Backstage with Westlife: Patrick Freyne goes behind the scenes

Westlife in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
AHEAD OF THEIR CROKE PARK GIGS NEXT WEEKEND, PATRICK FREYNE SPENDS THE DAY HANGING OUT BACKSTAGE WITH THE BOY BAND TURNED ‘MAN BAND’ AT THE START OF THEIR REUNION TOUR

I’m standing around the back of the SSE Arena, at the Odyssey complex in Belfast, with about a dozen diehard Westlife fans. It’s Thursday, and they’ve been here at the venue’s rear gates every day since the band came to town the previous Friday. A car is approaching.

“It’s Mark,” says Fiona, who has a Shane Filan lyric tattooed in cursive on her arm.

“Mark!” “Mark!” “Mark!” “Mark!” call the girls, but Mark Feehily just waves.

“How did you know it was Mark from that distance?” I ask.

The fans have a discussion about which member of the band has been traditionally most likely to stop for photos (Nicky Byrne) and who is least likely to do so (Kian Egan)

“We know the cars they drive,” says Fiona, and for a few minutes they discuss the cars the boys are driving this year. They know not only the cars but also the registration numbers. One of the band is driving a fancy rental car, which they know is a rental because “it has a northern reg”. That threw them off for the first few days.

“They haven’t stopped to talk to us,” says Nicole, sadly. “They’ve stopped every other year.”

They have a discussion about which member of the band has been traditionally most likely to stop for photos (Nicky Byrne) and who is least likely to do so (Kian Egan).

“Is it your first Westlife gig?” asks Nicole. “Yes,” I say. “Buy some earplugs,” says Fiona.

Byrne drives by. “Nicky!” “Nicky!” “Nicky!” “Nicky!” the girls call out. Byrne shouts something out of the window, but he doesn’t stop.

Nicole is disgusted. “We were trying to respect their privacy by not going to the hotel,” she says. “But if push comes to shove we’ll have to go up to the hotel.” I won’t tell you which hotel, but if you’re friends with these women you’ll know already.

Shane Filan, Mark Feehily, Kian Egan and Nicky Byrne. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Shane Filan, Mark Feehily, Kian Egan and Nicky Byrne. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

The band’s co-manager Louis Walsh has invited me to hang out backstage with Westlife on the day of their second reunion concert. It’s part of a 51-date tour of Europe and Asia, the Twenty Tour, so titled because it celebrates the 20th anniversary of the band’s formation. It’s the first tour since 2012, when the band split up.

Walsh promises me complete access. So after I speak to the fans I follow him through the gates and around some cream-painted corridors until we arrive in the empty arena. There, up on stage, three casually clad members of Westlife are singing, surrounded by children. Feehily is jokingly singing his part in a heightened opera voice. Filan practises his repartee (“Come on Belfast, you know the words”). Byrne balances a child on his lap.

“Is that part of the act?” I ask, pointing at the kids, who look like they’re taking it all very seriously.

Walsh laughs. “No, those are their actual children,” he says.

“It’s just part of life on tour with Westlife,” says Egan’s wife, the singer and actor Jodi Albert. They met when she was in another Simon Cowell band, named Girl Thing – Cowell originally signed Westlife – and now she’s holding their youngest in her arms.

Egan, the fourth and final member of Westlife (if you don’t count their estranged member, Bryan McFadden – and, frankly, who does?), is standing with the tech crew at the sound desk, singing into a microphone while giving instructions and staring at a monitor. “Look at him now,” says his wife, laughing. “He’s texting and singing at the same time.” He is. He can multitask.

Albert talks about how unexpectedly emotional they found it to be there with all the kids at Westlife’s first concert of their reunion tour. “Kian was on stage. I said to Gillian [Walsh, Filan’s wife], ‘He’s crying. He’s overwhelmed.’ And I looked at her and she was crying too.”

Patrick Freyne backstage with Shane Filan. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Patrick Freyne backstage with Shane Filan. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

A child walks up to us. “Mummy, can I go into the family room?” he says. It’s their oldest son, Koa. “We’re rehearsing in there.”

“You’re in a band?” I ask.

“Westlife 2 Coz,” he says. Filan is married to Egan’s cousin, so their children are second cousins. They’ve put a band together. Later I overhear them discussing the need to find matching microphones.

“They wrote a song called In My Heart last night,” says Albert. “They’re rehearsing it to perform for the parents. They said they’d sell it to Westlife for a percentage.”

“Koa was negotiating with Louis and Sonny [Takhar, the band’s other manager] the other night,” says Egan. “I was thinking, That’s my boy!”

He has just been behind the desk, he explains, trying to slightly rearrange the music for one section of the show. Does he often get involved with that side of things? “Oh God, yeah,” he says. “We’re constantly at that.”

Westlife needed to stop when it stopped. They’d been touring constantly. They had families and wanted balance in their lives

Westlife needed to stop when it stopped, he says. They’d been touring constantly. They had families and wanted balance in their lives. But then one Christmas, two years ago, Filan and Egan and their wives went for dinner and started reminiscing about being on tour. “By the time we got to half-twelve,” says Egan, “we said, ‘Are we going to do the reunion?’”

Sometime later they were at another gathering with Feehily, and the same thing happened. Byrne, by his own account, took a little longer to convince, but eventually the four of them met in his kitchen in Malahide, in north Co Dublin. “Myself and Mark knocked on the wrong door first,” says Egan. “All the houses look the same there.”

They didn’t twig it was the wrong door straight away. Assuming the woman who opened it was a friend of Byrne’s, Egan and Feehily walked in. So the Westlife reunion was prefigured by two members of the band appearing like an apparition in a woman’s hallway. “I think you’re looking for next door,” she said.

Then Egan has to take to the stage, so I again wander after Walsh, the perpetual hype man. “This isn’t just a comeback tour,” he says. “There’s at least 10 years in this. They want to build and build and build. We have two Ed Sheeran songs. It’s not just a boy band. I think they’re a great vocal band... You’ll see tonight. Sold out. Sold out. Sold out.”

Roseanna, Jonathan and Alanna Brown of The Rua. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Roseanna, Jonathan and Alanna Brown of The Rua. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

He introduces me to every crew member we meet, and to one of the support acts, The Rua, a cheerful three-piece pop band whose aunt happens to be Dana.

“They’re like the new Corrs,” says Walsh. “Corrs Light.”

“Nah, we’re gangsta rap with English accents,” says their fiddle-player Jonathan Brown.

The Irish Times photographer arrives, and we go back to the rehearsal, but then something happens on stage that I can’t quite see, and we’re hustled away by a man I subsequently learn is a sort of bodyguard.

“Are you a military man?” I ask him later. (I usually recognise former soldiers, because my father is one.) “Is that how you got into this?”

“No, I’m just that sort of person,” he says.

Not everyone here seems entirely on board with Walsh’s promise to let us access all areas. Later a member of the management team asks our photographer to show her his pictures, and deletes a few.

Shortly after our ejection the band emerge, and Feehily hops up on to a packing crate to talk to me. He’s had an accident. “My leg’s bleeding a little bit,” he says. “I don’t know how much. I was half a second late to a lift that flew down into the ground, so I stepped into an empty hole, basically. You get used to stuff like that. It’s very rare that mistakes happen, because we do have a good, strong crew.” He laughs. “Kian’s probably off firing someone.” (This is a joke. Egan isn’t firing anyone.)

They all have their roles in the band. Feehily, who has always doodled, designed the programme. He has come to enjoy the “small, intimate shows” he does for his own solo career, and he had forgotten how big the Westlife machine was. “The one difference now is that we’re in control of everything. We’re painfully involved in everything.”

He thinks Westlife are different from other boy bands, because they formed organically, in Sligo, more like a traditional band. Was a boy band an unusual thing for teenage boys to form back then? “It wasn’t something we were telling everyone [about] in school,” he says. “The first time I ever saw a poster of Take That, I think they were topless, and they were just sprawled across each other. I thought, ‘What the hell are they doing? Such a bunch of dopes.’ And they were rolling around in jelly.” But, he adds, he loved the vocals. “That’s what really drew me in.”

Every time you did an interview with Smash Hits they’d ask about your ideal girl. I pretended for a while, and I felt I was getting deeper and deeper into a lie

He always loved singing. “I would have held a lot of stuff inside,” he says. Singing “was the only way I could get raw emotions out without having to talk to people or to say what I felt. For me, coming to terms with my sexuality and everything, music and singing was always something that helped me get a load of stress out. I was always attracted to soul singers and people who sounded like they were saying something they couldn’t say with words, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. [I’d think,] That’s exactly what I feel like.”

Fame was a mixed blessing, he says. He never felt any need to get away from his home town, a need some musicians seem obsessed with. “I loved Sligo,” he says. “So I used to miss home at the start. I think I was subconsciously afraid. I knew at one point I was going to have to face up to my sexuality.”

Feehily came out when he was 25. “We were famous as a boy band,” he says. “Marketed towards teenage girls. Every time you did an interview with Smash Hits they’d ask about your ideal girl. I pretended for a while, and I felt I was getting deeper and deeper into a lie. All you hear every day is how many million [records] you’ve sold, and you think of all these tiny little heads everywhere, and [you worry] what their reaction would be. But when it came to it, I realised I had to think about myself before anyone else.” After we did this interview, Feehily announced that he and his fiance, Cailean O’Neill, are going to have a child together.

Kian Egan and Nicky Byrne rehearse. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Kian Egan and Nicky Byrne rehearse. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

We’re joined momentarily by Walsh, who talks about how long Mariah Carey kept her audience in Dublin waiting the night before. “We’ve never done that, in fairness,” says Feehily. Then he looks down at his leg and says, “I’m going to make sure I’m not bleeding to death.”

Walsh introduces me to their tour manager, Theresa Armitage.

“I call her World War III in knickers,” says Walsh.

“Is that appropriate?” I ask.

“Everything with him is appropriate,” she says. “He’s always inappropriate and hence constantly appropriate.”

Who’s the hardest member of the band to deal with? “Say McFadden, because he’s not here any more,” says Walsh.

Armitage has toured with all sorts of bands over the years – Take That, Zayn Malik, Iron Maiden – and she operates under a kind of attorney-client privilege. She will not be drawn on any gossip or scandal.

“The man needs to file copy, Theresa,” says Walsh.

“They’re lovely guys. If the band are horrible, it’s not a nice job.”

Who’s the bossiest?

“Kian,” says Louis

“Definitely,” says Armitage.

Are they easier to deal with than Iron Maiden? She pauses for a moment. “Iron Maiden were easier.”

Kian Egan and Shane Filan rehearse. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Kian Egan and Shane Filan rehearse. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

A little later Filan remembers their first big gig, supporting Backstreet Boys, 21 years before.

Walsh spots us. “Jesus,” he says to me. “You’re only doing an article, not making a documentary.”

Walsh chips in his two cents about that Backstreet Boys gig: Westlife “were pretty sh*t, but there was something there”.

What was the something? “They were likable.”

And what was “sh*t” about them?

“They looked awful. Five culchies.”

Filan laughs. Is it true that Cowell wanted to replace Filan and that Walsh just dyed his hair blond and hoped he wouldn’t notice? (Walsh told me this story.)

“That’s right,” says Filan.

“Shane’s mother called my office and said her son was like Michael Jackson, and for some reason I believed her,” says Walsh.

We worked 102 days straight, and we went home at Christmas and just went out to our local pub and spent every night going out with our mates. We just wanted to be normal

“We queued up, slept out overnight to get tickets” for the Backstreet Boys gig, he says. “And a month later we’re supporting them. That was probably the best moment still of our career, when we got that phone call. We started crying.”

Did their egos ever go out of control? “I don’t think so,” he says. “We worked 102 days straight, with no days off, and we went home at Christmas and just went out to our local pub and spent every night going out with our mates. We just wanted to be normal. It was all new to us. The Christmas before, nobody knew us. Nobody knew our name, but flash forward six months and we’re one of the biggest bands in the world.”

They produced 12 records in 14 years. Did they feel as if they were on a treadmill? “It did at the end. We weren’t enjoying it. It didn’t feel special. It was just same old same old. So, coming back, we said that it isn’t just about a tour, it’s about 20 years making music again, and making better music and better shows.”

Filan has had some ups and downs since the band stopped. He’s experienced bankruptcy because of property investments made during the boom, and the first question in every interview about his solo career was, “Yeah, your album is fantastic, but when is Westlife going to get back together?”

It never really annoyed him, he says. He visited a children’s hospital recently, more to cheer up the parents than the children, and one of the mothers grabbed his hand and said, “‘You have to get back together. You don’t know what it means to us.’ Every song we sing tonight will have a memory for people. Whatever people think of any of us individually, we were all part of Westlife, and that’s always going to be the biggest thing.”

He says he wasn’t scared to perform again, but there was a moment at the start of last night’s gig when the four lads appeared elevated before the crowd. “When the screens opened,” he says, “It was kind of just like, ‘Hello to your Westlife world again,’ and the sheer size of it and the sheer noise...”

Westlife in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Westlife in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

Egan has an idea for a cover photo to go with this article. He takes me and the photographer to a place beneath the stage where the band can be shot framed by metal scaffolds. He talks excitedly about the size of the production, about Brian Burke, the Las Vegas show producer they’ve brought on board. He did Cirque du Soleil, he says. “You can’t get bigger than that!”

Why did he, as a Sligo teenager, want to form a boy band? He didn’t, he says. “I was in a rock band. The first time Mark and Shane asked me to be in the boy band I laughed at them.”

Performing together as the T-Birds in Grease, he saw all the screaming girls and the possibilities. So they put a band together, Six as One. Filan’s mother got a tape to Walsh, and Egan and Feehily visited him in Dublin. Famously, Walsh whittled away the original members of Six as One, dropping them one by one before adding two Dubliners, Byrne and McFadden (who, rather Stalinistically, isn’t even featured in an onstage video sequence about the band’s past).

What was it like for Egan, having to tell his friends they had to leave the band? “I agreed with Louis,” he says. In fact, when they were down to four of the original line-up, and Egan had seen Byrne and McFadden perform, he suggested the final cut himself.

“That’s kind of... ” I begin.

“Cut-throat?” says Egan quickly.

“I was searching for a euphemism,” I say.

“It was what it was,” he says. “It was a very harsh thing to do – and I know I wasn’t cutting myself – it felt like the right thing to do and I don’t think we’d be here today if we hadn’t done it.”

Fans at the SSE Arena. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Fans at the SSE Arena. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

He thinks they came out unscathed by excess, compared with some other former pop stars. At their worst, he says, they were just stroppy teenagers, turning up late, ungrateful and hung-over. “Louis kept us very grounded. He used to threaten he would walk away all the time.”

He impersonates Walsh. (They all do.) “‘I’m gonna walk away, boys. This isn’t right. You’re acting the maggot.’ And then different things happen in your lives. I lost my dad, and Nicky lost his dad. All within a year. Life became very serious. We were getting married. We were having kids, all of that. So, you know, we had to grow up very fast. We were dealing with business.”

Did they have their eyes on the ball moneywise? Yes, he says. “We heard all these rumours of other bands getting ripped off, and we’d think, We’re not going to be ripped off.”

He takes me on a tour of the backstage area. We wander past a bank of consoles for the spotlight operators (it’s all done remotely now), past the dressing rooms and two of the accountants, whom he greets warmly. “He was asking me about money!” he tells them as we go by.

Then we go into the costume room, where a woman is sitting with her feet in a basin of hot water. “Don’t mind me,” she says. “My feet are sore.”

Kian Egan in the costume room. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Kian Egan in the costume room. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

Egan shows me the five costume changes on the rack. These include a slightly militaristic Sgt Peppersy look, and a “rocker” look for a Queen medley. “To feel a real live audience there singing the songs with you is insane,” he says.

As we leave, some children rush by clutching bags of sweets. “Are you eating more sugar?” says Egan.

“They’re called fruit gums,” says one child. (I think it’s one of Filan’s sons.) “It’s fruit.”

“They’re a bag of sugar,” says Egan, before adding, “Give me one.”

Outside in the arena I watch the milling crowd. Takhar, Walsh’s co-manager, tells me about watching the ticket sales from Los Angeles. “Part of you is thinking, Are people really going to care? That’s the deepest fear.”

“I didn’t expect they would sell 50,000 for this,” says Peter Aiken, the concert’s promoter. “I thought two nights, maybe. It could have easily blown up in their faces when they announced it.”

People in the crowd spot Walsh, and everyone nearby tries to get a selfie with him. Does this happen often? “It never stops,” he says, grimacing slightly.

Westlife at the SSE Arena. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Westlife at the SSE Arena. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

In his dressing room Byrne is already in costume, gelling his hair into a quiff. They used to all share one dressing room, but now they have families it makes sense to have one each. Byrne is the only non-Sligo person left in the band, although he considers himself “an honorary Sligo man” now. He had returned from a stint playing professional soccer in Leeds when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his cabaret-singing dad and audition for a band. That put him on Walsh’s radar, who parachuted him into the future Westlife. “We became famous overnight,” he says.

How did he cope? “I guess, I played a character,” he says. “I played the character of a pop star. It’s not real. And you have to know that the magic is not real. [The fans] will see four pop stars on stage, delivering a show, but when we come off we’ll use the toilet, have a drink of water, mind our kids. Real life is still there.”

When you start off you’ll do anything. It’s ‘Jump’ and ‘How high?’ And then, after a while, it’s like any job

Byrne has been very busy since Westlife finished. He represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016, spent five years hosting a popular 2FM radio show with Jenny Greene and was cohost of RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars. Broadcasting was always in his heart, he says, and it was important to him to do something else for a while. “My surname became Nicky Byrne again and not Nicky From-Westlife.”

That seems like a kind of relief to him. “My equilibrium is balanced now,” he says. “I’m not the lead singer in Westlife. I’m a pretty decent singer, but Mark and Shane are incredible singers. And bands are like football teams. The centre forwards get the glory. But I know I have a lot to give. I think now, on the broadcasting side, I excelled for myself.”

Things change over the years, he says. “There are loads of stages of a boy band or pop band. When you start off you’ll do anything. It’s ‘Jump’ and ‘How high?’ ‘Where are we going next? Germany? Cool.’ You’re living the dream, and the money starts to come in and you’re, like, ‘We’re getting paid for this?’ And then, after a while, it’s like any job. You’ll do anything at 18, but then you understand it a bit more, and you start to have an opinion.”

Westlife in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Westlife in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

When Egan first called him to suggest they reunite, Byrne told him it would need to be really serious. Someone like Ed Sheeran would have to write songs for them, he said. He laughs. “What I didn’t know was Ed was a Westlife fan and was already writing songs for us.”

A head pops in the door. “Fifteen minutes, Nicky,” says the head. Yes, it’s time for Westlife’s second gig in about seven years.

So what do you call a boy band heading towards middle age playing to a room of screaming middle-aged women? “A boy band?” says Byrne. “Or maybe a man band. We’re not girls, anyway, so we’re not a girl band. That we do know.”

Westlife play Croke Park, in Dublin, next Friday and Saturday, July 5th and 6th, as part of the Twenty Tour