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A Quietus Interview

High Flying Birds, Musical Kettles And Exploded Psych: Noel Gallagher Speaks
John Doran , October 8th, 2011 08:16

John Doran is caught napping by Noel Gallagher who is finally getting to indulge his creative impulses with the High Flying Birds and Amorphous Androgynous

January 27, 2000, while I was sitting with a group of journalists in the Albany pub on Great Portland Street having a long liquid lunch, was when Noel Gallagher caught me napping. We were waiting in the vague proximity of the Portland Hospital – with its celebrated maternity ward favoured by rich and famous Londoners – for news of Meg Matthews who had entered the day before to give birth. I barely had chance to look up from my drink and get my notepad out when I saw the Britpop star striding towards the table. “Alright lads!” he beamed, “What are you having?” He bought everyone present a pint of Guinness, having a half himself, before filling us in on the birth of his daughter Anaïs, the health of her mother and how made up he was. “You got everything you need? I’d better go and get some flowers for the wife,” he said before marching back out to a round of applause.

I was no longer a news reporter by the time Liam Gallagher’s wife Nicole Appleton went into the same hospital to give birth to their son Gene 16 months later but I did read in the paper the next day that after leaving the hospital the proud dad had assaulted a photographer.

The one detail from these two brief vignettes that probably needs illuminating is the fact that Noel Gallagher knew the Albany pub quite well. He’d been a semi-regular at the Heavenly Social held in the basement club below stairs, where he mixed with Tricky, the Manic Street Preachers, Tim Burgess, Beth Orton, regular DJs The Chemical Brothers and other, slightly more open minds during the Britpop period. While Noel had lived just yards from The Chems while they were still The Dust Brothers back in Levenshulme and running Naked Under Leather in the early 90s and they had both been regulars at the Hacienda during its heyday, it was down the rickety steps in the 100 capacity central London club in 1994 that they first met. The next significant time they bumped into each other would be backstage at Glastonbury in 1996 and the plan to record ‘Setting Sun’ - the strangest, most fucked up electronic single ever to make number one in the charts – was hatched.

This was a crucial time for Oasis as John Tatlock rightly pointed out in a feature for us; Gallagher senior was being exposed to the world’s best hip hop, house and techno, recording chart topping psychedelic electronica and was keen on pushing his group out of its Beatles pop phase into its Beatles experimental phase. During the 1997 sessions for the Be Here Now album he was experimenting with playing riffs over hip hop breaks and espousing the joys of N.W.A. evangelically to the rest of the boys but they were looking at him “like I was talking French”.

But if he wasn’t exactly leaning on an open door, then he wasn’t exactly pushing all that hard either, and we know what happened after that. Oasis were simply already too big for the formula to be fucked with. As the Be Here Now producer Owen Morris said: "The only reason anyone was there was the money."

Some 14 years later Gallagher Senior is finally getting to indulge and explore these more experimental tendencies. Now free to embark on a solo career he is preparing for the release of his debut, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, a pleasingly sun-dappled album of warm-hearted psychedelia which could be filed next to Shack’s HMS Fable and The Soundtrack Of Our Lives’ Behind The Music and certainly towers over Beady Eye's Different Gear, Still Speeding. Not only that but the finishing touches are being put on his joint album with Amorphous Androgynous which, if their epic remix of ‘Falling Down’ is anything to go by, should be some Optrex for your third eye.

Talking of which, my third eye is just starting to open in all of its terrible glory as my other two eyes are drooping shut as I nod off. Sitting by the phone, waiting for the call, it looks like Noel Gallagher’s caught me sleeping on the job again.

Noel Gallagher: John, how are you doing?

Er... Hello... Not bad. Alright.

NG: Are you sure? You don’t sound alright.

No, I am actually. I’ve got a five month old boy so sleep’s at a premium but things are actually really great.

NG: My youngest turned one on Saturday, so I know what you mean.

Nice one! Happy birthday to him. Speaking as working rock & roll father of young children, how do you tie it all in with songwriting and making noise after a certain time and all that?

NG: I tend to do a lot on the road now because I’ve given up writing at home. It used to be the other way round but now that I don’t burn the candle at both ends any more I write on the road – that’s where I get some peace and quiet.

My boy will happily listen to any music that sounds like the washing machine, so he’s alright listening to black metal.

NG: [laughing] With the kids we only listen to music on the radio in the morning and in the car, but my eldest boy who is four loves acid house. And when he says, ‘Dad can we have some acid house please?’, I’m going to have to sample it and stick it on a fucking record because it sounds great.

Speaking of house music, there’s a link of sorts between that genre and the debut album of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, isn’t there?

NG: Well, on the track ‘[AKA...] What A Life!’ definitely there is, and maybe on the other songs simply via their sense of hope. On that particular track, it just came about because of a beautiful accident really. I’d started off writing something completely different and then ‘Strings Of Life’ by Rhythim Is Rhythim came on the stereo at home and totally influenced it. I had one of those moments of, ‘Oh wow, that song might work if I do it like that…’ I went down that avenue with it and it came out great.

A quick Google before the interview revealed to me that the world’s highest flying bird is actually the Asian goose, and while it looks like a rather charming yet undynamic bird it can fly at over 20,000 feet, and clear the Himalayas without troubling its underfeathers. Now I was wondering if you were named after a skein of Asian geese, or if there was an even better story to the name?

NG: [laughing] I’m afraid it’s just a really fucking shit story. When I was recording the album I was passing by Shepherd’s Bush Empire one night on my way home and somebody was on – I can’t remember who – but I remember thinking, ‘Do I really want to see my name up there? I mean it’s a bit boring… Noel Gallagher. It’s hardly Ziggy Stardust, is it?’ And I didn’t think much of it really, because I had all this other stuff going on. I was making an album; no one knew about it; did I want to find a band?; and if I found the band would I have to get a singer, because he would probably turn out to be a dick... - that kind of thing. Then one day I was at home doing the washing up and ‘Man Of The World’ came on the radio and the DJ said, ‘That was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. And I thought, ‘Wow. What if I was Noel Gallagher’s Something Or Other? That would be really cool.’ So I thought of loads of different things for months and it never really went away. I liked it because the name could apply to me solo, or a band or to a collective, it could mean anything. And then one day I was at home looking through some CDs and I was looking at Jefferson Airplane’s debut album and I saw the track ‘High Flying Birds’, and I thought, ‘Oh, fucking hell… that’s it.’

You’ve nailed it.

NG: I’ve fucking nailed it. Genius! But there’s no interesting story there…

I bet if you’re the guy who puts the band names up over Shepherd’s Bush Empire, then Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is the kind of band name that makes you really angry. I mean, it’s not as bad as …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, but I bet he thinks, ‘Why the fuck weren’t Cast playing?’

NG: Ha ha ha! Yeah, ‘Fuck him!’

You seem to have weathered the break-up of Oasis quite well. Have you taken it in your stride or has there been a bit more chaos going on behind closed doors?

NG: [sighs] There’s a bit of shit going on behind closed doors but you don’t need to know about that. Liam’s kind of not letting it go. [pause] I’ll tell you what really annoys me – when I read about 'the warring brothers'. I’m not at war with anyone. I’m just trying to get on with my fucking thing. But every time I open a magazine and his head’s in it, all I have to do is scan down to the bit where he’s calling me a cunt. And if he’s supposed to be in the best band in the world then why the fuck is he arsed about me? I mean, just get on with your own thing and leave me be…

Well this brings us on to something quite interesting. I’ve heard Same Day, Different Shit by Beady Eye and in terms of post Beatles albums, I’d rank it as a Ringo Starr’s Stop And Smell The Roses. How would you rank your debut?

NG: Oh, shit. Hmmm. I guess All Things Must Pass because we did enough material for a triple album. To be honest though, I’m not really into the post Beatles stuff. I love All Things Must Pass, I’ve only got John Lennon’s greatest hits by him and I love Band On The Run, but it’s not really my thing.

I like a lot of things about your album but what I was most pleased about was that you didn’t stick a kind of Showaddywaddy, Alvin Stardust-style rock & roll track on yours…

NG: [laughs] Why, thank you very much… I was thinking of you when I left it off.

Is the album indicative of where you were trying to take Oasis or is it more of a clean slate album?

NG: When you become successful as a band it creates a trap for you, because you want to stay successful. You want to carry on doing what you’re doing. So with the best will in the world, I fell into the stadium rock thing. And don’t get me wrong, I fucking loved it and all those songs like ‘Lyla’ and ‘The Shock Of The Lightning’ which were stadium anthems, I wasn’t doing it under duress. I was loving it. But at the same time I was writing more diverse stuff as well… Maybe diverse isn’t exactly the right word, but I was writing another shade of guitar pop at the same time, the stuff that’s on this album. Towards the end of Oasis I stopped producing and I would just hand songs to the producer, and I guess everyone had an understanding of what Oasis was and that was great. But when I came to make this album, I didn’t set out to make anything different, I just wanted to choose the best songs that I had, which is what I did.

’Everybody’s On The Run’ has got this sumptuous, ...Melody Nelson, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, Serge Gainsbourg, Jean Claude Vannier thing going on. Tell me about the great production you’ve got on the album?

NG: On that song in particular I wanted the first song on the album to be like the last song on everyone else’s. Usually you end with something that’s quite epic and grand, or at least I do anyway. And I decided very early on that I wanted it to open in this very epic way, and have a 100-piece orchestra on it. I took the track to this girl who arranges my strings and said, ‘Whatever happens, I want all these string players to be women.’ She said, ’Why?’ But I didn’t know. She said, ‘It’ll be sexier that way…’ I said: ‘Fuck me. [starts laughing] I hadn’t thought of it like that. Well, it can be sexy on the eye if it wants but as long as it’s sexy in the speakers, that’ll do me.' I wanted the choir on that song to sound like the Everyman Choir of the World.

You’ve obviously gone beyond the standard range of rock band instruments on the record. You’ve got a musical saw on one of the tracks, haven’t you?

NG: Well, there’s a brass section - which might not seem earth shattering but we recorded them round one mike, New Orleans style. It was very intense, very old school. And there was this guy in the studio – the tape operator, this Geordie guy. And I was saying, ‘There’s something not quite right with the bass. Maybe we need a double bass on this track.’ And this guy says, ‘Well, I play double bass…’ So off he goes in a taxi and comes back with his double bass and plays it on the track. The next day I said, ‘This track needs something a bit… spooky on it.’ And he said, ‘Something that sounds like a theremin?’ And I said, yeah. He said, ‘Because I’ve got a musical saw at home…’ So he went off in a taxi and got his musical saw. The day after I said I needed something that sounded very fragile and high pitched and he said, ‘What, like someone playing a solo on the wine glasses?’ I said, ‘Is there anything else you can play? What about the fucking electric kettle?’ And he said [puts on deadpan Geordie accent]: ‘I don’t play the electric kettle but give me a few days and I’ll pick it up.’ Mark Neary his name is. He can play anything.

You’ve said the name means it could be a collective or a band, and that you’ll play with whoever happens to be around at the time. It sounds like I stand more chance of joining your band than I do of Public Enemy, say.

NG: Well, can you play anything?

I can play the trombone, as it goes.

NG: Well… I’m not fucking joking, if you can play it you can join. The band who I’m touring with, they’re not the guys who I recorded the record with. They’re just some people I know who I phoned up and said, ‘Are you free?’ They’ve all got other things to do. I mean Russell from the Zutons is playing bass for me and I presume by the time I make another album, he’ll have something else to do. I mean, he’s a Scouser, so he’ll play with anyone.

I’m guessing this kind of thing is a lot easier with the whole ego thing than having some kind of supergroup situation, with a load of other dudes who used to be in famous bands?

NG: Well, I’d still love to do that as long as it wasn’t like SuperHeavy. Fucking ridiculous. You know, me, Johnny Marr, Mani and Weller, that would be great. But just for now, this suits me well. I mean, people already know what I sound like because I sang on some of the Oasis songs. It wasn’t like when John Squire first went solo and you were like, [puts on amazed voice] ‘Fucking hell – is that what he sounds like?!’ Because no one had heard him sing before. But it’s exciting doing it this way, after having been in the same band for 18 years.

What it reminded me of as well was when Mark E. Smith said, ‘If it’s me and your grandmother on bongos, it’s The Fall.’ It’s got that kind of vibe to it but are you going to be an easier taskmaster than him?

NG: Yeah. Definitely. There’s only one Mark. He’ll split up with himself one day. [Does uncanny impersonation of Mark E. Smith arguing with himself] But no, I’m pretty easy going really… As long as you’re perfect…

Is Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks your first overtly political song?

NG: Well [giant pause], yeah [giant pause], but don’t write that because I’ve been talking some right pretentious bollocks about this song recently. I had the title and the tune long before I wrote the lyrics but the idea came for them after I’d been watching TV in America with the news channels showing war and the other channels showing religion. And it’s simply about how if you wanted peace, it’s not just a matter of not having war but of not having religion as well.

’The Death Of You And Me’ seems to be the other side of the coin to the armour plated bombast of most of the songs on (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. Are these the reflections of a man who has lived over half of his life?

NG: Most of the second album was written about the time when we moved to London, and it was just, ‘This is fucking brilliant.’ It definitely had a big positive impact on us and the songs we wrote. But this song, ‘The Death Of You And Me’, came about from when me and my girlfriend were standing on London Bridge and I was just saying, is this all there is? There has to be something more than this. Maybe it’s time to leave, but really at the end of the day it’s also about realising all the positive things you’ve got in your life.

So there’s a positive edge to it?

NG: All of the songs on this album are positive really. I think of it as being really hopeful.

There’s always this thing about people who start new bands. They prepare to go away on tour and they realise that they’ve not got enough material. What are you going to do – learn a load of covers or something?

NG: Well, I’ve got this album and an 18-year back catalogue! I mean, I’m only going to play the Oasis songs that I sang on, which are mainly B-sides and what have you but they are my songs. I’m not going to be singing ‘Rock And Roll Star’ or ‘Cigarettes And Alcohol’ or anything like that. Liam sings them in such a unique way himself.

I like the way that Morrissey uses his back catalogue live. He’s never going to do an encore which is ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ followed by ‘Panic’ but he’ll usually slip in a B side, a couple of album tracks and a couple of bangers mixed into the set.

NG: I’m a massive fan of The Smiths and I know every word to every song. Now I’ve never seen him sing ‘Rubber Ring’ but the idea that you still might see him do it live is brilliant. To be there and be singing along to it would be really exciting, speaking as a fan. If you’ve got that kind of back catalogue, you can do that. And to be honest, Oasis have that kind of back catalogue.

At The Quietus we were very excited to learn that you’re also working with Amorphous Androgynous because we loved the last ever Oasis release, Falling Down, that they remixed for you. From the little bit I’ve read about it, it sounds like it’s been a pretty intense experience.

NG: Right, I’m going to give you the quick version. This was the record that I started doing first after the split. I took a few of my songs which have ended up on the High Flying Birds album and gave them to Garry [Cobain] and Brian [Dougans]. And they totally took these songs to pieces, they were sticking bits in the wrong way round, putting the end and the beginning, sticking a load of extra choruses in there. I was like, ‘Woah, what have you done?’ And they were like, [imitates stoned guy] ‘Don’t worry about it man, it’s going to be fucking great.’ It sounded good but I was a bit worried about having something that mad come out as my first solo record. So I gave them some more songs to work with, but maybe songs that were less finished, a bit more like sketches, and some other tracks that I still wasn’t sure about, to see what they would do with them. And what they came back with was fucking great. But I don’t want to say too much about it now, because then I won’t have anything to talk about next year when that album comes out. Do you know them?

I know who they are. I’m a back in the day fan of ‘Stakker Humanoid’ [by Humanoid] and Future Sound Of London.

NG: And what a fucking tune ‘Stakker Humanoid’ is! I didn’t realise it was them until we were about halfway through recording. Someone mentioned that track halfway through recording and I was like, ‘You’re fucking joking… shut up… get the fuck out of here!’ I had to stop and give them a hug. I used to love that tune! But what I will say is this: Gaz never shuts up. He will not stop talking. Every day it would be a lecture on the psychedelic gifts that we were about to receive and there would be an hour and a half, bare minimum, of him talking before we even did anything. And the other one, Brian, never says a word. He just makes loads of joints and occasionally goes: “This is going to be… great.” I’d be in the studio with one guy that never shuts up and another that never talks, both of them getting really high and blowing my songs to pieces and I’d be like, ‘I’m sure I used to be in a really famous band...’ But what they’ve done is amazing.

That’s fair enough but just whet our appetite a little bit. If there’s a certain sun-dappled psychedelia to High Flying Birds, is the Amorphous Androgynous record going to melt our faces?

NG: Well, I’ll tell you this, if there are hints of psychedelia to the High Flying Birds then Gaz and Brian have taken those hints and exploded them. They say that they’ve finished but they still haven’t delivered it. I know they’re still tweaking it, making it go even further out there. I think there’s going to be about ten intense psychedelic songs and three songs that are on the High Flying Birds album but reworked by them. How we’ve envisaged it is like a modern take on Dark Side Of The Moon, with lots of texture and ambient noise on it…

You know what, you need to get a lot of doorbell noises on it, so that when some 15-year old pothead in Levenshulme hears it he gets up to answer the door in the middle of the night.

NG: Ha ha ha! Brilliant. You know what, before I was in Oasis I used to live in Asia House in Manchester and my door bell was exactly the same tone as a sound out of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and I can’t tell you the number of times I got up to answer the door stoned out of my mind and there was no one there…

And as is my wont, I’d better end on a terrible question: all the way from the Inspiral Carpets to Alisha Sufit of Magic Carpet [psych rock singer and Amorphous Androgynous/Noel Gallagher collaborator], how has the trip been so far?

NG: Do you know what? All of it’s been brilliant. In a word, great. Even Oasis splitting up was great. I mean, we got 17 years out of it. Who would have thought we would have stayed as big as we did for as long as we did? Just brilliant.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is released on 17th October. More details at Noel


Sun 23 – Dublin, Olympia Theatre
Wed 26 – Manchester, O2 Apollo
Thu 27 – Edinburgh, Usher Hall
Sat 29 – London, HMV Hammersmith Apollo
Sun 30 – London, HMV Forum
31/10/11 – London, The Roundhouse