The Paul Weller Interview
The invective is still as sharp as his clothes, but at 51 the ‘Modfather’ is brimming over with love: for his late father, for his youthful girlfriend, and for his country.
By Craig McClean
Published: 12:22PM BST 21 Apr 2010
From The Telegraph.co.uk
We haven’t even started and Paul Weller is looking at me accusingly.
‘You got monkey boots on? Where’d you get them from?’
After amping up the credentials of the shop, I tell him the price: £60.
‘Are they still doing them?’ he muses, smoothing down his slim-fit trousers – there are no jeans and certainly no button-flies on the 51-year-old Modfather – over a newly purchased pair of Chelsea boots in ultra-fine leather.
‘Cause Burberry did a pair last season, back in summer, pretty much identical to yours. But they were f—ing 300 quid or something!’ he spits with sweary disgust.
‘I ain’t paying 300 pound [sic] for a pair of monkey boots. But 60 quid? That’s good. I ain’t seen a pair for ages.’
Cue a small reverie into the shoes of yesteryear. He doesn’t mention the Mod bowling shoes of the sort made famous by Weller in his Jam days. Or his Style Council-era loafers. But he does hymn the praises of Czech army boots, cherry red boots, Doc Martens, and finally his own new Chelsea boots. ‘The bollocks, they are.’
Weller stretches out on the sofa by the mixing desk in his Black Barn Studio in Ripley, near his hometown of Woking in Surrey, and lights a cigarette.
He’s looking well: healthy glow, trim, trademark spiky silvery barnet elegantly shaped and teased just so. On the whiteboard next to his office, most of the year is mapped out already.
Kicking off with the imminent release of his new album, tours of Europe, the United States, New Zealand, Australia are scheduled, not to mention five (sold-out) nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall this month and a winter tour of the UK’s arenas. A gruelling schedule for anyone, far less a middle-aged man.
‘I’m fit as f—, mate,’ he declares. He used to be a bit of a yoga man, but now he’s a gym bunny. As well as a busy 2010, the fact that Weller has a new, 25-year-old girlfriend may also be a factor here.
‘I’m going four times a week. I’ve got the mindset. I’ve gone through the pain barrier. I really look forward to it. It used to bore me. But once you get through that little barrier and once you start feeling different and you see your body change, you’re hooked. It’s the best sort of high,’ concludes Weller, a man who, by his own previous admission, is not unused to other kinds of high.
This cosy nook is situated down a gravelly lane on the edge of the village green. Outside it’s all timeless rural quietude; inside, Black Barn’s décor is a retro-bustle of Small Faces and Who posters, Union flag lavatory seat and assorted Sixties bric-a-brac. It’s very Weller.
Not that his new, 10th solo album is some backsliding nostalgia-fest. Wake Up The Nation is clamorous, raucous and tuneful. It combines the best elements of his Jam-era venom and adrenalin with the late-blooming musical ambition that characterised his last album, 2008’s 21-track double album 22 Dreams.
‘It’s the first record I ever done where I haven’t pre-written anything,’ he says, his cor-blimey tones refreshingly unmodulated by 33 years in the fast lane of international punk’n’roll.
To begin with, he and producer/co-writer Simon Dine came up with backing tracks and, here in the studio, ‘we just jammed them’. For the lyrics, ‘I’d ad lib and make up stuff on the spot. It was an experiment, I suppose. It’s nice to think after all these years of making records that there was a different method of working.’
It’s a long way from the ‘dadrock’ conservatism that he, along with his pal and frequent collaborator Noel Gallagher, was credited with creating in the early Nineties.
‘It was exciting,’ he says of the recording sessions that took place over a pacy few weeks last year, ‘and that energy and that excitement I think comes through on the tracks. Sometimes the stuff I was singing on top was nonsense.’
Indeed, he hasn’t much of an explanation for the inspiration behind the title and lyrics of the ranty, thumping 7&3 Is The Striker’s Name. What about the glorious Find The Torch, Burn The Plans?
‘With that one, I wanted to get that anthemic quality to it. It was just about us and our race. Just to stamp ourselves back on it, really, on the map. Put the individuals back on the map. Having some sort of say. Just realising it’s our birthright as well, [no matter] how much it gets eroded or taken away by the politicians, or,’ he stops and coughs, ‘whatever else.’
Perhaps realising how easily such comments could be misinterpreted – as the grumblings of a middle-aged Little Englander, say – Weller’s normal pub-banter fluency evaporates. He talks in clipped phraseology rather than coherent sentences. ‘Just to re-establish our culture really and us as English people.’
Is it a positive message, rather than a call to pull up the drawbridge and stop immigrants coming in?
‘It’s not that at all. Just to reassert ourselves culturally. It’s just our heritage really. I shouldn’t say English people, I should say British people in your presence,’ he adds with a grin, acknowledging my Scottishness. ‘But I think a lot of it gets taken away by the wrong people, the wrong powers.’
‘Yeah, there’s a lot of that as well. I think the whole PC thing goes a bit too far.’
Enthusiastic puffer that he is, he cites the smoking ban as an example of the nanny state gone mad. He has little time for British politicians.
‘I can’t think of one proper serious working-class politician out there. They all seem cut from the same cloth to me.’
While he admits that Wake Up The Nation is an angry album ‘in parts… it’s not any grand political statement, it’s more a cultural wake up. We accept so much s— here and settle for second best.’
The agit-popster who helped establish the Margaret Thatcher-baiting Red Wedge group of musicians and activists in the early Eighties admits that he hasn’t even voted in the last two general elections. But the prospect of again living in a Tory Britain has encouraged him to prepare to go out and exercise his democratic right.
‘If it stops the Tories getting in, or the BNP or some other nutters… But is Cameron any different to Tony Blair? It was very, very different with Thatcher. It was far more extreme. I still dislike the Tories, but that’s for old injuries. These days they all seem removed from real life to me.’
Old Etonian David Cameron proved as much, perhaps, when he professed an enthusiasm for the Jam’s Eton Rifles, Weller’s vintage potshot at the toffs who are schooled not far from his own working-class Surrey stamping ground. ‘Yeah,’ he snorts, ‘I never understood that one. Which bit of the lyrics didn’t he get?’
And if and when the Conservatives do take power this spring, it’s a sure bet that we’ll be hearing Eton Rifles repeatedly played over montages of footage of Cameron, Osborne et al, ironically or otherwise. ‘Well, if it’s ironically it’ll be all right,’ Weller puffs.
To the delight of the diehard fans who’ve been agitating for the Jam to reform ever since Weller split them up at the height of their powers in 1982 (he won’t, ever), Wake Up The Nation features contributions from the band’s bass player Bruce Foxton.
‘It was just a nice thing to do, it was the right time, and it came together naturally. I didn’t feel that awkward. Once you start playing you leave all that outside – if the music’s any good.’
They resumed contact last year. Weller heard that Foxton’s wife was seriously ill and called him.
‘That opened the door to us speaking. Without making too much of a heavy point of it, because we both lost loved ones last year, that whole mortality thing and life’s-too-short and all those questions come up…’
This time last year Weller’s father, John, 77, died. He had been ill for a while – ‘he had some sort of encroaching dementia coming on; it was a general wearing down’.
Father and son were an impregnable team, with Weller snr – a former boxer, builder and driver – managing his son’s career ever since he was a precociously talented Surrey schoolboy mixing with the punks of London in the mid-Seventies.
Trees, the album’s intense but rolling decades-spanning chamber-piece that encompasses music hall, psychedelic, blues and rock’n’roll influences, ‘could be’ the most direct reference to his father’s passing.
‘The circumstances [of the writing] came from me dad – he was in a rest home, last February/March. Just to give me mum a break ’cause it was just full-on nursing him. He was in a bad way towards the end. It was more distressing seeing that than seeing him laid out dead to be honest.’
Because it wasn’t the man you’d known for over 30 years?
Weller shakes his head. The dementia, he says, came in waves. ‘It wasn’t him at all. And when it was him, he just looked like a man in turmoil. It was just depressing to see that, it was pitiful to see it. He had moments where he was clear-minded – when he could see – and he’d say: “I can’t remember f— all, I can’t remember where I live…”’
It’s been, of course, very hard for his mother, Ann – she and his father had been together since she was 17. But even though John had stopped managing Paul before the release of 22 Dreams, Weller jnr is still getting used to the idea of him not being around on the job.
‘Course I miss me dad. But I miss me buddy as well. There’s always a time on tour when I’m sitting at a bar, and I think, where’s my drinking buddy?
I miss him on a lot of those levels. We were lucky – you have to count your blessings in life, and we both were so lucky to have such a good relationship and to be mates. Not only father and son. Which is pretty uncommon really.’
Weller was on tour in the US when his father was at death’s door.
‘I got back in time for…’ he begins. ‘Which was a bit of a bone of contention with me mum and me sister. They both thought I should cancel the tour and get back. But I know me old man would say: “F— that, finish the tour.”
‘I know he would have. Whether they thought of it as me being a bit ruthless or hard or whatever I dunno… But I know that’s what he would have wanted.’
Father and son shared many things, not least a full-force work ethic. ‘I got back in time to say goodbye to him anyway. But, it was only see you later, really. It wasn’t really goodbye for me.’
Does he genuinely feel that? ‘Yeah, see you up in that airport bar in the sky. “Get the cocktails in” – that’s what he’d be like.’
He admits that his father’s death deepened his faith.
‘Not ’cause I’ve found religion or any of that either. But I had quite a lot of faith anyway and I felt, because of my faith, and what I believe in, it made things slightly easier. I didn’t find it quite as harrowing as possibly some of the other people around us might have done, who don’t have any faith.’
His faith is that we ‘return to the earth in some way’. There’s an ‘energy, whether it’s in nature, or whatever you wanna believe. I haven’t worked all the answers out. I’ve just got an innate belief in that anyway.
‘I’ve got absolute faith in God as well. It doesn’t have to be a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim god. It’s just a higher force. A higher consciousness.’
There has been other turmoil in Weller’s life as well. In late 2008, he left his long-standing girlfriend, mother of his two youngest children (he has two older children with former Style Council backing vocalist Dee C Lee and a teenage daughter from another relationship).
His new girlfriend is Hannah Andrews, who sang backing vocals on 22 Dreams. She’s travelled with him to Black Barn today from their shared home in north-west London; their cheek-pecking affection is obvious. How has his new relationship impacted on Wake Up The Nation?
‘I dunno really…’ he ponders. ‘Well, I’m very, very much in love, so maybe that has a reflection on it. I don’t know.’ He shifts on the sofa. ‘Me dad going or me falling in love with someone else – if they are influences I’m not particularly that conscious of them.’
Most of the public were first introduced to Weller’s new domestic arrangements via the wonders of YouTube. Enjoying a mini-break in Prague in December 2008, he and Andrews got blind drunk. A passing punter captured their antics on camera phone. The footage of the pair carousing in a pub, then sprawling in the street, quickly made it onto the internet.
‘F—ers,’ Weller growls. ‘I’ve brushed it off now. But at the time I was like: “Oh hell…” For me kids and people around me, I was mortified and embarrassed.
‘But I’ve been on the floor many, many times in my life. And I’m sure I will be in the future as well, regardless of age. But I’m not exactly proud of it either.
Star’s night of shame and all that… It was embarrassing at the time. But you know, f— it, what, I’m the only person that got s—-ed and fell on the floor? I don’t think so. Whether I’m 51 or whatever doing it, I don’t give a f— really.’
Weller, then, defiant to the end. You can hear it in the lively and thrilling argy-bargy of Wake Up The Nation.
You can sense it in his dismissive attitude to anyone who might question the fact that his girlfriend is only four years older than his eldest child (Natt, 21). And it’s apparent in his views on the suggestion that either Natt or Leah, 18, could, theoretically have children of their own soon. Making him…
‘I know mate,’ he smiles. ‘The Grandmodfather!’