MOD On His Side – Paul Weller interview
Published Date: 25 May 2008
By Richard Purden
From Scotland On Sunday
Even as he reaches his half century, Paul Weller insists the best has yet to come. To prove it, his new double album is a radical departure, with a little help from the cream of Brit rockers
IT’S A warm afternoon in Motherwell as Paul Weller’s tour bus pulls up amid streets full of Rangers supporters preparing for that evening’s Uefa Cup final. Sporting his traditional flapping Mod cut, dapper grey slacks with a slight flare and a tight black t-shirt, he’ll later tell the audience that night to simply forget the score and enjoy the gig.
Not best known for seeing the bright side of life, Weller, who turns 50 today, is buoyed by his new album, 22 Dreams. He has, in his own words, delivered that “great album” he hoped for. It is indeed his most uncharacteristic and bold work to date. In the disposable era of single downloads, the double album celebrates the luxury of the creative process and treating an LP as a body of work. Weller has combed the finer details right down to the sleeve and artwork.
Reflections on his age and his contemporaries’ output have had a significant bearing on the more experimental approach in the studio this time round. “Right from the start I was aware that I didn’t want to make As Is Now (his previous album from 2005] Part 2. I think it’s another sound because different people are involved. A big part of the making of this record was the studio and the location,” he says, referring to Weller’s HQ/studio in his hometown of Woking, and the Surrey countryside which has motivated him since his days in the Jam and tracks such as ‘Tales From The Riverbank’. “We all watched the seasons change and we incorporated that into the record; it’s steeped in it. Well over half the record was written on the spot or improvised there. We’d leave the main door open right the way through from spring to winter during the recording. The elements are literally on it, there’s a massive thunderstorm at one point, there’s a lot going on.”
Perhaps some of Weller’s hardcore audience will be left scratching their heads after the first listen of 22 Dreams, but he is honest about the risks he has taken. “The tracks you might not like now, you’ll maybe love in six months. That’s the sign of a great record. I think the older you get there’s a certain amount of freedom because it’s like, ‘F*** it, I’m going to do whatever I feel like.’ You think less about whether it’s going to be commercial or will sell. I mean, it goes without saying that I want my records to do well, but there’s not that same pressure that there is with a young band trying desperately to make it and that frees you up a lot.
“You have to keep challenging yourself. I’ve always tried to do that, and I’m not saying I’ve always been successful. Maybe I’ve rewritten the same song, it’s inevitable, but I’ve always been mindful of taking the writing somewhere else. You can’t stick in your little comfort zone. I know I’ve been accused of that with recent albums, which I’d have to disagree with. I’m sure there’s a subconscious ‘go for it’ thing with turning 50. You want to do as much as possible and there are thoughts of how little time we have on the planet. For a lot of musicians in their 50s the best days are behind them. I’d like to try and show that there is a future.”
His five children, two from former wife Dee C Lee, one with a short-term partner and two with his current partner, have also helped kick-start the writing process. “All my children inspire me in life and that always comes out in the writing. They are a constant source for that. ‘Why Walk When You Can Run’ on the new album would come from there.”
Having reluctantly shared writing credits and guest-spots in the past, Weller has collaborated with a strong cast of musicians for 22 Dreams. Robert Wyatt features on the free-jazz tribute to Alice Coltrane, ‘Song For Alice’, Graham Coxon on the haunting Bowie-ish ‘Black River’, Stone Roses members Ian Brown and Aziz Ibrahim perform on spoken-word track ‘God’, and a Scottish ballad is performed with John McCusker. Free jazz fusion, tango, spoken word and psychedelic avant-garde experiments are all there, as well as a collaboration with close ally Noel Gallagher, who appears as co-writer and performer on forthcoming single ‘Echoes Round The Sun’.
The dark and psychedelic strut of the first single is unlike anything either has produced in the past. “I called Noel up and asked him if he had any ideas for some tunes and if he fancied coming down to the studio. He had the backing track for ‘Echoes’ for a while and he couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t working with Oasis and I can’t imagine them doing it in an obvious way really.
“I jammed a melody on the top and from there you have the perfect marriage for a song; the two ideas came together. Gem (from Oasis] came down and played guitar and melotron and Noel played bass and keyboards; the picture built up, we got it together in about a day.” Undoubtedly, Weller’s staunch fan base has shifted generations. His relentless pursuit of fresh talent and eagerness to support new bands on tour has presented a relevant exchange and a passing of the torch from the early days of Oasis to the Libertines, the Coral and Arctic Monkeys. His recent backing of the Rifles involved bringing the Jam hit ‘The Eton Rifles’ out of retirement for a guest spot with the band. Weller was also horrified when Tory leader David Cameron endorsed the song when publicly admitting a love of left-leaning popular British acts such as the Smiths and the Jam.
“The main reason for bringing the song back was for the Rifles gig in London. They fancied that one, and after playing it again it felt right. It still felt relevant and people went potty for it and they have done on this tour. It’s unfortunate that it’s still relevant. The same people are in control in the country; it’s still people from the same backgrounds, schools and universities. It’s the same bullshit with different faces; they even look the same with their scrubbed, cheeky public schoolboy grins and that’s depressing. The song still has the same energy from that time, though. It’s fresh, not cabaret.”
Weller’s old band mates reforming as From The Jam is a tender point, given that they too perform the song. “I have to let them get on with it; I can’t say I’m happy about it. For me it dulls the legacy. I don’t understand it; it’s not what we were about, I didn’t think.
“At the end of the day, whether people like it or not, they’re my f***ing songs. There was three people in that band and everyone made a contribution and that’s fair enough, but they’re still my f***ing tunes, so that kind of gets to me. I saw Bruce Foxton (former Jam bass player] recently. It was fine, no animosity and I’ve spoke to his wife in recent months. I’ve certainly no bad blood because life’s too short for that.”
On the subject of former allies, the extremely private Weller is less positive about his former life-long friend Paulo Hewitt. His recent biography, The Changing Man, read like the work of a spurned lover after a serious falling out. “I don’t want to give that guy credence; I’m just not interested. We were mates for decades; it wasn’t like I knew him for two weeks or anything. You just don’t do that, but such is life.”
• ‘Have You Made Up Your Mind/Echoes Around The Sun’ is released tomorrow. 22 Dreams is released on June 2. A signed limited edition book, A Thousand Things, will be launched the same day at the Paul Smith Boutique, London.
• Weller plays Aberdeen Press and Journal Arena, November 13; Glasgow SECC, November 14.