Just as a Union Jack flapping at full mast outside Buckingham Palace will tell you that Her Majesty is in residence, a black Mini hatchback outside Black Barn studio, Surrey, will tell you the same thing about its proprietor. Inside the building, above the desk where his late father John used to run his son’s affairs, hangs another telltale item: a 2011 Small Faces calendar. December’s pinup: a young Steve Marriott.
In the doorway, a sprightly-looking Paul Weller appears, wearing the pin-striped suit and tie that adorns the cover of his new album Sonik Kicks. This being Black Barn’s last working day before Christmas, Weller has come laden down with bags from his favourite shop – Selfridges – full of pre-wrapped presents for his small team of staff. Most elect to keep them wrapped until Christmas, but his assistant Claire holds up her present for everyone to see. A Santa Claus romper suit for her six month-old baby. A chorus of awws ensues. “A bit cheesy, but you’ve gotta do it, haven’t you? While they’re too young to object” says Weller.
* * *
Twenty years have elapsed since the self-titled album that launched Paul Weller as a solo artist. He can laugh about it now but back in 1992 – when Britpop was a nameless idea in Damon Albarn’s head and Weller’s last album with The Style Council hadn’t even been deemed releasable by his record label – he must have wondered where on earth he fitted in. Casting an eye around a musical landscape populated by plaid-shirted slackers and, on Top Of The Pops a procession of “camp dancers with someone shouting some shit out”, the answer would have been anything but clear.
“It should have been a happy time,” he says, reflecting on the period spent as “househusband” to first wife Dee C. Lee. “Nat [his son] had just not long been born. I was happy about that, but I wasn’t happy, if you know what I mean. In this job, you’re defined by your work. So you’re only a songwriter or musician when you’re doing it. The fact is I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do… Did I feel like a failure? To be honest with you, yes. You need a balance in your life. Family is only part of that equation.”
The other part scarcely needs any introduction. When some artists come close to losing everything, it’s not unnatural for a certain conservatism set in. But the fact is that, since he dissolved The Jam at their commercial peak 30 years ago, Paul Weller has finessed the fine art of self-preservation the only way he knows how – by repeatedly dismantling a winning formula. A case in point, his most recent album, Wake Up The Nation, thrilled critics and antagonised diehards in equal proportions. The opening night of three shows in 2010 at The Royal Albert Hall was at times reminiscent of the The Style Council’s infamous 1989 shows at the same venue. Back then, they responded to Weller’s new garage house sound by ripping up their programmes in disgust. And today, there’s still no shortage of fortysomething men in Fred Perry tops, arms folded, wondering what abstract, arty mini-suites like Trees are playing at.
Weller has a certain amount of sympathy for sections of his fanbase who no longer feel they can come with him. “I remember both of those nights,” he says. “The Style Council one, in particular, sticks in my head because a few days later, a couple of fans came up to me on the tube. They were like, ‘Alright Paul. What was all that about?’ They just didn’t get it at all. All I could say was, like, ‘Well, that’s just where my head’s at right now.’”
The degree to which Weller had allowed his stock to fall is perhaps best summed up by Steve White, who drummed with Weller between 1983 and 2007. “I remember speaking to a senior member of staff at Polygram,” recalls White. “While Paul was working out what he was going to do next, I came in to see them about some work with another project. He said, ‘It’s all over for Paul. He’s washed up. Didn’t matter what he’d achieved with The Jam and The Style Council. He just dismissed the idea that Paul could make any valid music. That was probably what a lot of people in the industry felt about Paul…”
…and what, if truth be told, Weller had begun to feel about himself. Back at home, he had become “so far removed from music that some days I would pick up the guitar and it was like an alien or something. It was like, ‘How does this work?’ At that point, I didn’t even know if I was ever going to do music again.”
When Weller finally did return with his self-titled solo album, it was with an almost homespun, back-to-basics approach. Both lyrically and musically, Uh Huh Oh Yeh and the beautiful Clues sounded like a man ever so slowly reawakening to his own capabilities. Recording with his band at Weller’s Solid Bond studios in Marble Arch, The Young Disciples’ Marco White remembered Weller’s visits to the studio. “I was badgering [Weller] the whole time to get his guitars out. He had this cupboard full of them, ‘the funky guitar cupboard’ I called it.”
But Weller needed cajoling. “If you’re lucky,” he recalls, “you’ll have someone nearby to shake you out of yourself a bit. And for me, it was my dad. He said, ‘You’re a musician. Go and play. That’s what musicians do.’”
“It was a funny time,” says White. “He just didn’t know if he had a future. We arrived in Newport Leisure Centre – a place which holds 1500 people. There were maybe 200 people in there. Paul comes on and says, ‘It’s like a fucking morgue in here. The audience started chanting back at him: ‘It’s like a morgue in here!’ over and over again. Even in London, we were playing tiny venues: The Subterania, The T&C2. I remember Paul saying, ‘We don’t need a tour bus – we just need an A-Z and a tube pass.’ For all of that, I think that was when fun re-entered the equation for Paul.”
If recent encounters are anything to go by, you might be forgiven for thinking that the fun hasn’t stopped. In May 2008, a week before his 50th birthday, I accompanied Weller back to London from Leicester on the final night of the 22 Dreams tour. On the coach, Weller carried himself like a man who wakes up every morning to find he’s won a competition to become the lead singer of Paul Weller’s band. Despite having performed the songs almost every night for three weeks, Weller’s chosen soundtrack for the return journey was, um, 22 Dreams.
For any fan raised on Eton Rifles, Going Underground and A Town Called Malice – lasting monuments to what Shameless screenwriter Paul Abbott refers to as Weller’s “hardcore eloquence” – there are few sights more sweet or surreal than that of the Modfather hoisting aloft a beer bottle and singing along to his own music. As the coach pulled into West London, Weller decided that the only way to round off the evening was a sortie to Notting Hill fast food outlet Kebab Machine, where he ordered two kebabs – one for me (five chillis) and one for himself (eight chillis) and we took a cab to our respective houses.
“You planning to have any more kids?” he enquired. “I love having kids. It’s beautiful, man. I’ve got five, but I’d have 20 if I could.” When the cab arrived at the house he shared with his then-partner Sammi, he took his kebab but managed to leave all his tour luggage in the boot. Far from being hungover, he called the following morning – partly to arrange the retrieval of his luggage from my house – “I need it ‘cos I’m on Later tonight” – but mainly to enthuse about how “fucking amazing” the kebab was.
But it was an altered Weller I next encountered, in the spring of 2011, after a text from “Pw” landed asking if I would like to come and spend an afternoon in his studio. Stomach lined, I accomplished the three-mile cycle ride from the toytown railway station of Clandon to find Weller celebrating a year “off the sauce”, newly married, and keen to air work-in-progress on the successor to Wake Up The Nation. Also present was new wife Hannah, with whom his plan to have 20 kids had edged forward significantly – she was expecting twins. “There was an attraction there, straight from the off,” recalled Weller of their first encounter, in the New York store where she was working. “I wasn’t looking for it, but it just kind of happened.”
That’s Hannah’s voice you can hear on *Sonik Kicks’ Study In Blue – a pastoral meditation on the inner peace afforded by new love. “Everything I’ve ever wanted lives inside of you,” sing their interweaving voices, before the song gives way to a sublime, spacey dub coda.
In its final form, Sonik Kicks dramatically exceeds the promise of that springtime playback. Allying the zealous spirit of experimentation established in recent years with a renewed emphasis on melody, it sounds like an album that took shape from the title down: a brief thrillingly fulfilled by the pizzicato psych-rock of The Attic, the pummeling portent of Around The Lake or a magnificently roughed-up Scott Walker homage Kling I Klang. Among the guest turns is a return fixture for Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, co-writer with Weller of 2007 single This Old Town and veteran of 22 Dreams’ Black River. Though he didn’t know it on the day he turned up, Coxon ended up playing Hammond organ on the propulsive raga-rock of Dragonfly.
“There’s no time to reflect when you work with Paul,” laughs the guitarist, “When I played on this record, I felt like a three-legged terrier chasing a rat. I couldn’t keep up. And it seemed so complicated to me, this music. You go, ‘Paul, that’s shockingly weird.’ And, he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, isn’t it?! He’s perfectly accepting of it.”
Relay Coxon’s testimony to Weller and his reaction oscillates between flattered and uneasy. Flattered because “Graham’s a fucking amazing guitarist”; uneasy because he feels that this continuing surprise at his eclecticism disguises a class-based prejudice.
“I think there’s always been a class issue here,” he explains, “If you’re a working-class artist with an accent like mine, you can’t possibly be an artist, or think of something weird.”
As he puts it, “anything to do with class bothers me. But then, I’m probably the last of the generation that it did bother. I’ve got nothing against all those posh Radiohead bands. Good luck to them – they’ve done some good music, but they’re not the sole keepers of that. It’s not the exclusive property of people from that class. I’m still very, very proud of the fact that I didn’t have that background at all and I came up from a totally different place.”
Weller’s adherence to Mod’s code of working-class cool is as passionate as ever, and just as requiring of eternal vigilance (“You have to watch your hairdresser like a hawk,” he says, “Give them clear instructions as they go along”). But for him it’s a catholic creed observed with scholarly intensity. There aren’t many 53 year-old Mods about, but then why would that bother Paul Weller? In 1974, when The Who’s My Generation album found him, aged 14, Mod’s stock was at its lowest. He and Mick Walker – the only other Mod in town – would have to ride their scooters to Bisley Pavilion, three miles west of Woking, for the soul all-nighters that prompted Weller to write Non-Stop Dancing for The Jam (In The City, 1977). It’s tempting to wonder. Did Mod – with its chippy sense of working-class pride – help form Weller’s personality? Or was a Woking boy with an obsession for music and clothes always going to find Mod, no matter how fashionable it was? “It might be a bit of both,” he ponders, “The connection was there anyway. People of my generation grew up on the value of clothes and their relationship to music. It informs my outlook on what I should be doing. It’s a philosophy, albeit hard to define.”
And while there may be nothing left to steal from The Who or The Small Faces, but Mod’s early affiliation with the late ’50s beats continues to yield treasure. For years Weller had loved the idea of John Coltrane, but struggled to find an entry point.
“I had A Love Supreme and listened to it a few times over the course of, fuck knows, maybe 20 years,” says Weller. “Then one day – not too long ago, really – it just hit me.”
You can hear as much in the storm-tossed incantations of one new song, Drifters.
“The jumping-off point there was [Coltrane’s 1962 track] Olé. There are things you can take from great music and apply them to something new. They might not even be detectable by the time you’ve finished the song, but you know they’re there. I already had the lyrics for Drifters, so the idea was to try and sing them across the bar lines, outside of a time frame.”
While some songs on *Sonik Kicks defy interpretation, others invite it. Paper Chase is a case in point – a faintly nauseous paean to a protagonist whose excessive lifestyle anaesthetises them to the emotional debris they leave in their wake. As Weller’s recent history implies, some people prove stronger than their addictions. Others are less fortunate. Weller was on the beach in Spain when he heard the news that fellow after-hours frequenter of NW1’s Marathon taverna Amy Winehouse had died.
“I was on the beach in Spain with my family,” he recalls, “My girls were in the sea and Hannah came up. She said, ‘Amy’s dead.’ It was one of those things – both shocking and yet not unexpected. I was watching her on telly over Christmas. They showed that clip of us with Jools Holland on Later, when we sang Don’t Go To Strangers. I could see it in my face and in Jools’s face as well, both of us looking at each other and knowing that we’re in the presence of something truly great. It’s such a fucking shame.” He pauses for a few seconds. “But, you know, some people don’t want to be saved. I don’t think that there’s anything you can do about that at all. And there’s a lot of people – Billie Holiday, Ray Charles – whatever they took, they were all able to carry on working. Probably had to.”
As a father of five – seven, by the time you read this – in an industry whose goldrush days have long since gone, Paul Weller has to carry on working too. He picks up the one poison he still allows himself – 20 Marlboro Lights – taps a cigarette on the box, and exhales thoughtfully. “As far as me and drinking is concerned, I think this is probably it now. I’ll probably stick with this because I’m feeling much better for it.”
Do kebabs taste as good when you’re sober?
“Funnily enough, I haven’t had a kebab for a long time, but I did try a bit of someone’s the other day and it was fucking lovely, actually. But I just… it’s time to move on, you know? I don’t want to be that person any more. The only thing I miss from drinking is the silliness. I like that, when you get all stupid. That night when we came back from Leicester, I remember a conversation with [Weller’s bassist, Andy] Lewis. I was moaning about classical musicians calling their compositions, y’know, Opus 5 or whatever. And Lewis is going, ‘Well, that’s because Mozart wrote over 400 tunes.’ I was going, ‘That’s no excuse. It’s just fucking laziness. I’ve written more than that, and I’ve given them all titles.’ If I could just maintain that, I would. But when it gets beyond a certain point, it gets all dark and horrible.”
To borrow from The Jam’s swansong Beat Surrender, bullshit is still bullshit – it just goes by different names. Weller’s aversion to self-pity or the pity of others may also be a variation of the working-class pride that informs the Mod mindset. He tells the story of a pop contemporary who enjoyed chart success around the same time as The Jam. Having embarked on a 12-step programme to rid himself of substance issues, the musician in question reached the stage which involves having to write to everyone who you might have offended and apologising to them. Weller was a recipient of one such letter.
“I had no memory of him upsetting me,” he says. “I called him and said, ‘Listen, if I had to send letters to everyone I’d ever offended, I’d die with a fucking biro in my hand.”
Weller’s reaction to a story about U2 seems to provoke similar incredulity. I tell him that when Bono and co have finished a world tour, they quarantine themselves in Dublin’s Clarence hotel for a week, in order to acclimatise to life off the road. “To be honest with you,” he says, “I think a fucking hotel is the last thing I’d wanna see. Do you know what I really love to do when I come back off tour? Go to Sainsbury’s and do a big food shop. Something normal or real again.”
In other words, there’s a lot to be said for rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it. Coming off alcohol surely can’t have been as easy as he makes out. Even so, the past year has been all about taking back the reins, both personally and creatively. This much becomes clear on the rain-lashed January morning which sees me driving to Black Barn for the third and final time.
* * *
“CAN it be resolved? No. Not for me, mate.”
Sonik Kicks is the third consecutive Paul Weller album to be written and recorded in collaboration with Simon Dine. What seems certain at this point is that there won’t be another. Befriended by Weller over a decade previously when Dine played in London neo-Mod outfit Noonday Underground, Dine’s fondness for happy accidents, improvisations and fashioning songs from loops yielded instant results on 22 Dreams – a record which propelled Weller’s critical and commercial stock to heights he hadn’t scaled since 1995’s Stanley Road. In March, Weller received a phone call from Dine, citing dissatisfaction with the payment assigned to him for his part in *Wake Up The Nation. Pending resolution of the matter, Weller is unable to disclose precise figures, but he unpacks the process by which songs such as No More Tears To Cry and Find The Torch/Burn The Plans would appear. Dine received a fee for each sound file he supplied to Weller. Each would be used by Weller as a jumping-off point to write a song.
Weller brings in two freshly-brewed teas, passing the Playboy mug in my direction. “I thought it was a fucking cheek, to be honest,” he contends, “He got really good money but it was evidently not enough. Dine’s very good at what he does – don’t get me wrong, but I think he thought he was the fucking mastermind behind it. The fact is, though, that he’s writing with someone who’s also good at what he does.”
…[Perhaps] someone especially eager to prove it to himself this time around…
“I was much more involved with the making of this record,” continues Weller. “And if I’m to be honest with you, probably the reason for that is because I was sober. Not being shitted 24 hours a day, that probably makes a difference… [With Wake Up The Nation] I was quite happy to be the singer and focus on doing that. Not have to worry about doing too much of the other things: middle-eights, bridges, you know… all that fucking stuff. At the time, I wasn’t in the mood for that. But this record is different. As every record is.”
Had Dine’s grievance not touched a sore nerve, it’s unlikely Weller would be going to the trouble, today, of playing me some examples of his former confederate’s song-sketches. Studio manager Charles cues up a minute or so of music mostly comprised of a basic drum track and clipped metronomic guitar downstrokes. Albeit without a melody and lyric, you can hear how Weller arrived from here to the distressed Kinks-isms of A Dangerous Age. However, the next track is a minute or so of glitchy electronic noise which bears no guessable resemblance to anything on Sonik Kicks. Except, apparently, by jamming over it, Weller eventually got the idea for another new song, When Your Garden’s Overgrown.
When I call Dine to hear his version of events, he expresses unease about discussing a matter that is now being dealt by their respective solicitors. He does however issue a statement outlining his position: “The dispute arose from the producer agreement not the songwriting which was all done on the same basis as we had worked in the past and a long time before the producer agreement was discussed. I found that I was offered a producer fee, after completion of the work, which was less than the last album we had done, although the work was identical. I disputed the reduced offer and then we fell out. As it happens, the amount I received for production work with Paul was always at the lower end of what a producer would reasonably expect to earn from an artist signed to a major label. I had no problem with this, but wasn’t prepared to work for less.”
Though Weller doesn’t consciously draw attention to it, his account betrays an emerging sense of Dine’s horror at just how badly his attempt to take issue with his hero-turned-collaborator has gone. Weller sounds incredulous at Dine’s apparent protestations that he had two young children to feed. “As it goes, I’ve had a couple of people sort of say that to me in recent times. It’s like, Join the club, man. We all have, you know?”
As far Weller is concerned, there’s a code of honour which, once violated, consigns transgressors to exile. Querying his generosity is one way to cross that line. Writing a book about him – as former NME journalist turned Weller sidekick Paolo Hewitt did – is another. By the time Paul Weller – The Changing Man appeared in 2007, the two had already fallen out. Hewitt apparently took umbrage upon discovering there was no room for him at Weller’s table at the previous year’s Brits when Weller picked up his Outstanding Contribution To Music gong. Suddenly the two were no longer as thick as thieves.
In the silence that followed, Hewitt went public about his years in the Modfather’s inner circle. For Weller, that was the ultimate betrayal.
“I’ve never read it. But then, I wouldn’t need to, even if he said I was the most amazing mortal who ever walked the earth. It wouldn’t matter to me. It’s just the fact that he’s written it for money and best friends don’t do that. I mean… I didn’t fall out with him at all. He stopped talking to me. But there were only a limited amount of tickets [for the Brits] anyway. And he got the hump.”
Interviewed by The Daily Mail about the book, back in 2007, Hewitt contended that Paul Weller – the young, angry idealist of The Jam – “would hate the Paul Weller of today.” Relay that remark to Weller in 2012 and you can actually measure the speed with which the words travel from his ears to his brain. When it arrives, Weller’s face turns a pinker shade of livid.
“That’s bollocks. Complete and utter bollocks, that is. He must know that’s nonsense. I tell you what – the Paolo Hewitt of 1979 would definitely fucking hate the one who wrote that book.”
Weller gathers himself and attempts to ponder the substance of his ex-mate’s accusation.
“You’ve got to be able to adapt as you get older, I think, or you go under. I’ll be 54 this year. How ridiculous would it be if you came to a show and saw me doing In The City? One thing I do know, though, is that the 16 year-old me would have loved From The Floorboards Up and Wake Up The Nation. So Paolo Hewitt can fucking shove it up his arse.”
“It did hurt him, Paolo’s book,” says Steve White, who drummed with Weller from the inception of The Style Council up until 2007, when the two agreed to go their separate ways. “I remember when we were on the way to Glastonbury – which both Paul and I knew was the last show I was going to do with him. He turned around and said, ‘You’re not gonna write a book too, are you?’ So, I think that tells you something about the effect it had.”
By contrast, few names seem to trigger as much affection in Weller as that of White. “When I think of Whitey, the first thing that springs to mind is the time we went to Amsterdam and he set fire to himself. We went to a cafe for a smoke and there was a candle on the table. He leant too close to it. I looked across and said, ‘You’re on fire, mate.’ He was like, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘No – look at your shoulder. You’re on fire.’”
For White, the smoking was fine. The drinking, however, was a source of greater ambivalence. “I don’t think I’d be betraying any secrets if I said there was a lot of drinking going on around that time [2006-2007]. I’m not a big drinker, so inevitably you get this division between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. But I think that [the drinking] was symptomatic of the fact that he had tired of the way his music was sounding. And, like it or not, I was part of that sound, so it was the right time for me to leave.”
For all of that, White stresses “a consistent line to the way Paul operates. I’ve never had any kind of contract with Paul. He has high expectations of friendship – but he doesn’t exempt himself from those expectations.’ White, who lost his brother, also called Paul, to alcoholism, recalls being on tour with Weller in the days leading up to his brother’s death.
“It was pretty clear that the writing was on the wall. Paul [Weller] took me aside and made it clear that no matter what time of the day or night, if I felt that I had to go, then I should go.” When White heard that his brother had passed away, it was hours before Weller and his band were due to play a show at Liverpool Apollo.
“I didn’t even have to say anything to Paul when the news came,” recalls White, “He just said, ‘Go now. It’ll be fine.’ They put notices up outside the venue telling people that I wouldn’t be playing and, as a result, the show would go on, albeit a very different show, with lots of covers and so on.”
* * *
THE next time Paul Weller hits the road, it will also be with a very different show. Far from yielding to the small but dogged contingent of fans who continue to shout out the names of Jam songs that he hasn’t played for decades, Weller is gearing up to play the entirety of Sonik Kicks from beginning to end over a five night residency at London Roundhouse. Ambitious? “The listings are full of bands playing classic albums that they did 20 or 30 years ago. That’s fine. But I think we all need to raise our game a bit. What about artists having the confidence to play the classic albums of now? So I guess it’s a statement of intent. It feels like a relevant thing to do.”
Would the young Paul Weller really approve? Surely, he would. Still striving for relevance. Still hot and bothered about about class. Sometimes though, he wonders if he’s the last Weller to feel this way. His father’s work ethic – most memorably detailed on The Jam’s Just Who Is The Five O’Clock Hero – is ingrained, but he watches his young daughter’s obsession with X-Factor and wonders if he’s a quaint relic from another age.
“It’s all about the short-cut. Fuck getting in the back of the transit van and playing shitholes for five years. It’s like, press a button and get your boat race in the paper. All the people I grew up liking were good at what they did, be it Michael Caine or The Beatles. They weren’t celebrities.” Weller spits out the word “celebrities” as though it were tea into which someone had accidentally spooned salt. What were they, then? “They were stars.”
And Paul Weller? Which template best applies to him these days? Star? Celebrity? Or merely someone who’s good at what he does? Perhaps it takes a little bit of all three to thrive in 2012. A week after the Modfather bids me farewell, the Mod father will welcome little John Paul and Bowie Weller into the world. “I like the fact that my life doesn’t feel entirely mapped out. It’s still open.” And next? He stubs out a cigarette and rubs his eyes. “I don’t know. I’m just as curious as you, mate. That’s the best thing about it.”