Paul Weller comes striding down Regent Street in blazing sunshine, every inch the Modfather in dark flared jeans, navy V-neck and a platinum grey, feathercut hairdo that only a rock star could carry off. Tanned and slim, Weller moves with purposeful speed, so that by the time people have realised who he is, he is already gone. It might be a metaphor for his musical career, the ever-changing moods that have carried him through the mod punk of The Jam, playful agit-pop of The Style Council and photo-Britrock of his solo career. Heads turn in his wake, smiles appearing on faces. Britain loves Weller. Stylish, angry, passionate, self-questioning and devoted to some vague yet honourable notion of authenticity in music and life, he has been a constant presence in our pop landscape for over thirty years.
“I’m going to be 52 this year, I’ve done half a century, which is pretty fundamental really,” says Weller, settling down in a café to a pot of tea. “I know I look different but I don’t feel any different. It’s a cliché but only cos its true: music does keep people young. I’m not a teenager, I see my place in the scheme of things, but as much as we don’t want to appear stupid and look like the oldest swinger in town, I don’t think you should be trapped by your age. You have to act how you feel.”
Last month, Weller released the most critically acclaimed set of his solo career. Wake Up The Nation bristles with attack, energy and imagination, a mad, psychedelic-beat-soul-punk-jazz sound clash. that recalls the anger, dreaminess and eclecticism of latter-day Jam. “It’s quite liberating to get to a certain age, cos you’re not chasing number one hits or trying to be an international superstar. I’ve done all that. I’m not out to prove much more to anyone but myself really, to be an artist and see if there is a new undiscovered music out there for me to make. That’s the starting point, beyond that I don’t know.”
It takes persistence to coax these statements from Weller. Not that he is a difficult person to interview, he is friendly and direct but “I don’t know” is one of his most frequently used phrases. “I haven’t got the answer to all these questions,” he declares at one point, even though the questions are about his own personal motivations. This is the sometimes disconcerting gap between Weller the probing, sensitive, self-questioning artist and the man who expresses himself with a kind of working class bluster.
For all his apparent idealism, he has quite a rock and roll reputation, at least when it comes to drink and women. He has children by three different partners, and in 2008 left his girlfriend of 13 years to take up with a backing singer less than half his age, Hannah Andrews (now 25). There is YouTube footage of the happy couple sprawled inebriated on the pavement outside a pub in Prague. But Weller strongly objects to any attempts to define him in the narrow terms of his art. “I think it is possible for someone to write something very beautiful and still go for a kebab afterwards and get plastered and fall over in the street. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not anti-intellectual, I’m not anti-arty people, but we all live accordingly. Some of that involves being drunk, some of it involves taking the kids down the park. There isn’t just one side to it. It’s dangerous to box anyone into just one dimension really. People should be given more credit than that.”
Weller’s father, John, died last year, after a long and debilitating illness. The two were very close (John managed his son for his entire career), but, if anything, his passing seems to be reflected in Weller’s growing sense of creative freedom. “You’ve got to accept, it’s sad, but it’s part of the cycle, it’s beyond our control, and you have to sort of give thanks and praise for what we have got. Life is sweet, but it’s also very short. And I ain’t got too much time to mess about, I think you’ve just got to get hold of it and enjoy a day like today is, all the nice things in life, grab hold of them and accept that this is our life here on earth. ” Which is one reason why we will never see a Jam reunion, despite the presence of Bruce Foxton on Weller’s new album. “It’ll never ever happen. Bruce played on two tracks which is nice, it was fun to do, but that’s as far as it goes. All those reunions, when they say in interviews we wanted to get back together because there was so much unfinished business, its all rubbish. Just say you’re doing it for the money. They’re most of them travelling separately to the gigs, so they can’t have missed each other that much, can they? I’ve got too little time, and too much to do in that little time.”
Next Monday, Weller kicks off five consecutive dates at the Royal Albert Hall. He appears genuinely thrilled to be back on the road again. “It’s what I always wanted to do, from the time I was a little kid. When I told my mum I was going to play my first gig when I was 14, she couldn’t believe it, cause I was painfully shy at that time. But I just done it, put my head down and got through it. And I suppose there’s still a little bit of that, even though it’s many years later and I’ve been doing it for a long time. There is a shy side to me that evaporates when I play on stage, and I like that. I think its another facet of my character and I need to do that.” Weller views music as a noble profession. “I can’t think of anything finer or more exciting to do in life. Not everybody’s going to become a star, but even if you’re talking about a solitary figure on stage with an acoustic guitar holding the minds and hearts of a handful of a people, I’ve seen that and it’s just as incredible as someone doing it to a stadium of tens of thousands. Music is the most natural thing in the world. When we go to a gig and we all like it and we share that experience, it’s the same sense of communion as a sacred rite in Borneo or wherever it may be, it just gets dressed up different. Its good for the soul.”
With his half century behind him, Weller has no intention of slowing down. “I never get embarrassed about whether I should still be playing music. I sometimes see people my age at gigs, and you can tell they really want to have it, but maybe they think its not appropriate, or the wife said to take it easy. But this is rock and roll! Before the war, when people were fifty they were considered old. It’s different for us, we’ve grown up through Little Richard, the Fabs, the Pistols. We’re the rock and roll generation. We’ve got our own history to write.”
By Neil McCormick