In one sense, Paul Weller is throwing up his hands. “I’ve had enough of it all, the party politics thing,” he says, his voice thick with a gruff dejection.
“My reaction [to the December election] was that I was never gonna be interested or involved in any politics ever again, because I just cannot be bothered with any of it. If I was very disappointed with the Tories’ win, I was even more disappointed that Labour lost it. I’m sick of all of it, all the old-fashioned Marxists and Leninists and people who are using philosophy from fucking hundreds of years ago that means nothing now, that has no relevance whatsoever.
“I’d sooner have something that hasn’t got a name and I think that’s emerging – it emerges from the people themselves.”
Weller’s fresh disdain for the political pantomime extends to the Dominic Cummings saga – “there’s one law for one and one for the other; when’s that been any different? Who’s had the 24-hour fucking bar forever; the only place you can still smoke indoors?” – and Boris Johnson handling the pandemic crisis like a clown juggling burning balls.
“I’m no fan of any Tory quite honestly,” he says, down the phone from his Surrey lockdown, “but I don’t understand this thing where we’re waiting on the Prime Minister to tell us what’s going on because he’s not a fucking scientist or a doctor – how would he know? He only tells us what he’s been told by his medical boffins, so it’s a bit stupid to think he’s got all the answers; he’s a politician. It is what it is, and where it’s come from and where it’s gonna go to no-one knows, evidently. We’ve just gotta wait it out and try to carry on as best we can.”
In another sense, Weller is more fired-up than ever. Since the release of ‘22 Dreams’ in 2008, rock’s most inspirational changingman has been setting a pace of adventurous experimentation virtually unprecedented among the rock legend set. Even Eno has a ‘predictable’ setting and even Bowie took his 60s off. Weller, meanwhile, clearly allergic to laurels, has released over a decade of surprising, challenging and alchemical records visiting 21st Century psych, glam punk, krautrock, neo-soul and all manner of other sonic co-ordinates located way off the ‘Modfather’ map.
2018’s pastoral folk excursion ‘True Meanings’ almost acted as a quick breather to pastiche the ageing rockers who take a more rootsy retirement, and now he’s back with another inspired double-take of a record which will, like 2012’s ‘Sonik Kicks’, 2015’s ‘Saturns Pattern’ and 2017’s ‘A Kind Revolution’, make you check twice that you’re definitely listening to a Paul Weller album. In January he released ‘In Another Room’, an EP of musique concrète [existing sounded warped into music] experiments for the UK label Ghost Box Records, and such avant-garde montage methods merge with a rich seam of classic ‘70s funk, lounge and sci-fi soul to make his new album, ‘On Sunset’, arguably his most boundary-pushing outing yet.
“It’s something I’ve really started to enjoy listening to,” he says of his new interest in the avant-garde, citing Stockhausen, The Radiophonic Workshop and French composer Pierre Schaeffer as primary sources that led him to construct the album’s more experimental tracks ‘Earth Beat’ and ‘Mirror Ball’. The latter, particularly, sounds like a lovely soul ballad falling unexpectedly into the last 10 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone near it when I was younger; I’d have gone, ‘What the fuck is that?’. But as most of my tastes generally have become very opened in the last 20 or 30 years, more and more so there are things that I wouldn’t have understood at one point and now they make complete sense to me. The more music I hear, the more I love, so to me it all starts to become one thing. Obviously I’m aware of all the genres and styles, but it’s all the same for me.”
At 62, does he believe it’s still his role to challenge people and change music?
“Yes I do,” Weller says, “and I think that’s the role of any artist in whatever form. I always thought that is one of the beautiful sides of it all. So I would like to think that I can still do that but I also do it from the point of view that I really want people to come with it – as opposed to The Style Council when I was just putting everyone’s back up and enjoying it, which is a bit weird. I don’t do it from that standpoint anymore, but I always still follow my own instincts and hope people will like it and come with it.”
“The more music I hear, the more I love”
He continues: “Now’s a good time. I’m not getting any younger and I want to try lots of different things, as much as I can possibly incorporate into what I naturally do. It’s feeling that freedom to do that. It feels like where I need to be. I’m trying different things as much as I can – time is of the essence, man.”
So ‘On Sunset’ suggests. When it isn’t donning a VR headset to glimpse the musical future, it’s pulling on sepia shades to look back at a life properly lived, happy with its lot (“lot of things I’ve never been, I’ve never seen, I don’t care much,” goes idyllic soul haze ‘Village’) and at one with its mortality. “Give the penny to the boatman, see he guides you well,” Weller smirks on the musical hall pastiche ‘Equanimity’. “Whatever he gives you has a price to bear,” he wails amid the future funk of ‘Old Father Tyme’.
A tricky topic, death, but an unavoidable one, not least because the last time this writer ran into Weller was on a plane into LA on which someone just a few seats from Paul died mid-flight. “On the way back from that trip we saw his son, poor thing,” Paul says, sadly. “Really weird, man.” How you feeling about it yourself these days, Paul?
“About dying? Haha! I’m just at that age, man. There’s been quite a few people around me have passed away in recent times, my contemporaries and people I went to school with. You can’t help but be conscious of that and all our heroes, the ones that are still around, are either 80 or getting close. You can’t fail but see that you’re next in that long line. But I don’t think in a morbid way, for me I think in a very accepting way, to see that that is part of it – that is the cycle.
“These days I really try and live in the present and as much as possible take each day as it is and be thankful for it. That’s a sign of getting older I guess but I don’t mind it; I like it. I don’t beat myself up about the past – I should’ve done this or I should never have done that. I try to learn from any mistakes and better myself, but try to live as much as I can in the moment because that’s all there is.”
The new album features moments of misty eyed reminiscence, most notably the Steely Dan-like ‘Sunset’, which finds Weller wandering the Sunset Strip bars and rock dives he first visited as a 19-year-old new wave ace face with The Jam.
“We were buzzed to go America,” he says, “because we’d heard so much about it and saw it in the films and music, but we were quite shocked at how dirty and run-down it was in that area. The way people dressed was old-fashioned – we’d just come from the punk London scene and everyone seemed like they were leftovers from Woodstock. People were offering us Quaaludes. It seemed very dated, like a ‘60s hangover thing, so that was a bit disappointing – but the shows were good. I can also remember not being able to get a drink because it was 21, and I’d been drinking since I was 14! That’s my abiding memories of those places.
“The song comes from when I stayed nearby the Whiskey [a Go Go, the legendary rock club] and that little part of the Strip, and I hadn’t walked round there since that time. I thought, ‘My God – I was 19 when I first hung out here’, and to think that all that time had gone, a whole lifetime.”
And there’s a fair bit of hard-earned wisdom too. ‘More’ suggests that material possessions and money don’t make you happy – what made him realise that?
“I’ve always realised that, and at the same time I’ve also seen that poverty doesn’t bring happiness either,” Weller says. “I can remember, as a kid, so many rows between my mum and dad were over money, or lack of. ‘How we gonna pay this bill, how we gonna fuckin’ do this or that’. I’m not one of these idiots who says it’s better to be poor – I don’t believe that either – but there is somewhere in between.
“It’s really about the post-war mass consumerism, in the West anyway. Super-sizing people until they blow into a complete mess. You’ve only got to go to America to see that, people slowly killing themselves by pizzas and super-sized meal deals. It’s excess. Something like a third of the world’s food goes to waste; it’s just mental. It’s been marketed at us that we need more – that bigger is better – and we clearly don’t.”
Have you had extravagant periods you’ve regretted? “My only extravagances have been on clothes and records. I’m not a car person and all that bollocks. I was also of the generation that was born into consumerism. When the ‘60s counter-culture was going on I was more of the over-the-counter-culture – I loved clothes and records and I still do.”
“I would never give Noel Gallagher advice”
For all his political antipathy, such issues still saunter onto ‘…Sunset’. ‘Walkin’ and the glacial ballroom billow ‘Rockets’ suggest that the power structures manipulating us from the shadows will never change, that the lies remain the same, the wealth stays hidden and “the institution’s old and still in control”. Is that the result of so many years fighting the good fight for so little gain?
“No, I think the fight’s eternal,” Weller argues. “Whatever way you want to relate to it, big or small, it’s still that eternal good-over-evil or evil-over-good; essentially it all comes down to that. It’s also suggesting that you have to just turn your backs on them, which is not easy because we’re part of that system. I think it’s possible that people will get to that, that people will just think, ‘Listen – we’ve had enough of this’.”
Weller had been one of Jeremy Corbyn’s more vocal supporters in the music world, playing the first Concert For Corbyn in 2016 as the Labour party leader’s groundswell of support grew. Has a recent leaked Labour report – alleging that members of the party conspired to undermine Corbyn amid the 2017 election and beyond – convinced him Labour isn’t just a non-socialist party but actively anti-socialist?
“It’s a complete shit-show,” Paul sighs. “A similar thing has gone on now with the whole ‘Protect our NHS’ thing, which they’ve been trying to sell off for the last 40 years. The NHS was built on very, very decent socialist principles after the War, along with education, the welfare society and a lot of things. They were all based on decent socialist principles and people would be well-advised to remember that.”
Did Corbyn’s treatment by press and party alike hammer home that, like the US, we live in an intrinsically right-wing two-party system? “I’d say it’s been that way for some time. Not as extreme as America but it’s pretty much that way. Getting Tony Blair didn’t make any odds, did it? There was no difference, was there?”
Politics aside (“thank God…”), Weller’s in a positive place. He’s been using lockdown productively, laying down six tracks for his next album: “I don’t think it’s necessarily got a direction overall but just really good tunes, quite varied… Not songs about the fucking flu, though.”
He’s considering a full album “at some point” of the sort of musique concrète tracks he put together from sounds and conversations he’s been collecting on his phone, and was tickled to hear that Tyler, The Creator recently declared himself a fan of The Style Council.
“Funnily enough we met him very briefly,” he says, “he’s got a shop on Melrose [Los Angeles]. I’m surprised he’s even heard of us. Would I work with him? I don’t know, mate, but I’m open for working with anyone if they’re good.” You’ve certainly laid the groundwork to get away with a rap record by now. “Yeah – a bit of drill music.”
He’s tactically ambivalent towards the latest Liam and Noel spats. “I’ve got better things to think about. I love both of them, anyway… I think they’re both brilliant characters.” Liam seemed narked about Noel asking you for advice on going solo before Oasis split. “Listen – to put the record straight, I would never, ever give Noel Gallagher advice,” Weller laughs. “What do you say to somebody who’s just sold 50 million fucking records? ‘Oh, I know what you should do…’ So that’s not true.”
He’s a man who’s learnt from past battles – just as he hopes humanity will learn from its fight against Covid – that spending free time with family trumps an unnecessary commute and that a better world is possible. For a start, he marvels at how much pollution levels have dropped amid the coronavirus crisis.
“You can really smell the difference in London,” he says. “Normally it’s thick with black smoke by the end of the day, but I’ve really noticed the change in the air and nature; hearing all the birds singing again and coming back. You see how quickly nature repairs itself in a very short space of time, all the damage we’ve done over decades. There’s lessons to be learned.”
Down the phone line, you can almost hear him throw up his hands again. “Whether we learn them is another matter, of course.”