Former Oasis guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher on his new album, not looking back, and his brother.
“I couldn’t have done it without David,” Noel Gallagher says, generously giving credit to his producer, dance and soundtrack legend David Holmes, for the remarkable left turn that his new album, Who Built The Moon?, marks for the former Oasis legend.
In fact, Gallagher is quick to repeatedly credit Holmes with his new direction, and shaking things up in the studio, when we catch up to discuss his third solo album. The LP features detours into dance, trip hop, ambient and neo-psychedelia, among other styles, while almost never dipping a toe into the tried and true styles of songwriting – catchy melodies wrapped around giant, anthemic choruses – that made the best songs from his Oasis days and his first two solo forays so engaging.
That’s not to say Who Built The Moon? isn’t chock full of great moments; it’s just that it’s mostly unfamiliar territory for Gallagher, not to mention his fans, many of whom have taken to social media to air their displeasure with the new direction. But as we catch up, it’s clear that Gallagher was ready for a challenge. With his estranged brother Liam Gallagher treading the boards behind his own new solo album that’s mostly an imitation of Oasis’ glory days, Gallagher seems certain that, although his album was several years in the making, the time was right to rewrite his own playbook.
“This is the first time I’ve ever put myself properly in the hands of a producer,” he explains, being sure to note that over the nine albums he’s made since 1994’s breakout smash Definitely Maybe, he’s always exerted control over the creative direction of his projects.
“You’ve got to trust your own instinct while taking direction from a guy who has a completely different vision of who you are as an artist and what you’re capable of. I didn’t know David before this project — I mean, I knew of him and I had all his records — but I didn’t know him as a guy. But something happened right at the beginning of the sessions, the minute that I heard the little flute riff he played me from this obscure record called ‘The Chewin’ Gum Kid’ by this equally obscure band called Ice Cream.
I thought it was fantastic. Irritating, but fantastic! He said, ‘Could you write a song around that?’ And so the minute I heard it, and he said that, I thought, ‘Well, this guy’s got fucking taste, for a start.’ And then I thought, ‘Yes, I can.’ So we built a song around it and I said to David, ‘This is the benchmark. This is going to be fucking great.’”
The result, the lead single from Who Built The Moon? “Holy Mountain,” is a foot-stomper, with liberal helpings of glam and psychedelia, that sounds unlike anything bearing Gallagher’s name that’s come before.
“There were times when I was like, ‘You know, I don’t really know what I’m doing.’ But David was the first person who ever said to me, ‘Fucking hell, you’re a great guitarist.’ That was inspirational, because my guitar has always been a tool to write songs with. But he was really excited by the sounds I was coming up with – even when I thought a lot of it was haphazard, with me just smashing away at the pedals – and so he’d stop me and go, ‘Stop! That’s the sound!’ You know, I still had to come up with the songs in the end, but it gave me a lot of confidence, both in the moment and going into the next project, whatever that will be. David taught me that I can do it. I can write in the studio.”
To be sure, it was a foreign process for Gallagher, who had always written 15-20 songs over the course of a year or so, then fine tuned them, before even stepping foot into the recording studio, always with a clear idea of where he was going and what he was setting out to accomplish. That didn’t work for Holmes, whose approach is, as Gallagher tells it, more immediate. In fact, at first Holmes was reluctant to work with Gallagher.
“I had written and demoed Chasing Yesterday and I played David those songs, a few years ago,” Gallagher says of his 2015 album, “But he said, ‘This is done. Call me when you want to start from scratch.’”
But in the midst of wrapping up the sessions for Chasing Yesterday, Gallagher set out for Holmes’ studio in Belfast during breaks, and found himself on shaky ground.
A typical challenge came the day Kanye West released “Fade.” Gallagher showed up at the studio, excited by what he’d heard. Why not create a backing track with the idea that it would be created for Kanye to rap over once it was complete, Gallagher tells me was what Holmes tasked him with.
The resulting “Fort Knox” leads off Who Built The Moon?, and sets the mood for the entire “sonic adventure,” as Gallagher calls it, that’s to come.
“The whole time we were working on it I kept saying, ‘There’s no way Kanye is getting his hands on this’,” Gallagher says with a laugh.
Still, it was a fresh approach and Gallagher says he was more than game.
“It’s an instinctive thing,” he begins. “I mean, I got to the end of the Chasing Yesterday tour and album that I’d written, recorded, produced, performed, marketed, fucking blah blah blah blah blah. I got back home from that experience and, you know, you have a very vivid sense of who you are and what you’ve done in a moment like that. And there was a conscious thing of, ‘Well, you cannot fucking take that any further. There’s nothing more to do with that sound.’ Even though on that album ‘The Ballad Of The Mighty I’ and ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Riverman’ are far removed from Oasis, it was a fucking joke to think I would just go in the studio and do, essentially, the same thing again. It was like, ‘I cannot fucking do this anymore,’ do you know what I mean? And so I was prepared to fail, given that feeling. So when we were working on ‘Fort Knox’ David asked, ‘Are you going to put this on the album?’ And I went, ‘Put it on the album? This is the fucking opening track.’ And he was like, ‘Wow, fucking nice one. Well done.’ But my feeling was that if I was going to go there, then go there.
Gallagher says he then purposely chose “Fort Knox” and some of the other most “far out” moments on the album for the teaser, which introduced Who Built The Moon? to the general public.
While some old line fans were excited that Gallagher was plowing new terrain, many were aghast. Gallagher says he wasn’t remotely troubled by the negative response.
“Did I expect it? No. Was I surprised? I suppose not.”
Then, with a reference to the laddish fanbase that his brother has cultivated carefully over the past year, he let’s out a dismissive scoff.
“Fucking parka monkeys.”
It’s typical of Gallagher to dismiss his brother’s creative output, but it’s also borne from the years of frustration he experienced while in Oasis. In our previous conversations, I remind him, he expressed disappointment with the limitations that situation imposed on him as an artist, even while lauding the band’s legacy.
“Well, I don’t think of myself as an ‘artist’,” he says, cutting me off.
But he admits to feeling creatively restrained in Oasis. Of course he loved it, and it was indeed a great vehicle for his songwriting, making him in so many ways who he is today, but he also freely admits he could “never, ever have had a sample of a pennywhistle as the basis of a track.”
When I tell him of the self-imposed creative limitations his brother outlined for me when I spoke to him about the making of his own album – no horns or, especially, saxophones, for example – he laughs.
“Well, he has got a saxophone on the record,” Gallagher says flatly.
Still, Gallagher is proud of what he accomplished in his former band, even while repeatedly making it clear that there are absolutely no circumstances under which he’d reunite Oasis. And though, like his friend Paul Weller, he isn’t one to spend time reliving old glories, there are one or two projects that, if he could find the time, he might revisit.
“Maybe one day, the two things that are left in the vaults, so to speak, are the Death In Vegas record that Oasis made, and the Amorphous Androgynous record I made, back when I was starting out solo,” he says, referring to the aborted Oasis album that led to 2005’s comeback Don’t Believe the Truth and his psychedelic album made with the U.K. studio duo Amorphous Androgynous, known for their remixes and re-imaginings, that he unceremoniously pulled the plug on after previously announcing it as his second solo release in 2011.
“Maybe one day I’ll sit and listen to them, like I did with the Be Here Now outtakes, and it might sound different to me. But as I’m sitting here now, and I’m saying it to you, I’m thinking, ‘No. I’ve got too much material.’ That would waste a fucking year of my life. I’ve got so many fucking songs now. I’ve got albums worth of material to record, because when I met David Holmes I had at least one – or maybe one and a half – written. So now I’ve got about three albums worth of material ready to go, because I write everyday. And if I make my next record with David, that’s going to be songs I don’t even know what they fucking are yet, and the songs I’ve written will have to wait even longer, you know what I mean? So working in the studio, going and revisiting old material? No, it’s not really even a thought I would ever entertain.”
As we wrap up I ask Gallagher about his forthcoming massive tour, which starts in the U.S. in February.
“Yes, it will include a woman in a cape playing the scissors,” he says with a laugh, referring to Charlotte Courbe, the French singer who appears on “It’s a Beautiful World,” and who recently played the scissors – yes, the scissors – during an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland.
“I’m not sure, I genuinely haven’t thought about it enough yet,” he admits when pressed about the setlist his upcoming live shows might feature, though he admits to wanting to play his new album – or at least the first side – in its entirety. “When I was on the flight over here to promote the album I was working on the setlist and I thought that it would be a good idea, actually. My band have been saying, ‘What songs are we going to be doing off the album?’ I looked at the list and I said, ‘Fucking all of them!’ So we’re now toying with the idea of doing it in the middle of the set, where we just play it, or do it in the opening of the set, where we’d do it in order.
“So I don’t know, but there’s not going to be as many Oasis songs, that’s for sure. And the ones I do play are going to be some of the more obscure ones. But I think that’ll keep it interesting for me and for the fans who come to the shows.”