Interview - Mojo, April 2000
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He’s been assailed by business bosses, punk rivals and ex-band mates. Now, with a landmark fifth album in the can, Paul Weller shows Chris Ingham the fighting spirit that’s seen them all off. On page 80 Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler tell Pat Gilbert about the fateful, final days Of The Jam. Portraits by Kevin Westenberg.
He only stops moving when the camera is on him. There’s always a fag on the go, body rocking back and forward on his chair, leg bouncing. When he's allowed to move properly, there's a surprising grace. He doesn't just go somewhere if he can spring there, like an edgy gazelle.
Often referred to as 'a difficult interview', our man contents himself giving me a short hip ness test, eyes friend-or-foe wary, abrupt questions followed by intense nods of encouragement in anticipation of a satisfactory answer. "I long you been writing for Mojo, then (nod, nod)?", "What kind of music do you play (nod, nod)'"", "Write your own stuff, as well do ya (nod, nod)';", "You've had a good chance to listen to the album, have ya (nod, nod, nod, nod)'" Ah, well, not as much as I would have liked but I suspect that isn't what he' wants to hear: "Yeah, it's great."
It is, actually. Fantastic shaggy rock music with folky, psychedelic colours and a renewed melodic sense, palpably tauter compositions and bolder arrangements, great '6os guitar work, real chords, good tune's, lots of heart. Heliocentric is Weller at his best. "New furniture seasoned from old wood" as his friend and inspiration Robert Wyatt wrote' and told him. "Top geezer," says Paul.
Adjourning to a warm Euston Road hotel foyer, I admit to being intrigued by how the third and, for many, best stage of Paul Weller's remarkable career was precipitated by the debacle that was the final instalment of his second. What were the circumstances in 1989/90 surrounding Polydor's rejection of the fifth Style Council album? "There was a guy . . . I can't even remember his name now, that's how significant he is. New guy, came into Polydor, brash arrogant fucker, one of these' geezers you immediately didn't like, throwing his weight around: 'What you should be doing is going backstage at the Peter Gabriel concert to raise your profile'', that sort of stuff. I was the wrong person to talk to like that. I was determined to make this house' album."
“What was your response to their refusing to release it? "I was a little bit upset, to say the least, having made them millions of fucking pounds. They were saying, 'This is a bad career move.' I think if it had come it would have been good. I'm not saying what it would have sold; it was early days for house. For me it was a logical progression. So my reaction was, Right, I'm leaving." Would TSC have persevered if it had come out? "I don't think so, no. It was going to be the last album anyway. I would have liked it to come out at the time but it's finally out now, on the box set — which is pretty ironic."
The Style Council ignominiously folded, Weller retreated home with then wife, Dee C. Lee, and new child Nat, to consider his options. "I was pretty much redundant in a sense. We'd finished with Polydor, there was no record contract, I had no publishing deal; we'd sold Solid Bond Studios because we couldn't afford to stay there. It all came to grinding halt, really." Did the songwriting come to a grinding halt too? "Pretty much. Probably the worst aspect of that time was that technology took over. We did most of our recording in the control room rather than on the studio floor. We were getting into sequencers and drum machines. I was building up grooves and writing on top of that rather than sitting down with a guitar or a piano. So it was almost like me having to go back and learn how to do all that again. I got excited about it again. Sitting down with an acoustic guitar and playing a song for myself. It was good in a way; a kick up the arse, which in hindsight is easier to say, but I probably needed it anyhow. There was a lot of ego and arrogance in the Council days."
Solo Weller eventually emerged with his instantly identifiable style for the '90s, heavy boogaloo offsetting acoustic whimsy, based variously on deep soul, late Small Faces, early Humble Pie and a whole heap of stuff From the late '60s and early '70s, all shot through with vintage Weller passion and attitude.
"I just started to listen to people I'd never listen to before, people I wouldn't have given the time of day to. I dropped that sort of blinkered thing I'd had as a youth, where I wouldn't listen to records made by men with beards, know what I mean? People like Crosby, Stills And Nash, Van Morrison. I'd always listened to black music in whatever shape or form. I think it, done me a lot of good, to see there's good and bad music and it's whatever gets to you, whatever touches you."
A searing rhythm player in The Jam and a competent pastel-funk merchant in The Style Council (when he played guitar at all), he has talked of rediscovering himself as a guitarist in this period. "I went off guitar-playing when I left The Jam. Looking back on those TV things in the early Council days I look like a spare prick, a bit lost without the guitar. I just wanted to move away from that Rickenbacker 'CHIANG', not that I don't like it but I didn't want to do that the rest of my fucking life, you know."
For all his position in the business as respected elder statesman, the most credible (along with Elvis Costello and, er, Sting) of the creatively active members of Class Of '77, Weller music is hardly everyone's cup of tea. Detractors level the same accusations at his solo work that periodically dogged the output of The Jam and The Style Council; its emphasis on dour, hardheaded passion over craft, its reliance on period textures, its sometimes blatant borrowings. Advocates revel in the uncompromising classic 'rockness' of it all, the sound of musicians rubbing up against each other, the rich, rocking soulfulness of Weller’s mature vocals, the big guitars, the groovy drums, the dynamic elasticity. It's organic, isn't it, mate? Weller buys that.
"It means we let the music grow under its own steam; there's not too many intellectual considerations about it all, sitting around tables saying, 'What should we do on the next record?' It's more, get in there and see what happens. Things grow from that. And the fact that we're using real instruments: guitar, bass and drums, real piano, bit of Hammond. Basically I don't like digital sounds that much, even though I've used them in the past on Style Council stuff. There were times when every record had a fucking DX7 on it and [they] ended up sounding exactly the same as each other."
Does he require a certain attitude from his musicians? "People who really mean it, who are passionate about it, all got a similar kind of influence, who all come from a certain point, which is nearly always black music — soul, funk, jazz, whatever. It's the whole cornerstone of all contemporary music, Afro-American music. You can nearly always hear it in the playing."
One of the joys of Weller’s solo work is the engine at the centre of his sound, the consistently excellent loose-limbed, jazzy drumming of Steve White. "I think he's the best drummer in the country. Apart from keeping the beat and his dynamic approach to it, he's become very musical in his old age. Well, he's only 33 actually. But he was always good as a kid when first he joined the Council, he was very flash. But now he thinks about the song, melody and lyrics. The other thing, which he'd tell you himself, is that he really gets to shine in my music; it's dynamic, up and down, in and out, and it's a challenge. I don't know how many other groups you get to do that. The guy from Supergrass [Danny Goffey] is really good, he's got a similar thing to him."
How does he balance the requirements of the song and the arrangement with allowing that ebb and flow? "If you've got good musicians, I don't think it's that hard. Obviously, we've been playing together for a long time, especially me and Steve, so a lot of things are left unsaid. On this new album with Steve Cradock and Damon Minchela from Ocean Colour Scene, we've got a great relationship, that almost telepathic thing where we don't have to talk about things too much. Some people you just click with, don't you? And you think, Yeah this is just the right mixture of people to have." The suggestion that perhaps this well-oiled system of working with your mates could in itself be a kind of straitjacket inspires some classic Weller defensiveness. "What am I supposed to do, go and work with some Hungarian experimentalist? It's possible, and something good might come out of it, but I don't know if I should have to go fishing that far. I make the music I make and people have a choice either to listen to it or not listen to it; no one's forcing it down your throat. I don't want to make music with electric spoons or fuzzy radio, If you like the sort of music I make, then I'm here."
Not necessarily criticism, Paul, just a suggestion that it things are so reliable, they may be less of an inspiration to you and, in the end, less for you to get excited about. "To be honest, I know what you're saying, but I don't feel I have to be experimental in that sense. I feel there's a lot of different stuff on this album, that I've taken some of the songs as far out as I can without being fabricated. I spent a long time writing these songs, trying to come up with something that was going to excite me again, let alone anybody else. I don't know if I want to experiment any more, I kind of like the songs I do. I don't find it any kind of underachieving."
Some do, of course, with a certain NME editor contending that in being such a huge inspiration to the giants of so-called Dadrock Weller was personally to blame for the unimaginative state of pop. "Let's not forget this is a man who championed Duran Duran in the '80s. It's a ridiculous thing to say, especially for a man who's even older than I am. Because people are going out and playing guitars and drum kits again? That's a fucking good thing, the more live bands out and about, the more people going out to see live bands, it's got to be a good thing for everyone, innit, if you’re involved in music? It you’re not, if you're involved writing for the NME it might be different, it's not about music necessarily, it's an attitude thing. But I'm a bit too old for all that shite really, I just want to hear the music, you know what I mean? Play the music. The attitude is in the music anyway. In Coltrane's playing, he didn't have to go round saying it, he just said it through his playing."
With the aesthetic points of departure added to a particularly personal line of attack on him dating from Style Council days, Weller's had a conspicuously bristly relationship with the music press generally over the years and remained sufficiently bothered in '97 to phone up the NME correspondent who gave Heavy Soul a luke-warm review offering to fight him. What's that about? "(Smiling) I don't know really. I think it's just a phase I went through, a lot of people say, 'Can't you just ignore it, why does it rile you so much?' I suppose you shouldn't really bother about it, but when it's so personal, it's hard to turn your back sometimes, especially the sort of character I am. I think in any other walk of life, to take such personal criticism would inevitably end in blows. But you're supposed to shrug and say 'OK' and walk away. I find it hard to do that. I shouldn't take it seriously; perhaps in the last two years I've learned not to. Richard Burton said, If you get a good review, it's never really good enough, if you get a bad one it brings you down.' Best not to read any of them. I've learned my lesson." A proud father of three children — two with ex-wife, former Style Council singer Dee C. Lee, one by another relationship and another on the way with his current partner, how does he balance the creative world with the domestic pressures? "I tend to split the two things up, I can't do both. If I'm gonna write, I need to be on my own. I do suffer from guilt sometimes because I'm away for long periods or in the studio when I should be at home being dad. But it's part of me, my lifestyle. Hopefully they don't suffer. The important thing is that when I do see them I spend a lot of proper time with them and not be distracted by music."
Weller has said that his records serve to represent and reflect him at the time he was making them, good and bad. What is the difference between the man who made Heavy Soul and the man who made Heliocentric? "Heavy Soul was a cathartic thing: angry. With this record, I wanted the complete opposite, to the point where I would discard a song if I thought it was going toward that Heavy Soul darker thing. I wanted something that was more colourful and warmer and joyful and up." Because that's how you felt? Or that's how you wanted to feel?
"That's how I wanted to feel and that's how I wanted the album to sound. You can wallow in the darker thing, it's easier to write those darker songs; it's harder to write a joyful song without it being twee. I wanted to make sure this album had that feel. And I think it has. But also I'm just generally a bit more together than I was around that time, and around the time of Stanley Road. Less drinking and drugging and all that stuff. "
How heavy did it get in that period? "It was pretty' full-on but I don't want to get into all that, it becomes My Drug And Drink Hell. Shut up man, fuckin' moaning about it. If you don't like it, don't fucking take it. My personal life was pretty fucked up, I'd split with me missus, it was a bit of a fucking loony time. But enjoyable as well, it was kind of one of those weird things. Completely up in the air, but a bit fun as well."
Wasn't there a hotel trashing in Paris in '97? "We're not gonna drag that one out again, are we? It was very unfortunate I was there. There were others involved who shall remain nameless. That was the booze. We got out of the nick like Batman And Robin at the last minute, just in time to get showered and go on-stage. Paid the damage and that was it."
So have you moved on from all that? "More than anything else man, I can't really handle it any more. The next day, hangovers or comedowns are just fucking horrible, spoil any of the pleasures you had the day before. I'm still up for a fucking piss-up sometimes, but not as a full-time career. It's a bit sad really. My drinking days are numbered."
Heliocentric opens majestically with He's The Keeper, a brooding fantasy about a knight "hanging wishes upon our stars". Ronnie Lane-ish hobo-folk-rock gestures are peppered around the album, but this song is apparently specifically about Lane. "What I like about Ronnie Lane is that for all that 'cor blimey' East End stuff, he was like a seeker in spiritual sense. Especially in the music press there's that collegey snobbery that it you sound a bit like Arthur Mullard you can't be spiritual or intellectual. People like Ronnie Lane disprove all that to me. Some of his lyrics are fantastic, stuff like Debris and Love Lived Here. After he left The Faces — which must have been a hard thing for him to do—1 like the idea of his Passing Show, that circus big top he took round the country, trying to get people motivated. Lost a fucking fortune on it. Someone who always done his own thing and had the balls to do it. Always came across as a very sussed geezer, especially in his lyrics, without being all airy-fairy; a Don Quixote figure. That lyric, 'He's the one knight/0n a knackered stallion/His rusty armour/So undervalued', is one I'm proud of. I played it to Ian McLagan; he was really touched by it. Which is nice."
Frightened — with downhome piano, ravaged bluesy vocal and delicious strings — sounds momentarily like Randy Newman before unfolding into a beautiful, strong, vulnerable song: "I wanted to write about that macho thing, not against it but the other side of it. One member thought it was about coming down off booze or drugs or whatever. Steve White — who very rarely drinks and never does any gear — saw-it totally differently. Just imagine you've got two kids, mortgage, bills and some mornings you wake up and just think, 'Fucking hell, what have I done, what am I leading my family into?' And I thought that was more the spirit of the song, you got to be strong but there's times where you wake up thinking, 'Fucking hell."'
Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea is an uplifting piece, full of hope and renewal — "You're the one to get my heart start pumping again" — so joyous and wholesome, it must have been written for one of his kids. "Yeah, written for me daughter." No qualms, writing songs about your children?
"Not at all man, no. They mean everything to me. I still tried to write it so everyone can get a piece of it, relate to it. Obviously there's a fine -g line with those songs about your kids, some can be awful, but I like it. S The way she makes me feel, to see her little face, her warmth. Her smile alone makes me feel good about the world — optimistic."
Did she you give you a hard time about the Divorce? "No, me fucking wife did, ha ha! No, it was a trying time for everyone but she was too young, probably. It affected my son more, I guess, he's that much older. We got a good relationship."
While acknowledging how work must reflect the person who made it, Weller has been at pains to distance himself from autobiographical interpretations: "It limits the song so much. Once you think this is just the singer singing about himself, it puts the lid on it. By not doing that, everyone can find a little piece of the song. It makes the music bigger."
But isn't it natural for anyone who is interested in an artist to seek out clues to their life in the work? "I don't though, mate, I have to say that I don't. When I listen to Jealous Guy, John's song, I just think what a fantastic song it is. I'm sure the words come from the heart but I relate to it on my own level. I don't feel the need to know everything about an artist's every waking moment. Whatever they say through their music is enough. And more than anything I try and relate myself to those songs or those sentiments. I'm not interested in getting under the skin of an artist I admire. I'm trying to get under my own skin."
But should we be allowed to detect post-divorce allusions in, for instance, the lovely With Time And Temperance ("As worlds end with new ones to open", "You'll find you'll wake up fresh instead/You'll find me less inside your head")? "Yeah, well. I'm sure there is that behind it as well. Yeah, I guess in that instance it would be true to say that, yeah. But like I said, it limits it."
So, the innocent party persecuted in the heavy folk dirge The Whale's Tale may or may not be a certain misunderstood musician at the mercy of a fickle industry.
"Well, it's a bit tongue-in-cheek, I was actually on the ocean when I started writing it, it just popped into my head. It started off like an eco-song but I thought I don't know whether I can go down that road, so I just sort of turned it around into a dual thing. So some of it is about the music business as well, based on one particular person — it's not worth going into, another MD. Another useless bit of blubber. He's gone now. Just all this, 'Oh the music business is going downhill, the sales are not as good,' it's always the musicians who get the blame. The music business is so fucking greedy, you should look and see why the music business is going down the pan: your own greed and lack of creativity. They never start anything, do they? They just leap on it and make as much as they can out of it. Then when it's all dead and redundant, it's always someone else's fault."
Heliocentric is infused with characterful orchestral colours which add immensely to its charm. "We used Robert Kirby, who did the Nick Drake stuff, for the string arrangements. Not because I thought my stuff sounded like Nick Drake's, I just like the very English thing Robert does. I didn't want soul strings, wanted something different. He's a great character."
Did you talk to him about the Nick Drake sessions? "Yeah: he was doing a documentary with the engineer John Wood and I went along to Abbey Road with them and had all the old multi-tracks up, it was good to hear that. But it's interesting, listening to those arrangements. You tend to think of it as Nick Drake's music, but when you hear Robert away, you realise they're all his ideas as well. He's got his own sound and his own style of doing things."
There Is No Drinking After You're Dead is an extraordinary carpe diem song with a dense, claustrophobic atmosphere, relentlessly awkward groove and a disturbing, droning vocal effect in rough, trippy two-part harmony. "I wanted to try and write an Irish drinking song that Brendan Behan or someone would have written. Originally I was going to make it more folky, like an old traditional drinking song. But it didn't turn out like that, fortunately. If anyone can say I've copped them chords from somewhere, they can have a Blue Peter badge, they're pretty strange chords, to say the least. I spent a long time fucking doing it. I wouldn't say any of these songs came that easily, I spent a long time on a lot of them, I really wanted to impress meself, play some songs where the chords started to interest me again."
On Back In The Fire he adopts a plaintive English tone which, along with the angry but restrained atmosphere, betrays echoes of Robert Wyatt influence ("definitely an influence, you're right.") Talking about the song Weller adopts a familiar tone of unmediated outrage at social injustice. "There's some stuff about the National Health Service. 'How's your father today?/Was he caught in the rain?/Waiting on a bed.' This is someone who worked all their life, paid their taxes, all that shit, thrown back on the heap, dying in a hospital corridor, just the lack of dignity that people are afforded. These faceless fuckers who still control everything, the Establishment. Not the Labour Party, people we never even know about." This could be the Paul Weller of 1978. Nice to know some things don't change.
For all of his peaks and troughs and the unlikelihood of his ever being universally acknowledged as the giant some believe he is, there are precious few in this business who can be judged to be doing work that stands with their finest achievements, 23 years into their career. What next? Another 23 years? Bearing in mind his gently diminishing enthusiasm for the business surrounding the business of making music, how will he keep it fresh? He talks fancifully about giving up the industry stuff and doing R&B covers in the clubs of Surrey. He wants to do a book, "stream-of-consciousness stuff". All possible of course, but while this icon to a generation or two is still making music that sounds like it needs to be made, doing something else instead is not really an option. Expect another four albums before the decade is out.
"I've still got that, if not a hunger, I suppose it is a hunger, not to be Number I in the world, but just to write songs that are going to move people. Or to be held in some recognition; even my own recognition. I'm quite a critical person. I'm still trying to knock myself out. I'm still trying to fire myself up."
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