“Nothing wrong with pop!” says Paul Weller with a grin as we fumble for a way to describe his new record Sonik Kicks. There are a host of different influences on the album, from dub to jazz, but that doesn’t, Weller wants to make clear, mean that it’s “eclectic”. “Quite a few people have said it’s an ‘eclectic’ record, and I kind of know what they mean but actually I think there’s very much an overall sound to it. It really hangs together, do you know what I mean?” Something similar could be said for Weller’s career. After disbanding hugely influential mod punks the Jam at the height of their fame in 1982 he spent the remainder of the Eighties exploring a more soulful sound with the Style Council. In the Nineties he was lauded as one of the guiding lights of Britpop and then slated when the genre begat Dadrock. Since the turn of the century he’s shrugged off that criticism by turning in a series of albums each more inventive and experimental than the last. As he prepares to release his eleventh solo record we sat down with the artist formerly known as the Modfather in a comfortable office upstairs at Island Records to talk about his tabloid midlife crisis, resenting the “Dadrock” tag and what David Cameron doesn’t understand about “The Eton Rifles”.
GQ: You announced that you’re going to be playing a “classic album” in full at the Roundhouse this month – your new one. You’ve also vowed never to reunite the Jam. Are you tired of nostalgia acts?
Paul Weller: I’m bored of all these bands getting back together and playing their classic album from 20 years ago. I’m sure I’m in the minority because they’re doing good business and there are a lot of people out there who want it. Fair play to them, and who am I to say that they shouldn’t? [Laughs] I’m just bored of it, man, and I want to make a statement of intent about my new record. We’re going to play the whole album all the way through at the Roundhouse and it’s one of those things where it’ll either be a complete disaster or it’ll blow people’s minds. Hopefully the latter. I think the album flows as one piece, so if we can put that over live I think people will be into it. Either that or we’ll get bottled off. There’s always going to be an element of people who want the old stuff. I see it at gigs when we play the old songs and it’s nice. But if anyone knows me well enough and has followed my path well enough they would know that there’s no chance of me reforming an old band. So it amuses me, because why do they ask? They should know it’ll never f***ing happen. I’m just not a particularly nostalgic person.
Your single “That Dangerous Age” is about a midlife crisis. Are you having one?
It is about that but it’s not particularly biographical. It’s more of a take on how society allows people to be at a certain age. In reality there aren’t any rules because no-one’s ever been there before. There are no maps. You make it up as you go along, like all of life. It’s born out of the fact that my wife, who I’ve been married to for about a year-and-a-half, is much younger than me. There was a bit of a “Wor!” when that first happened. “Is he going through a midlife crisis? Sports car and the young wife?” I found that very amusing because of how clichéd people’s minds are, particularly in the media. That was kind of the impetus for the song, but I wouldn’t really write about myself because it’d be too boring, so I made up these characters.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
The “Dadrock” thing. Unless people know me well they would probably think I just listen to the Small Faces or old soul records, which I do obviously because I love that music but it really isn’t that simplistic. I get labelled as just being about one thing, but there’s lots of layers to what I do. It’s just lazy journalism but people start to accept it. If people spent an hour in my car driving around London and listening to the stuff I listen to they’d hear some interesting stuff.
What music do you love that would surprise people?
Probably a lot of the music I love would surprise people! The other week, for instance, I bought an album of Ethiopian music, an album of Iranian folk songs, a Karen Dalton record and an old English folk compilation. If I don’t know what something’s going to sound like then I’m interested to hear it. I want to hear as much music as I possibly can before I leave this mortal coil but it’s impossible to hear it all because there’s so much of it. It’s like a river that never stops flowing. Which is great, but if you think you know about music you’re really just dipping your toe in.
Which lyric are you proudest of writing?
From my long and illustrious career? I really like “The Eton Rifles” because I thought it was a very clever subject matter. I’d heard people write about the class system but not in that way. I thought “Going Underground” was good. I like the simplicity of “Wild Wood” and its message of strength and hope. “Broken Stones” I like a lot. I can’t remember most of them to be honest – I’m just making this up as I go along! I can’t even remember some of the songs on the new album, which I’ll have to rectify soon…
“The Eton Rifles” is famously one of David Cameron’s favourite songs, so I guess you have that in common.
I found him saying that amusing but weird at the same time. How could anyone get the lyrics so wrong? I guess it’s just that not everybody listens intently to lyrics. They’ve got the radio on in the background and they just sing along to the chorus even if they don’t understand it. It’s just one of those aspects of pop music. Having said that, I think it’s such an engaging song and idea that you’d have to be stupid not to understand it.
Do you still get passionate about politics?
I do still get angry about politics, particularly about the fact that there’s nothing apparent that we can do to change things. I’m upset and angry about what’s happening in Syria at the moment but I don’t really know what I can do about it as an individual. It’s hard to get upset about party politics in the same way, even though it does make a difference. From what I’ve ever seen of it, it’s just jobs for the boys and careerism. I try not to be cynical about it but I think I just end up being apathetic. I could write songs about politics, but I’m conscious of not writing songs that sound the same as the ones I wrote 30 years ago. Nothing’s really moved on, so I’d just be regurgitating the same sentiments.
Why did you decide to open the album with the most unconventional track, “Green”?
We wanted to throw people in at the deep end so that the first thing they heard would make them sit up. That’s not to say I’m doing it to try and alienate people, quite the opposite really. It’s just to disorientate you at first and make a statement that you’re going to go on a different ride here.
What was the best record in your parents’ collection?
Probably a Beatles record. My mum bought things like “She Loves You” as singles. When I got into the Beatles I must have only been about six or seven but old enough to take notice. We used to have an old radiogram which, for readers of a certain age, was like a big cabinet thing with a record player inside it. It had a drinks cabinet on one side and a little deck on the other. It had a really lovely warm valve sound sound as well. You could put a stack of singles on and they’d just keep dropping down. We didn’t have many records because they were too dear, but whatever we did have I would load up and play endlessly, then turn them over and play all the B-sides.
Can you recommend a good book?
A book about Syd Barret called A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman. Maybe you’d have to be a Syd fan to enjoy it, but if you are it’s a great book. It describes a lot of Syd’s influences, where his lyrics came from and the inspirations for his painting as well. It’s an interesting book and it affords him a bit of dignity which is missing in some of his other biographies.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“Be Happy Children”… not that I would have listened to any advice anyway! The last song on this album is called “Be Happy Children” and it was written about my Dad. He passed away three years ago. He was a strong man with a strong character and if he could he’d say: “Listen, don’t cry for me. Be happy and be joyful for the time we had together.” So the song is about that and also about me thinking about my own role as a father and what I’d want to say to my kids. I got my eldest daughter and my second youngest son to sing on it. There’s a kind of cyclical thing to it: from my dad, to me, to my kids. It’s almost like a hymn, a postscript for the album after all the sonic stuff that’s gone before.
Do you enjoy listening back to your own records?
I hear an album so many times during the course of making it that when I’ve just finished it I don’t want to hear it again. After you’ve taken a little bit of time away from it you can come back to it, which can be scary. I’m happy with Sonik Kicks, man. It’s pretty damn close to what I thought it should be and that’s rare in itself. It’s very easy when you make a record to start off with one idea and then get sidetracked. There’s nothing else around that sounds like it. It’s a 21st Century record.
Originally published by British GQ.