The Changing Man
6th December 2018
With The Jam, The Style Council and as a solo artist Paul Weller is regarded as one of the most influential British musicians of his generation. As he prepares to release his latest album, he speaks to Andrew Arthur about turning 60, his new song about David Bowie and why he thinks the UK is ready for political change…
Imagine walking into your local pub to find Paul Weller entertaining the regulars. This would have been a realistic prospect in 1970s Surrey, where Weller started as a live performer.
On the phone to the singer-songwriter, I ask what he thinks he’d be doing had he not become a successful musician.
“I have no idea really, have I? But I would imagine I would be playing in pubs and clubs in Surrey still.
“I’ve got other mates who were in bands at the same time as I was and are obviously the same age as me now. They still play gigs at the weekend. They’ve got day jobs as well, but they still just love going out playing.”
He adds: “If it’s in your blood, it’s a hard thing to stop doing, whatever level we’re talking about.”
Weller is celebrated for an eclectic body of work and a forward-looking approach to his craft. Having turned 60 this year, ‘The Modfather’ has entered a period of his life where, for once, he is momentarily looking back. Weller acknowledges reaching the milestone did impact upon his latest album True Meanings, a collection of intimate, acoustic songs.
“I think it certainly informed some of the themes on the record. I don’t think it’s particularly nostalgic, but it’s definitely reflective. If there was ever a time in life that I might be reflective, it would be around turning 60. Which is pretty monumental.
“I think it’s also quite distressing, I suppose, the thought of my mortality really. Without being morbid, which I don’t feel it is. But I can’t help but think about how f****** quick it has all gone, more than anything. And how much more have I got left? Like I said, it’s not in a morbid way, it’s just reality you know? You can’t help but think about it. I don’t spend too long pondering on it. There’s no point. But it’s certainly a time when you have to take stock of that.”
After accumulating songs over a five-year period, Weller enlisted the help of co-writers to finish some of them.
The esteemed songwriter admits he enjoyed being partially freed of the burden of agonising over his own lyrics.
One of the four joint efforts on True Meanings is Bowie, which Weller composed with singer-songwriter Erland Cooper. The song is a tribute to the late David Bowie, as well as a broader reflection on loss.
Like Weller, the Starman enjoyed a long-lasting career defined by transformation and Weller confides Bowie’s death in 2016 affected him.
“It made me sad for an awful long time. Because he had done so little for so long and then he came out with The Next Day and then, a couple of years later, Blackstar.
'If there was ever a time in life that I might be reflective, it would be around turning 60. Which is pretty monumental. I think it’s also quite distressing, I suppose, the thought of my mortality really'
“There was all this activity and I thought, ‘Great, he’s well again and he’s back on it’. So it was a shock for me when he died and I was saddened by it.
“When me and my wife had twin boys six years ago, he sent us a very nice bunch of flowers and a card saying congratulations. That was really sweet.
“One of our boys is called Bowie as well, obviously named after him. My wife is an even bigger fan than me.”
Age does not seem to have mellowed the fire in Weller’s stomach when it comes to politics. Many of his songs with The Jam were noted for lyrics about working class life. The Eton Rifles offered a withering attack on a privileged social elite.
He’s encouraged by the growing political consciousness among young people and feels change is needed.
“This government is hopeless. All of them. Look at them, they’re like ridiculous caricatures of silly toffs.
“Rees-Mogg, Boris and all those... we’re all sick of it. I think it’s time for a change.
“But to expect that any one party is going to wave a wand and it’s all going to be different is absurd. I think people have just got to do it for themselves really.
“Compared to the 1970s and 1980s, there’s a lot of things that are way better now. People’s attitudes in general are better now.
“People are fairer and open-minded, they’re well travelled. I think, generally speaking, there is less racism.
“I don’t believe in the idea of ‘divided Britain’ – I think that’s a lot of b******* really. I could cite many examples of people being totally united, all colours, all religions, everyone. I think ‘divided Britain’ is just another tool of the Tories and the right-wing propagandists.”
Weller offers a measured response when asked if he feels contemporary politics and society are not reflected in popular music as they were in previous decades.
“I don’t think that’s true in hip-hop or grime is it? Those artists seem to be still telling it like it is. But in pop or rock? I guess not. I think it’s inevitable really after 20 years or so of wishy-washy politics. These interchangeable faces, Cameron, Blair, they’re all the same.
“You have to ask, has music still got that cultural force? I think the last shout on all of that was in the 1990s. I don’t think music holds the same place for people. Some of that’s down to it being disposable, you don’t have to pay for it. Music doesn’t have the same cultural value possibly.”
For many of his fans, Weller is a fashion icon, with his style changing as regularly as the genre of music he plays.
As our conversation ends, I ask him if he finds it unusual seeing men with haircuts that he has inspired.
Laughing, he says: “Yeah, sometimes but it’s also quite sweet. What can I say?
“I have copied so many of my heroes’ haircuts. Sometimes with success, sometimes it’s a complete disaster. But I don’t walk around thinking I’m a style icon. Humility is a quality that we must find at some point in our lives. It’s a good thing to learn.”
Paul Weller’s new album True Meanings is available now