Noel Gallagher - Scotland On Sunday - October 2001
It is what he is now, sitting in a drab, anonymous, carpet-tiled office in Marylebone, ranting. "He's getting on my f***ing nerves at the moment. I hate not being able to go to my own studio because he won't sing when I'm there because it freaks him out. It's just like f*** off. You know, either sing or don't sing, but don't do some f***ing pastiche of the two. 'I think I might sing today, but I think I'm not in a good mood.' It's like, who do you think you are? Jim Morrison? You're meant to be an untortured artist. Either sh** or get off the bog man."
All I did was mention the word 'Liam' and he's off. The album isn't getting finished. The music industry is corrupt. Damon Albarn is a "f***ing c**t." Every sentence he speaks is dowsed with those familiar old asterisks. A white rim of spit gathers in the corner of his mouth. He sounds like some sort of absurd, yapping caricature of his mid-Nineties self, but older, wiser, a little wearier, and, of course, less out of his head on drugs. He even looks the same: shoes, hair-cut, the same old mod Oasis, updated. "I've got a very balanced view," he tells me, pausing for thought. "Outside my home is bullsh**, inside is calm." It's odd, but Noel Gallagher makes me laugh. What is it I find so charming, disarming and unexpectedly likeable?
Perhaps because he really doesn't seem to care. He doesn't stop for a second to think whether what he says is politically correct or clever. The tongue takes over and the random contents of his brain spew out. "I've never been one for donating large amounts of money to charity," he says when I ask about what he does with his hard-earned millions, "because I donate a lot of money as it is. It's called tax. Forty f***ing per cent tax." He gets names deliberately wrong, flaunting his ignorance. It's as if he finds it amusing that anybody would come to a pop star for opinions on world events. You want a cracking quote, I'll give you one. Last week he was referring to Bin Laden as "whatshisname binliner fella", this week he's calling him "Elmer Fud" and suggesting that someone should "fly a plane into a building somewhere in New York and not the World Trade Center" (meaning the offices of some record company, but he's only joking).
This is all a surprise to me. Noel Gallagher is a genuine deadpan comedian. But then I should have known. This is the man who, when Bonehead left the band, said: "Well, it's not like Paul leaving the Beatles."
I was never a big fan of Oasis. To tell the truth, I had to drive 20 miles out of town to a storage depot to find the couple of albums I had from their heyday. If nothing else, that's a sign of the times. How often does anybody play their Oasis albums anymore? Yet, back home, and before I'd even dusted off What's the Story Morning Glory or Definitely Maybe, I knew the Gallagher brothers must have got to me, just as they got to the quarter of a million who went to watch them play at Knebworth. I could reel off the words to every single song. Singing to 'Wonderwall' I had a brief flashback to the swagger and optimism of the Britpop era, to Noel popping round to Downing Street for tea, Liam and Patsy on the cover of Vanity Fair, Liam being arrested for possession of cocaine, to the fights and the attitude and the declarations. "I've been to the top of the mountain," says Gallagher, "and I've seen the view and being in the biggest band is great because of the adulation and the money and the f***ing flying around in jets, but it's a lot of work to keep it going though, man."
But Noel Gallagher isn't the same man he was five years ago. The highs and lows of being in "the biggest band in the world" have left their mark. The face is lined, brow furrowed, and the two sharp creases running from nose to chin give his mouth a down-turned appearance. He is now almost puritanical in his lifestyle, a divorced father-of-one, off the drugs, with a new lower-key girlfriend, Edinburgh-born Sara Macdonald. His rants are more sensitive and worldly: violence as a means of protest, unions, American foreign policy, the dangers of taking ecstasy, what "Elmer Fud" is going to do next. "If this was 1997," he says, "I would have made some ridiculous statement like, oh f***ing kill Arabs, or whatever was the most outrageous comment available to my brain cells at the time. But I'm not the same person as I was. Well, I'm not on drugs anymore."
How times have changed since the days he boasted sprinkling cocaine on his cereal. At Supernova Heights, he and wife Meg Mathews (once described as 'Britain's premier party girl' by Elle magazine), partied 24 hours, most days a week, pushing the limits of their lives and relationship. "When I wasn't on drugs," he says. "I was going to get them or coming back from getting them. I remember sitting in my house and a party started on a Friday afternoon and it went through till Monday, and I'm still meeting people to this day who were there and I don't recognise them. I mean proper minging shady-looking characters I would back away from in the streets." Somewhere in the middle of all this the panic attacks started and the sleepless nights and the doctor advised him to get off the drugs. So, one morning, he did just that, he woke up, and instead of skinning up, he had a pot noodle and never looked back. Not long after, he bought a house in Buckinghamshire, dragged his wife kicking and screaming out there (well, she still wanted to party) and began the slippery slope towards the end of their marriage.
Mention Mathews and he looks away, studying the laces on his trainers. "I don't talk about that," he says, "because people don't appreciate my honesty on the subject. There's too much f***ing fall-out and I can't be arsed." Yet he can't stay away from the subject too long. It's there, a part of his life and conversation. To Noel Gallagher it has a significance, it labels him. He is now a divorced father. "What I went through," he says, "wasn't painful. It was a release for me. It was like, well, thank the lord that's over. I wouldn't bore you with the subject. It's in the past. It's gone."
His honesty about Mathews has been brutal, their divorce a very public War of the Roses. He has (unfairly, I suspect) portrayed her as a money-grabbing materialist, a party girl. Following the court case, he said: "I just walked past Meg in court and I abhor it. But if somebody wants their pound of flesh that badly, there is nothing you can do to stop it." Poor Meg. In the public popularity stakes her husband seemed to win all too easily. After all, he was the soulful talent who'd seen the light. All most people really knew about Meg Mathews was that she was shopped a lot and had a boob job.
The dispute rolled on. Mathews was rumoured to be after a £10m settlement, Gallagher offered £3m. A quick divorce was granted on the basis of his admitted adultery with Macdonald (though he was never unfaithful till after they had separated). Mathews was given custody of Anais - well, he said that was only right, "that's what babies do... stay with their mam" - and Noel now sees his daughter on Thursdays and Fridays and every other weekend. "I'm not naturally a great father," he says, "but I'm getting better. I can spend hours with Anais, I can spend whole days letting her ride around on my back."
Perhaps it is because he does not want to gift to Anais a childhood like his own, that he is so worried about his talents as a father. Gallagher's parents finally hit the end of their rocky marriage when he was 17. Thomas Gallagher, an Irish Catholic, had a habit of staying out for days drinking, and would shout and scream at his sons, Paul, Noel and Liam. Often it would end in violence - and for the most part it was Noel who was on the receiving end. "I think he resented the fact he had kids because we got in the way of his lifestyle. And we got hammered for it." Peggy, their famously strong mother, only stuck it out that long because she was a Catholic. Then one day, it all came to a climax. Thomas drove Noel over the edge. The teenager struck out and pushed him down the stairs, hospitalising him for six weeks. "My last memory of my dad is him being taken away in a paramedic van," Noel said in one interview.
Despite rumours, there are no firm plans to marry Macdonald. He seems to be taking his time, working on the album, feeling his way out of one marriage before he commits himself to the next. In some ways, Gallagher's life has been defined by the women he has been with: mother Peggy, wife Meg and now girlfriend Sara. As one acquaintance has said: "He's like a chameleon, he takes on the characteristics of the woman he's with." Certainly he seems affected by Macdonald. Throughout his conversation he constantly refers to her: what she's reading, what she's doing, 'Sara says this' and 'Sara says that'. It's as if he's throwing out fragments of discussions with her. "Sara told me about the politics in Palestine." "Sarah would say I am self-obsessed." He's even written a love song to her. "It's called 'She's Love'. I just woke up one morning and I felt so in love. I wrote it in three minutes. It's three minutes long."
At first glance Macdonald doesn't seem that different from Mathews - just a toned-down, quieter version of the ex. After all she's a blonde, London-based PR who he met in Ibiza, not some mousy librarian or charity worker. "I found she was as sarcastic towards me as I am to her," Gallagher explains. But what's most significant about her is her willingness to keep out of the limelight. She's a more private person, less obviously showy. Why does it work? Gallagher shrugs. "It's there and it's happening so let's just enjoy it for what it is. Why analyse what's right? You just analyse the life out of things. Just do it man. It's like the world's about to go to f***ing war, you know, let it go."
Gallagher appears at home with the quiet new life he has created. He still drinks - but that's his only vice. These days he says, he hates parties, preferring just to hang about in the studio or watch TV. "I think the skills that I was given don't involve social skills. I'm not very good at sitting around a dinner table with people and discussing the day's events on Sky News. Between '94 and '98, I was in a different state of mind. I was social because I was taking a lot of drugs. A lot of party drugs as well. I didn't smoke spliff or take heroin. It was the drugs that make you wanna go out."
But he was never entirely the lager lout portrayed in the press. "When you're in a band with someone who's proclaimed himself king of the lads," he says, "then you sort of get tarred with the same brush. Now I can be a stroppy c***, but equally well I'm a sensitive boy and a dad. Sara doesn't like me blaming the whole thing on being a Gemini, but part of me is. I could go and stand on the football terraces on a Saturday afternoon and get pissed, be a sexist macho, in the pub talk about lads' stuff. Equally I could go to 10 Downing Street and talk about the plight of the Liverpool dockers. Equally as well I could sit with my mam and talk about the past and her gran dying. So there's a lot more to my character."
Noel Gallagher says he's in a bad mood, but I can't help thinking really he's just playing at it. He's just too entertaining, just too full of provocative little sound-bites. Besides, only a couple of days before we met, he did an interview with NME in which the Gallagher brothers presented a robust front of solidarity. Six months ago he said he had never felt happier. But today his enthusiasm is flagging. "Up until yesterday I'd been getting on well with him for weeks," he says, but before long he's moaning: "If he wasn't my brother, I would have split up with him years ago."
Gallagher has a knack for exaggeration. As one friend said: "you have to put a 20% commission on all he says". Elmer Fud is probably going to blow the whole world up. Kids shouldn't go on anti-globalisation protests because one day they'll probably get shot. The record industry is about to collapse. "They've sold the soul of the music business to the faceless millions." And, while we're on the subject, Jamie Oliver has got a record deal. 'Music to cook by," he spits out. "Music to cook by? It f***ing demeans what I have done for the last 10 years sitting in the back of a transit van, getting flu, pneumonia, trenchfoot, but, you know, sacrificing, s***loads to be obsessed by music. And you get some c***, no disrespect to Jamie Oliver, he' s probably a lovely guy, but music to cook by?"
So, I'm disinclined to take everything he says as gospel. True, Liam and Noel have always had a rocky relationship. One tour Liam was throwing in the towel, the next it was Noel, but they have always stuck it out, and the rows and the tiffs are part of what's been so appealing about them - the grand soap opera. It was there from the very start, from when they shared that tiny bedroom in Burnage.
It's a relationship that shifts, but on the whole it's classic birth-order dynamics. Liam fighting, drinking, larging it to excess, his older brother reining him in: Liam the spoilt brat, Noel the worrier. Both, perhaps scared that their whole world might just disintegrate, because they've both just got too much Thomas Gallagher in them.
"Liam," says Noel, "is the life and soul of the party. I probably always stand in the kitchen. Like the other day Liam's son had his second birthday party. See I'm not one for sitting round with party hats on me head. I'm more like a grumpy uncle, whereas Liam is there with his face painted and he 's dressing up for the kids and stuff. Sometimes I wish I could be more like that."
Right now he feels his grip over his brother slipping. The clock is ticking. He counts each day that passes in which he doesn't get Liam into the studio. Ten years of Oasis, and he's already pushing 35. "We were going to have a single out by the end of the year," he says, "but that's f***ing gone now, and it's because there's no one actually in charge [they're producing the album themselves]. I can't tell anybody what to do in the band because now it's this new democracy. There's no referee and it looks like it's just going to drift. It'll end up in an almighty fight is what it'll end up in."
Once Noel gets going on a rant, he's unstoppable and this is a big one. I mention his mother and he barks: "Well she doesn't say you should use more of Liam's songs or anything like that".
Is that an issue?
He nods. "He thinks he's the new John Lennon. He thinks he's fantastic. But who's gonna tell him? The same way who's going to say to me that maybe a song's not going to be good enough?"
So they don't?
"No, because all mine are f***ing great."
In fact, he confesses that in the past all his songs have not been "f***ing great", some have even been "appalling" ('Roll With It'). What is most appealing about Noel, is that for all his arrogance, he willingly shoulders the blame for having messed up. When he should have come out with a really great third album he produced the sadly disappointing Be Here Now. "It's just shockingly bad lyrics," he says. "But I will say in my own demonic drug-induced state I wrote an album in 14 days and - count them - that sold seven-and-a-half million copies. If I'd actually tried at that point in my life I'd have been f***ing God. As it was I was more interested in having a party, so it was like, well, I'll spend half an hour f***ing about with this and then we'll be off down the beach."
It wasn't just the critics who were disappointed, it was the public. The Oasis spirit that we all knew and loved had been drowned under a cacophony of guitars. As one critic pointed out, this was exactly the sound of a bunch of musicians who'd taken too much cocaine.
Perhaps all this worry about the album "drifting" is because he is scared he missed the boat. It is clear Gallagher has a certain sour grapes about the current success of Gorillaz (the animated chart-topping project by arch-rival Damon Albarn). "You know it sickens me when you read interviews with people like Damon," he blurts out, "and they're obsessively trying to get into the top 10 all the time. Well, I think Damon will jump on any bandwagon that comes along."
Get over it, I keep wanting to suggest; the era of the Blur versus Oasis death match is over. It's no longer funny, or if it is, it's only funny in a very sad way. But he doesn't let up. "Well, for a man who actively went out of his way to convince the record-buying public that he wasn't a cartoon character," he says, "it's ironic that he actually ends up one. I mean everyone knows my view on Damon Albarn. He's a pretentious, calculated student. To write an album about splitting up with your girlfriend. I mean, not even your wife, your girlfriend. It's like, oh, spare us please."
Albarn has done the one thing that the Gallagher brothers can never and should never do - he has reinvented himself. What was so great about Oasis was their unreconstructed rawness. They weren't trying to be anything, they just were. Their message: 'You gotta say what you say / Don't let anybody get in your way.' Noel knows this. He's gone back to the feel of their first album, Definitely Maybe, got rid of all the fancy production and tried to simply write great Oasis songs.
But at this stage in their career, Oasis don't just need to bring back the old style, they need to go that extra journey. The journalist Paolo Hewitt, who spent six months on the road with Oasis wrote: "[Noel] often said he would never write a song about his fractured childhood because it's nobody's business but his own. I agreed but I also suspected a cover-up. One day I think he will confront his demons armed only with his guitar."
You suspect that's when you'll get the good stuff. But perhaps it's still too early. "I wouldn't be so calculating as to write about my own pain," he tells me. But is the pain in there? "Subconsciously it must be. You would have to be some w***er if you went through life and weren't affected by anything that happened to you. Let me tell you, when you people dissect the lyrics for this album you can read anything into anything. I could recite the lyrics for 'I am the Walrus' and convince you it's about me and me alone." He's wrong. I'm no dissector of lyrics. Probably, I'm like most listeners. When I hear songs, I interpret them in the light of my own life and emotions, not anyone else's. Gallagher agrees: "I would want every girl in the country to think 'Wonderwall' was about them and them only. They're about whatever you want them to be about. But I never ever, and I can put my hand on my heart and my child's life and say that I never sat down once and said 'right, I'm going to write a song about getting divorced', or about what it's like to be estranged from my child. I just think it's pathetic. Eric Clapton writing songs about his dead son? That's exploiting the fact that your child is dead. You're making money out of it, man. That's wrong. Morally that's wrong."
Maybe it will all work out. After all, the energy and the anger are still there. As Gallagher says: "Everything that I actively went after and pursued I got. Sometimes I think it was from my own endeavour and I think what a hard working guy and sometimes I think maybe it was just destined for me. Maybe it was just preordained, and I didn't need to bust my ass all those years."
It's so brazen you almost think he just might do it again.