The onetime ‘spokesman for a generation’ has made a clean break with the past and is hitting the road with new enthusiasm, writes 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 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 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 f—in’ 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 with 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”.
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. His 2008 album 22 Dreams reached No.1 in Britain 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”.
But does it feel 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.” Weller 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 had 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 they might even have been glad. ”Cos it’s fast and furious, touring. I can’t speak for them, but they must’ve been thinking it would be nice to have time with their families.”
When Weller’s creative urges strike, nothing else enters his mind except the need to get down to it. 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 have 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 f—in’ pantomime tour, and people lap it up as well. But that’s not enough for me. I have a right to be an artist.”
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 f—in’ 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 f—in’ album about it.”
Weller 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. ”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.”
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Paul Weller plays at the Enmore on Friday and Saturday, and at the Metro on Sunday.