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
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
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
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
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
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