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Modernism Vs. Classicism: Paul Weller Interviewed
Valerie Siebert , June 30th, 2014 10:04

With new album More Modern Classics released this week, Val Siebert asks, will the real Paul Weller please stand up?

Which is your favourite Paul Weller?

The extremely serious teen punk thrashing away on a Rickenbacker? The beret-wearing pop politiciser? The mop-haired rocking modfather? The earthy, pastoral psychedelic? The arty soul singer? The angry Luddite? Well it doesn't matter really, because in case you haven't noticed, all those Paul Wellers are dead and gone. If you learn anything from being a long-time fan of the man it's that his work, like his attitude, is a constantly shifting thing, never made to order.

What's astounding though is how an artist who constantly changes, deliberately rubbishes his own fans' expectations and generally doesn't give a shit what anybody else wants, somehow continues to release wildly successful records. In his solo career alone he's racked up four number one and five number two charting albums. His most recent album Sonik Kicks is one of those chart toppers. It draws space-age synths and motorik beats into the mix – a far cry from the Britpop-adjacent 90s rock he continues to be associated with.

I personally think Weller's staying power is in knowing when to quit and when not to. It ranges from busting up The Jam at their height for pastures new and leaving a perfect legacy, to ending an association with Record Store Day after greedy eBayers took advantage of his vinyl-loving fans. They are not decisions made lightly, but if reviews and record sales are any indication, he usually makes the right one.

A rarely examined, yet deliberate shift in his more recent career is his parting of ways with drummer Steve White – who had been with him for over twenty years since the inception of the Style Council – and bassist Damon Minchella who had joined Weller back during the Wild Wood-era. Their disappearances marked the beginning of Weller's most drastic stylistic changes to date, just before the recording of 2008's critically hailed 22 Dreams. As he says here, it's difficult to keep a number of guys moving in the same direction for a long period of time. But, as unpopular as the decision may have been yet again to form a new line-up, 22 Dreams went straight to number one on the charts, became his first platinum seller since Stanley Road and brought Weller into an era of gushing critical acclaim, accolades and legend status that hasn't let up yet.

The single time where his foresight hasn't served him well was with the release of Modernism: A New Decade, the final Style Council album. The record took queues from the beginnings of house music coming out of America, but predated Britain's massive rave scene by just enough that Polydor took one listen to it and threw the band out on their arses. What followed was the break-up of the group and a dark period for Weller musically, but one that would directly result in the start of his massively successful solo career a few years later. In hindsight it was a stroke of luck.

The just-released best-of, More Modern Classics is the sequel to the exquisite Modern Classics of 1998 and between the two of them show a span of styles that few other artists can claim. Seriously, he is one collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a couple country tracks away from covering the lot. He has lost and gained fans over that time and also forced forward a few grumbling old mods that, contrary to the claims of the subculture, maybe would have rather he stayed stuck in the 90s – or in 79. Aside from busting out a decreasing number of oldies at his live shows, Weller does nothing other than exactly what he fucking pleases and whether you enjoy the result or not, it's a rock & roll attitude that few artists have the balls to pull off in earnest.

More Modern Classics is based over the last 15 years, but it's very heavily based on the last three albums, why did it turn out that way? Why were ‘Leafy Mysteries' and the other Studio 150 singles left out?

Paul Weller: Well there were only so many tracks we could put on so it was more about timing really. So there were probably around three or four singles that we just couldn't really fit on. It was just for technical reasons really. If I could have had a triple album, I would have put them all on there.

I've always wondered about the role of Studio 150 in your career, you said you weren't writing at the time. Did doing a covers album help you clear the writer's block or was it just sort of a project to fill the time between?

PW: No not at all! I just wasn't writing at the time and I didn't really want to, I didn't fancy writing anything at that time. But I wanted to make a record, and it was just a lot of fun doing it. It wasn't so much pressure like making your own album. It's hard to say if it was writer's block because I wasn't writing. Then after doing the covers record I came back with like 19 songs or something for the next record. Sometimes it's good to take a break I guess!

Have you ever had another period like that since?

PW: Well it's kind of weird with my writing, you see, because maybe I won't write anything for six months or whatever period of time. But then I'll write loads. It just goes that way, so I'm not sure if it's ever writer's block, it's just that "I'm not writing at the moment." I just reserve myself and ideas until a time when I'm ready to put them together.

I have read that you have around half a dozen or so tracks ready for a new album, has a general direction emerged for it yet?

PW: It's a bit early to say really. There is a bit of a sound forming but how to describe it I have no idea. It's definitely different from the last album, but I'm not sure where it's going to go.

Your latest material is featuring early Jam guitarist Steve Brookes, who also was on 22 Dreams. Can you tell me a bit about how you reconnected and how you've ended up working with him again recently?

PW: We've known each other since we were little kids and started off playing together when were 14, or even younger, in pubs and clubs and stuff like that. And then I didn't see him for an awfully long time, but then we reconnected around the early 90s. It made sense, I mean, he's my oldest surviving friend really. But it's just one of those things! He popped over for a cup of tea one night at the studio and I roped him into playing on the track.

Any chance Bruce Foxton might make another appearance?

PW: Yeah, there's a chance of it. I don't know when, but it's always a possibility.

In terms of The Jam days, what are the most important lessons you learned during that time that you have since carried on with you throughout your career?

PW: Probably 'keep at it' really! Just keep working, keep playing because through that you find yourself and you become a better artist and a better musician through work – as opposed to taking thirteen years off between records or something. I've always had to keep working. I've had to because, well first of all, because I love it, but also financially I have to – I'm a working musician.

But you have had brief periods where you didn't work, like after the Style Council broke up…

PW: I've had a period where I couldn't work, yeah [laughs]. But that wasn't through my design! I got dropped at that time, my label dropped me and I didn't have a publishing deal, didn't have a band or anything like that. I was a little bit in limbo. But there are a lot of things to learn from a situation like that as well. My dad right, who was my manager, eventually said to me that we've got to get back on the road because we need to earn some money, so it was very much a practical decision to come back. I hated it at first because it was like starting again, playing small places with just a few hundred people and I'm thinking, "After all that time and playing to all those people, I'm back to fucking square one!" But I'm awful glad that I did do it because it taught me so much. Through working and through touring I found myself again. And the rest is history.

Personally I don't agree with many people who thought The Jam should have stayed together or that you should reunite the band. I think that your decision left as complete and perfect a legacy that you could. When you see bands like The Who or even contemporaries like the Buzzcocks trucking out for another tour of the hits do you feel grateful, or like giving yourself a pat on the back? It couldn't have been an easy decision at the time…

PW: Yeah, well I don't really care! Because I know that I couldn't do what those people do. I couldn't play the same songs for forty years. It doesn't interest me. I like The Who and I like the Buzzcocks, but for me personally there is no way I'd be able to play the same songs for all that time. It would be mind-numbing. I've got to be diplomatic you know. I've kept on writing and kept on putting out records. The Who I think have only made one record in the past 25 or 30 years and I think that kind of says something.

You've said before that by coming out with the Style Council after the break-up of the Jam, you got the backs up of some of your fans. Do you ever still mindfully go against what people may be expecting of you?

PW: Yeah I guess so, but definitely much more so in those days that you're talking about. I was a bit too wilful really. But I suppose it's nice to have some surprise in life and to surprise yourself in life and see what else you can do. But I just like to keep things interesting, you know, and I don't like to get pigeonholed. I don't like it when people think they have you sewn up.

What do you mean by "too wilful"?

PW: Well I think after a while because we did put a lot of people's backs up with The Style Council, so I suppose I just played on that a lot more and annoyed a lot more people.

I felt with the Style Council that you managed to keep slightly ahead of the curve in terms of trends. With Modernism: A New Decade, do you think you were just a little TOO ahead, seeing as that type of music would become huge a few years later.

PW: I guess so yeah, it might have been that it was too early. But yeah at the time, for me, it was pretty cutting edge. But the record company didn't like it – they hated it actually! They didn't understand it whatsoever. They just thought it was going to be the final nail in my career coffin. And then that's why we split. But you know, sometimes you're ahead of the game and sometimes people don't get it and that's just one of those things you have to accept and carry on.

But how did you feel when house became a huge thing a few years later?

PW: I'd probably moved on to something else by that time to be honest with ya! The way that house music has become so white and so sanitized over the decades and the fact it's still going on, well I think it's sad really, but at the time I really loved it. I loved all the black house music that was coming out of Chicago and New Jersey, which I just thought was really soulful. But it's never really gone anywhere, it's just four to the floor bass, drum and piano with someone sort of shout-singing over it. It just never moved on and it's lost its soul. I love soul music, that's my real love in life and in whatever shape or form it is, like with bands like Blaze and Ten City who I really loved.

Soul music is like a universal language, I think.

PW: Yeah absolutely, definitely, I totally agree with that. It connects a lot of people from all over the world.

If you had a situation like that today, where your label thought a new direction wasn't for them, would the effect and fallout be different for you?

PW: Now it wouldn't bug me one way or the other, I'd be fine about it. I'm old enough to not give a fuck about it. I would just go somewhere else or put it out myself. But I have to say that back then it did me good because I was up my own arse really at that time. My ego was off the fucking scale. So it brought me back to earth, and I'm quite grateful for it. It was a humbling thing in retrospect. Not at the time, but in retrospect. It wouldn't really bother me now.

You've said that The Jam was your teen years, the Style Council your 20s and so on. Is there anything in your catalogue that would qualify as a 'midlife crisis'?

PW: [laughs]Uhhh… well… probably… I don't know, probably in the 90s if anything… But I made good music in the 90s as well so I don't know... It would be more on a personal level really, not so much in the music, more of my own personal demons at the time. But what effect that has on the music I don't know. I wouldn't make a whole album about it: Oh Dear I'm Having a Midlife Crisis: The Concept Album. Know what I mean?

Do you still think of your career in those terms? The 'eras of Paul Weller'?

PW: Well I think I do more so with the stuff from when I was a kid, from when I was a teenager and then in my early 20s. But as a solo artist I've been going much longer than either of those bands so it just seems like one long year or two years, even though it's been twenty years. I don't separate it, I don't think about it like that, no.

Across your most recent three albums, has the evolution been more in the song writing, the influences or in your own personal need for exploration?

PW: Probably all those things. I listen to all sorts of music and that has a big effect on me. I'm much more open to new ideas and different types of music and I suppose the procedure of recording is quite different than it used to be. It's much more spontaneous and less planned out. You just see what happens. I think the biggest influence for me is when I hear a great piece of music, whatever the style, I'm kind of inspired by that greatness and I'm inspired to try and obtain something that comes close to that greatness.

What role did the line-up changes in your band have in that evolution over the last ten years?

PW: Well the band I'm playing with now, I've been with for six years or so. It was just time to move on, it was time to change, I think we'd gotten sick of each other and it had all become a bit lacklustre. I think we had just reached a peak with the line-up before this one and I don't know if it could have gone much further. Not as a unit anyway, you know, it's different as individuals.

Sounds like the exact same thing you said when you broke up The Jam!

PW: Well for me that's just what happens. As much as I couldn't be in The Stones or The Who and playing the same songs for decades, I probably wouldn't have played with the same people for that long. With a band it all depends on whether you're all moving forward together, which is a tall order when you've got four or five people in a band because they're all growing up and changing and whatever else.