The life cycle of a boyband has almost become boilerplate by now. Like the mayfly, their time at the top is joyous and giddy. After months or years of dutiful, shiny-smiled servitude, often with a cunning svengali pulling the levers behind a velvet curtain, one member in the outfit invariably starts hankering for life as a “serious” musician and elects to leave. Tears are shed; some of them even inside the band. As the band dissolves, the rest of the members – almost always less than the sum of the outfit’s parts, despite their appeal – make their way out in the world with varying degrees of success.
In the case of One Direction, Zayn Malik was the man with the headstart, and his was the first solo album to go to number one. Harry Styles’s album did similarly brisk business, with the added benefit of a fledgling acting career greasing his slog back to the top. Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, freshly emancipated from Simon Cowell’s pop paradise, started working on grittier music with hip-hop heavyweights. And then there is Niall Horan.
It’s been said in the industry that with his boy-next-door persona, Irish accent and blond forelocks, Cowell regarded Horan as something of a secret weapon in the bid to crack the US. Certainly, there’s a wholesome niceness about him. But at 24, Horan now appears within shouting distance of world-weary ennui.
On a cloudy autumn afternoon at RTÉ’s radio centre, bosses have evidently left nothing to chance as Horan visits for a radio interview. A cluster of handpicked superfans are in attendance, along with a couple of Order of Malta paramedics. Hundreds more fans are outside and have been all day. The recording room positively fizzes with screeches and shrieks.
Post-radio appearance, Horan moves through the building, the centre of gravity of a sizeable cloud of management, entourage and RTÉ staffers. Half the building seems to have come downstairs for a gawk at the man, who at 16 queued with thousands of hopefuls at the Convention Centre in 2010 to appear on The X Factor, and eventually earned a net worth of €60 million for his troubles. "Marty Morrissey wants to say hi," an unidentified RTÉ executive instructs, running down the corridor with frantic urgency.
I’m sequestered in a side room, where I can only hear the ongoing melee pulsating outside the door. Eventually, Horan materialises. He’s polite and unassuming, and sweetness does indeed emanate from every pore. He doesn’t carry himself like a man who travels with his own cloud of adoring acolytes. But there’s something in his non-committal handshake – barely glancing up or breaking pace as he proffers his hand and takes a chair – that hints that interviews are a boring chore.
Horan’s wariness is perhaps justified. As with most boybanders, the One Direction stars have had endless attention lavished on their private lives. OD fans are almost legendary in their frenzied possessiveness: it’s not unusual for girlfriends to be issued with death threats or to endure abuse on Twitter. In the case of Louis Tomlinson, a kerfuffle broke out in LAX with a fan after his girlfriend Eleanor Calder was allegedly attacked. Horan’s reported lovers have weathered similar treatment online.
“I never really understood that kind of thing,” he says. “It never bothered me, but you can’t get away with anything. You can’t walk down the street with a person – you could be their best friend in the world and people will think you’re with them. But I’m 24 years old, and I’m allowed to be 24 in certain ways. It’s not like I’m going around wrecking the place, taking a load of drugs. I’m not that kind of guy, but I am allowed to have a girlfriend.”
Simon Cowell's a lovely guy. He's rather posh, and likes his certain things in certain ways
As best the wider world knows, Horan is currently single. Would he ever try Tinder? He shakes his head incredulously. “No, not a chance. It’s filthy in there.”
Horan may be tired of the press, but still, there’s a slight element of novelty here: he doesn’t have the other members of One Direction to bounce off, for a start.
“Yeah, the day-to-day is a bit strange, but I’m starting to get used to it,” he shrugs. “There are less people with me now, around 16 people, so it’s easier to get around.” What was it like before? “On the actual tour, the crew was a couple of hundred.”
We’ve been warned that we have very little time with Horan, so in order to get the essence of the man, we decide to opt for a Smash Hits-style round of rapid-fire questions. Decades previously, the pop bible chucked random questions at popstars, reasoning that it might be one way to catch them unawares and elicit something resembling a truism. In any case, he seems up for it.
Who is the greatest living sports person? “Jesus, that’s a good question,” he says, before pondering at great length. I remind him that we’re in a quick-fire situation. “For exhilaration purposes, Usain Bolt.”
What’s your idea of perfect happiness? “I don’t know. I’m pretty happy now.” More pondering. “Being onstage at Croke Park.”
Best advice you’ve ever been given? “That’s a good question. I’ll have to come back to that.”
What about the last book you read? "The Tony Adams autobiography [Sober]. He had a good story so I got into it."
What is Simon Cowell like? Back on more familiar terrain, Horan brightens a little. “Ah, he’s a lovely guy. He’s rather posh, and likes his certain things in certain ways. He’s like no other person. A great guy.”
What do you make of the new Taylor Swift single? “Like, it’s so catchy, you find yourself going ‘oooh’. It’s really cool.”
The thoughts of dying scare me. I don't want to die and I don't like to think of it
What would be your Death Row meal? "That is a good question," he muses. "I'd go to a restaurant, to Nobu, and have their blackened cod, or maybe the chicken katsu curry from Wagamama. Maybe they'll Deliveroo it to me."
What is your greatest fear? “Claustrophobia,” he says without hesitation. “I sometimes freak out on planes.” That is quite the occupational hazard, I counter. “Yeah, I have to breathe myself out of it.”
What’s the trait you find most annoying in yourself? “How loud I am. I’m also quite fidgety.”
Slippy pine needles
What’s your most embarrassing moment? “Falling over on live TV [when he caddied for pal Rory McIlroy during the Par 3 contest]. Those pine needles are slippy. I’m still scarlet.”
What cars do you own? “I just sold my car,” he says. “I drive my cousin’s car at the moment.”
What do you spend your money on? “A house [a €4 million mansion in the Hollywood Hills, according to reports]. I’m not a great spender apart from that. I like clothes but I don’t need to look too expensive.”
Does he believe in life after death? “The thoughts of dying scare me. I don’t want to die and I don’t like to think of it,” he admits. “I don’t want to get into that kind of stuff.”
Has fame changed him? “I’m sure it has in certain ways, and I probably do certain things that would make people think I wasn’t normal. I’d say I was quite a normal guy with just a crazy life, really.”
Job done on delivering the understatement of the century, Horan is yanked back out of the room and into the melee that just about manages to contain itself outside the door. By the time I emerge from the building minutes later, he and his crew have already burned rubber down the Stillorgan Road, leaving a handful of deflated, albeit deliriously happy, young girls in their wake.
Niall Horan's album Flicker is out via Universal Ireland on October 20th