Two years after the bitter end of Britpop outfit Oasis, Noel Gallagher makes the jump to frontman with his solo debut.
We’re talking about this summer’s British 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 meetand-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 ars** 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 sh**, 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.”
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 came out on his own label, Sour Mash.
The first 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 pressuring 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.’ ” – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2011 n Noel Gallagher’s Highflying Birds is released by Universal Music Malaysia.