Noel Gallagher - Sunday Telegraph - 27th January 2003
For Noel Gallagher, 'being me is the best gig in the world'. The mellow and entertaining rock star talks to David Jenkins about teeth, his brother and being bigger than God
He's a very affable fellow, Noel Gallagher. Foul-mouthed, yes, and cod-aggressive, but meticulously punctual, polite and funny, with an accent and a comic delivery that can be unsettlingly like Eric Morecambe's.
And like Eric Morecambe, the 35-year-old Manchester-born guitarist and main songwriter for Oasis is, as a red button on his Stone Island jacket declares, a 'Northern Wizard' - one who likes to make mock of the record industry ('It's them dressing up Christina Aguilera so she looks like some fuckin' tart from fuckin' Newcastle, know what I mean?'); of Kylie Minogue ('I don't understand why people buy her fuckin' records. Because they're shit. I mean, it doesn't say a lot when it's your three-year-old's favourite record'); and of his brother Liam's famous charisma. (Though Liam stands, unmoving, in front of the microphone, his neck dipped, and his hands clasped behind him like the Duke of Edinburgh, he exudes all the scorn, sexuality and arrogance you could ask for in a rock 'n' roll frontman.)
'Aaagh,' says Noel, as he considers the Liam question. 'Aaagh. If I wasn't related to him, I suppose I'd have a more objective view. But - and I mean this in the nicest possible way - because he's my brother, right, I watch him stood on stage just staring blankly at 50,000 people, and I watch them all stood there with their mouths open, gawpin' at him, and I'm thinking: "Arrogance? He's stood there with the fucking cheeks of his arse clenched so tight because he's fucking petrified. And he's just staring blankly 'cos he hasn't got anything to say - not because he's doing this act. And I think: "You fucking wanker." [Henceforth, for the most part, imagine the expletives.] But that's only because I know him so well. If he was some guy I'd never met and he auditioned for the band, I'd probably think, "God, he's a genius."'
In fact, when in August 1991 Noel - then a roadie - first watched his five-years-younger brother perform at the Boardwalk, a tiny club in Manchester, he thought Liam had 'a great voice - and a great hairdo'. He also thought Liam's band - already called Oasis - was dreadful, and offered them a way forward: they should do it his way, with his songs, and they'd become the biggest band in the world. It was, he's said, a simple process: 'Here's what you do: you pick up your guitar, you rip a few people's songs off, get your brother in the band, punch his head in every now and then, and it sells.' Particularly when, in the laddish climate of the mid-1990s, the songs are about 'shagging, taking drugs and being in a band'. Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) sold by the container-load. In 1996 they sold 18 million albums, and when that year the band played two gigs at Knebworth, two million people applied for tickets.
There have, notoriously, been numerous Oasis implosions since, and Noel has walked out while on tour more than once. 'Yes, well, technically we've broken up quite a lot, but it's never felt like that. Because the band's too important to me - it's what I do. At 35, now, to leave Oasis would be like getting a new girlfriend - it's like I couldn't be arsed, dating. Another band - rehearsals would be like going out for dinner, getting to know people. I can't be bothered to do that. Because the best gig in the world is being me, in Oasis. Because you get to do backing vocals and you get to give a bit of lip between the songs [in Brighton, for instance, in December, wishing that some of the audience die of hypothermia], and I get to sing the two biggest songs of the night, 'Don't Look Back in Anger' and 'Wonderwall'. So I think I'll stick with what I know, thank you very much.'
Oasis are, indeed, still colossal. Their latest album, Heathen Chemistry, has sold three million copies worldwide; the band played to 490,000 people in Britain last year; and they have so far milked one Number One and two Twos from the album's 11 tracks. Now a new single is being released and it is, for the first time, a song written by Liam - 'Songbird', a simple, affecting, nursery-rhyme-like love song. It is, you sense, from the heart - a part of the body Noel doesn't, in his song-writing, much visit these days. 'I don't', he says, a little shiftily, 'like to write achingly personal songs.'
He's sitting in a deep leather armchair, his right hand beating sporadically on his knee. In repose his eyes, under their thick, thick brows, look hooded and fierce, but his laugh lines are etched deep, and he grins readily. His jeans are artfully frayed at the ankle, and when he undoes his Mao-collared jacket, there's a black T-shirt below. He's small - 5ft 8in - but, 'Jesus was 5ft 6in, apparently, so I'm bigger than God.' He has a shaving rash on his neck and a few flecks of grey in his fringe - a tiny testimony to the ecstasy and the agonies of the last few years.
But it's his songs that exercise him most. His first album, he says, 'was all about trying to get out of Manchester. It was about escapism, and I think all music should be that. And they were good songs - like "Live Forever", "Slide Away", "Rock 'n' Roll Star". And at that point I was really livin' it - you know, we were in the back of a transit van, goin' up and down motorways, and we were being a proper, working band. And I think that's probably why people hold that album up as the one - and probably why I do - because I meant every word I was writing. I did want to live forever, and I did want to be a rock 'n' roll star. All those lyrics are fantastic because they're honest. Whereas now it's like private jets, good hotels, nice restaurants, da da da. You become more insulated so you make stuff up, and it becomes more abstract. Less personal.'
But why avoid the personal? Is it because he hasn't dealt with the unresolved business of his life? His unwillingness to make peace with his father ('I don't give a fuck if he never gets to see his grandkids')? Has he ever been in therapy?
'I've never... I... I don't think I need to.' He trails off, starts again. 'I do feel I could probably be less obsessed with music and more... I have a difficulty expressing emotions. Liam's different. His emotions just - wow! - come out. That's why he gets into fights. That's him. We all deal with our backgrounds in different ways, I suppose. But I've never been told by anyone I respect, "You should go and see somebody." I've never felt the need - maybe I'm scared.' He laughs, the living image of jokey denial. 'Maybe I'd come out and I'd be slicing some bread and I'd start crying because, "It's just so fantastic, man!"'
does he find emotions with women difficult?
There's a very long silence. Gallagher sits back, folds his hands behind his head. 'Yeah... Well, I find it very difficult to let people get close to me. All my relationships, whether they be with girlfriends, wives, brothers, people-who-I'm-in- a-band-with, managers, they're on a very superficial level. I very rarely sit down and go, "I tell you what: I'm feeling a bit down at the minute." Whereas other people...well, I dread going out with friends to the pub and I go, "'Ow are you?" and they go, "Well, now you ask..." I'm very mistrustful of people anyway. I think people are wankers.'
All of them?
'Most of them, yeah. I've got a couple of friends in Manchester - everybody else, I'd like to keep at arm's length. And, if I ever got to power, I'd outlaw people living together. Immediately. Get married, have kids and all that, but at some point go home and spend a significant amount of time on your own.'
Well, I say, Orson Welles once said that 'to live together, you need a very large house'.
'That's true. I've been living on my own for I don't know how many months now, and it's quite a luxurious existence. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Like I went to this exhibition the other night, then I went to the pub with my mate Gem, who's in the band, and then I got back to our house and I got assholed. And I got up the next morning and there was just CDs all over the floor, the ashtrays was full of cigarettes, there was beer cans everywhere, and I'm stood thinking, "Blimey, did I have a party here last night?" And then I thought, "No, it was just me. On my own:fucking well done, mate." Gave myself a little round of applause.'
Famously, Noel used to live with Meg Mathews, at Supernova Heights in north London, and the pair of them gave parties that lasted days and days: supermodels lolling against the fridge, white lines everywhere, and endless gabbing about crop circles and conspiracy theories. It was, Gallagher says, inevitable he be addicted to cocaine - he's an addictive personality. After coke, it was guitars; after guitars, sunglasses; now it's his recording studio, which he plans to move from his London house to his country house, near Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire. Heroin never appealed to him ('You look like a twat, basically: dirty and smelly and skinny as fuck'), but cocaine helped conquer his shyness and helped him be 'less of a pussy' in keeping up with his hard-drinking actor friends. None of which he regrets.
The downside was that 'cocaine is the most uncreative drug in the world. Because you're so obsessed by the sound of your own voice. The only thing to do on coke is make a spoken-word record. It'd be great: you'd just rant for hours. That's what Liam and I should have done: a Derek and Clive record, coked up in Abbey Road, just arguing for months.'
Instead he frolicked, put on a stone-and-a-half and put out the bloated, grandiose, derided Be Here Now (1997). Meanwhile Meg, whom Gallagher had married in Las Vegas in 1997, became famous for shopping - and Noel and his swain became a paparazzied fixture in OK!, Hello! and the tabloids. This still rankles: 'The reason I hate being in gossip columns is because someone who lives in Middlesbrough who's never met you thinks you're a "celebrity" - whereas I'm a musician. I'm not fuckin' Darren Day, I'm not Ant and Dec. It's quite an important thing I do, a pure thing, and then you get like the Daily Mirror's asking today, "Is Noel Gallagher giving up smoking?" When we're getting ready to go to war? Fuckin' hell, man, will you just get a grip of yourselves?'
Gallagher didn't get a grip of his cocaine habit until 5 June 1998. That day he gave up and changed his life. He sold Supernova Heights and moved, with Meg, to the country. Noel heaps ridicule on his previous way of life - 'Nightclubs, they're rubbish. Bars, they're awful' - but Meg seemed less keen to shrug off the stars-'n'-shopping syndrome. In February 2000 they had a daughter, Anaïs. In September 2000 they separated. In 2002 they divorced, and 'unfortunately' Noel was 'quite public' with coruscating remarks about his ex. Recently Meg, appearing naked in a women's magazine, a shaft of metal through her nipple, has spoken warmly of her time with Noel, and Noel for his part says, after a multitude of pauses, 'We get on - not massively, you know, but we get on. We realise there's a child involved, and she loves the pair of us.'
And does he have a girlfriend now? (A liaison with Sara MacDonald, a blonde PR woman, came to grief last August.)
'I have got a girlfriend at the moment.' Will he say who? 'Nope. Nope. It's one of those things... It's just when it's in the papers for other people to see, it demeans it. She's fantastic, she's gorgeous, she's the funniest person I know, but it's not for public consumption. She's mine, she belongs to me.'
The trouble, though, is that Oasis belong to their fans. And not just Oasis the band and their music: they're bona fide working-class heroes, and the effrontery and the sheer couldn't-give-a-tossness they ooze is part of the allure. Noel may rue the fact that that very scorn has to some degree alienated the United States - 'We got saddled with this reputation: "Oh, they're just assholes, they don't turn up for gigs"' - but that is in itself part of the aura that surrounds the band, and Liam. As Noel has remarked, for everyone who purses their lips at Liam's loutishness, there's a lad on a Glasgow housing estate, clutching his Bensons and his Tennent's Special and urging, 'Go for it, son, go for it.' Noel now eschews 'the lifestyle. That's personal choice, to go out, drink a bottle of Jack Daniel's and do loads of coke, speed and acid. I have a guitar by my side 24 hours a day. I live the life of a songwriter and a musician. When you wake up at five in the afternoon, slumped against the wall of someone else's hotel room - that ain't cool.' But that's the 'lifestyle' associated with Oasis, and their touring shenanigans reflect it. For instance, has Noel forgiven his brother for getting his teeth knocked out in a brawl in a Munich hotel last November?
'I don't need to say anything. He has very, very infamously had his teeth kicked out, right? I wasn't there, I don't know what happened. All I'll say is: if you're gonna pick a fight, make sure you're going to win. And, you know, it's very, very humiliating to be famously beat up. Maybe it'll teach him a lesson.'
Poor Noel. There he is, joined at the hip in sibling rivalry-cum-dependence-cum-love, struggling with demons he'd rather not confront, and unable to write words to the 20-odd melodies and arrangements he's got ready. He can't write because he won't write for himself - he wants to write for Oasis, and Oasis, for him, means writing for Liam. He wants to write as he did when he was young and 'desperate' and the only way out of Manchester was rock 'n' roll stardom. But he's got that now, and a daughter he adores, and a house in the country, and he is, in truth, in early middle-age. As a good rocker should, he rails at the 'circus monkeys' of manufactured pop and at the 'shark's-fin haircuts' they're made to sport; less predictably, he says he is a 'good person'. He's embarrassed to say it, but he does, and he'll shuffle in his seat and smile shyly and declare, 'Well, I believe that what you give is what you get. And I've never raped anybody, I've never mugged anybody, I'm never aggressive to people in the street. I never go on stage pissed and I'm polite to my mother - so, yeah, if there's a queue getting into heaven, I'll be in the "In" queue, I think.'
And heaven, perhaps, is a place where he might have one last argument, with the deity. Gallagher famously adores the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones; he collects 1960s memorabilia and 1960s guitars. Does he wish he'd come of age in the 1960s?
'Oh, man,' he says, his eyes gleaming. 'Jammy cunts, man. I've said it to them: You were so fucking lucky you were the first, because if Oasis performed in 1962, and I wrote "Live Forever" in 1967, I'd be bigger than all of you. When you meet your maker, Mr McCartney and Mr Jagger and Mr Richards, ask Him, why were you selected and not me? Because I'm as good as they are. Because if I'd have been there, I'd have been as big as they were. I would have.'