Words by Simon Harper
Photo by Jay Brooks
Paul Weller has a fire raging in his belly. It has never really waned, but it’s clear from his latest album, ‘Wake Up The Nation’, that it’s burning brighter than ever. Clash went to find out what exactly has been fanning his flames…
The resplendent surroundings of The Arts Club in London’s Mayfair would usually befit the debonair patriarch of Britrock – his flawless attire as carefully arranged as those in the oil paintings around us (except only Weller’s is finished off with a Beatles pin badge). However, ‘Wake Up The Nation’ era Weller is quite the opposite – its sounds are vigorously modern and energetic; sounds and styles clash with force, bringing its songs alive with an air of unpredictability. The album was made in a fit of improvisation, each song sprung fresh from the minds of its creators. Such innovation is quite rare for a fifty-two-year-old. But why, asks Weller, isn’t he being challenged by a new generation of rebel rousers?
Your last album, ‘22 Dreams’ was a double album. Double albums can often be criticised as an indulgent exercise. Were your worries of how that might be received the inspiration for the more concise and incisive nature of ‘Wake Up The Nation’?
No, because the intention with ‘22 Dreams’ was to be as indulgent as possible really. It was like my birthday present to myself for being fifty. So I just thought I’m gonna do exactly what I want and go everywhere I wanna go on it, and have the luxury of having it split over two sides – if you think in old fashioned terms of a proper double album. And we did. We journeyed into lots of different musical places on that record, and I was more surprised how people reacted to it and how much people liked it and got it. We’re always told what short attention spans we’ve got these days, so for people to actually dig the fact that it was a double album and would sit and listen to it start to finish was encouraging.
Were the sessions for this album different than ‘22 Dreams’?
It was different because the method was different in working. Generally speaking I always write a song at home on guitar or piano or whatever it may be and then bring it into the studio and knock it into shape. Whereas on this new record I didn’t do any pre work on it at all – I just went into the studio with Simon Dine, the producer, and just was cold on all of it; just went to it and reacted off the music and made up stuff on the spot; lyrics and melodies. It was a different way of working for me.
Was that the first time you’ve worked that way?
Yeah, definitely. Normally that would scare the fuckin’ life out of me to do that. It was a bit scary at times – just to go and do the vocals and not have any ideas at all, and just open my mouth and see what happens. It was good – after all these years and all these records – just to find a different way of working.
Did the response to ‘22 Dreams’ ultimately give you more confidence to experiment?
Yeah, definitely, because the reaction was so good to ‘22 Dreams’, and there was stuff that people would associate with me musically, but there was also stuff on that record that I’d never been to before, so to get that kind of reaction and encouragement from people was definitely a spur. This new record is different to ‘22 Dreams’, but it kind of gave us that encouragement to go even further then.
Do you ever worry about pushing the boundaries of your fans’ tastes?
Only from the point of view that I wouldn’t want to do it just to alienate people. I think it’s one thing to challenge your audience, and I think that’s a healthy and a positive thing, but I wouldn’t want to alienate people just for the sake of it in a willful way. Because I’ve done that in the past with The Style Council – I’ve done that and it’s just fuckin’ wrong; unnecessary and wrong. So I think I like the idea to challenge my audience, but try and hopefully take them with me as well, you know? ‘Let’s go an explore this new place together.’
Did you start the recording process with that new method in mind, or were you doing that first and decided to make an album from it?
I just wanted to work in a different way. I didn’t want to sit down with a guitar and work out the chord patterns and write some words beforehand. I just wanted to go in completely clear-minded and see what happened. To be fair, a lot of it really came from Simon Dine, because he would come up with these backing track ideas, which he would send down to me; very, very vague short little bits of music – he sent me a CD of maybe ten or twelve little segments. I would kind of assimilate it and just not sit down and study it too much – I would put it in me car when I was driving round doing whatever it was I was doing, and just listen to it for like a week or two weeks and just sort of soak it up really. There’s an element, I suppose, of whatever music you listen to suggests something to you, whether it’s subconscious or not. So I guess all the time I was just soaking up the sound and the vibe of the tracks. Then we would go into the studio and just build on the track and extemporize on it, and that was it really, just reacting off the music.
So normally if you were writing on the guitar you’d go into the studio of a fixed idea of the structure and how it would go…
Up to a point, yeah, pretty much. Never so fixed that there wasn’t room for other ideas, but definitely we’d have some kind of form anyway.
What part does Simon play in the collaboration?
Well, he’s very much a sort of ideas/producer man. He’s musical as well, and like me he’s got very, very eclectic tastes, and we’re always talking about different music, what we’ve heard, and try to turn each other on to different things. But he’s got his own thing called Noonday Underground, which has made three or four albums, which are very much sort of like sound collage type records, that kind of style. So he’s very good with sounds, and I think also some of the chord changes he would come up with were stuff I would never think of, because they don’t follow any kind of logical pattern.
Like a cut-up method?
Yeah, it is, exactly. Without getting too muso about it, you’re dipping about in different chord changes and stuff, which I wouldn’t do if I sat down on guitar – they wouldn’t come into my head. So immediately it puts you in a different place as well, I think.
Noonday Underground have done some very ’60s sounding music, and you’re known for your retro tastes, but this album sounds like a modern sonic rampage. Is it too easy to fall back on what you know?
I don’t think that it’s just too easy, it’s just that they’re things that come naturally to me. Because all those initial influences when I was a little kid, all the Sixties stuff I grew up on, is just all inside me. I’ve no wish to disassociate myself from it, but I couldn’t anyway even if I wanted to. It’s all just bound up inside my body, my mind. But having said that, it’s always good to step outside yourself and outside the box, which is not always easy to do. But I think we done it on this one, and we did it on ‘22’, I think. So now I’m of the opinion that, again, the reaction so far to this new record has been really good, so it kinda gives me the spur to make the next one. I’m really excited by the prospects of making the next record and where else we can go with it again.
Have you any ideas for the next record yet?
Only very, very abstract sort of thoughts – sounds and beats, but no songs. But I’d like to take it further out than what we’ve done.
Reviewers have suggested a number of other artists who may have been an inspiration to you on this album – the Velvets, Curtis Mayfield, Dusty – are there any influences you’ve been listened to lately that may surprise people?
I dunno if it’ll surprise people, because I listen to almost everything really. There wasn’t any one record that really influenced us. If anything, the brief for us when we first started working on it, was that we were both sick of the music that was around at the time. We wanted to make a record of music we weren’t hearing on the radio or wherever else. I mean, I think that’s picked up over the last few months – there have been some good records coming out – but generally the last two or three years have been pretty fuckin’ dull really. So I guess it was kinda born out of that – we were just bored and wanted to make the music we weren’t hearing, and I don’t think there’s too many other records around that sound like this record.
It’s that awkward turn-of-the-decade point where old things are going out and new things are coming in.
I guess so, yeah. The thing is, right, if you live long enough you see that it all just goes in circles anyway. So I’m waiting for the next peak to happen for me personally, as a punter. I’m waiting for the next young musical revolution to happen.
Music is so fast and transient these days that musical revolutions are happening, it’s just that they’re underground and are over before they become a proper movement.
I know exactly what you mean. And I think it’s a real shame that so many bands have only got one album’s worth of life, and I dunno whether that’s creativity or just the climate that’s being created at the moment – there’s a lack of development of bands. But it does seem really quick, doesn’t it? I just think it’s a bit of a shame to think if a band’s around for three or four years and they’ve only got one record to show for it all. It’s kind of nice to have a whole body of work. I was really sad when The Libertines broke up – I know they’re back together now – but I thought they were kind of our big hope for British music.
What do you think would have happened if The Jam had come out with their first album at this time?
I think people would have liked it. But I have to say that, I guess.
But would you have been as cultivated as you were?
We wouldn’t have got to album three, no way. No way at all.
Even though you’ve always really done so, this album and ‘22 Dreams’ have really consolidated the album as an art form, a listening experience. Do you think the album has lost its way now?
Well, only because we’re told by the marketing people that we’ve got lower attention spans and we can only listen to one track at a time. When did that all change? When did we wake up one morning and say, ‘I’ve got a very low attention span today’, you know what I mean? Something is behind that thinking, and we just all take it on because it’s more propaganda, innit?
Albums are still selling…
They’re still selling – they’re maybe not selling the same quantities, but people still listen to music, aren’t they, you know what I mean?
Do you still subscribe to the theory that an album should be a whole listening experience, a journey from start to finish?
I think there can be all sorts of albums, to be honest, and I think it’s okay sometimes that you just dip in and out of a record, but I also think there’s got to be room for something that’s intended for you to listen to start to finish and it takes you on a journey – you get on this bus and it drops you off at the end of it, and I think that’s really important. And I think, I wonder where all the great albums – whether it’s ‘What’s Going On’ or ‘Back To The World’, whatever your thing is – where would those records be if people just downloaded one tune off it? You don’t get the entire picture, do you? You get a flavour of it, but you don’t get the whole picture. So I think there’s got to be room for both really. But I also think there’s a thing in the media which really under-estimates people, you know; I think people can still listen to whole albums, it’s probably just because a lot of albums are fuckin’ rubbish and there’s maybe one or two good tracks on and the rest is just filler stuff. There’s too many of those records.
This album has been called a ‘call to action’ – the title validates that. What do you hope listeners could take from this album?
I just think a bit more human interaction really. I don’t have to be seen blasting that technology – I mean there are benefits of technology, obviously – but I think for people of all ages, but especially for people my age, to spend most of their evenings behind a computer screen is a little bit worrying really. Talking to cyber friends in space and all that stuff, I mean, I don’t understand it. I can understand it for little kids. But I do think something goes missing – the human connection goes missing a little bit, is what I’ve noticed. But the record is also possibly a call to arms for young bands as well, it’s an encouragement to young groups. Not that I’m leading the way, I don’t mean I’m on the vanguard of it. But I’m waiting to hear a bunch of seventeen-year-olds who are sick of all this other shit and just want to knock it down and start again. Those things always do all of us good. They have a ripple effect that’s good for everyone, I think, if you’re interested in music and you care about it.
Were those thoughts in your head when you were making the album, or did they transpire subconsciously as you were coming up with lyrics?
Ultimately there’s that thing where we’re sitting in the studio working on a track and we’re chatting about whatever the topic is, arguing or talking, and that gets fed into the music as well.
Is song writing usually hard for you? Was ad libbing more difficult?
It was easy but it was difficult. That’s the best I could explain it really. I’ve been enormously prolific over the years, but I still couldn’t say I find it easy. And there’s been times when I’ve had writer’s block, and there’s other times when you just can’t stop writing. It’s a weird thing, writing. It comes and it goes and it’s in air. I can’t really plan for it – it comes and finds me and then it goes again for a while. It’s a very transient thing, for me.
Was there pressure on you to finish the songs? Did you have a specific amount of time to make the album in?
There wasn’t any real pressure from that point of view. I mean we had the record finished last September – its taken six or seven months to get the record out, because the record company wanted to wait until the right time, whatever that it. But it was pretty quick really. If you put all the time together it’s like two months, I guess. Maybe even less than that. But because of the way I was writing on this, I wasn’t really deliberating too much. If it sounded right and it felt good, that was it, we went with that. There was always a certain amount of quality control, obviously, but we just sort of threw loads of stuff at the tracks, and that’s why some of it’s got that Wall of Sound sort of thing on it as well. And I wasn’t deliberating on the words too much – I liked the sound of them, they felt nice to sing, and I liked the meter of them and the sound of the words. So it was more from that point of view really.
When putting so much into the music, how did you know when the songs were finished?
We were gonna put twelve [songs] on, then it went to fourteen, and we ended up with sixteen. It could have gone on, I guess, but then we thought we didn’t want to make another double album, another ‘22 Dreams’. So we had to have a cut-off point really. It doesn’t always happen, but when you get on a creative roll, it’s one of those things you just feel like you could keep on doing it, keep on writing these tracks. Which is a great feeling, but you have to know when to stop. We stopped when we thought we had enough songs for an album really.
When you put the calls in for people to appear on your album, do they always say yes? Can you get who you want?
We were lucky on this record, yeah. I mean, there are very few people who ever said, ‘No, I don’t want to play on your records, I don’t like you’. But most of the time it’s because they can’t do it because they’re working or they’re busy or whatever. We were just lucky this time we got everyone we wanted. Like Kevin Shields came down, and Bruce Foxton. Quite a disparate array of people really.
Kevin Shields seemed an unlikely pairing with you...
I guess so, yeah. I can sort of understand why people would think that, but then if you look at it from a musician’s point of view, regardless of whatever style we play, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it.
Did you want some of what he does on your album?
Yeah. He’s got a very specific thing, doesn’t he, and I just thought he’d be the right person for the tracks. It’s the same with everyone we ask on the records.
Do you choose people you hope you can learn something off?
I think you can always learn from someone else. There’s always something else to learn. I think that’s the beauty of music; it’s always unfolding and you can never think you’ve learnt everything – it’s impossible.
You’ve played on other people’s albums and recorded with other artists. Who has been the most humbling or inspirational person you’ve worked with?
Probably Robert Wyatt. I played on his last three records. He’s the most inspiring to me. He’s just got a very unique way of looking at music and looking at the world. In the recording process he’s just like, ‘Try everything. Try anything, and if it fits it fits’, and it’s never ever too precious. If I’ve done guitar parts, he’ll like the clunks or the mistakes or the funny little noises.
He’s one of those artists who can live under the radar and do what he wants.
He is, yeah. But the other side of that is that could probably do with selling some more records because the money would be handy. It’s one thing being a cult artist but it also means you’re skint for most of your existence.
Given that you both would have known that inviting Bruce Foxton to play on the album would have would incite more Jam reunion rumours, were you hesitant to have him on board?
No, because people have been asking me almost every day for the last twenty-eight years, so it wouldn’t make too much odds anyway.
People may have thought it would stoke the fires…
Maybe, but I don’t think it has. Hopefully people understand my feelings are pretty clear on getting back together – it’s never ever going to happen – but I didn’t really think it was going to make any difference to me because it’s always been the same question for a long time.
You’ve made twice as many solo albums as The Jam ever made, but there’s still a great veneration for the band. Why do you think The Jam has endured?
I think they’re great songs – if I may say that about my own tunes. And I think a lot of them – sound-wise and lyrically – still uphold as well. But I also think we stopped at the right time as well. You haven’t had to endure The Jam around for the last thirty years like a lot of bands are, and watch them go downhill. We were frozen in time. We stopped at the right time, and that’s what helped it endure, I think. I was going to say you haven’t got to watch them be old and embarrassing but I’m still doing it, so I don’t know. Under a different guise, I guess.
If you’d had a long career as a band, each album could have diminished by return and got worse.
It’s hard to keep a band together. I kind of admire the Stones, people like that, that have kept together for forty or fifty years. It’s quite admirable, but I just know that I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be that trapped. I do like the freedom to be able to move on and go wherever I want to go, which you can’t always do in a band. But I do think we stopped at the right time. I was gutted as a kid, but I thought The Beatles stopped at the right time. They didn’t have to go on and make shit records twenty years later.
You stopped playing Jam songs for ages then reintroduced them to your set a few years back. Was that a re-appreciation of the music or are you just more comfortable with them now?
I feel more comfortable with it, but I also felt… After The Style Council I really wanted to go out and make it again but on my own terms, and not like I was trading on my past glories. But I think once I’d done that it was like, ‘Well, it’s okay now, I’ve proven that point’, and it was alright to play the old songs. I don’t play too many of them, but there is some in the set and they sound okay against the new tunes – they kind of fit. But I also learned, I suppose about ten years ago or whatever it was, that these are just all my songs as well. I mean, people associate them with different times in my life and their lives, but at the end of the day they’re all my songs, they’re all my children.
Can you change those songs around or do you have to play them faithfully?
I could do, but I don’t really like doing that. Because when I go and see other artists who do that, it really bugs the shit out of me. It’s like, ‘Just sing the fuckin’ chorus, man’. Or, if you’re that bored with it, just don’t play em for a bit, play something else. I find it really annoying when people do that, so I tend not to do it. I’m a bit more faithful to the song.
Your eldest kids are now the age you were in The Jam – do you see a part of yourself in what they’re doing now? Is that what’s inspired your recent creativity?
No, I don’t know if it’s that. I think mortality probably does that more. I’m not doing it in a morbid way, but I see how quick life goes and how quickly my life has gone up to this point, and that just makes me want to create and make as much music and leave as much work in the world as I possibly can.
Have those feelings surfaced since your father died last year?
Not just that. There’s probably some of that in there, but I just think, when someone says, ‘You made your first record thirty-three years ago’, it’s just incredible. Where’s all that time gone? It’s just flown by to me. So I just think if the next ten or twenty years goes fast then I’d better fuckin’ get in there and get stuck in. I also still fully believe in you’re only as good as your last record, so that’s another that keeps me going as well. It’s like whatever I’ve done in the past or not, that’s fine and it’s all good, but I wanna do it again, and even now I think perhaps the next record can be even better. One day I want to make the ultimate record. I guess I’ve always thought that, and maybe I will or maybe I won’t do it, but that’s the incentive or the carrot, you know?
Do you think you have established a legacy that is hard to live up to? Have you set yourself a high standard?
No, I don’t think you could ever set yourself too high a standard. I think it’s a good thing really. It’s good for other people – it’s good for your fans – but I think it’s also good for yourself, to maintain and attain something higher than what you’ve done. I don’t think that could ever be a bad thing. I mean sometimes you just don’t get there – you have all the best intentions in the world but you just ain’t gonna get there – and other times you do. You can’t say why that is, that’s just the way it goes. I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to play music or write music, I just think it ebbs and flows, and that’s probably part of the magic of it.
So you could never stop playing music, because inspiration could hit at any time?
I don’t think so. There’s been times over my life where I haven’t written for ages – eighteen months or two years – and had no interest in it whatsoever and wasn’t even particularly bothered, and then a week later I’ll sit down and then I’ve written ten or twelve songs in a matter of two weeks. And why that is, I couldn’t tell you. It just sort of comes. Hopefully it always will do. I think if you’re always interested and you’re still in love with it, I think it will always come back to you at some point in time. I think the people that it doesn’t come back to have fallen out of love with music. I have a certain perspective of looking back on older artists who’ve had forty years or more to study it all or look at it all, but I think it’s when you really fall out of love with it and when you stop buying records and, forget about your own music, when you stop buzzing off other people’s music. I’ve always kept my eye on the prize, and whether I made any more records ever again or not, I’d still be out buying them.
Is there dignity in rock and roll when you’re older? The Stones often get mocked, but Chuck Berry is applauded…
I think it’s fine to do it anyway. What else are the Stones gonna do? What else would Keith Richards do? He’s gonna be doing it until he drops down dead, isn’t he? So did John Lee Hooker. All the black American blues artists played until literally the time they dropped, and no-one criticised them for that. If you look at all other cultures – Indian music, African music – their top musicians are all in their seventies or eighties. That’s what they do in life, they play music. It’s only different in pop music because it’s so associated with youth. But anyone can play music, any ages. And the village elders are more respected because that’s what they’ve always done in life, they’ve always played this music, and they have something to impart and pass on. It’s just different because our music is dressed up in the clothes of youth. That’s just the way it is. It’s a commercial thing, it’s a sellable things, and when I’m talking about Indian and African music it is literally something that is passed on culturally. I don’t really see how pop music should be that different from those indigenous folk musics really. Pop music is just modern folk music; it informs us, it entertains us, it’s everything if you’re into it.
Do you have anything you’d still like to achieve?
Nah. I just want to keep on living really. I’m quite happy to stay healthy, keep living as long as I possibly can, keep making music, and watch my children grow up. That’s my ambitions, nothing too much beyond that to be honest with you.
You haven’t voted in the last few general elections but you are going to head to the polls this week. What impelled you to go this time?
Only because I’ve been too disenchanted to vote in the last few elections. I mean, you just sort of see people like the BNP on the rise and you think you’ve got to use your vote.
It’s not a wasted vote anymore?
No. For me, it’s always a vote against, it’s never particularly a vote for, which is a shame really. It’s a pretty sad statement but it’s true. For me it’s just a vote against the right wing in whatever shape they are.
Do you think the current party leaders are inspiring to Britain’s youth?
Not at all. Not in the slightest. I don’t think they can inspire their goldfish. I wouldn’t think they can inspire anybody really, let alone the youth. It’s quite a depressing statement. I don’t know many world leaders or politicians [who are inspiring], apart from someone special like Mandela or something. How many of them are inspiring people?
Are musicians more important and powerful to people than politicians?
I wouldn’t say that. Ultimately they control the country and hold the purse strings. All I can say from my own point of view, right, is that The Beatles inspired me fuckin’ way beyond any of those people could ever do. They made me look at the world differently. They changed my mind about so many things, and I’ve never known any politician to do that for me. They’re just drab, boring careerists.