Former Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher will release a new solo album this Friday, and you might assume you know what it sounds like. You’d probably be wrong, though, at least a little. Who Built the Moon?, Gallagher’s third and most ambitious record with his band the High Flying Birds, was written in the studio with producer David Holmes, who adds electronics, orchestral accents, and references to influences as far-flung as E.L.O. and Serge Gainsbourg; the whole thing sounds more like Noel’s 1999 team-up with the Chemical Brothers than anything he made with Oasis. Gallagher and I met last week at the bar in New York’s Four Seasons hotel to discuss the album, his brother Liam’s recent album, and why he’s still no fan of Radiohead.
This is a pretty upbeat album, and not quite the meat-and-potatoes rock that you usually do.
Yeah. I guess if you’re a guy playing guitar these days, you’re obliged to write about the news. But it’s almost revolutionary not to, and to focus on the joy and uplifting nature of rock and roll instead of like, “Wow, Trump,” you know, “Brexit.” I find with rock music, there tends to be a lot of shouting and tattoos, and it fucking rolls me up the wrong way. People dyeing their hair and that kind of shit, you know what I mean? Not mentioning no names.
Most of the time, you write and demo your songs, and only when they’re good and ready do you hire guys like Owen Morris or Dave Sardy to produce them. But you wrote this album in the studio with David Holmes. How far out of your comfort zone did that take you?
I never thought I had it in me, because I write so much at home. Why the fuck would I go and make shit up in the studio? I had no idea what the fuck was going to happen. At first I thought I would just pretend to come up with stuff in the studio that I’d already written. He won’t know. How would he fucking know? Of course he knew, because it all sounded like me. He’d be like, “Did you write that at home?” I’m like, “No. I’m just coming up with that now.” He was like, “Don’t fucking bullshit me.”
But since I’d just done [2015’s] Chasing Yesterday, I thought, well, I don’t know how far I can take [my usual approach] anymore. You can do songs like “Riverman” and “The Right Stuff” [from Chasing Yesterday] with saxophones, and “The Ballad of the Mighty I” is a bit disco — but really, “Ballad of the Mighty I” is the same as “AKA … What a Life” [from the 2011 album Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds] at its essence, you know what I mean? I’m at a stage now where I don’t even want to fucking do that, and I’m my biggest fan.
You said that this is your favorite album you’ve ever made. Why?
Well, because there must be 30 or 40 session musicians on this, including backing singers and all that, when I listen to it, I’m thinking, Oh, I’ve never heard that before.
I’m hearing synthesizer things and thinking, Do I even know who played that? I said, “David, that thing on that track, who played that?” He says, “You played it.” I said, “I didn’t know I could play the synthesizer.” So in that sense, it’s my favorite. Also, the songs are really fucking great. It will be forever my favorite record, I think, until the next one, and then I’ll say to you, “Yeah, that record I made that — I didn’t really fucking like that.”
Your voice sound better than ever on this album. Have you noticed that it’s changed as you’ve gotten older?
Yeah, Paul Weller says that his voice is getting better, too. I gave up smoking recently. That might have something to do with it, but I think mine has been getting better. I’m more expressive, and I suppose the more solo albums that you make, you should be getting better.
Has your vocal range changed? Are there Oasis songs that you can’t sing anymore?
No. For the Oasis songs, I’d bring them into the studio, and they’d be in a key and I’d sing them, and then we’d have to bring them down for Liam. So when I sing them, I shift them back up. I’ve got a better range. But I think it’s all subjective. Liam was a great singer. Bob Dylan’s a great singer. They say Adele’s a great singer, right? I can’t fucking stand her voice. They say Bob Dylan can’t sing, but I love Bob Dylan, so don’t fucking ask me.
You also attacked Liam for his “army of songwriters.” What do you think of Greg Kurstin, who’s one of Liam’s songwriters? He’s co-written lots of recent albums, including Adele’s, Beck’s, and the Foo Fighters’, and he worked on an upcoming one for Paul McCartney. Everybody I talk to says the guy’s a wizard.
Oh really? Well then, I think he’s a very fucking lucky boy, and I don’t mean Paul McCartney. If Greg Kurstin ever needs me to teach him how to write a fucking song, he should give me a call, because what I’ve heard’s embarrassing.
You and David Holmes did some crate-digging for this album. For example, the first single, “Holy Mountain,” includes a flute loop sampled from an obscure ’70s track called “Chewing Gum Kid” by Ice Cream. During the process, did you come across any other good little-known songs that you can recommend?
There’s a track called “Chewing Gum Rock” by Nicky Bulldog. And one called “Lady (Put the Light on Me)” by Big John’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Circus. Fucking classic shit. Amazing.
Do you know about this trend of pop stars writing their albums in songwriting camps, where a dozen or so producers show up for a week and collaborate on lots of songs, from which the headlining artist picks the best 10 or 15 for the final record?
Yeah. I know about that. I’ve heard that British guy, Michael Kiwanuka, went to a Kanye boot camp, didn’t he?
On the one hand, it’s a numbers game, and if you write hundreds of songs …
Right, one of them’s going to be good. I think about that when I go to an awards ceremony. A few years ago, I went to the Ivor Novello Awards, the prestigious British songwriting fucking thing. I was getting an award for a past collection or something. They have an awards for “Best Song Musically and Lyrically,” and Emeli Sandé won it. Eight people got up to accept — eight people wrote that song! And not one of them was her. I happened to be sitting with Ray Davies from the Kinks, and we both looked at each other and went, “How do eight guys write a fucking song?”
One person probably does the bridge.
And two on the beats. Two on the bassline. Two on the topline melody. Two on the lyrics, blah, blah, blah. If someone like Beyoncé is not involved in writing her music, how do you get to know her as an artist? Because she never fucking says anything, right? Being an artist is not about just going in, saying, “I’ll have that one, that one, and that one.” It’s musical shopping, that’s what that is. Do you have this in red? I could do it in red. I’d like that one in red.
You’ve criticized plenty of other artists and their methods. As you experiment with different methods yourself, have you ever felt boxed in by something you’ve said? For example, you’ve said that Radiohead are boring and that “Thom Yorke could shit in a light bulb” and would probably still get good reviews. So do you feel worry that you can’t do anything vaguely Radiohead-esque in the studio without seeming hypocritical? You definitely can’t make your next album in a songwriting camp.
Nothing springs to mind immediately. But in the case of Radiohead, it’s not party music. I don’t know anyone who likes them. I’ve never met a fan. I’ve seen them at Coachella playing to a field full of people. In the world I live in — and I’m in my own personal fucking circles that I move in — I don’t know one person’s that into them. That’s all I can tell you.
Whose idea was it for you and Liam to release your albums so close to each other? His album came out in October, and now here’s yours in November.
What are you suggesting?
Well, if you didn’t coordinate this with Liam, it was pretty lucky timing. He said a bunch of funny things about you in the press last month, and now you get to answer him. In a time when it’s hard for artists to hold people’s attention, you two have a pretty good racket going, publicity-wise.
It’s actually not, not for me anyway, no. It’s slightly annoying. My shit is not reacting. It’s not reactionary on that level to anybody’s. When your record’s ready, it goes, and that’s the end of it, and if it’s near to the other fellow’s, then that’s it. I don’t give a fuck whether he puts his album out the same day as mine. I will thank him for promoting my record, though, and it’s not even out yet.