Twenty years after Oasis’s biggest hits, Noel Gallagher isn’t looking back—in anger or otherwise.
It’s hard to overstate Noel Gallagher’s importance in British rock and pop. As the lead guitarist and primary songwriter for Oasis—the 80-million-album-selling Britpop group fronted by his younger brother, Liam—Gallagher penned such epic hits as “Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” and “Champagne Supernova.”
But since the group’s 1990s inception, Gallagher’s musicianship has often been overshadowed by his outsized persona. Tabloids chronicled the Gallagher brothers’ debaucheries, their rivalry with fellow Britpop band Blur, and the countless brawls that culminated in Oasis’s 2009 breakup.
Noel Gallagher, now 47, endured a rough childhood in a Manchester suburb. As a teen he developed a tendency for hooliganism and a love of rock ’n’ roll. In the late ’80s he auditioned as the vocalist for the local band Inspiral Carpets, whose singer had quit. He didn’t make the cut but signed on as their roadie. Then, after returning from a 1991 tour, he joined his brother’s new band, which would be called Oasis, with the agreement that he would write all the songs.
The band’s debut, Definitely Maybe, went straight to No. 1 on the U.K. charts, the fastest-selling debut album in British history. Just as quickly the Gallagher brothers developed their reputation as enfants terribles, fighting throughout the tour in support of the album. Their sophomore release, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, fared even better, easily achieving multi-platinum status around the world as the spats continued.
After Oasis broke up, Liam Gallagher regrouped with members of the band to form Beady Eye, since disbanded, while Noel spent a couple years out of the limelight. The elder brother reemerged as a solo artist in 2011, releasing a self-titled album with his High Flying Birds, which topped the U.K. charts. The High Flying Birds’ second album, Chasing Yesterday—Gallagher’s first effort as a producer—finds the musician in top form, both in terms of song craft and guitar playing. From the moody Dorian vibe of “Riverman” to the unexpected tonal shifts of “Ballad of the Mighty I,” it’s an instantly pleasurable listen.
Speaking via telephone from his London home, Gallagher recently held forth on the state of modern music, his methodology, and his sexy 1960 ES-355.
You’ve expressed misgivings about being a solo artist. How’s it been so far?
I expressed that? Well, it might have been a few years ago, and I’m over it. If you’ve got good songs, and if you’ve made good records, then nothing else matters. A wise man said, “As long as your shit is good, you don’t matter.” I don’t think people are coming to see me—there’s not much to see here. They’re coming to hear my songs.
What makes your shit good?
I don’t know—I find it very difficult to describe. But there must be something there ’cause there’s lots of girls who love my songs.
You’re known to reference other artists’ songs in your work, for example the Stevie Wonder song “Uptight” on the Oasis song “Step Out.” Is this intentional?
I’m a product of my record collection. I don’t get sued, so I don’t really steal melodies—it’s not intentional. I don’t know, and I don’t care how it happens. There are only so many chords—what are you going to do, copyright them? It’s impossible not to step on someone’s toes. In the case of “Step Out,” it was obvious that the chorus sounded like “Uptight,” so we were advised to include Stevie Wonder on the credits to avoid causing problems—unlike “Blurred Lines” [the song for which Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were successfully sued by the Marvin Gaye estate].
What do you think about that verdict?
I listened to both songs and don’t see what all the fuss is about, but I guess you can’t argue with a judge.
What are the records in your collection that have meant the most to you as a songwriter and guitarist?
The ones I keep returning to are The Wall and Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles—you may have heard of them. Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. The Best of the Who. Great music by great bands that have withstood the test of time.
Is all modern music rubbish?
I tend not to like modern music—we’ve already lived through the golden era. And I think “modern rock” is a fucking awful, horrible term. I’m not even sure what it means, but if I knew what kind of music it was, I’m sure it would be horrible too. I don’t think any great new bands have emerged in the last 10 years—none that have staying power and who are bands you can believe in.
So you don’t like anything new?
I do in fact like dance music, and I think that some great songs have been written in the last 10 years, and probably in the last 10 months, or even the last 10 days.
Like Alt-J’s “Left Hand Free,” “Zombie” by Jamie T. Great stuff.
Do you have any reflections on Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory having turned 20? Any nostalgia for the ’90s?
I have nostalgia for my waistline. When I play the old songs live, I don’t play them for me, but for my fans. I haven’t really listened to the [anniversary] reissues because I was busy working on this record, but given that Morning Glory took only 12 days in the studio, given the chance I would probably re-record most everything.
How has your musicianship evolved since then?
Well it certainly has evolved, but I couldn’t tell you how. You can surely see it in a track like “Riverman.” I couldn’t have pulled that off back then. [Phone rings in the background.] Excuse me for a moment. [Returns.] That was Russell Brand, would you believe?
Do you tend to write differently, or steer away from certain song types, now that you’re not writing for a belter like your brother Liam?
No. A good song is a good song is a good song, and it works for me as long as I can play it on the guitar. I might not be a belter, but if I go into the studio having written 12 great stadium-rock songs, I’ll record them all. Stylistically it doesn’t matter.
What’s it like for you to write a song?
It varies, but it all tends to start with me and my guitar when the inspiration strikes. I might write 15 great ideas in three weeks, knowing that only two or three of them will end up on a record. I really put quality above quantity, and after all these years, I still love writing songs.
Noel Gallagher in the studio with Johnny Marr, one of his heroes. The guitarists collaborate on the latest High Flying Birds release. Photo by Lawrence Watson
How did you come to produce yourself on Chasing Yesterday?
It was kind of accidental. When I thought I had finished the demos, I took them to one producer, who said they needed more work. Then when I took them to another producer, and he said that the album was already finished. So I didn’t really have a chance to second-guess myself. I could have gone and tinkered with the album, but I bravely left it alone.
It sounds like a lot of thought went into the arrangements, with details like the occasional string section, harmonized female vocals, and even a bass clarinet.
Yeah. I usually record a demo of a song, just with me playing acoustic, and then I’ll listen to it over and over until I follow my instincts and fill in all the details. Listening back, I think, “What if we add a girl here?” or “The thing this needs is strings.” Nothing is ever off the table.
Who plays the great guitar solo on “Riverman”?
That’s Paul Stacey, who also plays the solos on “The Girl with X-Ray Eyes” and “The Right Stuff.” If I can’t quite play the solo I want, I’ll give it to Paul, and he’ll nail it in one live take. Paul is fucking amazing.
You used to favor Marshall stacks, but now you use lower-powered amps. When and why did this shift happen?
For the last 10 years I’ve used Custom Hiwatt heads, and in the studio for this record I used a great blackface Fender Deluxe. At home I play a [Fender] Blues Junior. Once you hit 35, you just can’t use a Marshall stack anymore. It’s against the law—if you play one, then you’re a fucking asshole. It’s just the same when it comes to lifestyle. When you’re in your twenties, you have the power, drive, ambition, and arrogance to change the world—a lot of unrealistic shit going on. Then you get older. I loved all the sex and drugs and rock and roll when I was younger, but if at 47 you’re still living the same as when you were 27, then you’re a fucking asshole.
Talk about your affinity for the Gibson ES-355.
I’ve got two or three, and some ES-345s, too. My 1960 ES-355 is the greatest guitar I’ve ever played. It can do anything, and it’s become a part of me. [Ex-Smiths guitarist] Johnny Marr no less picked it up in the studio, then looked like a startled wizard because of how great the guitar is. I got the 355 a while back for 4,000 pounds, and it’s the best 4,000 pounds I’ve ever spent. I’ve taken the guitar on four or five world tours and beat the living daylights out of it, but it still sounds and plays incredible. I’m in awe of the guitar. I put it second to my wife only because I can have sex with her. If I could have sex with that guitar, I’m not sure which I’d choose.
What was it like to work with Marr, one of your personal heroes, on “Ballad of the Mighty I”?
It was great—he’s a genius. He didn’t do any preparatory work before he came to the studio, didn’t want to hear the backing track in advance, or even anything about the song at all. He just came in and without any direction played immediately the right thing—what you hear on the record, beautiful stuff that I myself couldn’t have pulled off.
What other guitars do you play on the record?
I’ve got two Nash guitars that might be the best Fender-style guitars I’ve ever played. One, a cream 1963 Strat, is all over the record, and the other, a ’72 Deluxe Tele, delivers an amazing sound. Whoever built these guitars is brilliant.
What about acoustics?
I played the same Gibson J-150 I’ve had for about 20 years and a newer Martin D-28, a fucking brilliant, beautiful guitar with a Baggs pickup system. I bought the Martin brand-new just before my first solo world tour. When it arrived it sounded like a great guitar, but now, even though it’s just four years old, it’s completely broken in and sounds incredible. I haven’t been precious with it, and when people see it, they assume it’s an old guitar. There’s a tip for the youngsters: You have to play your guitar every night instead of just leaving it in the case. Otherwise, what’s it for?
What’s with the electric washboard mentioned in the album credits?
It’s not true—just a joke to fuck with the British press, who are assholes with their ridiculous questions about what you ate for lunch and where you hang out.
Yeah! I love it. Back when it started, I was maybe the only person watching it in England. I love all the characters and the secondary characters. It’s an amazing piece of televisual art. But I’m glad it bowed out when it did. All TV things seem to go on too long these days. I’ve got all of the episodes at home, and if I have 30 minutes with nothing to do, I pull one out. Even though I know all the jokes and I know what’s coming, they still make me laugh after 25 years.
Noel Gallagher plays a new song, “Ballad of the Mighty I,” and is interviewed on BBC’s The Graham Norton Show.