Paul Weller: “I try to make something different every time”
Alone amongst his peers from punk’s Class of ’77, Paul Weller is topping the charts with vital music and filling stadiums with shows that feature a setlist of more new than old songs.
Known as The Modfather to his loyal fanbase, Weller has just released Saturns Pattern, his fourth album since 2008′s expansive 22 Dreams, that to anyone with ears is the culmination of what can only be described as an experimental period.
“I’ve lost some fans along the way, but I’ve picked up just as many or more,” says Weller, who started off his career as the frontman and principal songwriter of ’70s punk/mod icons The Jam, told me recently.
“The crowds lately, especially in England and Europe, have a lot of young people in them. It’s amazing, really. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never followed any trends, so it really feels great to see that out there.”
Right from the start, with the release of The Jam’s first single “In The City,” Weller proved himself to be a force to be reckoned with. The band’s first album, also titled In The City, was a full-tilt tour de force that combined the urgency of Weller’s rivals the Sex Pistols with the style and vitality of Weller’s beloved Small Faces and The Who.
While the conventional wisdom is that The Jam stumbled with its sophomore release, This Is The Modern World, it included some great tunes, and hinted at things to come.
The third time, 1978′s All Mod Cons, was the charm, and it was the first in a series of albums and related singles, that either brushed or reached the top of the charts. Setting Sons and, especially, Sound Affects were both exceptional, before Weller called time on the band with The Gift in 1982.
Along the way Weller and co. chalked up a clutch of number one and trendsetting singles and B-sides – including “Eton Rifles”, “Going Underground”, “Funeral Pyre”, “Tales From The Riverbank” and “A Town Called Malice” – that still sound as fresh as the day they hit the shelves.
“The Jam were magnificent,” Noel Gallagher recently told me. “I was just a bit young to be a true fan, but I remember the rush that came with each release. It was something everyone was waiting for.”
The forthcoming About The Young Idea: The Very Best of The Jam is a great place to start.
“It was always exciting,” Weller says of those days. “But it was exhausting. By the end I knew in my heart it was time to move on.”
The Style Council followed. Though not considered as culturally defining as The Jam, Weller continued to top the charts and set musical trends with albums and singles like “My Ever Changing Moods”, Café Bleu, Our Favorite Shop, Confessions of a Pop Group, “Shout to the Top” and “Speak Like A Child.”
After Weller’s label rejected his 1989 foray into house music, he found himself without a record deal for the first time in his adult life and adrift.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Weller says. “I thought that was the end of things. It was my dad who pushed me to get out and play again. But that was really only out of financial necessity.”
John Weller – Paul’s dad and manager – may have provided the nudge, but it put his son on a course that has seen him top the charts repeatedly over the past 24 years.
The independently released “Into Tomorrow” and Paul Weller, from 1991, were followed by the era-defining Wildwood (1993) and Stanley Road (1995). (Those days were recently chronicled by Weller in the deluxe photo essay book Into Tomorrow, from Genesis Publications.) The underrated Heavy Soul, Heliocentric, Illumination and Studio 150 followed, as well as a raft of excellent singles, but by 2005′s As Is Now, Weller, who was approaching 50, felt it was time to wipe the slate clean and start anew.
“I felt really good about As Is Now,” he says now. “It had some great songs that really went over great live, and it had some experimental bits as well, but the reaction was a bit ‘more of the same’. It was a shame at the time, but it forced me to really think about what I wanted to do next.”
Weller teamed up with producer Simon Dine and released a trilogy of albums that were nothing short of spectacular. The sprawling 22 Dreams (2008), 2010s firey Wake Up The Nation and the Krautrock-esque Sonik Kicks from 2012, were greeted by fans and critics with open arms. Weller was back on top.
Saturns Pattern has only nine songs, but it’s hardly short, and balances Weller’s beloved soul with swaggering, T.Rex-style rock, while still retaining its focus and a stylistic thread throughout.
Weller knows how to craft short, sharp rockers, but Saturns Pattern jams out just the right amount. With a new collaborator on board, producer Jan Stan Kybert, Weller has seemingly taken everything that was great about 22 Dreams, Wake Up The Nation and Sonik Kicks and crammed them into one excellent package.
“I knew I didn’t want to make Sonik Kicks Part Two,” Weller says. “I try to make something different every time, but that’s not always possible. But this one I think it really different. It’s me, and you can certainly hear my influences, but I think this one is out there on its own. And I don’t think you can compare it to anything else that’s out there right now.”
Most of all, Saturns Pattern sounds great. The mix is deep, rich and sparklingly clear. Weller attributes it to the fact that he has his own recording space, Black Barn Studios in Surrey, England, which allows him to create without having to ever watch the clock.
“Sometimes we got through a couple of tracks in a day,” Weller says. “Some took a lot longer. I didn’t come in with any songs, like I used to, and there was no pattern to it, really. And if I felt like we’d hit on a pattern we’d break it and start again. But I’ve really come to feel that there’s no no wrong way to make records and I think that was very freeing for me.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want,” Weller admits. “I think that helped. We just experimented with sounds and songs, really, until we hit a point on something that was exciting. Then we’d try to make it as good as we possibly could, but not too perfect, either. I like rough edges.”
The lead-off track, and first single, “White Sky” is a holdover from sessions with the Amorphous Androngynous, and it’s a scorching opener for Saturns Pattern. It’s distorted and raw and is exhibit number one that Weller is still a creative force to be reckoned with. It’s an instant classic. And, in fact, most of Saturns Pattern feels familiar; as though Weller has done this before, though perhaps this time with more energy and drive.
While “Pick It Up” and “Phoenix” might feel like tracks from his first solo album, repeated listenings prove there’s far more going on here than in the past. Weller also has a few Stooges/VU moments – witness “Long Time” – and “I’m Where I Should Be,” a song about aging gracefully, feels a bit Blur, but, of course, it all’s feels like classic Weller in the end.
“I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t attempt, musically,” Weller says.
“I see the process of making records now as wide open now. I was looking for something on this one, though I didn’t know what I was after. I knew the record I didn’t want to make, though, so it was really just a question of chipping away. But that’s the way it is. You’re always searching for a sort of rich seam, whether it’s sitting writing a song the way I used to, or creating in the studio the way I do now. Maybe this way it takes a while to find it. But it’s really exciting to start from nothing and build the picture up from that, too.”
“I was looking for a new sound, new for me at least,” Weller says. “I’m not sure if it’s possible but I’m constantly seeking out new sounds, even in my own stuff. But I was also determined to have really melodic songs. Melody has always been the most important thing to me. Growing up in the ‘60s, it was all about great melodies and great choruses. So that’s always what I’m aiming for.”
Weller lets out a chuckle.
“Maybe that sounds egotistical,” he says. “But music is my life and it’s still exciting to me to see where it’s leading. I’m always listening to all sorts of things. Anything from ’60s garage rock to dance records, even jazz and reggae. Whatever, really. I’m mad for music, and I find it constantly inspiring. And it all gets fed in and comes back out when I’m making records if I tune in to it.”
While Weller seems unsurprised that his peers have seemingly all but given up making truly new music, he is sad that more young bands aren’t coming up through the ranks.
“I think it’s just not as glamorous anymore,” he says. “Maybe young people see it as a career move. Maybe the anger we all felt when I started isn’t there because we’re all a bit numb from the TV and Internet. When I was a kid, music and sport were just about the only escape routes from a pretty pre-destined future. We were factory fodder, you know what I mean? When I left school I would have ended up in a factory or on a building site. Rock and roll was a way out of that. But I don’t know if that exists today.”
As for more dream collaborations with his rock star pals, like Noel Gallagher or Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon of Blur, Weller says scheduling – and perhaps a bit of ego – are the hurdles as he sees it.
“It would be hard to get it together because all of us are always off doing something, or someone’s just finishing a tour while someone else is just coming off,” he says. “Charity gigs are easy. You just do it and then it’s over.
“But in the studio? I’m not sure how that would work,” Weller says with another chuckle.
Paul Weller is that rare rock icon, pulling off an incredible late-career renaissance. With 22 Dreams, Wake Up The Nation, Sonik Kicks and now Saturns Pattern, Weller has demonstrated that perhaps his most creative days are upon us.
Nearly 40 years since The Jam’s first album, Weller still consistently delivers magic. So does the man who wrote “Going Underground” feel frustrated that while he has been constantly moving forward so little seems to have changed in the thirty-plus years since that record topped the charts?
“Every time they fire a missile in the Middle East – where we should never fucking be anyway – you’re talking about £850,000 it costs. At the same time, there are just under a million people using food banks in the U.K. That’s shameful. We’re a rich, developed country. The plus side to those days is that I don’t think the powers that be can bullshit us as much now because we have access to loads of information through the Internet. Otherwise, fuck all has changed in thirty years, except for maybe the faces.”
As for the inevitable question about whether he’d ever revisit his glory days with The Jam, or even the Style Council, Weller is immovable.
“Not a chance, mate,” he says, flatly. “It’s strange to me that people think we would consider it. It’s been ages. Besides, I don’t look back and get misty eyed about those days. Really, I couldn’t give a fuck.”
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Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles.
[Photo by Julian Broad]