He’s the changing man… Things come and go in our lives, others stick around, keeping us company on rocky roads and high trails. The fleeting charms of some new source of admiration may be sweet, but nothing rewards quite like the tale that unravels over time. And so it is with me and Paul Weller.
I was about 10 when I first saw him, as The Jam guested on Marc Bolan’s haphazard TV show which was on when we got in from school. A year or so later and I was immersed in winding folks up through the medium of punk rock, but it wasn’t long before Weller’s championing of Mod ethics and threads had convinced me a cleaner cut was the way forward.
We’ve had our ups and downs over the years. I thought he did the right thing splitting The Jam at the peak of their powers. Beat Surrender? Not a chance. However, The Style Council’s more obdurate antics (the disjointed Jerusalem film, that topless ear-nibbling video) seemed like in-jokes only one person was getting. Weller.
In the early 90s I went to see a mate’s band play the Mean Fiddler, a toilet-circuit venue in Harlesden, and was mildly surprised to see Paul Weller’s name on the gig guide. How the mighty had fallen. True to his modernist instincts, his early embrace of house music had caused him to deliver a full-on dance record to his record label in 1989. In the ensuing row he was dropped and the Council was dissolved.
Good thing too for it is as a solo artist that Paul Weller has truly shone. The fire and skill that fuelled his teenage self have never gone out; and the musical adventurism that prompted so many Council cul de sacs is undaunted. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t, the key is to never stand still.
By the summer of 2010 it seemed the rest of the world had caught up. Honoured by the industry that has afforded him the only job he’s ever had with a Lifetime Contribution award at the 2006 Brits, he followed it up with Best Solo Male in 2009 and a Lifetime Achievement gong at the Ivor Novello awards and NME Godlike Genius in 2010.
All of which would usually serve notice the artist was about to retire to his pile in the country, but not this one. With his latest album Wake Up the Nation in the running for this year’s coveted Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize, even though he’s notoriously prickly in interviews, I found him more approachable than ever. Never was there a better time to meet the one they call The Modfather.
You’ve consistently divided opinion among critics, and even your most ardent fans have sometimes struggled to keep up with your moves, so what with the Mercury nomination and a raft of glowing reviews, are you tired of hearing praise for new record?
Listen mate I’m never ever tired of hearing people praise my record!
You seem to be making music with a lot more freedom now?
Yeh, that’s true, definitely. I guess the process started with 22 Dreams which came out a couple of years ago. It was made in the spirit of indulgence really. It’s not always a good thing, but I thought: ‘I’m going to be 50 soon, I’m going to go really flat out to try as many different things and purposely make a very indulgent record’. That’s something I really wanted to make and as it turns out people loved it and it done commercially very well. It’s just something you could never ever plan for. It’s a double album which freaked out the record company a bit as well – it’s hard enough selling one record these days, let alone two – but who knows it’s just one of those things that people seemed to get it. I think that also encouraged me in that spirit of things really. So I went out to push the boat that bit further.
It sounded like everything but the kitchen sink went into 22 Dreams and somehow you pulled a coherent record out of it, but far from a sprawling double album, Wake Up the Nation is pretty short, it sounds sharper, more focussed, harder-edged.
Again, I think it was definitely born out of the time we started to make it which was early part of last year. Me and the producer Simon Dine, we were really sick of the music we were hearing, it seemed to be so dull and so safe – obviously there’s always exceptions, but generally – so we just wanted to make something that was going to excite people and get people sitting up and listening again and getting moved by music again – break down that corporate safety seeking that permeates music.
We were trying to make a record of the music we weren’t hearing, that was kind of like a bit of a brief. It’s difficult because it’s very safe times out there in musical terms and with record companies, but I’m also hoping this will act as a kind of clarion call for other bands to get a grip on it really and free people up a bit and get people to take chances and be outspoken or make searching music again.
And have you heard any evidence that call has been answered yet?
[Laughs] Nope, none at all. We’ve obviously failed! Nah, it’s early days yet, man, early days.
Much of what has been said and written about you lately hinges on your age. There seems to be some surprise that a 52-year-old can make records as bold as 22 Dreams and Wake Up the Nation. It’s reasonable to think novelists improve with age, or painters and poets, why not pop musicians?
To be fair that’s the nature of pop and that’s what we’ve all grown up with. Regardless of what age we all are, for anyone of the post-war rock ’n’ roll generations for want of a better expression that’s what it is. You always associate pop music with youth which is fair enough, it was always the property of youth. But you’ve got people my age that have grown up with it and we ain’t gonna stop now. You’ve got people again ten years older who grew up in the 60s and same thing for them, it doesn’t stop for them. They were brought up on rock ’n’ roll and its become their culture and part of their lives.
So it’s a different world and I think there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make relevant and edgy records at any age really. It depends how lazy you get. There are people my age, I don’t really like to call them my contemporaries, but there’s people age-wise, my peers, who just get really safe and just do the greatest hits thing once a year and they’re happy doing that but it’s not enough and it’s never been enough for me.
Outside of pop, the blues guys did it, the jazzers, the reggae stars, folk artists, but there aren’t many pop acts who are pushing themselves and their audience into middle age?
We are kind of a bit more hung up on that age thing in this country, but I mean you know people like John Lee Hooker were playing literally up to the day he died and I think if that’s what you do in life, if you’re a musician, an artist or whatever you want to call it that’s what you do. Then you’re either in it for life or you’re in it for a few bucks and then you’re in a different circle there. Personally, I’ve always have been and still am in it for keeps. This is a big part of my life, I can’t say all of it because I’ve got a family, but it’s a major major part of my life.
Do you plan to carry on making records made in that spirit?
Well, I hope so, yeh. God willing. I just started writing and recording some stuff in the last couple of weeks which I think sounds great as well. I’ve moved it on, so I’d always like to think it would happen. I’ve been working with Simon Dine again, we’ve done three tracks already. And I’ve started working with these fellas from Future Sound of London called the Amorphous Androgynous, they did some remixes for Wake Up the Nation and they’ve put out some great compilations in the last year or so.
It’s on-going, but all the time new possibilities are opening up to me, sonically and in construction of a song. I’m in a very good place in terms of being open minded at the moment and really up for trying anything and working with different people. Maybe that’s the plus side of age that you feel that freedom to do that stuff as well.
Words such as ‘national treasure’ and ‘veteran’ are attached to your name more and more these days, but it sounds like you enjoy being in your 50s?
[Laughing, again] Well, I can’t do much about it really!
You just have to go with it. I mean I still can’t believe it myself anyway really. Where did the time go? I talk about events that happened 30 years ago, 25 years ago and it just seems like five years ago to me. I just can’t believe how quick time goes. I guess maybe if there’s also another spur in making me want to work and develop and move forwards – it, without being too morbid, is just how short life really is and it goes so quickly. I just think I want to do as much work as I possibly can really.
Also the beauty of music is that you can never say you’ve learnt everything, You’ll go to your deathbed still not knowing what it really is and what you can do and what else is out there. I think that really is a beautiful thing in some ways – frustrating but it’s also very inspirational.
Mortality seems to be a recurrent theme for you lately as well – as you say, life’s too short. Your dad passed away last year and you’ve rekindled your friendship with [Jam bassist] Bruce Foxton as his wife Pat died last year as well. There’s a track on the album, Trees, which arguably takes you further away from what people expect of Paul Weller than ever before which you say grew out of visiting your dad in a home. Did those events have an effect on the record?
I guess so, I don’t know with me dad passing away what kind of impact that had on my music really. Apart from that specific thing like that track for instance. I couldn’t say otherwise, maybe on some subconscious level, I don’t know. It didn’t make me want to make an album of gloomy, doomy songs, quite the opposite really. I guess what I take from it is that his spirit was always very up and optimistic and always looking forward. I take those qualities from him, you know, the son of my father.
Whatever happens you have to go on and you have to keep on doing what you do. All those things we built up together over years, even way way back in the day. He would’ve wanted me to carry on doing it and I try to keep that spirit with me as well.
That’s quite something, does it make you think about your relationship with your own kids as well?
I think the beautiful thing with me dad was he was a wonderful fella, but one of the greatest things for me was that we were friends as well. There’s not much more you can ask really but to be friends with your children, which I think I am with my kids. Well, I know I am. That’s what he passed on to me.
I was very, very fortunate as well I had that relationship with my dad. Unfortunately, it’s a very sad thing, but I think I’m in a minority when it comes to that. Friends and people I speak to about this, not that they’ve been abused in some horrible way, but they never really got on with their folks or could even relate to them so you should count yourself so lucky if you do have a great relationship with your parents. I suppose I would pass that on to my kids and them to their kids in turn as well.
Not that you’ve ever shrunk from the live stage, but you’re touring nearly every year now with extra dates, one-offs and festivals in between. It’s not too much then?
What, for an old man? No, I love playing live, man, yeh I’m mad for all of it really. We’ve got such a great set now. We got all the new stuff which works really well live and then there’s probably like 50 songs rehearsed so every night we can change it around a bit and keep it interesting for us and the audience as well. It’s a mixture man. The main stage for me though is the new stuff because that’s what I’m into, but hopefully there’s something there for everyone.
After playing for years with the same personnel in your band you unveiled some new faces on the 22 Dreams dates. The new band seems to have re-energised not only you but some of the songs as well.
Yeh. definitely. They’re really nice people. I couldn’t think of a better band to be in and, it’s like a lot of things, they’re really enthusiastic and really up for it and that permeates to everyone really, it rubs off on everybody.
It certainly seems to make a lot of people really happy.
Yeh, well, good.
• Photos courtesy of www.rockstarimages.co.uk.