SITTING in the sunshine in South Africa I finally broach the question.
With a Greatest Hits Album in the making after 14 years in the business, is the end of Westlife inevitable? Are they splitting up?
All four lads look at the floor.
Shane speaks first: “As a band, we’ve had a long 14 years. Obviously we can’t do it at the same pace any more.”
I realise I’ve hit a nerve. It was obvious they were in the process of making a decision they knew would upset millions of fans worldwide.
Later, on his own, I probe Mark.
He seems adamant the band has a future, stating: “I don’t think Westlife will ever be truly over. As long as the four of us are alive and well we will always be willing to sing together and there will always be Westlife.”
That was four weeks ago.
Little did I realise it would be their last interview together as a band before this week’s shock split.
“We plan to go our separate ways after a greatest hits collection at Christmas and a farewell tour next year,” they announced.
“The decision is entirely amicable. We want to have a well-earned break and look at new ventures.”
And the boys, Nicky Byrne, Shane Filan, Kian Egan and Mark Feehily, spelled out their amazing achievements: “14 years, 26 Top 10 hits including 14 number one singles, 11 Top Five albums, seven of which hit the top spot and have collectively sold over 44 million copies around the world, 10 sell-out tours and countless memories that we will forever cherish.”
The Irishmen believe the greatest hits album, due for release next month, is the perfect way to say goodbye to their fans.
Speaking about it that day in the sun – at the video shoot for their new single, Lighthouse – Nicky, 32, explains: “It’s going to be a complete deluxe package with new tracks, some live tracks and a photo box set – something really special for fans that have stuck with us all this time.”
Kian, 31, says: “We have 14 years’ worth of photos to put in there, so it’s been crazy and really emotional to put those together. It feels like you get to watch yourselves get older.”
Shane, 32, adds: “It’s emotional because it’s literally been half our lives in those photos and it did take us back to reflect on everything we’ve done.”
The box set will, of course, include shots of former band member Brian McFadden who left the group in 2004.
“Those times at the beginning of the band with Brian feel like another era and it’s funny because our kids don’t even know who Brian is now,” admits Shane.
“They look at the pictures or the discs on the wall, point at Brian and say ‘Who’s that, Daddy?’
“But we have no regrets – it’s all memories. So it must be included.
“There have been so many high points over the years to include but for us it was meeting the Pope and President Obama. You just can’t buy those experiences.”
Hanging out with the boys that day, they didn’t seem like a band on the verge of quitting, messing around more like brothers than rivals.
When I first met them (my first ever interview as a rookie journalist back in 2004), they had the same family-like banter.
Brian had just left, but instead of slamming their former bandmate, they were positive about the future and moving forward.
Much like now, there appeared to be no hard feelings.
Mark, 31, feels the same: “I don’t think Brian regrets leaving the band and I don’t think he ever could.
I’m sure he does look back at all the fun we had. We travelled the world together – he can’t deny it was a blast.”
What do they think is the secret to the band’s longevity in the industry?
Mark laughs: “Sometimes I think we’ve been too sensible for our own good. We saw bands before us blow all their money and leave with nothing.
So I’m glad we had Louis (Walsh) in a way as he gave us good advice and looked after us. As did our families.
“Brian stood out because even in the beginning he was out of control with money. He bought a canary yellow Ferrari or he’d brag he’d bought a house in Portugal. We warned him he’d have no money left.”
So what do they have planned for the farewell tour next year?
“The pressure is on us to pick songs that the fans will be happy with,” explains Mark.
“Sometimes we feel like we’ve used up all the ideas over the years. We could just do all the number one singles. But even though it’s a greatest hits tour it’s important we make it sound fresh.”
What advice do they have for new boybands like One Direction, keen to emulate Westlife’s success?
Shane and Kian smile: “Enjoy it!”
Mark agrees: “You can’t ever explain to anyone what it’s like to land in a foreign city, face thousands of fans and be escorted through the airport by the army. It’s another world.”
Nicky nods: “You just have to dive in and enjoy the ride. We wouldn’t change a thing.”
Lighthouse is out on November 14 and The Greatest Hits album follows on November 21.