Paul Weller flags up his new album 22 Dreams with marathon tour.
On a long, drunken night on his tour bus, Paul Weller tells our correspondent about turning 50, his barnstorming new album and why his son is wrong about fast food.
In a room of musicians, everyone momentarily stops what they’re doing when the star material ambles in. The frayed T-shirt, tight black jeans and black fly shades complement the impassive unsmiling face. Like a walking composite of every goth and emo sub-genre of the past ten years, Paul Weller’s son Nat takes a seat in the canteen next to his dad – who, even with his angular Mod barnet, barely raises an eyelid by comparison. It’s as though God, on one of his more whimsical days, decided to bestow the Modfather a goth son, to see if both could adapt to the challenge.
It’s a test that both seem to have passed with flying colours. Still finding his way around the guitar, Nat has been guided through the basics of his 2005 hit Come On Let’s Go by his dad. During tonight’s encore, at De Montfort Hall in Leicester, father will wave son onstage before an audience for the first time. His touching introduction: “He’s shitting himself, but you’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you?”
Twenty nights into a tour to flag up Weller’s new album, 22 Dreams, Nat’s brief arrival among the entourage might explain why spirits are high. Aspiring alterna-stars must struggle to preserve their mystique; even more so when hanging out with their dads. And, for their part, dads must do their utmost to undercut that mystique wherever possible. So, while Nat refuses to utter a word in the presence of the journalist, Paul Weller, eyes twinkling, says: “I’m afraid he isn’t speaking to the press at the moment.”
An evening that starts with lasagne in Leicester ends up, eight hours and 100 miles later, with the inebriated war cry of “Kebabs!” in West London. Over that time Weller’s zeal for the touring life beggars belief – more so for the fact that the next day he’s appearing on Later . . . With Jools Holland. The sensible option would be a workmanlike Monday show and early to bed. But, less than a week before his 50th birthday, Weller is advancing towards the landmark anniversary with all the restraint of a lit rocket.
Maybe it’s a quarter-century thing. In 1983 Paul Weller celebrated his 25th birthday in the Top Ten with the Style Council’s first single Speak Like a Child – in the process polarising the fanbase he had acquired with the Jam. He may yet do the same when fans hear 22 Dreams, with its fearless forays into lysergic 3am campfire tunes (Light Nights), cosmic jazz-rockers (Song for Alice) and, in 111, an instrumental interlude that sounds like three Clangers jamming on a Krautdub theme. There are tunes to mitigate the experimentation, though: Push It Along, Sea Spray and the new single Have You Made Up Your Mind are proper solo highs, easily the equal of the evergreen Wild Wood from 1993. And the reaction they elicit in Leicester confirms it.
“It’s not like I’m trying to alienate anyone,” says Weller, his Woking accent unchanged by the decades. “I want everyone to come with me. I’d hate to think I was just there to keep someone’s memories alive, know what I mean?” Nevertheless, isn’t that a purpose that music also serves? In the last year, his old colleagues in the Jam, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, have enlisted a surrogate Weller and formed From the Jam. Weller bristles at the notion that he might have ended up paying tribute to his past, earning a crust by attempting to replicate Going Underground and In the City on a nightly basis. “But then,” he adds, “if that’s what fans want me to do, they can just go and see them.”
He says he wanted to knock himself out with the new songs, put some distance between himself and the person who picked up an Outstanding Contribution award at last year’s Brits. “I wanted to disprove the thing that most musicians my age are up against – that their best work is behind them.”
Along the way, establishing a new chapter entailed a few tough decisions. From his previous band, only the guitarist Steve Cradock survived. Along with Simon Dine from London mods Noonday Underground, Weller and Cradock habitually swapped instruments, and enlisted Graham Coxon and Noel Gallagher for a couple of cameos. A Gallagher co-write, Echoes Round the Sun, is the best thing the Oasis man has put his name to for years. Along the way, with the sense of anything being possible, Weller entertained all sorts of bizarre notions.
Twelve months ago he was even countenancing contributions from Times music journalists. Remembering a suggestion I had made in a previous interview – that he should channel his love of psych-folk albums by the likes of Traffic, Tunng and Pentangle by making a similar record himself – Weller called to say that he had given the idea further thought. At the time of the interview, his seemingly off-the-cuff remark was: “You should produce it.” By the time he phoned me he had written two songs: Light Nights and Why Walk When You Can Run – the latter, a tender, intense eulogy to his youngest son. Both songs, he felt, mapped out potential directions for a new album. I told him I didn’t have the faintest idea how to “produce” a record, but if it helped to get together and play some records, we could meet.
In the tour bus after the show, I confide my relief that the phone didn’t ring again. “Well, things took their own course,” Weller says, “and before we knew it, we had an album.” His drummer, Steve Pilgrim, formerly of the Merseyside band the Stands, remembers hearing 22 Dreams for the first time. “I thought it was a potential track running order for the record,” he says, “When I realised that was the whole record, I was like, ‘F***ing hell! Concept album or what?’ ” All of Weller’s new recruits say that they had to surmount his reputation before relaxing in his company. For Pilgrim that moment came when the Stands supported Weller in Amsterdam. “We went for a meal. He ordered a vindaloo and proceeded to crumble before me.”
“A good trip,” Weller remembers. “That was when we went to a café for a smoke. Steve White set fire to himself, do you remember? There was a candle on the table. Whitey leant too close to it. I looked across and said: ‘You’re on fire, mate.’ He was like: ‘I know’. I said: ‘No – look at your shoulder. You’re on fire’.”
The same might be said of the chemistry between Weller and his new cohorts. For the first time in any of his bands, four-part harmonies soar heavenwards. With some satisfaction, Weller later says: “Don’t think you’re the first to make the ‘Crosby, Stills, Nash & Old’ gag ’cause you’re f***ing not.”
There’s only one concession to the Jam years – an incandescent Eton Rifles. Written 29 years ago after Weller saw Eton College students jeering at right-to-work marchers as they passed by – recent events have given the song new resonance. Only an election date seems to stand between an Old Etonian and Downing Street. Recent utterances from David Cameron suggest that he took the song as a tribute to him and his chums. “It meant a lot,” he said, “. . . some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to.”
“It does my head in, mate,” is Weller’s response. “Which bit of the lyric do you think he didn’t understand? But do you know what’s sadder? The fact that the song is still relevant.” I assume at this point, that Weller is also referring to the recent mayoral triumph of Cameron’s fellow Etonian Boris Johnson. In fact, Weller’s disillusionment isn’t restricted to the right. “To quote Ray Winstone, my vote is to not vote. I couldn’t tell you the difference between any of them.”
Having once aligned himself with the Labour-affiliated musical movement Red Wedge, Weller must have been friendly with Ken Livingstone? “He’s a div,” says the singer, “Total f***ing div.” We won’t agree here. I say that using the Olympics as a Trojan horse for East End regeneration was smart. Weller says that removing the old Routemaster buses from service was a grave error. “Those buses were part of our community,” he says, “Bus conductors – everyone knew them. It’s like [closing] post offices. Whose f***ing brainwave was that? This stuff is part of our culture.”
Cradock returns from the fridge with a handful of beers. However Andy Lewis – Weller’s new bassist – won’t be needing one. Before joining Weller on the road, Lewis was near-teetotal. Tonight, though, marks his dramatic discovery of vodka and lime. Twenty years ago Lewis had just passed his driving test, put his vast northern soul collection in his Robin Reliant and drove it to Lampeter in West Wales, where he began his degree. “I was the only mod in the village,” he says. “But then, in 1988, I think the only other mod in the whole bloody country was Paul.”
“Andy’s a music person,” says Weller. “You join a band, and you become successful – and then you think you can dabble with politicians and people with a different agenda.
But music people speak the same language. And even though you like things from the past, you know you’re dead if you wallow in it.”
At 1.45am, the Westway lights beckon, and Weller can barely be heard over the sound of 22 Dreams booming from the speakers “You’re going to put this in your piece, aren’t you? ‘He was listening to his own f***ing album.’ ” It ought to be mentioned, though. Because most artists, by the time they have finished an album, are sick of their own songs. Weller carries himself like a man who wakes every day to discover that he’s won a competition to be the singer in Paul Weller’s band. Only one thing could make a great situation even better. A kebab.
And so, minutes later – having failed to persuade his tour manager that he should divert the bus to the nearest takeaway – Weller and son pile into a people carrier and instruct the driver to stop outside Kebab Machine in Notting Hill. “I’ve got some dog food and pitta bread in the house. Why don’t you come back and eat that instead?” Nat says. “Sounds good to me,” shrugs his dad, before turning to me. “You’re having one, aren’t you? Come on, man. It’s your heritage.”
While Nat waits in the car our kebabs are prepared. Six or seven people pull out mobile phones and pose alongside an obliging Weller. “This is my girlfriend,” says one, “She’s from Argentina, so she probably doesn’t know who you are.”
The car decants Nat at the house he shares with his mother, Weller’s first wife Dee C. Lee, and continues towards Weller’s house. The self-styled Changing Man surveys the unchanging narrowboats of Little Venice and declares this “the best city in the world”. Kebab in hand, he strides into the house where his girlfriend Sammi and their young children are sleeping. When the car drops me off, the driver asks if I’ll be taking my bags with me. That’s when we realise that Weller has left all his luggage in the boot.
Six hours later, as I take my kids to school, Weller’s tour manager calls the mobile and arranges to pick up the bags. At 9am, on his way to the Later. . . studios, Weller himself calls to rave about the kebab and about a northern soul disc, Soulshake, by Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson – in particular “them mad electric sitars”. If my part in the conversation seems halting, the reasons are twofold. I feel wretched. And, more to the point, I can’t believe he doesn’t. When he turns 50 on Sunday, he says it’ll be “just a normal day”. If this has been a normal day in Paul Weller’s life, that’s some achievement.
Paul Weller’s 22 Dreams is out on June 2. A single Have You Made Up Your Mind is out on Monday. Tonight he plays Hammersmith Apollo (sold out)
50 not out: the Modfather’s first half-century
12 Receives his first guitar
14 Firstgig at Walton Working Men’s Club with his friend Steve Brooks
19 The Jam sign to Polydor for £6,000. Top of the Pops debut with In the City
22 In at No 1 with Going Underground. Back-catalogue buying frenzy ensues. Seven Jam songs in the Top 75
24 Disbands the Jam and forms the Style Council
31 Polydor declines the Style Council’s final album, Modernism: A New Decade
35 Wild Wood heralds his return as major songwriting force. Modfather becomes Britpop godfather
48 Outstanding Achievement award at the 2007 Brits.
50 22 Dreams released to uniformly enthusiastic reviews