Paul Weller: ‘You’ve got to be willing to upset people’
From The Guardian
By: Dave Simpson
It was the 2007 Glastonbury festival, and Paul Weller was pondering three decades of success. He felt restless, dissatisfied with much of his output in the first decade of the new century. He was still touring his album of two years earlier, As Is Now, which he liked but which hadn’t found the wide audience he wanted. For the first time since Polydor refused to release the Style Council’s house music album in 1989, Weller questioned his own relevance. Where once people had hailed his guitar classicism as the inspiration behind Britpop, they now called his music “Dadrock”. He was nearly 50. Worse, he hadn’t written a song in two years.
“I felt creatively empty,” he says. “I realised I couldn’t take the ‘Weller sound’ or whatever you wanna call it any further.” Nor was he happy with the traditional cliche of the musician with the dwindling audience: that he was making music for himself. “I never believed those artists who say they make music for themselves. In that case stay in yer fuckin’ bedroom then,” he says. So he did something he’d done before, notably when he split up the Jam at their peak in 1982: he “cleared the decks”, changing his entire way of working. He compares his periodic realignments to the Beatles’ decision to break up, “leaving all those fabulous albums and saving us from 35 years of shit where they aren’t as good as they used to be”. This time, instead of writing songs on guitar, he started improvising ideas around producer/co-writer Simon Dine’s looped grooves. He ditched nearly all his regular musicians, and brought in new collaborators, including ELO’s Bev Bevan and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
Three years on, his decision seems vindicated. Thirty-three years after releasing his first album, Weller is on the kind of creative roll that most artists experience just once in their career. 2008’s 22 Dreams reached No 1 and garnered wide plaudits, and this year’s Wake Up the Nation, his 10th solo album, is even better. It contains his most political songs in years, since the days he was labelled “spokesman for a generation”.
“It wasn’t intended to be political, it was a cultural call,” he insists. “But I was singing stream of consciousness, and suddenly you’ve got lines about ‘those fuckers in the castle’.”
After picking up a lot of awards lately – an Ivor Novello, an NME Godlike Genius and two Brits (for outstanding contribution and best British male) – Weller has scored a Mercury nomination for Wake Up the Nation, his first since 1994’s Wild Wood was pipped to the prize by M People’s Elegant Slumming. Weller is grateful for the recognition, but has mixed feelings. “Once you’re past 30 and haven’t died of consumption, they start awarding these things for staying alive.”
But does it feel to him as if he’s enjoying a dramatic revival of his fortunes?
“I do feel like I’m on a creative roll,” he admits. “I’ve had a real urge to write. There’s things inside me waiting to blow up. With these two albums, it’s felt like the songs were flying out of me.” He says they were coming so fast there wasn’t even really time to get together his regular band: “I wasn’t intending to make a record, but from me going into the studio and laying down ideas, we suddenly had an album,” he says of that first rush of material for 22 Dreams. Nevertheless, he didn’t pick up the phone to call the men who’d been playing with him for years, not even Steve White, the drummer who’d been with Weller since rehearsing for the Style Council as a 17-year-old in 1983. “We didn’t talk really about it,” admits Weller, suggesting, bizarrely, that the musicians might even have been glad of the break. “Cos it’s fast and furious, touring,” he shrugs. “I can’t speak for them, but they must’ve been thinking it would be nice to have time with their families.”
That seems comically disingenuous: who really welcomes an open-ended layoff from their regular employer? But when Weller’s creative urges strike, nothing else enters his mind except the need to get down to it. Driven by a working-class work ethic – “You only get what you work at, and rightly so. You can’t sit around and expect people to give you shit” – he has an almost pathological need to keep proving himself. When we last met, in 2000, he said that if he wasn’t creating he felt “dead inside. Worthless.” That attitude has enabled Weller to remain relevant where most of his punk peers, as he puts it, “are all on the nostalgia circuit”.
Still, reinventing himself and shedding people who’ve been at his side for years must require utter ruthlessness. “I prefer ‘selfishness’,” he replies. “But what are you supposed to do? Go through the motions? Or be seen as ruthless and try to expand and do something different? People are happy doing their greatest hits fuckin’ pantomime tour, and people lap it up as well. But that’s not enough for me. I have a right to be an artist.” He explains that when he was a child, he believed artists were either rich or had been to college, but then realised “anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. Obviously you’ve got to be willing to move on and upset people along the way.”
Which raises the question: which is more important to him, his music or his personal relationships? He ponders this for an eternity – aware that an honest answer involves “hurting other people. But if I’m really honest, outside of my kids, it would be music.”
His frankness is brutal, but at 52, Weller is painfully aware that his creative time is not infinite, and he has been further driven by his father’s death last year. John Weller bought Paul his first guitar, and was his manager from the days of the Jam onwards. Wake Up the Nation’s beautifully defiant song Trees was inspired by Weller seeing his “best friend” withering away in a respite home. “It’s fuckin’ horrible to see, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do. It sounds strange, but I was happier when he went, because in my mind he’d moved on.” If Weller’s creative instincts have been heightened by grief, the grieving process is not apparent in the songs. “I wouldn’t put that on people. Grief’s bad enough without a whole fuckin’ album about it.”
Weller’s need to make new music has coincided with other upheavals. With hindsight, he has realised 22 Dreams documents his 2008 split from his partner of 13 years, the mother of two of his five children; and his falling in love with Hannah Andrews, 28 years his junior, to whom he is now engaged. Mid-life crisis, or true love?
“Splitting up was fuckin’ hard as well,” he sighs. “But at the end of the day I’ve fallen in love with someone else.” He compares the situation to when he resisted his father’s advice and split the Jam. “You can’t live a lie. You have to follow your heart.”
The sensitivity in his songs emerges very occasionally elsewhere. When Weller met Jam bassist Bruce Foxton by chance in the toilet at a Who gig in 2006, 24 years without contact (“my fault”) melted in hugs and words. Two years later, when Weller’s father and Foxton’s wife, Pat, were dying, Weller called her – “It wasn’t difficult, she was a lovely lady” – and reopened lines of communication that led to the bassist joining the cast of Wake Up the Nation. “We just started speaking, and I suppose it was that thing musicians do: ‘Why don’t we do some playing?’, which was nice,” smiles Weller. “We’ve played together since and it was fun, it wasn’t heavy at all. Beyond that? I don’t know.” But there won’t be a Jam reunion. Weller is amused that drummer Rick Buckler – with whom he never got on – has apparently left From the Jam, the Jam tribute band he formed with Foxton. “They could reform,” sniggers Weller, sharply. “Which would be interesting, conceptually.”
There are other echoes of Weller’s past. Before the interview, we were politely told Weller isn’t keen to talk about politics, the establishment, or any of that stuff. But he brings the subjects up himself.
“Our guitarist Steve Cradock was 41 yesterday, and someone bought him a 1969 DVD which went through the year. Man landing on the moon and all that. And it had the investiture of the Prince of Wales. How fuckin’ ridiculous that whole scene and system is. How fuckin’ anachronistic and absurd. Especially as he’s not even fuckin’ Welsh! It’s such an insult to the Welsh people. I can’t believe it’s the modern age and it’s still here.” Moments later, he’s erupting about X Factor-induced apathy (“Millions of people watching a third-rate vocalist seem great amongst a sea of mediocrity. You enlarge that to society and it’s quite worrying, really”) and the state of British democracy (“You’ve got a million people marching against the Iraq war and the next day they start the bombing”). With Weller in this mood, even the recession becomes little more than a deception: “It’s a way of diverting people’s attention from what’s really going on. Not that people aren’t being hit by it – but how much are they spending in the Gulf war? Fuckin’ millions! And they’re asking the poor people to tighten their belts. We were watching the newsreels from 1969 and nothing’s changed.” No wonder Weller turned down a CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2006.
“Comical!” he laughs. “I’m not the sort of person who would expect something like that. It’s not as if the dear old Queen chooses ’em herself. And even if she did, I’m not fuckin ‘aving it.”
The storm subsides, and Weller is already moving on, enthusing about young bands – he admires Wild Beasts, and Erland and the Carnival – and the new tracks he’s already laid down since Wake Up the Nation. He remains governed by the mod philosophy that has sustained him since he was a child. “It’s not about going round looking like Austin Powers. It’s about being able to take in Stockhausen and the latest soul release and everything, adapt and make it yours.”
The ride may be uncomfortable, but the leading British rock musician of his generation is back on course.
“When I’m dead I wanna leave a body of work, like authors or great painters do,” he says, with the intensity of his youth. “I don’t wanna get ideas above my station, but why shouldn’t this be comparable? Pop music was supposed to be a flash in the pan, but here we are 50 years later and it means something to us, and it always will do. It’s incredibly important.”
Paul Weller plays Belsonic 2010 tonight in Belfast. Wake Up the Nation is out now on Island. Suburban 100, a book of selected lyrics, is published by Arrow on 2 September.