If there’s an assumption that anyone slapped with the onerous title of “elder statesman” in rock music must inevitably tilt toward classic sounds, appropriating tried and true genres as a late-career move to put their fingerprints on old standards, Paul Weller couldn’t really give a shit.
While Bob Weir keeps worshiping at the altar of Chuck Berry, and Bob Dylan devotes a trio of records to schmaltzy standards, Weller (barely an elder statesman at all at only 59, thanks) has perfected the practice of distilling a sound’s essence down to its cool, elemental core, not appropriating so much as getting to the heart of the matter.
Weller’s beloved band The Jam released their final record in 1982, The Gift, radically mixing up the cool, punchy mod formula the band had built their following on with Stax soul and R&B, long songs and other acts of sonic daring. He disbanded The Jam soon after, saying that he wanted to end the band to see what he was capable of. This led to some jazzy indulgences with The Style Council, and, once the ’80s ended, an illustrious solo career.
It’s in those 13 solo records—from the pastoral British folk of Wild Wood to the classic double-album epic 22 Dreams—that Weller first explored his unique knack for embodying the essence of a genre or sound. He’s called The Modfather for a reason—his music still radiates with the effortless cool that’s allowed him to live inside the sounds he loves for decades.
Weller releases two albums this year. The first, a soundtrack to the upcoming British boxing drama Jawbone, finds Weller at his most compositionally astute, weaving between ambient mood background pieces and fully formed, original songs like centerpiece “The Ballad of Jimmy McCabe.” It’s a project that suits a writer of Weller’s eclectic tastes well, challenging him to construct experimental sound collages in addition to character-focused songs, while solidifying his talent for finding the sonic glue between seemingly disparate sounds.
During the same time Weller also recorded A Kind Revolution, set for release on Friday.
The record starts with him getting down with soul legends PP Arnold and Madeline Bell on “Woo See Mama” in a swampy groove that’d make Dr. John blush, gets funky enough to pull trumpet player Robert Wyatt out of retirement on “She Moves With The Fayre,” goes to the Reality-era Bowie reaches of space on “Nova,” finds him duetting with Boy George on “One Tear,” and conjures ’70s-era downtown’s eclecticism on “New York.”
Revolution’s a record that has no right to flow this well, but genre falls by the wayside when the songs are as strong as these and in Weller’s hands, it works.
The Observer caught up with Weller recently by phone to talk about how he’s found inspiration in the blues since the days of The Jam, how he stays open to new musical experiences regardless of age, and why even The Internet can’t preserve his status as a cool dad.
Watching About The Young Idea got me thinking about how these music documentaries tend to come so late in the game that the artist is often either dead or not making music anymore. But you still work your ass off, hustle and tour constantly. It’s got to feel a little surreal to see your legacy with The Jam calcified like that when you’re still working at full speed.
Eh, I don’t know. You can’t deny your past, and this is a way of celebrating that time as well. I can think of worse things. I don’t mind revisiting it in that situation, but the main priority for me is what I’m doing now, the new stuff.
How did composing the Jawbone soundtrack mess with your music brain? I hear some of that soundtrack ambience on A Kind Revolution on songs like “Impossible Idea,” “One Tear,” some weird sounds.
Well, they were two separate things. I was working on both of them at the same time, but I put a different sort of head on for either of them. The film score was brilliant, man. The first time I’ve ever done a whole soundtrack, you know. I’ve done individual songs for a film before, but never a whole soundtrack. I was lucky, as well, because I was sort of given carte blanche to do what I felt was right, so that was very good, to have that much freedom.
But they were very different projects, and there was a greater discipline in doing the soundtrack. Toward the end I was doing pieces to the picture, as well. So it was a different thing in my mind, they didn’t really overlap.
It’s hard to say because [Revolution] is such a diverse record, there’s so many different styles of music on it, which maybe can be said of most of my stuff, I suppose. But more so on this album, I think. It was more for me to try and find the correlation between the tracks and make sure they fit together, really, despite their diversity. My intention’s always just to make a good record, man. I don’t think too much beyond that, really. People ask, “What’s the record sound like?” It’s not for me to say.
But you’ve gotta go back and say, “I have this sound from Wildwood that I really dig, I’d like to make a song in that vein,” right? There’s got to be some intention there.
Sometimes, yeah. But to be honest, quite often I follow the music and see where it’s taking me.
Often, whatever you set out to do, if you have something in mind, by the end of the record it’s totally turned around, it’s something else you didn’t expect. I don’t have too many preconceptions before going into the studio, I just want to see what happens, see where it takes me.
There are some really personal moments on here, too. In “New York” you talk about looking for another drink.
Well New York’s where I met my wife, that’s really why I wrote that song. It’s about me meeting my missus. Yeah, we met at a bar in New York, as the cliche goes.
It’s got that boogie-woogie Talking Heads vibe to it, too. Totally a New York song.
I was kind of trying to get that, really. I was trying to work in what I thought was a bit of a Latino, disco sort of thing.
You get into the soul thing again a bit, too. Does it take you back to the music of Dr. Feelgood for you? Even though they were playing the blues, they get left out of conversation for the huge influence they had on your lot. The origin of a lot this crunch you got with The Jam…
I feel like they’ve got their props in recent years, in England, anyway. There’s a whole thing with Wilko Johnson, the original guitarist and writer with The Feelgoods. He was dying at one time, and then a miraculous thing happened with a doctor who thought he could operate on Wilko. Now he’s still around, thank goodness.
Before the punk thing happened in England, it was a very bleak sort of time, in the mid-’70s, musically and culturally. Dr. Feelgood were the only band that really spoke to me at that time, after the hangover from the prog-rock thing and all that sort of stuff, which meant nothing to me as a kid then.
The Feelgood checked all the boxes for me, and their R&B base, I loved. Wilko was such a brilliant guitarist, kind of the first guitar hero of the ’70s, really.
His “fuck you, dad” spirit was kind of buried in the music, not just an aesthetic decision. The Jam got some of that down too, right? Dressing dapper but then singing what you sang about.
Yeah, well they were definitely an influence on us. This was prior to seeing The Pistols and The Clash and all that. Down By The Jetty was their first album, and that came out late ’74 maybe, ’75? That was the first record for a long, long time that I got into. And they preceded the whole punk thing.
You and The Clash have a lot of the same fans, and I know you played with Mick for the first time a couple of years ago, and there are photos of you and Joe together. But so many people read that lyric in “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”—The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They got Burton suits, huh, ya’ think it’s funny/Turnin’ rebellion into money—as a dig at The Jam. What do you make of people saying that The Clash had it out for The Jam?
I thought we were all part of the same army, really. It was the next generation’s turn to do their thing, and that’s all it was. It was never “year zero” and all that crap. That was a press misconception. It was our generation’s time, that’s all. We were too young to be involved in the ’60s.
Do you still feel young?
Well you play with a lot of younger cats, Andy Crofts and The Moon, Josh McClorey from The Strypes. You have a better handle on youth than other rockers your age, is that fair to say?
Well I’m still a fan, you know, I’m still a fan of music. I’m not really one of those people who thinks the best days have gone, or music was better 30 to 40 years ago. I don’t really buy that, man. There’s still great music being made, it’s just getting to hear it most of the time. Being open to it, really.
I know a lot of people my age who are still really stuck in the ’80s or the ’70s, whatever their time was. But as a musician, I like hearing what else is happening, being turned on to whatever it may be. I think it’s good to work with younger musicians, but I also work with people even older than me.
The thing is, listen: regardless of age, whenever you meet on a stage or in a studio, it’s a level playing field, whatever your age is. Those people bring their own thing to the party regardless, you know.
You can either bring it or you can’t, I suppose.
Well yeah, and otherwise I wouldn’t ask these people to come and play with me. I asked Josh because he’s one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll guitarists, and I knew he’d be right for the songs he played on. Then you’ve got Robert Wyatt, who I’m not sure many Americans are familiar with, he sings and plays trumpet on the album on one track. There’s a diversity of different ages and people.
It’s harder for younger musicians in this economy, really, for all the branded partnership collusion and the channels through which we discover new shit, to stand out. There’s a lot more corporate narrative around who gets the interview or feature. How do you not stay cynical, and still stay open in this economy, while still keeping a bit of the piss in you?
Well it depends what younger artist we’re talking about, really. If they’re good, they’re good, aren’t they? I’m just glad that I kind of happened when I did, because I wouldn’t like to be starting now. It’s a tough business, you know, and it’s really tough to get some money behind you to do your thing. The days of getting tour supports and all that stuff…we wouldn’t have been able to tour if we hadn’t have gotten tour supports from our record company. That would be unheard of these days.
There was definitely more support back in the day, even from the early ’70s onwards. There were lots of bands that made three, maybe four albums before they had a hit or got noticed, which would be unheard of now. You kind of only get one shot now, if you’re lucky.
So I think there was still a bit more nurturing going on, but by the ’80s that all changed, really. That was when everything started to become more corporate, and you saw the attorneys starting to get involved. A lot of the real “music people” kind of disappeared then—those A&R people who you could actually talk to about music, and they’d know their stuff, which good studios to record in and who to work with.
’82 was when The Jam took a sonic turn on The Gift, too. Was that a reaction to the industry shift you were noticing? A conscious middle finger?
No, not really. It was just us trying to make a great record. It wouldn’t have had anything to do with the business, we were in our own bubble, really. I haven’t personally changed too much from that, it’s just everything else has changed around it, you know.
Back in the day a band would make an album every year, tour that record for a year as well, then make another one. And I thought there was something good in that, that you had a chance to really hone your craft and songwriting, it was a full-time thing. Now a lot of bands I’ve noticed might just have a record out every four years.
Thinking of Fats Waller at those rent parties in Harlem during the late ’20s, bands used to cut with each other and get really fucking good really quickly because they had to. The pressure of the landlord, I guess.
Well yeah, and those cats were all playing every night, weren’t they? If they weren’t doing sessions during the day, they were doing sets all night, and that’s why they were so good. They didn’t have a choice. If you wanted to make a living and get noticed, you had to work at it, man. But I don’t envy a lot of young artists now. I think it’s really tough for ’em.
Those channels of dialogue are gone.
Well yeah, it’s gone, but it’s kind of replaced by the internet, I suppose. A different thing, really.
How have you leveraged using the internet to your comfort? Or are you a luddite?
No, it’s like any technology. There are great, beneficial sides to it and there’s a lot of shit as well. It’s good that anyone can put some music up online, but it’s hard to get noticed amongst all the others. Lost in the shuffle, man.
Your family’s all over the place geographically, though. I imagine technology’s got to be helpful just toward maintaining “cool dad” status.
Well I don’t know how you maintain being a cool dad, man, because at some point in time your children will hate you. You have to accept that.