By: Dennis Cook
Not many artists can approach the Kilimanjaro sized mountain of great music Paul Weller has produced since he strapped on an guitar and began knocking heads together as a youth with The Jam in the 1970s. His music retains a primal rock rightness that’s been marbled and shifted by myriad other influences over his nearly three decade stand as one of the premiere music makers in the U.K.
While perhaps less well-known Stateside, his worldwide following is fervent, loyal and prone to defend and praise his work with real fire in their eyes. The man’s passion and integrity is infectious and inspiring. Whether it’s with The Jam, The Style Council or his own adventurous solo career that began in 1990, Paul Weller has exhibited tenacious integrity, ballsy creativity and profound understanding of what it is about rock that really gets folks off. A brilliant, explosive live performer as well, his music, in any period, never fails to feel incredibly alive.
All his best qualities are readily apparent on Wake Up The Nation (released June 1 on Yep Roc), his tenth solo album, which melds his uncanny pop instincts with a pleasing experimental edge. Where many artists into their fifties sound calcified and content to recreate past glories, Weller bubbles over with new life on Wake Up The Nation. There’s an urgency and forward-leaning spirit to it that suits today and promises good things for tomorrow.
It was a distinct pleasure to pick Weller’s brain about his latest, playing live, The Beatles and more. Not everyday that one gets to sit at the heel of an artist that’s influenced several generations of musicians, and still sounds like the end is far, far from near.
The last two records [2008’s 22 Dreams and Wake Up The Nation] are the most sonically adventurous albums of your long, circuitous career. What made you want to show off so many colors on these records?
It starts with 22 Dreams. I learned an awful lot from making that album. It’s got a lot of different styles and a few I’ve never worked in before, I don’t know exactly what you’d call it, but a bit more free-form and electronica. It just opened my up to a lot of possibilities in music really. Whenever I get to a stage where I feel I’ve heard it all or done it all, I turn a little corner and realize there’s whole universes I haven’t explored yet. So, that really fired me up. It’s only the individual that cuts himself off from possibilities, and that taught me a lesson really. Keep your mind open and just try different styles of music, and try more spontaneous types of music as well.
It must be frustrating in some ways that to parts of your fan base you’re still the musician that emerged in 1977 with The Jam. They still have that concept of you, and I think these last two records really blow that idea out of the water. They represent a great cross-section of what you’ve been doing over the past 30 years AND still go forward a few steps beyond that.
You can always hear where I’ve come from – my influences and that sort – but on 22 Dreams for instance, where I touch on places I’ve been, there’s also many places I’d never been to before. If you’re around long enough those sort of [expectations] are going to happen, but from my point of view, I have to ignore those things and just plow my own field. And this is a very creative time for me. I’m getting older, but one of the benefits of getting older is a certain freedom it brings, a willingness to try whatever really and just see what happens and not have too many things pre-planned or thought about too much. The songs on this new record were really spontaneous. I didn’t have anything written before the studio and made up a lot of it on the spot. That’s something I’ve never really done before. I’ve always had songs before I’ve gone into the studio, but this time I had nothing at all and had to just see what happened. So, even after all these years, there’s a different way for me to work. There’s all sorts of possibilities out there and it’s just a matter of keeping your mind open to react to them.
There’s an excitement to Wake Up The Nation, and I dig the brevity of some tunes. Many tracks are just 2-3 minutes yet there’s a lot going on in that span.
I was coming back in the car and heard [The Beach Boys’] “Good Vibrations” and it’s only about 3 minutes but it’s almost a whole sort of album. There’s so many changes and turns and twists and musical things going on. There’s a challenge about that, fitting all the stuff, that information into two-and-a-half or three minutes. As a kid growing up in the sixties, you liked that sort of brevity, and I still think it’s a great art form to do that.
I think “Trees” [on Wake Up The Nation] has that classic ’60s single quality. From the beginning to the end of that song, you’re taken on a journey. I love how a single song can take on that trip. It’s a challenge to do that as a musician, and I think it’s the same for someone listening to it, too. It’s an experience.
Do you find there’s a sort of through-line running through your career? As much as things change, what do you see as the constants?
It’s just the music itself. I’m still very much in love with what I do, making music and playing music, maybe even more so now actually. As a writer there’s certain devices you always fall back on. There’s some things that always stay with you, but there’s always something new to learn as well. For me, the constant thing is trying to make sure everything has a great melody. That always sort of hooks me whenever something I’m listening to has a great tune to it.
I think that’s been there since the beginning with your music. Even though you were lumped in with punk in the late ’70s, you always had a much keener melodic ear right from the beginning. And you’ve always had a sweet tooth for soul music, which builds on the model of a good tune that makes you move a little. A lot of people have forgotten that rock ‘n’ roll should make you dance a bit.
I would hope so!
At this point you’re also an influencer of others. There are open acolytes of what you do, people who’ve jumped in and grabbed a guitar because of what you do. What’s that like for you?
I just take it as a great compliment. I know how much I’ve been influenced by the people I grew up with. If it wasn’t for The Beatles I wouldn’t have played guitar. I’m not comparing myself to the Fab Four, obviously, but I think it’s a great compliment to ever influence someone to pick up a guitar or make music. That’s what it’s all about – passing it on. It’s all you can ask for as a musician, people who find that kind of value in what you do.
You seem to bridge the gap and actually play with a lot of the younger musicians who appreciate what you do. You’ve actively reached out and worked with a number of your acknowledged fans. Is that fun to engage with the next generation coming up behind you?
Definitely, absolutely! I wish when I was 19, 20, 21 that I’d been able to play with some of my influences, but it was next to impossible. They were so far removed from my world. I couldn’t even contemplate it happening. So, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t that unreachable or unobtainable. I’m up to playing with anyone, man, if they’ve got something good or valid. I’ve learned from the older greats but there’s much to be learned from younger people, too.
Are there any standouts amongst the musical heroes you have gotten to play with?
Well, we made a record and Paul McCartney played on it. It was a charity record for War Child. It was really something after being a Beatle fan all my life to play with the Great Man, and was cut in Abbey Road Studios No. 2, The Beatles’ studio. That was far out!
There’s lots of people I’ve been knocked out to work with. I’ve played a lot with Robert Wyatt these past three records. He keeps asking me back to play. I really admire his attitude and approach to music. He’s just very, very open-minded. All the little things you might take out – all the tiny gurgles and burps – he leaves in and interprets in a different way. He was quite an influence on me, though a later influence. His whole approach to making music is very freeing.
He gives one the sense that each time he goes into to making a new record he’s as excited or more so than he was in the beginning. You pick up on that even as a listener when someone is that engaged with music.
Definitely, and he’s insecure – like all of us musicians! – and maybe worries that this could be his last record. He’s just someone who makes really good music. All the time he’s reaching and that’s the sign of a great artist. I remember this instance with Peter Blake, the pop artist. I went around to his studio and there’s this painting on the floor. I said, “What’s this?” and he said, “It’s something I’ve been working on since 1964. I just keep chipping away at it.” He thought it was such a great vision that he kept at it. He might finish it, he might not, but you get the sense he feels there’s still something else out there, something else to prove.
I think one of the areas you don’t get nearly as much credit as you deserve is as a guitar player. You’ve been one of my favorites for decades. How do you approach the instrument? It’s so difficult to find an individual voice on and there’s so many people playing it.
To be honest, man, I don’t really think about it that much. I, obviously, consider myself a guitarist but I have no idea where my standing is or how good I am or whatever. I just play and do what I do. I’m kind of limited, but I couldn’t do without my limitations really. I’m not a super fast, technical player. I just do my own thing.
Then, what do you enjoy about it? Because your pleasure in playing comes through, and that might be your trademark.
I’ve never been asked this question before so I don’t know what I think about guitars [laughs]. When I play guitar it’s quite linked with me singing as well. They just go hand-in-hand. I might play the guitar alone in the studio sometimes, but my favorite thing is the combination playing live. I don’t what sort of guitarist I am really. I’ve never really thought about it.
Who did you like growing up? I hear a bit of George Harrison’s playing in your work.
Well, to be honest, my favorite Beatle guitarist was Macca. Apart from his fantastic bass playing, I loved his lead playing, too. When I listened to records as a kid I didn’t necessarily pick out the guitarists; I listened to everything. I loved Ringo’s drums as much as I loved John’s rhythm playing. I listen to records as a whole really. I just love the sound they make all together. I rarely listen to someone’s lead playing or pick apart a solo. I don’t have that sort of technique to do that. And when we first started playing we didn’t have a bass player so I played rhythm guitar and we had another fellow who played lead guitar. My style developed as a way to compensate for not having bass.
As much as you’ve made the studio this other character in your music, especially in recent years, you still have this real fire to you when you get on stage.
Please, God, it never ever changes! It’s like that for me nearly every night. I don’t need both hands to count the number of gigs each year that I don’t enjoy. I still get a buzz off it. I still get nerves beforehand. Before almost every gig I feel sick and fucking nervous and just want to go home, but as soon as we count in, on the first or second bar of the first song, it’s all sort of there and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. Everything just makes sense to me. All the thoughts beforehand just dissipate and I feel I’m not meant to be anywhere else but here in this moment. And I don’t know if it’s ever been too different from this. I think if I was gonna lose that feeling it would have gone long ago, and hopefully it will always stay.
Live music just puts you in the moment. There’s not a lot these days that push us to just forget about the past and future and just be present.
It’s something you can’t download, man. You’ve got to be there and join this community in that moment. And that moment might go anywhere but it’s a shared thing.