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Paul Weller: ‘Music means more to me since I’ve been sober’ 

In the kitchen of a recording studio, down a long lane, off a village high street, stands the wiry, wired figure of Paul Weller, looking at his shoes. Oxblood fringe-and-buckle loafers. He is explaining the subtle differences between this pair, and another pair he owned a few years ago.

“This part here used to be a few millimetres deeper,” he says. “And the buckle was a tiny bit bigger.”

In an inconsistent world of ever-changing rules, Weller is a constant. He is, and has always been, about music, and clothes, and details. By his taste shall ye know him (he’s also wearing old Prada trousers, and a jumper he designed himself for Ivy League outfitters John Simons)… alongside a just-under-the-surface anger, a time-is-ticking impatience, a suspicion of the elite. Though he’s not cross all the time, by any means.

Work-wise, though, his lack of patience seems to have become even more acute recently; he’s brought out an album every year for the past four years, and used the most recent, locked-down 12 months to create his 16th solo record, Fat Pop (Volume 1). “Nothing else to do, was there?” he says. “I was working a three-day week.” He had “four or five” tracks left over from the recording of his previous album, the chart-topping On Sunset, so he worked on those at his home in London before popping here, to his Black Barn Studios, every so often. Black Barn consists of a large, comfy studio, an adjoining office (platinum discs, selection of old photo-booth pictures), plus the house next door, with garden and trampoline. At Black Barn, he’d record his voice and guitar, then send the resulting tracks to his band – Steve Cradock (guitar), Andy Crofts (bass), Ben Gordelier (drums) – who’d work on their parts. A couple of songs involved other vocalists (the Mysterines’ Lia Metcalfe; Andy Fairweather Low) and they did the same. This preparation meant that last summer, when Britain started opening up again, everyone was ready to record, and Fat Pop (Volume 1) was finished by October.

It’s a strong album, a collection of banging singles. “Yeah, they’re all short, like three minutes, and they’re all immediate,” he says. “It was a conscious decision to make it like that.” Weller talks about some of the tracks. Fat Pop, the LP’s heart, is about how music can get you through the bad times; Cosmic Fringes is Weller imagining the life of a keyboard warrior: “I’m a sleeping giant, waiting to awake, I stumble to the fridge, then back to bed”; That Pleasure is his take on the Black Lives Matter movement. He wrote it immediately after seeing the murder of George Floyd. “I can only say that anyone, regardless of race or colour, should be horrified by what happened, and is still happening, and that has happened for centuries. When’s it going to stop? As a human being, to see your fellow human beings suffering is fucking wrong.”

There’s a couple of relationship songs, too (Weller is married to Hannah Andrews, and they have three young children, twins John Paul and Bowie, nine, and three-year-old Nova). One is romantic (Glad Times) and one is not (Failed).

Weller and Bruce Foxton on stage during a Jam gig in 1978. Photograph: Steve Morley/Redferns

“Failed was written after a row, yes,” he says. “I’m sure there must be many fathers who sometimes think: “Am I fucking this up? Am I a good father? Am I a good partner? Am I a good person? Have I done the best I could do?” All of those questions… and then Glad Times is about when you’re married with kids, especially, it’s easy to pass each other, isn’t it? Everything’s practical, and then when you do get a bit of downtime, you just want to be on your own… read a book, watch TV, not talk to anyone, not be asked questions. Very complicated things, aren’t they, relationships? Multifaceted.”

The next step would usually be to play live. Weller loves touring, and is rarely off the road, but the tour to support On Sunset was cancelled and rescheduled four times, and has now morphed into one that includes Fat Pop too. He can’t wait. He drew up a set list the other day and sent it to the band: Crofts pointed out that there were 69 songs on it. “So, we could be playing for hours, I dunno,” says Weller. He doesn’t sound too distressed about it. These days, when he plays, he always includes a couple of his many classics, but he raises an eyebrow when fans ask him if he’s going to play any old songs: “They’re all old songs, do you know what I mean? Unless it’s something brand new, to me, they’re all old songs.”

Weller allows himself to sit still for a moment. He settles on a leather settee in the office, eyes the pile of paper on my lap. “How many questions have you got there? A lot? Well, we’d better crack on with them then, hadn’t we?”

Fat Pop (Volume 1) is out 14 May (Polydor). Paul Weller plays a livestreamed gig with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from London’s Barbican, 15 May

Famous fans’ questions for Paul Weller

Pauline Black

Pauline Black, musician, the Selecter

There’s a distinct poetic edge to many of your songs. Have you ever thought of writing poetry to explore a different side of your creativity?

Thank you. I have written, I guess, poetry. I never know. It’s a blurred line between lyrics and poetry. Because some stand almost like poems and some need the music. It’s not often I do it, but if I start with a lyric, and write it all in one go without the music, that normally can stand up as a written piece. But when I’m working on a bit of music, you can’t be quite as free with the words. They have to fit into a sequence, a structure… I’ve always got a notebook on the go. There’s piles of them in the house. After I’d finished writing an album, when I got to the end, I used to burn them. I just thought: “get rid of the old”. But then my friend said a few years ago: “You should have kept them! You could have given them to your kids, and they could sell them.” So I started to keep them. But I question it. What’s the point? After you’ve died, most of your stuff will get put in the skip. So cut out the middle man.

Richard Hawley

Richard Hawley, musician

If the house is on fire, and the missus and the kids are safe, what guitar do you save and why?

My 1968 Gibson SG. I got it in the early 90s, £800 on Denmark Street. That’s my favourite guitar to play.

Jorja Smith

Jorja Smith, singer-songwriter

What song that’s not yours do you wish you’d written?

Book of Rules by the Heptones. I was singing it on the way coming down today, and it’s such a great song. I often feel like that about other people’s songs. Back when I was a kid, I would nick bits of them and write my own song! Now, I try not to do that. I try to get more inspired by them really. I love Jorja’s voice. We met at the Albert Hall when we did a charity special there. She was really lovely. I don’t envy solo women in the music industry. It’s all on your shoulders. And then with touring, unless you’re bringing some friends with you, your girlfriends or whoever, you’re probably just going to be in a tour bus with a load of geezers.

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, politician

Your music has often been cited as an inspiration by those seeking positive social change. What or who most inspired you as a voice for change?

Hmm. The Beatles. They changed my life, the Beatles. They totally changed my thinking. I started to think outside of my little bubble in my little suburban town. I wanted to see the rest of the world. I wanted to see other things.

Conor O’Brien

Conor O’Brien, musician, Villagers

One of my favourite memories of my musical development is trying to learn Broken Stones (I was 12 or 13), and then writing my own version. What can you remember about your earliest compositions and what influenced them?

Well, I’d be doing the same thing when I was 12. I’d be nicking someone else’s song, usually the Beatles. The songs I learned were the ones I thought had three or four chords, because I was limited. Me and my mate Steve Brooks, we were kids at school and we started the band together. One of us would learn a new chord: “I’ve just found a D minor seventh!” And we’d all get together and learn it, and then we’d incorporate it into a song we wrote.

Stella Creasy

Stella Creasy, MP

If you had to update That’s Entertainment for 2021, what else would you include as a fun pastime?

A fun pastime? I don’t know how to answer that, to be honest. It was just a list of things. I was looking around my flat and spotting stuff. It’s a very good question, because I can’t answer it.

Jason Williamson

Jason Williamson, musician, Sleaford Mods

As a young kid in the 80s I was greatly influenced by your cynicism towards other bands and their creative attempts. What drove this for you?

What drove that? I’ll tell you what drove that. For me, it was a realisation that you’re not really that good. And I wasn’t that good. I wasn’t that good a writer, I wasn’t that good a singer, or a player, and I knew that really, so it made me pick on other people. I was mouthy and giving it large and putting a front on. It’s shocking, and I’m quite ashamed of it. Yes, I was young, but I was a twat as well. There’s no need for it at all. Also, with Jason, it appears that I was very rude about him in Q magazine, but I was only joking. Tell him that. I love him. I love Sleaford Mods.

Jools Holland

Jools Holland

In your view, apart from me, who was the best dressed man in the history of music?

He’s always well turned-out, Jools, definitely. I’d say Mick Jagger, from the mid 60s to the early 70s.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin, author

In the early days of the Jam, did punks consider you a friend or a foe?

Well, the trendy, niche side of punk didn’t like us, because we were too suburban, and we tuned our guitars up and wore suits. So we were seen as outsiders. It wasn’t the Clash. They were very nice to us, Joe especially. And the Pistols: Steve and Paul were nice, Glenn a little bit – I know him better now, as we live near each other. Johnny was totally impenetrable. But there were a lot of posh kids involved in that little scene, in that little clique. Did I punch Sid Vicious? I did have to give him a slap, yes. I did. He came up to me in the Speakeasy and he nutted me, expecting me to cry and fall down. And I had to return the favour, as it were. I really loved the whole punk thing, but it only lasted for a year or so. I loved it from 76, from the time I saw the Pistols in September 76 at an all-nighter at the Lyceum. It was amazing. We’d all taken pills, speed, as well. Punk was the flare that was lit, that was our time.

Mary McCartney

Mary McCartney, photographer

Have you learned a new talent during lockdown?

Yes, I learned how to crochet.

Jo Whiley

Jo Whiley, radio DJ

With your wealth of experience, what advice would you give to someone on the brink of a career in music?

Stick to what you believe in. Don’t get swayed. Don’t compromise too much. I think if you’ve got a vision for how you want to sound and you how you want to be, you’ve got to stick with that. Because I’ve seen so many new artists who get signed to labels who aren’t sure what to do with them. And then they get styled up, or they get put with this producer or this songwriter, and nothing happens. They just disappear. Because they don’t know who they are any more. And the thing they were originally is gone.

Ray Winstone

Ray Winstone, actor

Did you find it easier to write songs or lyrics before you made it on the scene, or later? How do you think your style has changed over the years?

I’ve never found it easy, to be quite honest, but I found it easier by the Jam’s third album, All Mod Cons. I hit my stride then. With our first album, that was all songs that we collected up over two years, basically our live set. And by the third it was, “Either we’ve got to get really serious about this shit, or get out of the business.” I was only 21, by the third album. But I just got more serious about it. Before that I was nicking stuff. Which is OK – generally speaking, everyone starts out copying someone else. How else do you learn to play music? Look at Bob Dylan’s first record, right? It’s Woody Guthrie. Even the sleeve! Everyone starts off doing that. There’s no other way, unless you’re someone with this incredible talent you were born with, which is few and far between, really. Mozart, or Hendrix.

Vicky McClure

Vicky McClure, actor

My partner, Jonny Owen, is obsessed with you, to the point he actually claims that you’re Welsh. Well, have Welsh heritage! He even goes so far as to mention his home town of Merthyr Tydfil. Is this true?

Yes, all my mum’s family are from Merthyr and Aberdare, so I’m at least a quarter Taff! And very proud of that, too…

Phil Daniels

Phil Daniels, actor

How are you dealing with the mod haircut in lockdown?

Hello Phil. Yes, it’s been difficult, so I’ve just let it grow. I’ve based it on a kid I saw in Selsey in 1971. Remember when all the skins and suedeheads started growing their hair? Yeah, well, it was that moment, I’ve realised.

Paul Weller, Dee C Lee and Mick Talbot on a Style Council photo shoot in London, 1985.
Paul Weller, Dee C Lee and Mick Talbot on a Style Council photo shoot in London, 1985. Weller and Dee C Lee were married from 1987 to 1998. Photograph: Mike Prior/Redferns

Readers’ questions

Of all the songs you’ve written, what is your favourite?
Corinna Danby, South Shields

I thought about this last night, funnily enough. Aspects, from True Meanings. It’s an acoustic record, with strings and stuff. I always said: “If I ever come up with the greatest song I feel I could write, then I’ll turn it in.” But I didn’t. Because I thought: “If I can write that tune, and that’s the best thing I’ve done, perhaps I can write something else as good or better.”

Do you enjoy having a big family [Weller has eight children]? And are you happy to see some of your children following in your musical footsteps?
Bronwyn Burke, US

Yes, I enjoy it. And I’m happy for my children to be happy. I always tell them happiness is something you cannot buy. You just have to find what you really want to do in life. They don’t all have to be little copies of me. They don’t have to go into the music business. I never understand that thing with kids of well-known people, people in certain fields, who feel they have to follow in their mum’s or dad’s footsteps. You could just fuck off and be a chippy. Or you could go and work in a shop. If that makes you happy, that’s great.

Paul Weller photographed in his studio in Surrey for the Observer New Review in April 2021 by Phil Fisk
Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

How have you got on with home-schooling? Or have you mostly left that to Hannah?
Barry Linguard, Welwyn Garden City

Well, we home-school our three little ones anyway. My missus chose to do that, and at first… I’d never opened up to that point of view, because I thought that’s just what you do, you go to school. Our little one isn’t even four yet, so she’s still small. But the boys are nine and it’s been interesting to see how they naturally develop. They weren’t formally taught to read or write, and about two years ago, they just picked up a book and started reading. I mean, not Charles Dickens, but they can read comics, some books. Seven seems to be an age where something connects. Their vocabulary is amazing, has been for years now. They’re as bright as anything. We don’t have a tutor. They have some people they go out with Mondays and Fridays, other friends of ours who are in the home ed scene, so they’re mixing with other home ed kids. It’s been difficult with lockdown, because everything’s shut, but usually you go to museums or galleries, whatever it may be. The school system is just that, a system, isn’t it? I’m not knocking it necessarily, and I’m not knocking teachers. But teachers, like GPs, they’ve got a structure they’ve got to follow. It depends whether you believe in that structure or not.

You’ve written so many quintessentially British songs. And it’s said that the British have a unique sense of humour. So my question to you is: what or who makes you laugh?
Lloyd Chaplin, Maldon, Essex

Max Wall. I loved him, the mad, absurdist, surreal thing he used to do. And it’s not politically correct, but I loved Q with Spike Milligan. I thought Fawlty Towers was amazing. And then, in more recent years, I really loved Noel Fielding’s standup. I saw him once and I was just hurting through laughing. I was a bit stoned as well, but that’s by the by. And my kids really make me laugh. I was talking to one of the twins the other day about publishing my songs. I was going: “Hopefully, when I’m gone, somebody will become custodian of my songs and look after them, earn some money.” He went: “Yeah, well, I think great art belongs to everyone really.” I just thought that was hilarious. I was like: “I see your point, man. But I think it’s worth hanging on to.”

Which books have influenced you the most, and why?
Hilary Curtis, north Cornwall

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. I read it in 1982. And there, to me, was the whole mod thing, laid out. And the attitudes in the book, the attitudes towards racism, and how closed-minded English people were, especially at that time. That had a profound effect on me. It just reinforced everything I believed about mod.

Weller with his wife, Hannah Andrews, and children Natt and Dylan, 2018.
Weller with his wife, Hannah Andrews (right), and two of his children, Natt and Dylan, 2018. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images for Hugo Boss

What was the best bit of advice, whether it be to do with music or otherwise, that you still follow today? And who gave it to you?
Rachel Gilson, West Midlands

Maybe my mum, who just said: “Always keep working.” And I have done. There was that time after the Style Council when I stopped for a bit, but then my dad [who was also Weller’s manager at the time] said: “We’ve got to go on the road to earn some money. We’re skint.” That was very, very practical. I didn’t like it at the time, but it was good. We had to start again. We played some clubs with like, 40 people in the audience. I was like: “I’ve done all this work and I’ve got to start again?” What a great lesson to learn. Don’t get me wrong, I hated it at the time. But in hindsight, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, really.

More than your other punk contemporaries, the Jam’s records highlighted inequality created by Britain’s class system. Do you think this has changed in the UK over the past 40 years? Does it still make you angry?
Tim Thorpe, Anglesey

No, it still makes me very, very angry and is still in force. I think it’s embedded in the fabric of this country, really. Because there’s the old working class, and now there’s that other sub-class of people who are even below that, living on food banks. So it’s very much still in place, isn’t it? You’ve only got to look at Boris and all his public school mates to see that. Covid is giving them an opportunity to pass a lot of laws, because everyone’s got their eye off the ball. You know, the thing about people not being allowed to protest and all that.

Fans can see a lot more of you these days, from Instagram videos of you taking walks with your family, to performing songs under lockdown. How does being famous now compare with the time before the internet?
Jade, Harpenden

I don’t really do much on Instagram now. Someone will ask me, “Can you put an acoustic song up?” so I’ll do that. But I don’t know about walking about with my kids. Unless my missus is putting stuff up and I don’t know about it.

If you could collaborate with anyone, past or present, band or solo, who would it be?
Karen Owens, Airdrie

I can think of so many people. Betty Davis. Not the actress, the singer. She was wicked. She’s just so badass. There was a documentary about her with all this live footage of her. Way before Grace Jones, way before Kate Bush, whoever you want to cite, she was just so… she did not give a damn.

Do you ever get influenced by fans’ clothing and shoes? What is your all-time favourite item?
Andy Davis, Dublin

Yes. I often see people when we go out to sound checks. And then I ask them: “Where did you get them from? Where’s that jacket from?” Same if I see someone on the street. My all-time favourite item of clothing is a pair of smooths, as I call them, but the correct name is plain caps. And they’re made by Alden, an American brand. They took a brogue and adapted it, put a thicker sole on it, a bit more New York, I suppose. A New York town shoe. They’re oxblood, and they’re just the greatest shoe ever. They were stupidly expensive, like, £800. But they are literally a shoe for life. I don’t wear them too often, because I don’t want to get them all mashup. I regularly polish them, and I would suggest shoe trees as well, if you’re asking.

With Ken Livingstone and Neil Kinnock at the launch of Red Wedge, an initiative to get young people interested in politics, 1985.
With Ken Livingstone and Neil Kinnock at the launch of Red Wedge, an initiative to get young people interested in politics, 1985. Photograph: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock

I’ve heard you say in previous interviews that you only look forward and don’t dwell on the past, musically speaking. Have you started reminiscing yet?
Steve Armes, Ipswich

Nah. People always ask me to write my memoirs. A couple of people ask me every year, bless ’em. No. I’m going to do another book, maybe for next year, which is not a biography at all, but me just talking about my life and childhood and all that stuff. And I’m going to write it, good or bad, it will be me. So a little bit of biography, lyrics, and I might put some poetry in as well. That sounds really poncey, doesn’t it? But I can’t be bothered with a straightforward memoir. There are so many rock biographies, and they all sound very similar to me. Everything’s going along really well, and then you get into coke or drink, then you get clean and it all gets better again. It’s just like, for fuck’s sake.

If you had £1 for every time someone asked you if you would reform the Jam, how much money would you have? And for another £1, will you please?
Steve McCameron, Greenwich

I’d have lots of lots and lots of money. But I think I’ve made it clear that’s not ever going to happen, you know? In my opinion, we split up at the right time. Some things are just right for their time, and if they remain that, then I think it’s a good thing. Can you imagine if the Beatles had carried on? Can you imagine the Beatles in the 80s with a DX7 and a drum machine? It’d have been shocking.

In the video for the Band Aid single, Do They Know It’s Christmas?, you look really awkward. Were you?
Patrick, London

I was a fish out of water, yes. That was horrible. Everyone was getting off doing blow in the toilets. It probably would have been all right for me in the 90s, but I wasn’t into all that then. I just thought: “It doesn’t feel right, this.” I was totally out of my comfort zone, and you can see it.

At the recording of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?
At the recording of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? Photograph: youtube

Since you’ve become sober, your lyrics are deeper and more soulful, musically more diverse. It’s given you a whole new lease of life. As someone thinking about dropping the booze too, but struggling to get past a few days, how do you do it?
Rob Reed, London

Since I’ve been sober, which is 11 years this year, I get more from music. Not just my music, but all music. It means more to me, and it’s more direct to my heart and my soul. And certainly playing it. Playing sober is so different, because you become more conscious, you’re more in the moment. And that changes everything.

I stopped because I knew I had to stop. If I didn’t, I’d lose my wife. I didn’t give up because of vanity, because the drink was bigger than vanity. Now, when I look back to before I stopped, from the 00s onwards, I just think: “Christ, the state of me.” I looked a lot older, a bit puffy, and red… just wrong. I would say go to AA, because they’re good people. I would have gone to AA if I’d needed to. I think if you can’t do it on your own, there’s no shame in that. I’ve only had a few times where I’ve come close to drinking again, because I was angry. And I called my mate, Johnny Harris, and he talked me through it, really. Him and Steve Cradock are my closest pals, who I talk to about that stuff. Steve doesn’t drink any more either.

Do you have a pair of Crocs next to the front door for putting your rubbish out?
Claire Brown, Twickenham

[Firmly] No. I do not have Crocs. No way. No slippers either. The closest I’ve ever come to slippers would be a nice moccasin. I wear trainers or socks in the house. But only Adidas, old school Adidas. One has to keep some sort of standards.

What three pieces of advice would you give your younger self?
Vanessa Kirby, Middlesbrough

None of it I’d have listened to, but: cheer up, you miserable little git. Don’t worry, everything works out. And be nice, be kind to people.

  • Paul Weller plays a livestreamed gig with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from the Barbican, London, on 15 May. Musical arrangements by Jules Buckley, special guests include Boy George, Celeste and James Morrison

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