Originally published in The Irish Times, January 20th 2012.
LIAM PAYNE looks confused, possibly even a little disappointed. “Yeah, there were none outside today,” he tells me, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t think they know we’re in here.” Screaming girls. They have become a fixture in Payne’s life, as well as the lives of the four young men he spends most of his time with these days.
As members of One Direction – the boyband most likely to send your teenage sister into a hysterical, hormonal meltdown – they have become accustomed, over the past 15 months, to being followed, being cried at, being screamed at, and to having underwear thrown at them.
But not today. In a conference room in the basement of Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel, five young men (four of them still teenagers) are nearing the end of a long and tedious promo day. Energy levels may be low, but sugar levels are high. Louis Tomlinson, the eldest of the group, is perched like a gargoyle on the edge of his armchair, mastering his comedy Irish accent and poking bandmate Niall Horan – the only Irish member of the group – in the side incessantly as he does so. Right now, trying to corral their collective attention and wedge an occasional question into the mix seems an onerous task. Then again, when you’re one of the most in-demand pop groups on the scene, sleep must be a precious commodity, right? What time did they get to bed at last night? “Turty-tree o’clock!” chirps Tomlinson gleefully. You get the picture.
One Direction is not just a group of faceless drones fresh off the X Factor conveyor belt. There are distinct personalities at play, here, and if you were to use the Spice Girls naming formula in this instance, you’d have an equally diverse array of characters. Apart from the aforementioned Hyperactive Direction, there’s Brooding Direction (Zayn Malik), Inconspicuous Direction (Niall Horan), Coiffed Direction (Harry Styles) and finally, Sensible Direction (Liam Payne). It’s Payne and Styles that speak most articulately, and even if their answers smack of media training, well… at least they’re answers.
“It has been a really exciting year for us, we’ve done so many things,” Payne says diplomatically, while his bandmates chatter amongst themselves. “It was great to watch the documentary [ One Direction: A Year in the Making ] recently, because we got to see and recap on all the things we’d done. And it was great for our families to see too, because obviously they don’t get to see a lot of the stuff we do first-hand.”
Since coming third on 2010’s X Factor cycle, the quintet haven’t had much time at home. Some of them dropped out of school to take part in the audition process; Horan should have started a sound engineering course in DIT last October, but he has yet to complete his Leaving Cert. Still, how could an Irish mammy possibly stand in the way of pop superstardom? “Our parents are just so supportive, they just love everything we do,” butts in the dapper Styles, flashing a dazzling set of pearly whites.
“They’re so proud of us and what we do, so I don’t think there’s any sense of us missing out on anything. I think they’re just happy for us.”
Like any young pop group in the early stages of their career, One Direction have no choice but to place their trust in their management team, who tell them where to go, when to eat and even when to sleep, as well as selecting who they work with. Is it hard for five young men to relinquish control of their own lives, at a time when their peers are asserting their independence? Short answer: no.
“Thankfully, we got lots of say in the album, actually,” says Payne. “We got to choose a lot of the songs and that sort of stuff. That was important to us with X Factor , too – we kind of put our own stamp on the boyband thing.” There are even a few songs on Up All Night that bear their names, as well as those of pop songwriting and production luminaries such as Savan Kotecha, RedOne and Kelly Clarkson. “Some of the time we actually sat there and there was no song – we came up with the concept from the beginning,” says Payne proudly. “Toby Gad was one of the guys we wrote with. He wrote If I Were a Boy, which was obviously a massive song – so to work with someone like that when we’re just starting off is a massive deal.”
THEY WEREN’T daunted by such prestige, though.
“Songwriting’s a very precious thing, y’know,” Malik pipes up sagely. “When you write your own music you can be quite precious about it, and it can be quite hard to express it to people. But we always felt comfortable. And we had each other to show our ideas to.”
They may be on the credits list, but to many people, One Direction are simply just another batch of Simon Cowell-manufactured pop puppets.
“We want to show that that’s not the case,” says Styles. “We have a lot of ideas that we share with our management and we actually get listened to a lot, believe it or not.”
“Yeah, and if you think of someone like Justin Timberlake, who was in a boyband and came out of a boyband and is still making great music today – he’s definitely someone who’s dictated his career,” adds Payne. “He’s written his own music and made his own songs and even signs artists, so he’s someone to look up to, definitely.”
Even if their fame is destined to be fleeting – hardly likely, given their recent deal with American label Columbia (their album is released Stateside in March) and the fact that they’ve already run rings around the two acts who beat them to the X Factor crown in 2010, Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson – all five members insist that they’re up for the “hard work” that staying in the game long-term entails.
The suggestion that there is a gap in the boyband market since Westlife’s demise is met with a polite refutation. “There could be 10 boybands all doing different things, I don’t think it matters,” shrugs Tomlinson.
“Like us and JLS for example. We make completely different music and there’s room for both of us.”
And the biggest lessons they’ve learned to date? (It hasn’t been a philosophical or spiritual journey, but it’s taken them via collectible doll versions of themselves to video shoots in LA and number one albums in Australia.)
“How to be mature,” says a straight-faced Tomlinson, before bursting into a cheeky fit of giggles.
“How many clothes you can fit in a suitcase,” proffers Malik, a glum acceptance of sartorial curtailment for the foreseeable evident on his face.
“How to live on my own,” concludes Horan. “If I was to get my washing done at home, I’d have to wait two weeks to get it back.”
You can take the pop star out of Mullingar . . .