free. I am free and I’m fucking proud of it. Punk ain’t just Johnny Rotten – it ain’t just fucking Joe Strummer. Punk is Nelson Mandela; punk is fucking Michelle Obama and Rosa Parks. Punk is fucking TikTok: that’s an expression of freedom. Don’t you fucking tell me that I’m not punk, just because I’m not punk in a way that you think is punk. Fuck you.”
He sneers at the sacred reputation of his punk forebears, who are seen, in hindsight, as being capable of an authenticity that Yungblud can only imitate. “The thing is,” he says, “those bands communicate in a very similar way to the way I do, but now I’ve just got a phone in my hand. All I want to do is make people feel like they can have a voice, and I did that by talking in my lens, because that was the reach of it. There was no smoke or mirrors: you can’t lie to people anymore. Back in the day, it was through the paper, or a magazine, or a TV show – and that was a façade. Everyone talks about those bands like they were real as fuck, but like, do you really know they were, though? Now, you can’t hide. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. You have to be authentic or you don’t come through. For the first time in my career, I’ve started to get hate. At first, it hurt me,” he sighs, as if playing a pantomime, before a grin creeps across his face, “but now, I’m just like, ‘Well, it looks like this culture is worth talking about then, innit?’”
Harrison’s song “Mars” (more than a little indebted to his idol, David Bowie) is testimony not only to Harrison’s worship of the faces in the audience, but the staggering influence that fandoms have to enact change. The story behind the song is Yungblud lore: that Harrison met a 17-year-old trans girl in Maryland during his Vans Warped Tour in 2018. Her parents had accompanied her to the show, and she told him how seeing their community helped them to understand that her coming out as trans wasn’t just a phase: it was her identity, and she was not alone.
Outside the doors, there are kids who have been waiting for as long as four days living off Pret sandwiches and baristas who will turn a blind eye to them using the toilet. They are dressed as the different eras of Yungblud: the early ones, with the black and pink stripes, their hair dyed half-and-half; the ones dressed in head to toe in tartan, black hearts painted on their faces; then you’ve got the ones emulating the seven sides of Weird!, all equally dark and vibrant. Pallant, who has just been to spend time with them, tells me, “I mean, I’ve personally never seen commitment like this. Loads of people have people camping out, but they live and breathe it. When you look at the tattoos and you hear the stories, it’s insane. But he’s done that since the beginning.”
I go to the front of the venue and see a puddle of colour: it’s an ecosystem of young people making friends for the first time drunk on loving the same music, the same person. I end up speaking to 18-year-old Harrison, who has a tattoo on his ankle in honour of “Mars”. He says, “That song means to much to me. I’m trans and it helped me through a massive amount of depression. I was in a very bad place, mentally, and my friend told me there was a new Yungblud album – and now I listen to him every day, without fail.”
Then I’m directed to 19-year-old Lauren, appointed superfan, who has been camping out for three days now. “The people you meet are always hilarious when you camp, and getting barrier is fun,” she says, when I ask her why. “This is by far the nicest bunch of people I’ve ever met at a Yungblud gig. The lyrics behind the songs touches people, and it means that, as fans, we all relate to each other a lot. It’s like a massive family.”
Before I leave, two young men catch my eye. One is dressed in the unmistakable pink and black, the other with a carefully painted black heart on his cheek. 23-year-old Jamie and 22-year-old Josh are engaged – the way they met, in fact, was entirely because of Yungblud. After Jamie shared “Casual Sabotage” on his Instagram story, they instantly struck up a conversation and have been obsessed with Yungblud – and obsessed with each other – ever since. “I loved ‘Casual Sabotage’ anyway because I found it really relatable, and that was the song that got us speaking,” says Jamie. “But my other favourite is ‘Mars’, because I’m transgender, so it connected on a personal level and was also the song he proposed to me with.”
This is a period of transition for Harrison: as his success has ramped up to dizzying heights, his time is stretched thin; there aren’t enough hours in the day as there are people pulling him in a thousand directions. He’s a person dealing with the demands of being a product. He turns away and rubs his eyes. “This is the hardest thing in the world for me,” he says. “It’s what actually keeps me up at night.”
Every night, after every show, he insists on meeting his fans without fail. He climbs on a stack of boxes, makeup off, hoodie pulled up, and he talks to them; he sings his unreleased song “Fleabag” with them, and they already know all the words. It’s not long, these days, until he’s hauled down by security. Even as they’re closing the doors, being dragged by the arm, he’s looking back over his shoulder in an attempt to cram as much as he can into the last moments with them. It’s a kind of communion, and it stretches back as far as the eye can see.
“That personal connection is what I founded this whole thing on,” he explains. “I try my best every day to think of new ways of doing it, because it’s what I need to survive. I didn’t get into this career for anything other than to belong somewhere. I’m just as much myself backstage – maybe more so myself than I am onstage – when I come and see them. I just want them to know I’m trying my best to do that. I don’t want them to think I’ve forgotten about them. I’m trying my best after every show to talk to them, but there’s almost an expectation now that I will be there, and there’s a lot more people outside now, so if I have to go sooner, I don’t want them to get mad at me. It literally consumes my whole day going, ‘How the fuck can I make everyone in this 2,000-cap venue feel like we’re in the fucking 100 Club in Central London again?”
Yungblud has reached a scale of popularity that could easily fill London’s O2 Arena, and that was an option that was on the table for him. But he turned it down – why? “Where are my kids gonna do before the show?” he demands. “Get a fucking Zizzi’s?”
Harrison confesses something easily that many artists would consider a cardinal sin: the music comes second. “I’m just as much of a poet as a musician; I’m just as much a frontman as I am a fucking poet. It’s about the message and culture,” he says. Music, he thinks, was the medium through which he could reach the furthest. “My dad had a guitar shop, and people always ask, ‘Did you have a guitar put in your hand?’ And it’s like no, not really. I didn’t really wanna do that. I wanted to write poems and I wanted to be a frontman, and I picked up the guitar second.”
He occupies a strange, liminal space where his cultural capital doesn’t reflect the reputation of his records. “I never had a bona fide, inverted commas, hit record,” he shrugs. “I didn’t give a fuck about how many records I sold – I just cared about how many people came to my show.” He talks passionately not about an artist’s music, but the way they defined a movement. Making hits is something he considers half-heartedly, but talk to him about legacy and quintessence, and watch as the names of icons from Freddie Mercury to Gerard Way tumble from his mind as it races far ahead of his mouth. Music, for Harrison, is just an effective call-to-arms; a conductor for his particular brand of electricity.
I’m surprised to discover that the pied piper of pop-punk doesn’t have an entourage trailing behind him, like moths drawn to a flame trying to touch the light. For someone who has always craved community, he prefers to keep his circle small, limited to people who anchor him to his hometown and knew him long before he ran away to join the circus. “In the early days, he’d tell us to play every single show like it was Wembley Stadium, even if it was only for five people,” says Adam Warrington, his guitarist. “The energy has always been the same.” Tom Pallant chimes in: “He’s probably the most driven person I’ve ever met. He’s always thinking about what’s next. In his head, he’s already two years down the line. He can be hard on himself sometimes, but it’s only because he cares so much.”
But who is Harrison when the lights go out? Who is he when there are no eyes to expect, no ears to listen? Who is left when he is completely alone? “I go to the fish and chip shop and I sit on my own,” he shrugs. “I need England. I need that. I hate LA… I get very lost out there. I don’t like it. It’s a whole culture based on fame and trends, and that’s not me, man.” His time living in LA, surrounded by somebodies with a capital S and has-beens long past their expiration date, has given him a shrewd understanding of his own longevity. “I want a career: I want to be massive one minute, and then I want to fall off the next minute. And then I want to be massive again. I don’t want to be continuously chasing something that’s not real. I think you can get like a dog chasing its tail out there, but I’ve only ever followed my nose. I just gotta keep following it, you know?”
Harrison now exists in a kind of purgatory, caught halfway between what the world expects of him and who he knows himself to be. “When you get famous, whatever the fuck that means, people expect you to be cool – and I’m not cool. I’ve never been fucking cool. I don’t want to be cool,” he insists. “Everything becomes so trendy when you’re famous. I hate trends. The definition of a trend is it’s meant to die – I don’t want to be a trend. I wanna be me, it’s just hard to stay grounded. There are a lot of people who are very cool right now,” he chews up the word and spits it out, “and I think Yungblud is the antithesis of that. It’s the archenemy of it.”
"Always, my biggest fear is rejection. Every time someone does that to me, I have to beat it. I have to get on top of it."
This empire Harrison has built for himself is built upon an unshakable foundation of rejection. The ‘eras’ of Yungblud, the different costumes he tries on and discards from his dressing up box – the very same that the kids outside are wearing in homage – all arise from that insatiable need for reinvention to kick back against that formative place of hurt. “Some people handle rejection and it kills them,” he says. “Or, with me, if someone rejects me, I’ll fucking prove them wrong. That’s just the way I’ve always been. I grew up in a bit of a war zone, so I was always ready for a fight. But always, my biggest fear is rejection. Every time someone does that to me, I have to beat it. I have to get on top of it. As an artist, you’re always frustrated – in fact, I hope I’m always frustrated.” Once again, he takes the attention from himself and refracts it to the community: “If you feel down, if you feel lost and you don’t know where to go, then come here. We’ll fucking look after you.”
One of the reasons Harrison continues to be shunned by the wider music landscape is because he comes from a place of privilege: raised in a pleasant, largely affluent area on the outskirts of Doncaster, he was privately educated and attended a performing arts school in London at the age of sixteen. It’s a jarring truth, the kind that inspires an all-caps rant on Twitter and likes in the tens of thousands. For someone who kicks back against so much, when people make this discovery, they conclude that in reality, there’s actually very little for him to kick back against. The idea of performativity looms over him once again, a spectre that has blighted his career from the start, from queerbaiting to appropriating working class backgrounds.
He doesn’t cower from answering difficult questions. “The first lyric I ever put out was: ‘I admit, I’ve never been broke, but I have been broken’”, he says. “I wanted to set the store. I’ve always told the truth. I’ve never really opened up about this… my life was such a roller coaster. My dad had a guitar shop, and we went bankrupt so many times. We are always in and out of all that shit. My old man always told me: ‘You’ve got to fucking work for what you get.’ It was so hard for my dad. He never gave me anything. When I eventually asked him for a guitar, he said no. I was playing a ninety-quid Tanglewood guitar, and my dad owned a guitar shop… We had a load, and then we lost everything. And then we had a load again. It was a lot.”
It’s something he tells me to ask his guitar tech Ben Jackson about. Almost ten years Harrison’s senior, Jackson has a calm, tempered air about him, carrying himself with a certain composure that is incongruent to the madness. Jackson has been Harrison's friend for over a decade having watched him from the age of eleven; he lives with him, keeping a watchful eye on the kid he's grown to love like a younger brother. “He gets a lot of stick because his parents were well off and he went to private school,” Jackson acknowledges. “But the stresses that his family went through to withhold that lifestyle… when I was working for them in the house, that’s when they were really in the shit.”
Jackson worked alongside Harrison’s father in the guitar shop: “He was just this annoying little kid that used to come into the workshop,” he remembers. “You know, so hyperactive with all this energy. Honestly, he was really annoying.” Eventually, he started to work directly with his father in the house, acting as a kind of personal assistant, and he found that fourteen-year-old Dom wouldn’t leave him alone. He found Jackson's proximity to music intoxicating, demanding to know what tour was like, what it was like to be backstage at Download Festival. As soon as he started to pick up the guitar, he and Jackson would jam together as he would teach Harrison how to write his first songs. He was a constant, dependable presence during his upbringing among the turbulence.
“I could talk about it for hours, it’s so in depth,” Jackson tells me. “When I was working for them in the house, there was a lot of emotional stress between his mum and his dad. I was like a big brother, I suppose - I could kind of… not take him away from it, but at least I could help when shit was hitting the fan - which it did, and it was very, very volatile… very, very volatile. There were times when I'd be sat down to have a meal with them – they treated me like a son – but there were times where it was so emotionally charged at points, I had to leave because of my anxiety. Dom had to deal with that, and then look after his two sisters and always be this rock: the person who would defuse the situation and put himself in between. It was never physical violence: it was very, very emotional. And I could never understand why he was always okay and always happy. It’s only later that I realised he would use these different personas and personalities and his imagination. He just lived in his head: he just lived in an imaginary land. And that was how he would deal with what was happening in the house. I realised that people don’t know how to take him because he still lives in these compartmentalised personalities to deal with things, or to be a different person…”
Jackson quietly apologises: “Sorry, I have no idea what I just said.” He rubs his arms. “I’ve got goose bumps. I’ve never told anybody that before. You can look at people and say, ‘You’ve got more than me, so how can you struggle?’ But trust me, if people experienced what he experienced, you’ll realise it’s remarkable that he’s come out the way he was. He could’ve… he could’ve been a real mess.”
Parents – be they Harrison’s, or as a concept – are public enemy number one for Yungblud. One of his most successful tracks is a garish, gallows humour exercise in proving that your parents aren’t always right. He writes of dropping a toaster in the bath and watching his mum and dad laughing, seeing “a thousand volts go through the son they wish they never had.” He writes of his tying his dad up with gaffa tape and locking him in a shed while he fucks his best friend because he told him, ‘If you kiss a boy I’m gonna shoot you dead’. The delivery is deceptively sunny, cackling with chaos, barely concealing the darkness which is almost suffocating that underpins his lyrics.
“It’s such an interesting dialogue,” Harrison says. “My parents always loved me, but I don’t think they understood me. Sometimes, I’d rather be understood than loved, because you aren’t loving the true me, you’re loving an idea of me. But no, I never felt unloved. I was never the ideal kid. Fuck no. I was loud, I was naughty, I was fucking mental. I was the kid that every other kid’s parents said, ‘Don’t go near him, he’ll lead you astray.’ And I wasn’t leading them astray… I just had opinions, and people don’t like opinions because people don’t like being challenged – let alone by someone younger than them. I love my parents, but they fought physically. For me and my sisters… it wasn’t good man. I love them, I adore them, but they were just two fucking kids who got together at fifteen from really bad, bad, bad, bad backgrounds. With that all, you either learn that behaviour or you reject it – and they both learned it. They’re still together now, it’s a bit of a blood sport. Very tortured. And they’d take it out on each other. It was a rough upbringing.”
"I’m not a fucking 17-year-old from Doncaster getting the shit kicked out of him for wearing a skirt anymore; I’m a 24-year-old who's been around the world four times, and now I’ve got some fucking twat with a camera following me around everywhere, you know what I mean?”
I recall something Jackson mentions to me earlier, when I ask him if it’s true that there is no separation between his onstage and offstage personalities: “He wants to be a larger than life character because he’s a generous person, and he wants to be generous with his affection and emotion. He wants everybody to have a good time, to be happy, because growing up, that was his only way of coping. Whether you don’t like him, or however you perceive him, after you knock around with him for a couple hours - for ten minutes, in some instances - you leave with a completely different perception of him.” Whether it’s the sound guy, or the crew helping him load in, Harrison thanks them; he chats with them. He has an unusual ability to make everyone feel valued, no matter how small a cog they are in the Yungblud machine. No matter how firmly you steel yourself, preparing to be unaffected by his charm, to double down in your dislike, it won’t last.
“I ain’t the same artist I was three years ago,” says Harrison. Despite his impish, child-like spirit, there is a world-weariness to him in these unusual moments of calm, a kind of underlying tiredness no amount of sleep can shake off. “I’m thinking about different things, I’m talking about different things. I’m looking at culture in a different way, because I’m not a fucking 17-year-old from Doncaster getting the shit kicked out of him for wearing a skirt anymore; I’m a 24-year-old who has been around the world four times, and now I’ve got some fucking twat with a camera following me around everywhere, you know what I mean?”
He leans forward frantically. “I mean, when I started, I didn’t know fuck all about life. When I was growing up, I just knew that I was upset and I wanted more,” he says. “Now, I’ve heard a million different stories, no matter if it’s a young trans girl from Maryland whose parents won’t accept who she is, or the fucking March For Our Lives and the shootings in America that I wrote ‘Machine Gun’ about, or the fucking gentrification of the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield that I wrote ‘I Love You, Will You Marry Me’ about. All these things have a common denominator, and that’s life. I just to have tunnel vision, but now, this is bigger than me. That’s why I’ve written three albums this year.”
As much as Harrison is transitioning from a boy to a man, and his artistry is tipping on its axis to reflect that, the foundations of who he is remain the same. “I’ve got a song on this next record called ‘The Boy in The Black Dress’,” he says. “Even though I’ve done all of this stuff, I’m still just a boy in the black dress trying to prove myself and make people understand who he is. A part of me is still that kid up in his room, living in his imagination, listening to the Arctic Monkeys to fucking drown out what’s going on downstairs. When people kind of put me on a pedestal, I always, like… freak out a little bit, because it was never about me having all the fucking answers - because I don’t.”
This next record holds the promise that the gulf between your assumptions and his intentions will not be quite so wide anymore. “I’m so excited for this next album,” Harrison says, “because… well, wait until you hear the title of it. This album is what Yungblud is about. This is the message. I think a lot of people have an expectation about what I am, they expect my next move. But I ain’t an expectation, man. I’m a person. I’m an artist, and this is my message - and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off.” He flashes that thousand kilowatt smile once more. “I’ve got that bite back, but in a more mature way.”
Our time is almost up. It’s time for the joker to put on a show: paint his lips, slick back his hair, line his eyes and put on his leather mini skirt. I have to ask him: what happens when the bubble bursts? “I don’t think it’s a fucking bubble,” he says. “It’s an army based on a foundation of truth and need and trauma. If you have a foundation as strong as that, it ain’t gonna crack. People are going to come and go, but like I said at the end of ‘Freak Show’: ‘Times will change and you might break / But I will spend my life believing in you.’” And one more thing. How does Yungblud define success? “Freedom,” he answers, before walking away. “I can walk out the door and I can finally breathe, because they’ve got me, and I’ve got them.”