Timeless Melody: An Interview With Noel Gallagher

Noel Gallagher has sold over 70 million records worldwide, witnessed his choruses become chanted by fans as if they were a gospel choir, and might be the only British rock star to appear on more magazine covers than Kate Middleton. Yet he has only needed to count on one person for his attention and achievement. On "The Masterplan," a song by his former band, Oasis, he assured us that "everything that's been has passed, the answer's in the looking glass." He is rock and roll's Tony Robbins, replacing the latter's self-help proverbs with sanguine lyricism and a Union Jack guitar turned up to 11.

Oasis' b-sides compilation album, 1998's The Masterplan, was that decade's Louder Than Bombs. Since his group's formation, Gallagher tailored closely to the Smiths' mentality that the quality and quantity of songs were one and the same, that even the secondary cuts should be too good for the cutting room floor. Unable to look past the burgeoning songwriter's talent, Johnny Marr lent a pre-fame, penniless Gallagher one of his guitars -- the one Gallagher would use to write his iconic anti-grunge anthem "Live Forever," among many other tunes -- and didn't have the heart to ask for it back.

Ringing in over 20 years as a professional musician and nearly six since Oasis' breakup, he remains devoted to his creative approach with his solo act, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Gallagher's influences don't just move him, they move through him. On "Riverman," his favorite song on his sophomore album, Chasing Yesterday, he unlocks the passage between Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You," before adorning the track's bridge and conclusion with a saxophone solo.

As with the rest of the LP, "Riverman" is an unexpected, welcoming new terrain for Gallagher, one never shy to quarantine the past by pushing things forward. I spoke with him as he embarked on a world tour about what it's like to write personal songs for a global audience, his non-nostalgic meaning of Chasing Yesterday, and his lone rule for aspiring artists.

How's your tour going so far?

It's going all right. We've done 11 gigs, and one of them has been shit. Which is not a bad ratio.

Which one was shit?

The one last night in Düsseldorf was very un-enjoyable and deeply un-relaxing. But the rest have been great, I have to say.

During your solo sets, you're known for including a few Oasis hits. Have you considered bringing out one of your deep cuts, like "My Sister Lover," "It's Better People," "Angel Child," or "I've Got The Fever"?

Well, I wouldn't say I'm playing the Oasis hits. I would say I'm playing some Oasis songs. On this tour I'm playing five Oasis songs, and one of them was a single: "Don't Look Back In Anger." The other four would be for fans only, really. They're b-sides and album tracks.

I do "Angel Child" sometimes in acoustic gigs. But if I was to rehearse with my band the really obscure stuff, I could be fucking there for a year and a half. I mean, I wrote a lot of music in Oasis, and what I do now is not try to fucking sell the back catalogue. Do you know what I mean? For every five songs I play, one of them will be an Oasis song. And I think I'm being fair.

Some of the songs have to be reworked a little bit, because of different keys and because Liam [Gallagher] sang them originally. I try to get the balance right.

You previously mentioned that if you could change the title to Chasing Yesterday to something else, you would. Is that still the case, and if so, what would the new title be?

Well, titles become themselves. How many great album titles are there in the history of rock? I can think of about fucking six. The rest are all shite, aren't they? If I had been given another hour, I may have come up with something different, or better, or more acceptable to me. But as I've said a million times, you've got to go pretty far to find a worse title than (What's the Story) Morning Glory? And that's not what people remember about the album.

But yeah, Chasing Yesterday. In my defense, I was up until six o'clock in the morning. It was one in the afternoon. I had a hangover. It was the best I could do, I'm afraid. [Laughs]

Does the title suggest any personal nostalgia?

No, the title is actually from the lyrics of a song called "While The Song Remains The Same." And it is a song, which if I remember the lyrics correctly, is a person saying to another person, "Enough with this fucking nostalgia shit!" Let's just move forward into the future. And let's stop chasing yesterday.

But I thought, Chasing Yesterday? Yeah, that title sounds all right. But obviously not realizing I was in a moment of weakness because I was drinking tequila until six o'clock in the morning. The people hadn't heard the album yet, and would not go on to hear it for another two months, so they didn't know the context. And before I realized that, god damn it, it was too late.

What's your process for writing lyrics? Do you need to be in a certain frame of mind, or do you just do it?

Lyrics are a weird thing to me. I don't really take that much care of them, as long as they sound good and fit the mood of the song. I don't really get hung up on being a great lyricist. It's not for me to say.

I listen to the lyrics when I sing "Champagne Supernova," and I think to myself, what on earth is this song about? What is it about? And then I look out and see a 15-year-old guy with his shirt off, swinging his shirt around and singing like his life depended on it. And at the front row there's a 15-year-old girl in tears because she knows every word. And I'm thinking, "Well, who gives a fuck what it's about? Look at that!" Who gives a fuck about words? Michael Stipe. Really? Who fucking cares?

Who is a solo artist or group that most people wouldn't expect you to like?

Tears For Fears. I fucking like that band. I liked them in the '80s. Talking Heads. I fucking love Talking Heads. Lots of '80s stuff. Blondie. I fucking love Blondie. Put Talking Heads. That looks cooler than Tears For Fears.

Let's talk about artists who are really hot right now. What do you think of rapper Kendrick Lamar?

Did you say Kendrick Lamar? I've never heard that name in my life. That sounds like a character off of Seinfeld. I have no idea who you're talking about. Kendrick Lamar, is that a real name?

Actually, his real name is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth.

Jesus Christ.

I know he isn't in your genre, but I figured I'd ask you about him.

Well, I listened to hip-hop until about 1992, and maybe 1991, and then it's been quite uninteresting I think for the last 10 fucking years. It's been sounding all the fucking same, doesn't it?

Speaking of the Gallaghers and hip-hop, your brother recently tweeted this to Kanye West: "Check out Lee Mavers." That's pretty good advice, because you can't go wrong with his band, the La's.

The trouble with Liam is he listened to too much Lee Mavers.

Too much Lee Mavers? The La's only recorded one album.

Yes, but if you listen to it for more than a third of your life, it will ruin your health.

You're known in your interviews for mentioning musicians you love, but also for calling out the musicians you hate. Have you ever considered writing a diss track?

[Erupts in laughter]

Hear me out, though. One of your favorite bands, the Sex Pistols, wrote a diss track against the New York Dolls, called "New York." Seriously, would you consider writing one?

No, because if you're asking me about any particular band or person, I only have an opinion on their music. I have nothing against anyone as a person at all. If somebody says they don't like me, they aren't saying they don't like me. They don't like my music. And that's fucking great. You can't be a fan of everybody.

Let's talk about your favorite song on your album, "Riverman." We heard something we've never heard from a Noel Gallagher tune: a saxophone. What was the process behind that new songwriting decision?

My process to songwriting is always the same. I'll just be fucking about with a few chords and they won't mean a great deal until a line or melody pops into my head. When I wrote that song at home, the saxophone wasn't even in it until I went to the studio.

And there was a big gap at the end of the guitar solo. The gap was there for a while and we kept coming back to it, and I just suggested a saxophone one day. I know a saxophone player. He came down; we played him Wish You Were Here and said, "Do something like this." Fucking great, and he did it. It took about two hours, the whole thing. It was amazing.

For over 20 years as a professional musician, you've maintained a high confidence level. What's the secret to consistently believing in yourself and your vision?

I don't overthink anything that I do. I write from instinct, and I write lyrically and musically from the heart. I don't overthink it, is the key. A good song is a good song. I don't sit and think, "What if I did this, or what if I did that?" If I can play it alone in a room on an acoustic guitar and it sounds great, then I'm onto something.

I don't worry about being popular or generalizing within my lyrics. I don't mind being a bit vague. I don't go around thinking I'm the greatest thing since sliced cheese. I just go around and write these songs, and they're only fucking songs. But the key is to not overthink it too much.

Your records have a very bold, high fidelity sound. Have you considered going the opposite route, like making a low-fi garage record?

I'm going to take you back to the answer I gave you about the songwriting. I write from the heart and I write instinctively. I would never go out of my way to make a particular sounding album. Like, "Next time, let's not even have a drum kit. Let's fucking get some dustbin lids and bang on them and see what that sounds like."

I'm not into that shit; do you know what I mean? I don't write a song with the intention of going into the studio and fucking it up just to please a journalist. I'm writing this song to put it into the world, for it to stay in the world forever. Not just something that sounds good on the day it came out, and then four months later you can't listen to it because it's fucking ludicrous.

And on the day I start making moves like, "Yeah man, I think I'm gonna make a reggae album," I'll fucking quit. Or I'll hope somebody will tell me to quit.

What is your most personal song on the new record?

I wouldn't say any song is completely and utterly 100 percent personal. But there are lines in every single song I've ever written that are pertinent to me. I'm not going to point any of them out because that might be some young person's favorite line, and I want them to think it's about them, not me.

There was this great interview with Mojo you did a few years ago about your favorite classic movies, and it got me thinking to ask you about a couple of new films. What'd you think of Birdman and Whiplash?

The last new movie that I've seen was The Wolf of Wall Street. If you could sum up the Oasis story in a film, it would be The Wolf of Wall Street.

What about it related to the Oasis story?

The drugs. The money. The absurdity of it all. I'm not an avid cinemagoer, so what I do when I get on tour is catch up and watch them all. So I'll watch Birdman and Whiplash.

I've met the people of Whiplash. I meet all these people when they come to London. We all seem to hang out at the same places. There are lots of films I want to see. I still haven't seen Dallas Buyers Club.

Are you watching any TV as well?

I watch House of Cards. Don't tell me what happens in the new season; I have to leave it halfway through to come on tour, and my wife is under strict orders not to watch any of it or she gets a fucking divorce. No trial separation, no going to sleep back at her mum's. Divorce.

In terms of your career, it seems that you've achieved everything you set out to do and more. Do you still believe the words of your Oasis song "Fade Away," that "while we're living, the dreams we have as children fade away"?

I didn't have this dream as a child. When I was a child, I wanted to fucking be an astronaut. That's gone, now. Never gonna go to the moon, now. I dreamt of being a fireman and a football player when I was a child, but I didn't get any of those dreams. This dream that I'm living right now only came to be as a teenager, really.

It's a funny thing, when you have a goal in life and you achieve it and live it, and you carry on living it, it becomes a wonderful thing. It really does. It becomes beyond comparison to anything else. When people ask you about it, you're not sure how to define it because it's something that came so naturally to me. People say, "Do you have any advice for bands or young people?" I just think, "Well, no." I don't fucking know. I don't even know how I got here. I wrote some songs, and that's it.

You don't have advice for aspiring creative people?

If I have any advice, and it's not really advice, it's that the success part of it shouldn't be the goal. The goal is just being good. Don't worry about being successful. Not everybody can be successful, and 70 percent of the people who are successful are fucking idiots, anyway!