Weller’s Creative Burst Continues With “Wake Up the Nation”
By Bobby Tanzilo
It was 33 years ago today — well, not exactly TODAY — that Paul Weller burst upon the British music scene with The Jam, whose debut single, “In the City,” was an explosion of punk-infused, mod-rooted rock and roll that was infectious and raucous.
In those years, Weller went repeatedly to the top of the UK charts, setting records at the time with a string of amazing singles and accomplished LPs. Success in America always eluded The Jam, but his next move, The Style Council, scored a top 40 hit here with “My Ever Changing Moods” in 1984.
After a break, Weller returned in 1992 with his self-titled solo record and has now recorded considerably more material as a solo performer than he ever did with either of his bands.
I could tell you that his latest disc, “Wake Up The Nation,” is revolutionary or a return to his roots, but folks have said those things about previous records, too. Instead, it’s clearly a Paul Weller record, showcasing his distinctive voice, his trademark songwriting and his gritty guitar work — but with a twist.
“Wake Up the Nation” is the first record Weller’s made that was born out of the vision of someone else — producer Simon Dine — and it also marks the first time Weller has collaborated with The Jam bassist Bruce Foxton since they last played together onstage in Brighton, England in December 1982.
Dine sent Weller some ideas that the latter used as inspiration for rockers like “Moonshine” and “Up the Dosage” and there’s no denying that tunes like the title track and “Fast Car / Slow Traffic” nod toward the sound that fueled The Jam. “Andromeda” has an almost hip-hop beat, overlaid with Weller’s sizzling Rickenbacker sound — another hint of the past.
The carnival-esque “In Amsterdam” may send some long-time fans back to their collections to dig up The Style Council’s “The Piccadilly Trail” and “Down in the Seine, and “Aim High” is laced with a soul beat and flavor.
While the variety of styles links “Wake Up the Nation” with its 2008 predecessor, “22 Dreams,” the new record has a cohesive and unified quality that “22 Dreams” couldn’t claim.
This morning Weller announced a U.S. tour, that includes November gigs in New York and Los Angeles. So, Milwaukee will have to continue to wait to see him in person.
But, recently, I talked to Weller via telephone from his home in England and we chatted about making the new record, about working with Foxton and about Milwaukee’s Kings Go Forth.
OnMilwaukee.com: I mostly want to talk about the new record.
Paul Weller: Good.
OMC: What interested me most was that, in the liner notes, you noted that Simon Dine had a vision for what the record should sound like. Was that something of a first for you, to go in and make a record that was sort of born out of — initially, at least — out of somebody else’s vision for the sound?
PW: Yeah, it was different, certainly different for me, ’cause this normally starts from me. But I liked it; it was good. I like the whole kind of process, really, and I liked him just being the producer and and I suppose being told what to do. I quite enjoyed it. Kind of alleviates a lot of pressure off me.
OMC: So you stepped back a little bit?
PW: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s it, I guess. It’s just less pressure, yeah. It was just kind of a different kind of view of it, I suppose. We kind of just get to try different things. After all these years and all these records, it’s nice to think there’s other different methods of working. It just keeps you all interested and keeps it different every time.
OMC: Did it change the way you wrote the record? ‘Cause, presumably you usually go in with your songs and an idea of how they’re going to turn out, whether they turn out that way. Did this alter the process? Can you talk about that a little bit?
PW: Well, yeah, I mean Simon would sort of — initially he’d send me down some ideas, some backing track ideas. Just kind of very short little instrumental pieces, maybe lasting, like, a minute and even less.
So they would kind of sort of give me a sort of flavor or mood. But I still didn’t write anything down. I just kind of just listened to them over the course of a week, or a couple of weeks, or whatever it may have been. And then just kind of make stuff up in the studio.
I mean, like any piece of music it kind of — well, for me, anyway — suggests something, whether it’s a kind of lyric or melody or some kind of theme. So we’d just go in there, and just in the studio, and just go in the studio and extemporize on that. We’d just kind of fill the backing track up to a certain level, and then I would just go in there and record some vocals and make up stuff — pretty much right on the spot.
And again, that was a very different sort of method for me, to work. ‘Cause I’m normally kind of unorganized and I have stuff pre-written. But I didn’t this time, and it was liberating, and it was brilliant. It was just nice that there’s something different out there, whatever age you get to, whatever experience you’ve had. It was just nice to think there’s different modes of working.
OMC: Was it uniformly successful working that way? Were there some false starts on things that you kind of at some point had to give up on and move on to something else?
PW: There’s probably a couple things that didn’t work out, but I think pretty much we kind of ended up using almost everything we worked on. I mean, there are 16 tracks on the album — there might be a couple of other pieces we were trying to work on which we didn’t get to get anywhere with. But I think, pretty much, most of the things we worked on we used, on the album. It started off being sort of like 12 songs, then it had to be 14, then we ended up with 16. So it just kind of kept growing.
OMC: So it must have been working as an approach.
PW: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. It was done really quick as well. We didn’t sort of f*ck about with it, and didn’t bring too much in — just kind of got on and done it, like we always do. We had fun doing it, as well. We thought we were kind of going somewhere new and different with the music, and that’s always exciting, you know.
OMC: I found the new record very satisfying, both because I feel like it’s very different from “22 Dreams” — at least sonically — but I also like it because it seemed like a logical step in that, like “22 Dreams,” it processes these varied styles and yet makes something very cohesive out of it. Do you see them that way as well?
PW: Yeah, I think so. Certainly with “22 Dreams” in that you had sort of like 21 tracks to kind of be that eclectic and sprawling. That means very sort of short, concise songs. I think there’s only one song that’s like four minutes or so. The rest are all like sort of fairly short — two minutes, two and a half minutes, three minutes.
But, overall, I think the new album has got more of an overall sound to it. We were trying to go for a certain kind of sound, a very kind of hard and urban sound. I think one of Dine’s briefs was that he didn’t want to hear any acoustic guitar or anything vaguely pastoral. He wanted it a bit tough and city-sounding. So, to me, anyway, it’s got more of an overall sound and there’s still lots of different things going on. The styles within that.
OMC: When you were making 22 Dreams, were you conscious of trying to be very inclusive of different styles? Was that part of your overall goal?
PW: No, I wasn’t. It’s like a lot of records where, right wherever you start off thinking you’re going to make it, you probably end up with something totally different. I mean, originally, with “22 Dreams,” I always thought of it as being a double album.
But it was going to be one sort of folky, acoustic side, and then there was going to be the electric side and blah, blah, blah. But we ended up just mixing everything together. But that was just something that evolved out of what we were doing, you know. I don’t think it was necessarily planned that way.
OMC: This record has a bigger cast of musicians than some of your previous records. Did working with that big a cast really open up the sessions and let you try lots of different things that you wouldn’t normally have tried?
PW: Yeah, I guess so. I suppose that is definitely true, to say that we had more guests on it. I think we just felt really open-minded. There was no sort of rules to it. It was just kind of trying to get in the right person for the job or the track. And there’s a pretty disparate sort of cast of characters on the record. I think that’s just part of the whole kind of ethos of the record, was just to be very open-minded and make it quite aggressive and just try whatever.
We’ve got one track where you’ve got (My Bloody Valentine’s) Kevin Shields playing guitar on, and Bruce Foxton playing bass, as well. I mean, you don’t think of those two people getting together, especially on my record. But it certainly worked out, you know.
OMC: Was it nice to be able to put the past behind you with Bruce and be able to work together, and just spend a little time together?
PW: It was nice. It was good, yeah. It’s not something that’s going to form any kind of pattern at all. It was just what we did this record and two tracks on the new record. And it was like, having said that, I think we both kind of went through that for the last year — both losing people very close to us, losing loved ones. (Note: Weller’s dad and manager John Weller and Foxton’s wife, Pat, both passed away in the past year.)
And I guess that kind of loss all sort of brings up all kind of question of mortality. And life’s too short, and all those sort of questions, I guess you would say, I think it was sort of born out of that, as well.
I think it was the right time out to make up or be friends and play together. I’ve no desire whatsoever to get the old band back together and all that …
OMC: (laughs) No, thank you.
PW: … or all that crap. But, having said that, it was nice what we did together. And I think we both kind of, well we just both dug it dug it dug it doing it and it was just right for that.
OMC: Was it a blast working with Clem Cattini and Bev Bevan and guys like that? Was that fun for you?
PW: Yeah, it was mega. I’m a big fan of both. I’m obviously a big fan of The Move. I’d also known of Clem’s drumming, as well, from the many, many, many records he’s played on. God knows how many. Hundreds. Thousands possibly.
But, yeah, that was brilliant, that was great. And then you not necessarily because it was that conscious — you’ve got Clem, who’s probably 75 or 74 or something, you know, playing on the track alongside (Little Barrie guitarist) Little Barrie (Cadogan), who’s not in his 70s.
It’s just great, that whole kind different array of people, really. It’s just that common ground, if you like. The beautiful thing with musicians, for all our faults, (is that) sometimes it does make people ageless, if they’ve still got it going on, they can still do it. If it’s ageless, they transcend age or times, and that’s a really amazing, inspiring thing, really, for me.
OMC: So, what’s up next? Are you looking toward the next record, or are you not thinking about that yet?
PW: I’m going in next week, funny enough. I’m going to go in next week for a couple of days in the studio with Dine again, and we’re going to work with some new stuff.
OMC: This time you have some things written in advance?
PW: Eh, got us a few ideas, probably just as vague as they always are, but I’m excited by it. We’re just sort of fire it up and see wherever we’re going to go next. And hopefully just try to do something different again. Probably continue with the way it was done so far, but just try to see how we can sort of move it on, sort of take it further again.
OMC: Do you ever worry about writing the next one? Do you ever have that fear that songwriters have sometimes, that you’ve just done your last one and there will never be another one?
PW: I think I’ve gone past that stage, man. I definitely had that in the past, that kind of, you know, “I haven’t written a song for six months, my life’s over” and all that stuff. But I think I’ve probably gone through that barrier. I’ve just come to see that this thing just comes and goes. It ebbs and flows.
Sometimes you have it and it’s working, and some days just it ain’t working. You’ve just got to sit and wait it out, you know, wait for it to come ’round again. I couldn’t do that when I was younger.
It used to f*cking destroy me, you know, that I couldn’t write. But now I guess that I’m at that age where I just sort of think, well didn’t write for another year. Eventually, if I’m interested, with luck, it’ll come ’round again.
So, I’ve learned to be more philosophical about it, I suppose. But, having said it, I feel that I’ve been very creative for the last sort of five years or so. It seems that I’ve written a lot of songs in the last five years. So, I think it’s still with me. Anyway, I’m still feeling it anyway.
OMC: I’m going to point out that it’s been 33 years since you were last in Wisconsin, and you’ve never been to Milwaukee. Are you going to think about coming a little off the beaten path in the United States and come to some of the secondary cities.
PW: Well, I’d love to. I mean, there’s many, many places in your country I would love to go and play. It’s just still got that same old thing for us — it’s just money. It’s just really hard for us to tour America apart from, like, doing New York, L.A., etc. It’s just really hard for us to come and do it.
It’s like the cost for us to ship our gear and our crew and band and hotels and blah, blah, blah and all that stuff when you’re only playing to, like, a few hundred people, you know.
So it’s always a f*cking dilemma. It’s a shame, because there’s so many places I’d love to go play. Which is not anyone else’s problem but mine. (Laughs)
It’s always the same old thing, you know: that’s why we always just end up in the major places, which is a shame.
OMC: Somebody wanted me to ask you if it was true that you had heard the Milwaukee band called Kings Go Forth and if it’s true that you love them.
PW: What are they called?
OMC: They’re called Kings Go Forth. They’re a soul band.
PW: I don’t know. It doesn’t ring a bell, but maybe I have. Recently?
OMC: Yes, very recently. Their first album just came out on David Byrne’s label about two months ago.
PW: You know what? Funny enough, right, I’m not sure — I haven’t even listened to it — but I got a feeling someone sent me it the other week.
OMC: Yes, but locally, the story is that you heard the record and you loved it, and you wanted to work with them.
PW: I just walked into my kitchen, just picked it up. It’s on the side of my kitchen.
OMC: So you do have it.
PW: Yeah, but I haven’t heard it. But, now you’ve said that, I’m going to sure play it.