Noel Gallagher On World Cafe
"I don't want anybody to know who I am. I genuinely have no desire for anybody to ask me how I feel." Noel Gallagher says this about 45 minutes into my attempt to talk to him about who he is and how he feels. He doesn't say it in an accusatory way; he doesn't sound annoyed. He is trying to explain what works for him as a songwriter — that there's a necessary distance between who he is and what he writes. As he sings in one of the newest songs by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, "Be careful what you wish for / Be careful what you dream / They'll let you sing your songs, son / But they'll never hear you scream."
As the guitarist and songwriter for Oasis from its founding in 1991 to its dissolution in 2009, Noel was opining on what it meant to be a rock star long before he could afford to travel with his own power generator for live performances or start a sentence with the claim "I would bet one of my houses" (both of which came up in conversation on the day of our World Cafe session). In fact, the very first song on Oasis' 1994 debut album, Definitely Maybe, penned by Noel and sung by his brother and bandmate Liam, was called "Rock 'n' Roll Star."
Who Built the Moon?, the latest album by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, is clearly enamored with the history of modern music, from the bubblegum whistling hook he borrowed from an obscure 1960s group called Ice Cream to songs written in the spirit of Blondie and Kanye West.
Noel is not known for humility, and proudly claims his own position in the lineage of rock and roll's inventors and innovators, while at the same time messing with the idea of what innovation can mean. He is also adamant that the most personal parts of his pain, including being physically abused by his dad as a kid, will never make it into his songs. From his loathing for coffee shops, the TV show Friends and one of his own albums (the 1997 Oasis LP Be Here Now) to being informed of his status as a feminist by his own wife, Noel Gallagher holds little back. Hear our conversation in the audio link and read an edited transcript below.
Talia Schlanger: In making Who Built the Moon?, you worked with electronic music producer Dave Holmes. To me, you're such an auteur of the songs you write and the things you do. It sounds like this time, you were accepting him sort of pushing you in different directions.
Noel Gallagher: Whether I thought it consciously or subconsciously, the thing that I invented back in 1991 when I joined Oasis, you couldn't really take that any further. David said, "You can sit with that acoustic guitar and write songs like 'The Dying of the Light,' 'Wonderwall' and 'Talk Tonight' for the rest of your life — and you're the best at that. But do you want to wear the same clothes forever?" When he said that, I thought, "You know what, that's right — I can do stuff like that standing on my head." There just came a point where it's like, let's try something new. I did take a backseat on a lot of it, I've got to say, and let David do his thing.
I hear so many different pieces of the rock and roll canon in this album. It's very forward-facing, but it also feels like a collection of inspiration from many different places. You've said that "the spirit of Blondie" inspired one of the tunes.
"She Taught Me How to Fly."
I really hear the Blondie influence in the drumming especially, like Clem Burke. How do you do that? Do you think about writing in Blondie's voice? Are you just listening to it and it's filtering in?
How you write a song for Blondie is, every morning before you go to work, you listen to The Best of Blondie, and all of a sudden, things start to fall out of the sky. As I was singing it, I was thinking, "I can hear Debbie Harry singing it, and I can hear Clem playing the drums, and I can see them all on Top of the Pops."
At that moment, what makes you not want to call Blondie and say. "Hey, Debbie, I wrote a song for you"?
Because the song's really good and Blondie are not having it. If it was [only] all right, I could always call Debbie. As it's actually brilliant, she can have it when I'm finished with it.
I've heard you talk about co-writes, and it sounds like you're not a big fan of the idea of co-writing songs.
Let me clarify that: If your name is on the front of a solo record, please let it be that you've written all the songs. I feel disappointed in solo artists sometimes; I think, "You're clearly not writing that." If you have trouble writing a song and you need a co-writer, that's what bands are for.
What's the difference between that and writing something with the spirit of somebody like Blondie coming through you? Is that like a spiritual co-write?
Yeah, I guess. I would bet one of my houses that Debbie Harry and Chris [Stein] would be pleased that somebody has been inspired by their music to write such a great song. So when the Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian and Razorlight and The Libertines and all those bands came out of England in 2004, 10 years after Definitely Maybe, and they all started saying, "We got into Oasis," I was like, "OK, well, these better be good." 'Cause lots of people start bands because of what you do. Ninety percent of it is atrocious. [But] all these bands are great and I love them all. And I was like, "Well, we did something great, then, because I know that great things are coming after that."
The song "Fort Knox," which opens the record, draws a little bit on the spirit of Kanye West.
The day that "Fade" came out, we happened to be in the studio. I'd heard it that morning, and I was staggered by it: That tune is mega. We got into the studio, and I'm going, "Have you heard Kanye's new track?" to David. So we get it up on the big speakers, and he's saying, "We should do a track like this for Kanye." So then we listened to "Power." "Power" has those girls chanting, and I was like, "Right, well, we have to get that." So we got our girls in and they did something similar. We were conscious not to overstep anybody's copyright.
How do you do that?
You have to say to the girls, "This track is clearly by Kanye. We're going to do something like this, but not the same." I don't like giving people absolute direction in the studio. I like, when I get people in to play on my records, to see what they come up with first, and then try to fit it into what [I'm] doing.
What do you appreciate about Kanye and what he does?
He had a run of singles that blew me away, like "Black Skinhead," "Fade," "Power" ... He's pretty far out. He doesn't mind speaking his mind. He's pretty funny — not sure whether he's intentionally trying to be funny, but he's a free spirit, man.
Are there similarities that you see between yourself and Kanye?
When "Black Skinhead" was out, I happened to be at a party and Rick Rubin was there; he produced Yeezus. And I said, "How much of that is him, and how much of that is you?" That track, particularly, because it sounds like nothing else he's ever done. And he said, "Oh, it's all him." I was like, wow. I've got a lot more respect for him now than before I had that conversation with Rick.
I've heard that about Rick Rubin — that his genius is sitting and letting people do what they do.
That's what great producers are supposed to do — they're not supposed to go in and make a record for you. They're supposed to find something in you that you didn't know existed. For instance, I would be writing guitar parts and David would be constantly stopping the tape and saying, "That sounds like Oasis, don't do that." And then he'd do another one and say, "Sounds like High Flying Birds, don't do that. Do something else." Once you've exhausted all your tricks and all the things that make you sound like you, then do you let go, and you start to be creative.
Is there anybody right now that is making music that carries on the lineage of rock and roll from the UK really well, in your opinion?
Radio in England is abysmal. The main national station, Radio 1, frankly annoys me. It's for 7-year-olds; my 7-year-old loves it. Guitar music doesn't have a presence on the radio, which [makes it] quite incredible that the tracks off Who Built the Moon? have been pretty big radio hits. You don't really get songs like "Holy Mountain" on the radio in England.
What is rock and roll, to you?
To me, it's freedom of thought. Freedom of expression. It's not about the leather jacket and the Jack Daniels, though that always helps. For me, when I started off in the music business, rock and roll to me was about Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and the Stones and the Sex Pistols, and then somewhere in the middle of the '90s, people started mass-producing Rolling Stones 1971 tour t-shirts and MC5 t-shirts. People would say, "That's so rock and roll, innit?" and it lost its thing.
That's what happened? T-shirts killed the rock and roll star?
T-shirts and coffee. Since the rise of the coffee shop, culture has disappeared, don't you think? People are horrified that they have to pay for music. Music! But $20 for two coffees, oh, absolutely.
I feel like the resistance to pay for music came after people got used to that. Maybe it's that they got used to spending a lot on commodities that feel like culture — like coffee — and then changed their financial priorities. Or maybe it's that, all of a sudden, music was free.
I blame Friends.
The TV show? What do you want to blame Friends for?
The rise of the coffee shop. Sitting around in sweaters drinking overpriced coffee and talking about nonsense.
You're on this tour for Who Built The Moon?, mostly playing your own Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds stuff, but also a few older songs that you wrote for Oasis. When you play a song like "Wonderwall" or "Don't Look Back in Anger," what do you get out of it now?
When I see teenagers in the crowd — who were barely born when Oasis split up, far less when we were together — that makes me think, wow: We did something that was special and timeless, that generations have come along afterwards and they still get it. So there's that.
It is difficult putting together a set list, because you kind of think, "Am I done with that song? How many more times am I gonna play it?" You're kind of obliged to at least give it a go. "Don't Look Back in Anger" — I don't think I'd be allowed out of the venue if I didn't play that. It's kind of like my "Hey Jude."
I wanted to talk about that song a little bit. In May of 2017, we all know there was the horrific bombing at Manchester Arena, at the Ariana Grande concert. That week, they had this public moment of silence — and right afterward, this one woman started singing "Don't Look Back in Anger." And then the whole crowd burst into singing.
I was watching it live on the news.
What was going through your mind while you were seeing it?
At the time, I don't think I had a single thought in my head. I was just gobsmacked. It proved to me — not that I needed any proof — how important music is, or a song is, to people. ... All the words that had been said by religious and political leaders leading up to that memorial were things you hear all the time. One girl decided to break the silence with a song, [and] it brought everyone together. Now, whether my song or not is irrelevant: If it had been a song by someone else, I'd still have been blown away by the fact that music is what brought all those people to share this experience. And then, I got to reopen the arena a few weeks later. Singing it that night — some of the survivors were there — it was, whew. It was far out.
My producer and I were sitting and watching it this morning while we were getting ready, and it made us cry. It's really heavy. But I was thinking, too, about something I read a while back about that song — that it sort of came out of a nonsense lyric.
I wrote it after I came out of a strip club.
There you go. Tell me about that.
It started off as a song of defiance, about this woman: She's metaphorically seeing the diary of her life pass by, and she's thinking, "You know what? I have no regrets." She's raising a glass to it. Then, it became this song of celebration. And now, it's like a hymn. I don't do it electric anymore; it doesn't seem right to do it electric anymore. I think it's still a song of defiance.
Well, it is. Especially in that context, too.
So, it starts off as a song about no regrets, and then it's ended up as this anthem of defiance about not being dragged down to the level of terrorists.
When you write a song like that, do you have a technique in your mind where you're thinking, "This is what I can do to this song to make it something that will be really big, that will connect with a lot of people for a long time?"
Well, the older that you get and the more success that you have, the more you start to second-guess. If I'd have known that night what "Don't Look Back in Anger" would become, I'd never have finished. How could you have finished that song? It would never be good enough.
That's what Be Here Now suffered from. It was the first time I'd ever been required to write an album as the biggest songwriter in the world, so I wilted under that pressure, I think. I hate that album.
Did you know at the time?
I wrote it on holiday. For a start, you shouldn't write rock and roll records in shorts. I remember going back to London with the demo tapes, and I thought it was all right. I played it to everybody, and honestly, it was like they'd heard the greatest record of all time. And I thought, "Oh, maybe it is really good, then." Everybody around — management, record company, the rest of the band — "This is is amazing. This is the best thing you've ever done." And I was thinking, "Maybe it is!" Put it out there, it gets the best reviews of any record Oasis have ever had.
So, I remember being on tour. The two albums we had to play were Morning Glory and Definitely Maybe, and a lot of these new songs. It quickly became very apparent, after about four weeks, that these new songs were in no way up to the standard of these other lot. You can just tell when you're playing them. If you're trying to follow "Rock 'n' Roll Star" with, you know, "Magic Pie," you don't have to be a brain surgeon to work it out. I hate it.
What hit me about the new song "Be Careful What You Wish For" was, I grew up loving what you do and what a lot of my favorite artists do. And what that song evoked for me was that maybe the people that I admire are not getting to really express the pain or the vulnerability or the truth that they might need to — because they have to sing these songs for us that we take as a substitute for that. Am I way off-base?
The first two verses started out as a message to my children about fame, money and drugs and all that. "Just be careful what you wish for."
The following three verses are about — I sound pretentious here — a cautionary tale to other people's kids, you know what I mean? ... Fame is fickle; it's not real. Emotions are real. So they'll let you sing your songs, but they don't really want to know how you feel. Now, that as a thing is fine. It served me brilliantly down the years. I don't want anybody to know who I am. I genuinely have no desire for anybody to ask me how I feel. I'm in it for the music.
But people assume that they do know what you feel, sort of, because you sing these songs.
If I'm doing my job correctly, my songs should say more to you about you, than about me. If I'm writing, and I read a line back and it's too personal, I'll just take it out immediately.
Where do those things go?
In the [garbage]. I don't like listening to personal songs by other people, because it doesn't mean anything to me. You know, so your mum died. Mine didn't, so why are we listening to it, you know what I mean? My songs tend to deal with the universal truths of life. We all love and hate and lose and win sometimes, and all that.
Within the universal truths of life lie magic. If you're being very matter-of-fact — "This is a song about how my dad abused me when I was a child" — I'm like, really? It better be a good song, because that doesn't sound like it's gonna be a happy five minutes. When I'm listening to John Lennon's solo stuff and he's going on about his mother, I'm not interested.
The example of being abused by one's dad is an interesting one. That's something that happened to you.
Yeah, of course.
You haven't written any songs about that.
No. But I dealt with it really early on. A lot of my other friends, their dads were the same. It was the late '70s, early '80s; brutal times in the North West. I never wanted to write about it, ever. There's too much glory in the world to write about pain.
I'm thinking about "Be Careful What You Wish For" in that context. You said it was, in part, a message to your two sons. How old are they?
They're 10 and 7.
I know that you've talked about your relationship with one of your own brothers ad nauseam, and I'm not interested in going down that rabbit hole at all.
What I'm interested in, and it's OK if this is not fair game, is how you're raising two sons who are brothers — and whether there are things that you're trying to be conscious of doing or not doing to make sure they have the kind of brotherhood you would want them to have.
The fundamentals are easy. If your house is full of love and respect, that's it. If you love your children, and you love your wife, that is it. My kids are the happiest two lads. Don't get me wrong, they will demolish everything that I hold true in my life, if they get their hands on it. They have no respect of anything ... and they fight like two cats and dogs. But they're brilliant lads, engaging, funny, because their environment is full of love and respect.
If you come from a home that's not like that, you end up passing that on to your kids. Someone has to break the chain somewhere down the line. [And] the key to it all is your wife: If you respect your wife, the game's easy for your kids. There's nothing else they need learn.
So, is it that you didn't see that at home? Your dad didn't respect your mom when you were growing up?
No, he was a terrible husband, a terrible dad. And it would be [for me] easy to be like that because that's your role model, that's how I was brought up. But fortunately for me, I would always be around my aunties; my mum's got like seven sisters. I would gravitate more towards women, for some reason.
I remember recently, my wife brought some friends around for dinner. They're having a discussion about feminism, and I was like, "Feminism, whatever." And Sara said, "What are you talking about? You're a feminist." I was like, "Really?" And then she listed all the reasons why I was, which I'm not going to go into now.
You can give me one of them.
She was like "Well, you treat women as equals, and there's no misogyny and there's no sexism." ... I was kind of mocking them discussing feminism, and they were like, "Whoa, hang on a minute." That put me in my place a little bit.
To go back to the original point, my two sons fight, but they love each other. If your parents love each other ... it's such a key part of the upbringing of children, if your mum and dad are still together. I know lots of people in London whose girls have real issues with their dads not being around, and boys whose dads are in and out. They have real issues when they get older.
So you're devoted to sticking around and seeing it through?
Oh, absolutely. If only to annoy them.
Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.
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