Interview: Noel Gallagher
30 January 2015
As I type this, Noel Gallagher's new album with the High Flying Birds, "Chasing Yesterday", is at number one in the UK album charts. Despite its title, it is not a nostalgic album at all. In fact, Noel has tried out quite a few new instruments and textures here. I met him earlier this year in the offices of his own record label in London to discuss the new album. As is typical for an interview with Noel, we were soon talking about many other subjects such as greed and idiocy in the modern music industry, good taste, graphic design, David Bowie's last album and Manfred Mann's Chapter III.
Nothing you’ve done before sounds anything like “Riverman”. What happened there?
I don’t know! That song started off as something completely different, stylistically. I had the verses and the chorus, and the melody, those were the same. But it was kind of like a Bob Dylan-finger-picking-“Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”-kind of thing. And there’s a track by this one-hit-wonder in 1974, Brian Protheroe. It’s called “Pinball”. I heard that song and I was playing it to the two guys in the studio the night before we were supposed to attempt the Bob Dylan track. I had the guitar in my hand and played “Pinball” for no other reason than these guys hadn’t heard it. And it suddenly struck me that this song that I was playing might sound great in that style, so I went that night and rewrote it a little bit, changed the tempo, came back the next day, and we cut it that way. It was amazing. There were big gaps in the middle that were left blank for a while. Someone said: “What is it gonna be, a guitar solo?” I said “I’m hearing a saxophone”, I don’t know why. So we got a sax player in and there it was - amazing. I think it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done.
Obviously you don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, but what do you do to force yourself out of your usual track and come up with genuinely fresh ideas?
You're right, I think when you get to this stage you don’t have to prove anything to anybody else - but always to yourself. I wouldn’t really like writing Oasis music still, do you know what I mean? It wouldn’t suit me where I am at now. But with the likes of “Riverman” I’ve set a new benchmark. So the next batch of songs that I’m writing at the moment will have to be better than that. It’s constantly pushing the bar a little higher. I write songs all day – not all day – but every day I sit and try to do something. A lot of it is unusable. But it’s what I enjoy. And I’ve enjoyed it since I was about 16, and I’ve never lost the fascination of it. Well, I did for a while in the middle part of the Oasis story. I wasn’t really enjoying writing for a while then, seeing it as a bit of a job. But I’m in love with it still. And I just do it because I love it. And I’m not trying to be different, you know what I mean.
Do you use the Raymond Chandler novel writing technique, that you reserve a certain number of hours where you tell yourself: even if nothing comes, I will do nothing but write?
No, I don’t. See, I don’t have a studio. I don’t even have a music room where I have all my guitars. I have three young children and so I just about get a place on the couch, never mind having a room. But usually between the hours of ten in the morning and maybe midday or one, the house always seems to be quiet. I don’t sit with a blank page and a pen. I just play the guitar for my own amusement. Maybe two chords in a row will appear and I go, “I kind of like that”. And if it sticks and it’s exciting it’ll turn into a song somewhere down the line. I write whilst not thinking about it. I try not to think. Every time I’ve gone into a studio with someone else - “let’s go write a song”! “Yes, let’s do it!” – I can never write anything on that day. It always has to fall out of the sky for me. I’m from the Keith Richards school of thought: The songs are there. They’re all over the place in the air, and they’re awaiting to be written, and if you don’t get them, Chris Martin will get them. And if he doesn’t get them, Bono’s gonna get them. So you’re trying to beat those kind of guys, know what I mean. The songs are there.They’re in the air, and you’re just trying to catch them.
You have to be able to trust the moment. You have no idea what will happen next.
I guess it helps that I’ve been doing it for 23 years and I’ve made a lot of records. I don’t see “Riverman” or the “Right Stuff” as a risk. It just sounds normal to me. But I guess of course if someone puts it on they’ll go, oh wow, that’s really different. I’m still developing as a song writer, thank God. I’ve got enough behind me that I’m allowed to develop. I think in the modern music game you’re no longer allowed to develop, generally. They want the hit album now, now, now. And if you don’t get one you’re discarded. Whereas we know all the great albums that were made by the great artists – “Dark Side of the Moon” was the fourth album. “Wish You Were Here”. “Led Zeppelin IV” and the “White Album”, they came later in their career. The stuff that that you do that has the most power and the most rage comes when you’re young, and the most joy. But as you get older, what you do becomes more interesting. Look at Weller, for instance. I was out in his studio two weeks ago and his new album is fucking staggering.
His last three were really good already, when he got really experimental.
Yeah. This one, instead of it being 14 songs or 18 songs that are a minute long, it’s ten songs that are 5 minutes long. So it’s more of a story within the songs now.
Does he still have that studio in the countryside?
With the jukebox?
Do you have a jukebox?
I did have a jukebox. But I don’t any more. Actually, I might have it somewhere. Or I might have sold it. I don’t know. Yeah, they are great. But I don’t have a house to fit it in. If I had a studio I’d have a jukebox in it. But, you know. I don’t have a studio.
Your gaff can’t be that small?
It is when you have three kids in it! Shit’s happening all the time in my house.
How old are they now?
I’ve got a girl who was 15 yesterday. A boy who’s 7 and a boy who’s 4.
What’s their musical tastes like?
My two boys like U2. Which is really weird. Really strange.
Why weird? You never listen to U2?
I do! I’m a fan. But when I’m listening to music at home they’re at school. But my family and Bono’s family are great friends and we went on holiday together last summer. And I think they kind of fell in love with his glasses. I think they’re fans of him so they’re fans of his music. My daughter’s starting to come into the light now. She was in the darkness of pop for years with One Direction and all that shit. And now she’ll say “I was listening to the Stone Roses, they were great, weren’t they?” And I go: “Yes, yes! She’s coming into the light!”
Another thing that’s striking about the album is how the vocals are recorded.
Yeah, but there’s a fullness to them and harmonies and double-tracks that I hadn’t really heard from you before.
On my previous albums I must have sung each song a thousand times. That’s how the producer worked, I had to sing it over and over again. I produced this album myself, and so I sang the songs three times each, and that was it. My guy compiled the best vocals from that. Unless it was really bad and then I’d do more. The versions are quite natural. But the whole thing’s recorded in a real old-school way. A real old microphone. If you saw the room I recorded it in you’d be fucking amazed, ‘cause it’s the most disgusting and vile place on earth. But it’s got a sound to it. I was singing it against the wall – like this far away from the wall. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s in Clapham, a little studio that’s just about to shut down. This is the last record that was made there. A shame, but there you go.
Why there in particular?
I’ve recorded all my demos there fort he last ten or fifteen years. What happened was I took the demos of this record to the old producer and he didn’t wanna do it. And then I had a meeting with two or three producers in this very room and they for whatever reason weren’t that interested. And then I had a final meeting here with a producer called David Holmes…
The Northern Irish guy…
Yes, and I played it to him and he said “Why are you not producing it yourself?” I’d never thought of it. I said: Because I don’t know. He said: “It sounds amazing. What do you expect me to do with it?” So basically this album is a load of demos that we’ve done and finished off quite naturally. The sound of my vocals - speak to my engineer about what on earth he was up to, I don’t know.
There’s a freshness about the album.
Yeah, there are a lot of mistakes,and a lot of the lyrics are wrong, they’re not how they were written. I sing three or four versions and I sing them all slightly differently because they’re just demo takes. I decided to – when I went back to the studio and said to my engineer “I wanna produce it myself”, and he went, (adopts dubious-sounding tone) “right, OK. OK.” And I said: let’s just pretend we’re doing demos. That’show we approached it. And I think it’s all the better for it.
How long did it take you to get used to the role of the producer? You also had to have a strong sense of quality control, didn’t you.
I’ve always been pretty good with that. I know when something’s finished. I’ve never had a problem with that,ever. That comes naturally to me. What I found difficult was managing the sessions. I’ve been used to for twenty years a producer spinning round in the chair in the studio (makes spinning noise) and saying to me: “Today we’re going to do this, this and this, and then you can leave.” And you go: “OK, that won’t take long.” Now I’ve got an engineer swishing round in the studio going: “Right, what are we going to do today?” I was kind of managing the sessions. In the past if I said I wanted a sax player, somebody would get me one. Now I have to find one. That, and trying to juggle a social life in London, the greatest city on earth where it’s like Disneyland all the time – I found that difficult. But in the end the proof is in the record and the journey, really.
How do you keep it with Hoxton? I had to go there the other day, and all the hipsters are so achingly super-cool.
I don’t really go there, haha. It’s not, though, it’s not cool. That’s the thing. Not at all. Cool people don’t actually go there. It’s just full of young guys with hats and skinny jeans.Working for people like me, is what they do. They do graphics like that (points at the wall), and let’s face it, any fucking monkey can do graphics!
I presume when you had a producer it was up to him to suggest things, a cello here, backwards guitar there, etc. Now all that was down to you.
It is for this record. I’m not sure if I’ll work with a producer again the next time. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. But I’m lucky enough that the guy who engineered the record with me is one of my oldest friends and I’ve known him for a long long time, he played keyboards briefly in Oasis. And between the two of us we’ve got really good taste. And really what all production is, is taste. Which is why “the producer” has become the king these days. Because the artist has no fucking taste anymore even if they write their own music - which is as rare as the fucking unicorn - they still have to go to a producer who tells them how to write their own music. I refuse that. Don’t fucking tell me what to do!
“The Right Stuff” is also a very different kind of song for you. What’s the story there?
That started with a previous project I did with Amorphous Androgynous that’s never come out. It was gonna be a B-side until the song developed over a couple of days when I suddenly thought “this is fucking amazing, we’ve gotta put this on the album” and drafted in a sax player. The guitars remind me a bit of Funkadelic, you know, that Maggot Brain guitar solo. And obviously there’s these discordant Sun Ra jazz things in there, and it’s got a melody and it’s great. I’m glad you like it.
AmorphousAndrogynous – that’s an interesting combination. What did you learn from them?
They turned me on to such much fucking fantastic music! I’d hazard a guess and say –what happened between me and them is what happened to me between me and a Swedish band called the Soundtrack of Our Lives. When I first heard them I thought: this is it! This is fucking great! I allowed myself to be influenced by them for ages. These guys turned me on to so much great music. I’ve got reams and reams of CDs they gave me. All fucking amazing! From the 50s, 60s, 70s, some from the 80s. They’re some of my most treasured musical possessions. Unfortunately, they’re a massive pain in the arse to work with. Hahaha!
Doped up to their eyeballs, I’d imagine.
No they’re not. One of them is a health freak, and the other one is on a completely on another planet.
You said earlier you feel as you get older the song writing gets better, the craft. It’s ironic, the music we all started off with, 60s music, all those people thought they were gonna be gone tomorrow. Even the Beatles thought they were going to settle into being just songwriters, if they were lucky. So they were forced to make three albums a year to squeeze the maximum profit out of their career before the success dried up. Brian Wilson went mad in that process. And yet it focused their brain and many made three brilliant albums in a year.
Bands like that, they invented the music business. They invented pop music, they were in at the very beginning. All the things that Ray Davies, and John Lennon and Pete Townshend, and fucking Jimmy Page and all those guys built – the music business surrounded them and gave them everything they needed to make these great albums we still listen to,“Dark Side of the Moon”, and fucking “Tommy”. “Led Zep IV”, “the Wall”, “Wish You Were Here”, all the great Beatles albums and the Stones. And now the industry surrounds the musicians and tells them what to write, what they’re gonna wear, and how it’s gonna go, and these are the rules.
And the awareness that the fourth album’s often gonna be the best has been completely forgotten…
Totally, absolutely. “Sgt. Pepper”. “Revolver”. Nirvana were only any good with their second or third album.
So, is the music today peopled by complete dicks or is it just greed?
Well, at the top level it’s greed. At the medium level it’s idiots. ‘cause the people who employ people only employ idiots ‘cause you have to be a fucking idiot to work for a greedy bastard like that. And because I’m an independent artist when I go to awards and things like that I get a queue of people at my table from the music industry who’ll come and say “you should come to us you’ll sell a lot of records, work with us!” If I was on a major label I could perhaps sell half a million records more, but I’d have to work with a cunt like you! And I won’t do that. I never had an A&R man. I never had a marketing department. Everything I’ve ever done has come from my fucking brain. And I got this far, thank you very much, and that’ll do me. I’m not greedy, know what I mean! Theysay to me: “You’re one of the legend artists, you should be on a major label,we could look after you.” And I’m: “No, I don’t need that. I don’t like people like you. I don’t respect people like you. So I’m fine where I am. But if I stop selling records tomorrow, you’ll be getting a call.”!
Even when Creation went through Sony you were free to do what you wanted?
Yes, we were.
So basically nothing’s changed for you by having your own label.
No, not really. No. Nonono. It’s a bit more – it’s harder work to sell the records. But it’s more noble. These kids who work in this office they’re into it. Friends of mine who work at major record labels, they’re not into it. I see them when we go out and I ask them“what’s going on at Columbia”, and they go, “Oh, fuck off!” Really ? There must be something happening? “You don’t wanna know.” That shouldn’t be the attitude! The attitude should be: “Fucking hell there’s this amazing guy we’ve just signed, and have you heard THAT band?” That attitude is not prevalent any more.
What I find particularly shocking is this - you used to geta wide range of people working in record companies with a wide range of taste. And now everyone’s been to public school and boarding school and has done ayear’s internship without getting paid and it seems to be completely streamlined attitudes.
Alternative thinking has gone in the music business because it’s all about commerce and the internet and you tube and all this shit, know what I mean? I’m not sure it’s gonna change any time soon. I can tell you this story. A good little band, just signed to Atlantic, they’ll never have a hit record, ever. They play this floaty psychedelic stuff, it’s fucking great, like Pink Floyd meets the Byrds. They’re called Neon Waltz. A good band, they’ve just signed to Atlantic. And their A&R guy has just said to the band: “This is great what you’re doing, but what we’d like to do is we’d like to put you in with these guys who’re songwriters.” Bear in mind they’ve already been signed!
Why then did they sign them if they didn't like the music the way it was?
That’s the question a thousand people ask when I tell them that story. So why – explain to me again why you signed this group? Cause they’re not good-looking, they’re not fucking Led Zeppelin, they’re not great players. They’ve got their own thing! Why sign them if you’re immediately gonna put them in with songwriters? “These guys areamazing, they’re gonna get them a hit record.” Fucking hell! That sums up everything that’s wrong with the music business.
You enjoy your live shows, and there is a resurgence of interest in live music. Ignoring the controlling hand of AEG and all those, do you think that’ll change things round?
I’m not sure whether the promoter thing is the real enemy at the moment. It’s a problem, but the enemy is the small venues closing down. That is the real problem. When we first started – I sound like an old man singing the same old tune but it’s true –when we started there was a thousand venues in every city where you could play. Venues that had been there since the 50s. Old nightclubs that someone had taken over and started putting bands on and it served the community. Now it’s a restaurant because that’s better for commerce. Or the lease has been sold and it’s been knocked into flats. That’s the problem. Cause eventually there will only be big theatres, 4000 people, medium size arenas, 10’000 people, and big arenas, 20’000 people. That’s all there will be.
Yes, the pubs. OK, with not very good sound systems, and nobody really loving it. Nobody wanting to be the guy wants to put the bands on. It’s a terrible thing. That level of music has been swallowed up by the onward march of time. Also, if you wanted to see a band in the 80s or 90s, you fucking went to see the band . If you want to see a band now, you click on a fucking thing and go (squints at imaginary iPad screen), “oh I don’t like them”. Instantly judged on a three-minute you tube clip! Of course I use youtube, it’s the go-to place. But if Oasis was to start being a name now we’d never have the impact we had. When we started people would go “fucking hell you’ve got to see this band they sound like the Beatles AND the Stones AND the Kinks AND the Sex Pistols – they’re fucking amazing. What are they called? Oasis. Oh man, next time they’re on you gotta give me a call, blablabla.” If that happens today the conversation will go: “Man, I’ve seen this fucking band, they’re like the Beatles AND the Sex Pistols, blabla bla, fucking hell, let’s have a look…” Now you have a screen this fucking big, and speakers this big (indicates matchbox size).You can’t feel it, but you can see it, and you just go: “Yeah, no, it’s not for me.” Whereas when we got people into a room we had them. We had them there. Fine, if they walk out of the gig going “it’s not for me”, fine, you paid your money, you can have your opinion. Now it’s all about the internet. You read the comments. We wouldn’t have survived. We wouldn’t have survived! I tell a story to everyone about Lars Ulrich from Metallica. I’m not a fan of Metallica, but he’s a friend of mine, right. He’s sat in San Francisco in the early 80s and he’s obsessed with British heavy metal. Obsessed! He’s loving it. Saves up money, gets on a plane, comes over, goes to all the heavy metal pubs in Stoke and fucking Newport and he goes to experience it for himself. Spends 3 months travelling round England, all the heavy metal places, buys all the records, goes back to SF, starts one of the biggest metal bands of all time. If that story happened now, you don’t have to come here. You can watch it all on TV. But what you can’t do is feel it! Smell it! Being in those shitty fucking nightclubs, a) because they don’t exist anymore, and b) because you’re too lazy because Apple brings the fucking world to you. You can listen to the music and you can get a virtual experience but you can’t smell the piss in the toilets and go: “This is what I want! I want this, I wanna be one of these guys.” That’s gone. That’s why music is fucking awful!
Any recent discoveries? On the previous occasions we met you always came up with something really ace!
Oh, you must’ve heard them all, then! Have you heard that album by Manfred Mann? Chapter Three? It’ll fucking blow your mind. It’s heavy jazz, with great melodies. Ah, you’ll love it! Truly amazing.
You also like the Bowie album (the last one).
A masterpiece! Totally! I fucking sat on my bed on the day it came out and listened to it – sat on the bed with headphones on. As it got to the fourth track I was thinking: “It can’t be THIS good!” And then it got to “Valentine’s Day” and I was like: “No fucking way has that guy just written that fucking song, that’s impossible!” And then it got to the end, and I put it back to the beginning. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I wanna fucking play it when I get home tonight. I love it, man.
Is there anything you want to add?
(drums on the table with his fingers) I wrote a great song yesterday. It’s called “Dead in the Water.”