Interview: Former Oasis Frontman Noel Gallagher Discusses His New Solo Album, 'Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds'
Noel Gallagher might have joined his brother’s band, Oasis. But he also eventually became its creative force.
His gift for writing hit songs put Oasis on the map in 1994. Their 1995 album, What’s The Story (Morning Glory)?, which featured the hits “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” sold more than 14 million copies worldwide and propelled the band to international stardom.
But from the very beginning, brothers Noel and Liam fought -- usually in the public eye, often via the press. On September 5, 2009, Noel had finally had enough and called it quits. Oasis split into two, with the entire band (minus Noel, of course) joining Liam in the newly formed Beady Eye. Noel went solo.
Noel's debut album, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, which comes out November 8 via Sour Mash/Mercury Records, is distinctly "Noel Gallagher" in that its 10 tracks capture some of the brilliance of Oasis' early hits. In fact, “The Death Of You And Me” and “If I Had A Gun…” could fit nicely on any classic Oasis album.
Over the years, it hasn’t been easy to track down Noel. His not needing to do press is a luxury of being in a massive, internationally famous band. But now with a brand-new solo album, it’s a different story. Luckily, Guitar World grabbed a half-hour of his time during his recent visit to New York. We tried to play catch-up for a few decades of his work, right up to his new album.
GUITAR WORLD: When did you start working on Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds?
I don’t really have a set start date; I’m always writing songs. But the first day in the studio was Valentine’s Day. It was a momentous day because my wife called me at 3 o’clock that day and told me she was pregnant. It was as I was doing the drums for the first track, and I was like, “Wow.” I couldn’t tell you what year that was ... last year.
Do you have your own recording studio? In the past you've spoken about using Garage Band.
No, I don’t. I used to, but I let it go. It’s just a fucking waste of money. It’s counterproductive in the end. We would end up recording the album twice. But no, just a friend's studio in London; and then we finished it off in Los Angeles.
I know “Stop The Clocks,” which is on the album, is an unfinished Oasis song. Are there any other songs from Oasis days?
Yeah, “Record Machine.”
I've always wanted to ask you about the Oasis song “The Masterplan.” Was that finished or unfinished? I ask because it seems to be missing a verse.
The story of that song is, “Wonderwall,” the single, was coming out, and we didn’t have a B-side. My label hooked me up with a studio and said we need a B-side, so the night before I wrote it in my kitchen and I thought, “Fucking hell, that’s really good.” I didn’t really think anything of it at the time. I just thought it’s a really good song. We recorded it over a few days and then as the finished thing emerged, everyone was going, “Are you sure you want to send this out as a B-side?” And I was like, “What do you want me to fucking do? You asked me to write a song, there it is."
I was a bit headstrong and arrogant. I mean, I would have fucking saved it and built an entire career around it. But I kind of threw it away. But the flipside of that is, that’s one of the great things about Oasis. For every great album, there’s like five or six great B-sides that are there to discover. Which I think will be a great thing for future generations. Even on Stop the Clocks, the best-of -- there’s a lot of great stuff not on that. So there are lots for people to discover down the line, if they wish to do so.
Another example is “Flashbax.” That's a killer song.
Well, there ya go. They’re all out there and readily available from the iTunes store. So I guess that is one of the great things about the Internet and YouTube. It’s very easy to discover that thing now.
I had to go and buy imports.
Yeah, now you can just fucking buy them on iTunes. But that’s the kind of thing I do. The B-sides for all this stuff, you’ll really like as well. I don’t really sit and write B-sides, I just write songs in my spare time. Then I kind of pick the best ones for the album and then the things I pick as B-sides aren’t necessarily not the best; they are just, you know, maybe I don’t like the lyrics, or the lyrics are great but I don’t like the tune, or the tune is good but I don’t like the singing -- or there’s just something and they’re not perfect. But people hear them and go, “God, I fucking love that.”
So when you’re doing B-sides, you’re writing them quickly and bringing them in. When you were in Oasis, were the other band members there to bounce ideas off of?
I’d write them on my own, so not really, particularly in the early days more than in the later days, maybe.
Would you just bring in a song and say, "This is going to go on the record"?
If I decided it was going to go on the record, then it was going to go on. If I wasn’t sure, then we’d have a heated debate about it.
Was there any of that -- internally -- in terms of songs for the new album?
The only thing I toyed with was a song I have leftover and that’s fucking incredible. It’s fucking incredible! I wrote it right before the end of the mixing. And I was like, “Put it on the fucking record.” In the end, I decided this record didn’t need it. And the next record I make might fucking need it. So I toyed with it for ages and then would put it in, take it out. I never got around to recording it, but I would play it for people and they would be like, “Fucking hell, what are you sitting on that for five years?” But in the end I decided the High Flying Birds thing doesn’t really need it.
Would you have to sit on songs for a long time because you don’t have to have a long, drawn-out tour?
Yeah, but I’m not writing contemporary music. I’m writing timeless songs. So I’m not reliant on trends or fashions. Believe you me, this song is like “If I Had A Gun” in the sense that “If I Had A Gun” would have sounded great 15 years ago, and it will sound great today. It’s just one of those timeless songs where you're just like, “Isn’t that great -- he’s a genius.” (Laughs)
As a songwriter, are there any songs out there that you’re like, “That’s the pinnacle, that’s it, that’s the perfect song”?
Of my songs, or someone else’s?
Oh, yeah. There’s thousands of songs that I wish I could have written. “One” by U2, I wish I could have written that. “Yellow” by Coldplay. I mean, I could sit here all day and think of songs I wish I could have written. But you know I’m sure all those people look at my stuff and think, “I wish I had written that.”
The bad thing is that probably not as many people have heard “The Masterplan."
Well, it’s really only in America. In England we put out that B-side album, which was called the The Masterplan and it sold like a couple million copies. So all of those songs in England are really famous. It’s really only in America. Because we never really release singles in America. It was interesting because we used to play all the B-sides at Oasis gigs in England and half the set would be B-sides.
I saw you guys at a Toronto Music Festival. Neil Young was on the tour.
Yeah, he was headlining.
That’s when I started hearing the B-sides, because I'd hear a song and be like, “What album is that from?”
Well, we had a singles culture going then that’s been prevalent since the '60s and '70s. Which says you have to release a single every three months; that was kind of the rule. And for that you have to have B-sides. In a way, it was kind of great because it kept you writing. So it kept you fresh. But the downside of that is really the third album should have been all those B-sides.
Do you think that culture actually works considering what’s happening right now with the music because and iTunes?
Well, because people just download tracks. Eventually, not with all bands or bands like Oasis but eventually, the hip-hop, R&B, Lady Gaga side of it. They won’t make albums anymore because there’s no point to it. They will just make one song every three months into infinity. I don’t foresee bands like me ever doing this, but I do see mainstream going for it.
Let’s hope not.
Yeah, but you’ve got to really want an album. We put this album up on iTunes and the album is a journey for me and I’ve been explaining that journey in the press that we’ve been doing. But if you want an album, you’ll get it. I don’t think it will entirely disappear. I think it will disappear from mainstream culture.
Especially because it’s a lot easier for those artists to just rip one song out rather than record a full album.
Yeah. I mean wouldn’t it be fucking great to just release one single every three months, four tracks a year? What a life. Unfortunately for us, we have to go play live. So when we’re trying to say to people spend $150 to come see my band, they’re like, “What for -- when you have four new tunes?” You’ve got to have something to give them. So it won’t die out completely.
With the new album, did you work on all the pieces of the songs or did you bring people in?
I played everything on the record apart from the drums and the keyboards. So I played everything else. Yeah, I work on all the parts. I’m quite adept at that.
Some of the tracks sound a little bit more orchestrated and less guitar-heavy. What is your approach to those types of songs?
I don’t know. You know that’s something one of my friends pointed out when I was playing it to him and it got to “Record Machine,” which is track 5 and he went, “That’s the first guitar solo.” I didn’t even notice because I was just making a record. The other songs didn’t require a guitar solo. “What a Life,” which is essentially a disco tune, has two tiny guitar bits in it. That’s where I’m at with it at the moment. Usually when guitarists go solo, it's fucking Wayne’s World. But it's just that the songs I wrote didn’t require it. Now the other album I wrote is coming out after this. The Amorphous Androgynous album is coming out next year. That has a lot of guitars in it and a lot of different guitar players, with lots of different styles of guitars. I can only do what I do. Those producers were getting session guys in, and that was guitartastic.
Yeah, the two Guitar World employees who attended your listening session last night said you told them there was only one guitar solo on the entire album. I was going to ask you that today; it’s interesting.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t realize it until my friend pointed it out to me. And I was like, “Wow.” It's strange doing the songs live because the bits of brass sections -- well, obviously we can’t do that live, so we’ve just go to …
Do an acoustic-type thing?
No, just got to work out different instrumentation for those bits so live is going to be kind of vastly different. There you go.
When you’re writing these songs, are you able to let your mind do what you want it to do for each track -- because there was no bass or guitar?
Well, I afforded myself a very, very rare luxury, which was you’d start on the first of whenever it was and you’d work to a set date where you’d finish and then you’ve go the finished thing in your hand. Then only after listening to it for a few months, you’d think, “Well, I could have done that a little better.” Whereas with this, I finished all the tracks -- did everything -- then I had six months off. I spent that six months listening to it every day on headphones and was mentally making notes on what would make it better. Then four months down the line, other ideas would pop into my head, whereas when I got to mixing it I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. It was a luxury I have never had.
So do you know when a song is done?
No. Like, I know when it's done, but the more you listen to things the more you get another idea that can pop into your head, but it might be finished then so you’re like, “Oh fuck.” Whereas with this I’ve kind of taken a great piece of time off in the middle and just listened to it. Mentally make notes about how I could get it back. That’s why this sounds the best of all the albums I’ve made. I wouldn’t change a single thing.
That has to be a pretty good feeling. Is it the melody or something else that makes you know something’s good?
It’s a melody. What makes it good is the chords and the melody. But what makes it great is if you’ve got great words. A lot of the time I don’t get that hung up about words, so it’s a bonus if the words are great. On this record a lot of the lyrics, I really like them. It never really dawned on me until I haven’t written any of the lyrics out because I remember them all. So I’ve never actually had to commit anything to paper at all, even when I was singing in the studio.
Dave Sardy was going, “Where’s the lyric sheet?” And I was like, “I haven’t gotten any.” And he’s like, “Where are all the words?” And I went, “They’re up there.” [Pointing at his head] And he’s like, “Well, what if you forget them?” I said, “I won’t forget them.” And I would step to the mic and I haven’t forgotten them. So there’s my record. I have to send it to my publishers and they say, “Where are they lyrics?” So I have to type them out because only after I start to type them out I realize what I was singing. But the melody is the most important thing. Because the melody is what pulses in your fucking heart. The lyrics go to the brain. The melody is like the thing that you whistle on the way home.
This morning on the subway I said to myself, "I’m going to listen to the 'The Masterplan' " one last time, just to see if I’m totally wrong about it sounding unfinished. It still just cycles in my brain over and over and over again. Even like the piano at the end and that stuff just sticks in your brain.
You mean, like the little [sings the piano notes at the end of the song].
I know what you mean. Glad I wrote those songs. [Laughs]
Do you think having a baby has changed you as a songwriter?
I think I’m a better songwriter than I was 10 years ago. I don’t know. See, I don’t have to write words for other people now. That’s quite liberating to know these words are for me and they come from me. So I don’t have any bones about singing them. Whereas when you write for someone else, it’s all about compromise. I know I can deliver these words in a way that a singer I had written them for couldn’t possibly understand. 'Cause if I’m writing a song about something I’ve experienced or I’ve seen, then to write it and give it to someone else they’re only going to sing it from their perception.
So this time around has been more relaxed?
Relaxed, yes. It also meant that I could dictate all the way through and set the pace. Because I could have that six months off at no one’s expense but mine. And how I worked is I would book a studio for two weeks. When I work in the studio I work fast and I don’t fuck about and I work long hours, and I eat while I work. And then after those two weeks I sit and take six weeks off. So it was kind of quick bursts and then listen to it, quick bursts and then listen. At the same time, I was doing the other album as well. So I was kind going from one project to another. So I was quite busy but I was never on the same project for more than two weeks at a time. Which has made it even though I did a lot of work and I was fucking tired and spent over a year in the studio I never really got jaded with either projects.
When are working on the other album? How are you not crossing them?
Well, it’s a companion piece. There are three tracks on this album that are going to be on that album. They’re different versions, they’re vastly different recordings. They’re more psycedelicized. The other album’s a trip like Dark side Of The Moon. It's kind of like there is no end, start, or finish. I don’t really know how they didn’t cross.
Was it intentional or were there songs you just didn’t fit together?
Well, I’ve got to say; this High Flying Birds album was born out of the other album. I started making the other album first. So for instance one of the first songs I recorded was “If I Had A Gun.” So I did the back track then I left it and came back and they completely demolished it. And it was like, “Where’d the fucking chorus go?” And they [The Amorphous Androgynous] said, “Oh, the chorus, we didn’t like that, so we just put another few chords in there.”
I was like, “No, no, no.” Then I kind of went with it, but then I thought I can’t have that song ruined. Not ruined, but that song needs to be the way you hear it today. So I thought, right, so I’m going to do two albums. Because they’re going to do this thing where they deconstruct everything and make it fucking sound not like nothing else. So I wrote some more songs and gave them to them and then I took these other straighter-sounding songs and said I’ll make two albums. Which starting off on the journey of that was quite dawning, but I pulled it off in the end. I was tired at the end of it. I was sick at the end of it. You know, I spent a year solid in the studio and then I was doing B-sides at the end. They would say, “We need a solo in this section here,” and I would start playing guitar solos and he’d go, “Yeah it's good but what it is actually is the solo from “Supersonic.” And I would be like, “Is it?” I had completely run out of ideas. I was suddenly thinking I can’t pull another thing, I don’t know, I want to go home.
Are you still constantly writing stuff?
Yeah, I write all the time. Always chipping away at ideas.
Does the ability ever just go away or disappear for a while?
Well, the purple patches go away. I mean, I was in a period -- I still kind of am -- where I like everything I write. Six months from now I might be somewhere that I don’t like anything I write. But you've still got to keep going, got to get through the shit stuff to get to the good stuff.
Yeah, I mean, that’s the big difference. You have bands that can figure out how to do it once. It’s the continuing to do it that’s the amazing thing.
Twice is good. As a songwriter, you just got to keep going, write shit songs. I write shit songs all the time. You’ll never hear them. But you've got to get through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. For every great song I’ve written, there’s been three you’ll never hear.
Is there hope that there will be a 20-year anniversary reunion of Oasis?
Liam is on record saying the idea of it makes him want to vomit, so I’ve got nothing to add to it.