As frontman for the Jam and later the Style Council, Paul Weller has been an uncompromising face of British rock for three decades. "I've considered retiring after almost every record I've made lately," he says. "This one is different."
Eyes hidden behind wraparound shades, Paul Weller strides through the dark hotel lobby in his habitual fashion, dressed way above what this ostensibly casual occasion demands, in a fine woolen T-shirt, freshly pressed trousers, and a pair of two-tone shoes Al Capone would have approved of. His tan is more redolent of South Beach than southern Yorkshire, which is where he is this May evening—in Sheffield, to be precise—on the latest date of his U.K. tour. His hair has been styled in an artful feather cut with blond highlights, not necessarily becoming of your average 50-year-old, but then Weller, a genuine icon of British rock, is anything but your average 50-year-old.
He suggests we repair to the hotel's gardens, where the sunglasses begin to make more sense, and he orders a beer while fishing for the first of three cigarettes over the coming hour: "Got a light?" To commemorate his half century (celebrated on May 25), the former Jam and Style Council frontman, who came of age during the U.K. punk scene as perpetrator of some of that genre's most intelligent rhetoric before reinventing himself first as purveyor of supersmooth soul and then earnest, singer/songwriter rock, is about to release his most ambitious project to date. His ninth solo album, 22 Dreams features contributions from Blur's Graham Coxon and Oasis's Noel Gallagher, and boasts 21 songs that run the gamut from shuffling folk to raucous R&B. There are poignant acoustic laments ("Where'er Ye Go"), avant-garde instrumentals ("111"), and even a spoken-word soliloquy ("God"). "I wanted to push the boat out with this one and make it something special," Weller says through ribbons of smoke. "I reckon I've achieved it, too. I can't remember when I last felt so positive about a record."
Happy birthday. Feeling old?
Not especially, no. Feeling energized, more like. I've considered retiring after almost every record I've made lately, thinking, 'Christ, I'm not going through that all again.' But I don't feel that way with this one. This one is different. It's made me look forward to whatever comes next, which is no bad thing for a man my age.
22 Dreams is, thematically, a sprawling album. You've suffered from writer's block in the past. Not this time, presumably?
Not at all, no. I'd had all sorts of ideas for this record, wanting it to be a big one, given my anniversary. At first it was going to be an album of duets, then cover versions, but they never quite came off. Once I decided to strip everything back to just me and Steve [Cradock, Weller's longtime guitarist], I couldn't really stop. The more songs I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I wanted to make an album you could really sink your teeth into, something with a lot of information on it and a lot of different styles, the kind of thing you could listen to again and again and find new things each time.
That explains "God," the spoken-word track.
I must have written that at least a decade ago, but never quite knew what to do with it. It was Steve who suggested a spoken-word piece would fit nicely on the record. I did it using my voice at first, but my dulcet monotone never quite scanned. Steve had a go, and then one day a mate of ours, Aziz [Ibrahim, who plays in former Stone Roses singer Ian Brown's band] came along, gave it a go, and it sounded perfect. He is a Muslim, Aziz, but he agreed with the sentiment—that God is mostly only there when we are in times of need—and at the end of the song, he starts to say it in Punjabi. It sounds like he is speaking in tongues as the track gets increasingly chaotic, and I like that a lot.
Your music has always been steeped in English culture. Do you think that Britishness has kept you from becoming a superstar in America?
Well, the Americans liked the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, didn't they? And they all sounded quite British to me. But then it is true that I've always been accused of being too British to properly crack America. I'm not the only one, am I? Oasis never translated over there, neither did the Stone Roses, the La's, the Libertines...
If you could do it all over again, would you prefer to be more than a popular cult figure in the U.S.?
I never lost sleep over it, to be honest. I never wanted to be U2. Having said that, I suppose I did try fairly hard in the early days, with the Jam. We used to visit at least twice a year, and although our record sales were always nish, we built up a sizable live following. I remember playing Chicago once and 6,000 people turned up. That made us quite excited about our future, but then [laughs] we split up. I still regularly tour America, but only the coasts. Financial reasons, mostly. There's no point in me travelling to Armadillo, or wherever the fuck it is, and playing to just 300 people. I may as well just throw money away.
What are your thoughts on your 1970s peers: John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Mick Jones, Sting?
[Frowns] I don't really consider any of them my peers, except Mick Jones, whom I still see. Many of my true peers have passed on, like Joe [Strummer], while the rest have just sort of disappeared from view. And John Lydon? I don't really understand him anymore. He's become the antithesis of what he once was. Does he need the money? I can't comment on that, but perhaps he misses the adulation, the buzz. Nostalgia has become a whole industry in itself at the moment, and I don't like it. You never can recapture what has gone. The moment has passed. Leave it.
Nostalgia has become a whole industry in itself at the moment, and I don't like it. You can never recapture what has gone.
Do you recognize the Paul Weller of 25 years ago?
Of course I do. I'm the same person, aren't I? Okay, I may have had daft haircuts or silly clothes, but spiritually or mentally, or whatever word you want to give it, I'm still the same person. I still get off on music now much as I did then. It's still my overriding passion.
You were a cocky little shit back then, weren't you?
Well, that was youthful arrogance, wasn't it? It was partly bravado, but it was also a lot of self-belief. I've always had self-belief, though my sensitive side has never been fully appreciated. For every "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," I've written an "English Rose." People forget.
In both style and sound, the Jam and the Style Council couldn't have been more different. What were you revolting against?
Expectation. The Jam felt too confining for me; I wanted to push myself artistically. So I did. You don't know until you try it, do you? Some of the things I did were great, and some were pretty fucking awful. But I'm glad I did all of it, because everything was a building block that led on to something else.
Did you ever think you'd made a terrible mistake, splitting the Jam at the band's peak?
No, never. Many people may have believed otherwise, but what you have to remember is that the Style Council were a really big band for at least four years. I thought we were amazing. We had some great singles; in fact, alongside the Smiths, we were one of the great singles bands of the era.
Fashion was an important part of the Style Council. Do you regret any of your fashion statements—the "no socks" rule, perhaps?
No regrets, mate. We were having fun. We were really influenced by European chic, so that's why we were wearing the trousers and the shoes without the socks. We pulled it off, too. But we were also winding people up. We wanted to shock, if only because everyone had such a strict image of what I was about. I wanted to smash that down.
The video for "Long Hot Summer," featuring you and keyboardist Mick Talbot lying side by side, had homoerotic overtones. Whatever were you playing at?
[Smiles] There was never anything going on between me and Mick. We were just good friends....
Why are you such a clotheshorse, and whom are you trying to impress—women?
I've always liked my clothes, even before I could properly afford them. Clothes for me were never a cloak, a cover. They were how I chose to express myself. Apart from domestic things like school [tuitions] and things for the house, clothes are what I spend my money on. And no, I've never dressed for women. I only ever dress for me.
What's the best band that ever claimed to be influenced by you?
Well, Oasis, obviously, and more recently the Libertines, Arctic Monkeys. The Enemy are another one, a really good little British rock act—lots of spirit.
And the worst?
That's not for me to say, really. I like to think my influence only ever had positive ends, not negative ones.
You've been known to dig deep down into your entire catalog when playing live. What do you say to audiences that come to your shows expecting to hear just the hits?
My audience probably knows me well enough by now not to expect just the big hits. Having said that, we still do play old songs, even on this tour, and whenever we do, the room erupts. That's always nice. But not all the old songs work. We tried playing "Going Underground" once, and we just sounded like a cabaret act. I couldn't find the connection to the song that I once had.
Generally speaking, do rock stars know when their best is behind them?
If you're the kind of act that plays your greatest hits every night, then you should have a fair inkling. But I tend not to do that. Rolling Stones? They do, and I often wonder why. I personally couldn't play the same songs every night for years and years. That's not a challenge. I'm convinced my best is in front of me. Whether that's true or not, it's the carrot that draws me forward.
For many years, you were managed by your father. Did that prevent you from indulging in reckless rock star behavior?
No, not at all. It probably encouraged it, if anything. We've always had a great relationship, me and my dad. Even as a kid, he'd take me for a drink round the workingmen's clubs, so I've always been able to enjoy myself around him as much as I wanted. And he used to like a little tipple as well—or three... hundred.
Could you do drugs in front of him?
[Reaches for another cigarette] I never really did that many drugs, actually. I smoked a bit of pot, and by the '90s there was coke all around, but, no, I wouldn't rack a line out in front of him. That's not to say he didn't know what was going on....But then, as I said, there were never loads of drugs floating about. For a while, I'm sure I was doing too much of everything, but then I just stopped. It was a phase for me, never anything more than that. I got bored, and I stopped.
You have the reputation of someone who doesn't suffer fools. It makes you appear rather aloof. When people meet you, do they like you?
I think so. I hope so. If people think I have a reputation, they are mostly basing it on what I was like 30 years ago, or perhaps 20. But I like to think of myself as a friendly, sociable person. I'm sure I have my moments, like anyone does, but I'm mostly not rude, and I try to be as accommodating as possible. [Pauses] Fancy another drink?
Did you ever crave anyone else's career?
No, never, but I'm sure I craved some of their songs. [Ray Davies'] "Waterloo Sunset," for example, and most of the Beatles' stuff.
Your love of old-school American R&B is noted, but what about more modern U.S. music? Any empathy?
Ten years ago I would have had to say no, but there is some terrific music coming out of America at the moment. Acts like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes, Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, the White Stripes...all that lot make really fucking brilliant, proper rock'n'roll, and I love it.
What about hip-hop?
I'm not big on rap, to be honest. I just don't get it. It's angry people shouting. I like a song, melodies, people singing. The only time I ever really got into rap was back in the early '90s, and bands like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Gang Starr. Musically, they were really interesting. But when hip-hop acts start sampling Sting or Phil Collins, then I just don't get it at all.
What's your take on drummer Rick Buckler and bassist Bruce Foxton touring with a different singer as From the Jam?
I don't agree with it. I think it tarnishes our legacy. Not entirely, but significantly. I don't know why they are doing it, because we all get very healthy royalty checks every year—I know that for a fact—though it's true I did write most of the tunes myself. Perhaps they miss the adulation, like every other old band that re-forms these days. Will I be going to see them? [Shakes head] No, mate.
Do you still speak to them?
I've seen Bruce recently, a year, two years ago. We ran into each other at a concert in [London's] Hyde Park, at the port-a-loos, of all places. And that was fine, there was no animosity between us, as far as I was aware. The drummer? With the drummer, it might be a different story.
What will it take for there to be a Jam reunion?
That will never happen, I can promise you. It would be totally and utterly pointless. Even if I was impoverished—and thank God I'm not—I'd go off and do something else, playing pubs and clubs instead. It would be important, I think, to maintain some sort of dignity. Look, the Jam was a great statement at the time, and many of our records still stand up today, but it's over, it's the past, and that's where it should stay.
You reportedly turned down a CBE [the honor of Commander of the British Empire] last year because you didn't want to have to meet Tony Blair, whom you considered a war criminal. Tony Blair isn't in power anymore. Would you accept one from Gordon Brown?
No. How could I? It would be hypocritical of me, because I don't agree with the royal family or the establishment, so why would I want something from them? I was totally bemused when I was offered it. In fact, I was mortified.
You've always been outspoken about politics. What's your view of the current U.S. and British governments?
First and foremost, I'm a musician, not a politician, but I have to say I'm totally against what is going on in the Middle East at the moment. It's disgraceful. But there are millions of people in America who marched on the streets before the war in Iraq started, in protest of it. And not just America either—the whole world. If we really are living in a global democracy, then why don't our governments listen to their people?
What do your children think of their father?
Hopefully, they love me, they love their dad. I've got five kids, ranging from three to 20. Three sons, two daughters. The oldest has started writing his own tunes now, and so has my 16-year-old daughter. I'm so proud of them, and I'd be more than happy for them to get into music as a career, because I think it's a fine and noble profession—as long as they don't sign anything without getting it checked by a lawyer first.
Like George Clooney and Sex and the City's Mr. Big, you appear to emit an effortless cool. Is that something you're born with, or something one works hard to develop and maintain?
[Grimaces] I can't sit here and say to you that I was born cool, because that just sounds fucking wanky...but I guess it's just the way I am. I've always stood my ground. I've always done my own thing, refusing to be swayed by anyone. Anyone. That's quite a difficult thing to do, but it's something I've always strived for.
Will you still be singing well into your dotage?
Who knows? Because, honest to God, I don't. I never thought I'd be doing this in my 50s, much less beyond, but the years go by so quickly, don't they? I don't see retirement as an option, really. This is what I do. I'm glad I do it. I hope to continue.
Discography: Paul Weller
The six best albums from his ever-changing moods
All Mod Cons
The Jam's third album found them at the height of their powers. Punk may have reigned, but Weller, under the influence of the Kinks, was writing songs of wit and intelligence, not just anger and petulance. The most memorable: " 'A' Bomb in Wardour Street" and "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight."
Their most ambitious album, Sound Affects expands the Jam's sonic palette with the driving funk bass of "Pretty Green," while nods to the Beatles and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley explode from the grooves. The vivid acoustic lament "That's Entertainment" is the record's—and the Jam's—moment of sublimity.
The Style Council
For his new band, out went the agitprop and polemical whinging, and in came summertime jazz and soul, assisted by the funky keyboard work of Mick Talbot. A hugely successful album (in the U.K., at least), it managed to alienate as many Jam fans as it won Weller new ones.
The Style Council
Our Favourite Shop
Released at the height of Thatcherism, Our Favourite Shop—retitled Internationalists in the U.S.—revealed a lyrically motivated Weller once more, this time tackling racism and mass consumerism. The singles "Shout to the Top" and "Walls Come Tumbling Down" harkened back to the punchiness of early Jam.
Go! Discs, 1993
By 35, Weller had reinvented himself again, now as an earnest singer/songwriter, and his sophomore album fully established him as an elder statesman of rock. Awash with the atmosphere of the '70s and inspired by the Small Faces, this was Weller as less an angry young man than a full-grown artiste.
Go! Discs, 1995
On this overwhelmingly intimate collection, Weller is still in love with R&B, but he's also increasingly defined by classic British folk. Named after the street he grew up on—and teeming with personal history—this would prove his most successful album since his days with the Jam, selling more than a million in the U.K. alone.