In the spring of 2012, I spent a few entertaining days hanging out with the five young members of a British boy band who were just breaking big in the United States. The guys from One Direction were unjaded, unguarded, totally charming, and a puppy pile of optimism and energy. On April 8th, in a New York City hotel room, Harry Styles and Niall Horan, both 18, sat down with me for a joint interview, published here for the first time. (The reporting was intended for a Rolling Stone cover story that never ran.)
It was late morning, and they had both just rolled out of bed. Styles wore a hotel bathrobe; Horan, with braces still on his teeth, was in sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a Dallas Mavericks hat a fan had given him during a recent trip to Texas. The conversation was casual, full of laughs, and focused on their formative years.
What did you do at the gym last night?
Harry: One of our security guys, his friend’s over, he’s a personal trainer, so I was working with him, and he ripped me to shreds.
In 12 hours, you have to do Saturday Night Live. Are you ready?
Harry: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s going to be a fun day. It’s just really exciting, obviously. The show is so huge. For us to get the opportunity to be on it at all was just amazing, and to us, to be performing and just be involved with the show is amazing.
Have you seen whole episodes of it?
Harry: I’ve watched a lot of clips on YouTube. They don’t show it in the U.K.
Growing up, when did you realize you could sing or that you wanted to sing?
Harry: I sang in primary school, like the school productions, plays and stuff.
What was your first one?
Harry: The first one was … I was five, and there was a story about a mouse who lived in a church, and I was Barney, the mouse. I had to wear my sister’s tights, and a headband with ears on it, and I had to sing a song all by myself. I remember it was just like, whatever.… In the second, I was Buzz Lightyear in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. So you know when they run and hide in the toy shop? Buzz Lightyear was in the toy shop, so they just created my character. The last one, I was in … you know Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat? I was the pharaoh, but I was an Elvis pharaoh.
Did you have a sense that this is what you wanted to do in your life?
Harry: I think in school I was OK, I wasn’t a bad student. I think I just knew I wanted to entertain people and stuff. I was a bit of an attention-seeker at school.
Niall: Me too. I just talked too much, sang too much.
You were onstage as a kid and were like, “This is what I like”?
Harry: I knew it was fun, I had a lot of fun doing it, and I stopped when I started high school. And then I didn’t really do anything. I just sang at home, in the shower, in your bedroom, that type of thing. I guess it started again when my friends were in a band and they wanted to do this battle of the bands competition that was at school, and they needed a singer, and one of my friends asked me.
What did you sing?
Harry: We sang “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” by Jet, and “Summer of ’69.” We did it more towards the Bowling for Soup version.
How about you, Niall?
Niall: I always knew I wanted to sing. I was academic.… I was one of those people that if I’m not interested in something, I don’t really care. If I’m not interested in school, I would have never trained or done my homework or anything, I’d have just gone outside and played football or whatever.
Harry: [Helpfully translating] Soccer.
Niall: So I always wanted to sing. I was singing here and there, not gigs or anything, but I always sang around the house or whatever, and I played Oliver in a school play. And then I just did that, and people told me I should do something … I was only 10, what could I do at 10? I just did a couple of gigs, and when I got to high school, they told me that I should just try out for The X-Factor.
Who told you?
Niall: My French teacher. We used to do talent shows and stuff at school. She was like, “You should do it.” So I did it.
What did that entail? What were the steps from being a kid in high school to getting on the show?
Niall: It was the final of The X-Factor the year before, and at the end credits of the final, it says, “If you want to apply for 2010, go online.” So a couple of weeks later, I said, “Right, I’m going to do it,” and I filled in the form online. We were sending emails back and forth, going to this place, at this time. The first one is at a big stadium. Then, if you get through that, you come back the next day. Is that the way they did it with you?
Harry: I had to wait a little bit, I think.
Niall: I was there at 5 a.m., I got seen at 12, and I was out of there by quarter past 12. And the next day I came back at 10 in the morning. You get through the first round, then they do a round where they don’t tell you if you got through after that.
Harry: They film it.
Niall: The producer and someone from the label. They film it and show it to whoever. Then if you got through that, it takes about two or three weeks until you find out. I was in Spain. Then you just go through the audition.
Harry, how did you wind up on X-Factor?
Harry: I basically said — the same as Niall, I was watching the year before, and I remember looking at the young guys on there — and I was kind of like, “I’d love to have a go at it just to see what happens,” and that was kind of it. My mum actually did the application. And then three weeks later, I walked upstairs and she said, “Oh, you’ve got your X-Factor audition Sunday,” and I was like, “OK.”
Niall: In England, it’s the biggest thing ever. It took a while to build.
Harry: The two or three years were steady, and third or fourth, it just blew up.
Niall: It works [out] that one in three people in the U.K. watch it. There’s 60 million people in the U.K., and 21 million people watched the final the year we were in it.
Harry, your band also played at least one wedding, right?
Harry: Yeah. We actually said that we’d do the wedding gig, and …
Niall: You get paid for it?
Harry: Yeah. One hundred sixty quid, between all four of us. Forty quid each.… We said we’d do it, and then we found out it was the weekend coming up, and we hadn’t done anything for it. So we asked the bride what kind of stuff she wanted, and she said she didn’t mind, but she wanted some Bob Marley songs. Literally in three days, not even three, probably two days, we learned like 25 songs. We might have known like three of them before. I was 16, maybe 15, singing these Bob Marley songs. There was a girl a couple of years below us, and it was her mum. She said she wanted us to play.
Niall: Can you imagine you’re at a wedding and you have 16-year-old kids up on the stage?
Maybe you were really good!
Harry: Yeah, the drummer is one of my best friends from school. He’s a sick drummer, he’s so good.
Did you think the band could be something?
Harry: A bit. My friend’s mum was a radio presenter, and she did a radio show for a bit, so she was trying to sort us out a little bit of studio time. We were going to go in and record.
What do your parents do?
Harry: My mum is a PA. My dad is a financial adviser.
How about you?
Niall: My dad works at a supermarket, he’s the head manager, general manager of an area, not just one, and my mum is unemployed now, so I try to help them out whenever I can.
You probably can. That must be nice.
Niall: Yeah, it’s nice, it’s good.
Plus, now you can tell them what to do.
Harry: [Laughs] “Now you go to bed.”
Were you happy as kids? Did you have adolescent angst and stuff? Did you go through depressed periods?
Harry: Not really. I think at one point, I started acting like I was … I had a phase of listening to really heavy music.
Niall: I never went through that.
Harry: Not stupid heavy, but a bit … just because I thought it was cool.
Harry: Like Nirvana T-shirts, wore black all the time, pretty much.
Were you pretty happy-go-lucky?
Niall: Yeah, I was always happy. I think me and Harry were lucky. Our parents got divorced quite early, didn’t they, when we were really young. I was four. I didn’t know much, so I was always a happy kid, always up for a laugh, very carefree. And I’m a bit like that now.
Did you both grow up in your moms’ houses?
Niall: I went between both. My mum moved to the country and I didn’t have any interest in it. I always felt like the country is for when you’re older. I was with my mom for a while but got bored. All my friends were in town, I went to school in town, and all that stuff. It was more like that.
Harry: I lived with both parents, and then moved with my mum, and we owned a pub for, like, five years. I remember the first night, it was like a night where a band was playing, and I just thought, “How am I going to get to sleep?” I was three stories up, I was like, “How am I going to get to sleep with this noise?” I was next to a road in Sussex, in the middle of nowhere, and by the end, I could fall asleep next to the band, I was so used to the noise.
Was it imprinting your brain?
Harry: Maybe. One of the guys who used to play every so often, he used to be in Deep Purple or something … he started teaching me guitar when I was like 10 — I think 10, maybe nine. I loved it. I was 10, 11, all of the regulars, I got on with them. I’d walk behind the bar and my head would barely go over the bar. It’s still going now. We sold it to my best friend. We go in all the time still.
People say you come off as more mature than your age, you come off wiser. Did hanging around all those people as a kid help you mature?
Harry: I don’t know, maybe. I moved, when I was seven or eight, from Cheshire, and it was still Cheshire, but half an hour away. But in terms of not driving and stuff, all my friends lived near my school, so that was a bit further out. One of my friends there was my sister’s age — he was 16 when I was 10. It was so tiny, they were the only teenage boys.… We’d ride our bikes and go to the driving range and stuff. It was good, it was fun.
You both wanted to entertain. If it hadn’t worked out, would you have been really unhappy?
Harry: Yeah, I think it would be kind of like … one of the reasons you go for X-Factor in the first place is that you want to do this, and it kind of helps you get out of the life that you were doing before. I worked in a bakery for two years. Obviously, I didn’t want to do that for ages!
If you’d asked people at school, would they have said, “Yeah, they’re probably going to be famous,” or would they never have guessed that?
Niall: My aunt, I was in the back of her car. We used to go across Ireland to go to the beach for a couple of weeks, and I remember we were in the car, I was singing, and she thought I was the radio. And she told me — I never forgot it — that she thought I was going to be famous since I was six, seven. She was the only person who told me that, so I always remembered that.
Harry: My dad said it. I used to listen to a lot of the music he was playing. He’d play Elvis Presley to death, the Stones. I’d sing along to that and he’d say, “You’re going to be famous,” or whatever. He came on tour with us for a few days out here. He came to the Radio City show. He just said, for him, it was so educational. Obviously, he hears about what happens when I call him, but to see it and see it actually happen and how everything works was so good for him. He really enjoyed it, so that was nice.
So you grew up on Elvis and the Stones?
Harry: Yeah, pretty much. My dad was a massive Stones fan, so it was pretty much Beatles and Stones in terms of what my dad played.
People say you kind of look like Mick.
Niall: He gets that a lot.
Harry: I get it more here, probably, than I do at home. It’s because of the British thing.
What have you learned about life from the past few years? What didn’t you know? What advice would you give yourself?
Niall: How much more independent we actually are — me, anyway. Your mum attends to your every need, and does your food and washing and gives you somewhere to live. Then you go into the real world, as you’re told as a kid …
Harry: We’re living on our own now.
Niall: We just started living on our own in the last six months, really.
Harry: I’m moving when I get back.
Niall: We do our own washing, we make our own food, we rent places, we’re out on our own now. You mature so quick. You’re dealing with big businessmen every day, you’re not dealing with school, people your own age. It’s a bit different.
Harry: You seem to learn so many life lessons, but in such a short space of time. If I speak to my friends and they’re having problems with girls, whatever it is, now I seem to just have the answer. I don’t know, it’s just different. Or I think I have the answer. In terms of … one of my friends was trying to decide what to do with school, stuff like that, and I would have had no idea what to say to him before.
The past two years must feel like 10.
Harry: Yeah, but at the same time, it feels like six months. It’s weird: X-Factor was two years ago, but it seems like five years ago. But at the same time, it’s gone so quick. It’s a really strange dynamic of how it feels.
Do you have a sense of how this is going to go? Does it matter if it’s two years, five years, or forever?
Harry: I think how much we all enjoy it, because we love what we do — if you have to call it a job, it’s an incredible job to have, and we love it. We’ll all want to do it for as long as possible. If we have the opportunity to have a Take That kind of career, I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t want to do that. If we don’t, I don’t know.… We’ve done some amazing things already, but we don’t want to stop there, we want to keep going. I guess if we didn’t, I think we’d probably want to still be involved in … I’d just write, I guess.
Do you want to act? It feels like you could have your own TV show.
Harry: I think it would be more of a documentary because, obviously, we’re not actors.
People must want you to try.
Niall: Watch tonight, tell us what you think. Watch SNL.
Will you all make solo albums? Is that inevitable?
Harry: No, I don’t think so.
Niall: Let’s do a swing album!
Harry: [Laughs] We’ll all do swing albums. We’re just so focused on this. We all feel so lucky just to be part of this opportunity that we’ve all been given. It’s incredible. We’re just loving it. It’s sick.
People make a lot of assumptions about people in your position. They think you’re puppets and do what you’re told. What do you do when people make those assumptions?
Harry: When you look from the outside, especially if you’re a skeptic of groups made through TV shows, which is fair enough, people don’t see what we do on a daily basis, people don’t see … I think from the outside, it looks so glamorous — they see us do TV performances every now and again, see us doing an interview every now and again — but they don’t know that we work seven days a week.
Niall: If there was eight days, we’d fit it in.
Harry: It’s not as completely glamorous all the time — of course it’s not, [and] it would be stupid to think that it would be. But it’s hard work.
Niall: You’ve got to remember that you’ve got people on your team that have been doing this for many years and have been through the mill. You have all that experience around you, even from our tour manager, who’s been doing this for 20 years. They know what’s right. But at the same time, we want to have creative control, because at the end of the day, it’s us stepping out onto the stage of SNL tonight and have to sing these songs. We want to be singing what we enjoy, as we said last night. The music we all listen to is what we try and blend together to make this One Direction sound.
Harry: We obviously want to make it authentic and have our say without going, “People say we don’t control it, so we need to take control.” We’re not … we haven’t been writing songs for 20 years, we’re not producers. We’ve got an incredible team around us. Luckily, we’ve been given a lot of freedom, so we don’t go, “OK, we just need more and more control,” because we have a lot of control already. I think we find a really good balance in the way we work with our record label and our management, and it’s just how we work together, I think.
In any case, it’s probably better than the bakery.
Harry: Yeah. But I don’t get a nice bun on my break anymore, that’s the thing.
Did you wear an apron?
Harry: Oh, yeah, I wore a white polo shirt and a maroon apron with white stripes. “What would you like? 78 pence, thank you very much.”
Were you behind the counter?
Harry: Yeah, I was behind the counter. It was good. It was Saturday morning. I started at five and finished at four in the afternoon, and got like 30 quid. It was a joke.
Niall, did you have a job?
Niall: No, never.
So this is your first job.
Niall: Yeah, not bad at all. I was chilling, I was being a kid.
Harry: I had a paper route before that. It gave me a bad back, bad posture. It was a heavy bag.
I interviewed some fans downstairs, and asked if they knew who you were six months ago, and they all said yes, and from a year ago.… They were all early adopters: heard you from the internet, watched X Factor on YouTube …
Harry: It’s the internet. People have friends over here that might tell their friends and look on YouTube and show their friends. It’s insane how it’s blown up. We’ve had the opportunity to come over to America and do shows, and release our music over here, which is amazing. Through the power of social media, we already had a bit of a following before we’d ever been over here, we hadn’t done any shows. We had some fans out here, which was amazing but weird, really strange. I don’t know, it’s gone crazy. We don’t really see loads of it. We do the shows, then we’re in hotels, then we fly somewhere else. We don’t see massive amounts of it, we just go with it. This whole thing has gone on, and it’s sick.
Do you ever feel anxious through all of this?
Harry: Yeah, I think, obviously, just naturally, you think about what’s going to happen in the future. We’re 18, 19, 20 years old. We’re young. I wouldn’t say anxious. We’re just excited most of the time and having so much fun, that if stuff were to finish and you were to look back on your time, and all you did the whole time throughout this amazing stuff was shitting yourself about what’s going to happen next, then it would just be … I think you have to enjoy it while it’s going on. I think you should be wary about the future, but not worrying about it all the time. We still enjoy it and have fun, but, obviously, you do think, “What am I going to be doing in 20 years, 30 years?” I’ll have kids by then.
Harry, I saw a tabloid with pictures of everyone smiling, and you were looking thoughtful. Do you get down sometimes? While everyone else is having fun, do you start drifting off?
Harry: No, I think I’m naturally … not everyone is happy all of the time. I think you always have times when … like when you’ve just landed off a really long flight or miss home or something. They got a picture of me where I wasn’t smiling. I usually smile, but they got one where I wasn’t smiling and used that, and then said I wasn’t happy. They did that for a few days. That’s when we were in L.A. last time. It goes with the morbid voice.
Ringo would say, “It’s just me face.”
Niall: [Quoting A Hard Day’s Night] “Who’s that little old man?”
Harry: “That’s Paul’s grandfather. He’s very clean.”
Sometimes you can drift off, that’s just your thing.
Harry: [Laughs] I’m just soulful, man, I try.
Harry, do you mind when you’re singled out for attention?
Harry: I don’t know. I don’t really … I don’t know. We’re a band. Everything we do is together. I don’t take much notice of it.
So you’re not the Justin.
Niall: J.C. was popular, too, wasn’t he?
It’s not like that for you guys.
Harry: Not at all.
There was an imbalance in that group.
Harry: I think we find it important that people get to know all of our individual personalities, because …
Niall: I think that’s what’s good about it: People see us as individuals as well as a band. We all have our own personality and we all give something to a band. Previous bands, they go around and can never explain themselves, they can explain the band. But as individuals, what we bring to the band and stuff …
Harry: We all know that we all have our roles, and we all know that without one of us, it wouldn’t work.