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Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock 'n' roll band who'll throw it all away." Wise words. Noel Gallagher should know, since they're his words (from "Don't Look Back in Anger"). He'll be the first to admit that there have been plenty of times in Oasis's career when he considered calling it a day. In 1991, when his little brother Liam asked Noel to join his band, no one had any inkling that Oasis would become one of the biggest bands of the decade. They had the attitude, they had the look, and they quickly realized that they could deliver epic anthems to bring them adoration beyond their wildest dreams (their second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, became the best-selling British album ever). But naturally, the rock-star clichés were not far behind their rise to fame: There were the public slaggings, the tabloid divorces, the drugs, the arrests, and the sibling tantrums. And yet, against all odds, Oasis is back, stronger than ever and touring behind Heathen Chemistry, an album that easily recalls their early glory days.
Over the phone from his London office, Noel Gallagher looks back at the Standing on the Shoulder of Giants year, which many consider the lowest point in Oasis's history. "During that tour, Liam was always drunk and just a pain to be with, so I just walked off," he says. "But after a while, it was like, 'Well, what the fuck else can I do?' Being in a band is all I know how to do." Staying home and eating chocolates all day was an option. "Let me tell you, I can do that, but it gets boring after a while," he admits. "And at the end of the day, I love being in a band with Liam."
The approach to making their fifth studio album turned out to be business as usual for the brothers, drummer Alan White, and newer members guitarist Gem Archer and bassist Andy Bell. Furthermore, Noel says that they were never under any pressure to deliver, say, another Morning Glory because, as he puts it, "we exist by our own rules." The attitude of the band is always the same: "We do what we do, and if you like it, great. We never set out with a bunch of ground rules, like, 'We've got to take a new direction' or 'The songs have to be like this or like that.' That sort of limits you in any way that you may go into the studio. The only thing we decided was that we were gonna produce it ourselves. And that's not very exciting 'cause people want to hear you say something else. But, you know, I read the reviews sometimes where the lead singer says they've taken this amazing new direction and blahdy blahdy fucking blah. Or 'We feel like we invented a new genre of rock music.' And then you listen to the album, and it's like, 'What fucking drugs are you on? It sounds exactly like the other four.' So I think people will draw their own conclusions about it."
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Noel Gallagher is not keen on contemplating his own album but, if push comes to shove, will say this much about it: "I hate analyzing it, but I think it sounds a lot warmer and a lot more natural. It flows out of the speakers. God, that sounds so pretentious. It is what it is."
After the lukewarm reception of the last two albums, Heathen Chemistry finds Oasis back in top form with Noel providing his quintessential guitar hooks all around and Liam closely mastering Lennon's solo-year vocal stylings. But the biggest surprise is not the younger brother's top-notch singing but his songwriting. The fact that he delivered three brilliant songs for the new album is baffling. This is, after all, the same man who wrote the mediocre (to put it gently) "Little James."
"I knew it wasn't good," Noel says of his brother's first attempt at songwriting, yet he still chose to include it on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. "Honestly, since he had the guts to say he had this tune and played it for me, if I had said, 'That's appalling,' he might have gone back into his shell and never wrote these three songs. It's all about encouragement, really. I see myself as a musical Yoda," says the massive Star Wars fan. One listen to "Songbird" and all is forgiven. Liam does it again on the brooding rock number "Born on a Different Cloud" before closing out the album with the psychedelic "Better Man." They're so good, in fact, that one wonders how much of a hand Noel had in writing them. "I'll help with people's music," he says, "but I'm not gonna write anything for anybody. Fuck that. Fucking write your own tunes, mate."
Indeed, for the first time, almost every Oasis member contributed tunes. "I feel like everyone is gonna say that I relinquished the power. Or that the band came banging on the door of songwriting and said, 'We wish to be heard.' But the fact of the matter is that it was a very natural thing. The band before existed in a state of semidrunkenness, and nobody else was prepared to contribute anything to the making of the record except me. That's just the way that it was," Noel explains. This time around, he decided to ask if anyone else had any tunes. It turned out that everyone did. "So it was like, 'Alright, let's fucking hear them then.' And it just came out of that. Gem and Andy were songwriters in previous bands, so I knew that they could write."