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Noel Gallagher and Dave Sardy on the Making of ‘Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’
With Chasing Yesterday out next month, Rock Cellar Magazine revisits Noel Gallagher’s first solo outing.
“The great incentive for me is that when you’re working in LA, everybody in England is asleep,” Noel Gallagher tells me during one of our two interviews during the promotion of his first solo album, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, in 2011, of his choice to finish the record in Los Angeles.
“Your phone is dead so you can concentrate, knowing that the world you live in on the other side of the Atlantic, they’re all nice and safe in bed. You’ve spoken to them before they got in bed. The kids are in bed, the wife’s in bed, they’re all in bed. You get a good fucking eight hours stretch of a working day where everybody’s asleep and nobody’s going to be calling you or e-mailing you. So there’s that. There’s also the weather. I love the fucking sunshine. The people out there are very professional. They’ve all got great studios, everything works, and the lifestyle lived out there is… I start work at mid-day, I finish at midnight, and on weekends, I sit on the balcony in Sunset Towers, smoke cigarettes, drink tea, and think, ‘Wow, isn’t this fucking wonderful?’”
In fact, it did turn out wonderfully. Gallagher’s album was a UK #1, and did respective sales globally at a time when the music business was otherwise struggling. But when I first spoke with Gallagher, ahead of the release of the album, he was remarkably unsure of what to expect, as both a solo artist and frontman.
“I had perfected that role,” Gallagher told me of his days in Oasis, during an informal chat at a swanky rooftop party in New York’s SoHo to celebrate the release of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. “I was quite happy to be the guy on the side of the stage, playing guitar and singing the odd song. It’s actually a pain in the arse to have to be up front. Talk to me after a few shows. I might be moaning about how I’ve made a huge mistake.”
But, typically, he was also full of his trademark bravado. “I’m pleased,” he told me of the finished album. “I recorded one song and it was fun and I thought it sounded really good. Then I recorded another and I thought, ‘That’s fucking great, man’. I’m ready to play it to the people.”
Funnily enough, though, even in 2011 Gallagher was already setting his sights on what would become Chasing Yesterday, which is due out March 3rd.
“I never like to hold anything back for fear you might fucking die and your wife take all the glory, you know what I mean? I kind of put it all out there,” he told me.
“There’s nothing of Oasis left in the vaults. But I’ve got a lot of songs knocking around. Come On, It’s All Right’will be on the next album. There’s a track out there called God Help Us All that will be on the next one. I’m working through them slowly. I have to thank people on the Internet really.”
You go on YouTube and find these songs I’ve done at sound checks that people have recorded and put there. I forget about them! I’m just trying to have fun on stage. Twenty minutes to kill, so I’ll fucking sing a new one. I’ve seen a few now, and I think, “Wow, that’s actually a good song. I should finish that off.”
“It’s kind of good in a way. It helps. I’ve rediscovered maybe half a dozen songs I would have ordinarily forgotten about. When I first got a computer, somebody asked if I’d seen all my stuff on there. I hadn’t. So I checked out soundcheck versions of Everybody On The Run, If I Had A Gun (both from his first solo album), and some other unreleased stuff. People had started to finish off the words with what they thought they should be. Management insisted that I had them taken down. I was like, ‘You know what? Those are just gifts!’ If people are that interested in coming along to a soundcheck and risk getting thrown out to do that, fuck it. I don’t mind. People are not that dumb to think that’s the version. It’s not going to spoil anything when If I Had A Gun eventually comes out. I don’t mind that. I find it incredibly flattering to be honest.”
But Gallagher was also circumspect about what he’d accomplished during the sessions for his first solo album.
“I don’t need to be in the studio all the fucking time, you know what I mean?,” he told me. “I’ve got the demos. I won’t forget them. It’s literally a case of time. If I book a studio for six weeks, I get through as much as I can, because I’ve got so many songs. When I get to the end, it’s like okay, that’s it. It’s done.”
The excitement over Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds began with the release of the single The Death Of You And Me. Markedly different from anything Oasis ever attempted, it’s a songwriting and production tour de force, and Gallagher laid much of it’s success to Dave Sardy, whom he had worked with on the last two Oasis albums and who acted as co-producer on High Flying Birds.
“I have to say, when I finally got to the mixing stage, the first thing I mixed was The Death of You and Me and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really fucking great,’” said Gallagher. “I’ve seen songs go from nothing to magic in a couple of days. When The Death of You and Me, for instance, started out it sounded great. When Dave finished, he took it to the area where it’s magic. What you hear now is something quite magical. But we just get on. We have the same interest in music and films and bullshit, and we’ve got the same amount of kids, and our kids are the same age. The guys he surrounds himself with great people and his team are also roundabout the same age. We’ve got the same reference points in life and music. We just all get on.”
“The relationship has been there for awhile,” Sardy explained to me. “I think how I got involved was that I started working with Oasis to do a test mix (of one song from 2005s Don’t Believe The Truth). That turned into three songs, and then Liam (Gallagher) and the band flew over to LA, and we did a ton more. Then we all flew to New York.
In that whole time, there was no Noel. In fact, I think Liam was the first person who was digging the work I was doing, and so therefore Noel was a little standoffish and unwilling to accept that I might be able to bring something to the table. We finished the whole record, Don’t Believe the Truth. It was the second or third go-round of the album, because they’d started it with Death In Vegas producing. So when I got involved, it was like they’d already gone back to square one and started over. We mixed that to the best of our abilities and made it sound as awesome as we could. Then Noel met in New York and we listened through to it all. He said, “You know, we really should have just done this with you in the first place.” We scrapped the entire album and started over again.”
“I remember being sat in this very office with my manager and we said, “’Right, who’s made the big rock records of the last fucking two years?’” Gallagher told me, while sitting in the offices of his management, Ignition, in London. “What happened was when the other three guys in the band started writing seriously lots of songs, I decided that, okay, now we need a producer. I would always pick the songs, and it was too much pressure on me. Liam was always bitching about stuff that didn’t get us anywhere. I was like, ‘We need to get a producer, somebody who can take all the blame and the pressure and all that fucking shit.'”
“He can decide what’s going to happen on a day to day basis in the studio. It just so happened that the first Jet record had just blown up. We listened to it and said, ‘Right, we’re a fucking rock and roll band, they’re a rock and roll band, so who did that record?’ We’d heard of David Sardy but didn’t know anything about him. We just called him up on that basis and said, “You can obviously make rock and roll records, we’re a rock band from England.” We met and got on great with him. He said we should come record in America, so we went to LA, and now I’ve made three records in LA, and it’s fucking amazing. I love it.”
So began a relationship that followed through on the final Oasis album, 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul.
“The final Oasis record was a lot of recordings that were from scratch, that we started over with,” Sardy explained. “It was an actual producer/artist relationship, where we butted heads. Everyone in that band is a producer, everyone had an opinion, but at the end of the day it worked. It was very successful creatively. Totally. And it was not like we just put up a mic. It was work. Noel, especially, and I established a kind of working relationship that wasn’t based on all of us just saying, ‘Sure, whatever you say!’ and giving each other thumbs up. It was an actual situation of seeing how much further we could push it and how much better it could get. And, as a producer, there was never a problem getting what I wanted. Noel was always bringing 170% to the table.”
“I think that, in a situation where you have somebody like that as the leader of your band, that’s one of the great things about working with Oasis, at least when I was working with them as a band. When things were running properly, as a band, they would bring way more than you could believe was possible. When somebody was not bringing 170% but maybe 110%, or 96%, it wasn’t like they were not really showing up, but it was very noticeable.”
Born in the trenches of that last, tumultuous, Oasis album, Sardy’s relationship with Gallagher truly found its legs during the sessions for High Flying Birds.
“I think that once Noel left Oasis, he kind of assumed – and so did I – that if there was an opportunity to work together again, we would,” Sardy explained.
“I thought I was done making the album, but I asked Dave came to London to listen to what I’d done,” Gallagher told me. “He told me that everything I’d done wasn’t really finished. I was a bit like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ He said he could make everything 10% better by re-recording the drums and a bit of bass, this and that.”
“I don’t know if I would have used the 10% model, but I basically said that I thought it had to be better,” Sardy explained. “Noel being who he is asked me exactly what I meant by that. So I went through every song with him. It was not a fun day for him. So I came on board, surprisingly, when he thought it was done. It went from, ‘Okay, you’re producing this and we’ll do it together’ to ‘Well, I got bored, and I had a baby and have been recording on the weekends. I’m finished now, so let’s just mix it.’ But I felt it could be better.
“I think that he felt like it was fucking amazing,” Sardy went on. “I was like, ‘Yes, the songs are undeniably amazing.’ But that wasn’t what I was talking about. I was talking about the production, the arrangement stuff, and some of the detail work. Although every artist is and can be a producer, there are some things that go into making a record that producers are better at. I believe in the producer-artist relationship. I believe in the role of a producer like an editor or a gallerist for a painter. There’s something about having that outside perspective before you go to an audience that’s huge.”
“It was very much like, ‘I think it needs to be better, and if you don’t, that’s totally cool, but I’m not the guy for this,’” Sardy remembered of the meeting. “That would have been fine because I get it. I get how married he could have been to what he’d done. But to Noel’s credit, he was like, ‘No, let me think about it.’ He went off and had a think for a day and was asking, ‘Where are we going to do this? How are we going to re-do the drums?’ I think that his main worry was that some of the orchestral stuff that had been done would have to be done again. It was insanely expensive and amazing. I told him ‘No, that’s coloring. We can make that work.’ I was talking about re-doing groove parts, tempos. We could keep the other stuff that was floating over the top of it. That was his big fear about redoing it. He asked if he’d have to redo the choir and orchestra, but I promised him that I’d make it work. Also, you still have this version. The genius of Pro Tools is that if we had gotten to the end of the process that I’m telling him he needs to do, and he didn’t love it, we wouldn’t have lost the other stuff from before.”
Gallagher elaborated on his working process with Sardy, specifically as it related to the magnificent second single If I Had A Gun.
“Watching it all unfold in the States, re-recording the drums for If I Had A Gun was incredible,” Gallagher recalled. “Just listening to Dave make it sound like a group when it really isn’t a group – just me and a click track is really what it was – he made it sound like a band. I really don’t know to this day how the fuck he did it, but he’s a wizard.
“I don’t know how he does it, but he double and triple-tracks my voice until I listen to it and think, ‘Wow, is that fucking me? That’s fucking unbelievable,” Gallagher continued. “He’s incredible at picking the right mic for the right song. He didn’t tell me how to sing. And I refuse to do a great number of takes. If we haven’t got it in four, then we haven’t got it. But bearing that in mind, he does a lot of double-tracking. It’s not so you’d notice. It’s very subtle. He’s got a few little boxes that he uses. He’s got a thing called a Cooper Time Cube. It’s like a little round hosepipe in a fucking thing, and it’s like the tightest double-tracking device you can get without it sounding double-tracked. It’s amazing.”
High Flying Birds kicks off in a big way. “I wanted to start off the album the way most people finish off their albums, with an epic,” Gallagher told me. Everybody’s On The Run fits the bill to a T. With the huge choir and strings recorded at the fabled Abbey Road Studios that Gallagher was so reluctant to lose pushing the song along without ever overwhelming it, and with a powerful vocal from Gallagher, in the first few minutes of the album Everybody’s On The Run immediately creates a feeling that brother Liam’s band Beady Eye never came close to on their debut: That Noel Gallagher didn’t really need Oasis. In fact, considering how unleashed he sounds throughout the album, he may be better off without them.
“Paul Stacey, who engineered the sessions in England, and Dave, they both know in an instant what I’m trying to get at,” Gallagher explained. “But really, with the wonders of modern technology, I’ve got an iPod with my entire record collection on it, and if I’m not getting the point across, I can just dial up something and say, ‘I want it to sound like that.’ But the magical moments for me were doing the brass on The Death of You and Me, which was fantastic, and the strings on Everybody’s On The Run. Those (arrangements) were my idea. I had the melodies for those parts. For The Death of You and Me, I tried it on piano, guitar, various different instruments, and then, through a process of elimination, we got to the brass. I’d already recorded the brass in England before I got to Dave. Dave just mixed that track. I produced that track myself. That was a magic moment. Then in Abbey Road when I recorded the strings and choirs for Everybody’s On The Run, that was a magical moment.”
Dream On follows, channeling The Kinks with bits of Burt Bacharach-style songwriting and production, not to mention New Orleans horns (“we recorded them together around one mic; very old school,” Gallagher told me quite proudly), thrown in for good measure. The song wasn’t a single. But it could have been. And that’s another thing that’s astounding about Gallagher: Even his deep cuts are better than anything you might hear from his peers.
If I Had A Gun… and The Death Of You And Me follow and, after talking to Gallagher a couple of times about the making of his debut, it was clear that the songs are near and dear to him, and rightly so. They’re strong songs that make a clear break from the past and were the first stakes in the ground by Gallagher as a solo artist. And at under 4 minutes each there isn’t any waste. Gone are the Oasis days of long intros, outros and noodling. The songs here are concise: They come, they go and they leave an impression.
(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine is another standout from the record. A lost Oasis track from the Dig Out Your Soul-era, I asked Gallagher how he now felt about a song he’d once said sounded like “Led Zeppelin plays The Beatles.” “In a way [it’s] quite sad. We would have nailed that in a stadium, but Liam unfortunately was a lazy c*nt and wouldn’t sing it,” Gallagher said. “I hope he listens to it when it comes out and I hope he feels slightly embarrassed for himself because he could have been like Moses when he sang that.” But still, he confided, “When we did the strings in London it was incredible. When they did that little Indian riff when it goes into the first verse – which is a bit like Within You, Without You – I literally shivered and thought, ‘Fucking hell, that’s amazing.'” It is. And while it certainly brings to mind Gallagher’s old band, it’s contains ample evidence that Gallagher was ready to move on.
High Flying Birds ends with the fabled Stop The Clocks; a song that Oasis had reportedly recorded as many as 10 times over its last 10 years. Noel told me he doesn’t feel as close to Stop The Clocks (which didn’t appear in his live set) as Record Machine (which did), maybe because it took him so long to get it right.
“I thought if I didn’t put it out now I might never,” Gallagher told me. “But I guess I always knew it would be the last track on the album.”
A fitting closer it is. It has just enough of Oasis in it to remind you why we’re all at Gallagher’s party in the first place, while still sounding new and fresh. It’s the second longest song on the album, clocking in at just over 5 minutes (a pittance in Oasis terms), leaving time for one last, explosive burst of orchestral noise and an off-the-wall solo from, Gallagher said, engineer cohort Paul “Strangeboy” Stacey.
The album ends with a long, reverb laden fade to nothing.
“I work on one song, and I take that song to its logical conclusion,” Gallagher told me of his working methods. “Then I disregard it and move on to another one. I’m never really thinking of the album as a whole. I’ve always been a great believer in the fact that you start a song and work on it until it’s finished. Then you know what you’re up to. I have done sessions where there’ll be a big fucking chalkboard up in the studio, and you do all the drums first and so on. (Oasis’ producer) Owen Morris used to work like that. ‘Let’s do all the bass here…’ You wouldn’t know what the fucking hell you were up to. I just like to get immersed in one song and go with it until I finish it. If you get to a point where you’re being frustrated and can’t finish it, then fuck it off and start another song. I’m not one for going, “Right, today we’ll do all the keyboards.’”
You cannot possibly do all your best work by doing eight songs in two days. You have to concentrate on one thing and whatever the song needs. I don’t really go at it with a fucking machine gun spraying things all over the studio. I’m very much just one song, one day at a time.
Dave Sardy agrees: “Well, for me anyway, every song, every recording is different. Obviously you have tools that you tend to go to, but every song is different.”
“I was trying to get The Good Rebel on Don’t Believe the Truth!” Sardy told me of the glorious High Flying Birds B-Side. “But trust me. There’s always a reason. Noel’s songs to him are like messages in a bottle and, from my perspective, he’s not always ready to send a message out. Sometimes he has songs written, but most of the songs on this record I watched him write during previous sessions. As a lesson to any young songwriter Noel knows how to have a career. He doesn’t warm up. He writes music. When you’re going to do a take with him, he sits down and starts writing, practicing, and working out songs for an hour and a half before he’s ready to run a take. It sounds ludicrously straightforward and simple, but I can’t tell you how many artists I’ve met or people I’ve worked with who don’t get that that is what you are supposed to do with your time. Work on some songs!”
And Gallagher confesses he works fast.
“I get through more in a day than most bands will get through in a week,” he said. “Sometimes it’s all great, sometimes it’s not great, and sometimes there will be one bit of magic in there, but I like to keep moving in the studio. I eat while I work. I don’t spend a lot of time in the studio, so when I’m there, I just like to get it fucking done.”
I don’t like to really hang out in the studio and lounge around and fucking smoke weed and watch TV all day. I’m there to work. I’m not there to stare out the fucking window. I love being in the studio. The thing I hate about being in the studio the most is being there when there’s no music being made. What the fuck is that all about? I’m not sitting around eating dinner with people. It’s like, ‘Come on people, let’s have a sandwich and work. We’ve got shit to do.
“He’s very much there,” Sardy said, clearly in agreement. “Noel also knows himself. He’s a pro. Noel and Johnny Cash, two guys I’ve worked with, when if they’re not there, they won’t come to the studio. It’s like, ‘What is the point of me being at the studio if I’m like that?’ I love that. I think that’s one of the reasons Noel and I get along. I’m not trying to be his friend. I have friends, and so does he. He’s a great person to work with, but we’re not there to make each other feel good. That’s how you get shitty records. It’s not to say be a dick while you’re working, but we’re not there to pat each other on the back. Anybody, no matter how good they are, still has somewhere to go. Otherwise, give up.”
“You still have something to learn and get better at. If you don’t, then you’re not really an artist. You’re just a trained monkey, doing the same thing over and over again. The producer’s job is, on some level, to be like the personal trainer who’s saying, ‘Okay, you did 30 of those. Can we do 33? Can we do 50? What can we do that’s more and stretches what we’ve already been doing?’ Noel’s right there. He’s totally there. It takes getting used to doing one song at a time. It’s easier on staff to do all the bass at once, all the guitars at once, but it’s not necessarily what’s easier for the musician that makes better records.”
“For me, personally, every project, from the moment of recording until the end of the tour, is about two years,” Gallagher told me. “My family understands that once that time is up when I’m working, I’m working. I’m out late at night, and I get in late. I always see the kids for breakfast but I don’t put them to bed. I see them on the way to school, and that’s it. I don’t see them for another 24 hours. I’m okay at multitasking, but I couldn’t be going to the studio and then saying to somebody at 5, ‘Oh, well I’ve got to go now, because my kid’s got a cough.’ It’s like, fuck that, you know what I mean? I’m a co-producer as well. Particularly when I was in England, it was all on me. If I leave, the whole thing comes to a standstill, so if I’m not there, there’s nothing going on.”
“I fucking love Dave,” Noel told me not long after the sessions with Sardy on High Flying Birds wrapped up. “He’s great at the things that I’m not great at. He’s great at… I don’t know what he fucking does, but he’s brilliant at it, do you know what I mean? I can’t tell you what the fucking hell he does. The dynamic is that I bring the best out of him because he really digs my songwriting, and he brings the best out of me because he gets the sounds that inspire me.”
Dave Sardy has the last word.
“If you’re talking about the difference between working with Oasis and working on this record, this record was a pure and utter joy with no games, 100% focus,” he said. “Noel came over to the States to work on the record, even though he’s got a brand new family, and there was no real desire to be away. If we were here, we were just working straight through until whatever it was that was in front of us was done. There was no down period for this record. It was a pretty amazingly positive experience.”
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