Taken from the Summer 2017 issue of Rollacoaster, out now.
Last year Liam Payne had a conversation with Justin Bieber. He doesn’t usually do this sort of thing. There’s a shop Liam frequents in Los Angeles. Whenever he sees one of Will Smith’s kids or a Kardashian he feels too self-conscious to introduce himself. “There’s still that little boy inside of me,” he says. With Bieber, it was different.
Like each of the select bands who go through their boy-to-man rites of passage in full public glare, Liam at 23 is a disarming mix of confidence, knowledge and conviviality wrapped up in a frightened canary let out of its cage. Sometimes he’s the boy at the bus stop. Sometimes he drops in reflexive anecdotes about his dealings with Donald Trump. No one understands Bieber’s experiences with quite the same clarity or from quite the same timeframe as Liam and his four One Direction buddies.
“Obviously [Bieber]’s struggled a lot through the way the world looked upon him,” Liam says. “I don’t feel sorry for him,” he continues, “he’s a great guy, inside there’s a really good heart. I said, look, the difference between me and you is that I had four different boys going through the same thing to look to. He didn’t have that.” Quite out of character, Liam Payne reached out a hand to his peer. “I said to him, listen, take my number and any time you want to have a chat, let me know because I’m here and I understand exactly what you’re going through and I understand your world.”
It was a lovely thing to do. “He needs somebody like that and in that position,” he qualifies, placing himself deferentially into the third person. It’s sweet for other reasons, too. In Bieber there is something of the idiosyncratic otherworldliness of a Michael Jackson figure. Liam Payne, a pretty, straight talking lad from Wolverhampton appears at first not to be that thing at all. “There is that in all of us,” he avers, meaning not only Bieber but his fellow One Direction alumnus Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson. “We all have this chaotic side to us. You know, they say that anger breeds passion. I think that’s the same with a lot of us, that we let things get chaotic very quickly. We’re used to chaos.”
Liam is sitting in a quiet antechamber above the photo studio where today’s cover story has been shot. He says he likes interviews and honours the assurance in a quietly riveting half hour before he’s whisked magically away. It’s Friday evening. Liam has been working out with millennial precision to make sure he’s at top physical condition should he be required to lose his shirt during the shoot. He’s whippet slight in the flesh, definition counts.
Six years ago, One Direction came third on the national TV talent show, the X Factor. 1D was an assembly-line operation pieced together at the audition stages. Boys that barely knew one another, slotted seamlessly together in the kind of multi-demographic hit their boss Simon Cowell is so adept at plugging into the national grid each year. That year, Liam and bandmates Niall and Louis looked like they’d been schooled at a premium boyband academy. Each sported variants of Bieber’s early slideover haircut. It was easy to imagine any of them taking a stool in Westlife or learning to breakdance for Take That, had they been born in another time and place. Within the trio there was a safe place in which teenage girls and boys could measure their sexuality, whilst tapping their toes. That wheel still turned. Flanked at either edge of the three were genuinely new angles for the British boyband model; Harry Styles, Cheshire’s own reality-age Mick Jagger and Zayn Malik, a practising Muslim from Bradford and nonpareil physical work of art to whom supermodels have since flocked. The five together hit enough familiarity and newness to open up a global fame haul not touched since the heady days of Duran Duran, Culture Club and Wham! back in the 80s. During the summer of their astronomical American takeover there was a plausible touch of Beatle-mania. They felt like an England football team winning the World Cup. Their records have sold in North Korea.
Liam and the boys were the first band to taste that fame level in the age of social media, making their story simultaneously that of the boys next door and untouchable messiahs. There was something refreshingly undone about them. Their best songs, “What Makes You Beautiful”, “Little Things”, “Steal My Girl”, even the precociously titled “Best Song Ever” are undeniable additions to the Great British pop cannon. Liam says the 1D song that he’d buy above all others is “Once In A Lifetime”, the little known track from their 2014 album, Four. “That’s my favourite song. Very Coldplay-esque. I wanted it to be a single but they just wouldn’t have it. It was very relaxed the way we chose our records and made things. It was really simple.” Someone else did it.
When 1D lost their X Factor trophy to semi-hot handyman Matt Cardle and were beaten to the silver medal podium by classy Scouse songbird Rebecca Ferguson, Liam was 16. He had auditioned for the show previously, at 14, as a kind of minipops Michael Bublé, Wolverhampton’s hitherto unseen swing angle. On his first induction to the X Factor factory, he was instructed by producers to go home and rethink his shtick as the last 24 were whittled down on TV. He says it attuned him to the hard knocks of rejection. Such was the omnipotence of the show back then Liam’s audition storyline was enough to grant him a local working men’s club career where he honed his skill and paid his dues.
“I did pubs and clubs,” he says. “When I was a kid, I literally played old people’s homes.” His one taste of what was to come arrived when Wolverhampton Wanderers FC invited Liam to sing before kick-off at a Manchester United fixture to 34,000 fans in the terraces. In honour of his local team’s squad colours he sang Sam Sparro’s “Black and Gold”. “It’s funny that that’s where we ended up, playing stadiums,” he says, with a pleasing air of pride and bemusement. “It was funny being stood in the middle again and thinking back on that 16 year old boy stood in the middle of a football pitch. My dad said to me, this is going to be the toughest gig you’re ever going to play. Football fans do not want to hear little boys singing. They’re not interested. You heard jeering from the crowd. But I got applause at the end. And my dad said, that is the best thing you could’ve got out of today.”
Liam says he can’t remember much of his time in the X Factor house second time around bar the tears. He was recently delighted to see fellow housemate Paije Richardson, the contestant Louis Walsh immortalised as looking “like a little Lenny Henry” on account of nothing but his colour, in a Harry Potter film (“the one where it’s Dumbledore’s army. He’s actually in the army, which is amazing. I’m absolutely obsessed with Harry Potter. Fucking love Harry Potter”). He nods as I mention some of the other names he shared his first home away from Wolverhampton with. Katie Waissel, Diva Fever, Wagner. “There were a lot of different, strange characters and lovely people through that show. It was very rushed and strange.”
On account of a childhood kidney condition, he had not even been drunk by the time he left home, Dick Whittington style, to live in a shared London house with a bunch of strangers maniacally chasing their fame dream in real time. “The famous line my dad said was, don’t come home until Christmas, meaning don’t get thrown off it before the final. And after I said goodbye to him that day, I never really went home again.”
When 1D lost, Liam turned to his dad with a “we made it this far” face. His fellow bandmates, he says, were in pieces. He remembers first Harry, then Louis, Niall and Zayn bursting into tears. “A cameraman came over and said ‘can I get you boys for an interview?’ and I looked at all the boys crying, in their mum’s arms and I was like, ‘look, I’ll do the interview’ because I was the only one who was alright and so I went off to the side and did the after-camera interview for us. I just left them because I wanted them to have their moment and the cameras didn’t need to see them like that. There was a real atmosphere. This followed throughout our career a lot of the time.”
In Cowell’s dressing room later than same evening, 1D were told that they would be signed to his label, Syco regardless of their position on the show. “Simon took us up to his dressing room to tell us he was going to sign us and Harry literally burst into tears he was so happy.” Emotions run high in boyband land. “He told us, I’m going to sign you. That was the moment. That’s where it all began.” The wheels of the juggernaut had begun to turn. “It was like a bomb went off,” he notes.
There was a pearl of wisdom shared by Cowell that stuck with Liam from that high-stakes evening. “The first thing he said to us after signing us from X Factor was ‘look, there are no angels here’. Which is so true.” What does Liam think Cowell meant by that? “That we’re all people. We’re all people here.” He doesn’t think it was an invocation of mistrust in the music industry, the smoke and mirrors world of real life fame? “No, no, no. It was a moment in a conversation. He said ‘look, there are no angels here and I know that you’re all going to make mistakes’. That’s what he was saying. Just get on with what the show is, do your bit, do your business, go to work and be real. That’s what that comment meant. Don’t stress about it, it’ll all turn out alright in the end.”
In that moment, it sounds like Liam Payne made a pact with himself, to go for it regardless, at the top tier, to claim his moment. “Everyone strives to be the person that they want to be,” he says. “I try too much sometimes, I think. I overstep the mark a little bit sometimes. That’s why I’m such a perfectionist. But sometimes I think you have to believe that there are no angels.” The first One Direction single, “What Makes You Beautiful” was released in 2011, on 11th September.
The second half of 2016 was an eventful time for Liam Payne, presaged by his signing a solo record deal with Sinatra’s old imprint Capitol Records on 21st July, the first fruit from which – “Strip That Down” – has just dropped.
While in 1D, he says all five boys dabbled on their own material. Because boybands never break up anymore, 1D are officially on sabbatical. Whether that translates as a bit of genial respite or full scale hatred for one another is a matter that’s been carefully blended into their tale with just enough leaks of a hint to either. Zayn, who had already fled 1D’s nest a year earlier, missing their victory lap worldwide stadium tour released his solo album Mind of Mine last spring, reinventing himself as the Frank Ocean for Unilad readers. Niall played to his Irish card with a forgettable busker-ish ballad for the Christmas market very much carved from the mould of Ed Sheeran and seasonal John Lewis adverts. From the snippet of it we heard, Liam’s song sounded like his ascent to manhood, touting him as a moody, roustabout lover-man in something of Drake’s lineage, complete with street lyrical touches (while writing, a picture appears on Liam’s Instagram feed of him with the Canadian don, though it’s not specified whether he’s working or partying with his hero).
Whenever Liam talks about the 1D boys he has the exact same dad-ish air of concern, care, amazement and slight separation from the operation that Daddy Barlow has with Take That. Oh, that’s the other thing. Liam had kicked off the year with a new belle, The X Factor’s Queen of Our Hearts, Cheryl Tweedy.
Liam brings up Cheryl, of course he does. The two live in Surrey, out of the city. When I make a joke about him being Lord of the Manor, he says that his sister bought him a plaque to denote his Lordship for his last birthday, a joke that doubled when it turned out Cheryl had been bought a similar gift by Simon Cowell during her tenure on X Factor. “So we’re Lord and Lady, which is hilarious.” To British suburbia, this is of course precisely what they represent, a self-selected aristocracy in which we’ve all played a part in the honours system.
He says things with Cheryl are working out well, becoming temporarily misty-eyed. “This is the thing. In a non-cliché way, it’s weird waking up every day and literally living out your dream. You wake up in the most beautiful places. Obviously I have the most beautiful girlfriend in the whole world and she’s absolutely amazing. She’s been my dream girl since I was younger. She’s so ace.” They are used to companionship. They have Liam’s dog, Watson, a Great Dane. “If I’m ever having a problem or I ever get a bit angsty about something that’s happening in life then I take the dog out for a walk and there’s just unconditional love from him. Anyway, I don’t want to go too much into that. I’m not like a weird dog person.”
“She is a wonderful, wonderful person and it’s amazing to have someone who can relate to so much of things, someone who’s taken greater steps than me. Her solo career was amazing. She’s been in the industry for 14 years now. She fully supports me. We’re super happy. I appreciate you didn’t ask about it. It’s a very personal, precious time for us. I’m still learning. I’m only 23.”
Because he is the youngest of three, Liam inherited the bed that his big sister’s had slept in at home in Wolverhampton. He tried to paint a wall blue to put his own stamp on the room, still shaded by bunny rabbit curtains into his teenage years, and ran out of paint before finishing. “It was a total tip,” he says of the last bedroom he lived in before fame. “That bed was so old. The last time I went back and sat on it I couldn’t believe it was the bed I used to sleep on. I often think about how I used to sit on the windowsill and just look at the stars and wonder what this was all for. And I often used to think, there must be more to life than this.”
I ask if his parents kept the room the same as when he left. “Well,” he says, interrupting the nostalgia with a little sharp reality, “I bought my parents a house so I haven’t actually been back to that room in a long time. I’d like to.” The experiences of 1D made five men very rich, very young.
Liam knows exactly his financial worth. “I do,” he says, letting out a nervous laugh. I ask if I would blush if I saw his bank account. “Honestly, it is a very scary thought,” he says. “It is not something that we were given. It’s something we worked our asses off for. The way we went to work every day and the way we travelled the world and the way we conducted our business, with great management at the time and greater minds, it turned out great for everybody. But it was a long five years.”
On the last night of the last 1D tour, management presented all four remaining members with a plaque festooned with little badges for every single gig they’d played since their first. “It was a sombre night,” says Payne, who has started becoming more emotionally transparent in front of other people this last year. “To see every show we’ve ever done on a plaque?” he says, raising eyes to the sky. “Again, everybody was in tears. And I’m quite good at holding it together but I have got a lot worse of late. Adverts and things make me cry. I think I’m getting more emotional as time goes by, especially with everything that’s happening in my life at the moment. It’s a very emotional time and time to reflect on a lot of things and the person that I am to be. Do you know what I mean? If that makes sense?” It makes perfect sense.
Beneath the extraordinary life he has lived so far, outweighing every one of his personal, societal and geographic expectations, there is a deeply admirable humility and candour to Liam Payne. On the subject of his forthcoming record: “I’ll tell you the truth. The dream was to be able to get signed and release an album. That is every musician who’s on Youtube’s dream today. I’ve got the opportunity to work with a really great label, Capitol. The people I work with are absolutely amazing and to get a record deal and be able to release the album that I want to release is the most amazing thing ever.” He has no idea how it will fare. “Even if this went tits up, sideways, it’d still be step one that I got here.”
Liam Payne never voted in a general election. “I’ve never been able to vote,” he explains, “because we’ve always been in different countries and I’ve never really understood it. I still feel like a 16 year old boy when it comes down to things like that and I wouldn’t know which way to go.” He steered clear of the EU referendum (“I kind of knew that we were going to Brexit. It was just a gambler’s feeling”) and doesn’t know how his parents voted in it.
Do you want to know his Donald Trump tale? Of course you do. “Oh, here’s a story,” he says, rubbing his hands. “Trump actually kicked us out of his hotel once.” It gets better. “You wouldn’t believe it. It was about [meeting] his daughter. He phoned up our manager and we were asleep. He said ‘well, wake them up’ and I was like ‘no’ and then he wouldn’t let us use the underground garage. Obviously in New York we can’t really go outside. New York is ruthless for us. So he was like, ‘OK, then I don’t want you in my hotel’. So we had to leave.”
He’s seen a lot of life, has Liam. That he retains himself amid it is spectacular credit to those around him and the man himself. “Now he’s President,” he says, perhaps for a moment reflecting on the opportunities life affords the most unusual candidates. “I just hope he doesn’t kick me out the country.” He’s laughing now. “I hope he lets me stay.”
Like this? Buy the Summer 17 Issue of Rollacoaster here, or head to the Wonderland shop, 192 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9ET.
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