Changing man: An audience with Paul Weller
Thirty years ago he was The Jam's angry young frontman. But if Paul Weller has mellowed with age, he's lost none of his edge. On the eve of a general election, the singer talks pop, politics and why he hates MySpace
There's no denying it; Paul Weller is growing up. That familiar haircut still hugs his ears, but he's ditched the highlights and let the grey come. His accent is the same old unfussy Estuary, but his voice is craggier, richer. His music always used to be distinctly of its time. The new stuff is almost timeless.
Winning a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits, as Weller did in 2006, is normally an invitation to retire quietly to the country and release an MOR nostalgia record once every couple of years. Instead, he went and made 22 Dreams, the most experimental album of his career, and one of the most ecstatically received. When he returned to the Brits last year it was to collect the award for Best Male Solo Artist. He's 52 next month, and Paul Weller has probably never been so prolific.
"I could dry up at any time," he says of his songwriting. "But I'm just glad when it's here and it's happening and I can embrace it. I've learnt with age that sometimes it just ain't going to happen. It used to destroy me; I'd think 'It's all over'. Now I know it's only a phase, and I sit it out and wait for it to come back to me. And if you still love making music, eventually it'll come find you."
Weller is like Star Wars, or Mrs Thatcher: I'm too young to remember a time when he wasn't exerting some kind of influence on the culture. First there was The Jam (1976-1982), with whom he defined the angry mood of the young under the Tories; then The Style Council (1983-1989), whose slicker sound seemed to embrace the blockbuster Eighties, not rail against them. When that band collapsed with the record company refusing to release their final album, he spent a few years in the wilderness before returning not only as a solo artist, but as an inspiration to a generation of Britpop bands and their fans.
That's where my friends and I came in, falling for the pastoral charms of Wild Wood (1993) and Stanley Road (1995). Three career high points might be enough for most men, and the Britpop sheen had long worn off by the time 22 Dreams came along a decade later. Still, here we are, Weller a critical and commercial hit once more – and with another invigorating leftfield LP, Wake Up the Nation, on the way out.
I wouldn't be the first journalist to approach Paul Weller with some trepidation, warned of his bad temper and dislike of the media. Nor am I the first to come away pleasantly surprised: he's reticent, perhaps – but polite and engaging, too. A diamond geezer, no less. I come across him in an empty room at the top of a gastropub in London's Kensal Green, a stuffed magpie in his lap. It was the photographer's idea, but Paul liked it. "I'm happy enough having my photo taken these days," he tells me. "I've got used to it, but I had to get over my own vanity, because it took a while to get my head round the fact I'm getting older. At first it was a fucking shock to see myself, but there's nothing I can do about it."
Though his alleged grumpiness may not have been inflicted on many interviewers in recent years, it was one of the themes of The Changing Man, a 2007 biography by Paolo Hewitt, a music journalist and once-close friend of Weller's. "Paul has a very good heart beating away inside him," Hewitt wrote. "Yet he could also be aggressive, bullying, selfish, highly intolerant, and thoughtless."
Certainly, Weller has been unafraid to sever professional ties in the past, which has not always made him popular with former colleagues. He replaced his entire band before 22 Dreams, save guitarist Steve Cradock, and most famously broke up The Jam at the height of the band's success. "I've been called ruthless," Weller admits. "But I'm a pretty loyal person. If you want to keep moving forward you've got to work with different people. In any relationship you can fall into that trap of taking each other for granted. You have to kick that up the arse sometimes. I still see some of the people I've worked with in the past from time to time, and I don't think there's any bad feeling. They understand my reasons."
One of Weller's best mates is Noel Gallagher, and I have to ask whether he thinks Oasis should have called it a day sooner than they did. "I don't want to talk out of turn because I love Noel and Liam, but I thought there was a bit of going through the motions by the end. You can see when someone's not happy. But I guess when you get to that sort of level and there's big business involved, it's harder to stop. I think ultimately it'll be better for music and for their own creativity."
After Weller quit The Jam, he and bassist Bruce Foxton supposedly didn't speak for more than 20 years. Yet fans were overjoyed to learn that Foxton would appear on two tracks from the new album. His thrilling bassline for "Fast Car/Slow Traffic" is unmistakable. The pair finally exchanged a few words at a Who gig in 2006, but their studio reunion came about, Weller explains, when he discovered that his old bandmate's wife was seriously ill.
"I called to see how she was doing and that opened the door to us talking again. He said if I ever fancied playing something together we should do it, and I know it made Pat [Foxton's wife, who died in 2009] happy to think that we'd work together again. It was a nice thing to do. It wasn't like 28 years had elapsed; we didn't talk about old times, just had a laugh. If you're playing music and the music's good enough, all the other baggage stays outside."
Weller lost one of the few constants in his own life last year, when his father John died of pneumonia, aged 77. John Weller – former boxer, factory employee, construction worker and taxi driver – bought Paul his first guitar when his son was 12, and became his manager a few years later. When The Jam signed with Polydor in 1977, John told the A&R men that he didn't have a bank account; they'd have to pay him the £6,000 advance in cash. The Wellers left with their pockets full of tenners. Despite his dismay when Paul disbanded The Jam, the pair's professional relationship remained as close as their personal one until illness caused John's retirement in 2004.
His passing, I suggest, must have had an effect on the new album. "To be honest," Weller replies, "it didn't change anything at all. He was ill for such a long time, and I found it much sadder to see him deteriorate mentally in those four years than I did to see him dead. However bizarre it might sound, it was a relief to see him go. He wasn't my dad anymore; he was a man in torment. When I saw him at the hospital after he died, he looked peaceful, and that made it easier. Also, I was so lucky to have the relationship that I did with my dad. It's not always a good idea to go into business with your family, but we were successful. And he was a great dad; I could speak to him about anything. I count my blessings, really."
Weller hasn't written any songs for the album about John's death. "That would be fucking naff," he says. But "Trees" was inspired by a visit to the respite home where his father spent some of his final weeks. "They're sad places," says Weller. "It's people waiting to die, and I liked the metaphor that they were waiting to be replanted like trees instead, to be put back into the world."
When Weller's career first took off, the country was suffering an economic crisis, and on the brink of voting in a Conservative government. He famously joked about being a Tory in an interview with the NME, which didn't go down too well with his leftwing fans. (Later, he was an enthusiastic, then disillusioned, member of Red Wedge, the pop music branch of the Labour Party.) Nowadays, he's unambiguous in his contempt for David Cameron, who claimed to be a fan of The Jam's angry, satirical single about his alma mater, "The Eton Rifles".
Wake Up the Nation is a political record, if only, its creator says, with a small "p". Weller turned down a CBE in 2006, and the track "7+3 is the Striker's Name" contains a profane reference to the Royals. He describes "Find the Torch, Burn the Plans" as: "A clarion call to wrest our country back from the Government's hands. I don't want to make some grand political statement because I'm still looking for answers myself. But I think we settle for second best and we're treated like cunts ... I haven't voted in the past two elections because they all look the same to me. But I may have to revise that opinion this time; I can't think who else to vote for but Labour."
Wake Up the Nation may sound like a slogan for a radio breakfast show, but its content is considerably more eclectic than most playlists you'd find on the airwaves. Besides the Jam throwbacks, there's "Whatever Next", an instrumental not entirely unlike The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"; the Motown-y "No Tears to Cry"; and the astral, Bowie-esque "Andromeda". Weller's voice is stronger than ever. "It's taken me 30 years to learn how to sing," he says. And for the first time, he went into the studio without lyrics prepared for most of the songs, improvising his vocals based on the last thing he and co-producer Simon Dine had been discussing in the studio. "Simon's brief," says Weller, "was to make it really tough and urban sounding; not in any way pastoral or acoustic."
Among his other collaborators on the album are My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields and celebrated session drummer Clem Cattini. And a bonus disc proves his cachet among a younger generation – the remixers who've tinkered with the tracks include The Bees, Tunng, Richard Hawley and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. By this stage, Weller must be accustomed to his position as an elder statesman. Where once he disdained anyone who still appeared on Top of the Pops in their forties, let alone their fifties, he now respects those musicians of more advanced years than he – like his friend Sir Paul, for instance. "Macca's last album, Memory Almost Full, was his best work for years. He sounds like someone at the top of his game, and he's 65. When I was 20, the idea of someone being in their fifties was shocking, so I couldn't even imagine the idea that someone of that age might still be playing music. But what else would I do? I still love it."
It sounds like Weller has finally put the angry young man behind him. A period of alcohol-and-drug fuelled excess that forced him to retreat from London to Woking, his Surrey hometown, for a few years in the Nineties, is now long over. He's reportedly engaged to his 24-year-old girlfriend Hannah Andrews, who is, he says, his "soulmate". His five children (from three separate relationships) have all been educated privately, and two of them – Jessie and Mac – are still at school in north London. "They both go to posh schools with Range Rovers in the car park. I'm lucky I've got enough money to do it, and there's very few state schools round my way I'd want to send my kids to. I guess you get what you pay for; my little lad's only four and the other day he was counting in French. It's hard for me to get my head round what is a nice school because I never experienced that."
The new album's title track contains the exhortation: "Get your face off the Facebook and turn off your phone." Hewitt claims Weller once asked him outside for a fight because he spoke up in favour of the internet. So is he grumpy old man, or groovy old man? "I can see some of the benefits of modern technology," he admits. "I can edit my tracks at the touch of a button now, which is incredible. But there's lots of bullshit, too. It's strange that people my age spend all evening on Facebook talking to their 'friends'. Why not go down the pub? A guy once came up to me at a gig and asked me if I had MySpace. I said, 'This is my space, and you're invading it.'"
On balance, though, he much prefers now to then. "I like 2010. For all my Sixties and Seventies fixations, I wouldn't want to be in any other era. I can remember the Seventies, and it was so fucking drab. Pubs were grotty, and there weren't any nice restaurants. People ask me if I'd ever move out of England, and there's lots of things that drive me mad, like the weather and the taxes. But I love it here now. I'm not going anywhere."
'Wake Up the Nation' is out now on Island records
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