By: Ben Hogwood
Paul Weller is at the BBC to rehearse for an appearance on Later with Jools Holland, where he will perform songs from his new album Wake Up The Nation. As we pitch up in his dressing room, the kettle is on.
“Is that the way it’s all going now then, online?” he asks by way of a kick-off. “I guess if it shakes up the magazines and the papers, and makes them get their fucking fingers out, then it’s not a bad thing, as they’ve held sway for a long time now.”
Tea brewed, he takes a seat on the sofa. He looks physically and mentally sharp, with his silver hair and tanned features wearing an intent expression. Straight away he gets down to the business of the new album’s nature. Is it something of a call to arms?
“It is, in some respects,” he agrees. “I’m always wary of saying ‘yes it definitely is’, but there is an element of that in it anyway. I think that was borne out from when we started the record, in January last year. I thought music was in such a dull place, and we wanted to make a record of music we weren’t hearing. That was the impetus behind it – something with a bit of bollocks to it, and making a record that has something to say as well. I’m generalising a bit here but a lot of music had become really insipid, safe and homogonised, and we wanted to make something more edgy.”
Has he surprised himself with the result? “I have a bit, yeah. The first session we did for it was two or three days I think, but we came out with eight songs, so it had that immediacy, an energy and a very spontaneous feel to it, which was very exciting. That was a surprise in itself, to come out with that.” Lyrically, too, Weller was operating outside his comfort zone, writing the songs as they evolved in the studio. “That was new for me”, he explains, “because I normally take in a finished set of lyrics in, so not to have anything written at all, to get it off the music, after all these years and records, it was nice to think there was a different way of working. So it was exciting, but also scary. We felt we were talking about the state of the nation, and how we were feeling, so it was almost like a stream of consciousness. I found it liberating in lots of ways not to have a structure in mind.”
The new record brings together a diverse array of talents, including My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Broadcast. “I only heard Broadcast after we finished writing the album”, confesses Weller, “and I’m rather ashamed to say I hadn’t heard them before. I saw lots of good reviews for the Focus Group record, and I loved it – it was kind of where my head was going, that electronic stuff. It’s out on its own really.” Also featuring is ex-Jam bandmate Bruce Foxton. “It was good, and it was fun”, he says, recalling the pair’s reunion. “We were both a little bit nervous when it first happened, because it’s been a long time, but when we started playing it was fine. I think it’s like anything – if you’ve got good music going on, and something you can get your teeth into, all the other nonsense goes out the window. It was the right time for us to do it.”
Was the old chemistry reignited? “Well he’s a great player, and he’s got that very unique sound. When we did the backing for Fast Car, Slow Traffic, which is one of the tracks he plays on, as soon as we’d done that I said to (producer and co-writer) Simon (Dine) we should get Foxton on it, as he’s the right man for the job. I think with any good musician you always get that magic, as long as they’re on the right track.” Asked whether they will work together again in that capacity he says, “It’s possible, yeah. I want to keep an open mind!”
While experimentation is one of the central themes of Wake Up The Nation, Weller is quick to stress this was not down to his creative input alone. “I’ve got to give credit where it’s due; a lot of the music initially was down to Simon. I wasn’t making a big deal out of making a record at the time, and he was the one who had these 10 different ideas which he sent down to me. They were only about a minute long – moods, snippets and ideas – and as I heard that I just thought that was the way forward. It wasn’t fully formed but was the bare bones of a really good album I thought. Some of the tracks on the last record 22 Dreams were going that way, especially the tracks nearer the end. They were more experimental, sonically anyway, so that was the springboard for this record. It doesn’t necessarily sound the same as that, but it was the experimental strands we followed more.”
Would he like the album to come as a surprise for people, or a challenge? “I’d like it to do both things really. I wouldn’t like it to alienate people, but I would like it to be challenging, which I think we need to have in music. It’s great if it surprises people, but I hope they like it. I think there is that sort of pop sensibility on top of the madness and chaos in the tracks, and there are some good tunes there. I must admit I was surprised at the reception to 22 Dreams, because I thought if anything that was just as if not more indulgent, with the different styles of music. I was pleasantly surprised that people got that, and liked it. That kind of thing encourages you to go further.” More of a sense of living on the edge? “Who knows! We’ll see when people vote with their feet I guess. I did get sick of that safe sound on a lot of records though.”
As we’re sitting in a BBC changing room, it seems a good opportunity to ask Weller about the imminent demise of 6Music, and his response is characteristically forthright as he rolls a cigarette. “I think it’s shocking. It’s rubbish. Regardless of how many listeners they’ve got, if you take that away, what have you got left? For me, it’s very hard to get to hear cutting edge or new music on the radio. I have to go into record shops and ask them what they recommend, or take a punt on a few things. There’s got to be a home for that sort of music, you’re not going to get it from Radio 1 or Radio 2. It’s our money and it’s our station apparently, so we should have a say in it!”
Another recent event is the unfortunate passing of Malcolm McLaren, though Weller’s sense of loss is tempered. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know Malcolm that well. I only met him a couple of times in the early days.” He pauses, thinking for a while. “He had a vision, didn’t he? I don’t know if it’s fair to say that he started punk rock and all that stuff, but he had a vision and he was certainly a character, that’s for sure. I didn’t know he was ill, so it was a bit of a shock. The last time I saw Malcolm was on the night of the first Sex Pistols reunion gig, the one at Crystal Palace I think, and he very kindly let me push in front of him in the taxi queue at Waterloo station. That was the last I saw of him. I said to him ‘Aren’t you going tonight?’, and he said ‘No, I don’t think so’. He didn’t seem that fussed.”
Does this mean Weller feels something like an ambassador for the late 1970s, with people such as McLaren and Joe Strummer having left us? “I don’t really feel that, though it’s a hard thing to say.” He frowns. “I don’t really know how to answer that question. I guess some of the things I believed in then I still carry on with, but that’s about believing in what you do and not being swayed by current trends, and that’s come out of the punk thing. I try to keep some kind of grip on reality – with street music, you know. There are a lot of people my age still coming to my gigs – my peers – but there’s a lot of young people there as well, and all the stages inbetween, so I couldn’t really answer how the younger people see me. I just want to make good music, really!”
Do younger audiences see something youthful to relate to? “I don’t know really! I still believe, and I’m still a fan, and I’ve never lost that – can’t imagine I would ever lose it. Whether I make new music or not, I’d still be out buying other people’s music, as I can’t be without it – music is like my lifeblood, and it has been since I was about eight years old. I still believe in it and still think it’s a great force and a great culture to be part of, and to behold. It goes way beyond what I did as a teenager. Sometimes you get people my age in the street, not very many, who will say ‘are you still doing that? and it’s like ‘of course – and more to the point, why have you stopped listening?’ I guess for some people music’s a thing they did when they were kids, but not for me – it’s part of my culture, and all our cultures.”
More important than it’s ever been, perhaps? “More so than media and politicians, that’s for sure,” he responds. “For me personally it’s changed my life, and I know that sounds clichéd but it’s true. The Beatles changed my world, they not only made me get into music and want to play the guitar, but they changed how I thought and looked at the world. I’m sure there must be other people think that as well. And that’s just one band. Music still is as important, there’s just more distractions now.”
This leads us on to a standout lyric on the album, where Weller encourages his subject to “get your face out of Facebook”, referring presumably to a culture where a lot of people sit around and wait for things to come to them? “Yeah. I think it’s difficult for me because I’m from a different generation, so I don’t really understand it, but I just find it very strange, especially in people my age, to want to sit all night looking at a computer screen when you can be out meeting friends – not cyber friends, but real flesh and blood people. Or to just put a record on, or go to a gig – have some sort of human interaction. I can see some of the benefits, obviously, but it’s got it’s very down, dark sides as well.”
And what of the forthcoming general election? “I’m gonna vote this time”, he proclaims. “I didn’t vote in the last two elections because I was so disenchanted and down with it really, but I’m gonna vote this time as it’s a vote against the Tories and the BNP. I’ve got no confidence in any of them though, to be honest, it’s a vote against and not for. It’s a sad statement but that’s the way it is – I don’t think it’ll make any difference whoever gets in. After 18 years of Thatcherism, I can remember when Tony Blair got in and we thought here was someone who would make a difference – but it made no difference whatsoever.”
He smiles as he thinks of the time in a musical sense. “There was certainly a good new music movement at the time, but it was a wasted opportunity really. I think people in this country have moved forward in their thinking the last few years, but nobody has really stepped up to the plate to lead us really. It was a good time, wasn’t it? It was good to celebrate our country and being English, and there were elements of hedonism in there. It’s good to have a celebration about us, what we’ve done and our achievements, you know – though obviously I’m talking about music and culture really.” Does he agree the English element runs through his music? “I suppose so. I’m quite proud to be English, though I’ve written songs about some of the darker moments of our past, like Imperialism and the class war, you know? But I’m proud of our authors, our groups and our fashion designers, all the good things we give the world really!”
Still speaking of things English, he enquires, “How was that tea I made you then, was it drinkable?” It was – and our polite host ventures outside for a cigarette, clearly animated ahead of an evening’s performing. Decades in to his stellar career and Weller is still deriving pleasure through making music and looks set to go on so doing whether or not he awakens the nation.