- 25 May 21
Happy 63rd Birthday, Paul Weller! To celebrate, we're revisiting one of his classic interviews with Hot Press – originally published in September 2002...
Paul Weller has a reputation as one of the most truculent men in pop, with a deep-seated dislike of the promotional process. But with the release of his latest solo album Illumination, the man who once led The Jam and the Style Council agreed to put himself in the firing line. Looking back over a career that's studded with success, he's reflective and forthright – but the anger that inspired much of The Jam's finest output still burns.
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He has been a constant presence on the pop music landscape for over a quarter of a century now. To date he has notched up an astonishing and hugely impressive 57 top 40 hit singles, including four number ones. He’s had 26 top 40 albums and been involved with countless collaborations along the way with such luminaries as Pete Townsend, Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher and Steve Winwood, to name just a handful.
We first encountered Paul Weller in early ’77 as a ’60s-fixated teenager, attacking a Rickenbacker while fronting The Jam – a sharp-dressed trio trading in supercharged mod-pop. In terms of sheer popularity and chart action, no other band of the era matched them. Inexplicably, after a string of number one singles, including classics like, ‘Going Underground’, ‘Beat Surrender’ and ‘A Town Called Malice’, he broke up the band at the height of their popularity.
In the early ’80s, Weller transformed himself into a soul-boy sophisticate with The Style Council, a more hit and miss affair than The Jam – though they had their moments. Then things took a strange turn. Towards the end of the ’80s, at a creative impasse, he ill-advisedly jumped aboard the house music bandwagon, only to have his record company refuse to release the results. Undaunted, he retreated for a couple of years, re-emerging in the ’90s with a new sound, rooted in the late ’60s rock of quintessential British acts like Traffic and Blind Faith.
For the past decade a resurgent Weller has played the role of a guitar-toting, gruff-voiced, cheerleader for British rock. The runaway success of albums like Wild Wood and Stanley Road coupled with his timely association with Brit-pop put him back on top of his game, where he has more or less remained.
Following a couple of solid albums – 2000’s Heliocentric and last year’s live offering Days Of Speed – he returns this month with a new record, Illumination, widely hailed as a return to inspired form. Not renowned for his love of the music press, he’s agreed to do two days worth of promotion for the new album. (This is the man, remember, who once wrote, “To anyone who has ever slated me – fuck you,” on the sleeve of an album.)
Suntanned and still impressively slim, Weller is friendly and frank – but he shifts uneasily in his seat as he begins to answer questions at a West London hotel. So then, has he softened in his attitude towards journalists or is this as painful as it looks to him?
“I’m talking to you now mainly because I’m trying to please my record company, to keep them happy,” he laughs, gesturing towards a Sony Music rep, who’s hovering in the background.
“I’ve nothing against journalists in principle. I never had – they have a job to do. But after 25 years, it’s still really hard for me to answer a question like, ‘how did you come to make this record?’ Or ‘how did you come to write this song?’. It’s like trying to describe the indescribable.
“To me, doing it is the most natural thing in the world but I don’t like analysing it. If somebody else wants to do that – fine. But I just don’t see the point of it.”
Still only in his mid-40s Weller has been famous for most of his life. Looking back over his career to date, has he taken any time out recently to reflect or reminisce on the passing years?
“Twenty-five years,” he ponders, dragging on a cigarette. “It’s a nice round figure isn’t it? And it sounds like a fantastic amount of time when you’re sitting here at the other end of it. But it doesn’t feel like a quarter of century to me. I’m 45 next birthday, and I just don’t know where all that time has gone.”
Few artists of his generation have gone through as many transformations as Weller has in that time. Are there any particular highlights or low points that spring to mind?
“Probably about a month ago at a gig in Middlesboro’ Town Hall and the week before that at another gig somewhere else,” he responds, without hesitation. “You see, I don’t measure things in terms of the big momentous occasions. For me, it’ll always be the live gigs. The ones I’ve done recently have been among the best. Some nights I come offstage and think I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world, or doing anything else other than this.
“The thing I have discovered is that music in its truest sense is beyond any trend or movement or category. I’m fascinated by that and the idea that it is, in the end, like folk music, people’s music.”
Weller’s apparent stubborn refusal to get caught up in his own past was borne out at his recent Dublin headliner at Marley Park in Rathfarnham. On the night he performed only songs from his ’90s solo period and a couple of new ones, ignoring his entire Jam and Style Council legacy. Some people might accuse him of disowning what made him a star in the first place?
“It’s not that I’ve disowned them,” he says, defensively. “When I did the acoustic tour last year I did a load of Jam and Style Council songs. I just didn’t feel we had enough time to rehearse them to do them justice this time around. But I’m definitely planning to do more of them in the future.
“Doing the acoustic thing made me feel different about doing the old songs. It kept me more in touch with my audience to some extent – and it shows the power of a song when it’s stripped down like that. I felt a natural connection to them.
“But some of the songs belong to a certain time and place – I wrote them when I was a certain age and felt a certain way about things. There are things I could still do – and there are others that I definitely wouldn’t do. It’s mainly lyrical but sometimes musical. I’d find it hard to do ‘In The City’, for example, but ‘Going Underground’ I think is still relevant lyrically. But there has to be some emotional connection. Otherwise it’s just going through the motions.”
Nothing could be further from the truth in Ilumination, which sees Weller continuing his productive association with Ocean Colour Scene’s Steve Cradock and Damon Minchella, and his long time drummer Steve White – along with a handful of high-calibre guests including Noel Gallagher, Kelly Jones and one-time Stone Rose, Aziz Ibrahim.
Sonically, it may not mark a major change of direction from any of his work over the last ten year, but it’s more pastoral and relaxed, and a lot less tense than some of his recent albums.
“The plan was to make the best possible album I could,” he explains. “I never go into a record thinking I’ll just make another record. I set a goal in my mind that if I never make another record again, or if God struck me down tomorrow, what would I like to leave to the world? I had that in mind as a device. I knew I had to make a record because that’s what I do. I’m a songwriter – I write songs and I sing them. I’m not into new sounds just for the sake of it – but if you stumble on something new along the way that’s great.”
Songs like the breezy pop of ‘Going Places’ its with gently strumming guitars and humming organ and ‘Leafy Mysteries’, which is positively melancholic, certainly suggest a man growing into middle age gracefully. He even dedicates one song, ‘Who Brings Joy’, to the latest Weller, his new-born daughter Jesamine.
“It has mellow parts to it and it’s a very positive album,” he agrees. “That’s probably down to all the lager we drank and the pot we smoked! We had a good time making it, which is always a good sign. But I wouldn’t call it relaxed – there are certain bits that are mellow but there are other bits that are upbeat.”
Politics have always been a big part in Weller’s artistic armoury – he railed against mindless racism on ‘Down In The Tube Station at Midnight’ with The Jam and The Style Council were, if anything more polemical on numbers like, ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’. In the ’80s he took part in the Red Wedge Tour with Billy Bragg and others. Despite his support for the Labour Party in the past, his anger at the Blair administration is very much in evidence on another song on Illumination, ‘Bullet For Everyone’.
“It’s aimed at Tony Blair and his boyfriend George Bush,” he says, getting into his stride. “We waited 18 years to get rid of the Thatcher Government which was like the whole of my life, since I was able to vote ’till I was in my late 30s. And we wind up with more of the same. Nothing’s really changed. It has been very disappointing and it’s made people in Britain very apathetic towards politics. Cause you kind of think, ‘What’s the point of voting?’ The downside of that is you get Le Penn in France or what’s happened here in the local elections – it leads to extremes.
“Tony Blair has made no difference to this country whatsoever, apart from leading us into a senseless war,” he continues. “I hate the way every time America shouts, Britain jumps. It doesn’t happen in Spain or in France – or in Ireland for that matter does it?
“I’m not trying to say this is the voice of a generation. I’m just saying this is my voice and I think it’s valid. Some people don’t agree with someone like me saying this. It’s like, you can be old and angry but it’s not really accepted is it? I mean, anytime I’ve made angry records I’ve been accused of being a miserable old sod. When you’re 18 and you’re angry it’s acceptable, but when you’re older it’s not. But that’s not going to stop me doing it.”
So, what else makes Paul Weller angry these days? Lots, it turns out – and no apologies.
“Every time I see an image of an Afghan baby pulled out of the rubble,” he says. “Starving children in Africa, when we’re spending millions of pounds on weapons. But that’s my reaction as a human being, rather than as a pop star or an artist or whatever. We’re all led into this thing – there’s no referendum it’s just, ‘We’re going to war whether we like it or not’.
“And while I’m at it, I think the whole web-site thing, the whole e-mail or Internet thing, or whatever you fucking call it, is a big load of rubbish. And I don’t think it’s made the world any closer. I can see in terms of communication that it might be good for some people. But we had the post and telephones before that. It’s the emperor’s new clothes, as far as I’m concerned, making people go out and buy all this shit that they don’t really need.
“And you have to keep updating it – buy another piece of shit to keep up. But it’s here whether I like it or not. And if I don’t do an official web-site, someone else will do it. So you’re kind of forced into it. But life went on before it.”
Five years ago Weller said in an interview that his ultimate aim when he hits the age of 50 or so, is to give up touring and to play weekend gigs in his local pub in Surrey, doing R&B covers. How close is he to doing that?
“I don’t think I said it was my aim – if I did I was lying. What I meant was, if it came down to it and no-one loved me anymore and didn’t buy my records, you wouldn’t find me out doing the cabaret circuit like a lot of other artists I could mention. I’d just go out and play R&B and rock ’n’ roll covers in the pub. It would have a lot more dignity to it. But I’m a working musician and songwriter. Whatever that entails, I’ll still be doing for as long as people want me to do it.
“I’m drawn to the fact that what I do is an art and a craft – and once you keep working at it, and the fire’s still there, it’s worth doing. But you have to keep your eye on the real prize, which is the music, not all the periphery and the rubbish that goes with it.”
Paul Weller on…
The White Stripes:
“To be honest their album didn’t exactly blow me away. I just hope they get the chance to develop and withstand all the hype and nonsense – ‘the new Jimi Hendrix?’ – come on!”
“What do I think of them? I don’t!”
“I couldn’t say Syd’s an influence in any direct way, but I admired his originality. I’ve never seen Pink Floyd live. To be honest, I’d sooner watch paint dry.”
“Pet Sounds is an amazing record. I’ve read that Brian Wilson said it was meant as a hymn to God. It certainly sounds like one.”
“I like D’angelo, Alicia Keyes, and I love Mary J Blige. The only thing that bores me with a lot of contemporary R&B albums is that the tempos and beats are all so samey. What’s wrong with some light and shade and dynamics?”
Everything But The Girl:
“I love Ben and Tracey but when I saw them on TV with Ben playing a synthesizer and Tracie having a little boogie, I was pissing myself. I need to get back in touch evidently but I’m fucking sick of 12-14 years of four on the floor house beats. Anyone for a tango?”
The Middle East:
“I don’t think my views would make one scrap of difference to Palestine, Israel or the The Middle East. Do you think the war will stop because U2 play a fucking gig somewhere? I’m against all wars and against all forms of terrorism. Everyone has the right to a homeland and no one has the right to take it away.”
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To coincide with the release of his new album, Fat Pop (Volume 1), we speak to Paul Weller in the current issue of Hot Press – out now: