The Madness of Take That
Although Mark Owen and Gary Barlow's personal lives are supposed to be off the agenda in favour of talking about Take That's latest block-busting tour, Mark's first sober tour, Julia Molony finds that the demons that stalk Take That are never far from the surface. But this boyband of family men have largely found a way to deal with it, by relentlessly taking the mickey
Gary Barlow and Mark Owen are holed up in a conference room of a west London office. And although they are surrounded by all of the promotional juggernaut that travels everywhere with Take That these days, it's a rather prosaic setting in which to face two legends of pop.
The office furniture and fax machines are a reminder that they are not just a band, but an industry. Samsung, sponsors of their upcoming tour, have just handed them brand new smartphones and, whether they are hamming it up for the press or have just genuinely retained their sense of wonder about free stuff, they seem as delighted as kids on Christmas morning.
Mark caricatures the promo ritual that underlies why they are here, lifting up the phone to his face at various moments, saying, "Samsung," with a cheesy, salesman's grin.
As salesmen go, without even trying, they are pretty damn good. After all, their reunion tour broke records, selling out in just two days.
"You've interviewed us before," says Mark, as I sit down at the boardroom table, prompting in me an involuntary hot flush of delight at being remembered. After all, this man was my first celebrity crush.
Gary Barlow wears his age well. He's in good shape, and lines suit his chiselled face. After all that weight gain, weight loss and struggling with his image, there's a seemingly unshakeable surety to him now. He also does a nice line in arch self-parody. "If the headlines are: 'There should be more Gary,' which I think they will be," he says dryly, as he and Mark chat about what they are expecting from their upcoming tour, "I think then we'll just address it and move on."
Taking the piss has, for all of them, become a bit of a default response to all the drama. After all, there's no shortage of issues between these five men, individually and together. There's Robbie Williams's drug past, and fallout with the rest of the band; Howard Donald has a super-injunction to his name and Gary, the steady family man has owned up to overeating, depression and a rather controlling side. Then there's Mark, previously unimpeachable, who last year went into rehab following the revelations that he'd cheated on his wife with at least 10 different women. He owned up to philandering and alcoholism, did the obligatory modern penance of rehab, and was eventually accepted back home. Only Jason Orange seems to have been relatively unafflicted by personal scandal.
In this interview, then, although the personal demons are officially off-limits, even the boys themselves find it tricky to steer around them. Take Mark, for example, talking about how he's grown up recently.
"I think all the dads in the band, we adore being fathers. It's amazing," he says. "For me, I was carrying shit around me all the time, and what's come with being older and being able to take time to look at things and just becoming aware of myself a bit more. It's like, 'Oh, I don't need to carry that shit no more. I can wash that bit off or get rid of that.'"
One can sense, perhaps, the echo of conversations he might have had with his therapist during his time in rehab.
"Now," Mark goes on, "whether that's because I hit a point where I had to do that, because now obviously I've got kids and I don't want to give them my shit."
He's not saying the words exactly, but it's quite clear what he's talking about.
"I don't want to do that to my kids, so it's important for me personally to address things," he continues. "So when I feel something going on in a room, I'm now a bit more aware to go, 'Oh, that's my crap. That's not actually anything to do with what's being said here or what's going on there, that's stuff I'm trying to deal with myself.' So it's just trying to become a bit more aware of things. You can think about it too much. You can not sleep for months because you think about it too much. But it's really exciting as well, because you actually go, that's funny. The world that you are in, half of it you make yourself, really. You paint your own world and shape your own world."
He's off, there seems to be no stopping him. Gary's looking nonplussed, although he, too, must be wondering where this is going.
"You think that's how the world has to be, but then you actually see it doesn't," Mark continues. "I can paint that wall, and wash that one. That can be yellow instead of black. Or white."
Just before he becomes completely opaque, Gary, with a touch of gallantry, steps in. "Listen," he says, with a mock-levelling look. "We're a funny bunch. Individually."
"Mad," says Mark, righting himself.
"We tickle each other," says Gary, taking me rather by surprise. Hold on a second. They tickle each other? What, actual tickling?
"No, no, no," says Gary, deadpan. "That's the after show. That's after the show, that one."
Mark: "That would be fun, wouldn't it?"
Gary: "I'll tell you about that later, off the record."
Mark: "We used to, didn't we?"
They're both laughing now, creasing up at the idea of Take That post-show tickling sessions.
"I'm feeling like I need a tickle, everyone," say Gary. "Will someone tickle me?"
"Hugs are massively in, though," says Mark, a bit serious again. "It's really nice. Hugs are good."
"Yeah, the hugs are good," Gary agrees.
"The scene is a bit more warm. It could just be the fact that it's been sunny," Mark adds.
They both admit there's a lingering sense of romance about the band's reunion, now that they are back as a five-piece after all the years of bad blood and acrimony. They are still in the honeymoon phase of things.
"The average love affair lasts 18 months," says Gary, clearly the authority on matters of the heart.
"We are like kids, really," says Mark. "Because I can sense, we're kind of all a little bit excited, aren't we? About life, and the tour. There's an excitement. But, we don't want to show that we're excited. Some days you wanna run home and go 'Yeeeeeaaaaaaaah, it's brilliant!'"
"You know what," Gary adds. "This, where we are, one in 10 million people get to do this job. Just get to do it. But at this level, where we're at, playing in stadiums every night, it's just like, I want it to slow down, because we're here, and we're doing it right now. And it's like, this feeling I get at the end of every tour where I go, 'I wonder if that's the last one. I wonder if no one will come and see us next time.' There's always that. And I just think, 'Wow, we're here, right before it now.' We've got to enjoy it. It's got to be thoroughly enjoyed."
It's not hard to see where that new sense that it's all finite comes from. After all, these guys have stretched out their boyband run to an unprecedented degree. They are on borrowed time.
Feverish speculation still surrounds the issue of Robbie Williams. Is he back to stay?
"I think the place that we are at now, I think Rob is looking at, he's going to be doing something himself, hopefully in the next year," says Mark. "He has it in him, he wants to do his own thing and it's a massive part of him. So I think he'll be looking at doing his own stuff. And I think with the band, well, me and Rob were laughing that it's like a revolving door, anybody can come on and come and go as they please."
"Except for me. It wouldn't be the same without me," adds Gary. Of course, Gary. Always the lynchpin. He likes the description. "Write that down." He's joking, sort of. But there's a degree to which he knows it's true.
So the band is a moveable feast these days, but this seems to be the first time Gary has heard about it: "Jesus, oh Christ, we're going to have everybody knocking on our door."
Does that mean anyone can join? And if so, can I?
"Girls as well?" Gary protests, dashing my hopes. "This is a boyband! We can't have girls."
Maybe Mark is a softer touch out of the pair of them. "We have to mix it up," he says.
It is probably quite a healthy technique they have developed. Laughing and joking their way through the issues. Let's just hope they keep their sense of humour during their six months on the road.
"I have actually thought," says Mark, "things seem to be going quite well and quite easy, but I think maybe because we're a bit more experienced with it. And because the communication is better between us. When we are together in a room, it's always easier. It's hard when everybody is all over the shop, but we know that if on Sunday it all does kick off, on Monday we can all get in a room and we can probably sort something. Maybe a bit of experience and trying to work into it what every wants."
It is, to be fair, about time they got to this point.
"We're five adults with families and wives," says Gary, suddenly matter-of-fact, "and it's about considering everyone else when you do something. When you are in a band -- I think this has been the thing as well for Rob to get his head around, when you do something, it affects everyone else. So that's important to just keep in your mind. In the same way that when you are a father and a husband, you do consider everyone else when you are about to do something. It's the same with the band."
Does going on tour become harder now that they are dads and husbands?
"This is my first sober tour," says Mark, "so I'm quite looking forward to that. It'll be a whole different thing for me. Obviously I was always sober when I was on stage . . ."
"I don't think you'll like it," Gary breaks in, kidding again.
"I'm quite looking forward to it really," Mark goes on, ignoring him. "Because I used to come off stage and drink a bottle of wine. That was not good, really. I was always OK the next day, because I drank a lot of wine for a long time, so I was able to handle it, but I'm looking forward to doing a sober one. And," he says, holding up his new handset, "playing with my new Samsung phone!"
With that, a reminder of the big commercial circus built around these new bonds between the boys intrudes soberly into the room. But the feeling of goodwill lingers.
"There will be one disappointment for me when we get to the end of this," says Gary. "I don't feel like I've seen anyone for ages. I need more time with the boys. We need to talk more. We talk about all sorts of things when we are together, us lot. I need more. I've hardly seen anyone. I think they've all been avoiding me."
Take That Progress Live Tour 2011 is presented by Samsung Mobile
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See samsung.com/ie or facebook.com/samsungmobileireland to win Dublin concert tickets and an exclusive backstage meet and greet with the band
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