Interview: Noel Gallagher talks guitars, gear and High Flying Birds
Noel Gallagher says he "grossly underestimated" his abilities as a solo performer. © Rune Hellestad/Corbis
His songs and performances are filled with grace and easy charm – a deceptively casual style that never calls attention to craft. Turns out, the Noel Gallagher one encounters during an interview is very much like the Noel Gallagher on record.
Never once during our conversation - taking place just two hours before he's to appear on stage in Philadelphia with his new band High Flying Birds - does it appear as though the singer-songwriter and guitarist is on auto-script, tossing out pre-planned, well-rehearsed answers. By turns direct, fresh, surprising (even to him, sometimes) and remarkably funny, Gallagher is, as ever, the real deal.
Clearly in a good mood, he admits that he's having a great time on this, his maiden tour as a solo artist. "I'm really enjoying it," he says. "I'm looking forward to every show. I thought that I would be lost in the middle of the stage, but I'm liking it. I can see a long open road in front of me. It turns out that I've grossly underestimated myself."
So far, his solo shows have met with the same glowing enthusiasm as his new album, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, and considering that the disc is one of 2011's best releases - a 10-song, first-listen winner that matches the highest highs of Oasis' Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory? - that's saying something. Tracks like If I Had A Gun and (I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine already play like classics, and the best kind of classics, too: alive, open-hearted, intelligent and endlessly transfixing.
Much has been made of Noel's split from Oasis and his fractured relationship with brother Liam (who now fronts the band Beady Eye) - too much, in fact - so in the following interview, MusicRadar decided to shift the focus to the things that matter most: musicianship, songwriting, production, guitars and gear.
There's something very distinctive about your guitar playing. All you have to do is strum the opening chords to If I Had A Gun or Wonderwall, and we know it's you.
"Really? Huh… Well, that's interesting! [laughs] To be honest, I don't consider myself a guitarist, so I don't sit around and think about the whole thing too much. I only try to think about the songs, you know? I've got my own style on the guitar, sure, and I play rhythm in a certain way, and I use certain inflections. People have said that to me, and I understand it. But I don't have any magic answers – I just do what I do.
"I tend not to play a lot of major chords. I think I drop the major notes and play fifths, you know what I mean? Again, it's nothing I spend a lot of time on. I try to play like myself, and I think I do. But I don't dwell on the whole aspect of guitar technique and stuff. I'm a songwriter."
You say you don't consider yourself a guitarist, but to many people you're more than that – you're a "guitar hero."
"Well, you know what? In Oasis, I was doing a completely different thing than what I'm doing now. I was playing lead guitar. And…I do miss that. I miss being at the end of the stage and just turning up my fucking amp as loud as possible and kissin' the sky. I do miss that, I have to say.
"What I'm doing now, yeah, it's different, so I have to rein in my natural urges to go for it. I'm part of the rhythm section now, so I've got to hold things down. I can't just go off on the guitar. But I'm enjoying that, really. I've got to say, I'm a much better rhythm guitarist than a lead guitarist."
The overall sound of the new album is very lush and full. There's a lot of space between the instruments, whereas on Oasis albums the electric guitars sometimes collided a bit.
"That's because there's only one guitarist on this record. In Oasis, everybody played the fucking guitar, you know? Even the bass player and the singer played the fucking guitar – never mind me and Gem. But you know, you've got to give everybody a crack at the whip; otherwise, what's the point of being in a band?
"It was kind of nice to do it this way. I did the parts and let them breathe, and after that, I was done. Making a record with one guitarist is a vastly different beast than what I'm used to. This time it was one guitarist who also plays the bass, as opposed to three guitarists and a bassist who plays the guitar. Yeah, the songs can breath now – and they're different songs, anyway. It's been a very enjoyable experience."
When you knew you were going to do a record on your own – or records, because you have a second one coming –
Was it a bit of a relief to know that you could do what you wanted?
"Well, I've always done demos on my own, even from the early days, so that's not changed. I didn't really enter the studio with any great trepidation. I knew I could do it. No, I was really, really, really looking forward to this.
"The way that I've always worked…or the way that I've always liked to work, and I finally got to do it myself, was to take it one song at a time. I didn't think about an album as such. I had so much material, and it wasn't until I was two weeks into it that I decided I was going to make two records. It was great to do it this way.
"Producers like to record all the drums first, then they do the bass, then all the guitars, so you're constantly moving from one song to another. I fucking hate that! Can't stand it. I'd rather just do a song, finish it and go on to another. That way, you're constantly moving forward every day, and you know where you are, and you don't have to write those stupid fucking charts that they have in studios where you have to check off 'drums' and 'bass' – I hate all of that shit.
"I took it one song at a time, one day at a time. Each song would take two days, so every other day we were starting another one. That kept it moving quite nicely."
Gallagher calls his Gibson ES-355 "the basis for everything." © Rune Hellestad/Corbis
When it came to guitars and gear, did you make certain choices to differentiate this album from Oasis records?
"Hmm…[long pause] Well, it is a new sound…but only from taking things away. I didn't invent anything. I just took elements…and the excesses of Oasis, like the extra guitars and the fucking…I just took 'em away. I didn't add anything; I just left the space. The new sound is me singing all the songs and there's one less guitarist.
"As far as amps and stuff, what did I use?... I used a Hiwatt Custom 100, a Blackface Fender '64 Deluxe, a 1980's Vox AC30… I'm not sure I've used any of these on Oasis records before… I can't remember!"
Let's talk about your songwriting. With a song like If I Had A Gun, how long do you slave away at it until you go, "OK, it's good enough to take to the studio"?
"That one pretty much came off the bat straight away. The rewriting of that was just a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. I pretty much got that one first off. It was an easy one, I've got to say.
"Now, The Death Of You And Me, that one took a long time to write. There were months and months of going back to it, rewriting words and changing little one-liners as they came to me: 'Oh, fuck, that's it!' – you know? It was quite a journey for me, but because of that, it's the one I might be the proudest of. But with If I Had A Gun, it's instant when you hear it because it was instant when I wrote it."
What goes through your head, though, when one song comes quickly and the other is a struggle? Do you tend to think that one might be better for whatever reason?
"Two things can happen: With an easy one, you tend to think, Oh, it can't be that good – it was much too easy. There's no way it can be good. And then on the other side of that, with the song that you have to rewrite and go over, you have to really believe in it. I know I have to reassure myself that a song is good, because it's just too easy to give up and say, 'Fuck it. I'll just write something else.'
"I really stuck it out with The Death Of You And Me. But you have to trust your instincts, your gut reactions. 'Do I like it? Yes. Is it worth the time and effort? Yes.' You have to persevere.
"If I Had A Gun…I knew it was one of the best songs I've ever written. By that yardstick alone, I knew it was good, because I've written some pretty good songs. Every time I played it for myself, I kept getting the same feeling. I thought, Yes! This is going to be a good one. I just knew it. I instantly knew the arrangement, the words, everything. It was just there, and it was special."
Is it too early to talk about the next record, the one you recorded with Amorphous Androgynous?
"Yeah, we can talk about it. I can give you some facts, but I don't want to say too much because there won't be anything to talk about when it comes out. There's 13 tracks on it, three of which are the singles from this album. But they're vastly different versions – they've been remixed and psychedelic-cized.
"There's 10 original songs on it. It's not an electronic record; it's a psychedelic rock record. Ironically, as there's not a lot of guitars on the current record, there's possibly too many on the next. There's a lot of guitars, with various guitar players doing a myriad of styles. Some of it's heavy jazz."
Would you tour with a different band for that record?
"I…think…so. The guys I'm touring with now, they might have other things to do after this is done. I don't know. That's the answer: I don't know. But it would be nice to keep things moving and fluid…fresh."
You have something of a trademark in that you're a big fan of elongated outro sounds. Be it cello, feedback, a keyboard –
"Oh, yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. I don't know why I do it. It's just one of my things, isn't it? I kind of like it. It's just ear candy."
Your Beatles influences have been talked about extensively, but there's a few nods to other bands on this record.
"Oh, a lot!"
In Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks, there's a bit of a Kinks vibe, and in Stranded On The Wrong Beach, one definitely hears T. Rex.
"Yeah, sure. When I'm making a record, I've always been of the notion that if a song sounds like T. Rex, well, fuck it, let's make it sound more like T. Rex! Do you know what I mean?
"I know there's bands that might write something that sounds like The Smiths, and they'll go, 'Oh, it sounds like The Smiths, we've got to make it sound not like The Smiths.' And I just go, 'Fuck it – let's make it sound like The Beatles. [laughs] If I'm writing a song and I say to myself, 'Oh, hey, it sounds like The Kinks,' then I'm going to turn it into a Kinks track."
There's a choir on a couple of the new songs. Were you referencing Phil Spector and his work on All Things Must Pass?
"I was thinking more spaghetti western…"
Or perhaps The Rolling Stones and You Can't Always Get What You Want?
"Oh, I fucking hate that one! Not the song, I do like the song, but that bit in the beginning – [sings] 'I saw her today…' – I always switch that part right off. No, I don't know…I just heard a choir and I found a choir. I didn't really give these people a brief. I'd rather have them do what they feel, and then we'll take it from there.
"When I'm working with other musicians, whether they're choirs or string sections or the guys in the band, I find that the first thing they say to me is, 'What do you want?' And I'll say, 'Never mind that. I'll know what I want when you play it. You play it the way you see it.' That's how I work with people.
"The choir master would ask me how lavish he could get, and I told him, 'Listen to the song, and then just play it as you fucking see it.' So he'd go up and do his thing, and I'd go, 'That bit's great, don't like that bit.' That way, I can get a bit of myself in there, but he'll come up with things I'd never think of, and I'd go, 'Oh, wow! Fucking love that bit.'"
Gallagher plays his 'number two' live guitar, a late '60s Gibson ES-345 (guitarist David McDonnell is pictured, right). © Rune Hellestad/Corbis
When you recorded the new album, how did you decide which guitars to use on which tracks?
"I kind of trusted my engineer, Paul Stacey, and my co-producer, Dave Sardy. Usually, I just pick my 1960's Gibson 355 – that's the basis for everything. I've got so many guitars, and people just throw things at me. It depends. If I've got a definite idea for something and I cannot be swayed, then that's the end of it.
"I've found out that the more stuff you have, the more confusing it can get. Just bring three or four guitars and three or four amps, and that's the end of it. If you need something to sound like a '60s Vox and you haven't got one, just work on it. You'll get there.
"I'm pretty lucky that Paul has got an incredible ear for guitar sounds, and so does Dave. Paul's an amazing guitarist, as well. He plays the guitar solo at the end of Stop The Clocks, the mad fucking Jeff Beck stuff.
How come he played it and not you?
"'Cause I can't play like that! [laughs] Fucking hell, I can barely play like Peter Green, let alone fucking Jeff Beck."
So the 355 is the basis of your sound right now? You have been playing a Gibson 345 on tour…
"Yeah, the guitars I bring on tour are either 355s or 345s. Those are what I play."
In a promo clip for the album, you're playing an SG.
"That's a new SG. I bought it in Japan. I used it on Record Machine, the part where we had to fill out the power chords – we were going for a Who thing, like in Won't Get Fooled Again. Someone said, 'Try an SG,' and I just happened to have one."
What about some of the other guitars you've used throughout the years? There's the Trini Lopez, the Sheraton…
"I haven't used the Trini Lopez on a track since Don't Believe The Truth, and the Sheraton I haven't used since Morning Glory, really."
How about any of your Les Pauls?
"Yeah, I used a Les Paul on the guitar solo for Record Machine, and I also played it on Stranded On The Wrong Beach."
Gallagher kisses the sky in 2005. © Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis
What about your 1960s Telecasters?
"Oh, you must mean the Esquire. I played it on Dream On, The Death Of You And Me, Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks and…Broken Arrow, as well, I think."
Acoustic-wise, you've been known to play an Epiphone EJ-200 and a Gibson J-200, but you're using a Martin on stage now, right?
"That's right. It's a D-28, and I bought it brand-new in a shop, just straight off the peg. It's fucking incredible. It's got a new Baggs pickup system in it, which is pretty amazing.
"I didn't use it on the record, though. I used another Martin – it belongs to one of the guys in the studio. I like to use other people's guitars sometimes. So there was this Martin hanging up, so I took it down, started it strumming it, miked it up, and it felt very natural. I used it on all the record. I've since tried to buy the fucking guitar, but the bastard won't sell it to me – probably 'cause he knows it's been on the record now."
Besides the Hiwatt, the Fender and the Vox, were there any other amps you used on High Flying Birds?
"I used a little amp called a Plexi. It's kind of a copy of a Marshall, a JTM45 or something. I think that was it. I must've used a Marshall on something, though. Fuck me, you can't make a record without a Marshall!"
Transferring the sound of the album to the stage, what kind of process did you go through?
"I don't get into the science of live sound, you know what I mean? There's guitarists who try desperately to re-create the sound of the record live, and I just think, What the fuck are you wasting your time for? These people don't give a shit about that. They just wanna rock! They're not going to go, [in a snobby voice] 'Oh, the tune wasn't as great as it was on the record.' They don't give a fuck.
"No, I just use my little Fender Blues Junior and my Hiwatt Custom 100. They're great. That's what I've used live for the last five or six years."
Are you still using the THD Hot Plates?
"Yes! I don't go anywhere without them. At the moment, I'm trying to get one fitted into my cat – noisy little fucker."
How about your pedalboard – is it more minimal than in past years?
"I haven't got a wah in it anymore. I've got one of those old Echodrive pedals, which is turned on all the time to give the amps a bit of a boost. I've got a few Boss digital delays and a tremolo pedal. But since I'm not playing lead, I haven't got many things with me.
"I did buy a buy a new pedal that I like a lot: it's a Strymon TimeLine delay, and it's fucking amazing. The thing's got, like, 200 presets, and some of them sound exactly like Pink Floyd. They're hard to come by, though. They made like 50 of them or something, and I think there's a six-month waiting list to get one. I've got two!"
You don't go in for amp modeling software, right?
"God, no! No, no, no. I don't even know how to work a four-track. I don't know shit about any of that."
On a different technological note, however, you have said you've gotten into iTunes recently.
"Yes, and I've spent a fucking fortune."
Of course, with iTunes people can sequence albums any way they choose.
"Yeah. That's bullshit. My record is perfect. I don't need no spotty youth fucking with that."
But what would you say to somebody who rearranges High Flying Birds?
"Buy the album or fuck off! Somebody changes my record, I'm gonna fuck with their shit. I'll go to their house and change the numbers on their front door so they don't get any fucking mail. And then I'll steal their pets. Then I'll kidnap their fucking children – see how they like it. Little fuckers."