Here we go again: a new Paul Weller album, and in its trail a stream of positivity from just about every constituent part of media, from broadsheets to blogs, from rags to Rolling Stone. With one of his early lyrics rattling in the background ("I don't give two f***s about your review," from The Jam's 1977 single This Is the Modern World), I ask does he ever get fed up with people telling him how great he is? There is a cheerful laugh at the other end of the phone line.
“I quite like it, to tell the truth,” says Weller. “It’s nice, isn’t it? The bottom line, of course, is if people don’t like what I do, then what can I do about it? If it’s positive feedback, yeah, I’m flattered and pleased, and for people to actually dig what I do is part – but only part – of why I do it, I suppose. As for the new album, more people have said they like it than not, but I’ve been around for about 45 years now, so the most important thing is that I just continue to make the records I want to make.”
What about severe criticism? It depends, he says. “When I was a much younger man, if someone didn’t like the music it would put my back up straight away, I’d be biting at the leash. But I’ve obviously calmed down over the years and have come to view criticism – and I mean constructive criticism, not criticism as a personal attack – as not such a bad thing. Nevertheless, I do what I do, and I perceive what I do as having some level of value.”
I'm from a generation where music meant the world. It defined who and what you were, and it certainly helped me navigate a path out of a provincial English town. Does it do that for people much younger than myself?
Weller’s new album, Fat Pop (Volume 1), arrives less than a year after On Sunset. Its swift appearance can, of course, be attributed to lockdown restrictions, leaving Weller and his bandmates to potter about, when lockdown rules allowed, in his Surrey-based Black Barn studios. The overall tenor of the album is a mix of unsurprising soul-funk with several adroit excursions into string-enhanced ballads and kitchen-sink-drama rock-pop.
On the Weller album scale, it’s up there with one of his most accomplished works, but it will hardly convert the naysayers. What stands out the most, perhaps, is the breadth and range of songs, with the varying music styles culled from a lifetime of listening, living and breathing them. God knows, he says with gum-chewing sincerity, what he would have done if it hadn’t been for music.
“I left school in the mid-’70s without any qualifications and I had no interest in getting any because all I wanted to do was play the guitar and write songs. I had never thought about anything else. I also never thought about whether I could or would make a success of it because I just presumed it was a matter of time. Not because I thought I was great at it, but because I instinctively felt, even from when I was a nipper, it was my purpose in life. There was never a doubt in my mind that I’d be doing anything else, which I suppose you could put down to being a teenager in the ’70s and being so in love with ’60s pop culture.”
Weller turns 63 on May 25th and is, of course, a long way from his teenage years. Back then, surly teenagers’ views of anyone in their 60s was that they were not only incredibly old but also incapable of understanding anything the younger generation felt passionate about. He allows that perception has changed utterly.
“When I was a kid, I thought anyone over the age of 25 was ancient, let alone 60 or over. My perspective now is completely different and has experience and knowledge behind it. We have to remember at that time the older generation were post-WW2, and so there was an entirely different mentality and culture. Even the way older people dressed back then was rooted in post-war attitudes. For a kid like me, that age group, particularly people in their 50s and 60s, seemed ancient, ancient, ancient. And, of course, at that age I would never, ever have expected to be making music into my 60s – it would have been unthinkable to me – but then I also would never have imagined that I’d reach the age of 63. As luck would have it, I didn’t die or disappear after having had a few hit songs.”
He is now, he says, fitter than he has ever been in his life. For many years, Weller’s lifestyle has embraced healthy eating and a no-drink, no-drugs, gym-workout regime. But he used to be, he says with a hint of remorse, a man who spent much of his time in pubs, hotel lounges, airport bars and anywhere else that was connected to the sale and distribution of alcohol.
“All of those changes make a massive difference to my health and my life. My energy levels are excellent. I still lead a very busy lifestyle and I’m certainly not wiped out by it all. I wouldn’t like to think what my health – physically, mentally, spiritually – would have been like if I hadn’t stopped the drink and the drugs. I don’t know why people ignore looking at the bigger picture of their health because it makes sense to me to at least try to live your remaining years as strong and fit as you can. Simple luck can play a part, too, of course, as I have known many people younger and fitter than me, and they’re gone. I’m stronger and fitter – how I look, however, is something I can’t do anything about.”
If there is a legacy aspect attached to Weller it is surely because of his continued commitment to not simply appeasing his fan base. I suggest he is blessed in many ways when it comes to personal success.
“There have been times when I might not have been here, so I’m extremely lucky to have been able to carry on doing what I love from the age of about 14. I wasn’t making records at that age, but at weekends I was gigging and playing with my mates in bars and working men’s clubs, playing Beatles covers and early original songs. For the weekend shows, we were getting about £20, which even at that tender age was good money. I’ve always been making a living from what I do and what I love, and I’ll continue to do that. To be honest, I’d do it for nothing.”
There’s a pause, and we can hear the gum-chewing increase in motion and volume. “Mind you, if Spotify has its way, we’ll all be doing it for nothing.”
MUSICAL YOUTH: WELLER ON THE DEMISE OF TRIBES
“Music can be a real rock for people, but whether people take it for granted these days is something I’m not certain about. I suppose with the ready availability of music from pretty much everywhere now, there isn’t a need for people to consciously search for it – it just lands on your lap, doesn’t it? I’m from a generation where music meant the world: it defined who and what you were, and it certainly helped me navigate a path out of a provincial English town. Does it do that for people much younger than myself?
I can only hold up my older kids as examples. The ones in their 20s and the teenagers love music, but is it a central part of their lives? If I'm honest, I'd say they don't need to be defined in the way I felt I naturally had to be, and I suppose there's some regret about that. It's a bit sad that music might not have the same intense cultural importance or value, but I reckon people these days have more a sense of self-identity and so don't have the need to identify with tribes or scenes."
Fat Pop (Volume 1) is released on Friday on Polydor Records. Paul Weller is scheduled to play Ulster Hall, Belfast, on November 9th, and Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on November 10th and 11th