Being Pushed and Flying High: A Conversation with Noel Gallagher

The world is a mess and it’s only getting messier, but for the Oasis mastermind, nothing’s wrong. In fact, it’s gettin’ better (man!!).

Noel Gallagher has a record to promote and he’s holed up for the afternoon at Capitol Records Studio B. As I arrive in the control room, he’s in the darkened main room talking with the Associated Press, with a camera crew from Apple TV hovering and awaiting their turn. I’m a last minute addition to his press list and I’m up next.

I haven’t had time to be nervous, but it wouldn’t be surprising if I was. Noel Gallagher is British rock royalty. Along with his brother Liam, who sang the songs Noel wrote, Oasis ruled the British rock scene in the ’90s and throughout into the ’00s. They lived the hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle to the hilt and sold a shit ton of records when such things existed. It’s reasonable to estimate that there’s an Oasis CD in one of every three homes in the UK. They had platinum record sales in every major territory on the planet. The brothers’ personal relationship is well documented; to say that they don’t get along would be an understatement. But I’m not here to talk about the past, except perhaps to understand how it informs the present.

As the AP reporter finishes his interview, Noel pops into the control room to grab some water and see who’s next. We exchange pleasantries and both express surprise that we haven’t met before as we get straight into the easiest ice-breaker conversation for a couple of Englishmen: football. He’s a well-known supporter of Manchester City, the top team in the English premiership at the time of writing. My team is Aston Villa, who have not been at the top of anything for a while and are currently in the second tier of English football. He gives me a little good natured shit for it, which I have no choice but to take, and we head into the darkened studio for our conversation.

The first thing I notice about him? He’s a man comfortable in his own skin, and more than ready to talk about his third post-Oasis album as Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Who Built The Moon?

Nic Harcourt: I’ve been around this business a long time and I’ve never met you, so it is really quite a privilege to sit down and have a chat.

Noel Gallagher: I am astonishing in the flesh, am I not?

You told me I was very lucky.

It’s your lucky day, yeah.

You said that you never listen to the interviews after you’re done doing them, which I thought was a really nice intro.

No, I don’t listen to anything that I do, and I don’t watch back anything that I do. Annoyingly for my people, when I put DVDs out and they send them to me to approve, I don’t even watch them, I just say, “That’ll be alright, I suppose.” I just live in the moment.

It’s interesting, I talk to people for a living and do live sessions and television and everything and I can’t watch it. I just cannot do it because I rip myself to pieces. Is that part of it for you?

“I just live in the moment.”

No, because it usually involves some kind of live performance. If you’ve done the greatest gig in the world and then you’re asked to approve some sound desk mix of it you’re only ever going to be disappointed. So I always get someone else to do it. I’m like, “I was in the moment, it was great, someone else can look after the sound. I don’t need to see it.” By the same rule, if you’ve done a terrible gig—

You definitely don’t want to see it.

No, it just doesn’t really interest me.

The new record, obviously, that’s why we’re talking. How did you approach this one? I believe that the initial recordings for this were actually done a little while ago at the same time as the last record, right?

I’d amassed the songs for Chasing Yesterday and I’d done maybe a couple of weeks’ work on it, so I got the basis of all the songs and I ended up producing it myself. Initially that wasn’t the goal at all. I took them to David Holmes and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “Well, I can’t add anything creatively to these songs so you should finish it yourself. If you want to make a record, we’ll make another one from scratch.” So I was working on them side-by-side. This one took three years, and the other one took nine, ten months, whatever it was.

You said you produced the other one yourself, but this one with David Holmes, who’s probably best known as a film composer. Why him?

Well, I’ve been a fan of his work for years. I’ve been a fan of him as a DJ and I’d only recently met him maybe six months before I approached him to work on that record. It was completely by chance that we met—I didn’t seek him out or anything. We kinda got on alright, and I thought, “Well let’s try that, it’d be a good idea.” Little did I know it was going to amount to Who Built the Moon? But I just love his soundtracks, the Ocean’s stuff that he did. He’s made solo albums, his DJ mixes are fantastic.

What does a producer bring to the material? I’m guessing it depends on who the producer is, but why bring a producer in at all?

I’ve only ever worked with I think four in my entire life, and they’re all of different attributes and different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve worked in this very room [Capitol Studio B] with Dave Sardy and Dave’s all about the performance of capturing what the essence of this band is—like the Rick Rubin school of production, which is like, “We’ll capture the essence of this.” David was all about the idea—and the execution, well, that’s up to you. The huge idea. I’ve worked with other producers who are kind of a little bit in between. Some who are utterly uninspiring—we’ll just sit and press play and record and go, “Thanks very much, see you later.” It just depends. They’ve all got different ways of working, but David Holmes by far and away has been the most inspiring guy I’ve ever worked with in the studio.

How so?

He’s fearless. He’ll play me avant garde jazz records and convince me that this is the kind of music you should be making. And I’m a cynic, and I’m kind of looking at him and half thinking, “This guy’s a fucking idiot.” Then the other half of me is thinking, “He’s a genius.” There’s some magic trick in that: Not only first saying to me, “You should do stuff like this” and then convincing me that it can be done and then kind of making sure that it happens. 

Give me an example of a song that you did with him that could never have been made any other way.

“[Johnny Marr’s] like the gunslinger: He walks in with his guitar, you play him the song, he says, ‘Right, I’m gonna do this, gonna do this, gonna do this.’ And you play this thing and it’s just perfect.”

This happened quite a few times on this record where a song will have formed out of a snippet of a riff that I played over some drum machine thing that he programmed that was akin to some German fuckin’ disco record that we decided, “Yeah, let’s approach a song like that.” So I’d be playing stuff and his strength was he would stop me sometimes and say, “It’s starting to sound like Oasis now.” And I’d say, “That’s a good thing, though, right?” And he’d say, “Well, yeah, you’re good at that, but try something else.” And then we’d progress for another couple hours and he’d say, “It’s starting to sound like High Flying Birds now.” Then I’d be like, “OK, well that’s good though as well, right?” And he’d say, “Yeah, but you can do that for the rest of your career.”

So he was pushing you.

Yeah, he was pushing me. Most of the time I’d be playing guitar and what would happen was there’d be a loop or something I’d be playing and I’d try all the things I’d learnt down the years—the Oasis things, the sounds that I knew. He’d be sitting at a computer, probably sending e-mails to his wife, looking completely uninterested in anything that was going on. Then I’d move on to other things that I’d learned. And then when I’d exhausted that and I was just fuckin’ playing, giving up almost, he’d spring to life and say, “What was that? What was that you just played?” We’d have to go back on the tapes and he’d say, “That bit there. Right, this is going to be the base of the song.” And I’d be like, “Wow, fucking, so he is listening.”

You brought a couple of friends in on this record as well—a couple of guys who I have met through the years like Paul Weller, Johnny Marr. Were you thinking of these people as you were writing these songs?

In the case of Paul, we’re neighbors, we live literally—and I mean literally—ten seconds from each other. He’ll pop into mine and he’ll play me what he’s working on, you know, “What do you think of this. What do you think of that?” The particular track that he appears on, when I first played it to him he kinda took a CD and went home and called me back and said, “I want to play on that song.” And I said, “Great.” So we found a place for him.

With Johnny—I always call Johnny because Johnny lives in Manchester; if he lived in London I’d probably be in a band with him—I always call Johnny out of necessity. There’s always a dead end I reach and someone will say, “It needs something on the guitar.” Honestly, that guy, the fact that he even bothers to get on the train and come down and hang out in the studio for a couple of days is testament to him, because he’s making a record at the moment and he doesn’t want to hear anything before he gets there. He’s like the gunslinger: He walks in with his guitar, you play him the song, he says, “Right, I’m gonna do this, gonna do this, gonna do this.” Then you’ll play it and you’ll just go, “You know what, I couldn’t even have articulated it as perfectly to him.” And you play this thing and it’s just perfect.

And you’re like, “Thank you.”

“Thank you very much, see you later.”

Speaking of Oasis earlier, clearly you have a heritage which you’re very proud of and should be proud of. But as you are writing now for yourself as a vocalist, how different is that? With Oasis, you were writing for someone else.

Nic Harcourt with Noel Gallagher

I wouldn’t say one was better than the other because the proof with Oasis was with the output and what it became. It’s certainly easier to know if you’ve written something, [where it’s like,] “I love it, I don’t have to sell this to the singer.” Or, you know, someone else looking at these words and going, “[Groaning], It’s about his bird, clearly about his missus. It’s about his kids.” So there’s none of that, that’s taken out of the equation. It’s just easier, quicker, more interesting.

As you’re putting out this album and touring again next year, where are you at with everything right now? How are you feeling as an artist with this great legacy of work, but obviously with new music and new opportunities and inspirations?

I feel great. I feel like I’ve always felt—on a professional level, I feel like I always feel at the start of a cycle: I can’t wait to get started, I can’t wait to play the songs, and for the songs then to start morphing into live versions. When you put out records, there’s the record, [and] then they change. As the tour goes on you start playing them differently, singing them differently. Sometimes you have to check yourself halfway through a tour and go back and listen to the record and go, “Oh, we’ve lost something there.” And sometimes they get better.

So I’m looking forward to that. Touring for me, I’m always aware that these gigs are and should be like a celebration of everything that you are, both as a person and as a songwriter, and shouldn’t be like going to work. I’ve never gotten nervous before a gig in my entire life. One show I’ve been nervous for, [though,] it was just recently in Manchester [at the reopening of the Manchester Arena]. I was all tied up in the emotion of the night and all that. For standalone gigs and tours, even going on stage in front of all those people, it’s like, “They’re all here to see me and here I am, so bring it on.” FL

You can listen to an extended version of this interview on Nic Harcourt’s radio show, Nic Harcourt Mornings, at 10:30 a.m. this Friday, November 24, on 88.5 KCSN/KSBR in Los Angeles, or on the web at 885fm.org.

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