Most people when they reach the big five-oh start thinking about taking things a little easier. The majority of their working life is behind them and, if they’re lucky, they find themselves established in a comfort zone within a profession they are both happy and satisfied with. But, as anyone who has followed his career will know, Paul Weller is not “most people”.
This is, after all, the man who broke up The Jam at the height of its power and influence, choosing to leave behind the generational fury of one of Britain’s most successful bands for the sophisticated, soulful political comment of The Style Council. This is the man who returned from years of exile to help steer British music into a new era of song-driven dominance.
Back in the days of “speed and slow time Mondays”, few could have imagined that the angular and angry young Weller would still be lording it over the British musical landscape at the age of 50. But while some of his contemporaries lived fast, died young or aged disgracefully, Weller has survived both the vagaries of fashion and the rock‘n’roll lifestyle to come out on top as one of Britain’s most respected and influential musicians.
“I care about what I do,” Weller tells The Bulletin. “I don’t go throwing any old music out into the air. Additionally, I’ve never conformed to what people expected from me and I’ve always really done what I’ve wanted. I’m not out to conquer the world anymore – I’ve done all that – and I don’t feel any of that pressure. One of the benefits of getting older is that you’ve earned the right to do what you want to do. That’s been the most rewarding aspect of recent years, that people have really responded to the new directions I’ve taken.”
Weller has always been seen as somewhat of a maverick by an industry which has at times taken umbrage at his disregard for its obsession with sales figures, marketing campaigns and fabricated images. As a result, things have not always gone smoothly and Weller has at times found himself without label support. This, however, hasn’t stopped him from making some of his best music, sometimes on short-term contracts, sometimes on no contract at all. But Weller admits he’s increasingly becoming one of a rare breed.
“Young bands these days have it much harder,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure to have a Top 20 or Top Ten hit and it’s becoming more difficult to do that without industry support. There’s no way that I could have been so indulgent at times if I hadn’t been in control of what I was doing. That’s a kind of reward for surviving so long in this business…something many kids in music today won’t get the chance to do.”
Just as swapping The Jam’s sharp suits and French crops for cycling shorts and frosted tips was considered a radical – and risky – change in direction back in 1982, Weller has again confounded critics who had labeled him a stodgy rocker stuck in his ways with his current album, 22 Dreams. The album ebbs and flows between quieter moments of subtle blues and pastoral folk, and experimental dabblings in psychedelia and electronica. Weller seems reborn as he weaves a rich tapestry of styles with a rediscovered confident swagger. From the first song to the last, the message is clear: Weller is back to taking risks – and loving every minute of it.
“I was just really conscious of trying something different on this record,” he says. “I wanted to challenge not only myself but the audience as well. I was just digging deeper to see what was in me. There’s loads of styles on 22 Dreams which I’ve never tried before and that really excited me because sometimes you think you’ve learnt all there is to learn and played all there is to play and then you can turn a corner and find a whole new world. That’s really inspiring.”
Weller also credits his co-producing team and the musicians who guest on 22 Dreams with helping to stoke the coals of his enthusiasm and for pointing him in new directions. “This album isn’t all about me, and it wasn’t all on my shoulders,” he says. “We had a great team of producers and some great musicians on this record, with guests like Noel (Gallagher), Gem (Archer, from Oasis) and Graham Coxon. Each of them brings something different to the sound and their ideas just lead you onto unknown paths. Having everyone sparking off each other made aspects of the record really spontaneous. Most of time, we just followed it where it was leading.”
With a new collection of songs, the ever-restless Weller is back on the road, bringing 22 Dreams to Brussels and the rest of Europe throughout October and November. So, with a possibly career-defining album in the can and yet another well-attended tour under his belt, will Paul Weller do the honourable thing and reach for his pipe and slippers? Not likely.
“I’ve got the rest of my life to take it easy,” he says. “Life goes by so quickly. You should try and do as much as you can. I’m still loving it and I’m still passionate about what I do. I’m fired up by this record and can’t wait to make the next one. This is a springboard to the future.”