Paul Weller 2024
Photo: Nicole Nodland / Big Hassle Media

“I Just Want to Hear Everything”: A Conversation with Paul Weller

Paul Weller, one of the most revered figures in British rock, is releasing his 17th studio LP. He discusses creative collaboration, John Coltrane’s influence, and more.

Paul Weller
Capitol Music Group
24 May 2024

For someone about to turn 66 years old, Paul Weller possesses the musical curiosity of someone less than half his age. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s constantly on the lookout for good new music. “I’m always listening to something,” he said over the phone from his home in the UK. “At the moment, I love the new Villagers album. I really like Liam Bailey – his new album is called Zero Grace. There’s also another album out now by a guy named Vegyn; it’s sort of electronic dance; he’s really interesting. For me, there’s so much good music out there. I try to stay in touch with it, but it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes. The more I sort of dip into it, there’s this universe that keeps expanding. It’s mind-boggling.”

Weller’s latest album is called 66, and it comes out this Friday – the day before his 66th birthday. But the former leader of 1970s mod punks the Jam and 1980s soul-pop collective the Style Council insists that nobody should be reading too much into him referencing his age in an album title. “I just couldn’t think of a better title,” he explained, laughing. “I thought the number 66 would look good graphically on the sleeve. 1966 was a very good year; there’s Route 66, all these connections. It seemed apt. And it looks great with Peter Blake’s cover.”

Blake, the celebrated pop artist responsible for – among many other things – co-creating the artwork for the BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as designing sleeves for albums by the Who, Eric Clapton, and Oasis, created the striking, minimalist design of 66. It wasn’t the first time he worked with Paul Weller, having designed the cover for his third solo album, Stanley Road, in 1995. “I had a very definite idea of what I wanted on the sleeve, with the numbers,” said Weller. “And I knew some of Peter’s earlier work, where he used a carnival-like lettering, and so I knew he’d be the right man for the job.”

While the graphics pull the record together in a coherent manner, Weller admits that there’s not much of a musical theme behind 66, which was recorded at his home studio, Black Barn. Initially, the electronic-tinged “Flying Fish” – the first song he worked on for the album – gave Weller a brief idea to arrange the entire record that way, but he soon dismissed the notion. “I’d been recording so many tracks – we’d gotten up to about 20 – and I thought that I really needed to pull something together because it could just go on and on and on. So, I just picked 12 tunes out of the 20 or so that I felt hung together well, flowed together, and that was it, really.” The remaining tracks will be split between an EP released as part of the album’s deluxe edition, another EP to be released in the fall, and other b-sides here and there.  

While 66 doesn’t necessarily have the same experimental stylings of previous Weller albums like 22 Dreams (2008), On Sunset (2020), or his moody soundtrack to the 2017 boxing film Jawbone, there’s a definite cinematic sweep to much of the songs, thanks mainly to Hannah Peel’s string arrangements. A couple of songs, like the sturdy rocker “Jumble Queen”, have already been road-tested, but Weller admits that some of the records may be challenging to recreate on stage. “We’ve played three from the album so far, and we’re probably going to do a few more,” he said. “Some of them will be next to impossible because they’re really reliant on the orchestrations. But I don’t mind if I don’t play every song off the new album. I’m kind of over that. I think it’s just seeing what we feel we can put over properly.”

As usual, Weller revels in collaboration on 66, working with lots of favorite contemporary artists, like Christophe Vaillant of the French indie band Le SuperHomard (who co-wrote the dreamy tracks “A Glimpse of You” and “My Best Friend’s Coat”), and the Brooklyn-based female trio Say She She (contributing backing vocals on the ethereal soul ballad “In Full Flight”). But there are also plenty of longtime collaborators on 66, including Jacko Peake, who played horns and flutes on Weller’s first couple of solo albums, Steve Brookes, who played guitar in the early days of Jam before they recorded their first album, and the Blow Monkeys’ Dr. Robert (who played on Weller’s first album and helped compose the anthemic, future R&B classic “Rise Up Singing”, one of the three singles released prior to the rest of 66). Then there’s guitarist Steve Cradock, who’s played alongside Weller consistently since his 1993 sophomore album, Wild Wood. “He’s a tremendous guitarist,” Weller said of Cradock. “He’s always up for the challenge of trying something different. It’s hard to find that sort of musician.”

While Paul Weller is still a vital, deeply creative songwriter, several songs include lyrics provided in full to him, while he would go on to add the music himself. “I didn’t feel I had so much to say,” explained Weller, “So I thought, well, I know a lot of other great writers, and I thought I’d utilize that and just kind of get someone else’s thoughts or words.” As a result, Suggs from the band Madness wrote the lyrics to the quiet, folky album opener “Ship of Fools”, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie contributed words to the funky, psychedelic “Soul Wandering”, and Weller’s pal Noel Gallagher did the same for “Jumble Queen”. “I’ve done this sort of thing a few times in recent years, and I’ve really enjoyed it – singing other people’s words,” explained Weller. “When I do that, I’m not as fussy or critical as I would be if they were my lyrics. I can spend days sometimes just thinking about one line. When you’ve got someone else’s words, you’re just there as a vocalist to interpret them.”

A need for constant musical exploration and moving forward—not becoming a tired nostalgia act—has certainly suited Weller. His pivot toward more experimental sounds, which goes back to the slight progressive rock leanings of Heliocentric (2000), is the result of discovering avant-garde composers like Delia Derbyshire, Tristram Cary, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Schaffer.

“When I was younger, I wouldn’t have understood that music at all,” Weller admitted. “But now it makes sort of beautiful sense to me. I love the use of space in a lot of that music – the bits in between the mad sounds, the way the reverb decays, the space between the music. It was like another avenue of music I’d never checked before, and all of a sudden, this other little world opens up.”

“The older I get, the more I just want to hear everything,” he continued. “Even if it doesn’t directly influence my music, it might influence my thinking towards my music. For instance, an artist like John Coltrane, I couldn’t say that there’s any direct influence on any of my music because, obviously, I don’t play jazz, but I’m still inspired by his pushing forward, always trying to find something new, and also the whole spiritual thing in his music. A Love Supreme, and all of his late stuff with Alice Coltrane. I’m inspired by the greatness of his music, but also his quest for greatness as well.”

Later this year, Paul Weller will embark on his first US tour in seven years. Touring the States is something he enjoys but can only do sporadically, mainly because his popularity isn’t nearly as great there as in his native Europe. But it doesn’t really bother him at all. “I was talking to Suggs about this the other night,” he explained. “We were both saying that neither of us really made it in the States, because you’ve got to work for months and months on end, traveling in America, to make it there. I take my hat off to people in the UK who make it over there, but I don’t want to be on the road for six or eight months. However, I do love playing America. It’s brilliant.”

As he prepares to blow out 66 candles and is getting close to a half-century of writing songs, making albums, and touring the world, the obvious question remains: what continues to drive Paul Weller? The answer is simple. “My love of music,” he said. “I’m very fortunate and very lucky to do what I do. I never take it for granted. Music’s such a brilliant, beautiful, unifying thing. It goes way beyond entertainment. It’s a spiritual thing as well.”