Noel Gallagher on Spontaneous Inspiration in the Studio

“Sometimes, you’ve got to go somewhere new." Noel Gallagher on how spontaneous inspiration in the studio built his new album, 'Who Built the Moon?'
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Noel Gallagher could have taken the easy route in recording his new album. He had played a batch of demos for Belfast-based film composer and producer David Holmes, who said that there wasn’t much he could do for the former Oasis guitarist as the tracks sounded finished. Any other musician would have simply released those recordings as they were, but Gallagher was intrigued when Holmes suggested an alternative idea: How about the two of them start from scratch and see what happens?

“It was the harder way to go, but it felt like the right kind of challenge,” says Gallagher. “David said, ‘Don’t bring any songs into the studio.’ So I went in cold—no songs, no ideas, no nothing. Just one guitar, me, and David. The first session, we sat around listening to records. David played all of this French psychedelic pop and avant-garde German music from the ’60s. ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘Shall we do something like that?’ I had never worked like that before. It was great.”

The resulting album, Who Built the Moon? [Sony], is billed as Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds, but like the guitarist’s two previous solo outings, it’s not really a band effort. Only current keyboardist Mikey Rowe and former drummer Jeremy Stacey appear on the record, alongside a host of session players and a couple of noted guest stars (Johnny Marr and Paul Weller). Bursting with spacey, psychedelic grooves and thunderous, hip-hop-inspired beats, the record is a dramatic departure from the roaring Britrock gestalt of Oasis, and it’s also a clear break from the earnest singer-songwriter persona he established on his first two solo albums, Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds (2011) and Chasing Yesterday (2015).

“It’s art, baby,” Gallagher enthuses. “Sometimes, you’ve got to go somewhere new. When we first sat down, David said to me, ‘Look, you can do what you do forever. You write great, emotive songs about the universal truth, love, and life, and that’s amazing. You’re the king of it, and everybody loves you for it. But why don’t we flip the coin?’ So I have a spirit of adventure, and I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Aside from the music David played for you, is this record indicative of anything you’ve been listening to on your own? It doesn’t have the ’60s and ’70s vibe of your earlier records.

I guess there’s this misconception about me. People assume I sit at home listening to the White Album, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I listen to all kinds of stuff. For example, David and I were having a conversation about Blondie one day, and he said, “Well, why don’t you write a song for them?” And that’s how the song “She Taught Me How to Fly” came about. I was writing a Blondie song.

Did you actually send the song to Blondie?

F**k no! I needed it for myself [laughs]. Now, I do listen to the Beatles, but not regularly. I listen to the Kinks and the Stones, as well, and I’m in a bit of a ’80s thing at the minute—XTC, Talking Heads, Echo & the Bunnymen. You listen to that and think, “Man, the ’80s might have been the most progressive decade ever.” It started with new wave, it ended with the Stone Roses, and in-between you had hip-hop.

As a guitarist, you never went in for the kind of virtuosity associated with shred.

No. The truth is I’m not a great guitar player. I just use the guitar to write songs. I never wanted to be that “guitar hero” guy. I wanted to be a songwriter. As far as I’m concerned, the guitar is just a means to an end.

So when you heard shredders, were you like, “That stuff sucks”?

I don’t think it sucks. I love to hear great guitar players. I think guitar playing is an art that’s becoming lost today. You see bands now, and there’s some guy wearing a guitar, but he’s not playing it. So shred isn’t for me, but I didn’t want to be like that, either. I still don’t care about lead guitar. I only played solos because nobody else could.

What’s your idea of a perfect solo?

Something that speaks. “Live Forever” is a good solo because it lifts the song somewhere else. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is a good solo, too. Those things aren’t great technically, but they speak. That’s all that matters.

Did you have those solos worked out before you cut them in the studio?

No, I winged them. I still do. I’ll do something until I find a nice middle bit, and then I’ll think, “Okay, how do I get to that?” So I go back and work out a beginning, and then an end.

And the same goes for riffs?

On this record, I didn’t have any riffs prepared. I’d go in the studio, and David would ask, “Got any riffs?” That was fine, because if somebody says to you the night before, “Have some riffs for tomorrow,” you’ll sit at home and overthink it. But if somebody asks for riffs on the spot, you can’t overthink it. You’ve just got to do it. Nothing on this record was thought out—it’s just moments of inspiration.

“Black & White Sunshine” has a beautiful riff.

Here’s the thing with that: We were working on the song, and David was listening at the computer while I was on the opposite side of the room just playing. I didn’t even know I had played the riff when David went, “Listen to this!” And there it was. When I played the song for my friends, they went, “That’s a f**king great riff. Where did you get that from?” I was like, “I don’t know. It fell out of the sky.” Everybody says it’s like R.E.M.—which is weird, because I don’t really like them.

Johnny Marr plays guitar on “If Love is the Law.” What can he do on the guitar that you can’t? And what can you do that he can’t?

What can he do that I can’t? Everything! He does that Nile Rodgers thing. I can’t get it. I can fake it and turn it down in the mix, but he can really do it. What can I do that he can’t? Not a damn thing [laughs].

You’ve always been a Gibson player. Are you still using that red, 1960 ES-355?

I’m going to blow your mind now. Every song was played with the same guitar and the same amp. I used a Nash S Model and a ’70s Fender silverface Princeton. The only other guitar was what Johnny used—a Nash JM.

Aside from just ease, why did you use just one guitar and amp?

When we started the sessions in Belfast, David said, “Bring one guitar and a bag of pedals.” My people said, “There’s no point in shipping all your gear there, because you don’t know what you’re doing yet.” And it just worked. Every time we were about to do something, David said, “Bring that same guitar.” The amp was his. It was easy. It’s amazing what you can do with effects pedals. You can make a little Princeton sound like a Marshall.

What kinds of pedals did you use?

I used a lot of Keeley pedals, a JHS SuperBolt, a Strymon TimeLine delay, and these extreme fuzz things by Graig Markel of (Recovery) Effects. I buy stuff on eBay, and I find all sorts of funky things.

Do you ever play around with ideas for sounds at home?

For my own amusement, yeah, but the minute I get in the studio, I forget them all. I don’t have a home studio. I’ve never been able to muster the enthusiasm for one. When I’m home, I’m just messing around watching TV. I’ve got pedals around, and I play with them, but that’s it. When you get in the studio, you should be in the moment.