At this point in Noel Gallagher‘s career — with nine albums to his credit as Oasis‘ founding songwriter and guitarist and High Flying Birds mastermind — one would be forgiven for expecting more of the same from here on out. That’s more of the same impeccable uplifting guitar-based songwriting that’s been the foundation of his career and has earned him a position as a British rock icon (thanks in part to his braggadocious attitude, contentious familial relationships and outspoken nature), but more of the same nevertheless.
Instead, however, Gallagher has prepared arguably his most compositionally interesting and experimental album to date, with 11 tracks of psychedelic pop rock on Who Built the Moon?, which was released Friday and marks Gallagher’s most successfully experimental album to date.
Who Built the Moon? owes much to its producer, David Holmes, who pushed Gallagher to take a new approach to his songwriting. Gallagher had been a fan of Holmes’ work as a solo musician and in film scoring previously and, after meeting backstage at a festival with Primal Scream, he approached the producer in 2014 with the batch of songs that would wind up making up his sophomore album under the Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds title, Chasing Yesterday. But Holmes turned down the project, saying he’d feel like a fraud working on already finished material where — more or less — all that was left was to press record. But, he told Gallagher, if he wanted to work on something new, he was game, instructing the singer-songwriter to come in without any material and they’d start from scratch.
Those sessions birthed Who Built the Moon? over the course of about three years, where the two would get together when Gallagher wasn’t touring and trade ideas back and forth, building up and deconstructing songs based around riffs and pulling vibes from often obscure musical influences. The two would swap out different elements to build what became a heavy collection of maximalist psychedelic pop-rock that now exists as a true evolution of Gallagher’s musical impulses without feeling uncharacteristic, retaining a tone of the songwriter’s dreamy optimism throughout.
“It was a fascinating way to work because you never quite knew what the f— was going on,” Gallagher tells Billboard. “You’d write half a song, then a year later come back to it and you’d say, ‘What’s going on here?’ ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I did a thing on this and I kind of shifted…’ ‘Amazing.’ Because I come from the organic school of songwriting, which is to sit, play and work it out. His idea was more like pop art: ‘Let’s try this. Let’s try that. That’s not working.’ It was a very interesting way to work.”
Billboard spoke with Gallagher about those sessions recording Who Built the Moon?, his Oasis classic “Don’t Look Back in Anger” becoming an anthem of healing for his hometown of Manchester, the public conflicts that have followed his career and more. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Three years is a long time to work on an album. I know it wasn’t continuous, but what was yours and David’s working relationship like during that time?
When I think about it the actual amount of time spent in the studio — the two of us together — wasn’t a great deal of time at all because the initial spark of the idea, which might have been like a minute’s worth of music, then he’d go back off to Belfast to do whatever he was doing and I was on tour. Kicking it around, playing with it, writing, and then we’d come back to the studio and he’d say, “What have you done?” And I’d say, “Well, I’ve done this.” He’d say, “I like that bit… Not sure about that bit.” And then just build up from there.
As a solo artist and throughout your career, does this feel like one of the more collaborative experiences you’ve had?
It’s the only time I’ve ever done it like this. Ever. I mean, I’ve been in situations where producers will say, “Try it in a different key.” But really, once the song is written and you’ve [worked] with it for a year, it’s not gonna change that much. There won’t be no radical, like, “Let’s take the verse of that song and the verse of that song and sync it together and see what happens.” There’s none of that. It might be, “Try it faster or try it slower or try it in a different vibe on drums,” but no really radical ideas. The only reason that it works is because if I’ve written a song over a year and become attached to it, then I know what I want it to sound like. Whereas, if it’s something coming out of nothing, it’s usually David’s ideas that are kind of driving it. I’m kind of writing, he’s kind of pushing it in the direction, so I’m not attached to any music because it’s happening in front of you.
Is this something that you want to go for again?
There’s a decision to make. It’s kind of like, “It’s so f—ing good, do we try and do it again?” I was thinking about it the other night. We haven’t spoke about it. We’ve got a lot of stuff left over that, with a bit more work, could become great songs. But I was thinking about this the other night, thinking, Well, the fact that it is so good justifies going in and doing another one. Whether we beat it or not is irrelevant. Just got to give it a go and see what happens. So it’s kind of like — I think the desire is there. Just a case of timing now and what do we do and how do we do it? That kind of thing. Me, personally, I would find it better the second time because now I know how he works and the language that he uses and he’ll know what I’m capable of and I know what he’s capable of. So it’d probably be, in theory, it could be better.
You mentioned before that Kanye West‘s “Power” influenced the opening track “Fort Knox.” What other artists were influencing your work here?
David has got the most f—ing incredible record collection. Once a month, for about a week, he goes on record-buying expeditions across Europe. He has record dealers — f—in’ cosmic shit — and he’ll come back and send me CDs of, like, 100 tracks. So, it’s all obscure shit from the ’60s and the ’70s and ’50s even, and I’m thinking, where does all this music come from? Why haven’t I heard it? I mean, I’ve got a lot of f—ing music. I’ve got a lot of records and I’ve got a lot of things I’ve collected, and he stills plays me stuff and I’m like, “Who the f—‘s this?” He’s into it. The most obvious things are Can directly influenced “It’s a Beautiful World,” you know, Blondie and New Order directly influenced “She Taught Me How to Fly.” Ennio Morricone stuff, French psychedelic pop… I couldn’t tell you any of it. I’m listening to this going, “This is f—ing great, who is it?” No idea. No idea. Couldn’t tell you. It’s stuff you can’t even Shazam. This is like deep record dealership and some of it’s really, really f—ing good.
The way this album is mixed, there’s so much going on but your vocals are a lot lower than your other work. Why’s that?
Yeah, well that’s a stylistic thing. All the records that I like — like The Stones, for instance, you can’t hear what Mick Jagger‘s f—ing saying. So you really have to f—ing listen and you’re engaged immediately. It was always the fight in Oasis. Liam was always, “Turn the vocals up! … You can’t hear the lyrics.” I [was like], “I don’t want them to hear the f—ing lyrics. I want them to listen to the whole thing.” It’s usually a constant battle between the singer and the songwriter. I find a lot of music, the vocals are too f—ing loud. Just too loud. Maybe it’s because I’m a guitarist, but I drive the people at my record label to destruction when they’ll say, “Is there a vocal-up mix?” I’m like, “This is it.” And they’re like, “F—, it’s a bit quiet.” And even when I go back to the studio and have to turn the vocals up, it doesn’t sound right. The balance is not right. To me, that’s just a stylistic thing.
I don’t want to make it easy for people. I haven’t put the lyrics on this album for the first time ever — of any album I’ve ever done. I’ve got people saying, “Why not?” Because I’m not going to make it easy for people. I want them to sit and listen to it and think, “What is he f—ing saying?” Although, I know it’ll drive me mad at gigs when people are singing the wrong lyrics. … I think it’s too easy for people now to listen to music. The way music sounds now these days is easy to f—ing listen to; there’s no challenge in it anymore. Even rock music, even Dave Grohl‘s shouting. You know exactly what he’s going on about even if you don’t know what he’s going on about, you can hear it.
Do you think about that stuff much? How people are going to listen to your music? People talk about it being a singles culture, but obviously you put something together that very much feels like an album.
Well I think you’ve got to be aware of the musical landscape, but ultimately you’ve got to please yourself. You have to be, “This is what I do,” which is why I like to cross-fade tracks because if some little f—ing asshole is gonna go buy it on its own, then I’m gonna ruin the end of it for him because it cost me a lot of money and a lot of time to sequence this album and you’re gonna pick out two tracks? Well, I’m gonna f— up the intro and the outro for you. F— you.
On “It’s a Beautiful World,” there’s a woman speaking in French at the end. What is she saying?
The last line of what she says is, “Kiss your friends goodbye, it’s only the end of the world.” Something like that. If I could change one thing, I’d get her to go back in and change that line and say, “It’s not the end of the world.” Or kind of put some hope at the end of it. I didn’t realize it until it was way too late. I’m not the end of the world kind of guy. I don’t believe in the apocalypse. I think the world is too big for a mere mortal of a North Korean idiot to end, or Donald Trump or anything like that. I’m not a doomsday merchant at all. Unfortunately Charlotte, this French woman, is.
Does that bother you that it’s on there?
It’s interesting of your music that you rarely — if ever — write sad songs. Meanwhile there’s the singer-songwriter cliche that goes the other way around, like some artists can only write when they’re depressed. Why is that?
Because it’s easy. It’s easy to write sad songs. It’s very difficult pulling off this magic trick of joy and togetherness. And, you know, Oasis had it, where you go to an Oasis gig, you feel good about yourself. U2 have got this thing where, if you go to one of their gigs, not only do you feel good about yourself, but you feel good about the next person too. It’s difficult to do, which is why many people don’t want to f—ing try to do it because it can be really cheesy.
I find that I do it better accidentally than if I’m trying to… You know, if I was to sit down tomorrow and say, “There’s too much f—ing pain in the world, I’m gonna write a song about the beauty of life.” It would cheesy as f—, but accidentally somehow it seeped into this. I’m not happier now than I’ve been in the last 10 years, but these backing tracks and the tunes were coming out so up and there’s a lot of hope in the records that it’s just kind of what I was writing. I can pull that trick off accidentally — without even knowing.
I was wondering about the We Are Manchester show that you did this summer, re-opening the arena after the terrorist bombing there in May. That’s your hometown, and your Oasis song “Don’t Look Back in Anger” became an anthem for the city after the attack. What was that experience like for you?
I was expecting it to be like that, so I had probably prepared myself for it, but you find yourself in this really… “Don’t Look Back in Anger” was always, it was a huge colossal song anyway. But it was a song, to me, that song was always about and is always gonna be about, you know, Sally is this woman of a certain age who has watched her life maybe drift by, but she’s raising a glass to it. She’s got no regrets. And now in Manchester it will be forever this song of open defiance and of looking forward into the future. But you’re kind of onstage thinking, as a songwriter, you live for these moments where an entire room is hanging on every word of the song and it has such deep meaning that you’re thinking, this is amazing. And on the other end, you’re wishing this wasn’t happening at all. So you’re kind of in this war with yourself, thinking this is great and thinking this f—ing is so tragic as well. So forever now in Manchester it will have that connotation attached to it and it’s an incredible thing that people rallied around that song and took something from the words in that song.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the thing on the telly — well, I was actually watching it live. When the girl started singing it, it was kind of like a real f—ing heavy moment. And then you’re thinking, well, it is an amazing thing — ’cause it’s an extraordinary song for this reason — that everyone’s in their own thoughts and this girl decides the crowd needed bringing together. She decides to sing this song and that square is not full of what we would consider to be Oasis fans, which is f—ing soccer guys. It’s full of people from all over the world and all walks of life and they all instinctively knew the words. I was like, whoa. D’you know what I mean? Like, wow. I do tend to think about these things, and I was thinking, what was happening in Paris that night when I wrote it? How did that thing fall out of the sky and land in my lap? Because I have no recollection of writing it because I was drunk. It’s like a real magical thing, d’you know what I mean? Forever tinged with sadness, but such is life.
But also hope and everything else that goes with it too.
Yeah, and if we ever thought, we’re all… And when I say “we,” as in all of us music nerds, and to us music is the most important of the art forms. Acting’s great and painting’s good and all that f—ing shit, but music rules and all that. If we ever doubted it, then that particular moment was like, music is special, it does bring people together and it has deep meaning.
That is exactly how I felt watching it too. What else can bring people together in a moment like that?
People can get up or politicians can get up and say these words of, “We will stand f—ing strong!” and all that kind of shit, but it’s affectively f—ing meaningless. But a song brings everybody together. And even if people probably didn’t even realize why they were singing it. My kids were blown away. They were like, “Wow, they’re singing your song!”
There has been a lot of drama in your career. I was reminded recently of the Oasis/Blur rivalry from back in the day, and it struck a chord in relation to the way you and your brother Liam have released records within a couple months from each other this year [Liam’s As You Were was released Oct. 6] and he’s been talking about you in the press and tweeting about you more than usual, it seems. And those are just some of the big rivalries, there have been others. Do you reflect on how all that has affected your career or personal life?
That’s been a significant part of it. I can say none of it was instigated by me. We didn’t instigate the Britpop thing.
Was that made up by the media?
No. Blur — they were determined to have this chart showdown and we were sick of moving our stuff to accommodate that. So we were just like, “F—, if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.” With Liam now, yeah, it’s like — I mean, if he’s comfortable doing what he’s doing, then what can you do? Because I’m kind of sitting doing my f—ing thing. The irony is he’s over there doing my thing too. You know what I mean? Just kind of like, be f—ing happy I’m allowing you to do my f—ing thing. It’s a relentless — I don’t know what it is.
It just so happened that these two albums came out at the same time. It’s gonna be a thing again.
Yeah, for the people. Not for me, I’ve got to say. I have not heard — I’ve heard “Wall of Glass” off his record, but what I’ve got in an hour in the studio will beat whatever he’ll do in two years. So if there’s anything on his record that remotely beats the first 30 seconds of my album, I will be — I’ll take my hat off to him. I don’t think anybody’s moving stuff around, but mine’s ready to go and his is ready to go and there we go. And I guess it will be interesting for people at the NME, they seem to be driving it. I don’t give a fuck. I know the record that I’m putting out is as good as it’s gonna get, so that’s all that matters to me. When you look back on all of Oasis and what I’ve done as a songwriter, the Blur thing, it’s a footnote. This thing that’s going on now will be a footnote. It doesn’t affect the songs when you play them. It’s very unnecessary, though. It’s like a minor irritant, like, please go away.
Speaking of Blur, you recently teamed up with Damon Albarn for the Gorillaz song “We Got the Power.” Of course, you’ve worked with Paul Weller and Johnny Marr in the past and on Who Built the Moon? — are there any other artists you’d like to collaborate with in the future? Maybe a supergroup?
I’m completely open to offers. I’d love to do a supergroup. Funnily enough, when Pharrell… He still is one of the biggest stars in the world, but when he did “Get Lucky” and f—ing “Happy” came out, we were at an awards ceremony — I was with my wife and he was with his wife — and he kind of said, “You know, whenever you’re ready, give me a call. We’ll have to do some stuff.” And I’m kind of laughing, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah….” We’re walking off and my wife’s going, “So you’re just going to f—ing leave it at that?” And I’m like, “He doesn’t mean that.” She goes, “You’re a f—ing idiot.” I’d love to work with him. As good as “Get Lucky” and “Happy” are, that song “Freedom” — it’s f—ing over. He’s the king, I love him to bits.