Given a leg-up by the internet phenomenon of Rickrolling, Rick Astley was the unexpected comeback king of 2016 when ’50’, his first album in 10 years, became his first Number One since his 1987 debut, ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’. Having released a new collection, ‘Beautiful Life’, last week, the 52-year-old walking meme talks to NME about singing multiple times with the Foo Fighters (and having Dave Grohl’s number), his dream of a Calvin Harris team-up and why he’s the Gareth Southgate of pop.
What was the battleplan going into your new album ‘Beautiful Life’?
“There wasn’t one, to be honest. My studio’s at home behind the kitchen and my wife went away for a couple of weeks to do some work in America. I found myself on my own, having toured the last record a lot. I hadn’t been in a studio for ages properly, so I just wanted to be in there. I was originally thinking that I’d go and work with other writers and a producer, and maybe I’m being foolish doing it myself again, but I also feel that ‘50’ did really well and I’m not going to fix what isn’t broken. Unless you’re Prince, obviously you can’t do it on your own forever, so it would be nice at some point to get in a room and see what other people have to offer.”
Who would you like to work with?
“Oh My God, I’m going to be so obvious now, it’s like, ‘Ugh! Almost too much!’, but if you listen to Adele or Sam Smith’s records, the producers are saying ‘this person sings a certain way and we’ve got to connect that to their audience’. To me, it’s vitally important that somebody does that with my voice. But then again, I’d quite like to do something more leftfield than that because I think every label would be saying ‘well, let’s just get the guys who did Adele’s record to do it’. Because why wouldn’t you?”
How leftfield would you like to go?
“The thing is, I like music you can dance to – but I don’t necessarily like all dance music. ‘Cos I don’t take drugs, I don’t want to stand in a club, thinking ‘Where’s the bleeding song?’. Whereas one of the super uber-producers, like Calvin Harris, he’s fascinated by songs. To me, he’s a songwriter and I think he’d be a good fit, but listen, I’m picking out of a dream list of people there!”
Your last album title ‘50’ was a hat-tip to Adele. Did she ever give you any feedback?
“No. I haven’t really become mates with anyone who’s in the charts right now (Laughs). I’m as old as most of their dads so I don’t see how that would work. But you never know! It’s a funny old game. I did this festival in Japan, which is where I did this thing with the Foos because they invited me onstage. Royal Blood were on the same bill, so I was chatting to Ben [Thatcher], the drummer, for quite a bit afterwards. Then I saw him in LA again, and I think he’s a really interesting guy. I’ve played drums since I was a kid, so I’m always checking out drummers and I think he’s something special. He gives that band an awful lot of presence.”
How did your bromance with the Foo Fighters all start?
“It was just because we happened to be on that festival together, and obviously those guys must have noticed that my name was there. I was literally at the side of the stage watching their set in Tokyo. And I’d just gone and had a nap – My God, that’s going to make me sound ancient! But I was knackered, it was crazy-hot weather and I was jetlagged to buggery. I’d had a couple of beers at that point and was just trying to get hold of the time difference when Dave Grohl spotted me, came over and gave me a hug and then half an hour later, he just said: ‘Right everybody, this is happening’. So I’d never met them and had no idea they’d be aware I was there. It was a bizarre, amazingly weird, fantastic thing. I mean, I know they’d played ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ to protesters at a church they had a feud with [the notoriously homophobic Westbro Baptist Church] a few years earlier.”
From the footage online, you look like you’re living your best life…
“Well, I was a little bit pissed (Laughs). I’ve watched it back a few times because friends keep sending me the link to it, going, ‘Rick, what the fuck?’. I screamed at the audience ‘Come on you motherfuckers!’. And I’m thinking ‘Why did I do that?’. And I know exactly why I did that – ‘cos Dave Grohl’s just whispered in my ear ‘We’re going to do your tune but we’re going to do it like ‘[Smells Like] Teen Spirit’ and I’m like ‘okay’. It seemed appropriate at the time. It was a call to arms to myself to say ‘Right this is happening, get involved – or else’. It was pretty special. We hung out with them afterwards.”
What did you talk about?
“Nothing too rock and roll! It was more to do with kids, holidays, food, blah, blah blah. The guy who plays keyboards for me plays in Spandau Ballet as well and when they found that out, they were like, ‘Oh My God, that’s awesome!’. I’ve sung with them at three of their gigs now – one in London and one in LA as well – and there’s no difference between what they’re like onstage and off. You’ll be chatting, then 15 minutes later, they’re onstage in the same shirts.”
You’ve covered tracks of theirs before. How did you first get into them?
“As I say, I’m really into drums – and have buggered up my elbows playing them. I have a midlife crisis rock band with a couple of friends, playing punky songs – Sex Pistols, The Clash, etc – at gigs for charity. We play Foo Fighters and murder them ‘cos they’re quite technical players. So I’ve been very aware of their music from album one, really.”
Is there any chance of a collaboration?
“I would doubt that in the extreme, but you never know. I know Dave Grohl’s the kind of person who doesn’t stop doing things so who knows whether he – or the rest of the band – would want to. In a parallel universe, who knows? Listen, I’d love to do that. Of course I would. Who wouldn’t want to get in a room with Foo Fighters and say ‘Right, what are we doing then?’ But I can’t exactly see how that would work from their side. I think they’ve got enough fish to fry. But yeah, it would be a great fun thing to do, that’s for sure.”
Is Dave Grohl’s number in your phone? Could you ring him up and say ‘Let’s make this happen’?
“Erm….I’ve got his number, yeah, but I wouldn’t be calling him to ask him to do that. I’m not turning it into something it’s not. They’re just a really lovely bunch of guys who are very generous with their love of what other people do.”
Bizarrely, Hollyoaks recently ran a storyline where Kim Butterfield was held hostage by Ryan Knight and locked in a storage cupboard and sought solace by talking to a poster of you. Are you going to cameo in it?
“I mean, I’d never really watched it before, but yeah, they asked me (Laughs). Watch this space! It’s a weird world, innit? I’m not telling you anything. I’m going to leave you on that cliff-hanger. And on that bombshell!”
Apparently you have your own Jägermeister machine engraved with your initials which you take on tour…
“We do! I think that’s perfectly normal. Doesn’t everybody have a personalised Jäger machine? I mean, come on, what world are we living in? It has to be the right temperature or we won’t go on. We’ve got to have some kind of Spinal Tap moment! Our only strict rule is if you’re in our dressing room, you have to have a shot with us or leave.”
You’ve been referenced in Family Guy and South Park. Would you like to appear in Rick and Morty to complete the set?
“I’m not against the idea! Every week there’s a new meme or internet prank. It’s when people do really clever things that tickles me. The teaser trailer to the second series of Westworld stopped me in my tracks because I love that show. It starts on the beach where special forces guys are clearing up after the whole shooting incident of the last episode, then it cuts to the main street where the main actress [Evan Rachel Wood] starts singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ in the darkest, most minor way you could possibly imagine. So it’s a Rickroll, but they’ve actually had to make the track and learn it. Creative stuff like that is amazing – and it gives a little moment to that song again and keeps it going. When they Rickrolled the White House – everyone on staff got Rickrolled one day which means the song was in Obama’s inbox. That’s pretty far out.”
Do you think your image has shifted? In the ‘80s, you were wildly popular but critically reviled whereas now you have a certain cachet of cool. You’ve passed the student irony barrier….
“I try not to get too hung up on that. It’s nice if someone says ‘Oh man, I loved that record when I was a kid’ or ‘My mum loved that record and it was played a lot in our house’ or ‘it still sounds great today’. I’ll take that all day long. But I also don’t want to fool myself into thinking I’m something I’m not. I think when you get far enough away from something, things can become cool that were never cool. I don’t think ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ was ever a cool record. I was never cool. And I’m fine with that. I think it’s a pretty good tune. (Laughs) I’m still singing it. If I find myself in a bar in whatever part of the world and there’s a band playing and they spot me, they tend to play ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and I sing with them. That’s a nice thing to have in your life.”
In a way, your redemption means you’re a bit like the Gareth Southgate of pop…
“(Laughs) Well listen, Gareth Southgate has completely and utterly exceeded 98 per cent of the country’s expectations of him so we have to tip our hat to him. I was a bit indifferent to him taking the job – he wasn’t like a superstar manager who took Germany to the World Cup and won or whatever. This is one of our own who most people unfortunately remember him for missing a penalty, but he handled it really well. Fair play to him. If I was ever considered to be a Gareth Southgate of pop in any musical terms, I’d happily take that.”
Beautiful Life is out now through BMG.