PAUL WELLER – THE MODERNISM OF HOUSE
On the eve of the release of Paul Weller’s 15th solo LP and the lead up to a major retrospective of The Style Council, Ralph Moore meets his hero and discovers why Mod and House are so closely connected.
Taken from Faith Winter ’20 issue
Paul Weller is 62. But from his sharp style and overall demeanor you’d never guess it. Though firmly tied to his mod roots, he’s ever changing and musically mercurial.
Needless to say, I’ve always admired him: it’s hard not to. He’s traversed the past forty years like the true modernist he is, never losing the buzz of new discoveries: firstly with The Jam and The Style Council, then since 1991 as an ever more exploratory solo artist – straddling everything from pastoral folk and free improvisation to Krautrock and musique concrete.
In July 2020, On Sunset became his fifth solo album to top the UK Charts. It saw him return to Polydor, the label who had released all those classic records by The Jam but who’d ironically refused to release The Style Council’s house-flavoured Modernism: A New Decade back in ‘89. “They liked being commercial,” he muses midway through our wide-ranging Zoom interview back in the summer. “I think it was a new MD and he just didn't want to do it and that's probably the truth of it.”
But if you’re looking for more reasons why Paul is on the cover of a HOUSE music magazine, the answers are multitude.
Let’s start or should that be Shout at The Top with The Style Council, the band he set up in 1982 with fellow mod Mick Talbot, and former Wham! backing singer Dee C Lee (former Mrs Weller). The Style Council were, from every angle, a proto Balearic soul outfit, in sound and in vision.
A firm, hands in the air favourite at Shoom, the group’s 1984 euphoric soul single ‘Shout To The Top’ was later covered by Farley & Heller on JBO. Weller has also frequented many a London club – from being a regular face at The Wag and Wendy May’s Locomotion to Talkin’ Loud at Dingwalls and later the Heavenly Social.
Then back in 1989 Weller released a cover of Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’ as he immersed himself in the more gospel-rooted sound of House, seeing it as part of the black soul music continuum. Finally released in 1998, Modernism: A New Decade provides a fascinating insight into where Weller’s head was at in that long hot summer of 1989.
His love of the music from back then has never left him and there are even touches of house piano on one of the standouts from his new LP ‘Old Father Thyme’ which we will hear more about later.
As if our 40 minute Zoom wasn’t enough, Paul’s management emailed me later that day to say how much he’d enjoyed the chat for Faith. But there was something far more precious that came on the same email. It was a message that Paul had asked to be pass on with regards to a topic we’d been discussing. “So the label I meant was DJ International (from Chicago) and please ask Ralph if he knows ‘One Kiss Will Make It Better’ by Ten City? Such a great tune.”
If that’s not the best message to get from a musical hero, I don’t know what is. It’s also irrefutable proof that even at 62, Paul Weller is 100% HOUSE.
So we’re mainly here to talk about music. We hear your album is number 1 on the midweek!
Well apparently, but yes who knows!
I’ve been listening to the new record quite a bit and it’s easily your best LP since ‘22 Dreams’. How long did it take to make it?
Two years as it's sort of followed on from my last record. I had a track left over called ‘Mirrorball’, which was the first track on the album, the cornerstone of this record so I guess over the course of two years.
It does feel to me like you don't really stop in terms of creativity: there's always something bubbling isn't there!
Yeah, what can I say! I don't even think of it really, I'm not particularly conscious of it. I just have all these little random ideas that I write into a note pad until I think I’d better try and put these together now and that's when I think, ‘yeah, let’s start an album’. So it's kind of conscious but it's also not because I'm just kind of following the music do you know what I mean?
I do! Was it intentional that ’Old Father Tyme’ has what I call house piano stabs?
Yes, there is a direct reference there because I did love all the stuff from that time and it's a definite influence and a definite reference to that music in the hope that it will put a smile on some people's faces as well as people of a certain age. With Robert Owens and Frankie Knuckles and all that sort of stuff I love that sort of music and I guess like all music the best of it stays with you.
One of the things I like about your career is that in terms of your audience, they’re very loyal. If you do a tour, your fans will always turn up and support you. Do you think about these things? Would you care if you did a show and it was half empty?
I suppose so because I'm always surprised that people are still interested! Pleasantly surprised. You know I still think it's pretty amazing that after all these years - I mean we’re talking over 40 years - that people are still interested, thank goodness. I've tried to make the best music I can. I think especially in recent times in the past 10 years or so it's definitely more so for me. Hopefully there's a certain standard they always get to! I really have no idea why I have this longevity and I guess whatever I say will make me sound arrogant or conceited and I'm not. I am more surprised than anyone else that I'm still here and still relevant.
I wonder if it's something to do with people you're surrounded by, whether that's the label, the musicians, your kids? Maybe they have a part in keeping you on your toes?
I keep myself on my toes! Like a boxer, you've got to be on your toes! I don't know because in all that time I've changed labels I've changed bands and I've changed personal and blah blah blah as you do in a long course of time. I'm not saying it’s all me because obviously it's about teamwork but my team would have changed in that time as well. I've got high benchmarks and expectations and whether I feel them or not, sometimes I don't in my mind or I feel like I just get close to it. I've got a certain sort of standard I don't want to drop below and I don't know what that is! I'm probably still keen to make the perfect record even though I know that's not possible, you know what I mean?
This leads on to my next question actually. I work a little bit with the Pet Shop Boys as a remix A&R and Neil Tennant is 65 and whenever we talk about this stuff he will often reference someone like Mick Jagger who is a decade older than him. I wonder if you look at some of your peers who are older than you?
Definitely The Stones. I've only seen them once and that was actually in recent years but they were great, Mick was great. I've seen Paul McCartney in recent years and he was fantastic and the same with the guys from The Who. They are still making great records and as a live entity they're still smashing it and with such a strong catalogue of fantastic songs which is like song after song after song. I don't know if I could do that, perhaps I will if I live another 10 years, then maybe I will end up doing the same songs on the same set every night but at the moment I don't do that. So for me it's always sort of changing with new songs coming into the set and new records and I do think I'm in a bit of a different situation. So I would probably look at people like David Hockney or Peter Blake who in their 80s and still doing new work. So they are possibly more of an inspiration for me.
That brings us to another question I had in mind – do you consider music as painting as well?
I always see music in terms of pictures and when I'm writing and I start a song off I kind of get this picture emerging in my mind and I think there's definitely something coming from a similar source.
David Holmes told me: “I admire Paul’s constantly reinvention as an artist and his curiosity for new music…” Do you think about these things when you're looking forward or is it something you do naturally?
I think it's just my character to be honest, it's just my personality and also I still want to learn. I want to find new things and still want to see new things and improve and evolve as a person not just as a writer or a musician but also as a person. And spiritually. I'm not someone that got into their 40s and then thinks the best years of life are behind me and then spend the next 40 years reminiscing: that is a terrible waste to me! Perhaps I am lucky in what I do, if I have a certain outlook there are always things unfolding.
I guess that’s the curiosity David Holmes is talking about?
I don't think you can ever, ever stop learning no matter what it is. It's foolish to think you know everything you need to know. My wife always takes the piss out of me because I believe in magic and think that magic is real and she always says well of course it's not. Well, even if it isn't, none of us can prove that and what am I gaining by not believing it! So I guess that's where I'm coming from.
Our Editor Terry Farley wanted to know, did you hear their cover of ‘Shout To The Top’? Are you flattered by cover versions?
I was by that one. I know it well, I think Loleatta Holloway sings on it? It's an amazing version in that it sounds like what I wanted it to sound like when I made the original version. I've not heard many cover versions like that one so it’s actually very special for me.
‘Shout To The Top’ was a big Shoom record. Is it true that you went there once?
No! I wish I could have! But when that was all sort of happening I had my first child so I was kind of totally out of the loop of anything like that. I was very much in parenthood mode, so I missed all of that really.
But Frankie was on your radar?
I heard the music. I heard It through Marco Nelson who was in The Young Disciples with Carleen Anderson and he was a DJ at that time so he put me onto a lot of that music. When I first heard ‘Promised Land’ by Joe Smooth I then started to go to shops like City Sounds and the one with the gold door in Shepherd's Bush. I would listen to the imports and stuff like that. People like Blaze and Kym Mazelle made absolutely amazing records. And Chicago’s (DJ) International.
Top of the Pops is replaying on TV at the moment and it's 1989 so it's kind of all of that stuff! But what really struck me is how many black UK and US artists were having big hits: it was such a fertile era in the mainstream for the house community! Is that why you then covered ‘Promised Land’?
Yes but I thought they were such great songs as well. Like Ce Ce Rogers ‘All Join Hands’ and Ten City’s ‘That's The Way Love Is’ are such great tunes. Not only was it a new sort of sound, they're also just such great songs and a good song is a good song no matter the style or whatever. But at the time as well I really liked the rawness, especially with ‘80s sophistication and the slick back dial of the ‘80s production a lot of them sounded like they were done in a bedroom. I don't suppose they were but I guess you could say lo-fi for that real raw sound and that really appealed to me. And it sounded a lot more soulful to me than Alexander O'Neil or whatever was hip at the time.
Did you ever get to meet any of the people we’ve talked about?
I met Juan Atkins. He came to our studio because he remixed a few of our tunes. We did a whole album in 1989 of that sort of music (Modernism: A New Decade)
I actually had that on this morning and what strikes me about it is number one it's really good and secondly the power of Polydor to say no, we're not putting it out. Obviously now coming full circle, you're back on the label. How did that make you feel at the time?
I was just really f****** angry because I thought it was a great record at the time. I'm not cutting edge but you know when you know.
Maybe they thought your audience wouldn't get it?
Yeah I guess so. That was Polydor’s thing, they liked being commercial I think. It was a new MD and he just don't want to do it and that's probably the truth of it. But then they put it out years later as part of that compilation so what comes around goes around and of course I’m now back on Polydor.
Does that feel like full circle?
Yeah it does in a way but hopefully I have not come back to die though! They’re a nice bunch there.
And I believe Mick Talbot is on the new record? That's another full circle moment in a way?
He plays on two records on the album and straight away I thought of Mick’s sound. I knew that his sound and his style would work on this! We did a documentary down at our studio that’s coming out in the autumn. So Mick was down there doing some filming anyway so we just got him on because I knew his style would suit that track.
I guess he must stay in touch a little bit then!
Oh yes, we always call and text on each other's birthdays.
I’m a firm believer that what you wear helps define you so if you go out looking scruffy that's probably how you're going to present yourself to the world. Is how you present yourself – say, in a suit - a uniform for you?
You know what? No, for me I think it's a cultural thing where you dressed up and you put your best foot forward. I'm talking about in the ‘70s post skinheads, every kid I knew looked great. The clothes were great at that time and we might not have had much money but whatever we wore we were always clean - pieces were crisp and your hair was washed and shiny. So I think it's more of a working-class culture thing that is instilled in me.
Did you go to Ibiza?
I did go there once but not for clubbing it was a few years ago go now and I would be way too old for that now.
But if you didn’t go to clubs in Ibiza, where was the music capturing your imagination?
I used to go to some clubs in the early ‘80s. I went to The Wag quite a lot and then there was another club called White Trash which was good I can't remember who ran it though. And we’d we go to The Embassy Club sometimes. But The Wag I suppose really was the one, I would go to some of their jazz nights. Lots of different things I guess also percolate around that time. By the late ‘80s, me and my missus at the time had just had a baby, so you were out of the loop.
Returning to new music, I know you’re a fan of Michael Kiwanuka but who else is on your radar?
I'm not sure how you pronounce this was it someone like Sault and it’s untitled. It’s really good, it's kind of very raw sounding but it's lovely though. Oh and a little plug for Kevin Haynes and it's called ‘Ajo Se Po’, an amazing afro jazz album that I've been banging lately.
It's now 25 years since the ‘Help’ charity album came out: I remember selling it when I was working at Woolworths when I was 20! Does that feel like 25 years ago?
No, not at all! But then my whole life feels like that to be honest: it's gone very, very quickly. 25 years is a long time but it doesn't feel like that as it's gone so quickly.
Do you still want to be performing in 25 years? I get the feeling Mick Jagger will only stop when he drops?
He probably does what every single person does after they've just done a long tour and say oh I'm never doing that again just like I do after every album. I say I'm sick of this and then of course in a few months I say oh let’s go back on the road and do it all again! I can't imagine it being too different from that. You're ready to do it all over again it just gets in your blood like at the circus or something. Take it down, set it up and off you go!”
Finally, let's talk about that magic you mentioned. Is there magic in that you feel like working in music can be magical because it's better than a real job? Andrew Weatherall always talked about the magic of happenstance: things that happened that you never quite saw coming. Is that it?
Definitely. I think there's magic in the world itself and the stuff that we could write off as just science in the way our bodies work, the way nature works when it's left to its own calling… that's all magic to me. I've seen the magic in music as well, you must have experienced that too, whichever side of the stage you're on. There's just something that happens in the evening or a gig or at a club or whatever you're listening to which is magical and it's those unexplained little moments. You can either choose to see them and be open to them or you can really shut off to them but for whatever reason, what good would that serve you? I think it's important to remain open to those moments you know and be open-minded enough to receive them.”
Can you give me an example of something magical?
I don't want this to sound in a flash way but that's happened almost every single night! It’s probably easier for me to say that the two or three nights in each tour that it maybe doesn't happen. I'm extremely lucky to feel that and that happens to me almost every night. And in the studio, when I come in with a very rough and raw idea which we then work through a little and then it doesn't seem to be going anywhere and all of a sudden a few hours later we've turned a corner and it's become this tune, this song, this arrangement and I think that's magic we've done it physically. All of a sudden, the singers turned round and it's beautiful and it's become its own living thing. And that is magic to me.”