‘We want the buzz back!’ Seven years after they split, Westlife are back, here they reveal why they quit, what made them re-form – and the very unlikely superfan who’s their secret weapon.
What happens when boy bands decide they don’t want to be boy bands any more, and quit while at the top?
It sounds as if there’s brief elation, some euphoria at doing ordinary things like mowing the lawn and changing nappies, then a creeping realisation of what it is they’ve lost.
Nicky Byrne, who we can now refer to as Nicky-from-Westlife again, sums it up.
‘For so long I wanted to be out of that bubble, and I needed to be someone who wasn’t Nicky-from-Westlife.
But you can’t help but watch other bands and think, ‘We used to have that. We were on the Brits. We used to work with that songwriter, that producer…’
‘Nothing compares to the buzz of being in a band. I remember going to see Coldplay and thinking, ‘That was us!’
His bandmate Shane Filan points out how fast time moves when you’re not dominating the charts.
It’s seven years since Westlife split, and they’d had a good innings for a boy band (‘Most only last a few years,’ Shane says. ‘We’d had 14.’).
In that time all their children (the Westlife members have nine between them) have arrived or grown up.
Some kids – Shane’s for instance – have no clue their dad was as famous as the bands they idolise.
‘My daughter, who’s 13, was going to see Taylor Swift at Croke Park in Dublin and my wife Gillian said, “Daddy played there.”
‘The kids didn’t believe her, they don’t know what Westlife is.
‘So the comeback is for them too. We want them to experience the buzz of it, the feeling that they’re part of something magical.’
Yes, it’s another pop comeback.
What have Take That (the band who best proved it was possible to have a triumphant return) started?
Twenty years since Westlife burst onto the music scene with their power ballads, black suits and teen-friendly image, they’re back.
The faces aren’t as fresh and the line-up isn’t how it began (Brian McFadden left after five years and is not part of the reunion), but the big difference is in their attitude.
There’s much discussion today about what to call them – a man band? A dad band? They all shudder.
‘We’ll always be a boy band, at any age,’ says Nicky, who at 40 is the oldest member (Shane will follow him to the big 4-0 this year).
‘It’s a term now. But I’d rather be in a band like Westlife than a guitar band that spends its whole life in a studio living on coffee and cigarettes to try and get that hit.’
Hits were never a problem for Westlife.
Since forming in 1998, they have sold a phenomenal 40 million studio albums, making them the UK’s top-selling album group of the 21st century.
They were the first act to top the UK charts with all their first seven singles, and they’ve had 14 Number 1s in total, including Swear It Again, You Raise Me Up and Flying Without Wings.
Much of their success was built on the fact that they appealed not only to teenage girls, but their soaraway ballads were mum-friendly too.
At any Westlife concert, as well as the ear-piercing shrieks of overwhelmed teenagers declaring their undying love, there were as many middle-aged women swaying along to the hits.
Now their original younger fans are mothers themselves, the big question is whether the band can win them over again.
There’s another key member of the Westlife story who’ll not be back either.
The brains behind the band was Simon Cowell, who they met when he was a mere A&R man for record company BMG.
They say that without him, there’d be no Westlife.
Simon told them what to wear, how to look (he famously phoned up Shane and told him, ‘You’re looking fat, kiddo’), and how to act.
‘He was the boss, totally.
‘He was just a record company man at the time – this was way before any of his telly stuff – but he’d walk into the room and we’d all sit up,’ says Nicky.
‘He knew what he was doing. We wouldn’t have been successful without him.
‘He came up with some of the ideas that defined us – the suits, for instance. And standing up at the key change in a song.’
It was weird for them to see their boss – and then their early manager, Louis Walsh – become much more powerful as first Pop Idol, then X Factor, dominated TV ratings.
‘We were famous, then our boss became like Brad Pitt overnight,’ says Nicky.
‘Then our manager became like Tom Cruise.’
It was Louis, already managing Boyzone, who discovered them as a six-piece vocal group – including current members Shane, Kian Egan and Mark Feehily – from County Sligo in the west of Ireland, but when he pitched them to Cowell he said they weren’t good-looking enough.
Via auditions in Dublin, Louis jettisoned three of the original members and took on Nicky and Brian instead.
Cowell duly signed them and Westlife was born.
This time around they’re not signed to Cowell’s company, but reports have suggested he was interested in a Westlife reunion if Brian McFadden was involved.
Absolute rubbish, say the lads.
‘He was never part of the talks, not with anyone,’ says Kian.
‘Brian was in Westlife for five years, but we existed for eight years without him. Nobody asked for him.’
Since leaving the band, Brian’s had three Top Ten singles but is best known for appearing on reality TV shows, including the current series of Dancing On Ice.
But for their reunion, Westlife didn’t want him back.
Nor, it seems, did they want to sign with Simon Cowell again.
‘It’s better that we’re with Virgin,’ says Nicky.
‘Simon’s so big now it’s best that we work with people who are 100 per cent focused on making our records.’
They give the impression that by the end of Westlife’s reign, Simon had outgrown them.
‘He’ll admit we were one of a gazillion things he was responsible for,’ says Nicky.
‘We joked about it being like Toy Story.
‘We were the toys who wanted Andy to play with us again, but Andy had moved on.
‘Simon was doing American Idol. We were delighted to hang onto his coat-tails.’
Now, although Louis is their manager again (alongside Sonny Takhar, Simon Cowell’s former top executive), they insist they’re in control.
The Brian conundrum is the best example of this.
‘The band can’t exist without us four,’ says Nicky, ‘and we’re the band that existed in 2012.
‘We haven’t fallen out, but I haven’t seen Brian in ten years – not since Stephen Gately’s funeral.’
Gately, a member of Boyzone, died of natural causes aged just 33 in 2009, and in that very Irish way they muse about funerals bringing them together.
The core group, they say, dropped everything to attend Kian’s mother-in-law’s funeral a few years ago.
‘Brian didn’t come,’ says Kian. ‘This is the Westlife family.’
So how do Westlife negotiate the balance of replicating the old success while fitting into the current music scene?
One man is key – and it’s not Simon Cowell.
Getting Ed Sheeran involved has been the Holy Grail.
He has co-written the first single from their new album, and they hope he will make them cool again because everything he’s touched recently has turned to gold.
‘And he was a huge Westlife fan,’ says Nicky.
‘He’s said he learned to play the guitar to our songs. I was blown away when I heard him on the radio playing Flying Without Wings and changing the lyrics.’
Since Westlife split, Steve Mac, the songwriter responsible for some of their biggest hits (including Flying Without Wings), has gone on to work with Sheeran, and they’ve formed a formidable team, penning Sheeran hits like Shape Of You and writing for artists such as Little Mix.
Six months ago, as the lads sat down to talk about a reunion, they heard Steve and Ed had written songs for them.
‘It was bizarre,’ says Shane. ‘We’d been thinking, ‘Could we get in with Ed Sheeran?’ then we were told he and Steve had written these songs – before they knew about us re-forming.
Steve played us four songs, and it was amazing – like hearing Flying Without Wings for the first time.’
Why would Sheeran write songs for a band that didn’t exist?
‘He writes four, five songs a day apparently,’ says Nicky.
‘And he was such a big fan that he wanted to replicate our style.’
‘He liked us as a kid,’ says Mark.
‘He was nine or ten, listening to our stuff.
‘It’s amazing how it turns out.’
Today, they’re buzzing as they talk about their forthcoming, 32-date tour, which has sold out.
It kicks off in Belfast in May and finishes at Croke Park, where they bowed out at the end of their 2012 tour.
But if they’re this passionate, why did they quit?
Could they not have just had a rest then got back to work, like U2 do?
‘It’s hard for a pop band,’ says Mark.
‘That machine is relentless and we were tired. I certainly needed out for a bit.’
Nicky – the most talkative, but they all chat nineteen-to-the-dozen – says the band had become blasé about being rich and worshipped.
‘It wasn’t about falling out.
‘We had rows every day, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed.
‘By the end we disrespected what we had. Maybe we all became a bit arrogant.
‘We’d done it for so long we took it for granted.
‘We were still lighting the fire on stage, but how long can you fake it for?’
Kian nods, saying, ‘By the end we were just waiting for it to be over.’
Mark pitches in, ‘We didn’t enjoy being Westlife any more.
‘I wanted a “normal” life.
‘We’d never had to book flights or go to the supermarket.
‘When I got the chance to, I loved it.’
They light up when talking about escaping to the real world.
Nicky, who has three children with his childhood sweetheart Georgina, the daughter of former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern and sister of the novelist Cecelia Ahern, says he wouldn’t get annoyed at traffic jams because of the novelty of driving himself.
He loved going to the supermarket, doing the school run.
‘Our whole life before was about having people to do everything for you.
‘We didn’t even pay our own electricity bills.
‘Our accountants did that.
‘It can screw you up, being so removed from reality.
‘Some people, like Michael Jackson, come to the fork in the road and go the other way.’
Shane says he discovered a love for gardening and Kian chips in with observations about lawnmowers.
‘You think, “Ooh, I can mow my own lawn”, then it’s, “Oh, I’ve got to mow the lawn”.’
‘We tried a holiday before we split,’ says Mark, ‘but when you’re in that juggernaut you’re made to feel guilty if you go away.
‘After ten years we took a year off and were told, “It might not be there when you come back.”
‘People made us feel we were lucky – that they could get others in if we weren’t careful.
‘We were bullied. No, not bullied, but pressured.’ Nicky steps in.
‘Bullied is a good term to use. The difference now is that we’re our own bosses.’
Not that they’re dissing Cowell and the team that made Westlife a success.
‘We needed them to learn our craft.
‘If you don’t do what they say at the start, you’re never going to make it.
‘But you have to be able to control things too.’
Each went in a different direction when they split.
Nicky came sixth on Strictly Come Dancing, while Kian chilled out (“I did a lot of surfing”) then went into the I’m A Celebrity… jungle.
Mark set up a catering company.
They all brought out solo material, with Nicky representing Ireland at the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, although he didn’t make the final.
Kian’s solo album Home reached Number 9 in 2014, while Mark released two albums.
It was Shane’s fortunes – or lack thereof – that took a sticky turn.
Managed by Louis Walsh, who talked him up as the next Michael Bublé, he released three solo albums and had hopes of combining a singing career with property development.
He had invested in new-build projects with his brother Finbarr, but in 2012 the global financial crisis hit Ireland’s property market badly.
Shane lost out in an epic way.
His company owed nearly £20 million, and there was no option but bankruptcy.
He won’t go into detail (“My children don’t know and I want to protect them”), but admits it was devastating.
To claw back some of the losses, he wrote a book in which he confronted it.
‘My whole life flashed before my eyes,’ he wrote of the realisation that his Westlife millions were gone.
‘Everything was gone – my home, cars, money. I cried inconsolably.’
And now? ‘It’s been dealt with.’
It’s clearly not entirely over.
Reports in the Irish press last year revealed Shane’s wife Gillian was declared bankrupt in 2018, with debts from the couple’s mortgages.
There was a time when all his earnings from anything Westlife related went straight to his creditors.
Can he keep the money coming in from this comeback?
‘Absolutely, yes, 100 per cent,’ he says.
The others are protective and shut the topic down, but admit to their excesses.
‘The more you earn, the more you spend,’ says Nicky.
‘We all had big cars, big houses.’
Will it be different now?
‘No, we’ll probably be buying Ferraris.’
‘I’ve learned no matter how great your car is, there’ll always be a nicer one that drives past,’ he says.
They reckon they weren’t as scatter-cash as some bands of that era.
‘We came after a lot of car crashes, so we knew not to fritter our money away,’ says Nicky.
Shane jokes, ‘No, we put it into bricks and mortar, like we were told.’
What peeves is the accusation that they’re only back for the money.
‘We were offered a deal a few years ago, worth millions, and we turned it down.
‘It wasn’t right then. I hate this attitude of, ‘”Ooh Westlife, they’re only making music again because the cash has gone dry.”‘
‘No one says that about Elton John.
‘Isn’t it beautiful that we can earn money?
‘None of us needs to do it, but we’re in a band that can generate money, and that’s a bonus.’
‘We’re doing it for the glory,’ says Kian.
‘Because we can – and we’re old and wise enough to take the second chance when it’s offered. How lucky are we to have another bite at the cherry?’
Westlife’s single Hello My Love is out now. The Twenty Tour starts on 22 May in Belfast.
Source: Daily Mail