Culture

Fame, Focus, Fist-Bumps: An Intimate Interview with Robbie Williams

As he gears up to release his 12th studio album, we spent a day playing golf and eating soup with England's greatest living pop culture legend.

by Emma Garland; photos by Leo Baron
15 November 2019, 10:22am

“Welcome to the most middle-aged, middle-class thing VICE has ever done,” says Robbie Williams, arms spread wide, standing on the green of a stunning country estate golf course in Wiltshire. I can see why he would think this, but I can’t bring myself to tell the most legendary pisstaker in British pop that the last thing our editorial team got collectively excited about was six free tubs of Oatly ice cream. There’s no time for that, anyway, because Robbie Williams has one thousand questions for me.

Where do I live? Where am I from? How long have I been a journalist? What did I study at uni? Last gig I went to? Music I was into growing up ("Manics?" he correctly assumes, before stating that "Motorcycle Emptiness" was the first commercial indie song that made him want to write rock music)? Am I hungry? How long have I had short hair? Is it a cry for help? “New hair means new danger, normally.”

Robbie, or “Rob”, as everyone calls him, is very concerned about my wellbeing. He’s dressed down – wearing plain black jeans, a BOY-London hoodie and a red Moncler beanie hat he describes as “just a big advertisement, really” – but you can spot him a mile off. A few other golf players in the distance do exactly that, constantly looking over, and he gives them an unreturned wave. He later jokes about how they’ll probably go home and tell their friends: “saw Robbie Williams today, didn’t say hi to us”. Apparently this happens a lot.

As someone with zero familiarity with the sport beyond Tiger Woods 99 PGA Tour, being invited to play golf with Robbie Williams made me feel like a CEO receiving a coded summons from a head of state. I can see why it’s such a thing among people with high-pressure jobs, now. It fosters a sense of intimacy and focus that’s not unlike meditation, which could either be pleasant or have big “no one can hear you scream” vibes. In this case, it’s the first one. This course, where Robbie usually plays, is surrounded by green slopes, thick woods and rolling farmland. Before teeing off, he hums “The Blue Danube” to himself because the rhythm helps to perfect the swing – an old trick popularised by American golfer Sam Snead. Overall, I can see why it would be calming.

Our interview runs from 10AM until 4PM, so he basically puts in a full shift as a life coach until I leave with a to-do list for every quadrant except my relationship, which, after an appropriate grilling (Do we get along? Does he make me laugh? Do I like, love him, trust him?) we establish is going quite well. He verifies this with a fist bump and a genuinely chuffed “fuck yeah”. As someone who’s been through the wringer a few times himself, it’s not surprising that the concept of happiness – subcategory: the search for – pops up during most of our conversations.

For anyone who has never received a fist bump from England’s greatest living pop culture legend: it’s a great feeling, like the Eucharist of live entertainment. Robbie Williams is a 360-degree performer. Pop star, rock star, old school crooner; a gobby regular from your local pub saddled with the talent of a Rat Pack member. The only man who could hold a candle to him in this country is Liam Gallagher, which is presumably why they keep trying to fight each other (later in the day he leans into me after looking deviously at his phone for a while and says “Dare me to send this?”, and it’s an Instagram DM he’s drafted to Liam containing two words: ‘Fancy it?’).

Robbie Williams VICE Interview

If it were a markets game, though, Robbie would win by virtue of cornering almost every single demographic. Mams like him because he’s charming, dads like him because he sits between Tom Chaplin and Ian Brown on the scale of Vocalists Whose Emotionally Reflective Lyricism Safely Allows Straight Men To Feel, nans and grandads like him because he can do Tony Bennett, and millennials like him because he embodies a certain self-awareness and irony that’s often discouraged in younger pop stars (if it was even there to begin with). Also we’re a generation raised on music videos like “Rock DJ” in which he rips his own skin off, and you don’t just forget something like that – you instantly canonise it. His headline show at Hyde Park this summer, where middle-aged women travelled from across Europe in rhinestone cowboy hats to scream “Angels” alongside early twenties LADBible subscribers, was a testament to the broad appeal he’s enjoyed since the beginning.

For whatever reason that appeal is rarely communicated in the press beyond praise for his live performances, so when it came to interviewing him about his forthcoming album The Christmas Present – two discs worth of festive covers and originals with guest appearances from Rod Stewart, Jamie Cullum, Tyson Fury and his dad, Pete Conway – I expected it to be a ‘go in, pot a few balls, go home’ sort of deal. I did not expect to end up at his house for several hours afterwards, meeting his entire family and texting my dad from the bathroom to say “having a wee in Robbie Williams’ toilet lol.”

“The tabloids will burgle you and then ask you how you feel about it a week later. ‘Aww, that must’ve been awful’ – you’re the ones who burgled the fucking house!”

After auditioning for Take That while he was still at school in Stoke-on-Trent (he found out he made the band on GCSE results day, when he collected his flurry of Fs and a D in English), Robbie’s career from 1989 until now has been a wild and sometimes painfully public ride. You can typically find his name in headlines near the words “Gary Barlow”, “courted controversy” or “damaging bender”, followed by a story that’s either masking a genuine health problem or based on a joke that’s been taken too seriously (remember all the stuff with the aliens?). His drug and alcohol dependency hasn’t been documented as much as it’s been made a spectacle of, with the tabloids spinning a narrative – as they often do – of chaos and a lack of control that underscores news stories about him even now.

“There’s a wilful misrepresentation of what you’ve said nearly every fucking day. It’s like, OK, we’re going to take that ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ and say ‘Robbie Williams has gone mad! He’s talking about chickens crossing the road!’” though he’d probably just told a joke. “That’s got me in trouble lots of times. I like being funny, or trying to be, and people purposely take the fun out of it and report it as ‘Robbie Williams did this today, isn’t he mad’.” Here he brings up the viral footage from his New Year’s Eve performance at Westminster’s Central Hall, where he uses hand-sanitiser after high fiving people in the front row. It’s something he’s done at every gig for the last 20 years “because people laugh”, but in this instance it became ‘Robbie Williams hates the general public’.

“You can spend an entire promotional tour answering questions about things that were completely made up,” he says, sounding baffled more than anything. “The tabloids will burgle you and then ask you how you feel about it a week later. ‘Aww, that must’ve been awful’ – you’re the ones who burgled the fucking house!”

Robbie Williams VICE Interview

As far as the drink and drugs-related controversies go, Robbie has settled down. Now 45, he’s been sober for 19 years (hence the golf) and married to American actor and fellow X Factor judge Ayda Field since 2010. He has three kids, a small menagerie of dogs and recently ditched red meat after scarring himself for life watching vegan documentaries on Netflix. All of which is pretty wholesome for a guy whose on-camera presence used to rival Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse combined for how many sick burns it was possible to squeeze into a three-minute backstage interview while gurning your tits off.

“When you stop drinking and doing drugs you realise what you’re covering up, and what I was covering up was social phobia,” he says, matter-of-factly. “So when you don’t have the crutch anymore, because you fucked it, you realise that you were socially phobic anyway – being famous just compounds it. But it’s alright, I’ve got an incredible life. This” – he gestures around the golf course – “makes a lot of sense for me. Get out, be at nature, try to outdo myself, have purpose. It’s replaced feeling sad,” Robbie explains. “I always find that, after I’ve done this, I feel much better. I’m a better dad, a better husband.”

It’s rare to hear men talk so personally now, let alone in the 2000s, but Robbie has always been frank about his struggles with addiction, mental health and body image. When I make that point in earnest, though, he brushes it off. “Yeah,” he shrugs, “I’m a compulsive oversharer.”

Robbie Williams doesn’t do earnest. It’s part of the deal, as with many comedians – you get the truth as long as it’s bubble-wrapped in humour. That, and a sense of purpose, seem to have helped him weather the ups and downs of being one of the most recognisable people in the country. But purpose is a different concept when you’ve been a celebrity since the age of 16. To me purpose means writing a not-shit piece about Robbie Williams. But to Robbie Williams – a man whose ten out of 11 solo albums went to number 1; a man who entered The Guinness Book of World Records in 2006 for selling 1.6 million gig tickets in a single day; a man with a record-breaking 18 BRIT Awards; literally one of the best-selling solo artists in UK chart history next to Elvis – purpose means something else. Most recently, it’s meant selling out Wembley Arena twice over in six minutes and announcing his fourth Las Vegas residency in 2020. And, as more of a personal challenge just “to see if he could do it”, it’s also meant writing a Christmas album.

You could see a Christmas album as a stopgap – which they often are in the UK, when every game show presenter with a pair of pipes shows up like clockwork. But this is a Robbie Williams Christmas album, and as such is a massive laugh (he covers Slade, for fucksake). It’s big band music, mostly, which suits Robbie down to the ground. A choice cut from the originals is “Bad Sharon”, a soft rock knee-slapper that features the incredible hook: “Grab that Sharon from the office / Nick the champagne, let’s get off it”. Fair play, for someone coming up to 20 years sober he’s astonishingly good at writing piss-up anthems.

“The raison d'être has been to write that song that sticks around and annoys people for the rest of time,” Robbie says. “I wouldn’t call it a stop gap, because you don’t spend three years writing a stop gap, but it’s nice to take the pressure off. That said, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting it right.”

The only thing he wasn’t able to do on the album is “Fairytale of New York”. “I wanted to do it with Britney Spears, but she’s not working, unfortunately,” he says to my face like it’s nothing. Like that’s just a normal and not world-altering piece of information that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Then he just walks off – walks off! – to play another hole.

Robbie Williams VICE Interview

***

The interview was supposed to end there, but Robbie invited me back to his house for lunch. And when Robbie Williams invites you round, you don’t say, “nah I’m alright, thanks”. So within the hour I’m at his kitchen table eating Thai pumpkin soup prepared by his personal chef and talking to his dad, who also has many questions for me.

To get there from the golf course, we must travel in “The Pop Mobile” – a car that looks like a small black van on the outside but a private jet on the inside. Each seat (there are four in the back, two facing forward and two backwards) is wider and deeper than any item of living room furniture I’ve ever sat in. Fresh water bottles stand tucked into every available crevice, and the TV screen built into the wall behind the driver is paused in the middle of a season of Real Housewives of New Jersey. Robbie seems less on guard here, propped up by a couple of pillows and freely dishing out opinions on Chinese take-away food (re: sweet and sour pork – “I don’t want a duvet of batter, I want, like, a top sheet”) and the sad state of rock n’ roll.

“Thatcher’s Britain created all of this incredible music as a rebellion against what was happening, and we’ve literally got the same things happening in this day and age and everyone wants to do tropical house. I don’t get it! Where’s the angry disaffected youth? It is happening in grime, yeah, but no one with a guitar is arsed. That’s got to have a moment again. It’s been over 20 years. Pop always seems to win, in whatever form it’s in, and I know I’m not the antidote to that,” he laughs, “but surely somebody should be.”

As the car trundles down a long country road I realise far too slowly is part of his estate, he reaches over and points out the window to “Om” – a fucking massive robot from Take That’s ‘Progress Tour’ in 2011, which is now chilling incongruously among the foliage like a Kubrickian monolith. Also nearby is an air hangar, currently in use as an art studio. For the last few years Robbie’s been painting, galvanised by his main take-away from Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, i.e: anyone can do it. He’s keen to show me his efforts at the house, and sure enough the corridors are lined with rows of abstract modern artworks made with neon floor paint. He tells me the plan is to exhibit them at some point.

“It’s like punk,” he says. “The premise was: I can’t draw and I can’t paint, but can I create something that’s arty and not shit?” As I inspect them he makes a point of highlighting the flying dicks he’s hidden amid the multi-coloured sprawl of squiggles and shapes, like a graffiti artist taking the piss out of Jackson Pollock. “Mission accomplished,” he says.

At a certain point it strikes me as remarkable how normal Robbie Williams actually is, all things considered. For someone the press has pegged as a loose cannon for decades, and whose stage presence is like Danny Dyer meets Keith Flint, being around him is a natural experience. After learning I’m from south Wales, his dad Pete – a singer who’s been in the entertainment industry for 52 years, as part of the UK’s old cabaret and social club scene – shows me old photos of friends on his laptop and tells me stories about playing cricket in Carmarthen as a youngster. He has that old school sense of humour where someone will leave the room, come back, and he’ll say “Oh! You’ve aged”. In short: it’s exactly like Sunday dinner at my parents’ terraced house in the Rhondda, only on privately owned land worth fuck knows how much, with one of the most famous families in the UK. There’s always going to be an element of putting on appearances, of course, but it seems no amount of celebrity has succeeded in taking the Stoke-on-Trent out of the boys.

"As someone who has Charlatan syndrome, who has very little self-esteem, when you get 50,000 people saying ‘we approve of you’... you wish you could bottle it and capture it. But it doesn't work like that"

Eventually the conversation comes back around to Hyde Park, where Robbie and Pete did a duet of “Sweet Caroline” – a regular party piece of theirs that tends to generate the same euphoria as a match-winning penalty kick. Neither are surprised by the crowd reaction anymore. No one can remember a time they received a “lukewarm” response.

“It’s my job to be emotional,” Robbie says, half-jokingly, when I suggest that he looked genuinely moved by the response. “No, you know, it never gets boring. As someone who has Charlatan syndrome, who has very little self-esteem, when you get 50,000 people saying ‘we approve of you’...” he pauses. “I’m so brittle, I’m so sensitive, so when that adulation and love comes towards you it’s genuinely overwhelming every time. You wish you could bottle it and capture it and have that be your armoury, but it doesn’t work like that. Robin Williams talks about how you can do these things and you can feel like you’re incredible and the best person at it in the world, then the next moment you can feel the total opposite. But those sorts of things happen and in those moments ‘when I’m feeling weak’, as the lyric goes, you can’t seem to access that safety.”

While fans tend to be reliable, though, the press are not – and that is something Robbie remains extremely sensitive to, regardless of how much has been written about him over the years, good or bad.

“It was nice that the reception was conveyed in the media in the spirit that it needed to be,” he recalls. “That sort of thing reinvents you as a viable thing. I’m hoping it might herald that bit in your career, where people go ‘aww, we’ll allow him back in! Good old him’.”

When I suggest that may have already happened, he gingerly agrees. “I think so. I’ve experienced that but just after Christmas and just before New Year – the hinterland,” he laughs. “But now it’s let the good times roll.”

@emmaggarland

The Christmas Present is due out on the 22nd of November via Columbia Records; pre-order it here. All photography by Leo Baron.

Tagged:
PROFILES
Noisey
Interviews