Photo: Tom Beard

Impossible Idea: An Interview with Paul Weller

One of the UK's most revolutionary rock figures isn't showing any signs of slowing down. Paul Weller's insatiable thirst for the new leads to the creation of A Kind Revolution. The Modfather talks with PopMatters about his new music and career.

Paul Weller
A Kind Revolution
Warner Bros.

From the Jam’s raw mod-punk to the polished soul and new wave of the Style Council through to his eclectic solo career, Paul Weller has had one of the most satisfying and varied careers of any musician since punk snarled its yellowing teeth in the late ’70s. A man with a singular vision, never one to compromise, and too driven to toe the line or to compromise for commercial gain, Weller remains a musician who has always done things on his terms. A musician committed to his art who is already, rightly lionized around the world as a living legend.

After 40 years, it would be understandable if Weller decided to take a step back from writing, recording and playing live. To take a well-deserved rest and take stock of a career that has seemingly seen and done it all. That simply isn’t his style. This year alone has seen Weller release the soundtrack to the film Jawbone, co-produce the modern soul classic that is Stone Foundation’s Street Rituals album and release his brilliant, 13th solo album A Kind Revolution. With an impending US tour on the horizon, Weller spoke to PopMatters about his relationship with his music, his approach to songwriting as well as making a rather surprising revelation.

Weller’s latest release sees him team up once again with Stone Foundation. The track “Mother Ethiopia” is an effortless, soulful jam with Weller able to demonstrate his love for Ethiopian music, as he explains: “It was an idea I had, and I just jammed it out with them one night after a session, and that was it really.” Weller states with his unmistakable, laid back, London accent, “Couple of takes. It was just something I fancied doing. It’s a little homage to a lot of Ethiopian music that I really love. There’s a great series, right, called Ethiopiques on the Buda Musique imprint and there are loads and loads of editions of it, and I’ve bought them over the last few years, and there are just some fascinating sounds, so it just came from that.”

For Weller, the experience of working with Stone Foundation is one which he clearly relished, not least because he meant he could approach the sessions differently from his own solo material. “I was probably less picky, less critical but having said that it was done so quickly. There were a lot of live takes, right. We were all playing in the studio at the same time old school style, so I think to record it took only six days all in all. It was really quick, and it was good fun because of that. Just go in, and the energy was so positive, yeah, no hang-ups and just going for it really. They had strong ideas as well so everyone was on the same tip really and we wanted to make the best record possible. It was a great experience.” In Weller’s opinion, the finished songs more than stand up to his solo work. “I thought it was a really great record with some great songs on there. Some of the best songs I’ve done.” In part, he puts this down to the upbeat, and affirmative message conveyed by the band. “I like the messages that were trying to put across. It’s been a bit of a long time since I’ve heard that positivity in the lyrics. I like that aspect of it definitely.”

Even with a back catalog as extensive as Weller’s, he possesses an admirable, restless desire to create. Yet it is still a little bit of a surprise when he casually reveals: “I’m kind of working on another record myself. I’ve already started on it, so I’ve got to try and finish it by the end of the year or early next year,” For Weller, it’s part of who he is, despite his best efforts to take a break, he is first and foremost a songwriter. “So after I finished A Kind Revolution I said to my wife that I was gonna take some time off and not make an album for a bit and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere I started writing all these songs. There’s not much you can do when it’s like that. When it’s flowing, it feels like a very natural thing and then you’ve got enough songs to make a record. It’s one of those things really that if the songs come a knockin’. If the songs find you, then all of a sudden you’re back into that process again.”

Unsurprisingly, for a man whose sound is constantly evolving, the new record will see him move in a different direction to A Kind Revolution. “I’m trying to make it a little bit different really so their more acoustic songs and, not necessarily on all of them, but there will be some orchestration on some of them.” Not a process that Weller is particularly comfortable with. “Definitely not, man. I mean I have ideas, and I can explain it, but I wouldn’t know how to write it down or arrange it. That’s way out of my field. I have to rely on good players and good arrangers, but it’s a whole other world and not one I’m familiar with.” Being taken out of his comfort zone is something Weller clearly revels in.

“It’s never ending what you can learn,” he continues. “To me, it’s always unfolding really if you want it to be if you’re open-minded to it. There’s always something else to learn.”

The album should also finally see him working with a songwriter he’s been attempting to work with for years: Lucy Rose. “She’s supporting me in the States and I really really love her music and her voice, so we are hoping to do something,” he beams. “She really likes the track I sent her. So now I’m just waiting to get some time really.” Rose is not the only other collaborator on the album, although he teases as to who the others might be. “I’ve done another song with Conor O Brien from the Villagers who is great, and I can’t say who else. I’ve got to keep a few secrets back!”

For a constantly forward-looking artist like Weller, it comes as no great surprise that nostalgia is not something he particularly enjoys. He is certainly not the type to reminisce about previous albums. “I tend not to revisit them. Maybe before a tour just to choose what to play but often I don’t care to listen to them too much because I’m often disappointed and that just fucking brings me down really,” Weller discloses, revealing a surprising amount of self-doubt.

Naturally, this isn’t always the case. “There are other times like when I’m listening to old records to see what I’m gonna play for a tour, and I’m pleasantly surprised but often I’m disappointed, and that’s probably me just being over critical really.” Weller’s natural creative instinct is to stay very much in the here and now: “I’m always just playing a CD of what I’m working on at the time so my heads always where that is.”

With that in mind, Weller has only recently been able to listen back to the current album, A Kind Revolution, for fear of being similarly frustrated and disillusioned with the results. “Do you know what?” Weller starts. “I didn’t listen back to it purposely for a long time cause I hear it so fucking much when I was recording it. Even at the time of finishing it I still wasn’t sure of it. I was in two minds. I don’t know why. Probably a personal thing but it’s taken me awhile to sort of have a better overview of it really.”

Now, Weller is much more sanguine about what he hears. “It’s taken me quite a few months, and I’ve listened to it recently for the first time for ages, and it’s going to sound really arrogant, but I was like “Wow!” It’s really impressed me really, and I wasn’t really feeling that before … it’s a great record I think.”

Weller’s longevity and continued relevance are, in part, due to the diverse nature of his music. No two albums sound the same, and each album sees Weller, often drastically, change direction. Something he attributes to one thing: “That comes down to the different types of music I listen to as well. My tastes have broadened so much in my older age especially to when I was a kid when I was very narrow-minded which was probably a good thing at that age, 18, 19, but over the years I’ve listened to everything really, and I think it’s all an influence really and I’ve kind of tried to stop separating it. I mean a lot of it is from the same source. The same well and I’ve started to think more like that.”

This has affected his songwriting in an important and telling way. “It’s never like I think I’m going to do a bossa nova track or anything like that. I don’t think it’s that simple really because on one song there might three or four different things that have influenced that song. It might be disparate things, and yet they’ve all fed into that tune you know.” An approach that is dictated by the song, as much as the writer? “Often a song will decide on the direction it’s going to go in anyway. It’ll set a kind of rhythm or mood and often you just follow that really.

With an American tour looming, British and European fans may be surprised to learn that Weller has a much smaller following in the States than in the UK. Like many young rock stars, breaking America might have initially seemed like an enticing prospect, but with one large and crucial drawback: “It probably would have, right, until I realized what it entailed. I can always remember on our first or second trip with the Jam which is a big deal for us, growing up watching rock n roll on TV or listening to the Beach Boys, whatever it may be you have a vision of what it’s going to be like. But I remember meeting the MD over there who was giving us this big long spiel like ‘You guys have gotta be over there for six months or be there for a year and tour every place and play every night.’ I mean at the time, that’s how you broke it really, but as he was saying this I was thinking ‘I’m not fucking doing that!’ Understandable really coming from a true artist who has spent his career following his own distinctive path.”

Ostensibly, making it or not making it in the US came down to one thing. “I didn’t want it badly enough,” he explains, without a single trace of regret. “That’s no disrespect to American audiences but to break it in America requires an awful lot of work. But generally speaking, you’ve got to fucking work it. So when people say do, you regret not making it in America? Well not really because it’s nobody else’s fault but my own, I wasn’t willing to put that amount of time in,” Weller states with customary frankness.

“And anyway, if I had I’d probably have been dead by 1984,” Weller continues, half-jokingly. “But I’m really really happy man with my position in the States; I’m happy that I still get to play in America cause I love the audiences and I think it’s great. As long as I’m still doing that which I have been for the best part of 40 years I’m happy, you know.”

What is clear is that Weller is one of the most driven and determined artists around today and always has been. He comes across as a man with itchy feet, always looking for the next project. A trait that will never go away because there is one thing that can never be sated. An idea that continues to spur him on as it has from day one: “I think it’s just being in search of the impossible idea. In search of the perfect record or the perfect song. It probably doesn’t exist, or maybe I’ve done it, or maybe I’ll never do it, but I guess that’s the kind of thing that drives me.”