“Normally, I’m in silk pajamas and those sort of poncy slippers with the initials on them,” Paul Weller deadpans when I ask what the man long considered a style icon has been wearing around the house during lockdown. “And then like a smoking jacket and a pipe. Just sort of normal sort of daywear like that, really.”
Paul Weller — the only figure from punk’s Class of ’77 still making new, vital music; the ’80s soul crooner; the progenitor of Britpop and, of course, the man known to his faithful legion of fans as the Modfather — has always been a tough nut, especially toward unsuspecting journalists. But Weller, who turns 63 later this month, is now more than a decade sober, and over that time, he’s become more and more willing to flash his keen sense of humor.
“Yeah, man, I’m just more comfortable in my own skin, I think,” he says.
That wit was always there. The songs Weller wrote for The Jam — his first band, the Mod- and R&B-influenced punk trio that, like The Clash, rose from the ashes of punk’s Year Zero to greater and more adventurous artistic heights — always exhibited his wry take on the world around him. His next band, the Style Council, took ’80s outrageousness to a whole other level, though that sensibility has a timeless nature to it (as was made clear in the recent Showtime documentary Long Hot Summers: The Story of the Style Council) that helps his ’80s output to still feel fresh and vital while his counterparts in the Greed Decade’s hit parade feel carbon-dated, to say the least.
After the Style Council crashed and burned thanks to the group’s label refusing to release its last album and several disastrous gigs in front of fans unwilling to go where Weller’s house music muse was taking him, he reinvented himself as a solo artist who predicted the ’90s fetishization of all things Swinging London long before the likes of Oasis, Blur and Radiohead. His third act really took off with 1993’s Wild Wood, even in America, where The Jam and Style Council had risen above cult status, and 1995’s epic Stanley Road merely sealed the deal.
But by the mid-’00s, Weller — though still a huge live draw internationally and still racking up hit singles and albums in his homeland — felt his well had run dry.
“That was a weird time,” he told me in 2012 of receiving the coveted Outstanding Contribution to Music award at the BRITS in 2006. “I thought the album we’d made, As Is Now, was really good, but people just didn’t seem to take to it the way I thought they would. I don’t think I knew where to go next.”
But sobriety and a new marriage, now going on nearly 11 years, seemed to give Weller not only clarity of purpose and focus, it appeared to unshackle him from trying to please anyone but himself.
“I never really gave a fuck before, but I’ve made a conscious decision to only please myself,” he told me in the same interview.
The results were astonishing. 2008’s 22 Dreams was a sprawling epic, a White Album-esque manifesto that set Weller apart from acts half his age as an artist who was still a true force to be reckoned with. In the years since, he’s released album after album that pushed his artistic boundaries to heights that anyone who’d seen Weller in 1977 — or 1986 or 1995, for that matter — would have likely thought unimaginable.
If 2010’s Wake Up The Nation was The Jam for the Facebook era, then Sonik Kicks (2012), Saturns Pattern (2015) and A Kind Revolution (2017) was tryptic of experimental pop that proved Weller’s muse was a strong as ever. That he then released the gorgeous, acoustic-based, orchestral True Meanings in 2018 (as well as a remarkable live companion album in 2019) and ventured deep into the dazzling, smooth modern soul of On Sunset just last year felt like icing on the proverbial cake.
“When we finally get on the road, we’re going to have a lot of music to play, that’s for sure,” Weller tells InsideHook via telephone from his London home. “I haven’t really stopped to think about it, because that’s just not me, but I’m really inspired, surrounded by great people, and I have a studio at my disposal, which during lockdown was really important, I think. To be honest, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have that.”
Fat Pop, Volume 1, out this week, is Weller’s latest, and it ups the ante yet again. Written from ideas he’d held onto during previous recording sessions — “not because they weren’t any good but because they didn’t quite fit the mood of what we were working on at the time,” he says — and snippets on his phone that then he circulated to his band, who added their parts virtually before coming together for finishing-touch sessions last summer, it’s an album of would-be singles. In fact, if this were the late-’60s, ’70s, or even the ’80s, one could imagine any of Fat Pop’s 12 tracks topping the charts.
For someone as prolific as Weller, the fact that he had a substantial chunk of time off the road really for the first time in his adult life was the unlikely key.
“Just the fact that I didn’t have anything else on really helped,” he says. “At first it was really just to keep my mind focused on something. I thought I’d try and get out as much music as I possibly could. But pretty soon I realized it also allowed me to take my time a bit, and come back to the songs every few weeks. Plus, I was doing a track at a time — not necessarily finishing them entirely, but nevertheless focusing my concentration on one song — whereas normally, when we have done sessions, we’re kind of working on half a dozen at a time. So, yes, quite a lot of thought and care put into this album and all the parts.”
That process paid dividends. In fact, the ever-restless Weller says he already has the beginnings of his next album.
“It’d drive my manager and label mad if I did another one right after On Sunset and Fat Pop, but we’ll have to see when we can get back on the road,” Weller, who is due to play a socially distanced streaming show this weekend and is scheduled to hit the road in November, says. “Because often, when I come to the end of a record, I’ll still be in kind of writing mode, so there’s always the little seeds or the roots of something else growing I think from that.”
This from the man who once told me he ceremoniously burned the notebooks he’d been working in at the end of each project.
“It’s funny how we all adapt,” Weller replies with a laugh when I remind him of that statement, which he delivered with real emphasis at the time. “We’ll adapt to any situation, won’t we? For me, in lockdown, staying busy and creative has been key. But no, I don’t do that anymore.”
Fat Pop is full of great songs, but perhaps the biggest highlight is the first single, “Shades Of Blue.” Weller co-wrote the piano-driven track with his eldest daughter Leah, who also contributes backing vocals.
“I had the verses, but I didn’t have a chorus,” Weller recalls. “Then my daughter, Leah, came up with this amazing chorus. I’d noticed, in the last couple of years, how good a writer she’d become. So,when we did the song together, obviously we’re father and daughter, but still, we met on this level playing field, where we were both writers, just from different generations. And she did a good job. Very good. But forget the proud dad bit; it was just a lovely thing to do.”
It’s a stunning moment, with the timeless Weller sharing vocal duties with his own flesh and blood. It’s also a single that represents the whole of the album supremely well. Fat Pop is both gorgeous and collaborative, finely crafted and chock full of the sort of left turns and surprises that Weller has made his name with. From the angular opener “Cosmic Fringes,” to the soulful “Glad Times,” jazzy “Testify,” and the elegiac closer “Still Glides The Stream,” Fat Pop is a masterclass in the sort of record-making that is all too rare in this day and age, and it shows Weller still at the absolute peak of his formidable powers.
So with Fat Pop a success both artistically and personally, will there be a Fat Pop, Volume 2?
“Well, yeah, I hope so,” Weller says before we hang up. “I’d like to think there will be one. I don’t necessarily think it’ll be the next one, but at some point in time, definitely. But right now, I’m just looking forward to getting out there, man.”
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