Paul Weller Waxes Eclectic About His Career and New Album
By Steve Baltin (Spinner.com)
At 50, and more than three decades since the Jam left a legacy that has been hailed by every U.K. band from Oasis to Morrissey, Paul Weller has reached music icon status. But like so many of his peers in recent years, Weller remains as vital musically as he is quotable in conversation, displaying the same youthful bravado that marked his “Modfather” heyday. He proudly (yet cryptically) calls his new album of 21 songs ’22 Dreams,’ his most ambitious yet. Ranging from gorgeous ballads to Style Council infused soul to spoken word, the record covers all aspects of Weller’s career. He spoke to Spinner about the new album, why he’s proud of his kids’ musical tastes and why his annual drunken pilgrimage through his musical past is more than enough nostalgia for him.
You’ve said you view this record as a full song cycle. At what point did you know it was going to take that shape?
Like a lot of records, those things just evolve over the course of time, but even from the outset I was quite determined to make it like a double album. I really liked the idea of having a large body of work that people could sit down and listen to for an hour or so. But I didn’t know it was going to turn out to be quite as eclectic or experimental in places as it is. I probably had about four, five or six songs [by] springtime last year, and from that it just snowballed, really. We just kept on making music, and the more we made the more we wanted to make. We ended up cutting about 26, 27 songs and we probably could’ve kept on going, but you have to sort of draw the line somewhere.
Knowing you wanted to make this a big body of work, were there any records you drew upon as inspiration?
The only thing I can think of really is the ‘White Album,’ I suppose, ’cause there aren’t that many examples anyway. I can’t say we were trying to make the ‘White Album,’ but the ‘White Album’ was one of the first records I heard. And I like the idea there were lots of songs on it and even if you didn’t like some of the songs it didn’t matter ’cause you knew the next track you’d like. And you can always go back to the things you weren’t sure about. And I like that. I like the fact there are some records in my collection that at the time I didn’t like some of the tracks, but then six weeks or six months later they become your favorites. I feel this record — I’m not comparing it to the ‘White Album,’ obviously — but I think the eclecticism is kind of comparable and it’s a big body of work, something that people can keep coming back to and hearing different things.
Are there any albums in your collection you’ve had a change of heart about?
The first thing that comes to mind is ‘A Love Supreme,’ by John Coltrane. I remember Steve White, our drummer, buying me a copy of that probably a few years ago, which I just totally didn’t get whatsoever. And now it’s ended up being one of me all-time favorite records. So maybe just sometimes you’ve got to be in the right mood or the right frame of mind to receive something as well. Or sometimes you have to listen to things and they are work, but once you get through that it’s really rewarding ’cause you get so much else from it.
Coming on to your songs, you did the shows in New York and L.A. where you revisited all aspects of your career. In doing the shows did you form new opinions or appreciations of any of your past work?
When we did the stuff in New York and L.A. last year there were things like ‘Speak Like a Child,’ one of the first Style Council records, which I didn’t particularly have any sort of feeling for one way or the other. I’d probably forgotten about it, really, but then after playing it, I thought, “I actually still really like this record.” And it’s probably the same thing with a lot of Jam songs, ‘Carnation,’ things like that. But it wasn’t I disliked them, I’d just forgotten a lot of them; you’re talking about a lot of songs a lot of years ago. So it’s only really sometimes when I hear something on the radio or I talk to the band and say, “Listen, what songs should we do this time?” And people say, “We should try this ’cause it’s a great song.” And I listen to it through other people’s ears or eyes, and yeah, maybe come to a different appreciation. And sometimes I listen to it and think, “It’s f—ing dreadful!” [laughs]
Do you listen to your own stuff much?
Not really. I listen to whatever I’m working on at the time, obviously. And maybe once a year I get drunk and reminiscent or nostalgic and I listen to the old songs. But then once I’ve got it out of my system I’m just quite happy to hear what I’m doing now, really. And not because I’m not proud of [the past]; I think it’s great. If I was taken tomorrow I’ve left something behind for the world, so I appreciate that as well, but I’m not really one to dwell on what I’ve done or not. I just proceed with what I’m doing now, really.
That’s probably the case for 99 percent of artists. That’s why I was asking about the different perspective, because I imagine a lot of those songs you did in New York and L.A. you probably hadn’t heard in a long time.
Yeah, for real, definitely. And, that’s when I sound arrogant or blowing smoke up my own arse, but there are times when I listen to the early Jam stuff I’m quite surprised at how mature some of it is ’cause I think of how young I was when I wrote it. Those are things that make me feel good, obviously, but I’ve always liked wherever me head is at; that’s always been my favorite time.
You say you don’t know how the audience will stand for it, but you have one of the most loyal audiences out there. It’s gotta be gratifying to know that level of devotion is there.
Yeah, of course. And with the new record as well I kind of hope we can take people with us. It’s not a question of alienating people. It’s like, “Come with us ’cause we’re going on a different trip here and we want you to come with us.” It’s like a new phase in a way ’cause it’s us with renewed energy, renewed enthusiasm.
Was there something in particular that triggered that renewed energy?
There are lots of reasons for it, to be honest. One of the things is we were working with different people. There were four of us sort of co-producing it all together, so there are four people pitching ideas in. It wasn’t just me doing it or me writing. There were lots of co-writes, so it was a different sense of democracies and whole-process recording. I wasn’t trying to impose too much. I was letting the music lead us and [let] other people have their say. There was a definite sense of mischief and fun, and everyone felt good about it. It was hard work towards the end to finish everything up, ’cause there were a lot of songs, but it wasn’t hard work otherwise. Every day was just sort of fun and like, “Well, where are we going today?”
Most people, as they get older, become more comfortable. Has that been the case for you and did it allow you to be looser with the recording of this album?
On a personal level, I think that’s true. I think, to be honest, the older you get the less of a f— you give what people think, really — that’s the bottom line. But there’s something good to come out of that as well; whether that’s confidence or not, I don’t know. But I like it at the moment. Maybe in five years’ time I might change me mind, but at the moment it feels OK to be sort of this age. At the same time though, in my mind … I don’t feel like a teenager, but I don’t feel any different than what I did 20 years ago. So it’s a funny spot, really, but I quite like it. It’s a funny sort of perspective. When we started the record last year, I just thought, “We’re going to make the most indulgent thing I can f—ing do,” which I did. But, ironically, it sort of really connected with everyone, and that’s really interesting I think as well.
You mentioned you didn’t expect the record to be so eclectic. What did you listen to during the making of the album?
When we were doing the album, after every session we’d just always sit around getting drunk and playing records. So everyone brings some music in and we just play all sorts of records. I think that all has a bearing, ’cause the next day you’re still revved up and buzzing on what you’ve heard the night before. And someone’s always gonna bring in something you’ve never heard before and turn you on, so there’s a lot of that going on as well. Essentially we’re all fans, when I say “we” I mean all the people we’ve been working with … and I think that comes through on the record.
Do your kids turn you on to stuff, or is there stuff you turn them on to?
It’s probably a bit of both ways, really. My daughter’s played me things like Duffy’s single, the Subways, people like that. And then I made her tapes — “tapes”; I’m getting old-fashioned — CDs of old soul, R&B stuff, which she’s really loved. So there’s always a bit of that going on. It’s very exotic tastes they’ve got, my children. They’re into a lot of sort of Japanese rock, which I don’t know, I can’t really make heads or tails of, really. But I like the fact that they like it and they don’t really give a s—; they’re into their sort of thing and that’s it. But recently a band I really, really love is this band called Fleet Foxes. They’re great, I think.
So, what three songs would Paul Weller put on a soul/R&B mix for his daughter?
‘Call Me,’ by Emmit Long; ‘Ain’t No Big Thing,’ by the Radiants and ‘That’s Enough,’ Roscoe Robinson, maybe. If I think of three, I can think of 300.