Westlife: I'm with the brand

When a boy band loses a member, it usually means consignment to the pop wilderness. But Westlife, with 30 million albums sold, are ballad-belting big business, and nothing is going to stop them now
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Of all the issues of our time, "Whither the boy band?" may not seem the most pressing. The travails of Blue, 5ive, Blazin' Squad et al, and their casts of over-styled teenagers with cartoonish names like Abs, pass many of us by. For their millions of fans (and there are millions), however, this is a crucial time for Westlife, the most successful and longest-lasting group of the genre. It may have escaped your notice, but the band's very existence has been imperilled by one of their number, Bryan, suddenly leaving. Can the rest manage without him? It is the question of the moment for Westlife aficionados.

Of all the issues of our time, "Whither the boy band?" may not seem the most pressing. The travails of Blue, 5ive, Blazin' Squad et al, and their casts of over-styled teenagers with cartoonish names like Abs, pass many of us by. For their millions of fans (and there are millions), however, this is a crucial time for Westlife, the most successful and longest-lasting group of the genre. It may have escaped your notice, but the band's very existence has been imperilled by one of their number, Bryan, suddenly leaving. Can the rest manage without him? It is the question of the moment for Westlife aficionados.

A brief update for those whose last encounter with a boy band was finding a copy of Take That's greatest hits in a bargain bin: formed six years ago with the help of the Irish pop impresario and reality TV judge Louis Walsh, Westlife are Shane Filan, Kian Egan, Mark Feehily, Nicky Byrne and, until recently, Bryan McFadden. They have sold a staggering 30 million records, had 11 No 1 singles, and last year were the biggest-selling live act in the UK. Even if you think you've never heard them, few ears have not been penetrated by one of their soupy-but-effective ballads, such as "Flying Without Wings", or covers of Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" and Phil Collins' "Against All Odds".

Three and a half months ago, they were struck a potentially career-ending blow by the departure of Bryan. Pop bands rarely recover from the exit of one member - Take That post-Robbie, Spice Girls post-Geri, Hear'Say post-Kym spring to mind. The public, however, usually recover quite quickly and buy records by the next glossy group. Such are the hazards of music lite.

But Bryan is married, in a match made in OK! heaven, to Kerry Katona, formerly of the girl band Atomic Kitten and, more lately, I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. Their stock as a couple has risen beyond his as part of a five-piece. After discussions into the night and tears way beyond bedtime, Bryan left and Westlife were down to four.

With a band as packaged as this - they spent two years of 6am starts honing their act before their first tour - the news could have spelt the end. Although they have always been careful to project the image of a band rather than individuals, each member had a particular appeal. The worry was that the other four could not make up for the loss of Bryan, the tallest, most fresh-faced, and, some said, the most popular. It is not explicitly referred to on stage at the Birmingham NEC, but the subject comes up repeatedly as they thank the crowd for their support over the past three months.

"We've got a big point to prove with Bryan leaving the band," says Kian, when we settle down around a boardroom table at their hotel the next day. The interview starts slightly late as the four must be "groomed" before meeting the press; at one point, I see Shane dashing down a corridor in a dressing gown. Made up and artfully casual, they arrive one by one while their PR and a burly minder stand watch by the door. They're a bit shorter in the flesh than they seem on stage, good-looking but not extraordinarily so. Around the waistbands there are signs that the band once cruelly dubbed "too fat to conquer America" are not on too strict a diet at the moment.

"It's like losing a member of the family," Shane says. "It takes a while to get used to the fact that you've only got three members..." - "Four," Kian reminds him, "only one left the band" - "so it was like, 'Right, we've got to be like glue for the next three weeks,' and we worked the hardest we've ever worked." No visible cracks in Team Westlife, then.

"You look after each other more," Nicky agrees. "If you could not have an argument you wouldn't have it, because everything was a bit like walking on broken glass for a while. We somehow came closer." Shane nods. He's probably the de facto leader of the group, although officially there isn't one. He takes most of the solo parts, and his bearing has a natural authority and light charisma reminiscent of Westlife's former co-manager and boy-band old hand, Ronan Keating. "I think that's kept going," Shane says. "Even if you're having a little bicker about who was up first for hair and make-up. It's like, yesterday Mark was saying, 'Well, my head's shaved, so I shouldn't have to get up first,' and Nicky was saying, 'If you grow your hair back you'll have to get up first.' I said: 'Lads. Is there any point in even contemplating arguing about this?'"

There's something strangely comical about the scenario. One can't imagine many "lads", particularly strapping lads with strong Irish accents, engaging in verbal warfare about whose turn it is to head the queue for foundation and blusher. But then, the life of a boy-band member is pretty odd: trained, moulded and coiffed for every appearance to maintain that crucial image. Predecessors such as Take That even had to pretend they never had girlfriends.

Actually, what on earth is it like to be in a boy band? Kian, generally the blondest of the group and the one with a startling grasp on pop economics, begins. "Because of the type of band we are, our schedule is probably quite different to that of a rock band. A lot of our record sales depend on 'promotion'. But otherwise it's not a lot different. When we started off we just wanted to make sure we were as good as the rest of the boy bands that were out there, the Backstreet Boys, NSync, Boyzone."

High ambition indeed: those three racked up multimillion-dollar and -pound fortunes between them. But then, Kian is very clear about what the group is. "We understand the politics of the business. We're not about credibility or being a rock band. We do the music for people who want to hear it." While performing, he larks about for the crowd (the vocal demands on him are not high) and in posed shots he looks like the Baby Spice of the group, but he's considered the most likely to go into management in a Westlife afterlife, and he's serious about the discipline needed.

To admit that credibility isn't important seems obvious when they wear matching white suits on stage in a non-ironic manner, but it is still somewhat naff. When I put it to Kian that their lifestyle is not very rock'n'roll, and had they ever thought of throwing a television out of a window, he's dismissive: "That's all a bit rubbish."

How did they take to sudden fame? Nicky: "When we started touring four years ago, it was new to us and we were straight to the bar." (Mark adds, somewhat improbably: "We were like caged animals.") "The second tour we wound down a little bit less. We still have mad nights, though. Like last night I went to bed at six." Mark: "I was seven." Kian and Shane look surprised. I assume they're talking 6am and 7am, but one can't be sure.

Mark, the other main singer, is the most private and the quietest. (He spends much of the interview doodling: it's as if, when his quota of quotes is fulfilled, he can switch off.) The others tease him gently. When I ask what they would have done if they hadn't become Westlife, Mark says that he didn't necessarily want to be in a boy band, but it was always his dream to be a singer. "Now that you didn't make it as a singer," chips in Nicky, "what are you going to do?" Mark looks blank; he doesn't get it. Later he reveals that he once received a most unusual item of fan mail - a beautifully wrapped box containing a raw turnip. In a triumph of naivety, he says: "I couldn't figure it out."

There's a lot of this good-natured banter. Like the brothers they talk of themselves as being (although not, of course, in the manner of the fist-friendly Gallaghers), they finish each other's sentences or chime in all at once. Perhaps surprisingly - given their groomed, managed appearance - it's the comfortable to and fro of four people who have managed to spend an inordinate amount of time together without driving each other mad.

Shane, Kian and Mark grew up together in Sligo in the west of Ireland (hence "Westlife"), and formed a group with three others while at school. "Shane and Mark came up to me and said, 'We're doing this, are you interested?'" Kian says. "I said no at first." Shane interrupts: "He didn't want to be in a boy band. He said, 'A boy band!'"

Kian continues: "We did musicals; Annie, Oliver!, we were the T-birds in Grease. We were the boy band without even realising it, dancing and singing, the girls screaming. Then some of the members didn't work out, so we had to get two to fit in with us. And the day we found Nicky and Bryan, I said to Louis, 'You know what? We've got the next Backstreet Boys on our hands.'"

The fact that many have to rack their brains to remember the Backstreet Boys makes the point that Westlife have lasted longer than most. That means they're older, too; Nicky's 25, the others are 24. Two are married; Shane to Kian's cousin Gillian, Nicky to Georgina, the daughter of the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Do they mind still being called a boy band, a label that sounds, frankly, rather demeaning? "I don't think we care," Kian says. "We honestly don't see ourselves as that," Shane adds. How old do they have to be before the label becomes ridiculous? Nicky, the jokiest one, with a raucous Dublin accent that saves him from being too much of a pretty boy, concedes that age is a factor. "If we were 35, you've got to be laughing to call us that."

They are commendably frank about the limitations of their artistic goals - "We're not trying to be credible, our music is just literally pop," Nicky says - which is just as well, as their formulaic songs are obviously picked to allow them to appear as the soulful, yearning balladeers so beloved of their teen and preteen girl audience. But don't they mind when others are rude about them?

Yes, actually. Kian: "Bob Geldof made a comment that Westlife was nothing to music. Well, if we're nothing to music, why do people go out and buy our albums every year?" Nicky: "I don't particularly like the man - I think he was great for Live Aid and everything - but he does try to be controversial a lot of the time, and anyone who tries too hard is just... trying too hard, basically." They all nod at this profundity.

"It's like Ash," Kian says. "In every interview, they make it their business to slag us. For a publicity stunt they burnt a thousand copies of our album - we were like, 'Thanks for a thousand sales!' Things like that, that's sad." Shane: "It would be uncool if Liam Gallagher turned round and said we're brilliant." Nicky: "You read the NME..." (Kian: "As if Westlife would be mentioned in that. Huh!") "and everyone slags pop music. But there are so many pop fans in the world. People listen to these songs."

That's perfectly true. Criticising the band for failing to break the musical boundaries is rather like going to see Bruce Forsyth and complaining when he does a tap-dance routine. They are out to entertain, like the black vocal harmony groups of the Sixties. Shane agrees: "To be like The Temptations or The Drifters; that's what we want to achieve."

As an aim that may not be very cool, but there's nothing unworthy about it. Westlife are just four (now) Irish lads who can't believe their luck, or that their jobs are to travel the world performing (and making around £4m each) instead of studying marketing, as Shane had been, or becoming a policeman, as Nicky almost did. "I love how proud we've made our parents," he says.

Girls, drugs, the perfection of the curve of a Gibson Les Paul - other acts may be drawn to the stage by the promise of forbidden delights, but not Westlife. "Our parents got to meet the Pope," Shane adds, "things like that." Mark has the last words. "It's a big part of our motivation, to make our parents proud."

And with those heart-warming sentiments, we go outside to take photographs next to one of the hotel's golf courses. The lads eye the fairways hungrily; so keen are they on the game that their tour accommodation is based around golf resorts. That's not very rock'n'roll, either. But then that's something that neither they, nor their fans, could care less about.