Forty years after his first single, The Modfather is back on tour. Duncan Seamen of The Yorkshire Post catches up with Paul Weller. Main pictures by Tony Johnson.
There’s a cluster of middle-aged Mods huddled expectantly in the cobbled street by the stage door at the Victoria Theatre in Halifax. Paul Weller is in town and, 40 years into his musical career, he still inspires a loyal, sharply-dressed following prepared to arrive several hours before a gig hoping to catch a friendly word with The Modfather.
Inside the theatre, as we quickly discover, there are certainly no airs and graces about the singer whose CV includes two of Britain’s best loved bands, The Jam and The Style Council, as well as a 25-year solo career. He obligingly helps carry our photographer’s equipment during his photo session and, as we sit down for our interview in a sparsely appointed dressing room, he asks his tour manager for no more than a cup of tea.
Now 56, Weller looks lean and lightly tanned with a striking thatch of silver hair. He’s dressed in blue, from his cable knit sweater to his suede desert boots.
His spring tour of less visited towns – which also includes Scunthorpe, Stoke and Blackburn – is a prelude to the release of his 12th album, Saturn’s Pattern, a record that’s been described as “progressive”.
“Well, I didn’t naturally describe it as that,” he explains. “But a journalist asked ‘Is it my prog rock album’ and I said ‘It’s not prog rock but it’s progressive’ because I think it’s going places that are certainly pushing my boundaries, anyway, musically.”
Where many of his contemporaries from the 70s and 80s may be content to trade off old hits, Woking-born Weller remains as creatively restless as ever. The likes of Going Underground, A Town Called Malice and That’s Entertainment are nowhere to be found in his current set list.
Since turning 50 in 2008, he seems to have been on a quest to expand his musical horizons further and further. Shades of folk, jazz, psychedelia, even German cabaret can be found in his albums 22 Dreams, Wake Up The Nation and Sonik Kicks.
He agrees that he suddenly felt freed to do whatever he liked after reaching his landmark birthday. “I think there was an element of that, definitely. I purposefully set out to make the most indulgent record I possibly could. I thought ‘Well, if you get to 50 you can at least indulge yourself’ so that was the basis of the record but as it turned out a lot of people liked it.
“You just can’t ever tell, you know. I thought it might be the opposite - I thought people might find it self-indulgent, but it got a great reaction. I think that also the reaction to that encouraged me to go a bit further as well, sonically and in terms of writing and methods of working, in every way, keep changing it as much as you can.”
In recent years Weller has cut a happier figure. Married for a second time – to the singer Hannah Andrews – he’s now a father of young twins, as well as five older children. In one interview for his last album, he said his songs “came from a certain platform of stability and being positive – and happiness”. It would certainly go against the idea that artists’ best work often springs from their most miserable times.
“No, it is true,” he reconsiders, “but then when you’re in those kind of moods your choice of words and vocabulary is much greater. That’s what I think it is anyway, and I think it’s just harder to write something up-full, happy or joyful or whatever. It’s just harder to do it without being clichéd or cringy, you know?”
He thinks he can create “whatever mood” he’s in. “I can either do it or not do it, it wouldn’t particularly matter, but having said all that, on the new record it’s got, not in any thematic way, but it’s got a kind of very joyous, uplifting sound to it. I just thought because we live in such depressing times I didn’t want to reflect that, I’d rather do something else.”
Banished from Weller’s life are what he once described as his “booze-binge Britain” nights of old. Five years ago he became teetotal, a decision, he says, that’s been markedly for the better.
“Well, I’m more sane and healthier but the major thing is...well, it’s made a massive difference, really, because I’m just more present now. I’m more present whether it’s at work or at home, my mind’s clearer, it’s as simple as that.”
He’s also got more energy for his children. “I’d been at it a long time and it had got its claws in me so it was a good enough time to stop.”
He says that music is what’s kept him going throughout the past 40 years. “Whenever people say ‘What’s the thing that inspires you to keep going?’ it’s just that; I’m able to play and do the thing I love the most, I’m able to play music and express myself and write – that’s what I’ve always done and what I always wanted to do before I could do.
“When I was a little kid, probably from the age of ten onwards, it’s all I ever really thought about. To be given the opportunity to do that not only for a few years but a lifetime I feel really blessed, to be honest with you.
“It’s what you put into something as well, it’s the work you put into it, but I still think I’m quite fortunate.”
Weller talks fondly of working with old pal Steve Brookes on his new record. As he points out, Brookes is his “oldest friend”. “We’ve known each other since we were 14 or something, we started The Jam off together – originally it was just me and him.”
He is pleased too to have rekindled his friendship with former Jam bass player Bruce Foxton. “I was glad to make friends with him again. It really came about because his wife (Pat, once a press officer at The Jam’s label Polydor) was really poorly and then she passed away, bless her, that’s how we made contact. I was just trying to see how she was doing.”
It seems Weller’s fervour for clothes and music remains undimmed. He even now has his own menswear range, Real Stars Are Rare.
“I’m a product of my time,” he explains, “that’s what it was back in the day. There was football, clothes and music – that was kind of it, really, that was your entertainment, but those things helped define who you were.
“It’s different now, it’s less tribal, which is probably a good thing, I don’t know, but it was very much when I grew up – in the late sixties, early seventies, formative sort of time anyway, that’s what it was then. When you saw another kid in the street and you saw what he was wearing you knew what music he was into, probably what football team he liked, and he was thinking the same as you and it was that kind of cult thing, subculture.
“But they were strong influences on me and they never seem to really fade. And probably for a lot of people of my age or older they’d probably say the same thing.”
What makes a Mod, he says, with a wry smile is “cleanliness”.
“You know the Pete Meaden quote, ‘Clean living under difficult circumstances’? That pretty much sums it up, really. I don’t know...because it’s so adaptable – there is a certain look, obviously – but it’s endured because it’s so adaptable.
“For me, part of it’s philosophy – you absorb whatever’s good and what’s going on, take a piece of this and put it through your own filter. In the post-modern world I think that’s what’s made us great as well, we’re good at doing that, aren’t we? And it comes out really original, I think.
When, back in the 80s, he was more politically active with the likes of the Red Wedge tour for the Labour Party, Weller was dubbed a spokesman for his generation. Thirty years on, he seems wary of politicians. The idea of being a political figurehead was discomforting, he says.
“It’s great that people felt I’d caught a mood in my songs and my lyrics and reflected what other people were going through but I didn’t feel comfortable with that kind of thing whatsoever, I’d never had to take on a mantle as such.”
Although he may have sold millions of records, he still thinks of himself as working class. “Yes, it’s my roots, absolutely. A lot of the things I was taught when I was a kid from my folks have endured and they’re good. But you only get out of life what you put into it and whatever you get out of life you have to work for and those are good ethics to have.”
That work ethic certainly applies to performing. No matter what size of venue he’s playing in, he says his approach is the same. “Every gig is a challenge, big or small. I don’t think I ever approach any gig with anything less than that. It keeps it interesting for us.”
He still gets nervous before gigs, too. “Yeah, absolutely. Every night of my entire life. It’s lessened a little bit but about an hour before I’m due to go on that’s when it starts. Every night.”
• Paul Weller’s new album Saturns Pattern is out on May 11. He plays at the First Direct Arena, Leeds on November 29. Visit www.paulweller.com for further details.