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Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Noel Gallagher Telegraph Interview
With the launch of his first solo album, Noel Gallagher reflects on life without Liam, turning down The X Factor and giving up the parties.
We're talking about this summer's riots, and Noel Gallagher is in full grumpy-old-man mode, describing some youths he saw interviewed on television when the disturbances hit Manchester. 'They've all got masks on, and sunglasses. And one of them has got a bottle of whisky in his hand. The news reporter says, "Can you tell us why you're out here tonight?" And one of them says, "Because the police, they arrest you for stupid things, innit." And I was sitting there thinking, they arrest you for stupid things? What, like trying to buy a hamburger with a fish? Or, "Come here, sonny Jim. Where did you get that third leg from? Jail!"
'It wasn't about poverty, it was just opportunist kids. They all had mobile phones and Twitter, so they've got some form of income. They were asking me about it in America, and what's to say? These fledgling democracies in the Middle East, they're actually fighting for their freedom. And what are they rioting for in England? Leisurewear.'
Had he not been so successful as a musician, Gallagher could have made a stand-up comedian, or a national newspaper columnist. Whether it's telling stories about his three children or talking about his own lack of prowess on a computer, he makes me laugh out loud several times during our meeting. He'd looked a little nervous in July, at the London press conference at which he announced his solo career, but tonight he's relaxed, articulate and good company, despite being jet-lagged.
He's been on a 10-day trip to New York and Los Angeles to make a video, do some promo work, and meet his new US record company. It's not something he's ever done before, this kind of corporate meet-and-greet, but in America especially it is part of the culture, so he's giving it a go.
'When I was with Oasis, we were far too up our own arses to do any of that nonsense. But what harm can it do? The best thing to do, I've realised, is to get a little bit drunk. Not too much so you just talk shit, just enough to be a bit merry and laugh your way through it, really.' When I suggest it might be easier if he had bandmates to support him, he shrugs. 'It would, but it's just the way it is from now on, I'm afraid.'
Oasis split up in August 2009, minutes before they were due on stage in Paris, near the end of a world tour. Noel had a row with his younger brother, Liam. Fruit was thrown. Insults were screamed. A guitar was trashed. None of this was particularly unusual, of course, but for Noel it was one time too many.
'There's always a power struggle in a band, and when you're young and daft and hopped up on drugs and alcohol, it can get violent. But when you're all grown men with kids, it just doesn't feel right. I found it quite undignified. We're supposed to be the elder statesmen now! All this effing and blinding before gigs, and then going up and singing Live Forever. It was all a bit of a sham, really.'
Not that he's complaining, he adds quickly. 'It's not as if we never really fulfilled our potential. For a lad from a council estate with a guitar and his younger brother, we did pretty well!'
Liam and the remaining members – the guitarist Gem Archer, the bassist Andy Bell, and the new drummer Chris Sharrock – disbanded Oasis, and started afresh under the name Beady Eye, playing music similar to that of Oasis but refusing to play any of the Oasis back catalogue. Noel, meanwhile, will be performing some old favourites live – he wrote them, after all. But he didn't want another band. 'The only noble thing to do was to go solo.'
He hasn't spoke to Liam since Paris. Liam has never seen his younger nephew, 10-month-old Sonny, and he wasn't present this summer when Noel married Sara MacDonald, his partner of 11 years and the mother of his two youngest children (he also has a daughter, 11-year-old Anais, from his marriage to Meg Mathews). 'It's no big deal,' Noel shrugs. 'We never used to speak anyway, really.'
There are some regrets. With hindsight, he would have liked to have finished the tour, then put Oasis on hold for a while. What he misses, he says, is being part of something so huge. He embarks on a tour at the end of the month, and admits it's odd not having at least three nights at Wembley Stadium to look forward to.
'In an ideal world, I'd love to be doing this, with Oasis getting back together in 2013 to make another album. It was my life for 20 years, that group. And I don't have that solid anchor any more. But maybe that might turn out to be a good thing. There's an open road now.'
If he were promoting the eighth Oasis album now instead of his new project, he says, there wouldn't be anywhere near the same level of interest. 'People would have already judged it, and it probably would have sounded like all the rest, because when you've got five people trying to paint a picture, the picture tends to look the same [every time]. So the upside is, people are getting excited about this record, they want to see what I've got.'
What he's got is Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. It's not a band as such, he says, more a loose collection of musician friends that will vary depending on what he's doing. He has already recorded the first two albums, which will come out on his own label, Sour Mash. The first, due this month, is recognisably Noel Gallagher: strong songs performed with real emotion, with influences such as Neil Young, Ennio Morricone and – most clearly – Ray Davies, plus a generous helping of melancholy that he attributes to his Irish roots. It is more intimate, less bombastic than his previous work, and although Oasis fans will find a lot to like in it, so will fans of Elbow.
The lyrics are more direct than on many of the songs he wrote for Oasis, more narrative. 'It is different if you know you're going to sing them yourself. You have no inhibitions. With Oasis, I would consciously make them as universal and as vague as possible: if I was writing a song about how much I loved my wife, there's no way Liam could know that's what it was about, or he wouldn't sing it.'
The second album, which will probably come out next summer, is far stranger, made with Amorphous Androgynous, the psychedelic collective who did the most radical remix of the final Oasis single, Falling Down. He started making this one first, he says, but when he went into the studio to hear what they'd done with the song he'd sent them, 'They'd demolished it and turned it into something else. They were taking what I'd done, throwing all the pieces up in the air, and making these psychedelic pop songs. Whereas I like things structured.'
He took back his songs to record them his own way, but he also continued working with the Amorphous crew, giving them material that lent itself better to their experimental approach. It was, he says, interesting to be working on different projects after the constraints of Oasis. He loves the big sound of bands such as U2, Coldplay and the Foo Fighters. 'And if I had never left Oasis, I would have carried on writing stadium rock for ever. But I never stopped writing other kinds of songs. So being able to go between two projects was very liberating. It was a great way of working.'
When we meet, he is five weeks into rehearsals for the tour, and admits he's not a natural frontman. Before, he was always to the side of the stage, able to observe without being the centre of attention. Now, he jokes, he needs wing mirrors, because everyone is behind him. He wonders if the audience will expect him to talk, make jokes or, worst of all dance, especially when he performs the current single, AKA… What a Life, which was inspired by his experiences raving at the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester in the late 1980s. 'I've got no moves!' he laughs. 'I know I'm going to look like a 44-year-old dad of three kids, playing a guitar.' He is aware of his age now, and glad that he doesn't have a major label pressurising him to get an earring or dress younger. 'It dawned on me today that I'm getting old. I had an hour to kill, and I went round Selfridges' men's department. I didn't see a single item of clothing that I thought would suit me. I've moved on. I'm going to have to stop wearing casual shoes and wear proper shoes.'
Still, he thinks he has avoided the kind of midlife crisis he's seen some of his friends go through. 'I've never had cause for it, because my life isn't missing anything. I found Sara at the right time. I love my kids, I love my wife, I've got a great job, so I'm not sitting thinking, "I've got to get a motorbike." '
Gallagher grew up in Burnage, Manchester, the middle son of Irish immigrants, Peggy and Thomas. Tommy was a labourer who also worked as a country & western DJ by night, and could be violent and abusive. Peggy eventually gathered up her three boys, including Paul, who is older than Noel by 18 months – and left, working in the McVitie's factory to support them ('We were never short of a broken Penguin!'). Noel hasn't seen his father for more than 20 years, and if that bothers him, he hides it well. 'There's plenty of men like him in Manchester. It's Irishmen as well. They just get crazy with drinking. I don't really feel anything about that. When I do think about it, it's just, "What an idiot." '
His father would often tell him he was useless, that he'd never amount to anything. But when he took up the guitar at the age of 13, his mother was quietly encouraging. 'She is fiercely loyal to us three,' he says. 'But she was strict, as well. When we were on the dole, she wouldn't let us stay in bed. She would never let us sit round the house, and we were always doing the shopping and that kind of thing. So she taught us the work ethic. It was always, you don't get anything in life for nothing.'
Her sons have often tried to buy their mother a house, to get her to move away from the council estate where they grew up, but they've never succeeded. 'She won't leave,' Noel says. 'A new front gate – that was the only thing we got her.'
Riding the wave of Cool Britannia, Oasis were one of the biggest bands of the 1990s, with the kind of sales figures that are rarely seen any more. (After our meeting I sent Noel an email asking how many albums the band sold in total: 'Just the 55 million,' he quipped back.) Having grown up wanting things they couldn't afford, they could suddenly have everything they wanted. And more.
'We were like Viv Nicholson in Spend, Spend, Spend. I was buying stuff like it was going out of fashion. I've still got a lock-up in Buckinghamshire, and I must have half a million pounds' worth of art sitting it in. And I've got no shame or guilt, because I earned that money. I didn't win it in a lottery. It wasn't given to me by a relative. I didn't win it in damages because I'd fallen off a ladder or something. I wrote those songs, I did those gigs.'
When sales of the first two albums passed the 18 million mark, Alan McGee, his record company boss, bought Noel a chocolate-brown vintage Rolls-Royce, because he'd said in an interview that he wanted one. In 1995 Gallagher ordered himself a 1967 Mark 2 Jaguar, paying £110,000 upfront to have it refitted with a new engine and interior. By the time it was ready 18 months later, he'd forgotten all about it. It's been sitting in a garage ever since, with only 12 miles on the clock: he can't drive.
'It was a bit vulgar, but anybody else in my position would have done the same. See the difference between us and the bands that were around at the time – they were middle class. I remember going to Camden, and all these people from Blur and Elastica had holes in their shoes. I had brand-new clothes on, and I was thinking, "You've been to university! Why are you all dressing like poor people?" I couldn't get my head around it at all.'
Take some working-class pride, sprinkle liberally with cocaine and he admits you probably have a recipe for arrogance. 'And we probably played up to it a bit, but that's what those times required. I don't think it required wallflowers. "We just make music for ourselves, and if anybody else likes it, it's a bonus." F*** off! We said, "We're the greatest thing since the king-size Pot Noodle. Now, go and get me another bottle of champagne!" That was the life, it was great. But it would be nonsense now. If I was still behaving like that now, I'd be a bit of a cock.'
Gallagher can pinpoint exactly when he woke up. Germany were playing Italy in the 1998 World Cup, it was half-time, his house in north London was full of people partying as usual, and he'd just got out of bed and greeted the new day by opening a can of Red Stripe and snorting a line of cocaine.
'Up until that point, I thought that's what rock stars did. And I loved it. Then for some reason, I went, "Enough." But I didn't do the rehab thing. I just announced I was giving up drugs. And it's funny, everyone around me was going, "He'll be all right in a few weeks. He's going through a phase." And a week lasted two weeks, two weeks became two months, and then after a few months, it was like, "Right, these people have got to go."
'I guess once that romantic air of danger – we're on the inside doing shitloads of drugs with all these people – becomes just a normal Monday night out, it loses its appeal. It was the end of being lost in showbiz. I spent years in it, and I loved it. But there's only so many parties you can do before you go, "If I see Claudia Schiffer once more…" '
He still smokes, and he loves a good night out, drinking with friends. But he doesn't do it often now – the hangovers are getting worse as the years go by – and if Sara opens a bottle of wine at home, he doesn't share it. 'Drinking is something I do when I'm out. When I'm home, I don't miss it.'
Home is in Maida Vale, north-west London, though he still has a country pile in Buckingham-shire, and life is centred on his family. Anais is at boarding school. It was her mum's idea and he was against it at first, he admits. 'But she loves it. It's been the making of her.'
I ask if it bothers him that his children will grow up middle-class, and he laughs. 'No. I envy them. At least they won't be on the dole. People often ask this in interviews, am I going to send them to private school. Of course I am! I want them to have a better education than I had.'
This year, he had his first big fall-out with Anais, when he turned down the opportunity of being a judge on The X Factor. 'Simon Cowell had left messages for me, and I'd left messages for him, but we kept missing each other. Anais took to calling him Mr Cowell, and every time she came over, it was like, "Did Mr Cowell call?" So eventually we spoke, and said, "We're going to rebrand the show, and we need an alpha male to replace me. Would you be interested?" And I was like, "Look man, you don't want me on that show." ' Cowell was insistent, but Gallagher was equally adamant that he was the wrong man. 'It's just not me. Can you see me on the side of a double-decker bus, with little Louis Walsh? I never considered it seriously, though the devil in me thinks it would have been a laugh. And he's actually chosen one of my songs, Stop Crying Your Heart Out, for the American X Factor.'
Anais, however, didn't take the news well. 'She was screaming in my face, "But it's The X Factor!" ' laughs Gallagher. 'There was real anger. She then told all her mates, and the next time I see them, they're all going, "Huh. Turn down The X Factor then, did you? You idiot!" It was unbelievable.'
He says he's a hands-on dad, reading stories to four-year-old Donovan and providing after-dinner fights and tickles, and changing Sonny's nappies in the morning. 'Nappies are easy now,' he shrugs. 'It's not like the olden days.'
But the person he refers to most in conversation is Sara, whom he clearly adores. He was 32 when they met in Ibiza, and she was 27. Within minutes, he says, it was like they'd known each other all their lives, and he knew he'd found his soulmate.
'I never believed in love at first sight, I never believed in that thunderbolt moment. But it's true. You just know. I made her laugh, without trying. And she made me laugh. If I could hang out with anyone, for lunch, dinner or a night out, she would be the one. I could never envisage life without her.'
Their wedding this summer was an intimate affair in a hotel in the New Forest. Russell Brand did the best man's speech, which, Noel says drily, 'was hilarious if you weren't me'. Kilts were worn in celebration of Sara's Scottish roots, there were bagpipes – 'which is always quite stirring'– and Come On Eileen at the end. 'Then we went on honeymoon to Italy for five days, and ate pizza.'
Financially, of course, he has no need ever to work again, and he could be on honeymoon for ever. But he says that after he'd taken a few months off, Sara started hinting that it was time to book a studio. 'When you're in a band, it's like, "You should spend more time with the children. They're growing up so fast without you." The minute you do, they're like, "You should really go back to work, because – without saying it in so many words – you're beginning to get on my tits." '
He laughs, and says that anyway, he's too young to think about retiring. 'If you've still got it in you, I think you should carry on. I wouldn't know what else to do. Seriously. I've never lost the wonder of writing songs. And I hope I never do.'
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds start their tour in Dublin on October 23. The eponymous album is out now.
Via L4E source: telegraph.co.uk
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