Take That interview
Take That are about to wow London on their biggest and boldest tour yet, arriving at Wembley Stadium on June 30 2011 for eight shows. But will this tour also be their last? Time Out's editor corners them in Dublin's Croke Park Stadium to find out…
They'd have you believe, would Take That, that this is all normal, run of the mill. Just a group of friends, backstage, about to play a concert. Just, you know, hanging out. One of them, Mark, is busy making pasta for two of the others, Howard and Robbie. Gary is making a business call, Jason smiling for a photo. Robbie's wife, Ayda, is there, and two of their eight dogs are running around the place. Just a group of friends, spending time together. Except this is Croke Park, Dublin, capacity 77,000, and this is the biggest tour Britain and Ireland have ever seen.
Some facts and figures about Take That's 'Progress' tour: 1.76 million people in UK and Ireland will see them perform live this summer. The band will play a record-breaking eight nights at Wembley Stadium. That record was previously held by Michael Jackson, who played seven nights there on his 1988 'Bad' world tour. Two hundred and eighty-seven people are on the road at all times with an extra 160 local crew in each city. The show and performance are so elaborate, so detailed, that in an empty stadium, it takes 48 hours to build the stage and set. At each date, a field kitchen is constructed where 14 chefs and catering staff prepare more than 1,100 restaurant-quality meals per day. Oh yeah, and on the stage with them is a huge robot which has been given the nickname of 'Om'. Om is 20 metres high and weighs 25 tonnes. It took 14 weeks to build him.
As Dublin is about to find out, in four and a half hours' time, this tour is taller, wider, camper, more roboty and, yes, way bigger than any we've ever seen. Now, you did remember to get yourself a ticket, didn't you?
Incredibly, when it's all over, this tour probably won't be remembered for its hugeness. Instead, it will be remembered primarily for being 'the tour that Robbie Williams was on'. Robbie rejoined the band officially in 2010, some 15 years after leaving the group ('I was sacked, I didn't leave,' he will protest later onstage) for, at first, a period hanging out with Oasis, then rehab, then a series of huge-selling singles and albums, then more rehab, then a flop album followed swiftly by a pledge to stop touring for good. One constant theme throughout this whole period was Williams's disregard for, or, at times, downright loathing of, his time in the band. He'd tell the audience at the Brit Awards that he'd always been the talented one of the group. He'd perform the band's biggest hit, 'Back for Good', on his solo tours as an aggressive, confrontational, thrash hate song. While sitting on a motorised toilet. It's a wonder Take That wanted him back at all, but they did and the resulting album, 'Progress', is their best one yet, and ended up being the bestselling album in the UK last year. But Williams's history of live-show burn-out in his solo career made a tour of 'Progress' seem unlikely.
So how did they get to this point? What happens now? And why the hell can't Howard Donald and Robbie Williams make their own bloody pasta?
At just after 4pm, Mark Owen walks into the friends-and-family lounge beneath Ireland's biggest sporting venue. Mark is softly spoken, fragile and badly burnt by the press fallout from things that happened on the last Take That tour. In March last year he admitted to multiple one-night stands on the band's 2009 tour, 'The Circus'. In an interview with The Sun, he blamed his heavy 'party boy' drinking for the affairs. He checked in to rehab the next day. Mark is married with two young children. Personally he's been through a tough time. Professionally it's a different story.
He was often a creative bystander in the group's early-'90s boy-band days, but the reformed Take That now feels as though it is largely formed around Mark's lyrical themes, imaginative ideas and outlandish performances. He plays a leading role in a band he was once a pretty-boy frontman for, but appears to still have insecurities about his position. He also thinks way too much about stuff. All of this combined makes him a cautious interviewee.
When you were all planning this tour, what did you want to achieve? What questions did you ask yourselves?
'We just wanted a tour that did justice to the reunion, to Robbie playing with us again. But how do you play it? Do we sing on Robbie's solo songs? Does he sing on the songs we've made as a foursome? It wasn't easy.'
How is Robbie dealing with being back? The rumours had it that he didn't want to tour at all…
'It's great to see him perform with such passion. Because speaking to him a year and a half ago, you'd get the impression that he wouldn't do it. He thought he wouldn't be able to get on stage again. He'd fallen out of love with it all. The spark's back, he's bouncing around. We feel so blessed that he's back with us - it's such a joyful thing, it really is.'
Certain aspects of your behaviour on the last Take That tour have been well documented since. How are things different this time around?
'Well I've been going home a lot! I've been doing the shows then going home to see my kids. I never did that before. I always thought that the mentality was “When you go on tour, you go on tour”. I've realised now that it doesn't have to be like that. Life needn't be that one way or another. So we finish here in Dublin tomorrow then I go home for a few days. I don't feel as disconnected from my family now. When we're doing the dates and I'm off-stage I just spend a lot of my time on my own being quiet. Our head chef guy is teaching me some recipes too, so I'm cooking stuff most nights.'
And the temptations you succumbed to after shows previously - how do you pull yourself away from them now? What's replaced them?
'Green & Blacks organic milk chocolate! The world when you drink is different to when you don't. So different. There are different habits when you drink. I would come off stage and start drinking. Just head to the bar. That's what everyone does when they finish the show. Then you realise you don't need to go to the bar. You just don't need to go there.'
Were the tabloid revelations the thing that made you stop?
'They'd already stopped, to be honest. [Goes very quiet] It's difficult to talk about all of this...'
'[Interrupting] I don't know whether you do understand because I have a wife and two kids and actually it's nobody's fucking business. My wife will read this interview, and her friends will. And we've dealt with it. I don't want to make her feel sick again, you know? Because I did make her feel sick and she's just starting to not feel sick after a year and a half and… [Starts welling up] I don't want to make her feel sick any more. I feel the most peaceful I have ever felt. I'm the luckiest… [Trails off].
'This tour for me is a lovely cap on it all. I'm not looking beyond this, at this moment in time, not with the band. It's a chance to say thank you to 1.8 million people, thank you for sticking by us through the last 20 years for all our shit, these five fucking idiots, because that's what we are are, all our shit that we've gone through they've stuck by us. Then I want to go home and spend some time with my kids and my wife and look after them for a bit.'
You were about to say how lucky you feel. Is this because you realise that you could have lost all of that?
'You realise none of this is worth anything without them. None of it. If I don't have them… there's no point to any of it.'
Have they been out on tour with you?
'They came to Sunderland. My wife is coming out for virtually all of the European leg too. Elwood watched his first show, Willow watched half. Elwood loved the robot!'
What happens after this? You make it sound, with some of the things you say, that this is you bowing out?
'I don't know. I don't know. In my head at the moment… I just want to get through this at the moment. If there's stuff that we can do, we'll do it. If something happens that means there's a reason to carry on we will. If we come up with songs we think people will want to hear we'll do them. If someone comes up with an idea that's about putting money in the bank then no…'
How's the next year of your life panning out in your head?
'The mind's a funny thing. I hear it in my head sometimes: “What are you going to do when this tour finishes? Gary's got 'The X Factor', Robbie's got a solo record, what about you? You're gonna get left behind again?” I hear that voice. And I go: “No, I'm not.” I'm going to enjoy myself, I'm going to take my time. One of the hardest things to do is nothing. That's what I'm going to try and do when this tour ends. Nothing. Achieve nothing.'
The band's security guard comes to fetch Mark. He's needed elsewhere.
'I'm sorry for snapping at you,' he says, then adds quietly: 'Sorry if I offended you.'
Gary Barlow wanders into the room. He starts talking about Owen, unaware of what we've just been discussing.
'Look at him, still trying to hog the headlines! Mark - the head judge is here!'
It's 4.45pm now, the doors to the stadium have just opened and Gary Barlow is already talking about the thing Time Out was told he wouldn't be talking about - his new role as head judge on 'The X Factor'. Mark leaves for his tenth fag of the day and his fourth coffee.
Gary Barlow is a whole different ball game to Mark Owen. Louder, more self-assured and patently not someone who overthinks anything. 'I leave that to Mark,' he says, quite correctly. Seen as the controlling, creative figure in the band in their early days, a role which meant he bore the brunt of Robbie's ire in his time away from the band, Barlow has relaxed into a far more democratic role. But it is still his band really, and with his boundless energy and inability to stress about any of the madness Barlow is an important figure in a group full of eccentrics. Life hasn't always been peachy - when his solo career fell apart in the late '90s he turned to drugs and suffered from depression. But it's this tough time that has made him so determined to enjoy every second of his renaissance. Including taking on a second role as a primetime ITV1 judge. Talking of which, and seeing as how he brought up the subject…
Throughout much of this tour you've been judging 'The X Factor' contestants during the day and singing live at night and you seem to be dealing with it…
'Workwise, they're pretty tough those days, but from a mental situation - which I'm often driven by - as I'd sit there on the helicopter being taken from “The X Factor” to a gig, I think: This is life at the top; this is as big as it gets. You won't find me complaining about that 'cos I know what it's like to be out of work with nobody interested in you, and it's shit.'
Apparently you're the tough-guy judge?
'Apparently I am! I don't know how it comes across but if they're no good I'll say I'm not interested. But I'm going to be tough on everyone, especially the acts I'll be looking after. 'Cos it's serious, this. It's bloody hard to make a living in music and I don't want to dress it up for anybody. Our responsibility is to mentor these people properly and we put through the ones that not only deserve a place but are also mentally prepared to take it on. They're plucked from nowhere, they're put into this spotlight - and “The X Factor” spotlight is bigger than any other. You see the slightest sign that they can't deal with that… well, you can't use them.'
Reports at the time of the Manchester gigs alleged that your female fans were getting so drunk they were becoming a burden on the city's ambulance services. Your fans are all drunkards: fair or unfair?
'I looked around and there were a few lairy people at those Manchester gigs. They come for a good night out and however they want to conduct themselves, well, it's up to them, really. I'm not bothered - as long as they're not causing too much trouble, not hurting one another, I'm fine with whatever they do.'
It has a knock-on effect though, doesn't it? Police in Glasgow are now saying that if your fans get drunk at the gig then try and get on a train home they could be arrested.
'Really? [Laughs] Right, well I hope they've extra staff on.'
Everyone was expecting Robbie to choke at some point. How has he been?
'Amazing. Never seen him like this before.'
Were you worried he'd change his mind?
'I was at the very start. 'Cos he did change his mind a couple of times! The touring was always the icing on the cake. We thought: If we can get this album done and away - great. Then if we tour… well, that would be amazing. And Robbie was just not looking forward to doing it on tour. He liked being with us and enjoyed spending time with us but the tour side of it seemed like a no-no. He has issues with the touring thing because of what happened before. Self-doubt and the rest. But there's been no issues at all. Me and Mark watch him every night do his solo bit from the side of the stage and we say, “Well, we've done our job here.”'
Gary is a little bit more sure on what his plans will be over the next year and a half. But his plans don't feature a new Take That album. He'll be producing Robbie's next solo album, performing a Children in Need concert in November, then in 2012 he's musical director for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee gig ('I'd prefer it with the band, but if it turns out they don't want to do it I'll do something on my own'). And he has his eye on a slot at the Olympics closing ceremony ('If asked, we'll do it'). Something tells me they'll ask.
Howard pops in to the lounge for a quick chat. The oldest of the band, and a father of two, Howard was recruited primarily for his dancing skills, but his singing on fan favourite 'Never Forget' and tracks on their more recent albums have meant he's increasingly been regarded as a lead vocalist in his own right. Howard is sure about his plans for the next 18 months: he's going to learn to fly a plane.
'I'm going to be doing my private pilot's licence. I ordered a plane last year' - he announces this with all the casualness of someone telling you which toppings they plumped for on their pizza - 'from America, and it's an amphibious plane so it can land on water and land. That doesn't arrive until 2013, so I've got to learn how to fly one before it arrives! It's always been one of my ambitions to fly a plane. Can't wait.'
The concert that night is a triumph. It's a spectacle unlike any other the country has seen. Even Om the robot - who is supposed to unfurl to his full height as the show progresses - works, and he has been temperamental on five dates already (including one memorable night in Manchester when Howard got stuck on top of him and had to be rescued by ladder). Dubliners go home happy. I go back to London, where the tour is heading now. Wembley, Gary makes clear, isn't just another date. Or eight dates. It's the ultimate date.
'You enjoy the hometown gigs, the Irish gigs, all of them,' he says. 'But I think as a venue Wembley is the one everyone dreams of. As a kid the TV show you would dream of was “Top of the Pops”, and the gig you would dream of was Wembley Stadium.'
But is it the end? Almost certainly not, but no one is giving me concrete evidence that plans for the future are being made. Maybe they're just too shattered (and exhilarated) to make plans. The only pattern emerging is of a group of people unable to see how they can top what they're doing now. And, frankly, how can they?