Interview: Paul Weller
Interview by Joshua Klein
Paul Weller is one of England’s biggest stars, a veritable folk hero to the land of the Union Jack, and by now one suspects he’d remain that way whether he wanted to or not. He fronted the Jam before he broke up the band and formed the Style Council in its place, only to see that group become similarly successful. And after the Style Council ran its course and Weller went through a brief cooling-off period, he emerged once again as a steadily maturing solo artist.
You’d think that several decades with such a familiar figure would preclude many surprises, but Weller’s been adept at keeping even the faithful on their toes. His new 22 Dreams is a self-consciously eclectic double album that heads off in a dozen different directions, no doubt much to the frustration of anyone who thought they finally had a bead on Weller. We spoke with the singer about the current twists and turns of his career.
Pitchfork: Happy belated birthday! You must be getting a lot of “turning 50” questions.
PW: Eh, I’ve had a bit of it, yeah. I’m sure there’s more to come, obviously, but I suppose it’s fair enough.
Pitchfork: I saw an interview with you recently where you pointed out how no one ever complained about the age of the legendary blues players, among others.
PW: No, but it’s a very English thing, I think. “Ageism” or whatever you want to call it, is a very English phenomenon. You don’t get it too much in many other cultures. And no one says it about authors or poets or filmmakers. “Oh, they’re too old to make films or write books.” You know what I mean?
Pitchfork: I saw a quote from you years ago where you claimed you never felt confident as a songwriter until your solo success.
PW: It doesn’t sound like something I would say, actually. It must have been the peak of madness! I think anybody goes through a crisis of confidence from time to time. You have to kind of doubt yourself, sometimes. It’s the way forward. I think, anyway.
Pitchfork: Is success alone enough to breed confidence in a songwriter?
PW: I think you have to satisfy yourself first and foremost. There have been records I’ve been really, really pleased with that haven’t connected with people. But I felt good about them. If you’re making music, you must want to turn other people on to it, whether you’re number one in the charts or number 60. I don’t know, that’s a commercial thing, but just the fact that other people like you…there’s no point in making music, otherwise. Otherwise you might as well make it in your bedroom and leave it there. So you’ve got to please yourself first, but after you’ve done that you also want– well, I want– other people to like it.
Pitchfork: You’re a textbook example of a writer for whom success was never a good enough reason to stay in one place.
PW: Well, an artist or writer always has to move forward. All the time you’re trying to improve yourself, or at least look at ways to improve things or make things better. I’m not really one to harp on previous records. I’m always looking forward to what I’m doing now, and what’s ahead.
Pitchfork: What’s interesting about some of the response to 22 Dreams is that you’re still able to surprise people.
PW: Yeah. Which is a surprise in itself. I started this record springtime last year, and I thought, “I’m going to make something as indulgent as I want.” And out of that everyone seems to really like it. It’s just one of those things that seems to have connected with people. There are parts of the record that surprised me. There are areas of music that I’ve never been to before, so that’s always nice thing to have in life. That there are other areas you haven’t been to. You haven’t covered all the ground, and there’s plenty more uncharted territory to cover as well.
Pitchfork: The curse of any songwriter is that people expect you to listen exclusively to what you sometimes reference– the Who, the Kinks– but maybe not Alice Coltrane.
PW: I suppose so, yeah. I mean, I don’t know what people’s perception is. That’ a pretty small-minded way of looking at it, if they do, that I only like the Kinks. I mean, I love the Kinks, but I like all sorts of music. If I stay at home at night and play records, I just go through the whole spectrum, really. I just love music.
Pitchfork: Do you know when a specific inspiration might come up? Did “Song for Alice” come to you after listening to Coltrane?
PW: No. I’d been listening to Alice Coltrane records for quite a few years. I wouldn’t say her influence is always with me, but I always go back to her records. She died last year, so I wanted to do a little tribute to her. She’s quite underrated, in the whole sort of scheme of things. But I don’t necessarily play her records before I start a session and think, this is what we should do. Because her records are all in my head, anyway. The whole thing with eastern music and instruments, I love all that stuff. John Coltrane, especially toward the latter part of his life, touched upon those things as well.
Pitchfork: So much of jazz is about pushing boundaries, but any time any of these great jazz musicians evolved, they alienated a segment of their fans that didn’t want them to change.
PW: I never even ponder those sorts of questions. To me, it’s just music, you know what I mean? I’m pretty sure John Coltrane said the same thing: whether it’s jazz or not, it’s his music.
Pitchfork: Is it even possible to make a double record that sounds uniform, or is it always pretty much by definition going to be diverse and wide-ranging?
PW: I think this record is eclectic, to say the least, but to be fair that’s just the way it evolved. Keep in mind, like I said to you, when I listen to records I go right through the cart. So I think it’s probably just a reflection of that, really. I don’t think you could do the same thing if you only had 12 tracks to play with. The fact that we had a double album gave us a bigger canvas to work on. I think we could get away with it more, a much broader scope.
Pitchfork: Had it occurred to you to divide it into two separate records, a more conventional record and less conventional record?
PW: We were talking at one point about an acoustic, folky side, and a rock and roll side, and then a soul side, but the more we kept playing, the more kinds of songs kept coming, so we thought we should just mix it all up. Put it all together. I’m not trying to compare it to the White Album, but when you listen to the White Album there are all sorts of styles going on, and they all sit next door to each other. I think that’s a good enough template for it.
Pitchfork: Well, the White Album turned out that way because they all hated each other.
PW: [laughs] Well, we all loved each other, and we still made one.
Pitchfork: You’ve got a new band.
PW: Yeah. Well, [Ocean Colour Scene’s] Steve Cradock’s still playing guitar, but we’ve got a new drummer, a new bass player, a new keyboard player.
Pitchfork: How much does that affect what you do, knowing that the songs will be played by new people?
PW: At the onset last year, I thought I didn’t want to make an “As Is Now” part two, which is the album before this one. I love that record, personally, but I didn’t want to make a part two. So I thought the only chance I had at doing something different was to work with different people. And it’s no disrespect to people I’ve worked with in the past, because they’re all brilliant musicians, but sometimes you’ve just got to move on and see what else is out there, really, and what else you’ve got inside you, I think. The new band I’ve been playing live with, but they weren’t really on the record. We have got different guests on the record [Graham Coxon, Robert Wyatt, and Noel Gallagher among them- Ed.], but it’s really me and Steve playing most of the instruments.
Pitchfork: In the punk era, bands seemed to be take more seriously than individual songwriters.
PW: I don’t know. I think time sort of decides those things, really. A lot of people you talk about from the late 1970s to early 1980s are either not physically with us anymore, or fallen by the wayside. If you’re lucky enough, or determined enough, or want to carry on longer than five year,s or two years…I think I’ve kind of earned my stripes, to be honest. I’ve been going non-stop for 30 years.
Pitchfork: Now you’re respected as a songwriter, so do you feel you’re a peer of some of your current or former idols?
PW: It’s not for me to compare myself to Ray Davies or someone I idolize, do you know what I mean? But I think I’ve put the time and effort in, that’s for sure. But time decides that.
Pitchfork: Someone like Noel Gallagher doesn’t seem patient enough to let time decide these things. He had no problem comparing himself to his idols!
PW: Yeah, well, that’s him, do you know what I mean? I can’t really be that arrogant about it. I’d like to think that what I’ve written over the years and what I’m doing now means something to people. People in the street all the time are saying “love the new record” or “I love that record,” this tune or that tune. It means an awful lot, or it’s been a big part of their lives. As a songwriter, what else would you really want? You’re trying to connect with people, people’s emotions, and maybe say something about their lives or feelings. That’s probably a good enough compliment to receive, really.
Pitchfork: The Jam and the Style Council reflected the times they were made it. Your current material seems a bit more self-consciously timeless, in that it doesn’t recall any single time period.
PW: I don’t know. Music’s totally eclectic now. I saw a DJ the other day, he was on Virgin radio over here, and he said he played “Going Underground”, the Jam song, on his breakfast show. Then he got a text from some young kid asking if was a new band. I think a lot of people these days, younger people as well, are aware of all sorts of music, really. If you’re into the Libertines you probably also have to be aware of the Beatles, or the Kinks. I think there’s a better, possibly greater appreciation for all music, of all eras, I think. I don’t know, really, about my record. It doesn’t sound like it could have been made in the 60s or 70s. It sounds pretty contemporary to me. I don’t know.
Pitchfork: You’ve kept yourself so busy, from the start. There’s not been a lot of looking backward.
PW: No. I thought that was the idea: if you’re in music, you’re in music, and if you’re in music you just want to keep making records and playing. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? At least, that’s what I always thought it was about, anyway. I don’t think I could bear years and years off. Perhaps in me older, older age, maybe I will, for physical reasons. But to me you’ve always got to keep proving yourself. I never want to just sit on me laurels. You have to keep forging, to prove yourself to yourself. I always think, every time I start a record, this could be the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve always had that sort of feeling, though I don’t know if it’s always been the case, by the by. I always think about what’s round the corner. I’m really, really pleased with this new record, but I’m also excited about making another one next year, or at least starting on one next year. And who knows where that will go, or where that will lead to.
Pitchfork: Does writing come easy to you, or is that just a work ethic that you’ve honed over the years?
PW: There’s definitely a certain work ethic involved. I come from that sort of background, that had that strong work ethic. I was always taught as a kid that if there’s anything you want in life, you’ve got to work towards it. I guess that sort of stayed with me, really. But also, for me, from the time I was like 10 years old, all I ever wanted to do was be in a band and make music. So to get the chance to do that, to live your dreams or wishes, I just seize it and try and run with it. I never sort of think, oh, the pressure, or it’s too much. You’re lucky to be doing it. It’s a great gift to have, and I appreciate it.
Pitchfork: Speaking of your peers as well as turning 50, it’s been a few years, but what kind of effect does it have when someone like Joe Strummer, one of your contemporaries, dies with no warning?
PW: It does affect you, but that could apply to all kids of people. My friend got run over. Thank God they’re alright, but I was speaking to her yesterday and today she’s been knocked down and in hospital. But that’s life, isn’t it? I suppose you obviously come to see your own mortality. You see your contemporaries– some last, some don’t last. That’s the lesson in life.
Pitchfork: Though getting older has done some remarkable things to your voice. In some ways you’re singing better than you’ve ever sung.
PW: Thank you. It’s got better, I think. That’s kind of surprising in itself, really. A lot of people, the older they get, the more shot their voices get. It’s not something I’ve worked at. It might just be a physical thing, I really don’t know. I can go different places with it now, and physically it sounds stronger.
Pitchfork: It’s a perfect fit for a song like “Light Nights.” You can’t bark that song. You have to sing that song.
PW: Yeah, you do. For me personally, this is some of my best singing, on this new record. It wasn’t like I made any preparations to do that, or any training or whatever. I just opened up my mouth and sang. I don’t know if that’s maturity or … I really, really don’t know.
Pitchfork: The new album supposedly started out in several different directions before winding up where it did.
PW: I went through lots of different ideas last year. One idea was to do a couple of duets. It’s like a lot of records: whatever you first think about, you come out with something totally different at the end of it. Whatever plans you have you throw away, because it’s always going to end up sounding pretty different from what you initially thought of. I probably only had about five or six songs when I started, and it just sort of flowed from that. The more music we made, the more places we thought we’d go to as well. Every sort of few months or whatever, we would kind of sequence the songs together– we were looking at the bigger picture as well– and see what else we needed, what other songs we needed.
Pitchfork: Isn’t that ultimately the difference between making something that’s personal and making something that’s product, not just going for a formulaic hit but looking at the bigger picture?
PW: I don’t really know about formulas. Maybe with the Jam, we had a kind of real run with singles at one time. I suppose you kind of got the hang of how to do it, really. But I don’t know if there’s any formula. I’m not sure I believe in that, to be honest. I don’t know if there’s any rhyme or reason to music. Sometimes it hits and sometimes it doesn’t, really.
Pitchfork: Has your own approach to writing changed over the years, or do your songs still come to you the same way they did at the start?
PW: It’s pretty much the same way I’ve always done it. I’ll probably just sit in the kitchen with an acoustic guitar, or maybe a piano, sometimes. I can’t really make that much noise, where I live. I wish I could. I’ve mostly ever lived in London, so I have to be quiet for the neighbor’s sake. But it hasn’t really changed. You just sit and absent-mindedly sort of play and jam, and sometimes out of that comes a tune or a chord sequence. And sometimes nothing at all comes out of it, and you just enjoy playing. With lyrics, probably the same thing. I’ll get a title, or an idea, or a couplet and fill up notepads or bits of paper. I do it until I’m ready to write and put it in some semblance of order. It’s very much random, really. It’s really where the mood takes me. I don’t know whatever that mood is, but it’s just kind of an inkling, a physical inkling that I’m ready to write. And I sit down to write something, because I can feel it inside me.