Sang The Sun In Flight: Paul Weller Interviewed
Paul Weller has never wanted to repeat himself. The English songwriter is reluctant to look back – perhaps that’s why he’s turned down offers to reform The Jam – and this lends his solo catalogue an emphatic air of creativity. Since he last reset the dials on the potent double album ‘22 Dreams’ he’s traversed some unexpected climes, including 2018’s gorgeous folk meditation ‘True Meanings’.
Out now, new album ‘On Sunset’ could be his most distinctive solo statement yet. It follows (of all things) an electronic EP, released on (of all places) the stellar underground imprint Ghost Box, perhaps this country’s foremost purveyors of wyrd sounds and hypnagogic thrills. A chance for Paul Weller to assess familiar influences – funk and soul, 60s British pop – but in an unfamiliar way, creating the shock of the new out of an awareness of the old.
“I was determined to make a punk record… but that never happened!” he laughs. Chatting amiably to Clash, Paul Weller sounds refreshingly free of expectations. “I’m more conscious of trying not to repeat myself, to be honest. And obviously that gets more difficult the older you are, and the more you do… because you inevitably cover the same ground. You can’t really avoid it.”
“As much as possible, where you can, you need to at least make it somehow different. More for my own interest, to be honest – I need to keep myself interested. How far you can go with that, I’ve not idea! Also, the older I get, the more exposed to other types of music… every time I hear something different, I’m like: that’s nice, maybe I can adapt some of those ideas.”
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Perhaps to compensate for this continual injection of new ideas, Paul Weller’s methodologies remain the same. ‘On Sunset’ was built from the ground up, using a live band as much as possible – even those layers of electronics were performed live in the studio. Not matter how far out Weller gets, it seems he’s always able to return to some familiar space in his psyche.
Looking back on those sessions, he enthuses about his growing appreciation for a deeply English style of left-field electronics. “It’s a relatively new influence, definitely,” he comments. “I wouldn’t have understood that type of music years ago – I wouldn’t have got it! But now it makes perfect sense to me. Most of the time, anyway! Definitely Broadcast would be an influence – I love their record alongside the Focus Group. That was a really revelatory record for me. I liked the fact there was all this cut-up music going on but there was still some melodies floating in and out. I thought it was really, really clever.”
“It’s a natural thing for me, when I’m getting inspired by all different types of music, is to try and incorporate elements of it into what I do. I don’t know what I’d call it – in old money, I still call what I do ‘pop music’… but maybe that’s me showing my age! But I like the idea you can incorporate these abstract elements into something that is essentially pop.”
Pop songwriting that acts as a lens for left-field tropes, ‘On Sunset’ is packed with moments of intrigue. Perhaps the most indicative example of this is ‘Earth Beat’, a track that samples cult underground group Belbury Poly and references a real-life rhythm that supposedly permeates the planet’s crust.
“The idea of the song probably came from my daughter,” he explains. “My youngest is three. And I’ve probably said this about every single child I’ve ever had… of which I have many! But when I see her, and she’s so full of wonder, and happiness, and goodness, that it gives me hope. It gives me hope for the future. I think it was inspired from that. To feel that connection through my children… I think it goes back to that whole life and death thing, the whole cycle of life, the beauty of new-ness. It’s just the beauty of the life cycle. I guess it came from that, really.”
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Lyrically, Paul Weller returns again and again to themes of fatherhood, ageing, and death. ‘Old Father Time’ for example, “is me just looking at my own mortality,” he insists. It’s a song of reflection, the Angry Young Man watching others of his generation slide away.
“I’m coming up to that age group where a few contemporaries have been popping off – old school friends, and some of my heroes, who are older than me. And it’s like: oh man, they’re going, so we’re next! My generation is next! But I want to find some kind of acceptance of that. It’s a natural cycle of life. Whether we like it or not. I guess it’s me saying, I accept this. I accept this thing of getting older and eventually passing on. It’s becoming comfortable with it, man.”
There’s still a fire in his belly, though. At its best, ‘On Sunset’ rages against the dying of the light, Paul Weller’s barking Blue Eyed Soul voice laced with the impact of experience. Take the return of former Style Council conspirator Mick Talbot on breezy soul number ‘Village’.
“We were doing some filming for a documentary about the Style Council, which is coming out in September,” says the songwriter. “He was down the studio, anyway. We got a spare half-hour, and ran through some tracks. It’s always great to play with him because he’s such a great player. We’re slightly older… but we’re doing what we’re doing that at that time. The past doesn’t really come into it.”
By the end of the Style Council both the group and Paul Weller himself were persona non grata in some circles, regarded as a faded voice. Bearing the brunt of some incendiary music press criticism took its toll, but it helped galvanise the stubborn creative spirit that allows him to take such huge changes in his work. “Me and that band were vilified for a number of years, in the press especially,” he states. “It felt a bit… uncalled for, really. Even though we did put a lot of people’s backs up… but there’s nothing wrong with that sometimes!”
“Like any body of work, man, there’s always going to be good bits, and then some shitty bits… and some so-so bits. If you do it long enough, that’s just the way it’s going to be. We had our moments, and we wanted to do something different at the time. Whether we did or not, I don’t know. I thought we were doing something really different and cutting edge… but it wasn’t to be at the time.”
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More reflective and measured than his youth, this older version of Paul Weller is able to absorb sounds he would previously have dismissed. Take the Kurt Weill piano on ‘Equanimity’ or a growing lack of restriction in the way he forms a melody.
“I think I’ve come to view my singing differently – and maybe I approach it differently – and that’s to not think about it so much... just see where it follows. Most of the time I do have a melody beforehand; if not the words, then I’ll have a melodic idea of where the tune should be. But then, I’ve also recently gone in and winged it sometimes, as well – not having a definite melody, and just seeing what I naturally start singing. So that’s worked sometimes. I’m always open to whatever method. For me, it’s the songs. If you’ve got a good song it’s a good place to start from, wherever you want to take it.”
Thankfully, Paul Weller’s supply of good songs is showing no signs of slowing down. ‘On Sunset’ is a wonderfully creative return, a record at ease with its own idiosyncrasies while still searching for pop communication. A notoriously hard worker – he’s essentially been on the road non-stop for about 30 years now – Paul was shocked into silence by the pandemic, forced to shelve his touring plans. That being said, he’s hardly slacking – another album is already well under way.
“I’ve made a conscious decision to start writing and make a record,” he says. “So I’ve just been doing that in the past few months. I’ve already got about 10 tracks, or something like that. Basically, I’m going to make another album throughout the summer, and hopefully put it out April, May next year. And hopefully by that time we’ll be back on the road… but who knows?”
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We finish by discussing the appalling events in America, the power of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It’s impossible to imagine Paul Weller without Black American artistry – soul music runs in his veins, after all.
“It’s sickening,” he says, with bite and venom in his voice. “It’s every week. To me, it’s like every week we have to watch an innocent Black person being slaughtered. You can’t say it’s anything less than that. And it’s been going on for fucking centuries, man. History doesn’t get any more appalling than slavery. But since the so-called Emancipation there hasn’t been a time where Black people haven’t been vilified and killed and put down and repressed and imprisoned. It’s still going on. When’s it gonna stop? There has to be a time where it stops, where we’re not just talking about how it can be fixed. Let’s just fucking get it stopped!”
Of course, like so many of us he cheered when those crowds in Bristol hauled Colston down into the murky waters of the harbour. “Yeah, man. Good! Fucking right on.”
He’s angry at the world, but Paul Weller isn’t about to succumb to cynicism. Relishing the role of fatherhood, he’s able to find some kind of light amid the sunset. “This sounds incredibly sentimental, but I’m going to say it anyway. I was walking down this country lane the other day, in the sunshine, and I was holding my little daughter’s hand and I just thought… what a privilege to be living my life long enough to be able to hold this little person’s hand. It makes you optimistic.”
“The world is in an awful state, and we all know that, but I have to remain optimistic. I don’t want to leave this world cynical. I want to be a happy soul. I don’t ignore what’s going on, and the shit that’s going down, but I want to see the goodness in life, and in people, too. Of which there’s much, man. We hear about all the bad bits, but there’s much goodness. I try to have faith in that, and the new generation coming up.”
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'On Sunset' is out now.
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