Paul Weller—Modder Than Ever

February 14, 2003



From leading a band (mod revivalists the Jam) that were all about celebrating the primacy of youth, Paul Weller progressed through the genre-blurring sophistication of the Style Council to emerge at age 44 as a solo artist writing some of the most poignant, nuanced, and adult love songs heard today on his third solo album, “Illumination.”

Weller is touring the U.S. with a full band for the first time in five years. I spoke with him several hours before his first gig in San Diego, en route to the Vic Theatre at 7:30 tomorrow night. (Superdrag opens and tickets are $28 through Ticketmaster; call 312-559-1212.)

Q. How does it feel to be back on the road in the States? This is the first time since 1997 with a full band.

A. It’s good! I’m just looking forward to playing. It’s good to be back out here doing something really, and I’m even more glad that we got the record released here finally. It’s been a bit frustrating to say the least.

Q. The whole music industry situation these days is absurd.

A. Yeah, this whole corporate thing. In England unless you’re selling like 1.4 million or something, it’s not deemed a success. It’s just ridiculous.

Q. So you’re not doing numbers like the Sugababes?

A. Not at the moment, no. I’m trying to avoid karaoke and lap dancing!

Q. In any event, “Illumination” is a great piece of work. I’ve read some quotes where you said you wanted to go into this one as if you were never going to make another record and this would be the one that would stand. What was so special about making this one?

A. It was a couple of things. It was fun to make; it wasn’t too laborious. We just proceeded to do the album fairly quickly. I was recording in a very short space of time, doing like two or three days at a time because at the same time I was making this record I was doing this solo acoustic tour. I’d maybe go off for 10 days or two weeks touring, then come back for a couple of days and do some recording. It was just fun to make; it wasn’t like we were in the studio for weeks on end. It was just very sort of focused.

Q. Did the solo acoustic shows help balance recording with the band, so that you wanted to ratchet it up in the studio? This disc has a real grit and fire to it.

A. I suppose so. It was also that thing where when you come off a tour and go straight into the studio, I think there can be something really good about that because you are very focused. And I suppose there’s a kind of confidence as well, because you’ve just come off playing to all these people. It’s like, “I can do this!”

Q. Some reviewers have compared the album to “Gasoline Alley”-era Rod Stewart, and it does sound like a dirtier record to me.

A. I suppose at least half the tracks on the album were just demos. I felt they had something, that I caught something. The kind of music that I make is just really about performance, because it’s always done live in the studio. It’s a question of just capturing that one performance. So these demos just had the spark of what we were trying to put over.

Q. That way of working makes you a complete anachronism in 2003, of course.

A. [Laughs] To be fair, half was done on tape and half was done on Pro Tools. But the core of what I do is basically just live music. For a lot of bands unfortunately these days, they go in there and play to a click track and start building the track up and adding guitars and so on. Whereas with me, we just put it down live, and from my point of view, it works because you know what you’ve got at the time. You’ve either got the take or the heck with it, you know? There’s not that thing about, “Well, we can tighten it up later on or polish it up.” It’s either there or it isn’t. In some ways it’s very traditional what I do.

Q. When do you know you have a good take?

A. I suppose it’s when you get that kind of spark listening back to it. It’s when everyone walks back into the room after you’ve put something down and everyone’s got a kind of smile on their face or there’s a general kind of vibe in the room. I think also that after you’ve been doing it long enough, if you’ve got any sense at all, you know what you’ve got or what you haven’t, really. There’s that theory that, “When you produce yourself, you can wind up your own ass.” But I don’t think that’s accurate. If you’ve got any suss at all, I think you know when you’ve got something special or not.

Q. “Illumination” comes with a bonus disc that opens with a killer live version of “Sunflower.” I have a friend who’s a huge fan of yours, and she maintains that “Sunflower” is the epitome of everything you’ve ever done. When you’ve written a song like that, can you tell what it is that makes it special? Why does it connect with her so strongly?

A. I don’t know, really. I think that’s a very difficult question, that. It’s a very individual thing, what clicks for certain people, isn’t it? That particular song, I suppose it’s just a very sinewy, sexual sort of thing. Sorry I can’t answer that, Jim! But I’m glad to be of service.

Q. You’ve been playing with Steve Cradock and Damon Minchella from Ocean Colour Scene for some time now. What is it about these guys that works for you?

A. I suppose it’s that their very good musicians. I’ll say this to their face as well, but I think they play their best when they play with me in my band, to be quite honest. I think everyone’s really come on in the last five or six years; they’ve improved so much. There’s less that has to be spoken a lot of times. Everyone just kind of knows what it should be, and people are able to put their egos on the back burner and play for the band and the songs. We’ve been playing together now for nearly 10 years, but I suppose the last two years, it’s just come on in leaps and bounds. I feel we’ve really all improved as a band.

Q. Do you look at this band as a band in the way you saw the Jam or the Style Council? I was talking with Billy Corgan about this: Very few times in rock history has an artist gone from leading one very successful rock band to another of equal merit, as opposed to being a solo artist. You were one of a handful who pulled that off.

A. I just have to say that hopefully the songs have always been good enough. There certainly isn’t any formula for it, that’s for sure. I would like to think the songs have been consistent; for me the bottom line is always the song.

Q. But you could have gone out as Paul Weller before the Style Council.

A. Yeah, but at that time it wouldn’t have worked for me. I really had visions of a totally different, new kind of band at that time. Coming out of something as rigid and set as the Jam was—we’d been together like 10 years or so at the time we split—I just wanted to have something that was much more fluid, and where the lineup could change and revolve around me and Mick [Talbot]. I also think I lacked the confidence at that time to go out under my own name. But even more than that, it was just the vision for a sort of brand new kind of pop group.

Q. So why did you finally decide to say, “Now I’m just going to be Paul Weller”?

A. The older you get, I think the harder it is to form that kind of democratic band. After you’ve acquired a certain amount of baggage, it’s really difficult to start off on an equal footing with everyone. With the thing I’ve got now, playing with the two fellows from Ocean Colour Scene and [drummer] Steve White, even though they all go off and do their own thing, they’ve all got their own kind of interests as well. It’s a good situation because they’ve got that other side, but they all come back and do my thing as well.

Q. And when they come back to you, they bring something to the table.

A. Yeah. But they still have the freedom. And that makes it easier to subsume the ego.

Q. Aziz Ibrahim of the Stone Roses and of Noel Gallagher and Gem Archer of Oasis play on “Illumination.” In many ways, the so-called shoegazer scene was coming out of what the Jam had done 10 years earlier, and the Jam was obviously part of a tradition that stretched back to the ’60s. Do you see a continuum of influences through British rock history in that sense?

A. I would say so. I think after the Jam split, you’ve got to include maybe the Smiths in that sort of thing, and then like the La’s and then as you say the Stone Roses. I don’t know where that all comes from. It’s a very particular English thing.

Q. I’ve always thought that the psychedelic legacy of the Jam was underrated. In addition to the amped-up mod/R&B element, there was a lot of “Revolver” and Creation and early Pink Floyd in your sound.

A. Yeah, definitely. I think for me, the sound of 1967 wasn’t about drugs or acid—obviously I was too young for all that—it was just a certain thing about realizing that the sound can transport you. There’s a magical sort of quality that some of those records had for me. Hearing something like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” at the time I thought it was just incredible. I was only 9 or 10 or whatever, so it wasn’t an intellectual consideration, it was just like, “Wow, where’s that coming from?” For me it had a very colorful, magical quality, and that’s the same thing I thought about, say, [Pink Floyd’s] “See Emily Play.” I suppose there is a really strong line through all that kind of music, and you hear it in the La’s album as well.

Q. Or something like “Sunflower.”

A. Yeah, absolutely.

Q. But the thing about you music is there’s always that mix of the heady, transcendent quality as well as the sweaty, gritty, soul.

A. I suppose that’s true. Very good point.