He’s performed in the world’s biggest stadiums, sold 50 million records as a member of Take That and been the recipient of screaming adulation for more than 20 years. But something is still gnawing away at Mark Owen. “I won Best Bum,” he recalls. “But I had to learn whether there was anything more to me than having a good bum. I still don’t know whether there is really.”
With Take That on hiatus, the Oldham-born star has poured his insecurities into a new solo album, The Art of Doing Nothing, released today. Its shuffling beats, inspired by indie band Alt-J, and introspective lyrics may surprise the group’s vast fan-base. But recording the album, Owen’s fourth during an intermittent solo career, provided a boost to his self-confidence. “The more I talk, the more I could probably un-sell this record,” he suggests. Working with Alt-J’s producers, the record was conceived in the Rabbit Hutch, Owen’s studio at the bottom of his Wandsworth garden, after Take That, reunited with Robbie Williams, completed the record-breaking Progress tour.
Take That’s evolution from boyband to “manband”, grossing £115million from their recent concerts, coincided with the revelation that Owen needed to change his own lifestyle. The father-of-three, outwardly the band’s clean-cut pin-up, who regularly topped pop’s “most fanciable male” polls, admitted a series of affairs to his wife, Emma, and gave up alcohol, which he admits had become a crutch.
“When you start writing songs again, you don’t know if you can because you’re used to writing with a drink because you get confidence from a drink,” Owen, 41, admits. “This record was written in a clear head-space. It was nice to know you could still write a song and actually it wasn’t the drink that was helping you write.”
Did the Take That members retreat into sex, drugs and alcohol clichés as a reaction against their sanitised “boyband” public image? “Everyone deals with it in different ways,” Owen says. “Some people have heads that find it more difficult to deal with stuff. I don’t think it’s just about being in a band. It can be about Friday and Saturday nights out in your town as well.”
The Take That juggernaut broke records for the highest-grossing residency at Wembley Stadium in 2011. But could they succeed at Glastonbury festival? Owen, a Glasto veteran who has “enjoyed the festivities many times”, believes they will one day perform on the Pyramid Stage despite Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw saying the group could never ascend to the status of headliners. “There’s no question we could do it and play the songs,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to upset the Glastonbury fans because I am one. One day I expect we’d probably end up being on there.
“As a band we kind of like doing our own big shows and sometimes it’s kind of like a security blanket to be honest. We could do the Sunday slot, like Kylie, but I’d like to turn up and play one of the little tents off to the side.”
Instead of headlining a sold-out Glastonbury, Owen is gearing up for a solo club tour this week, beginning at Sheffield Leadmill. At least he won’t get trapped inside a 60ft robot, a fate Owen suffered when the technical centre-piece of the spectacular Progress shows refused to release him, in a Spinal Tap-style malfunction.
“I used to pray every night ‘please work’. The robot didn’t like the rain,” Owen shudders. “We had to get a guy with a long ladder like they use to clean windows to get me down. The audience was shouting ‘jump!’ It was a giggle. The robot is in Rob’s garden now.” The club shows will be a stripped-back affair. “I asked for a laser but I don’t even have that,” he says.
Take That’s break has lasted longer than planned but Owen says he’s “starting to get little whispers that people are getting ready to go back in and do something. I feel like we haven’t even started, strangely enough. As our life experiences develop, there’s more depth in what we can do.” While Take That lie dormant, the X Factor-created One Direction have grasped their boyband template and cracked America. Having bought a keyboard with his first royalty cheque to practice songwriting, he urges One Direction to develop their own compositional skills if they want a stab at longevity.
But now far from the teeny-pop machine himself, Owen has reached a stage in his career where he needn’t disguise a yearning for old-school indie –“I loved the Stone Roses and Radiohead” – and can release an album which attempts to fuse his current taste for Animal Collective and the Maccabees with Coldplay-style sweeping choruses. He only agreed to release the new songs, which are intended to “put an arm around the listener”, after his wife’s encouragement. “I couldn’t do this without her support. She said ‘Do it, or you’ll regret it.’ Or perhaps she’d just had enough of me around the house. But I’m very excited about it coming out.”
Owen, believed to have earned £7.5m from the Progress tour, shrugs off his inclusion in a series of stories exposing alleged tax avoidance by star names. He joined Barlow and Howard Donald in a £26m tax investment scheme which was described as a tax shelter for high net-income individuals. “My wife tells me I’m the worst person with money in the world and that confirms it,” he jokes. The restless Owen is, however, considering a radical career change. He contacted a Russian animation director with a concept for creating a musical cartoon short. “Me and Mikhail Dimitriev, I’d still love to get into animation.”
Now he is preparing to put music to one side and launch a behind the camera role as a film auteur. “I’m looking at going to film school. I want to write and direct. I wanted to do that 15 years ago. In another 15 years it will be too late so I’ve kind of got to do it in these next few years if I’m going to do it. I’m going back to school.”
And he has resolved the internal debate between his musical abilities and that envied rear. “It used to matter but it doesn’t anymore. I used to go through life making my own battles which I didn’t need to fight but I thought I did. It’s all about self-discovery. But actually, I did have quite a good bum.”
Take these: quick-fire questions
Where was the last place you went for dinner?
I had sweet potato falafel in studio
What was the last book you read?
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
What was the last concert/theatrical production you attended?
Jerusalem (Jez Butterworth play)
What was the last sporting event you attended?
Olympics. I took my little boy. We saw Bolt, fantastic.
What was the last film you saw?
3D film Epic