Exactly one year ago, Zayn Malik quit One Direction. Since then, he’s split up with his pop star fiancée, hooked up with Frank Ocean’s producer and made a solo album. Gavin Haynes pulls up a stool at the pub in his back garden to hear the full story.
“Did you get the smoke on that?”
Zayn Malik is giving direction to his personal videographer, trying to make sure that the world sees his latest joint from its best angle. Throughout the four hours NME spends at Zayn’s cover shoot, he smokes at least four of these impeccably rolled little mind-bombs, which means plenty of trips to and from the window. His walk is a kind of primal strut where the head leads and the shoulders come forward one at a time to hang out with the very cool head. You might walk like that too if you had £23m in the bank, a supermodel girlfriend and a record-breaking US and UK solo hit by the age of 23.
That girlfriend, Gigi Hadid, is also here, sat alongside Zayn’s mainly American entourage, being fairly quiet and fiddling with her iPhone. He bobs over to her and lavishes some of that smouldering attention. They seem very much in lust.
Gigi starred in his ‘Pillowtalk’ video – the lusty, slow-burning comeback single that last month became only the 25th song in history to debut at Number One in the US. “It was something I felt was in me for a long time,” Zayn will later tell us of the song. “It was exactly what I wanted to say.”
In many ways, Zayn’s is a story we’ve all seen before: increasing ennui at being a children’s entertainer; the uncomfortable growth of appetites – musical, sexual or pharmaceutical – beyond those suitable for 14-year-olds. So it wasn’t all that surprising when, not long after he’d been pictured with a girl who wasn’t his fiancée (Perrie Edwards of Little Mix) on a Thai beachfront, Zayn woke up knowing in his bones that he’d had enough of being in One Direction. And that was it. “I called my security and I was like: I need to sort out a plane, I want to go home. I don’t know how I knew, but I just did. So I chatted with my cousin. Listened to a few songs. Just… waited for my plane to come.”
The shoot starts late and overruns to the point where we’re asked if we want to do the interview back at his “pub”. And by 8pm, we’re in a cab heading to London’s leafier edges, deep in the stockbroker belt.
Zayn Malik’s house is a big white cube with round windows and glass balconies, the sort of thing footballers would buy if they were too edgy for the faux-Georgian stuff. And there, across about a hundred square metres of lawn, connected to the main house by a rope bridge, is Zayn’s pub.
“It’s in tribute to me grandad,” the lord of the manor explains of his booze-shed. “I bought the bits from Homebase. I put it all together. I decided to turn it into a pub. I like f***ing around with the nail gun…”
Zayn’s got whisky in his tumbler and an emergency joint behind his ear. There are a couple of taps, a collection of spooky skulls, some fake cobwebs probably left over from Halloween and a novelty beer helmet with funnels on it. There’s a One Direction platinum disc on the far wall and, above the door, a small plaque giving the names of Zayn’s maternal grandparents and the pub they ran, The Bradford Arms.
It feels like an oasis for a lost boy who can’t go down the real pub, but Zayn says he does sometimes get out into Realityland. “When I go back to Bradford,” he says, “I just put me dad’s coat on and walk about. People don’t expect it to be me.”
His latest video, for forthcoming single ‘Befour’, was shot in Manchester’s grimy Miles Platting district just a few days ago. It dramatises all the stuff of Northern working class teenage life: Ford Fiestas, crappy takeaways and endless ladding about. Zayn loves what he calls “lad sh*t” (in addition to his crossbow, he has a couple of scrambler bikes, a go-kart and a samurai sword he describes as his “pride and joy”).
“It wasn’t like: ‘I’m still Jenny from the block’,” he says of the vid. “It was more like: this is what I used to do. Go down the chip shop, hang out with my boys in the car park. We never set fire to cars, but…”
Were you a good kid or a bad kid?
“I seemed to find myself in situations that weren’t necessarily the best situations. Getting wound up by stuff people said…”
You were sensitive?
“I wasn’t sensitive… I hate to get into it because it’s not something that affects my brain any more. There was a kind of racial confusion with me. They didn’t really know where to put me. I confused arrogance with ignorance. Certain people don’t want to know certain things and I had to realise I couldn’t teach them.”
Zayn’s mum Trisha, a dinner lady, converted to Islam when she married his dad. She was the one who’d make sure he went to mosque. She was also the one who forced him to get out of bed when he wanted to flake out on his X Factor audition.
But it was Zayn’s Pakistani father who first got him into music. Yaser Malik liked ’90s rap – Biggie and Tupac – and classic reggae: Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley and Yellowman. Through these, Zayn migrated to Donell Jones, R. Kelly, Prince and local Bradford rappers. “I’ll still talk about songs with people – like, ‘Haven’t you heard this song?!’ – and I’ll pull it up on YouTube and it’ll only have 6,000 views ’cause it’s only known in the local area.”
The family struggled to meet the rent each month, and the first thing Zayn did when the money rolled in was buy them a house. He went to the infamous Tong School (“Unsatisfactory” – Ofsted) and in some ways you can see that in him – he’s a guy who struggles to find the words to say what he’s got to say. But he retains an artistic temperament, which would’ve made him stick out. All his many tattoos are self-designed and he regularly retweets fan art. At one point, he had a graffiti room in his house.
He says he always knew he’d end up as a solo artist – he auditioned as one, after all – and that being in the studio is what he lives for (“I love to f**k around with things that no one would ever get to hear”). He wrote all the lyrics for debut solo album ‘Mind Of Mine’ himself.
“It’s really reflective of the whole experience that I want to give the listener,” he says of his album’s title. “I wanted it to be almost like a brainstorm. It’s just music and it’s just whatever you’re feeling at that moment in time.”
One thing he’s been feeling is ‘Drunk’, a track his entourage kept bigging up to me. I mention it, and Zayn reaches for his laptop. “You want to hear it?” Soon enough, an R&B torch song somewhere between Mario’s ‘Let Me Love You’ and R. Kelly’s ‘Ignition (Remix)’ blares out: “Late nights/Red eyes… We’ve been drunk all summer”. It’s the sort of humid romance you can imagine becoming a staple audition track for a new generation of X Factor hopefuls.
When Zayn went through a very public bust-up with his original post-1D producer Naughty Boy, it felt like maybe his exit strategy would combust amid his own flailing ego – especially after he called the producer a “fat joke” on Twitter. But not long after, he started working with James “Malay” Ho, Frank Ocean’s studio guy, whom he can’t praise highly enough.
“With Naughty Boy, look, we just didn’t get on. And we’ll leave it at that. Malay is all about the music. He can tell you what the screw is in a microphone that gives it that tinny sound. He’s that kind of guy. And he’s a very interesting person. I find people interesting if they can break things down.”
Certainly, Malay has bent Zayn’s ear to the right credible influences. ‘Wrong’, for example, sees him duetting with Kehlani, the latest pretender to the nu-Aaliyah throne. In fact, Malay has ransacked all the chilly on-trend 2015 “PBR&B” – the synth-heavy, atmospheric stuff typified by The-Dream, The Weeknd and Miguel.
Elsewhere on ‘Mind Of Mine’, Zayn takes some detours. I ask about ‘Fool For You’, an unexpectedly Beatles-esque pop ballad in the style of ‘In My Life’. “I was listening to a lot of John Lennon the week I got that loop,” Zayn admits. “And there was this one song I got addicted to, with Indian music at the front of it, sitar, and then it becomes, like, another song…” It turns out he means ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’.
The doobie comes out from behind the ear and he sparks it up. “I’ve probably been smoking for a while,” he grins. “I don’t wanna say when I started because I don’t want to influence anyone else. That’s just something I do myself.”
Is it something you bring into the studio?
“It helps sometimes with the creative process, if you’re smoking a good weed.”
And anything stronger? Is this going to be your “My Drugs Hell” summer?
His face flickers: “Don’t panic, it’s organic.” It’s the sort of non-answer Zayn’s good at. When we ask about anything political, he clams up. When we ask about what the future holds for his 1D pals, he gives it a swerve. In all of those years of being media-trained to within an inch of his life, Zayn learnt the aikido of the interview.
“I’m still probably the closest to Liam [Payne],” he says of his former bandmates. “We talk on the phone.”
“He congratulated me on my single. Which was nice. I congratulated him on his Brit Award.”
Sounds very cordial.
“It was a good chat. We hadn’t met in a long time so we want to meet up.”
When did you last see him?
“Probably before I left the band.”
So you haven’t seen anyone since then?
“I tried to have contact but nobody’s reached out. So… whatever.” He mumbles the last bit.
Do they hate you?
Would there be any valid reason for them to hate you?
“I don’t think so.”
So where were those rumours from? The ones that said you were booted out?
“I seem to remember someone saying something like that, but I don’t remember any rumours.”
Presumably, that whole time was a total f***storm?
“You can be in the eye of it if you choose to be. Or you can let it overwhelm you.” He stands up from his stool, like he’s about to launch into the bridge of a 1D hit. “See, I’ve kept a little bit of my sanity. I understand how the media works. Journos gotta earn their money. Paps have got to earn their money.”
Did you learn that early on? That you needed to focus on the un-realness of all this, or it would destroy you?
“I think so. I think that’s why it came across as being mysterious or detached. I just didn’t want to get caught up in something that wasn’t real. You can be the biggest band in the world for a certain time, but that ends.”
So you knew, even at the start, that you had to get out before the time limit expired?
“I’m not saying that. But if I did…” He laughs. “Then f**k me, I’ve got a great brain.”
Something unspoken hangs there. He’s canny, Zayn. He’s sensitive but strong-willed, a born leader. He’s outsmarted pretty much everyone by finding a way out of Syco intact. Is it too much of a stretch to think that his strategic aim may have been there all along?
The knock on the door comes. A handshake, a final grin from below those long, square eyebrows, and we leave Zayn to the only pub in the world where he can drink unmolested.