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Noel Gallagher: don't look back in anger

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Noel Gallagher

Noel Gallagher

Noel  and Liam Gallagher

Noel and Liam Gallagher

Sara Macdonald and Noel Gallagher

Sara Macdonald and Noel Gallagher

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Noel Gallagher

We haven't even sat down for the interview and Noel Gallagher is off on one. "I won't be walking around with bags of dog shit,' Gallagher (47) is huffing to the room. We are in a photographic studio on an industrial estate in south London, a long way, in most senses, from his very nice home in Maida Vale, north-west London.

It seems that chez Gallagher may soon be resounding to the patter of tiny paws. His two young sons, Donovan, (7), and Sonny, (4), have been badgering his wife, Sara Macdonald, to buy a puppy. Gallagher fears he may have lost the battle. "But sometimes they go away, they go up to Scotland, and I'll be left with the dog . . ." he grumbles.

I first interviewed Gallagher more than 20 years ago. It was 1994 and I was in his hotel room in Glasgow. It was the year of Oasis's debut album, Definitely Maybe, and the band, fronted by his younger brother, Liam, were supporting Verve. These were the fledgling days of Britpop; Richard Ashcroft's band had yet to acquire the definite article imposed on their name by the aggrieved jazz label Verve, and were three years from releasing the album Urban Hymns, which would sell 10 million copies.

Oasis, too, were in their infancy, but already had a reputation. That day in Glasgow Noel broke off our interview to conduct a drug deal in front of me. Back then, such extracurricular distractions were part of the band's day-to-day. He bursts out laughing when I remind him of this.

"You should have joined in," he says, laughing. "Ninety-four, yeah? How much would you pay to see that gig now? That's when The Verve were at their best, their very best."

And it was when Oasis were poised for lift-off. Definitely Maybe hit number one in September that year, making it at that point the fastest-selling debut album in British chart history. The following year they released (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, an album that has sold 22m copies.

In 1996, they played in front of 250,000 fans over two nights at Knebworth. Oasis peaked, then peaked some more, then finally fell apart. The sibling squabbling that had characterised the relationship between Noel and Liam, five years his junior, turned toxic. With great power came great, crashing arguments. When things eventually got too nasty and too personal, Noel walked out mid-tour. The story of Oasis will always have Paris, the scene of the Gallaghers' final backstage bust-up on August 28, 2009.

Noel launched a solo career under the banner Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. An album of the same name topped the charts in 2011, and he will soon release a follow-up, Chasing Yesterday. But his appetites these days are very different. He still likes a drink and a smoke, but he hasn't touched cocaine since 1998. Like his friend (and neighbour) Paul Weller, teetotal for five years and also about to release a new album, Noel has moderated his highs.

So I have brought him some carrot cake - a nod to Weller's current enthusiasm for offering visitors to his Surrey studio wholesome home baking rather than a stiff drink. Gallagher pokes at a large slice but politely declines. "I can't eat before rehearsals but I'll take it to the office," he says.

"Yeah, he's a very healthy dude these days, Weller. He's off the booze. I was down there two weeks ago, playing on summat for his record," he relates, in a Manchester accent undimmed after more than two decades living in the south of England, "and I've got to say it was fucking great. He's always on good form, though. I know when you're that heavy into the drink it can be . . ." He stops. "But I've never really seen the worst of him, I've only ever seen the best of him. We're mates, do you know what I mean? I'm the one person he's never fallen out with."

I mention a new song of Weller's, an epic that must check in at around eight minutes long. Gallagher knows the song in question. "It's called These City Streets and it's too long," he says. "And as I told him it's too long," he adds with a waggle of those unmistakable eyebrows, "he's probably added another three minutes."

Gallagher, of course, can relate to such obstinacy. His current single, The Ballad of the Mighty I, which features his fellow Mancunian legend Johnny Marr on guitar, is almost six minutes long. "But it doesn't feel like that,' Gallagher maintains. "There's no unnecessary noodling in it. But none of these things are ever really thought out in advance. I just write it like I feel it."

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He recalls the creative preamble to the making of Be Here Now (1997), Oasis's third album and still the fastest-selling in British history. "When I was writing songs around about the time of Be Here Now everything was seven minutes long because I was high as a kite and everything was great," he says. "And when I was writing songs around Definitely Maybe everything was three-and-a-half minutes long because I was full of energy and I was going to change the world. It's the fascinating trip of being a songwriter.

"It's great when you stick around for so long, you go through different phases and periods. Imagine being in a band, or being a songwriter, and actually only writing two albums? It'd be a fucking shame. The Stone Roses, for instance. Lee Mavers [of The La's] - we'll never get to see what kind of trip Lee would have gone on, or [The Stone Roses'] John [Squire] and Ian [Brown], 'cause they couldn't make it work. Whereas Primal Scream," he notes of a band who have made 10 albums, "from Screamadelica right up to the last record, you're on a journey with them."

And what of Gallagher's journey? How is middle age treating him?

"Good," he says briskly. "Good. It ebbs and flows for me. When I'm in between tours and have fuck-all to do, I sit around and I do become like a dad. I don't really do a great deal. I've got nothing. Not a great deal to look forward to, and no projects."

There are, he cheerfully concedes, no hobbies keeping his idle hands busy. "This is my hobby. It's what I do. So Sara is constantly on my case. She'll burst in from the gym, jogging on the spot. 'What you doing today? You're watching Storage Hunters?'

"Me and my lads love that show," he says of the American reality TV series about a pair of burly men who auction off the contents of lock-ups. "And I'm thinking, 'Ha, yes, I am - I've just been round the world for the last 18 months, so I am gonna watch Storage Hunters all day! But she kind of badgers me into doing shit."

Would Sara say he was good around the house?

"No, I'm a lazy cunt,' he replies chirpily. "She'll always pick stuff out of the sink and go, 'There is a dishwasher here.'''

I say to him that my wife would be less than happy too.

"Yeah, well, you haven't sold 60m records," he retorts. "Sara would be shouting, saying, 'Can you not do anything?' and I say, 'Can you play the guitar? No, you can't, thank you very much, jog on.'" This is all said playfully and with no little self-mockery. "No, I think I'm all right to live with. I hope I am," he adds. "Well, she's been living with me for 15 years, so I'd hope so."

Gallagher saves his own frustrations for the songs playlisted on the nation's big radio stations. "Oh, it annoys me," he says, admitting to swearing at the wireless. "I'll be going, 'Fucking hell! That's shit, man!' Or, 'I predict a rap in this song - oh, there it is!" Sara has said, 'Look, you can't do this in front of the kids any more. They're growing up.' And I am constantly apologising to my teenage daughter. Saying that," he sniffs, "it's the only thing that brings her up from her phone."

Last year Anais, Gallagher's 15-year-old daughter from his marriage to Meg Mathews, appeared in a campaign for Accessorize after signing to Select Model Management. How does he feel about that?

Gallagher pauses for once. "Because I've never lived with her, I don't really want to be the kind of dad that's laying down the law," he says. "She really is into it. And she's got a little TV thing going." Anais co-hosts the CBBC magazine show The Friday Download. "It's not something I would have chosen for her. But as it's been allowed to happen," he observes without detectable grievance, "you've got to support them, haven't you? I don't see the harm in it. She's a pretty bright girl. Anais, I've got to say, is fiercely independent and she's super-cool and I don't have any worries about her whatsoever. She's very much got her head tightly screwed on."

The Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds album was successful on a level that Gallagher might not have anticipated. Yes, Noel wrote the lion's share of Oasis's songs but Liam was the charismatic, rock 'n' roll frontman. Noel was the scowly guitarist happy to stand stage left. Even when he took the microphone for his occasional vocal stint during Oasis gigs, Noel was not natural frontman material. Yet his debut solo album sold 2.5m copies and did good business in multiple countries. Concerts were upgraded from theatres to arenas. It wasn't Britpop glory, but Gallagher comfortably negotiated the post-Oasis wreckage.

But after the tour finished and he returned home to London, Gallagher found himself stuck in 2013 - a "dogshit year", as he later described it. "It was awful," he begins. "I had glandular fever, then I went for my annual health check-up. And honest to God I felt all right when I went in, and the doctor made me feel like I was about to drop dead in the street when I came out. I won't go into it," he says, alluding to an unspecified medical condition, "but I [also] got tinnitus in my ear, and I pulled two muscles in the back of my hand. Not from playing guitar - I cracked it on the side of something, and I bashed round the casing of the nerves. It was horrible. I couldn't even put my hand in my pocket.

"Then I went on holiday with the kids. And I was getting out of a swimming pool with one of them in my hand and did my back in. Then my doctor put me on these tablets - I won't tell you what for," he says again, "[and] told me that if I didn't take them I would virtually drop dead. I was taking them for months and they made me feel awful. So I quit taking them and I feel great again. But I was thinking, the health game's a racket.

"So that was a terrible year. But then again, as soon as I got back to work - I started this album on January 6, 2014, - that took my mind off it, and I was all right."

Gallagher insists that he is not entirely indolent when he doesn't have a guitar in his hands. "I go to the gym every day - I'm lucky enough to have a gym in my house, so I don't have to deal with the general public," says this multimillionaire who, it should be noted, is still a committed user of public transport, patron of supermarkets and corner shops, and is a famously generous giver of time and attention to selfie-seeking fans.

In any case, the fitness regime was born of necessity. "I'd put my back out, and my doctor sent me to physiotherapy in the hospital. And it was like a gym. And I got into the habit of working out. And like anything, you become addicted to it. But I was thinking, 'I cannot go to a gym. I cannot be in a gym with another guy my age who was at Knebworth - he ain't seeing that. That's too undignified for me.' So I'm afraid we had to dig the basement out." He laughs, aware of just how "rock star" that sounds.

And so to the notionally "real" rock star in Noel's world. After the dissolution of Oasis, Liam formed Beady Eye with the rump of the band (guitarists Andy Bell and Gem Archer). Their debut album was sub-Oasis rock. But their second, 2013's BE, was produced by the studio wizard Dave Sitek (of the New York art-indie band TV on the Radio), and had flashes of brilliance.

Noel agrees, and thinks it was "a chorus away" from being great. He also agrees that its release was hobbled by circumstance. First, Archer fractured his skull, then he fractured his leg, which meant the cancellation of a run of tour dates. Beady Eye split up last October. "I believe that if Gem hadn't smashed his face in and broken his leg they'd probably still be together," Noel, who remains close friends with Archer, says. "I think that killed a lot of the momentum."

The revelation, around the same time, that Liam had a lovechild in New York didn't help either. "No, I know," Gallagher nods with something like a wince. "But that's always been his weakness - it's the chicks, I'm afraid."

There has been no sign of a new musical project. Is Liam a bit lost right now?

Gallagher pauses. "I don't know. From the texts I receive from him, he's all right, because he's still being a little bit of a cheeky cunt. According to my mam he's all right. But I don't know."

The pair last saw each other last May at the Etihad Stadium, on the day Manchester City won the Premier League title. But that was accidental, fleeting and a one-off. Clearly the schism between them remains unbridged. And for all the never-ending rumours of an Oasis reunion Noel is defiantly dismissive. "But we texted on Christmas Day. Something to do with Bing Crosby. Yeah, I never realised how ludicrous that Little Drummer Boy song was with David Bowie," he says with a snort. "But Liam's got to clear the decks, sort his shit out and start again. I don't know what he'll do. I can't speak for him."

This far into his solo career, is Noel Gallagher now comfortable as a frontman?

"Not really. The frontman doesn't play the guitar, right?"

What about Chris Martin? Or Bono?

"Let's get one thing straight about Bono," he says of the occasional dining companion he credits with/blames for persuading him to ditch his new album's original title, Show Me the Treasure. "The further away Bono stays from a guitar, the better. Chris Martin is a frontman, but not when he's playing guitar. Mick Jagger is a frontman. When he plays the guitar he looks like a dick. Liam used to pick up the guitar and we'd all go, 'Ha ha, no. What are you playing it up there [on your chest] for?'"

"I don't consider myself a frontman. You think Paul Weller is a frontman? He's fronting nothing; he's fronting himself. But I know what you mean. And lucky for me, if you're coming to see me, don't bother, because there's fuck-all to see. But if you're coming to listen, and to have a good night singing, yeah, great, I'm your man. But to see? There's no pearls of wisdom, I'm afraid," he says, smiling. "All I've got is the music."

And for people of a certain age it is still terrific music. One song in particular stands out. Noel Gallagher began writing Lock All the Doors in early 1992, before Oasis exploded. What would 24-year-old Noel make of the 47-year-old incarnation? "Phew," he exhales, pausing for an uncharacteristically long time (about three seconds). "I have to say, my younger self, I think he'd like me. Because all the things the 24-year-old would want to be doing, I've done. And I didn't play the game, and I still don't play the game. So, I think he'd think, 'He's all right.'"

"And if I look back at the 24-year-old, he's all right and all. 'Cause all the dreams and hopes and impossible, colossal ideas that I had for the group when it started, they happened. Sitting up at four in the morning saying, 'We will be bigger than the Stone Roses . . . When they played Spike Island [in 1990], it was 30,000 people - I will not rest until I've played to 31,000 people!" And our kid's going, 'You're a fucking idiot, it's never gonna happen.' 'Cause we're sitting in a bedsit smoking weed . . . And lo and behold, it came to pass."

He shrugs. "So, I would look back at the 24-year-old and think, 'Well, he had a vision.' And I guess the 24-year-old would look at me now and think, 'Well, he carried it through. He did it."'

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds's 'Chasing Yesterday' is out now


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