Music Interviews

Paul Weller: “Tony Benn’s thing of how cynicism is the enemy? He’s right” – Interview

Paul Weller

Paul Weller

“I prefer the sound on this one. I think the songs are stronger, and I like the sound better. It’s a cleaner and tougher sound.”

Paul Weller is speaking about his new album Sonik Kicks, the latest instalment in something of a creative zenith for the silver haired songsmith. In keeping with the album he has a blend of animation and contentment – the latter brought on by the domestic bliss which he currently enjoys with his new twin arrivals, of which more later.

The vivid colours on the cover of Sonik Kicks and the video of its lead single That Dangerous Age are hot and electric. “I think it’s modern psychedelic music really,” says Weller. “That’s what I think it is, and the sleeve reflects that. It’s about that experimental register as well.”

Of late that ‘e’ word has been key for Weller’s music, as he looks to explore new musical territory. One of his companions on the journey through Sonik Kicks was High Llamas founder Sean O’Hagan. “That’s him doing the strings,” confirms Weller, “he’s a very clever fella. I’ve never worked with him before but he’s got a very distinctive style of arranging, and I think it’s worked out really well.”

A lot has been made of the influence of Krautrock on Sonik Kicks, whose spelling alone gives that away, but Lou Reed was a source of inspiration too, one that Weller initially plays down. “I wasn’t listening to them every day in, day out – I mean, it’s just another influence – but it’s a new influence that I hadn’t listened to before, that’s more the question. But like every piece of music I listen to, if you like it, it gets soaked in somewhere, and comes out in different ways. With a band like Neu!, who I only listened to fairly recently, it was more that beat – that driving, motorik beat – that made me want to work that in to a track.”

And Reed? “Metal Machine Music is almost unlistenable, but I’ve managed it a couple of times. It is worth persevering with, because amongst all that sort of chaos and the angst he seems to have there is a serenity, like the eye of a storm with the calm inside. I felt a bit of that, I thought it was in its weird way some beautiful, modern classical music. It’s not the sort of thing you could put on every day, as it would do your head in, but there was something I liked about it. So I wanted to incorporate certain aspects of those things, you know? They’re not major, massive influences; they’re just little strands I’ve discovered.”

So what is That Dangerous Age about? Is it, as we suspect, an observation on how people pigeon hole you as soon as they know what your age is? “Definitely, especially I guess from society and the media as well. There aren’t any charts or maps on how you’re supposed to act, you know? I get to 53, and I think how are you supposed to act when you’re 53? I have no fucking idea really; I’ve never been this age before! The song itself is like a piss take on the whole midlife crisis thing and how society views it.”

Yet ‘midlife crisis’ is the last thing that comes to mind in Weller’s company, as he cuts a trim, tanned and health-ridden figure, tan accentuated by the white jumper on this occasion. “I got that out of the way in my late 30s,” he confirms of his own crisis. “I had it early and got it over with. I’ve seen some things in the press that say about how this is a midlife renaissance, or some old flannel, but I don’t think of any of those things. It’s a good moment for me, a good point in my life, you know, and I don’t really question that too much. I’m just thankful that I’ve got it, and that it’s good. People say you create your best work out of sadness, or bad times, I don’t know if that’s really strictly true. I think being happy makes you positive, and out of positivity you can create great work as well.”

Sonik Kicks finishes with Be Happy Children, a soft centred love song that reflects the singer’s current positivity. “It was meant to be almost like a hymn, or lullaby, at the end of all this sonic adventure, a calming postscript.” Given that daughter Leah and son Stevie MAC appear on the track, did he have his own children in mind when writing it? “Yeah, though I wasn’t thinking about them – well I was thinking about my kids but not them singing on it when I first started writing it. When I first wrote the words I was thinking more about my dad, as he passed away about three years ago, and I was thinking how he would be like ‘don’t cry for me’, because he wasn’t that sort of person. He would say ‘be happy and think of the good times we had’, which is right. So that was the impetus for the song, and I was thinking about my own relationship with my kids, and I guess a sense of guilt at being away on tour for quite a lot of their lives, working and stuff. Then I hit on the idea of getting the two kids to sing on it, and thought it completed the circle in quite a sweet way.”

Sonik Kicks will be performed, uncut, at the Roundhouse mini-residency that Weller is about to undertake. “That’s the intention. I just thought in these days of people going out and playing their classic albums from 20 years ago, I would go out and play what I consider to be a classic album from now. I personally feel it’s strong enough to do that, but it is also a statement on this nostalgia trip that everyone seems to be going through, which I find depressing personally.”

Does that get in the way of new bands? “I definitely think it does. It’s a difficult thing though, because I’m not really hung up on that whole nostalgia trip thing. It’s hard to argue with something like the Stone Roses getting back together, because I remember Bobby Gillespie saying when the Sex Pistols first got back together in the ’90s that he’d never seen them the first time. So it’s a tough one, even though it can never be the same, can it? Even for the people who are going back to relive something, maybe it can touch on it and on some qualities, but it won’t be the same. I don’t have a moral stand on it, but for me by playing my new record I can say look, fuck that, you know?”

The music business in its modern guise holds little truck for Weller. Talking as we are in the aftermath of the BRIT Awards, does that hold any relevance for him now? He shakes his head. “Not really, no. I did see a little bit of Blur at the end because I turned over, but I’d forgotten about it to be honest. When I won the lifetime achievement award a few years ago the only thing I thought was good about it was there were six of my records in the top 100 a week after, but there’s a lot of backslapping going on there. What does it all mean? I don’t know really. Generally those things tend to be a load of old bollocks.”

He sees life through sober eyes these days, having given up alcohol for nearly two years. Abstinence appears to have made the heart grow a little fonder, too. “Yeah, it’s been about two years in July, which has been interesting. For someone who has drunk all my life, and has come from that culture, it was fucking tough to do it at first, but the benefits now far outweigh the good times I had on it, you know? It’s my age as well, because you get away with it when you’re younger, and I was getting away with it. It was time to quit, especially if I want to stick around and be around a bit longer.”

There are, of course, two new arrivals to think about too. “I’ve got to think about that,” he says, “I’ve got to be there for them – and for my other kids as well. You know when it’s the right time to quit though, or I did anyway, but I do miss it – not all the time, but I do miss the silliness!” So how did he do it? “You’ve just got to stop. I didn’t go to AA but I did go to see a guy who was a counsellor in that sort of thing. It was good, it was just a chat that helped and he showed me how you can talk yourself around. More than anything it was being hungover for three days, you know, I just can’t do that anymore! I’ve enjoyed my sobriety, and I’ve enjoyed waking up in the morning fresh, sane and sober.” Does the extra energy get channelled in to the music? “I was a bit worried that it would affect the creative process when I made this record, being straight all the time, but I didn’t notice any difference at all, it didn’t hamper anything.”

“I’ve enjoyed my sobriety, and I’ve enjoyed waking up in the morning fresh, sane and sober” – Paul Weller

The creative process is an aspect of Weller’s music that has changed considerably in recent years. “It’s been different the last couple of records, because in all the other ones I’ve just written a song at home on guitar or piano, and pretty much brought the fully formed song in to the studio and made the arrangements, and the band have worked on that. But in the last couple of records especially I’ve not really had anything, maybe a few words, a title, some lyrics, but no chords or melody, and we’ve just improvised it really. It’s been liberating for me, because I knew I could do this more traditional method, but didn’t know if I could do this more spontaneous way. It’s good, especially at my age, to find a different working method. It threw up some melodies on this new record that I don’t think I would have done on a guitar. Without being boring or ‘muso’ about it, it’s not being too constrained by chord changes. I was sometimes singing blind across a backing track.”

He agrees that in a sense, the Roundhouse in Camden is the ideal venue for him, both for his music and with his personal history. “We were lucky, it’s the only week it was empty for a year and a half or something, so we were lucky it came at the right time really. I wanted to go somewhere different. We’ve done the Albert Hall to death, even though I love it in there, and I like the Roundhouse, I’ve played a couple of times in recent years, and I like the vibe in there. We’re gonna do the new album top to bottom, which is a bit scary but exciting as well, it’s one of those things that could really fall on its arse or people will love it, you know? I like that though, it’s an interesting prospect. Hopefully people will really dig it, and hopefully it’ll really blow people’s minds and they will think they’ve seen something special!”

Still fired up, Weller remains willing to take those creative risks. “Yeah, and with all the best intentions in the world you can’t always do it. I’ve had loads of times in my life where I’ve thought the songs I’m doing are alright but not really exciting, you know? You know what you want to do but you just can’t quite get there. There’s nothing you can do about that I don’t think, you can take yourself off to an island or hang upside down for two months, to try and change things, but the change is either there and going to happen or it’s not. In recent years it’s been a very creative time, and I’ve had lots of ideas but naturally wanted to move and change. It hasn’t been too forced; it’s been a natural process I think.”

Touring, and being away from his family in the studio, take their toll after a while though. “It gets harder.” He reflects, briefly. “There was a time I didn’t mind it, but I guess – maybe it’s old age, or maybe it’s having a new young family – but I don’t really want to do that anymore. That could change, but it’s how I feel at the moment. So at the moment I want to do one off shows. I’ve got some one-off shows in Europe, in Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, and a couple of shows in New York, but I love the idea of having less of them but trying to make them really special. The prospect of sitting on a bus for six weeks, I just can’t do it anymore. Even without the new arrivals, the twins!” He smiles at their mention. “They’re brilliant. Full on but they’re brilliant.” And the sleep? “Nah. I’m definitely not getting enough sleep, but it’s all good though!”

With the last album Wake Up The Nation, his aim was to put a rocket up the collective backside. So how does he feel about the state of the nation now? “Probably the same as I felt when you last asked me, and the same as five or 10 years ago. There’s a lot to be angry about; and there’s a lot of things that are wrong going on, but has it ever been any different? These days I’m really trying to make an effort not to be apathetic, there was a period of time when I used to say I couldn’t be fucked, but I think it is the wrong attitude to have. Tony Benn’s thing of how cynicism is the enemy? He’s right. I do care, but I don’t really know how to channel that, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m at a loss as to how to channel it. I think protests are good, but I don’t know what good they do. I was watching stuff about Syria last night, and it’s really shocking, and a young Syrian fellow was saying we need the West to intervene, but they have no oil, do they? They didn’t fuck about with Libya; they were in 10 days later. It’s shocking really, being a part of that is just awful, but I don’t know what part I have to play.” And the Olympics? “It’s alright, I’m just gonna keep my head down and avoid it all for a few weeks! I can’t be doing with it, but it brings money to East London, which it badly needs.”

Paul Weller’s Sonik Kicks is out on 19 March 2012 through Island, featuring the single That Dangerous Age. He begins a five day residency in the Roundhouse on 18 March. More at

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