‘Some people might say my life is in a rut – but, I’m quite happy with what I’ve got…” sang Paul Weller in The Jam’s first British number one chart single, Going Underground, in 1980.
Back then he was being ironic as The Jam gave voice to disaffected youth which rejected a society they thought prioritised rockets and guns over kidney machines. In a series of 18 consecutive top 40 singles between 1977 and 1982, they took cracks at everything from police brutality in In The City to class privilege in The Eton Rifles as their punk mod revival sound and incendiary lyrics became the soundtrack of the times. Listen to the da-da-da thud intro to Going Underground, the soaring organ of Town Called Malice and you’re back there with Margaret Thatcher in No 10 and the miners on strike. There’s a longevity about the sound too, and for anyone who thinks lyrics about nuclear weapons aren’t relevant, just look at the continuing controversy over Trident.
Today’s Weller, with 20 minutes to spare for a chat between sound checks for a gig at Edinburgh Playhouse, could sing the Going Underground lyrics without the irony. Except the only Jam track the crowd will hear tonight is an ecstatically received Town Called Malice, on the third encore, after Weller and his band have led the audience on a satisfying tour of his experimental eclecticism. He might be from the past, but he doesn’t live there.
Backstage, he’s dressed in inky dark jeans and a grey T-shirt and jacket from his own Real Stars Are Rare fashion line. He’s still whippet thin, fit and sharp. The years have taken him from rattily handsome in his Sta Prest trousers and Fred Perry shirt to Samuel Beckett with a modfeather cut at 56. With a UK tour, a new album out this month, a gig in Hyde Park alongside heroes The Who in June, and twins with wife Hannah to make a brood of seven from four mothers, he’s definitely quite happy with what he’s got.
“I’m just generally happier really, these days,” he says, his working class Surrey tones unaltered by a life on the road. “It’s taken me a long time to grow into myself, to be comfortable in me own skin. There are some things about getting older I don’t like, wrinkles and grey hair, whatever, but I also like the thing that age brings where you don’t really give a monkey’s any more about what people think and stuff, do you know what I mean? So that’s quite nice really,” he says.
“It brings a freedom, as if someone’s taken a weight off your back. I’ve really enjoyed my fifties. I don’t feel old or young… I don’t really feel any different from what I did 20 years ago, only a bit more together.”
There was always more to The Jam than the anarchy, gobbing and ripped jeans of punk. Mixed in with their new wave sound were 1960s pop, R&B, soul, Motown and psychedelic rock, not to mention sharp suits. It wasn’t such a huge leap to the white soul funk sound of The Style Council, the band Weller formed when he disbanded The Jam in 1982. Hits like the Motown-inspired You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened kept Weller in the charts and the politics were still there with the formation of Red Wedge with Billy Bragg, and fundraising for striking miners. When Style Council disbanded in 1989, Weller launched a solo career and has recorded and toured ever since, collaborating with Noel Gallagher, Amy Winehouse, Adele and Olly Murs. Gongs include two Brits (a Lifetime Achievement in 2006, Best Male Solo Artist in 2009), and the NME’s Godlike Genius Award in 2010, while his sartorial savvy bagged him a Best Dressed Over 50 prize.
Weller’s last two albums, 2010’s Wake Up The Nation, on which he reunited with ex-Jam bassist Bruce Foxton for the first time in 30 years and last year’s Sonik Kicks, with some of the most experimental material so far, have received some of the best reviews of his solo career. They also see a return to political stridency with lyrics like “Them f***ers in the castles, they’re all bastards, too.”
Historically Weller has always mixed things up, and reluctant to be pigeonholed, has experimented with genres and styles, from punk to piano ballads and psychedelia. His latest album, Saturn’s Pattern, he describes as “quite sort of joyful and positive, an up-full record”.
“I’m always looking to move it along somewhere further,” he says. “I think sometimes there’s a little bit of luck involved and you just hit on the right thing, but I was certainly looking to see what else I could do, how we could reconfigure words and music and make something different with it.”
Weller’s 12th solo album, with a title that just popped into his head, has turned out to be serendipitously named.
“I just made it up, off the top of me ’ead when I was writing one night. I like the sound of it. It made me think of a T Rex title, like Metal Guru or something. Then subsequently I found out there is an actual Saturn’s Pattern. It’s the wind that’s created a cloud pattern on the top of the North Pole of Saturn, a sort of geometric hexagon shape. It’s fortuitous because it means we can base our artwork on it. It’s funny because it turns out Saturn’s Pattern has its own website.”
Not that Weller’s big on websites or computers. He’s more of a pen and paper man and when he sees my notebook says: “Is that shorthand? That’s nice to see. I’ve not seen people do that for a long, long time.”
Not for him the tablet or iPad when he’s writing songs.
“I couldn’t write lyrics like that. I don’t know how to do that stuff anyway, but I like pen and paper. That’s what works for me.”
It seems to be working too, with no financial necessity for Weller to keep making music, so why does he still do what he does?
“I need to. I’m not talking about money, although in a very pragmatic way that’s how I make me bread and butter, how I make me living. I have many mouths to feed. But I do need to do it, to play music, at whatever sort of level. It’s my life. Music is my life. When people ask what inspires me to carry on, well the inspiration is just the music itself really. Whether I’m listening to other people’s or trying to write my own, it’s always been my passion and my love. From the age of about ten, that’s all I’ve thought about and all I ever wanted to do – be in a band and make records.”
The many mouths Weller refers to are his seven children. Two of them are the three-year-old twins with Hannah, who used to be one of his backing singers.
What’s it like having twins in your fifties, albeit a fit-looking fifties?
“At the moment it’s pretty tiring, because the twins are full on. They don’t stop until the time they go to sleep,” he says.
“But I haven’t thought about my age, to be honest with you. ’Cos I don’t think it matters what age you are. I mean, I am an old dad, obviously, but I’m not really that conscious of what age I am. I’m constantly surrounded by younger people, which is all right I think.”
Among the younger people he’s surrounded by are tonight’s support band, The Merrylees – “Come early and watch ’em,” says Weller. “Really good, from here. And Young Fathers, have you seen them? They’re support on our next tour. They’re from here as well. Really pleased to have them.” His enthusiasm is as infectious as his praise is generous.
Born in Woking, Surrey, in 1958 to a father who was a bricklayer/scaffolder/taxi driver and a mother who was a part-time cleaner, Weller started playing guitar at 12. He formed The Jam at school with his mate, Steve Brooks. Weller’s dad, John, landed them gigs, sticking with his son as manager for 30 years until he was diagnosed with dementia in 2006 and died three years later.
“He was a great dad, you know, always very encouraging and enthusiastic. Whatever I was into, he would always help. He got us our first gig around the corner from where I used to live, on a Wednesday night in a little working men’s club. There were only six people there so it was our baptism. He was just one of those dads who tried to give as much to his kids as he could. He wanted to be a journalist, a sports writer, when he left school, but he just couldn’t afford to keep doing the course. It was that time before university was opened up to working class people.”
It was John who borrowed equipment for The Jam from his mate down the pub, who also happened to be the father of Rick Parfitt of Status Quo. According to Parfitt, there was an amp that Quo never got back.
Weller laughs when I mention it. “It’s probably in a river somewhere. It was rusty the last time I saw it and that was 40 years ago. Quo were the first live band I ever saw. I’d never heard music that loud because we were still playing records on Dansettes, so to be on the back row in Guildford Civic Hall, me and me mates – it was the band, actually – just pinned against the wall by the sound. We just thought it was fantastic, the greatest thing.”
Weller never considered doing anything other than being in a group, signing to Polydor Records at 19. Which is just as well, as when he helped his dad out on a building site, Weller senior, who was watching him moving bricks around, remarked to his mate, “look at that w*****. Just as well he can play the guitar!”
“Ha, ha, yeah he did. I was f***ing useless, quite honestly. I can’t do anything else. I had no qualifications, very little education – which was my fault for not listening – but there was no second option,” he says.
“I knew I was going to do this. I remember going to see the careers officer at school who laughed when I said ‘I want to be in a band.’ But those things helped make me stronger. I thought, ‘I’ll show you.’ That’s all I ever dreamt of and I’ve been fortunate enough to not only do it, but carry on doing it into my fifties, which is pretty incredible really. People still seem to love it. I see people my age who’ve grown up with me, and I see these young kids who know all the words, incredible really. It keeps it relevant, keeps the gut pumping.”
With things still to say musically, Weller has no intention of hanging up his guitars or putting away the keyboards. “I don’t find it physically harder, but being away from the kids is harder. I’ve only been away on this tour for about two-and-a-half weeks, and it feels like a month. But that aside, I can’t imagine not doing it,” he says.
Weller doesn’t look like he’s struggling to keep up with his younger band mates.
“Well, I try to keep myself fit, but you know… I stopped smoking for nine months and then I started again because I enjoyed it. I was doing the vape, then I went back on the cigarettes and now if I try that vape, it just makes me cough. You pay your money and take your chances don’t you, and I don’t drink. Five years this year,” he says.
Why did Weller feel the need to give up the booze? Was it the well publicised night in Prague in 2008 with Hannah which saw them sprawled in the street, that prompted it?
“Nah. I just stopped. I just quit. The writing was on the wall for me. I’d been at it for a long time, over 35 years really. When you grow up in that sort of culture, which I did, I was playing in boozers and clubs when I was 14… it was all around us and we used to love it, but I just knew it was the right time to do it really. When you’re younger and you’re drinking, you can be a fun drunk. Then when you get older and you’re still doing it, you’re just an old drunk, a pisshead, and you’re boring and it’s embarrassing.”
Does he think the music’s better without the drink?
“I don’t think it makes a scrap of difference one way or the other to be honest, although I think live I’m better. My playing seems better because I’m more present. And also much more able to appreciate it,” he says.
“Stop apologising for the things you’ve never done,” Weller sang in Town Called Malice when he was 23. If a lack of life under his belt then meant he didn’t have anything to apologise for, today after all the relationship breakdowns, plus an acrimonious ending to The Jam, has he had enough life experience to warrant the odd sorry or two?
“Regrets? Well, only personal ones, not really professionally, because you make the decision at the time and you have to stand by it and live with it. But personally, yes, I probably could have treated people better. If I care to look back I can see lots of things I should have done differently, but they’re done aren’t they, so you have to totally learn from it. But I’m not really one for regrets.”
Does Weller mind being called the Modfather?
“Well, there are lots of worse things that people could call me,” he laughs.
So is he still a mod? He once said he’d die a mod.
“Yes. I’ll always be a mod,” he says, with absolute conviction.
Appearance matters to Weller and was always integral to his music, from the Burton suits The Jam wore in the beginning to the white T-shirts and sunglasses of the white soulsters Style Council. Last October he launched Real Stars are Rare, with a 55-piece collection of shirts, merino knits, trousers and tops and suits. Subtle and sharp, they’re not cheap, with a mohair suit setting you back upwards of £500.
“I’ve always liked music and clothes,” he says. “I’m a product of the time that I come from. There was clothes, music, football. That was it, really. That’s what defined who you were. Things were tribal. You could look across the high street, see what kids were wearing and from that know exactly what they were into, what kind of music.”
It’s time to ask about the hair, with Weller still sporting his Steve Marriott-inspired cut. When interviewing, it’s often wise to leave the cheeky questions till last, so with the PR telling us our 20 minutes is up, I go for it. I say one of my sons wants to know does Weller ask for “a Paul Weller” when he gets a haircut?
Fortunately he laughs.
“No. But, there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked up and thought, even after six months, that was a great haircut, I wish I could get it cut like that again. Occasionally I’ve taken a picture of myself and said, could you cut it like that?”
If Weller sticks to the same haircut, he’s always been happy to try out new ideas and sounds musically, whether it leads to Brits or brickbats, and his reputation as a lyricist is well deserved.
“Maybe that comes from always listening to The Beatles and The Kinks, Smokey Robinson…” he says. “Those writers could write fantastic story songs. I’ve met Smokey Robinson actually, about two years ago, and he was fantastic. I still get a buzz out of meeting people, course I do. If someone had ever said to me when I was ten or 11, I would have met Smokey or Paul McCartney, it would have been too fantastical to think about. I still love meeting those people. Smokey was lovely. And he’s still playing…”
Maybe Weller will do the same?
“Yeah, I’d like to keep playing as long as I could. Until I drop really. I can’t imagine not doing what I do.”
This is when Weller differentiates himself from most of my other well-known interviewees by taking an interest in his interviewer. “How many kids have you got? So how does that work, do you work shifts? Are you bringing them tonight? Go on, bring ’em all.”
I hesitate, I don’t want to say I can’t afford it.
Weller doesn’t miss a beat, and says, “S’all right, we’ll sort out tickets.” And he does. Thanks Modfather.
“Sound guy,” says my son later from our prime seats in the director’s box. He’s right. Paul Weller, he’s a sound guy.