- 06 Aug 20
Currently basking in critical acclaim for his latest release, On Sunset, Paul Weller discusses the creative experimentation, the records, and the personal contentment that fed into it. "I'm really fucking happy," he tells Pat Carty.
Like anyone who sports even a singular cochlea and admires a well turned out gent, I’ve been a fan of Paul Weller since I’ve been a fan of music. I bopped along to The Jam doing ‘A Town Called Malice’ on Top Of The Pops as a (very) young lad, whistled Style Council tunes in questionable outfits in the eighties, and paid deservedly close attention to each subsequent solo release. A constant supply of great records, including my own personal favourites Wildwood and True Meanings, have seen the Woking Wonder continue to push forward, accepting his laurels, but never content to rest on them. The new record, On Sunset, is no exception, with one foot in classic seventies soul, and the other moving ever forward into tomorrow.
Apparently, the album sprang from its opening song ‘Mirror Ball’, which was recorded for the different mood of True Meanings, but rightly held over.
“It was kind of like a bonus track,” Weller explains down an increasingly dodgy phone line, which showed up as from Australia on my screen, although I suspect he’s at home in England, and the record company are re-routing things. “You know, this extra content bollocks, for deluxe version of whatever. As soon as we’d done it I just though that's way too good, and it also felt like it was a springboard, a cornerstone, for the next record really. I felt it encapsulated everything we could possibly try or do, it's a got a little bit of everything in it, and we just built up from there.”
It’s not the first time songs have pointed Weller in the direction he wanted to go.
“Normally it starts with three or four songs, but it has happened in the past where it's one tune,” he continues. “It was the same on True Meanings with 'Gravity', which had been kicking about for at least four or five years, and I couldn't fit it on any of the records in that time. I thought I'm really going to have to write an album around it, in a similar kind of vein.”
‘Mirror Ball’ contains several, for want of a better word, movements within its structure, harking back to something like ‘Trees’ from 2010’s Wake Up The Nation – another great album, he’s got more than his fair share – and even has a bit of, look out, musique concréte in the middle. It’s all there to help fill out what the song is about.
“It kind of reimagines all these kids from whatever era - now, yesterday, whatever - queuing up outside the club, the gig, and their lives being illuminated once they hear the music pumping and the lights going, as we've all experienced. The collage thing in the middle represents the joy and the different emotions. Some say it's when the drugs kick in - whatever makes people happy! It's the emotions, that up-full feeling, euphoric, ecstasy, but not necessarily the drug kind.”
The Bitterest Pill
On Sunset was completed around October of last year but Weller, like a lot of artists, has had to sit on it as Covid-19 has thrown releases and promotion – this interview was rescheduled a few times – into disarray. It has been frustrating, but he hasn’t spent the downtime lazing about in the garden.
“We should have been out on the road by now, we were all fired up for it, playing some of these new tunes live, so yeah, it's been frustrating but I've tried to just be as positive as I can,” he admits. “I've been writing loads and we've started recording, well I started recording anyway, putting the songs down and then sending them off to my band. They’ve been sending stuff back, and we've been doing it like that. It's different, as we're not in the same room, but it's been a way of moving forward, and I've probably got about ten tracks now, so I'm just cracking on making the next album which I'll hopefully try and get out for next Spring.”
When pushed on it, he offers more info on his next step.
“It's already going in a direction, although they're all quite different songs, they haven't got an overall sound. I want to just make twelve or fourteen of whatever it might be really water tight tunes. Pop songs.”
Weller has never been short of an opinion, so one wonders what he’s made of the government response to the crisis.
“It's totally unprecedented so I wouldn't like to lay blame at anyone's door, but when all these fucking idiots say ‘I'm waiting to hear what the Prime Minister says’ - over here, right – ‘Let's see what Boris has to say’? He's only telling you what he's been fucking told to say anyway, he doesn't know and nor does his fucking scientists. No one knows the outcome of this thing, or if we've been told the whole story, and we won't know. Or maybe we will when a long time has gone by. We, people, have to deal with it the best we can, but I certainly don’t look to a fucking President or a Prime Minister to see what we're gonna do next, do you know what I mean?”
We all know what he means, and we’ve all had it up to here with the whole thing; so let’s get back to the new record. Weller released the In Another Room E.P. earlier in the year, on Ghost Box, a label for “artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world”, which allowed him to give free rein to his more experimental side. The E.P. contains found sounds, punctuated by the odd piano, especially on ‘Rejoice’, which is a precursor to ‘Walkin’ on the new record.
“I've become a lot more interested in the musique concréte, abstract, electronic, whatever you want to call it. How would you put this into what I do, into pop music, and I'm talking about pop music in old money, I suppose. I wanted to incorporate some of that into what I do.”
It is this relentless modernism, crossed with traditionalism, which drives Weller on, a refusal to stand still
“That would be a very fair description,” Weller reckons. “It's me trying to experiment, and seeing what else I can do. Surprise myself, and then hopefully surprise others. Essentially, it's probably what I've always done and what I've always loved, I'm just trying to find different ways of framing it, how do you move this thing on? Whether I'm successful at doing that, I don't really know, but if every record has at least one or two songs that surprise me and I think 'Wow, I haven't been there before' then I'm happy.”
I put it to Weller that his melodic gifts help to sugar the medicine down, that if the arrangements are, in part, jarring, then the melody helps us take the dose, which, I think you must agree, is a brilliant question, but before the great man can answer, the phone line goes down, for the second time. In the panic to get him back on the line, this marvellous gambit of journalistic enquiry is lost forever. Instead, he laughs off my assertion that he’s getting better as he gets older, and takes a comparison to the similarly questing spirit of Robert Plant in the complimentary manner in which it was intended.
“I like his stuff, I don’t really know how to answer that, but thank you!”
That Dangerous Age
I point at a lyric in ‘Old Father Tyme’ – “help the love around us and see how deep it feels” - as possible evidence that the Modernist firebrand is turning into some class of spiritual hippie in his old age.
“Yeah, probably!” is his laughing reply. “Maybe that's what age does to one. I don’t know; I've never been old before. I see a universal consciousness as a very definite sort of thing, but I don't really like to talk about these things, man, because there are enough fucking boring cunts going on about their philosophies and religions, boring fucking people who've just read a book or something. I see greater and different values in life, but I'm sure that's something that comes with age, but only if you can retain an open mind and not be closed off to new possibilities and things that defy everything you've learned before, the things you've been brought up with.”
Things appear more personal in ‘Village’, where Weller seems happy and contented, at home with the family.
“Yeah, definitely, I love it,” you can feel him beaming down the line. “The song isn’t wholly biographical but again, it will start with the germ of an idea, an emotion of whatever, and I am happy, that's really true, I'm really fucking happy, I like the area where I live in London and the whole sort of manor really. So, yeah, it will start with that, but it'll become broader and I'll picture this character, not necessarily me, who is entirely happy within their manor and, more importantly, within themselves as well. They don't feel the need to travel to find or experience something else because they know that that's also possible within. Some of the songs directly talk about myself, others start out from that but then become something else, almost like a little film or a play.”
There's a belief in the power of music running through the record, ‘Baptiste’ especially speaks to the effect that music still has on Weller, and all of us.
“Totally,” he agrees. “Just that connection with that music, and not because I come from that culture or from that sort of religious Baptist background or whatever it may be. It still connects with me and always has done in some shape or form, since hearing soul and R&B records as a kid. It's essentially all from that source. I think I saw Keith Richards say a similar thing, how does a white kid in Stockholm or fucking Woking or Dublin, or wherever it may be, connect with this Muddy Waters record or Toots and The Maytals, or Bobby Bland? It’s almost like you know this music from somewhere, but you're not sure where. I think it's a very deep spiritual bond and connection with that music, and beyond that there's the great anthropological viewpoint that we all come from Africa.”
Which is why a lot of us dig the same thing?
“Yeah, and maybe that's why that connection is there, maybe it likes dormant for a bit, subconsciously, but personally I think that is why, the music all comes from Africa.”
It’s getting good and heavy now, and I’m willing to keep going. “Oh fucking hell, man!” Weller protests, but he sent me down this road, so hang on. If music gives us this connection, fills up the souls of those who embrace it, is ‘More’, with its digs at consumerism, about a lack of this spiritual contentment? As soon as lockdown began to lift, there were queues around the block, some people appeared to have missed the right to shop more than anything else.
“Yeah, maybe that’s possible,” he allows. “We're just marketed to in that way, big is better, more is better, and we have been since the post-war years, it doesn’t seem to make people any happier or more fulfilled.”
You’re The Best Thing
One of the guests on the record is former Strypes man, and long-time pal of Hot Press, Josh McClorey. I got in touch with Josh to ask him about it, and he reported himself thrilled at getting to record ‘More’ live with the guvnor.
“He's phenomenal, man. I don't have to tell you that anyway, he's such a great fucking player,” Weller effuses. “He’s definitely the best of his generation, and beyond that as well, forget about his age. I'm always really happy when he comes and plays on my records. When he's played with me, he hasn't played rock guitar, he's played rock n' roll guitar, and there's a big difference.
Too right, a lot of players are missing the roll. Weller concurs.
“Exactly, his solo stuff is sounding good and all, I've only heard three or four tracks but it's sounding really different and it's going to surprise people.”
Rockers of a similar stripe – yes – will be delighted to hear Jim Lea’s contribution to ‘Equanimity’.
“Once we'd cut that track, I could hear a violin solo and I just thought about Jim's sound. It doesn't sound anything like 'Coz I Luv You' but my mates I played it to were like 'that sounds like the geezer out of Slade’ When I went 'it is, it's Jim Lea', there was just this big smile on everyone's face. For a lot of people from my generation, those songs and that sound, whether you were a massive Slade fan or not, are engrained in our fucking psyche as much as T. Rex and Bowie and all the soul and reggae stuff.”
There’s a pleasing circularity to Mick Talbot’s presence on several tracks because, if you squint your eyes and look at it sideways, this might be the kind of record The Style Council would record now.
“I can see what you're saying, definitely,” says Weller. “But it wouldn't have happened that way because, God knows, we wouldn't have been around for thirty-five years, but especially in something like 'Earth Beat', I can hear that.”
The new record is out on Polydor, who rejected the final Style Council record – Modernism: A New Decade - back in 1989. Has it all been forgiven and forgotten?
“There's nothing to forgive, they're all different people, some of them weren't even born when that shit was happening,” he reasonably points out. “We approached them because I really like their roster - Sam Fender, Michael Kiwanuka, Celeste. I'm digging a lot of the artists they've got and especially the fact that they see someone like Michael as an album artist. I've worked with a couple of the people there before at Island so it was all good, and they were keen to do it. I don't hang on to those things; the past is the past.”
The record does call to mind the big Seventies soul albums by people like Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, and there’s even a hint of Van Morrison in there. Weller makes a few recommendations.
“With Van it wouldn’t be Astral Weeks or Moondance, it would be later ones. There was one in the eighties, with the song ‘Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell’ on it [1982’s marvellous Beautiful Vision]. Whatever that album is, I really love it. Bobby Womack's The Poet from the early eighties, amazing record, and with Curtis, any of his solo records, but for me I would say Back To The World.”
The good people from the record company pip in to let me know our time is up, which is a shame as Weller has been particularly fine company, but before he goes, he wishes to point the spotlight elsewhere.
“Can I ask to just mention Declan O'Rourke's record, which hasn't come out yet, but if you can Pat, right, try and get a listen to it because it's fucking great. I mean I'm biased because he cut it here at The Black Barn (Weller’s studio) so I worked with him on it, but there are great tunes. I just want to give it a plug.”
It’s a lovely gesture, but it is nothing less than you would expect from a gentleman for whom the music obviously still means everything, as it should. Right on, and straight ahead.
On Sunset is out now. Read the Hot Press review here.