Today's Top Stories
Wednesday, September 07, 2011
Noel Gallagher After Oasis
The songwriter on his split with Liam and his new solo career
Noel Gallagher's first official solo record won't be released in America until November, but there's already a party for it in August. It's described as a "listening party," so that's what I expect it to be: six or seven people sitting in an otherwise quiet room, listening to an album titled Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. For those who care about the music of Oasis, anticipation for this record is greater than for anything Oasis has done in the past 10 years. This is not only because Noel was the principal songwriter for the band, although that's certainly part of it; equally significant is the fact that the finest moments in Oasis' two-decade trajectory have generally occurred when Noel was singing: "Don't Look Back in Anger," the chorus on "Acquiesce," their live cover of Neil Young's "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)," and a 1996 episode of MTV Unplugged (when Noel sang everything while his brother drank beer in the balcony). Oasis completists are interested in Liam Gallagher's new project, Beady Eye, the way Smiths fans were interested in Electronic, but Noel's material is what matters. The potential is real. Considering the circumstances of the Oasis split, it seems entirely possible that Noel might make a memorable album purely out of spite.
The so-called listening party is not what I anticipate. It's not six or seven people, but 60 or 70. It's held in the penthouse of the Mondrian luxury hotel and sponsored by (or is perhaps just uncommonly supportive of) UV vodka. The walls are white, the couches are white, the light is white. Everything is white (except the audience, which is maybe 4 percent Asian). There are at least two guys who look and talk like Adam Scott's character from Step Brothers. At 7:35 p.m., Mercury Records president David Massey picks up a microphone and explains how most people in the 1990s incorrectly assumed Oasis would "just flame out in a drug haze." This is an odd compliment, particularly since that's precisely what many casual fans believe must have happened. After his speech, we get to hear six tracks off High Flying Birds. No one even pretends to listen. The partygoers talk the whole time and stand in line for free vodka. I'm told that Noel is allegedly coming to this party later, but I don't stay long enough to find out. As I ride the elevator down from the 26th floor, I find myself hoping he never shows up at all, mostly because I suspect he'd really hate it.
The next day, I'm scheduled to meet Gallagher at a similar hotel in a different sector of Manhattan. He is 43 minutes late for our 45-minute interview, so I sit and listen to a pair of publicists discussing a third hotel that's 2,462 miles away. It's the Friday before New York will be hit by Hurricane Irene, presenting the Gallagher camp with a strange problem: Noel is now flying to Los Angeles a day early, but he can't get into his room because the King of Tonga (George Tupou V) has supposedly booked an entire floor of the Sunset Tower Hotel. The King of Tonga rocks harder than anyone you know. I have a brief conversation with one of the publicists about a lawsuit Liam recently filed (and then reportedly dropped) against Noel: During a July 6 press conference, Noel claimed Liam had missed a 2009 festival date because of a hangover. Liam saw this as an attack on his professionalism and legally charged Noel with slander, which is a little like Kanye West charging Rickey Henderson with overconfidence. Noel publicly apologized and the problem seemed to evaporate, although Liam continues to insist otherwise.1 It will likely drag on indefinitely. Ever since Oasis were propelled into existence, Noel and Liam have seemed like boyish versions of Andy Capp who despise each other equally — but this recent schism feels different. It's less fun, somehow. There will undoubtedly be a day in the distant future when Oasis reunites, because just about every group eventually does. But it won't be because these guys suddenly stopped disliking each other.
When I finally meet Gallagher (he'd been having a long lunch with his wife), he seems tired. He looks healthy but grouchy. My suspicion is that he's probably spent his morning talking to other people like me, most of whom have either asked him leading questions about Liam or tried to goad him into insulting other bands at random (as this is something he does not mind doing). He slouches on a couch while we navigate 10 minutes of small talk. We chat about the weather2 and about why he finally married his girlfriend3 after dating for 11 years. For no clear reason, he's wearing a garish class ring from a high school in Louisiana, purchased in a Japanese pawnshop 21 years ago. He briefly imagines the backstory of the ring: "I reckon the previous owner was a G.I. who was stationed in Tokyo and pawned this ring for prostitutes." I momentarily get the sense this is never going to become a real interview. But I start to ask a few questions and Gallagher starts answering them. And everything he says is hilarious. I don't even know if this can be properly reflected in a profile, because it's not so much what he says as it is the way he says it; Gallagher just has a naturally comedic, endlessly profane delivery that seems unbound by the parameters of normal conversation. He doesn't even have to try. It just happens. I suppose this might all be premeditated, but that's not how it seems. Gallagher's dialogue is like his music: The straightforward virtuosity is a by-product of its apparent effortlessness.
"I've never understood musicians who don't enjoy doing promotional interviews," he says. "I just can't believe it. I always think, 'Your life must have been so brilliant before you were in a band.' Because my life was shit, and this is great. Even after all these years, at 44 years of age, whenever the label asks if I want to go to New York to do promos, I always say yes immediately. And the label is always like, 'Are you sure? It's going to require a lot of interviews?' And I'm like — I don't give a fuck. You're gonna fucking fly me first class to New York and put me in this amazing hotel? And my wife can go fucking shopping four hours a day? What is not to like about that? I fucking love doing press conferences. I don't want to suggest it's all a joke, but come on — the president holds fucking press conferences. Why am I here? Why not enjoy it? I've never felt like I had anything important to say. I can tell a few jokes and we can talk irreverently about fame and success and sport and bullshit and all the crazy people you meet. But I have nothing to say."
This is not accurate.
When you like a band, you want to hear about the good times. When you love a band, you want to hear about the bad times.
I want to hear about Be Here Now.
"At the time, I was taking a lot of fucking drugs, so I didn't give a fuck," Gallagher says. "We were taking all the cocaine we could possibly find. But it wasn't like a seedy situation. We were at work. We weren't passed out on the floor with a bottle of Jack Daniel's. We were partying while we were working. And when that record was finished, I took it back to my house and listened to it when there wasn't a party happening and I wasn't out of my mind on cocaine. And my reaction was: 'This is fucking long.' I didn't realize how long it was. It's a long fucking record. And then I looked at the artwork, and it had all the song titles with all the times for each track, and none of them seemed to be under six minutes. So then I was like, 'Fucking hell. What's going on there?' But you know, those were just the songs I wrote, and we recorded them to the best of our abilities. When we had recorded (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, nobody from the label bothered us, and we hatched the Golden Egg. So the label was like, 'Don't bother those guys. They're geniuses. Just let them do what they want.' The producer was really just the recording engineer. There was nobody around to say, 'These songs are too long.' It was a good wake-up call, to be honest. I really wonder what would have happened if Be Here Now had sold like Morning Glory. What would we have done the next time? Just imagine if that album had sold 30 million copies. I probably would have grown a mustache and started wearing a fucking cape."
Because of how the music industry has evolved (read: collapsed), there will never be a situation like 1997's Be Here Now again. There are no more situations in which a rock album that's impossible to hear in advance is collectively anticipated by the monoculture. But that's how it was before the release of Be Here Now. At the time, Oasis were in a weirdly unassailable position: They were of simultaneous interest to the critical community, the tabloid press, and the populace at large. They were the first post-grunge band to be massive in every context. But the 71-minute Be Here Now failed, even though it supposedly sold 8 million copies in six months. Its earliest reviews were mostly positive, but the actual reception was disappointing (and the sales proved top-heavy). It's sometimes viewed as the record that killed Britpop. And people turned on Oasis when this happened. The bloated, bass-empty, blow-stretched songs validated critics who'd claimed their early work was overrated, and the absence of a ubiquitous single (such as 1995's "Wonderwall") eroded their position in the culture. From a public-opinion standpoint, they never truly recovered.
"At the end of the cycle of Morning Glory, I was hailed as the greatest songwriter since Lennon and McCartney," Gallagher recalls. "Now, I know that I'm not, and I knew I wasn't then. But the perception of everybody since that period has been, 'What the fuck happened to this guy? Wasn't he supposed to be the next fucking Beatles?' I never said that I was the greatest thing since Lennon and McCartney … well, actually, I'm lying. I probably did say that once or twice in interviews. But regardless, look at it this way: Let's say my career had gone backwards. Let say this new solo album had been my debut, and it was my last two records that sold 20 million copies instead of the first two records. Had this been the case, all the other albums leading up to those last two would be considered a fucking journey. They would be perceived as albums that represent the road to greatness. But just because it started off great doesn't make those other albums any less of a journey. I'll use an American football analogy since we're in America: Let's say you're behind with two minutes to go and you come back to tie the game. It almost feels like you've won. Right? But let's say you've been ahead the whole game and you allow the opponent to tie things up in the final two minutes. Then it feels like you've lost. But the fact of the matter is it's still a fucking tie. The only difference is perception. And the fact of the matter is that Oasis sold 55 million records. If people think we were never good after the '90s, that's irrelevant."
The premise of Oasis' career happening in reverse is an interesting thought experiment and not altogether incorrect (had this inverted sequence actually transpired, it's easy to imagine the kind of person who'd argue that "Supersonic" sucks and that the real Oasis music can only be found on the likes of Heathen Chemistry). But it ignores a key element of artistic endeavor: motivation. The album that followed Be Here Now was the lowest artistic point in the group's career — and that was due to everything that preceded it.
"We should have never made Standing on the Shoulder of Giants," Gallagher says of the 2000 release, an album whose worst moments sometimes sound like an attempt at satirizing the Beatles. "I'd come to the end. At the time, I had no reason or desire to make music. I had no drive. We'd sold all these fucking records and there just seemed to be no point. Liam, to his credit, was the one who was like, 'We're going to make a record, we're going into the studio next month, and you better have some fucking songs written.' We should have gone to wherever it is the Rolling Stones disappear to, wherever the fuck that is. Rent a boat and sale around the Bahamas or whatever. But I went ahead and did it, even though I had no inspiration and couldn't find inspiration anywhere.4 I just wrote songs for the sake of making an album. We needed a reason to go on a tour. But at the time, I wasn't thinking like that. We all thought the song 'Go Let It Out' was good. I was off [street] drugs, but to get off those I had to go on prescription drugs, which is fucking worse because they come from a doctor. It's just uppers and downers that replace the cocaine and booze. But after that, Gem [Archer]5 and Andy [Bell]6 joined the band, and we started to split up the songwriting duties because they wanted to write songs, too. I'd slowed down as a writer and didn't feel like I could keep writing 20 songs every two years."
Gallagher makes a lot of reference to perception (both his own and other people's), so I try to reframe our conversation: I tell him that I want to run through various points of his life and have him try to recall how other people viewed him and how he viewed himself. He is totally willing to do this, but we never get past 1991.
"I was living in the center of Manchester, so I was always in clubs and at shows and kind of living on the periphery of the music business," he says. "The people at the center of the music scene would have seen me as an outsider. The people who were further outside than me, though, would have thought I was some kind of insider. But I just believed I was at where I would always be. It never occurred to me to be in a band or write songs, even though I played guitar. I'd always thought I might be in the music business, because I loved collecting records and reading about records and all of that. But just being in a road crew,7 I thought, 'This is fucking great.' I was making $700 a week to plug in some other guy's guitar. I loved it. I never felt like I needed to be onstage. I liked being behind the fucking amplifiers. I had no ambitions. I got to travel the world — drugs, women. Nobody knew who I was after I left town. I didn't have to be anywhere or do anything. But then Liam said, `You should join my band,8 because you know how to write songs.' So I went down there on a few Sundays to jam, and it was the first time I'd ever heard other people play my songs. It was amazing to have that happen. And there was another pivotal moment about two years in,9 before we'd done anything or anyone knew us: I wrote the song 'Columbia.' And the next song I wrote immediately after that was 'Up in the Sky.' And then right after that, I wrote 'Live Forever.' All of this happened in a row, very easily. And I just thought, 'These songs are fucking great.' Especially 'Live Forever.' I remember thinking, 'I know enough about music to know that this is a good song.' So I took it to the band and we played it, and I instantly knew that I had written a bona fide classic song, even though nobody knew who the fuck we were. So that's when I started to take things quite seriously."
It's hard to tell exactly what "quite seriously" means in this context, since Gallagher is so adamant about not taking himself seriously under any circumstances whatsoever. Is his work on High Flying Birds more "serious" than his work with Oasis? That depends on what you thought of him before. It's very much in line with the music he's always made — the first single ("The Death of You and Me") has the most satisfying hook he's composed in many years, and the track "If I Had a Gun" would fit comfortably on any Oasis album after Definitely Maybe. All the lyrics are oblique and there are only two guitar solos on the entire album. Gallagher also has a companion LP coming out in 2012 that he made with the British electronic duo the Amorphous Androgynous, better known in some circles as the Future Sound of London; it still doesn't have a title, but it's an elongated '70s psychedelic record Gallagher compares to Dark Side of the Moon. How well these albums will perform is uncertain, mostly because gauging the success of modern records has become so difficult to calculate. But I suppose true success is never easy to quantify. It's not the same as fame, which Gallagher understands completely. He is not the type of artist who longs for success while hating the baggage of celebrity.10 In fact, he feels the opposite. He sees success as a much more complicated predicament.
"Fame is something that is bestowed upon you because of success. Success is something you have to chase," he explains. "And once you've had success, you have to keep having it in order not to be a failure. In business, you can have one massive success that earns $50 million overnight, and that's it. You're successful. End of story. But in the music business, you have to keep on doing it. You have to constantly chase success. The fame you just get. I enjoy being famous, because I don't have to do anything. I can just turn up at nice restaurants and people are like, 'Oh, it's Noel fucking Gallagher. Brilliant. Sit down.' But success can ruin people, because you have to chase it, and that can drive you insane. You can get obsessed with the idea of a formula, and you start wondering, 'Why did I sell 20 fucking million albums in less than two years during the '90s, but now I can't sell 20 million albums over the span of 10 years after the turn of the century?' And it's not like I sit around thinking about that, but it's always there. And when you start really chasing success, you start to make mistakes, and that's when things spin out of fucking control."
As he says this, I suspect that he's talking about the real reason he can no longer work with his brother. Here again, the issue is not reality, but perception. The two brothers were able to maintain a working relationship for roughly 20 years, through periods of feast and phases of famine. Yet the perception during that whole time never changed: Noel was always the talented one and Liam was merely the charismatic singer. When they were younger, that perception was tolerable. But now that Liam is 39 — and now that it's so clear that this perception will always be the defining image of what Oasis was — he simply could not accept the conditions of the contract.
"I think that's what it was," Gallagher says. "He'd never admit that, though. In the beginning, when I was writing all the songs and he was partying until the break of dawn, he didn't give a shit. D'you know what I mean? He was fine with it. But when he started to write songs … you know, this is really more of a question for Liam than it is for me, although you'd never get a straight answer from him. In my experience, you never see an older brother11 jealous of a younger brother. Maybe he did get cast in the role of the performing fucking monkey by the press, and maybe I got cast as the man behind the curtain. Maybe he wanted to be the Wizard of Oz instead of the monkey. Maybe if I'd been a little more tolerant of his behavior things would be different. But at some point he had to take responsibility for the fucking words he was saying. I have a circle of friends, and he kept saying things that were upsetting to these people. And for years I ignored it, because I thought the band was more important. But at some point, I just decided I'd had enough of this. And when things got violent, I left. There is no point in being in a fucking violent rock band.12 That's nonsense. We've always had a different view of the band: I thought the most important part were the songs, and he though the most important part was the chaos."
As one might expect, Noel also tries to downplay the degree of antipathy the two brothers share, since this type of breakup is more complicated than a typical, nonfamilial implosion. Certain issues between them might still stem from when they shared a bedroom as truculent teenagers. Sometimes, Noel seems amused by their fighting (I can tell he's still kind of proud that one of their 1995 arguments was recorded in the studio and released as a bootleg single in the U.K.). But sometimes he seems angry in a manner that's impossible to fake. There was a period when people assumed the animosity in Oasis might have been a marketing ploy, and perhaps — for a time — it was. But it's not anymore. Their dislike is at least as genuine as their music.
"We never hung out together outside of the band, ever," he says. "Now, of course, at some point I'm going to have to sit in a fucking room with Liam again. Hopefully time will heal some of these wounds. But if you're asking me if it's going to be this Christmas — not a fucking chance."
As our interview draws to a close, I notice that Gallagher is sniffling and coughing, so I ask if he's getting sick. At first he says yes, but then he gets up for a cup of coffee and says, "To tell you the fucking truth, I'm kind of hungover." It turns out he did show up at the album release party the night before, just before it ended. It turns out he hated it a little less than I suspected.
"In England, we don't go for that kind of stuff," he says. "You just put the record out and people buy it or they don't. Over here, things are a little more corporate. You have to go to parties like that. I find it always helps to get drunk beforehand — not too drunk, but just a little. D'you know what I mean? You have to shake a lot of hands. I have no idea who those people were. My wife was like, 'How can you stand doing this?' But it wasn't that bad, except that now I'm hungover."
This, it seems, is why Noel is different than Liam (and always will be). Liam denies his hangovers and sues people for joking about them; Noel confesses his hangovers and will shake hands with anyone. And when you've been in a band that's been drunk for 20 years, that difference tells you everything you need to know.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.
via L4e / source: grantland.com
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