By Gavin Martin 24/10/2008
As his female string section file into a West London rehearsal room, Paul Weller sits on a wall outside blinking in the sunshine, sipping tea and smoking Benson & Hedges.
In May, the Britrock legend turned 50 having just delivered the greatest, most surprising, album of his career.
Featuring collaborations with Robert Wyatt and Noel Gallagher, 22 Dreams is a captivating 2CD set.
It covers everything from the Modish punk rock Weller first found fame with in The Jam, the jazzy adventures he undertook in The Style Council, as well as forging previously unchartered adventures in avant garde, krautrock and nu-folk territory.
It’s a record full of ambition and adventure – decidedly not the work of a man settling down for a quiet easy-going middle age.
“You can’t really plan for those things, but I did have big ambitions for it starting out and they developed as it went along,” agrees Weller.
“With most people at my age, all their best work is in the past. I thought, ‘F*** that. I’m going to try and break the mould here and do something special, something that shows I’m still going forward’. It’s not finished for me.”
So how did it feel turning 50?
“It was quite monumental leading up to it, but I’ve been enjoying it so far. I couldn’t pinpoint how it’s changed me. Whatever it is, I’ve enjoyed it.
Part of the thing of getting older I find is that you care far less what people think.
That just intensifies when you hit 50.”
Weller staged a remarkable comeback as a solo performer at the start of the 90s.
Since then, however, he’s been criticised for his dadrock conservatism. 22 Dreams is a defiant response to such putdowns.
“It’s brilliant for me going into areas I’ve never been before,” he says. “You think you’ve heard everything, but all of a sudden you turn the corner and go through a door and find there is another world out there, a place I can go to. You just have to look inside yourself sometimes and see what you can dig out really. Those are the things that excite me. They’re springboards for the future.”
Recorded at his countryside studio, 22 Dreams reflects Weller’s connection to nature as much as the big city, something that’s always been present in his music, right back to The Jam’s acoustic classic English Rose.
“Woking, where I come from, is suburbia but the surrounding area was beautiful countryside,” he explains. “So as a kid I’d spend all day long on a bike getting lost in the woods.
Those sort of things stick with you.”
The album also features some of the most fiery and fresh guitar playing Weller has delivered in years.
Does he ever regret casting the instrument aside for several years with The Style Council.
“I just didn’t feel I was getting anywhere with it or developing,” he shrugs. “Rediscovering it in the early 90s, I think I found that taking a break actually allowed me to become better as a musician.”
But Weller’s judgement hasn’t always been the best. A few years ago he championed The Ordinary Boys, before frontman Preston went on Big Brother.
“What happened to them, man?” he asks. “I thought he was a credible character, serious about what he was doing.
Then he’s behaving like a silly pop star, a total about-face.”
Does the man who wrote In The City and Down In The Tube Station despair at the lack of protest songs among the modern Britpop bands?
“I don’t know if I get disappointed,” Weller reflects. “But when I see a band like The Enemy writing really good lyrics, saying something about their life and their generation, they stand out more because others aren’t doing it.”
Although he was a card carrying Labour supporter in the 1980s, Weller has long since disassociated himself from politicians and was flabbergasted when David Cameron recently chose his class war diatribe Eton Rifles as a favourite tune.
“Which part of the song didn’t he get?” he wonders, astonished.
“Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? I don’t know. He must have an idea what it’s about, surely? It’s a shame really that someone didn’t listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead. I was a bit disappointed really.”
Although he’s now 50, Weller remains a style icon for many, despite having a belly that’s the result of a boozy lifestyle and blonde hair that’s been dyed for several years.
“I prefer to call it colouring. I just think grey hair’s boring, although it obviously suits you, man,” he smirks. “I don’t feel any different now to when I was 30. I go to the gym a few times a month. I do try to make an effort, although I could do more.
“We just got back from touring America and we’ve been away for seven weeks. Obviously we had a few nights out, as you do, but lots of mornings I’d be down the hotel gym. I’d see the band down there too and think, ‘This is different’. It’s quite nice actually that I come back from tour feeling fitter than when I went.
That’s really unusual.”
New album Weller At The BBC is out on November 3. UK tour starts November 8.