High & Mighty: Noel Gallagher - The Music Week Interview

Force of nature: Noel Gallagher is the architect of eight chart-topping singles and 11 No.1 albums

Noel Gallagher is British songwriting royalty, and the former Oasis leader is about to add another jewel to his crown as the latest recipient of the BMI President's Award. Here, the rock'n'roll legend holds court on his old band, reveals why he isn't signed to a major and ponders the evolving art of hitmaking...

Three years ago, Noel Gallagher returned to the scene of the crime.

With the 20th anniversary of Oasis’ infamous third LP Be Here Now on the horizon, the legendarily sardonic singer-songwriter revisited its lead single, D’You Know What I Mean? Unleashed on a mad-for-it world in the summer of ’97, the track would mark the beginning of the end of the band’s glory days.

Arriving at the height of Oasis-mania, following the gargantuan success of 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (4,565,844 sales, OCC), the song inevitably shot straight to No.1 in the UK and remains one of the group's best-selling singles. But its epic length (the album version clocked in at a whopping seven minutes, 42 seconds) and overblown production set the tone for a campaign characterised more by excess than top tunes, and triggered alarm bells behind the scenes.

“I’d been asked to go to the playback meeting,” recalls Gallagher, speaking to Music Week. “There were people around the table from all over the world and, as they put [the record] on, I noticed at least half a dozen of them start stopwatches – that pissed me off.”

He continues: “The first minute is feedback, the drums don’t come in for a minute-and-a-half and the singing doesn’t come in for three minutes. There were people who were horrified. As it finished, there was another minute of feedback. There was silence and then someone said, ‘Will there be an edit?’ I just said, ‘No’.”

Gallagher trimmed 20 seconds off D’You Know What I Mean? for its 2016 remix, and considers the revised cut a significant improvement on the original.

“Well, it wasn’t mixed on cocaine,” he laughs. “I remember being high as fuck in the studio. I was 30 at the time, it was fucking mad.”

That the album was greeted with rave reviews and record first-week sales, before the sobering reality kicked in, is now part of rock‘n’roll mythology. Sales stalled at 1,933,564 and Oasis, on the cusp of becoming the biggest band on the entire planet, never quite scaled the same heights again. Regrets? He’s had a few...

“Before we started to play it live, I was absolutely convinced it was the greatest thing that had ever been thought of,” admits Gallagher. “It was only after about four or five gigs that I started thinking, ‘These songs are not moving anybody’ – and the people don’t lie.

“I don’t like that album. I missed the opportunity of doing something fucking great. And I’ve always thought maybe the songs are too long.”

It’s a pertinent point: nine of Be Here Now’s 12 tracks stretch past five minutes, while its third single All Around The World holds the distinction of being the longest No.1 in UK chart history at nine minutes, 38 seconds. Its contrast with recent Music Week data, showing the average length of a chart-topping hit in 2019 to be a mere 3:04, could not be more stark.

“Three minutes and four seconds?,” frowns Gallagher. “It’s a fucking joke. I struggle to get mine under four.

“I don’t like the way the industry dictates to the artist now. When I grew up, the artist dictated to the industry. Now, you get people crawling on their hands and knees to get a record deal. They’ll do whatever they’re told and it can be fucking no coincidence to anybody with half a brain cell that the quality of music is shrinking with every cycle.”

Oasis, of course, are now 10 years gone and confined to music history, barring an unlikely reconciliation. Gallagher, repped by longtime managers Marcus Russell and Alec McKinlay of Ignition and agent Ben Winchester of Primary Talent, is already eight years and three chart-topping albums into his solo career. The guitarist’s 2011 debut, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, has shifted 864,601 copies to date, 2015’s Chasing Yesterday 340,742 and 2017’s Who Built The Moon? 285,300, all released via his Sour Mash label.

“It’s been good,” he reflects, on the past near decade. “I’ve been through a few line-up changes already, which seems to be the thing that I do over the last 25 years. But I didn’t envisage doing the music I’m doing today when I started.”

Liberated by his work with producer David Holmes, Gallagher stepped out of his comfort zone on Who Built The Moon? and has continued to experiment on 2019 EPs Black Star Dancing and This Is The Place. A new single, Wandering Star, taken from the forthcoming Blue Moon Rising EP, will be released in early November, with the full extended play to follow early next year.

“Once I’d got the first record out of my system, which was a more standard Oasis-sounding record, I tried to push it out a little bit and see how far I can take what I do, which is why the EP thing appealed to me,” explains Gallagher. “It’s funny, when Black Star Dancing came out everyone was like, ‘Oh, is this the new direction?’ It’s like ‘No, it’s just a song, listen to it for what it is’. And then, with This Is The Place, ‘Oh, have you gone acid house?’ ‘No, it’s just a fucking song!’”

In comparison to Oasis’ impressive 13.3 million monthly Spotify listeners (their 2009 greatest hits compilation Time Flies... remains a fixture of the UK albums chart for this very reason), Gallagher’s solo material has garnered a more modest 1.5m, in part, due to the 52-year-old Mancunian’s uncompromising approach to the modern business. In the streaming age, where getting to the chorus within 30 seconds is positively encouraged, the verse to Black Star Dancing’s title track doesn’t commence until past the 50-second mark.

“If I was on a major record label I’d be being shoved in a certain direction,” offers Gallagher. “If I was on a major and I delivered Black Star Dancing, I guarantee it wouldn’t be put out as a single. I guarantee it.”

One of the finest tunesmiths of his generation, the Britpop great will be honoured with the BMI President’s Award at the BMI London Awards on October 21.

William Booth, EVP, chief operating officer at Gallagher’s publisher Sony/ATV UK, recalls first seeing Oasis with his then colleague Blair McDonald at the Canal Café bar during the 1993 In The City conference in Manchester.

“Signing Noel became mission critical for us as the new management team at the then recently revived Sony Music Publishing UK,” notes Booth. “Our instincts about his talents as a songwriter have been proven spectacularly correct as many of his songs have become anthems for a generation and he continues to prolifically write, tour and reach new audiences.

“We are very fortunate to have enjoyed being in business with Noel for all of these years and for everyone at Sony/ATV it is inconceivable that his songs should be anywhere else.”

Music Week meets with Gallagher in the central London office of BMI Awards publicist DawBell. While no subject is off limits, furthering the obsession with his relationship with estranged brother Liam figures low on the agenda.

Here, Gallagher puts the music world to rights on streaming, songwriting and the state of today’s industry, and reveals what it would really take to reunite Oasis. Make no mistake, this is not a man mellowing in his middle age...

It’s a good few years since you criticised people for being happy to spend a tenner on two cups of coffee, but less willing to pay for music. Has your stance on streaming softened at all?

“Well, it sounds shit for a start. I’ve got the Spotify app on my phone but I’ve actually pressed the button to go on it maybe half a dozen times. I [get so] annoyed with the thing that comes up and says, ‘We think that you might like this’. I’m like, ‘Don’t fucking tell me what I might like!’ This little fucking tiny phone is telling me, ‘We made this playlist for you’ and I’m like, ‘You fucking arrogant little piece of fucking junk’. I don’t like that. I come at music from a different way: I want to find it, discover it, own it and I want it to live in my life forever. We’re all starting to get paid a bit better from [streaming] now, thank God for that, but it’s a hindrance as well because if you’re trying to get anything done, people will just look at how many streams you’ve got and, if it isn’t the magic number, they’ll dismiss it. The music that I’m making now, I even get told by my own record label, ‘It’s hard to pigeonhole this because there’s these playlists’. I’m like, ‘Fuck ’em all’. I don’t care, that’s just the way that my music is now. I’m not going to tailor it for a playlist, fuck that.”

Oasis have more monthly Spotify listeners than bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Foo Fighters and The 1975 – and you’ve been split up 10 years…

“I did hit on something as a songwriter that can never be repeated: the art of the universal truth. My songs are not personal to me, they’re not about me, they’re about it. And I think what separates them from the Arctic Monkeys, in particular, is that they are all very inclusive. Some of the Arctic Monkeys [songs] are a bit too cool for school and you’re not quite fucking sure what they’re about. I definitely hit on something in that first explosion of me as a songwriter and I wouldn’t try to overanalyse it, other than that all of the lyrics are very inclusive and about our generation.”

Some of your best-loved songs are B-sides, so how do you feel about the death of the B-side?

“Well... the death of everything: 7”s, B-sides, venues, the charts, Top Of The Pops, record shops, you fucking name it. It’s a metaphor for life – all the old ways are dying gradually. The album will be next and then eventually the song, then there’ll just be fucking pop stars. Then they’ll die and there’ll just be emojis. Then they’ll fucking die and we’ll all be speaking Chinese.”

We’ll look forward to that. Did the supposed decline of the album influence your decision to release EPs?

“No, I was on tour and I felt Who Built The Moon? had run its course. I was having a meeting one afternoon and it was like, ‘What about putting some stuff out next year?’ And I thought it was a good idea. I just thought, ‘I don’t have to make an album so it doesn’t have to be an artistic signpost, there doesn’t have to be a huge campaign attached to it, let’s just do three EPs’. We’ve come to the point where I’m just like, ‘Who am I making music for now – me or other people?’ I’ve just been following my instincts and they’ve come out great. I’m actually thinking of issuing the title track off the next EP with a written apology because it’s so far removed from anything I was doing a year ago – far less what I did in Oasis – that it will split what’s left of my fanbase [laughs].”

What do you think about the speed of releases now? You see artists like Ariana Grande and Eminem putting out two albums only a few months apart…

“I’m not fucking bothered, they’re Americans anyway. But when I went solo I was offered – and continually get offered – pretty good deals from the majors. Every time I do an awards ceremony I get a queue of people saying, ‘Why are you on an indie?’ And you’re just like, ‘To be honest, all you can offer me is money and, frankly, I’ve got more money than you’. I wouldn’t want to be in the situation where a little 20-year-old A&R man is telling me what I should sound like, because I’d fucking gouge his eyes out, do you know what I mean? I didn’t want to try and do what I’d done in Oasis, what’s the point of that? Do it once, make it special, that’s it. That’s why we’ll never get back together. We did it once and it will remain iconic. Let’s go and do something else.”

Do you wish you’d gone solo sooner, then?

“It’s hard to say. I was first offered a solo deal after Knebworth [1996] and turned it down... No, I think these things happen when they happen. I think it was meant to happen for a reason. I can be a bit of a fatalist when it comes to things like that and I tend to follow my instincts. There were plenty of times when I could have left Oasis, but for some reason, the night that I did, something instinctively said, ‘Now’s the right time’.”

Strangely, you’ve yet to play Glastonbury as a solo artist…

“They’ve never made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! But I do like going. I go most years so to play it would be a ball-ache for me, unless I could do the Thursday night in a soup kitchen somewhere. I’ve been offered it a couple of times and been like, ‘Nah’. It would’ve been in the middle of a tour and it just didn’t work out. But the festival itself is fucking amazing, I love it and I’ll be going next year.”

Congratulations on your BMI Award. Does the fact it’s for songwriting make it more meaningful to you?

“Yeah, because it’s such a personal thing. Have you ever read Isle Of Noises? This guy [Daniel Rachel] interviewed 30 British songwriters, from me to Ray Davies, about the process of songwriting and what’s fascinating about the book is there’s no hard and fast rules. Everybody’s got a different way of approaching it. So when you get an award for your songwriting, you’re asked to define it and I find it difficult because it’s such an instinctive thing to me. I’ve never received a musical lesson in my life, I’ve just got a fucking talent for getting a tune out of anything and the enthusiasm to see ideas through, and I really love what I do. But as for the actual how you do it, I don’t know. They fall out of the sky.”

But what usually comes first – the verse or chorus?

“The one constant is that the words will always come last. I’ll have arranged the entire song, then I’ll just wait for the words. The first line is usually the hardest and then they get progressively easier. Some songs can take 10 minutes to write; eight years is the longest I’ve ever spent on a song.”

Which song was that?

“It was off [2005’s] Don’t Believe The Truth... Let There Be Love. That took eight years to write. This Is The Place [took] four or five years because, ‘That bit didn’t work, I’ll have to write a new bit for that and then that bit worked’. But I find it difficult to talk about; it’s just something that’s always been there for me. I’ll have to get up and make a speech [at the BMI Awards] and no doubt I’ll fucking upset somebody while I do it, because I’ve got nothing to say [laughs].”

Have there been periods in your career where the songs just wouldn’t come?

“I’ve had it once where there was nothing happening, no matter what. And I remember [Paul] Weller saying, ‘Just don’t chase it’ and that was good advice. If you’re chasing it, you’re wasting your energy. I’ve never had it since I’ve left Oasis because I work at my own pace, there’s nothing coming up on the horizon where it’s got to be finished. There was that middle bit of Oasis: Be Here Now, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants [2000], Heathen Chemistry [2002]... They were the years I was struggling. Looking back on it now, I was waiting for something to happen in the music business – something to come along that I could get behind.”

How overstated was The Beatles’ influence on your songwriting?

“Man, mental. It’s just because we were huge Beatles fans. I used to get embarrassed when I’d go to America and you’d sit with a journalist who’d say, ‘You’re supposed to sound like The Beatles’. And I’m like [shrugs]. I always thought we just sounded like a fucking rock band, do you know what I mean? But when you’ve got the singer constantly piping on about John Lennon and naming his kids after him, you’re asking for it really.”

Do you still see yourself doing this at Macca’s age?

“Seventy-seven? I guess I might have to go veggie if I’m going to be doing it at McCartney’s age. I can see me still writing and touring but, as opposed to an album every three years, it’d be an album every six. The way I look at it is, if you can do it, you’re obliged to do it. There’s enough shit in the world – bad, dark, mad shit – that if you’re a fucking artist and you’re sitting at home and not doing it, you’re a disgrace. You’ve got to get out there, man. You’re breaking the monotony of shitness for people.”

You’ve had plenty to say on co-writing, but did you know the average number of writers on the UK’s Top 100 hit singles last year was 5.34?

“Are you fucking kidding? Fucking hell. I don’t get it. But this is all major record label shit: two guys do the beats, another one does the topline, another does this, that and the other... And in that sense it’s the death of art, because there are no artists – there are just writers and performers. There’s a clear line now: you’re either an artist, or you’re an act. I go in the studio and create something from nothing, live and die by its merits and that’s it. Anyone else? Fuck those cunts, they’re non-existent in my world. I know for a fact that [some] solo artists, whose names are in the credits, haven’t done a fucking thing – they’re just in there because that’s in their contract. But I’m proud to be one of the last of a dying breed. The music business will eat itself eventually. Five people to write a song? If five people write a song, they should be in a band together. That’s why bands are dead.”

It is rare for a rock band to crack the Top 40 these days...

“If you’re an A&R guy, why are you going to take a punt on five kids from a council estate, who are all on drugs, who might eventually fucking write Cigarettes & Alcohol, when you’ve got this guy who’s just gagging to be in the music business? Some fucking post-Ed Sheeran dude with an acoustic guitar that you can see at any open mic night, singing songs about his dog leaving him, or his bird, or his fucking pigeon having a cough. And it gets a million hits on YouTube because he’s wearing odd socks. Are you going to take a risk on this band that might change the world? You’ve got your numbers to fucking make up mate, you’re going to take the easy way out.”

So are the days of mavericks like Alan McGee and Tony Wilson running labels a thing of the past?

“Yeah, but to be honest they all took the money. Tony didn’t, fair play, but Alan took the money. They all sold out in the end, so you can’t complain about it. I’m glad that I came through from a different era. Everything that’s cool used to be mainstream – Creation Records, Go! Discs, Factory. Everything that’s cool now is completely and utterly fucking minute, run out of a back room somewhere. There’s just a different mentality in the music business. It’s all geared towards the numbers – the numbers rule, the internet rules; it’s like every song now being three minutes and four seconds – the business is dictating what art should be. A friend sent me some demos of this kid. He’s a good lad with some good tunes, so I passed him on to a record label and he ended up getting a deal. And I said to him, ‘I’m only going to give you one bit of advice mate. When you get into that record label, they’ll listen to your songs and they will say this to you: “That’s fucking great... It’s not a single though. This is the guy that’s going to write a single for you”. You’ve got to resist that at all costs’.”

What’s your take on the huge rise in copyright cases since the Blurred Lines ruling?

“I’d never heard the Marvin Gaye song [Got To Give It Up] until the story came out. But then you listen to it and think, ‘Where’s the bit that they’ve copied?’ And you’re just like, ‘Man, if they’re copyrighting vibes, we are fucked. I’m completely fucked’. How do you lose that case? You can’t copyright a vibe! I had a producer say to me once that he wanted a credit and I replied, ‘What are you getting a credit for?’ And he said, ‘Well, for the vibe’ and I was like, ‘The vibe? You’re paid to bring the vibe you silly cunt!’ We never worked together again.”

Lastly, we know your stance on an Oasis reunion, but what’s your opinion on bands getting back together in general?

“I get it because nostalgia is a disease that’s taking over the world, because it’s in such a shit fucking place. I’m the same – I will gladly sit in on a Friday night and watch Top Of The Pops forever because there’s nothing on the telly apart from some shit on Netflix about zombies, talking dogs and vampires. I’m a bit nostalgic about TV and the ’80s because there’s nothing decent for me to get my teeth into nowadays. I understand The Stone Roses [reuniting], who never got paid. Other than that, it doesn’t appeal to me in any way. I just don’t see what on earth you’re getting out of it. I mean, if you’re skint, do it. Don’t lie about it though, just say you’re doing it for the fucking money! Money’s all right, it’s not a dirty thing. I love making money – the more I’ve got of it, the better. I guess it’s a personal thing: I don’t need the money; I don’t need the hassle; I don’t want to put the High Flying Birds on hold for two years to go around the world arguing with someone I don’t get on with, what’s the point in doing that? So it doesn’t appeal to me. If I ever lose all my money investing in fucking arms dealing somewhere in Chechnya and I’m skint, trust me, I’ll be the first at the press conference. But I won’t be lying about it, I’ll say I’m doing it for the fucking money.”

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