Paul Weller has always been a restless soul. When he disbanded The Jam in 1982, even his dad thought he’d taken leave of his senses. And while most of his original peers now make a living by trading on past glories, he is generally reluctant to play old hits.
Even when he was garlanded with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits in 2006, he cut an incongruous figure. As pop’s bright young things swanned around with their entourages, he could be found strolling about backstage with his children, itching to get on stage before heading home.
If anything, that Brit Award seems to have spurred him to strive even harder, and he marked his recent 50th birthday by topping the charts with 22 Dreams, the most diverse album of his career.
‘I didn’t want to become one of those people whose best work is behind them once they get to a certain age,’ he says over a cup of tea. ‘I wanted to disprove that by doing something different.’
With his features still lean (if a little more weathered) and his hair worn in the long, Mod-ish style of the late Steve Marriott (the former Small Faces singer) Weller looks good for his age. He tells me, with a grin, that ‘it’s all bound to fall apart at some stage’, but adds that turning 50 didn’t perturb him in the slightest.
‘I wasn’t interested in having a party, but then there was a surprise one thrown for me after we’d played Hammersmith Apollo in May,’ he says. ‘It was enjoyable, and good to see some old friends.
‘I wouldn’t say that I’ve become all reflective now that I’m 50, but I want to cram as much as I can into my life. I’m not going to die tomorrow, but the years do seem to be going by more quickly. When I look back on the early days of The Jam, in 1977, I can’t believe that they were 30 years ago.’
An ambitious double album, 22 Dreams is one of the most intriguing records of Weller’s career. Made in his own studio in the Surrey village of Ripley, near his hometown of Woking, it features some superb pop-soul songs, plus unexpected detours into tango, folk and free-form jazz.
Says Paul: ‘I didn’t take a conscious decision to make an eclectic record – that’s just the way it turned out. It’s an album I made for myself, but I can’t say that’s a new thing. I’ve never really catered for a market or an audience. ‘I thought I’d covered all the ground I could, but then I discovered all these new styles. The only real limits are the ones you impose on yourself. Now I’m already buzzing about doing the next record.’
Weller’s admiration for Sixties soul, The Beatles and The Who is well-documented, but the songwriter he listened to most while making his latest album was David Bowie, with the early Seventies classics Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory never far from his personal playlist.
‘But, despite what some people say, I haven’t been in touch with Bowie. I’d love to get him to a gig, though. I’d love him to come and play with me and my new band.’
On songs such as Why Walk When You Can Run and Lullaby Fúr Kinder, the latter a poignant instrumental that showcases Weller’s often-overlooked talent as a pianist, it is clear that the singer’s family are also a major inspiration.
Family man: Paul Weller with his son, Nat, and daughter, Leah at the 2008 MOJO Awards
Paul, who lives with his girlfriend Sammi, in North London, has five children, with the two eldest, son Natt, 20, and daughter Leah, 16, already making plans to follow in their father’s footsteps – a move that Weller fully supports.
‘I don’t think I’ll have any more kids, but I do like the idea of having hundreds of them running around,’ he laughs. ‘It’s brilliant watching them grow up to become proper little individuals.
‘If you’re lucky enough to get on with them, they become your mates as well. Natt and Leah are both putting some songs together to try and get themselves record deals. I’ve left it up to them, but I still think that becoming a musician is a great thing to do. It’s still a noble profession.’
Having fronted one of the biggest British bands of the late Seventies and early Eighties – and topped the charts with Going Underground, Start!, Town Called Malice and Beat Surrender – Weller is rightly proud of the legacy of The Jam, whose firebrand influence can still be heard in the music of young bands such as The Enemy and Arctic Monkeys. Is there a chance of a reunion with bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler? The answer is unequivocal.
‘There’s no chance whatsoever,’ he states. ‘I wouldn’t even consider it. I spoke to Bruce recently, and he seemed fine. There’s no animosity there, but I’m not interested in re-forming either The Jam or The Style Council. I enjoy what I’m doing now.’
Paul started his solo career in 1990 after Polydor rejected the final Style Council album, Modernism: A New Decade. A period in the wilderness followed, with Weller even beginning to question his own ability.
Those dark ages ended with the mid-Nineties Britpop boom, when new bands such as Blur and Oasis named him as a key figure. Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher remains a close friend, and the pair even co-wrote a song, the psychedelic rocker Echoes Round The Sun, for 22 Dreams.
‘We’d been trying to write a song for ten years, but we’re far too self- conscious to sit in a room together and get on with it,’ says Paul. ‘We finally cracked it when Noel came in with a track and we jammed on top to give us a tune.’
After 30 years at the top, Weller is experienced enough to know that his artistic instincts will come and go. When he found himself bereft of songwriting inspiration around the turn of the decade, he embarked on a solo acoustic tour and then made Studio 150, a covers album.
Today, happily, those creative fires are burning once again. And, with the rest of this summer taken up with lengthy tours to Japan, Australia and America, The Modfather and his new band should be on top form for their UK gigs in the autumn.
‘If I find myself with writer’s block, I just sit it out now,’ says Paul. ‘A few years ago, I’d have been tearing my hair out. But you just have to keep working. That’s my attitude, and it comes from my parents and an old-fashioned working-class background.
‘Other than that, my only goal is to live long enough to see my children grow up. I want to keep producing good records and maybe find some new challenges musically. But I don’t have any desire for world domination. I just want to keep making music.’
• 22 Dreams is out now on Island Records. A new single, All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You), follows on August 18. Paul Weller’s British tour opens on November 6 at K2 in Crawley. For details, visit bookingsdirect.com.
ALL I WANNA DO (IS BE WITH YOU)
Heavy, hard-rocking soul and the new album’s most traditional track. Paul says: ‘I called the album 22 Dreams even though it only has 21 tracks. I wanted to hold one dream back.’ 8/10
ONE BRIGHT STAR
A Latin ballad, illuminated by Spanish guitar and mandolin. ‘I was given a compilation of tango and got really got into it. I love the passion and sensuality.’ 10/10
WHERE’ER YOU GO
Heartfelt, folky tune – a modern Danny Boy. ‘It’s a fictional story, set in the wilds of Scotland, about someone who returns home with great stories.’ 9/10
Lively, atmospheric sea shanty with hornpipes. ‘If there are any pointers as to what I might do in the future, they are in songs like this one.’ 9/10