Old School… Keith Duffy and Brian McFadden
“We’re in Rochdale at the moment,” Brian explains via conference call. “I don’t know if you know Rochdale, but it’s like New York.” Did he just say Rochdale is like New York?
“Yeah, it’s crazy for traffic, you know? A very busy town. If you don’t mind chatting to me until he gets here.”
Keith, 47, has flown in this morning from Dublin, Brian explains. Coincidentally, I have also just flown in from Ireland.
“Whereabouts did you go?” A little place in West Cork called Clonakilty.
“The best white pudding in Ireland, son, Clonakilty pudding! If I ever murder someone and I’m on death row, that’s my last meal. A full ring of white Clonakilty pudding.”
While we wait for Keith, Brian tells me about the new Boyzlife album, Old School, on which they co-wrote all the songs together – not a skill much required in their boyband days.
Released on May 6, preceded by the Don Henley-sounding single, ‘The One’, it is a startling evocation of the sort of epic power ballads that enshrined the careers of 1980s stars like Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi.
Brian even plays guitar on the record. “We made our boyband music, that was our job. It was great but my favourites growing up were the Beach Boys and then I went into a whole Guns N’ Roses-Nirvana phase where I had long hair, Doc Martens, and combat trousers.
Goosebumps… Brian McFadden
“But it was that ’80s pop-rock that really gave us goosebumps. What I hate about music now is that nobody’s trying to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Keith and I agreed we wanted each song to sound like it could have been on the Karate Kid soundtrack or one of these ’80s movies with those real feel-good anthems at the end.”
He continues: “It’s time for Keith and I to show what we actually do, because we’re a lot more than people probably think. We’re songwriters, musicians, producers – the whole imagery of Westlife wasn’t really about that. The same with Keith in Boyzone.”
As if on cue, Keith arrives on the call.
“He’s been in Clonakilty for the last few days,” Brian tells Keith.
“Oh, really?” says Keith. “You have any of the pudding?”
Brian: “He did, yeah.”
I smuggled some back in my suitcase, I joke.
Keith: “Good lad. You should have smuggled them in your pocket. The women would’ve loved you.”
Genuine… Keith Duffy
They both laugh and start chatting amongst themselves. It’s clear they are genuine pals. Something they aren’t afraid to confess you couldn’t always say about their respective former bandmates.
Keith recounts how the end of Boyzone was sparked by lead singer Ronan Keating entering a ‘private’ arrangement with Boyzone manager Louis Walsh for a 50 percent stake in the management of Westlife, who Walsh took on in 1999, at the height of Boyzone’s success.
They were touring Southeast Asia when Keith received a surprise phone call from his father. “He said, ‘You better be enjoying yourself, son, because your days are numbered. While you’re over there paying Louis’ mortgage, he’s looking to put together a new boyband.’”
Further revelations found Westlife booked as ‘special guests’ on the next Boyzone arena tour, then the killer punch.
“Louis being very clever, he’d made Ronan a 50/50 manager with him on Westlife.” As a result, “Westlife came along and pretty much took our audience” Keating, meanwhile, launched a successful solo career with the No.1 hit, ‘When You Say Nothing at All’, from the soundtrack to Notting Hill.
Keith: “So it was a bit shitty for the rest of us, but in hindsight if it hadn’t happened, me and Brian wouldn’t be sitting here today. So a lot happens for a reason, I guess.”
Despite Westlife going on to comprehensively overtake their rivals, clocking up the first of 13 No.1 hits in February 2000, with ‘Swear It Again’, Brian also found out the hard way how difficult it was to maintain relationships in the claustrophobic world of boybands.
He walked out of the group in 2004, citing a need to spend more time with his family. The truth was his life was out of control. Married to Atomic Kitten singer Kerry Katona, whose own chaotic lifestyle would lead to cocaine addiction, he was a twenty-four-year-old father of two infant daughters.
Despite having “made loads of money,” he couldn’t cope. He fled to Australia, where he found solo success and a new love in singer-actress Delta Lea Goodrem, who he was engaged to for five years.
His second marriage, in 2012, to Irish model Vogue Williams, also lasted five years before they divorced.
“If I hadn’t of gotten married so many times, I wouldn’t have written so many great songs,” he jokes. Then adds more thoughtfully, “A happy man never writes a great song. It’s always the one who’s been broken and miserable.”
As you might gather, Brian is the one more prone to introspection. Keith the one more readily available with a laugh and a joke.
When I suggest that he and Brian can now be anointed as fully blooded rock artists, he laughs and says, “piss artists, you mean.”
Life is never, Keith insists, to be taken too seriously. Hence the appearance of both men over the years in various soaps, reality shows and, in Keith’s case, various Boyzone comeback tours. Brian has been refused re-entry into the Westlife orbit, the wounds of his long-ago walkout perhaps never having fully healed.
“I was the only person in the band that had a family,” says Brian. “Everybody else was single. I’d had six great years. I made loads of money, but I needed a break. Then three months into that I got bored out of my tits and decided no, I need to make music again.”
Keith stayed the course, always seen as laidback and cool. The one the boyfriends of the girls that screamed loudest for Boyzone wouldn’t have actually minded having a pint with.
“You’re very kind,” he chuckles. “You’d probably get yourself in trouble if you came out drinking with me though.”
“Keith always wanted to be a drummer,” says Brian. “He was the most surprised person that he ended up in a boyband.”
A lengthy Boyzlife tour kicks off in Liverpool in September. What can we expect?
Keith: “The greatest hits of Boyzone and the greatest hits of Westlife, as well as the new sound of Boyzlife. The personality and sense of humour comes through in the links between songs and then from time to time we go missing on stage – and pop up in the middle of the auditorium making somebody else do the singing.”
The origins of Boyzlife go back to 2016 with the stage show: Boyzlife: Stories – Laughter – Music.
“It was an autobiographical show where we only sang six songs,” Keith recalls fondly.
“The rest of the night was all telling stories. If we were in good form and the drink was flowing, it was three-and-a-half hours long. If we were tired and bored, it was an hour-and-a-half. There were nights that people missed the last taxis and train home and then there were nights they were going home, and it was still bright out.”
“But that’s what you get with Brian and I,” Keith continues. “We’ve always been very unpredictable. We don’t even know what we’re going to do from night to night. It changes every time.”
Brian: “One thing that never stays the same is the lyrics. I don’t think we’ve ever done a show where we got every single lyric right, and these are songs we’ve been singing for 25 years. We always mess up at least two, three songs.”
“In fact, if we feel we’ve got all the lyrics right,” Keith interjects, “we muck up the last song on purpose just to keep it flowing.”
They insist this is just the beginning, that you can take a project like Boyzlife in all kinds of directions. TV spin-offs, film ideas, books, online interactivity.
Keith: “We’ve done weddings. We’ve done bar mitzvahs. We do private parties. A lot of our fans are getting married now and they want us to sing the first song at their wedding and if their fathers are wealthy enough who are we to question them?”
That and a ring of Clonakilty white pudding no doubt.