The BIG interview: How Louis Walsh emerged from a dark place
The boy from Kiltimagh done good. Louis Walsh tells Barry Egan about his new band Hometown, Twink, Bono, Vincent Browne, his probable exit from The X Factor, and his suicidal thoughts over the false sex assault claims in 2011
After silence, to quote Aldous Huxley, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. And for Louis Walsh, it is pop music. The King of Pop is dropping me home in his state-of-the-art black Range Rover. Turning onto Baggot Street, he gushes that he believes that his new boy-band Hometown could one day take the global pop crown of One Direction. He says it with so much belief that it is hard to doubt him. Not least perhaps because his former charges Westlife had 14 number one hits.
He says his desire to be in this world - the pop world that he has variously bestrode with boy-bands and girl-bands - came from his childhood in county Mayo, "listening to the showbands and Radio Luxembourg. I do love great pop music, The Hollies had brilliant pop records."
"And Hometown will make brilliant pop records too," Louis says, as he drives up Adelaide Road. In the 15 minutes it takes us to get from Sony Music HQ in Ballsbridge - where we met the aforementioned bright young saviours of pop - to my house in Portobello, Louis has told me three, possibly five, unprintable, hilariously entertaining stories about famous people in the show business world. He is ridiculously ribald and fun. Like his old friend Joan Rivers, he knows a thing or-two about eviscerating one-liners. Passers-by on the street do double takes when he stops at traffic lights with his sun-glasses on, as in, is that really him from The X Factor? In fact, some of the things Louis says have me doing similar double takes to the effect, did he really say that? I don't think I've laughed so long or hard in my life.
If Mary Lou McDonald could sing, would he give her any professional advice? "She'd be a good country singer. She dresses like a country singer!"
How would he position her in the market if Louis was to manage her? "Oh, she'd be like the new Susan McCann or Philomena Begley, definitely." Louis adds that he'd have the Vice-President of Sinn Féin singing "country songs about love and loss, like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette."
How would you manage Twink?
"I'd have her as the new Joan Rivers. She's very funny and very talented. And crazy! Perfect! I'd want her and Linda to do a stage version of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Linda is the one in the wheelchair. I'm serious!" You can see why The Observer in a 2002 profile said of Louis that he was "Brian Epstein as if conceived by Flann O'Brien." The author of At Swim-Two-Birds would perhaps have appreciated Louis' turn of phrase. He comes into my house, holds my baby, meets my wife and then says with note-perfect comic timing: "I'm glad the baby has got your looks and not his!"
Two hours later, King Louis is sitting in a post modern top-floor office in D4 holding forth ex cathedra on the world, Enda, Leo Varadkar, U2, Bono, Hozier, and, most importantly, Hometown. The boss of Sony Music Ireland, Patrick Hughes shares Louis' unshakeable belief in Hometown: "I heard about 12 or 13 tracks so far and if that is going to be a debut album, it is going to be a brilliant debut album."
"I think there is a massive market for Hometown," Louis says, "because vocally they are way above most bands. I think vocally they are world-class. They have got it all, but they have to work hard, and not take anything for granted. They never thought they'd have a number one record," Louis says of their new single Cry For Help. Sitting to Louis' left, Brendan Murray, Cian Morrin, Dayl Cronin, Dean Gibbons, Josh Grey and Ryan McLoughlin all beam at their manager's bon mots. "The potential for them is huge - I want them to be successful," Louis adds, "because I believe in them," he says referring to their vocal prowess in terms of the arrangement genius of The Bee Gees. He talks with a child's wonder about Hometown's music yet talks to them with a father's authority.
How will he cope as their manager when they become huge and one of the band marries a Kerry Katona like Brian McFadden did in Westlife in January 2002 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in County Meath?
"Ah, Kerry Katona! " Louis shrieks. "There is nothing you can do about it! And I know it will be Dayl! I know it will be him, absolutely," he says as the whole of Hometown - including Dayl - crease up their very young faces in laughter unbridled. "But that's fine."
"We'll make sure Dayl doesn't do anything stupid!" laughs Ryan.
"If he is in love, he's in love, there's nothing we can do about it," counters Louis. "And it will be him. I know it will happen. He's from Tipperary," says Louis who is from Kiltimagh.
Dean pipes up and says he promised to buy his mother her dream home when he became world famous one day. "Originally, it was a house in Santa Ponsa. She has since said that she wants a house in South Africa! So, her dreams are getting bigger!" he laughs.
Equally, so are the dreams of Hometown. Asked how big they believe they can become on the international stage, Cian says "as much as we can make it. Hopefully we just keep making the music we're making and we'll see it grow." Louis - who once described Boyzone perhaps a little too charitably as "Ronan, Stephen and three Ringo Starrs" - says that there are "no Ringo Starrs in Hometown."
The designer-clad internationally famous pop mogul has come a long way from his early days when he was looking after Johnny Logan two hundred years ago. Observing him it is hard to believe this is the same fellow who New Spotlight magazine described in the early 1970s thus: "Lithe and wiry with a crop of copper curls skimming his forehead, casual in corded jacket and elephant flares."
In a check shirt and tailored trousers, Louis laughs that "the biggest misconception people have about me is that I'm a chancer and they think I'm lucky! They don't realise that I have actually earned it, because I have worked with so many bands. That's all I've ever done is work in music," he says. "The fact that I make a living out of boy-bands and girl-bands, people think, 'Oh, he just puts them together, throws them out there, and makes a fortune.' It is really hard work."
"Boyzone was a brilliant, innocent time for me," he adds. "Westlife never got the credit they deserved. They sold 45 million albums."
How much money did Louis make on Westlife? "I made good money on Westlife. But they made great money. And Simon made great money. It worked, because I met Simon Cowell and that changed my whole life."
How wealthy is he? "Money is not the reason I do this. I have lots of money. I'm on your Rich List," he says referring to the Sunday Independent's recent list where he comes in at 291 with a fortune of €30m. "I have bought a few Andy Warhols in the past." Louis says as of now, he does not have a contract for the next season of X Factor. "I am not signed for this year at all. Or for next year. I've done 11 years. But you're never hired until May."
But surely Louis will be on the phone to his friend Simon Cowell? "I'm on the phone to him, and I am friendly with him, but I have had a really good run, so if he doesn't hire me, that's fine."
I ask him how long he will continue on the X Factor. "I think I could be finished on X Factor. I have done 11 years. It's been amazing. No one gets 11 years on a TV show. You don't last. You have a time-frame and you do it. I've done 11, so I think it could be my last."
The highlights for him on X Factor, he laughs, was "getting the job. In the early days, it was an innocent kind of TV show with Simon and Sharon Osbourne. No one knew who the Irish guy was. I had great fun but I was pretty innocent and naïve at the time."
And what about things like Sharon throwing the water over him? (In 2005's second season of X Factor, Sharon famously lashed not one but two glasses of water over her fellow judge after Louis made a remark about her hubby, Ozzy. )
"That wasn't staged, I swear to God! And me getting sacked wasn't staged! Everything you see on X Factor is real. I didn't know I was going to get sacked all those years ago, no," Louis says referring to the time in 2007, in Season 4 of X Factor, when he was very briefly replaced by Brian Friedman. Despite Mr Cowell being a mate of his, Louis says "ITV said they wanted to make it [X Factor] 'younger', so they got somebody in for a day and it didn't work. So he took me back. I've had a great time. I've had a great run, but I do love managing bands."
What does he think of RTE's The Voice?
"It's okay. I think it is giving people a chance that would never have gotten a chance otherwise. Are they going to produce stars? No. The thing is, when I was auditioning for Hometown, I asked every single person would they go for The Voice or X Factor and 90 per cent of them said no [to The Voice.] So I don't think they are getting the real talent. I think they are getting people who want to be on TV singing. It is verging on karaoke for me."
Bordering on kitsch karaoke is the vocal exchange between King Louis and your humble correspondent when I ask him about his youthful good looks. You're 63, I begin -before he cuts me off - "I'm over 21! Somewhere between 21 and death!" he laughs. "Don't mention age! Don't be ageist!"
I am trying to tell you that you have the face of a 23 year, Louis! I say to the King of Pop.
He erupts in laughter. So, what work hasn't he had done? "I've had nothing. I never did Botox or anything. I swear! I swear to God! I had my eyes done and my hair sorted but that's all. I had a bald spot at the back. I just got it sorted. HRBR in Blackrock did it."
So, he's not the Cher of international pop management?
"No. I do love Cher! I do love her, but, no," he laughs, "I've never had Botox or anything. I just had my bags sorted," he says meaning under his eyes not his testes. "Under my eyes! You should go! It is never too late! I'm just me. I think I'm looking better because I'm not eating as much junk food."
I throw a few names at him and ask for his opinion, knowing the answers will be fun. Bono? "The thing about Bono is, he is an amazing worker. He has worked so hard. Saying that" - Louis adds, which usually means he is teeing up some despicable one-liner - "I think the quality control has gone in U2."
If Louis was U2's manager would he have let them do the link-up with Apple?
"The money was tempting. It was a 100 million. I think they took a chance and it kind of backfired on their credibility but you know, it is on everybody's iPhone for nothing."
What does he think of Hozier? "I love Hozier. Caroline Desmond Downey, she's a friend of mine, asked me to go to her son's school to judge a talent competition about five years ago out in Dalkey - and I did. That's where Hozier sang," Louis smiles, "and he won. I thought he had the most amazing voice. He reminded me of Van Morrison - vocally. You know I love Van Morrison. I think Van is our greatest talent. I really, really do. Yeah, he is a grumpy old fucker!"
So are you sometimes! I jest.
"So are you!" he hoots. "So is everybody! But I do love Van and Hozier reminded me a little of Van Morrison. . ."
And if Enda Kenny was in a band Louis managed what advice would he give him? "Well, I like Enda, because he is from Mayo," says Louis, "and I know him. He is friends of the family. I like him. He is a charmer. He mightn't be the best politician we've ever had but he is definitely not the worst. He's safe."
"I like - what you call him? Leo Vardaker! I like Leo. I think he is a very honest man. I think he is a good role model for people. I really do."
Louis liked Leo's honesty in coming out? "I like everything about him. I believe him. I believe him. I don't think he is a spoofer. "
A future Taoiseach?
"Yeah, I think he would be amazing. I think he would. I would believe in him, totally," he says before adding further on matters political: "Whose the other guy I like? People Before Profit? His mother is an actress! Sinead Cusack! I like him," he says referring to Richard Boyd Barrett. "He's out-spoken and honest and real. You see, I watch Vincent Browne a lot. So that's where I see him."
You watch Vincent Browne? "I watch Vincent Browne." Asked why, Louis roars with laughter: "Because he is different! And he is a grumpy old fucker. And I like him!"
I ask him about the suicidal thoughts he experienced at the time he was falsely accused (in The Sun newspaper) of sexual assault in 2011. When he thinks about that terribly dark time, does it physically almost bring him back? "If I'm really honest with you, I never think about it. I block it out totally. It is only when you bring it up like this, that I go, 'Oh, fuck', you know? What if people hadn't believed me? What if! You never know! That's the problem. It was a real reality check for me. And I haven't been in a nightclub ever since. I haven't been out in Dublin. I never go out in Dublin. You have never seen me out since. In fact, I don't go out."
Was it really that dark for Louis that he actually considered taking his own life?
"There was one particular moment when I was in the hotel in London, in The Kensington, and I was watching Sky News and I was on it - it was the front page of The Sun - and I was thinking, 'No one is going to believe me.' I didn't know I was going to get out of the dark place, but Paul Tweed and Gavin Bonnar got me and they sorted me out. Without them, I wouldn't have got through it. Simon was totally supportive; and Elton John called me the following day. He said, 'I know what happened. I know it's not true. This is my mobile number.' It was great to get a bit of support. Then he called me later on in the week to go to a party but I wasn't in form to go to a party. I didn't want to go anywhere. It was the greatest reality check I've ever had in my life."
What did he learn from it?
"I learned to be wary. I am very wary of people. Really, really, really. Honestly."
And if he saw that guy on the street now?
"I wouldn't even know him. Are you talking about the editor of the Sun or the guy? Well, there were two people in the Sun. But they are not working there any more. So it's fine. I'm over it. I think. I think I'm over it. But I am very wary."
Does he ever get flashbacks?
"I blocked it out. I am being really, really honest with you. It was the moment in my life where I thought: 'My God!' So when I read things now about people, I just kind of think, 'Maybe it is not true.' It makes you unsure and it makes you wary of everybody. Change the subject because I hate talking about it."
Getting the message, I switch the conversation to his beloved 84-year-old mother Maureen. Asked how she sees him, Louis smiles fondly and says, "I think I am the one that never got the real job. I think that's the way she'd probably talk. 'He hasn't got a real job. We don't know really what he does. But he is happy.'"
And are you? "Yeah, I'm happy. Doing something I like makes me happy. I like my job. I like my life. I've had a great life." He says he goes home to Kiltimagh about twice a year. He went down recently for Maureen's birthday. How does she introduce her famous son to the locals?
"They all know me. They see me on TV. They think I'm the guy on TV. They think I just kind of wander onto the TV on a Saturday and a Sunday and sit there and act the maggot; when it is not really like that."
Do you land on the front lawn in a private jet? "No! I don't! But my brother does!" he laughs. "My brother has a helicopter and everybody thinks it is me. My brother Joseph works really hard in New Jersey but he comes home all the time. He has a helicopter and he is flying around the place and everyone thinks it's me."
Notwithstanding standing at the side of the stage looking on proudly as Hometown are about to go onstage in front of 100,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, where does Louis see himself in ten years time? "I hope I'm alive, number 1," he says. "I'll probably look even younger. I don't know where I'll be. I just want to be happy and do what I do - real."
Hometown's new single Cry For Help is out now on Sony Music. You can watch Louis Walsh's interview with Barry Egan on Independent.ie