Noel Gallagher: Stop Chasing Yesterday
“As a young guy I wanted two things, to be in a group and to be a songwriter,” Noel Gallagher tells me. “I wouldn’t have left Oasis if I’d not written all those songs and knew I could still do it.”
I’m talking to the rock star and former Oasis member about Chasing Yesterday, the follow-up to his solo debut, the 2.5 million-selling Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. The new album picks up where the last one left off, while challenging listeners in new ways. And yes, he can still do it.
But Chasing Yesterday is also a huge artistic step forward, featuring an eclectic mix that sits comfortably within the Noel Gallagher template.
Among chord changes that will feel familiar to longtime fans, Gallagher finds room for experimental fare like “The Right Stuff”, a trippy ’90s-style tune with a late night, psychedelic vibe; a long, ambient intro to the excellent “While The Song Remains The Same”; a dash of garage-style T.Rex on “The Mexican,” a leftover from his aborted collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous; and wailing saxophone on album opener “Riverman.”
And then there’s any fans’ dream collaboration, “The Ballad Of The Mighty I,” featuring pal and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr doing his best Nile Rodgers.
When I last spoke with Gallagher, he was new to being a frontman.
“Talk to me in a few weeks and maybe I’ll tell you I’ve made a huge mistake,” Gallagher said then, in 2011, not long before his first solo album and tour launched.
But Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was a huge success, and the tour to support it quickly grew from filling theaters to packing arenas, and expanding to nearly 15 months in duration in the process.
“It started from very small beginnings and we built up to arenas and headlining festivals,” Gallagher says when I remind him of that conversation when we catch up to discuss Chasing Yesterday during a break in rehearsals for his upcoming tour. “And I like the band I put together. I’m more concerned about how shit these new songs sound in rehearsal at the minute.”
Gallagher is typically quick-witted, but longtime collaborator Dave Sardy, who co-producer of High Flying Birds, puts Gallagher’s work ethic in perspective.
“Noel always brings 170% to the table,” says Sardy, who also mixed Oasis’ Don’t Believe the Truth (2005) and co-produced their seventh and final album, Dig Out Your Soul (2008).
High Flying Birds is an instant classic by any standard, with highlights like “If I Had A Gun” and “The Death Of You And Me” sitting comfortably next to any of Gallagher’s best songs from his tenure with Oasis.
“He’s non-stop. You can’t imagine it,” Sardy says. “Guys will say, ‘Oh yeah, we had 45 songs to pick from.’ Noel really does, at all times, and usually new ones. And they’re at a high quality. Even if the song isn’t finished, or it’s kind of like an unfinished great idea, every demo will just sound hard to beat.”
He continues, “Noel’s songs are to him like messages in a bottle and, from my perspective, he’s not always ready to send a message out. Sometimes he has songs written, but most of the songs on [High Flying Birds] I watched him write and rewrite.”
Sardy says Gallagher’s process should be a model for any young songwriter.
“Noel knows how to have a career,” he says. “He doesn’t warm up. He writes music. When you’re going to do a take with him, he sits down and starts writing, practicing, and working on the song for an hour and a half before he’s ready to run a take. It sounds ludicrously straightforward and simple, but I can’t tell you how many artists I’ve met, or people I’ve worked with, who don’t get that that is what you are supposed to do with your time. Work out some songs!”
That work ethic certainly carried over on Chasing Yesterday.
In fact, Gallagher began writing the barn-burner “Lock All The Doors” during the earliest days of Oasis, parts of which appear on the Chemical Brothers song “Setting Sun,” which he wrote and sang on back in 1996.
“If ‘Lock All The Doors’ takes 23 years to finish off, the 23 years are worth the wait,” Gallagher tells me. “I just look at the song. And if it’s a good song, I don’t give a fuck what it sounds like. If someone says to me that it’s a bit similar to ‘Wonderwall,’ I’ll say, ‘Fucking great!’ I don’t care. As long as it’s a good song, I don’t care.
“By the same rule, when I played people ‘The Right Stuff,’ they were going, ‘Well, that’s a bit brave, isn’t it?’ I’d say, ‘Really, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ If it’s a good recording of a great tune, that’s all that matters to me. I wasn’t thinking, while employing the saxophone player, ‘Wow, this will really fuck with peoples’ brains.’ I wouldn’t do that just because I thought it would be cool. It worked with the song. That was it. That’s all that matters to me: the song.”
The results are fantastic, and light years away from anything Oasis ever released.
Of course Gallagher can’t help but pull out his trademark bravado to emphasize the point.
“I didn’t write these songs for this album, or for a specific project,” he says. “I just write all the time. I came to the studio with about 25 songs, and I never come to the studio without at least 20 finished songs. But really, the plan is simply to sell lots of fucking records and make millions of dollars.”
“Initially, you’ve got to make records for yourself and be confident your stuff has got you this far,” Gallagher confides about his process. “You have to trust your instincts, and not worry that if you put saxophone on a few songs that it’s going to freak everybody out.”
I ask Gallagher how he would rate Chasing Yesterday against his last solo album, or his earliest, beloved work with Oasis, for that matter.
“The last one wasn’t lacking anything, but the difference is the last one was like an expensive film while this is a brilliant TV series, and I’m told that TV is the place to be these days, so there you go.
“As for the Oasis albums, there’s more quality control with what I do now that I’m solo. Plus, with something like [Oasis’ debut] Definitely Maybe, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Now I’m older and not fucking high all the time. It’s different now. I work better when I’m in charge. I think my records prove that.”
And if there’s one thing that doesn’t keep Noel Gallagher up at night, it’s a fear of failure.
“People say to me, ‘Do you ever get nervous?’ and I say, ‘Not really’, because if a fucking album bombs do you know what I’ll do? I’ll make another one, and that one might be great. I’ve certainly made enough shit records – and great records, of course – to know that you just ride it out. You just keep going.”
While Gallagher plays most of the instruments on Chasing Yesterday, calling on all star friends like Johnny Marr isn’t a big deal, considering Gallagher’s A-list status.
“When you work with Johnny, it doesn’t become the Johnny Marr show,” Gallagher says of the former-Smith’s guitarist, who appears on the single “The Ballad Of The Mighty I.” “He’s very sympathetic to what the song is and what he is going to do on it. He’s not just going to play all over it. He played what was needed, and that was it.”
He also received able assistance from drummer Jeremy Stacey, and Gallagher’s longtime engineer and multi-instrumentalist (and Jeremy’s twin brother) Paul “Strangeboy” Stacey.
The Stacey brothers are clearly invaluable to him.
“He’s a great drummer,” Gallagher says of Jeremy. “He might be the most annoying individual I’ve ever met, though. He’s that way all the time… an ongoing rolling thunder of annoyance. But what separates Jeremy from the rest is that he’s a fucking unbelievable drummer. It’s really the only reason I put up with him.”
As for Paul Stacey, Gallagher, who is no slouch as a guitarist himself, holds the man who doubles as his engineer and lead guitarist in high regard.
“I’m aware of my limitations as a guitarist, and I’m lucky enough to have a guy who’s a fantastic engineer who is also a virtuoso on the guitar,” Gallagher says. “He can play anything. You can say you’ve got a song that sounds like David Bowie and want the guitar solo to sound like ‘Ashes to Ashes.’ I’ll play it and think I can’t do it. I hand it to him, and he’ll do it.”
Gallagher remembers how Stacey came up with the bass line for “The Ballad of The Mighty I.”
“We had the track, it was all going swimmingly, and then we listened back and started to pick holes in it. I was thinking the bass line wasn’t memorable enough. It wasn’t great enough. I changed it around, did this and that. He would never ask me if he could play it. He waits. I just handed it to him and asked. Of course he’d seen me try different styles and fail, and he did something that I hadn’t thought about.”
When I point out the breadth of the material on Chasing Yesterday, not just in the instrumentation, but the style and approach, Gallagher is quick to pick up on the point.
“When I’m recording a song like ‘The Right Stuff’ or ‘Riverman,’ or even some of the songs from the first album, it validates my decision to leave Oasis, because those songs would never have seen the light of day in Oasis. Maybe they would have been B-sides, but those songs made this album what it is, because when I started making this album it was very similar to the last one.
“Then I wrote ‘Riverman’ and ‘The Right Stuff’ and all of a sudden we were making a very different record and I had to re-evaluate everything. That’s probably my favorite thing about what I do: creating records. You’re out there. And now it’s all down to me. I love that.”
Regarding the current state of the music business, Gallagher is concerned.
“The bands that I grew up with and loved – The Jam, the Smiths – were interesting people who weren’t aimed at the mainstream. The mainstream came to them,” he says.
“It’s different now. The major labels have bought out all the indie labels, and now they just take who they find and aim them at the mainstream. I’d like to think that if (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? came out tomorrow it would be successful. It wouldn’t sell as many records though because the times are different.”
That said, it doesn’t affect the way he approached his own art.
“Now I’m in control of what happens and once I finish a record, and it goes on someone’s desk, it’s up to them then,” he says. “They’ve got to do right by me. In my mind, I’ve made a record that’s at least as good as my last one. Will it sell as many copies as the last one? Probably not because the record industry is dying on its ass, but it won’t be less successful to me.”
Clarifying the title of Chasing Yesterday, it’s origins came about in a a typically hilarious Gallagher fashion.
“I’d kind of put off coming up with a title,” Gallagher says. “Eventually, one of the girls in my office said, ‘We need a title for the album today at 3.’ It was ten past one, and I was hungover. So I quickly scanned through some of the lyrics on the record and that kinda jumped out. I wasn’t thinking that out of context ‘chasing yesterday’ would make me seem nostalgic. But then, it’s given me something to talk about in interviews.”
He continues, “If you take the title out of context, it does seem nostalgic, but it comes from a lyric. The line is, ‘Let’s stop chasing yesterday.’ That’s the opposite of being nostalgic.”
As for the future, Gallagher says he never stops writing and is constantly challenging himself to to better.
“’Supersonic’ was the first thing I ever recorded and ‘The Right Stuff’ was the last thing I recorded, and the journey in between has been fucking amazing.”
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles.
(Photos courtesy of Sour Mash Records)
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