Gem Archer - The Age - 19th June 2005
Oasis may not be setting the trends any more, but they do seem to have found their way back to a bit of form at last. Guitarist Gem Archer speaks to Guy Blackman about the new album, and life with those brothers.
Gem Archer is an affable man, cheerful and talkative, a salt-of-the-earth type with seemingly no trace of pretense or conceit. He searches during long pauses for the right words to express himself, he doesn't ramble on, and he says "you know", "I mean" and "you know what I mean" a lot. With these kinds of conversational tics he looks for understanding and approval in the listener, which is a little surprising considering that for the past six years he has been the rhythm guitarist in Oasis, a band famous for not giving a flying f--- what other people think.
Gem is a nickname, taken from '70s Scottish soccer player Archie Gemmell, and is pronounced with a hard G (Archer hates being called "Jem"). He joined Oasis in 1999, when original rhythm guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs left after a series of violent altercations with brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher, the band's two fractious frontmen.
During the recording of Oasis's poorly received fourth album Standing On the Shoulders Of Giants, lead guitarist and songwriter Noel had imposed a drugs-and-alcohol ban in the studio, to keep famously indulgent singer Liam away from temptation. Arthurs, however, ignored the ban and went so far as to pour wine on Liam's head while he was asleep. When Noel turned the tables and did the same thing to him, Arthurs became furious and quit, with his best friend, Oasis bassist Paul McGuigan, following shortly after.
The Gallaghers were casually dismissive of this exodus, with Noel commenting "it's hardly Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles". The British press, however, had a field day speculating who might be chosen to replace the huffily departing guitarist. Names as distinguished as the Smiths' Johnny Marr and former Jam/Style Council leader Paul Weller were bandied about, so Archer's eventual selection seemed to come out of nowhere - not least for the man himself, whose own hardly famous band Heavy Stereo had just been dropped after a flop album for Creation Records, the same label that originally signed Oasis.
"We'd done some gigs with Oasis, and I'd met Noel around town," Archer explains. "When we were supporting Oasis, Noel was always around - 'Hey, you want to check me guitars out' - and Liam would just march straight into our dressing room before we'd even hung up our jackets. That was the vibe, it was all great, but then my band got dropped by Creation.
"I'd been out of the loop for a while, I'd been staying at my mother's house because she was pretty ill at the time, and I got a call out of the blue from Noel saying, 'You wanna join?' It was as simple as that, mate."
Archer believes he was chosen more for a shared attitude and approach to life than for any special technical prowess, although the Gallaghers repeatedly referred to him, somewhat pointedly, as "professional" in the months after he was hired.
Along with Andy Bell (one-time guitarist for early '90s shoegazing poster boys Ride), who was roped in on bass, Archer entered a world of touring, media obsession and fan hysteria unlike anything he had known before. Critics have routinely panned every Oasis album since their first efforts Definitely Maybe (1994) and What's The Story Morning Glory (1995), and each subsequent release has sold somewhat less than the one before, but even a decade past their prime, Oasis are still one of the most bankable and iconic bands in pop music history.
For Archer, 38, the decision to forego his own bandleading ambitions and back up the Gallagher brothers was not a difficult one. Former Melody Maker journalist Mick Mercer once wrote that Archer has "a voice to rival Bruce Springsteen at his best", but the guitarist is happy to save his singing for the shower these days.
"Heavy Stereo was my band, and like any other band, when you're in it, it's the best band in the world," he says. "But Oasis to me actually is the best band in the world - like in italics, you know what I mean? To get to play guitar in a rock'n'roll band to this many people, to sell this many records, it's kind of indescribable really."
What surprised Oasis critics and fans alike, however, was the way formerly sole songwriter Noel Gallagher came to welcome musical contributions from his newly inducted bandmates. Standing on the Shoulders Of Giants did feature
Little James, a saccharine ode by Liam to his then wife Patsy Kensit's son with Simple Minds' frontman Jim Kerr, but 2002's Heathen Chemistry was the first Oasis album to include songs written by anyone other than a Gallagher.
Archer admits he was apprehensive about contributing songs to a band who helped formed the soundtrack to British life in the 1990s. "It was a daunting time, especially when we were gearing up towards making the last album," he says. "I still get a little bit of a flashback when I see one of my tunes in the set list, but there's also Morning Glory or Wonderwall or Don't Look Back In Anger. These are tunes that are everybody's nowadays. I think they are, safe to say, classics of our time."
The memory of Archer's over-awed first gigs with Oasis has diminished over time, as has that petrifying day in 2000 when Noel stormed off a European tour after Liam said something unpleasant about his then wife, Meg Mathews. Archer was suddenly promoted to lead guitarist and had 24 hours to learn every one of Noel's trademark solos before a gig in Barcelona. At the time Noel declared he was retiring permanently from the touring band, but he was back in the fold within six months.
These days, Archer feels like his role in Oasis is a stabilising one, and the band's website describes him as "the rock on which Oasis is built". "I suppose we all do have roles because bands need a dynamic," he muses. "In any team, in any office, in any school there's a dynamic. I'm just a calm kind of geezer. I mean, I'm passionate, but it just shows itself in different ways. 'The rock on which Oasis is built' - I wouldn't like to lay claim to that rock. I just get on with it, you know?"
The new album, Don't Believe The Truth, is Archer's second as a fully fledged Oasis member and, as with every new Oasis album, it is being hailed in record company PR as the best thing they have done since their mid-'90s heyday. "It's been 10 years since Oasis made an album that truly changed the musical landscape. Don't Believe The Truth is that album," trumpets the Oasis website, oddly enough damning the last three records to insignificance, despite hyping them in exactly the same way on their release.
"We're more proud of this one than of any album since Definitely Maybe," Noel told NME in March, toeing the familiar line. "We stuck it out, we stuck to our guns and we pulled it off."
Also in keeping with tradition is the way the Gallagher brothers have been trashing each other in print in the lead-up to the album's release. Their heated altercations over the 14-odd years of the band's existence have become the stuff of
legend, from Noel going at Liam with a cricket bat in 1995 during sessions for What's The Story Morning Glory, to the fist fight in 1996 that saw the first of many Oasis break-ups gloatingly reported in the UK press. So infamous are their arguments that in 1995 a bootleg single, comprised of taped excerpts of them having a go at each other, actually made it into the UK charts.
This latest round of insults has been as crude as ever. In a May interview in Mojo magazine, Liam called Noel "a smug c---" while Noel branded his younger brother "a f---ing idiot". Less than a fortnight ago they had a public falling out in Brussels when Noel realised Liam was drunk on stage and performing badly. "He still gets on my tits, and vice versa," Noel said to journalist Iain Shedden a few days later.
But according to Archer the brothers are getting on better than they have done in a long time. "At the minute it's great, you know," he says. Mind you, that was before Britain's Sun newspaper revealed that Liam had stormed off an Italian stage mid-concert on Wednesday.
When Noel and Liam do fire up at each other, the best thing to do is to stay out of the way, Archer says. "It's blood, you know. If the argument's about music, then you can say what you gotta say, but if it's blood, then it's nobody's place, really. You don't know what's from the past, what's from now. That's a different dynamic in itself, two brothers in a band."
Generally, though, there is a sense that Oasis are a somewhat less turbulent proposition now than ever before. Noel at 38 (he is five years older than his brother), especially, seems to have settled down. He lives with Scottish girlfriend Sara MacDonald in the rural Hertfordshire village of Chalfont St Giles, collecting guitars and sneakers and keeping out of harm's way. He claims not to have taken any drugs except lager and cigarettes since 1998, after an amphetamine-induced panic attack gave him pause for thought.
It may, however, be less a change of heart and more the years of hard living finally catching up with him. "Up here, in me head, I feel great, but I'll take the Les Paul off and ... me f---in' back," he told Scotland On Sunday last month. "There's a self-pity that comes with approaching 40. When you're 24 you're immortal, but hangovers last two days now, and when nine o'clock comes, you turn into a stupid, tired old man and look forward to bedtime."
For all their aches and pains, Oasis aren't yet ready to be put out to pasture, although Don't Believe The Truth isn't quite a return to the form and chart dominance of their youth. It's immediately recognisable as Oasis, with the band sounding raw and powerful thanks to producer Dave Sardy (who also took care of Jet's Get Born), but the bottom line is that Don't Believe The Truth contains nothing as anthemic or memorable as Oasis' mid-'90s hits. Press reaction has been cautiously favourable, but hardly ecstatic, and it seems the band has received a stay of execution rather than a full pardon for the last decade of musical misfires.
The album topped the UK charts on its release a fortnight ago and this week debuted on Australian charts at number 3, but it was roundly trounced in both territories by Coldplay's much more anticipated third album X&Y. Released in the UK a week after Don't Believe The Truth, X&Y immediately knocked Oasis from the top spot and enjoyed the best first-week sales in British chart history since, ironically enough, Oasis' grandiose 1997 opus Be Here Now. In Australia the two albums were released at the same time and X&Y reportedly quadrupled Oasis's sales.
Coldplay singer Chris Martin has always been gracious in his professed admiration for Oasis (despite Liam describing Coldplay - and U2 - as "f--ing lightweights" in the recent Mojo interview), but there's a definite sense that the musical guard changed quite some time ago. Newer bands such as Franz Ferdinand and US group the Killers also cite Oasis as a formative influence, but their nimble and spiky new wave sounds seem light years removed from Oasis's monolithic '60s rumble.
Archer, showing just a glimpse of the arrogant fire more characteristic of his monobrowed bandmates, is unconcerned with whether Oasis still have a place in the current musical climate. "You know, Oasis is just Oasis," he says firmly. "There's a lot of bands that hopefully got some inspiration from us, cause that's what it's all about, innit? But as far as fitting in - we fit out, really. We're just us, and hopefully that will continue, and people will still buzz on it, and hopefully they will fit-out too."
As if pleased to have come up with a new Oasis catchphrase, he repeats himself with finality. "We fit-out. There you go."
Don't Believe The Truth is out now. Oasis play Festival Hall on December 1.