Robbie Meets Nick Duerden
On a humid August day in South London, Robbie takes time out from rehearsals in advance of his World Tour for a no holds barred chat with Nick Duerden.
It's a rare trip to the UK for Robbie, who spends most of his time in LA these days, and a chance for the star to talk in depth about his new album 'Intensive Care', and one of Robbie's proudest achievements.
"Lyrically, this is the best album I've written," he says. "It's given me a whole new perspective on the future, as well. In the past, I used to think I wanted to kill Robbie off, but you know what? He's alright. I've come round to him now."
That's lucky then! For the full story, read the full and frank interview.
"LA is somewhere for me to at least try to be normal" he says, "and normal is good. I need a bit of normal in my life, and that's why I left London. Here in California, I blend into the crowd. Nobody recognises me, and I love it."
It is a humid August day in south London, and Robbie Williams has arrived inthe capital for something he hasn't done properly for close on two years now: band practice. His schlepp to this cavernous rehearsal space has been a considerable one: 11 hours from his home in Los Angeles, albeit 11 hours in first-class.
"Well," he says, grinning, "it's the only way to travel, isn't it?"
He then proceeds to tell a story about the benefits he sometimes reaps from his frequent flying - particularly on Virgin - and it's a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the accumulation of airmiles, but rather hot towels. It is a delightfully scurrilous story (so scurrilous that we won't be re-printing it here), and effectively offers proof that pop stars really do live a very gilded life indeed.
A resident of LA for three years now, Robbie only returns to the UK when work demands it of him. Right now, work demands it plenty. He has just finished the writing and recording of his latest album, Intensive Care. To celebrate its October release, he will play a series of concerts across Europe - London, Amsterdam and Paris - before arriving for a particularly special show in Berlin on October 10th. Hence this afternoon's band practice.
By the time he arrives, cigarette drooping from his lower lip, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, his band are already in place at their instruments. Truth be known, they have been here in place for the past five weeks now, honing their own individual work on Intensive Care until it comes as naturally to them as breathing. Greetings are exchanged, the band plugs in, and as Robbie lights another cigarette, his right hand clutches the microphone and brings it towards his lips. And then he begins to sing. Though he appears to do this with very little effort, his voice is rich and sonorous and uncommonly strong
For the next hour, they run through Intensive Care in its entirety. Well, almost its entirety. He will refuse to play the album's maudlin closing track, King Of Bloke And Bird, a song he refers to, sardonically, as his own Wonderwall, because, he says, "it's still too raw, too painful." The band thinks he is joking, largely because Robbie is often joking. But not this time, it seems.
"Do you want to hear us run through it?" guitarist Claire Worrall asks him.
"No," he replies, deadpan, final. "No."
Afterwards, he wanders into the studio's adjoining lounge and over to its large window, where he watches commuter trains crawl by on their way to London Bridge. The sun is holding steady in the sky. It is barely four o'clock in the afternoon.
"I've had enough. Can I go home now, please?" he says.
He lights another cigarette, makes his goodbyes and leaves.
The pop star's seeming apathy is, as ever, rather misleading. Robbie Williams cares, and cares very deeply, about the music he makes and the manner in which he delivers it. To this end, he has been working on the new album, his first release since 2003's Greatest Hits, for the past two years now, readily confessing that he has put more effort into this one than perhaps any of his previous ones. There are reasons for this, and several of them are to do with firsts: this was to be his first album without long term songwriting partner Guy Chambers, his first with new collaborator Stephen Duffy, and his first since turning 30 (he is now 31).
The effort has paid off, and rather handsomely. Intensive Care might just become a defining album for him, and a very persuasive entry into Phase Two of what is becoming a remarkably enduring career. He remains the master of the glorious pop song - Ghosts, Make Me Pure and Random Acts are as buoyant as anything he has written before - but other tracks here take him into uncharted territory. Tripping, for example, was inspired by The Clash and contains a trouser-tightening falsetto. King Of Bloke And Bird is sung from the bottom of a very disquieting depression, and if it makes him flinch to sing it, it will make listeners flinch as well. Advertising Space, meanwhile, a song that may or may not be about the ghost of Elvis Presley, is a ballad of peerless poise and maturity.
"Lyrically, this is the best album I've written," he says, immediately acknowledging that, yes, he tends to say this before every album comes out, but that he really means it this time. "It's given me a whole new perspective on the future, as well. In the past, I used to think I wanted to kill Robbie off, but you know what? He's alright. I've come round to him now."
Turning 30, he says, has had an emboldening effect on him. He feels happier in his skin than he has since his school days, and more content. His competitive streak, though, remains as pronounced as ever.
"But then I've always been competitive," he concedes. "All my heroes have. Look at the Rat Pack. I love all of them, but Dean Martin didn't give a fuck, Frank [Sinatra] had a phenomenal gift although all he had to do was open his mouth - but Sammy Davis Jr... well, Sammy performed as if his life depended on it, and that's what I tend to do as well." He ponders this revelation a while. "Why do I do that? Well, life's a competition, isn't it?"
And just who is he competing against?
"That's a good question, and I'm not sure of the answer," he says. "Perhaps myself? But I do feel I am mellowing - mostly, I do. I no longer demand to be taken seriously, in any way, shape or form. I'm done with that. You know, my critics would always rather believe that somebody else has done all this but me. First it was Guy Chambers, now Stephen Duffy; anybody, basically, but me. They want to believe that I don't really sing, I don't play any of the instruments, and that I'm entirely talentless. But you know what? Let them think that. I don't care any more."
Robbie pauses here to ruminate over what he has just said. Fifteen, 20 seconds tick by, and his face folds in on itself. He then decides that perhaps he does care, and will always care. It's the competitor in him.
"The truth of the matter is this: If I sat down and learned to play the guitar properly, then I wouldn't need anybody at all. I could do it all alone. But I don't want to. I'm not bothered about learning to play the guitar properly, or the piano. I'm the songwriter, and I write the fucking songs." He smiles with a very evident satisfaction. "That'll do for me."
Robbie Williams has been an international pop star for the past 15 years now. That's half his life, and a good chunk of his fanbase's. In this time, he has released six studio albums that have sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and has won countless awards. By successfully shrugging off the shackles of his boy band past, he has done something very few before him have managed, and he remains hugely popular the world over, generally perceived as the greatest entertainer of his generation. Life, then, has been good to him. He has had his demons, of course, but is now of the opinion that most of his demons are behind him.
Intensive Care was written in the enveloping calm of his Los Angeles home, which sits high in the Hollywood Hills. Its location, far from the madding crowd, is the reason, he suggests, for his current peace of mind.
"LA is somewhere for me to at least try to be normal," he says, "and normal is good. I need a bit of normal in my life, and that's why I left London. Here in California, I blend into the crowd. Nobody recognises me, and I love it."
The album will not be released in America for this very reason. The man has fame throughout much of the Western world; why else would he want similar on his doorstep when, for so much of his time, what he craves most is anonymity?
"Basically," he says, "I've got used to my anonymity, and I like it. It's going to be weird coming back into the public eye. I think I've forgotten how to be famous..."
Two months after that August day of band rehearsal, Robbie is on stage at London's Astoria, playing a secret warm-up show for the impending Berlin extravaganza. Within minutes of arriving on stage to screaming audience pandemonium, he has remembered precisely how to be famous, and does it very well indeed for the next 90 minutes. The wide smile on his face is suggestive that he is enjoying himself enormously, and that, whatever he may later say to the contrary, he is happy to be back. He seems both relieved and emboldened that the new songs are greeted with the same enthusiasm as the old, and that Intensive Care will not disappoint but rather consolidate and boost an already glittering career.
"If I don't test my mettle as an artist," he said earlier, "I die inside."
Mettle tested, Robbie Williams lives.
Interviewed by Nick Duerden.
Location: South London