If more travel agents were to promote the Shaolin monastery as a major tourist spot, the current figure of 120 million annual visitors to China might double. That is, if those tourists believe, like the Irish lads from Westlife, that Shaolin monks are the one local attraction not to be missed. On their recent visit to Shanghai, the boys from the internationally-famous boy band said Shaolin was one of the reasons they came to China. In addition to seeing the Great Wall, trying their hand at calligraphy, experiencing acupuncture and “all these crazy things”. Of course, there was another small matter to attend to: promoting their act.
Like them or not, there’s more to a boy bands than just a band of boys (in this case Irish boys from Dublin and Sligo). One also needs an opportunistic music mogul and a goodly number of saccharine tunes with catch hooks, if one is to get anywhere at all. Not to mention a well-formulated plan to reassure parents and at the same time excite millions of prepubescent girls. That means a carefully designed, pristine public image, from hair styles to mannerisms, for media and fan consumption. No rock‘n’roll attitude here, no grabbing of crotches or groupies. Lastly, there’s stamina. The boys must stick together through thick and thin. Otherwise, as in the case of so many prefabricated bands, success is soon followed by disaster, which is to say, the band splits.
Not all of the above description applies to Westlife, a twenty-something foursome with white teeth and polished smiles. No, Kian Egan, Shane Filan, Mark Feehily and Nicky Byrne (Bryan McFadden left the band in 2004) are not quite your typical boy band. For one thing, they’ve managed to sustain their success for a remarkably long time – seven years. And their chart success is equally long-lived with multiple top ten hits such as “Seasons in the Sun”, “Uptown Girl” and “Flying Without Wings”. Indeed, the boys seem bigger than ever and are ready to face new challenges.
This year Westlife aims to conquer the world’s biggest market (China) with a flurry of audio-video products, high-profile promotions, and, not least, a major concert tour. Based, in part, on Face To Face, which sold 100,000 copies and went double platinum in the first week of its release in February.
The ‘West Meets East’ Tour is more than just a series of musical concerts. The boys want to meet, and be filmed, with ‘real‘ Chinese people, and not just big city Chinese people either; they plan to visit the hinterland as well. The result will be offered to the West on DVD, which will include a documentary and footage of their China gigs with local artists.
In the meantime, Egan, Filan, Feehily and Byrne, under the collective term Westlife, offered that’s their thoughts on life, motivation and success.

that’s: What has Westlife come to represent?
Westlife: Westlife has become more than just a boy band in the past seven years. We’ve become like a cult. For boy bands, everyone starts off at the same level. We’ve managed to go beyond that and become a pop version of a rock band, because most rock bands stay together for a lot longer than boy bands. We [all] share the same goal; we want to be as big as we can. We like to look at ourselves as a pop version of U2 or the Rolling Stones.

that’s: Before Westlife, you performed in Irish clubs such as “IOU.” What is the difference between now and then?
WL: Back then, we were just together for fun, playing like kids and not making money. We didn’t have the industry to work with; there were no lawyers and no producers. Now we’re living the dream we were only dreaming of then. We make a living, and we deal with the politics and the bad side of the [music] industry. Back then it was just good days and no worries.

that’s: Boyzone’s Ronan Keating is your co-manager. Has his boy band experience benefited your act?
WL: Yes. He was only involved at the very start, maybe for the first six to eight months. He helped us make some decisions and taught us about the music industry and how things work. But he didn’t do an awful lot; for us, the point was to get a lot of attention with his name.

that’s: It’s very common for boy bands to disband. What’s the story behind the departure of Bryan McFadden?
WL: Bryan wasn’t very happy in Westlife. He got to a point where he just didn’t want it anymore. It was a very big shock for us and we thought it was the end of Westlife. It was a very challenging time. Luckily enough, we came up very strong; we did a Wales tour after he left and most fans thought it was [sic] the best concerts we ever did. At the same time, it was important for Bryan to make this decision; he’s a happier person now. We realized then, that what we had could be taken away very fast. We became stronger after that. We are a happier band. We work hard together and make things happen. We have a lot more ambition [like] breaking into the China and Australia [markets]. The most important thing for us is definitively to maintain our success; we don’t want to continue unless we are very successful.

that’s: With four people, making decisions must be difficult. Is Westlife democratic, anarchic, or dictatorial?
WL: It’s more democratic to be honest. You can’t always get everybody totally happy. There can be someone who’s not fully happy, but is willing to go with the decision. You can’t decide if there is no majority. If three of us are willing, but one is really against something, then we’ve got to take that person into consideration and work out something.

that’s: Despite the competition, you stand out from the pack with 34 million in album sales. How do you explain your success?
WL: It’s quite difficult; a lot of bands are similar to us, yet they don’t have the same success. We were lucky; we came out at a good time. We have good vocals and good quality pop music; it’s very important in pop music to have very good standard pop songs. In pop music there are A-shelf songs, B-shelf songs and C-shelf songs; most of our songs are A-shelf songs. We’ve got the top producers to write us the best songs they could ever write. Besides, our record company and our manager really understand what is best [for us]. They see what needs to be done, and do it.
So far, we’ve made good decisions and chosen really good songs and that’s why we are still there. We love what we do and we want to continue as long as possible. We’d like to stay together for a minimum of two or three more years anyway.

that’s: Westlife’s one of the most downloaded bands in China. What are your thoughts on fighting piracy?
WL: Every market is so different, so it’s very difficult to get involved. For us it’s not all about money; it’s about our fans and our music. If they can afford to buy our record, then they buy it. If they can’t, let them [buy bootlegs]. We are not going to go after them. The record company might; they are there to make money. The record company has to come up with the best ideas to stop piracy.

that’s: What challenges did you face during the production of Face to Face?
WL: We had a big challenge in picking top quality songs. It took a year and a half looking for all these songs. Last year, the “Rat Pack” project [Allow Us to Be Frank: a cover compilation of Frank Sinatra standards] gave us more time to find songs. With previous albums we had great songs and some that never really had an impact. We didn’t want to repeat that, but to make sure that every fan had a favorite. There’s a lot more variety [here] than before. The quality of “You Raise Me Up” or the duet with Diana Ross, and songs like that, are above standard. It’s proven to be the most successful album we’ve had in the last four years. It’s just a great pop album.

that’s: Steve Mac and Swedish hit maker ‘The Location’ are important collaborators, especially on this seventh release. Describe your working relationship.
WL: When it comes to picking the songs for the album, it doesn’t really matter where they come from, who writes them or anything like that. We’re more interested in how good the song is. Since the very beginning we’ve been working with the best [songwriters] in the world. And that’s the main reason why we’re still here seven years later. We’ve four or five fantastic songs for this album. Steven Mac and ‘The Location’ are amazing producers. They gave us some top, world-class songs.
We also feel it’s good to stay with the same people because you get their best songs. Take the Backstreet Boys; they have Max Martin [to write their songs]. He would never give us a song before [offering it] to them.

that’s: The cut “She’s Back” sounds like Michael Jackson at his best. Are you fans of Jackson?
WL: Yes. It’s a complete rip off of “Billie Jean” [from Thriller]. Just listen to the backing track. Even the songwriter will tell you that. He wanted to create a song with the essence of “Billie Jean” without being “Billie Jean”. It’s not even half as good as the original, but it’s good disco/funk. It’s not a tribute to Jackson though; it’s actually a tribute to the backing track. “Billie Jean” has one of the most famous backing tracks in the world; so many acts have used it.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
Photo courtesy Mick Ryan www.mickryan.com.
May 2006 issue