Paul Weller’s Ever-Changing Moods: The Modfather Talks

The_Jam_-_In_the_CityThe+Jam05071532270_lw_pw_200308_1_f204162012_thejamPaul+Wellerarticle-0-0217427B0000044D-996_233x353Paul+Weller+weller_paulPaul Weller’s music has always been as stylish and sharply tailored as his suits. Whether as the singer-songwriter for The Jam, a seminal outfit that helped define the British Punk movement of the mid-1970s, or his subsequent group, neo-soul romantics The Style Council, or his substantial solo career, Weller has always followed his own muse and blazed a path of his own choosing. 

With a well-regarded new album, “Sonik Kicks,” in tow, and Weller undertaking a rare (and brief) U.S. tour that stops at the Royale in Boston this Sunday, July 28,  I thought I’d unearth a rare conversation I had with “The Modfather” when he was hitting the States (and the Berklee Performance Center) in support of his “22 Dreams” album a few years back. With Weller’s reputation for being somewhat prickly with the press — or not talking to them/us at all — I remember taking a deep breath and girding myself for an interview that might have been a bumpy ride.

What I encountered instead on the other end of the phone line was a warmly engaging, reflective, and thoughtful artist who had a lot to say about his music, his career, and what it’s like to spend your life trying to top (or not top) the music you made when you were 19. As a tasty teaser to tonight’s show, here’s a September 2008 piece I wrote on Paul for my “Rock Notes” column in The Boston Globe. It makes me remember all those great records, as well as  this conversation, which turned out pretty great too.

Thirty-plus years, nine solo albums, and at least one legendary band into his career, British singer-songwriter Paul Weller remains a striking musical enigma.

As the onetime teenage leader of the Jam, which exploded like a Pop Art spectacle of noise, color, and energy onto the fresh canvas of creative possibility that was England in 1977, Weller was both an adventurous agent of change and an unapologetic – even obsessive – traditionalist with a sentimental streak. His cool demeanor, caustic outlook, and knack for blending both with melodic concision and power chords made Weller one of punk’s brightest beacons. At the same time, he was a Mod revivalist whose tastes ran to American soul music, sharp suits, and Kinks covers.

Weller pulled the plug on the Jam in 1982, five years into a terrific run of hit singles, sold-out concerts, and devoted fan worship, and promptly launched the Style Council, a slick synth-soul outfit that alienated as many old fans as it won new ones. Undaunted, Weller then embarked on a solo career during the ‘90s that all but shelved the Jam’s loud and fast leanings for a rootsier, deeper shade of soul. His voice grew huskier, his mood more introspective. Small wonder the man titled one of his tunes “The Changingman.” (Uncq).

Still, Weller – who’s returning to the U.S. for the first time in years for a brief fall tour that brings him to the Berklee Performance center on Tuesday – sees his work as part of an unbroken continuum.

“I don’t think there’s a division,” Weller says by phone from a California hotel room, having just flown in from overseas. “I’ve gone off in different places, and sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they’re not successful. But nevertheless, it’s still part of my journey in life, and what I’ve always done, which is make music. I don’t see a big difference between any of it.”

Even so, Weller does claim his ninth and latest solo album, “22 Dreams,” released this summer on Yep Roc Records, represents as dramatic a departure from his past as anything he’s attempted. As befits its title, the disc sounds like  70 minutes of invention, imagination, and escape.

The album – and yes, “22 Dreams” feels like an album, a sustained body of work rather than a random collection of downloadable tracks – opens with an invitation: the Eastern-tinged, stringed instrumentation of “Light Nights.” It closes with the slow, gorgeous thunder and rain of “Night Lights,” a reverse-title meditation of moog, piano, and harmonium. In between, there’s the sinewy garage-rock (with horns) of the title track, the sumptuous jazz journey of “Song For Alice” (dedicated to Alice Coltrane, late wife of departed jazz titan John Coltrane and an adventurous musician in her own right), and the swirling psychedelia of “Echoes Round The Sun,” a co-written collaboration with Oasis’s Noel Gallagher.

“I wanted to try to make something really different and I feel I did,” Weller says of the disc’s scope and sweep. “Which is not always easy, because the older you get the more set you are in your own ways, and everybody’s got their limitations.”

The prospect of turning 50 this year fueled his desire to sum up where he’d been and reach for new vistas. “I was very conscious of it,” he says. “I thought, ‘You’re going to be 50, man, you should just do whatever you want and make the most indulgent record you’ve ever made, or ever wished to make.’ Which I did. The ironic thing is that it seems to have clicked with people.”

“For a lot of artists, most of their best work’s behind them by the time they’re 50,” he adds. “But for me, there’s a kind of breakthrough with this record. It kind of showed me that anything’s possible, really – it’s showed me a way forward.”

Yep Roc Records co-owner Glenn Dicker says “22 Dreams” has been Weller’s fastest-selling album for the label. “He’s certainly got this very soulful vibe to what he’s doing, and he’s always had that,” says Dicker, who also operates Redeye Distribution. “His career stands as a testament to being independent and he’s certainly been able to achieve great things. But I think now, a whole new generation of  kids are recognizing him as being the only one from that (British punk) era that’s actually still doing something viable. Our strategy is to help get the word out.”

Indeed, Weller has never been as big a star in the States as he is at home, where he’s referred to affectionately as “The Modfather.” But much like his ‘60s heroes the Small Faces and the pre-“Tommy” Who, some observers chalked up the Jam as being too British to translate to American audiences. And there’s always been a tendency to measure the quality of his solo work, sometimes unflatteringly, against the Jam’s fiery legacy.

“After the Jam split and I formed the Style Council – that was tough going at that time, because I was always being compared to what I’d done previously,” Weller says. “But it’s not a big weight ‘round my neck at all – quite the opposite now. I’m probably at the age and stage where it’s not a bummer for me. If I play (the Jam’s) ‘A Town Called Malice’ or ‘That’s Entertainment, it’s almost like they’re in the public domain now. Those songs have entered a different realm and they’re out of my hands, really. They belong to the people. It’s a nice legacy to have.”

As an addendum, here are a few shorter review pieces I’ve written on Weller over the years: the first, a live review of a tremendous Sept. 28, 1997 Weller show at Avalon in Boston for RollingStone.com; the second and third are both album reviews originally published in the Boston  Globe and Boston Phoenix in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

PAUL WELLER

Avalon, Boston, Mass.

Sept. 28, 1997

 

Paul Weller couldn’t have chosen a more apt song than “The Changingman” with which to open his concert Sunday night. Through three decades of music-making that began when he fronted  seminal mod revivalists The Jam, Weller has shifted his musical focus from early Who-inspired power pop to blue-eyed soul with the Style Council to a richly textured amalgam of each across four solo albums.

Although he stuck strictly to solo material during a 90-minute set, the voracious energy and moody restlessness that characterized Weller’s work with his first band was on audacious, riveting  display. Indeed, Weller proved a far sturdier musical traveler than his tour bus, which apparently broke down somewhere in the bowels of New Jersey Friday, forcing him to postpone that night’s  scheduled concert date in Boston until Sunday. When he finally arrived, backed by a small, superb three-piece combo, a packed house was ready and waiting for the man the British press has dubbed “the Modfather.”

Playing an array of  electric, acoustic guitars and keyboards, Weller offered a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Artist As a Not-So-Young Man whose new album’s title, “Heavy Soul,” reflects both its stylistic content and it’s author’s enduring emotional disposition. Lyrically, Weller remains a seeker, at odds with the world even as he struggles to find his place in it. When Weller waded into the title track, for example, shouting out the lyric “I can’t be beaten / I can’t be bought” as he flailed his guitar, he did so with a nearly religious fervor that made the tune sound less like a song and more like a defiant statement of purpose.

The band, bathed in yellow lighting, reached a sonic epiphany  with a tough, muscular reading of “Sunflower” that then rippled into “Mermaids,” a jubilant new song about salvation and self-discovery. But ultimately, what made Weller’s material captivating and remarkable were not specifically the lyrics or music, but the richly soulful, searching quality of his voice, which transformed even the most ordinary of lines into majestic couplets, and which made choruses like “Sha-la-la-la-la” sound like truth.

PAUL WELLER/Heavy Soul (Island)

A record store manager used to play a game every Friday afternoon. He’d pipe a specific pair of albums through the store’s speakers as customers browsed, just to see how many copies of each he could sell on the spot. The two albums in particular were Otis Redding’s greatest hits and Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood.” It was a dead heat every time.

That says a lot about the depth and emotional resonance of Weller’s music. But it also demonstrates just how many people have no idea how good he is until they’re put in the same room with him. Although revered in his home country of  England, where two decades ago he racked up lorry loads of hit singles with seminal mod revivalists The Jam (and later formed the considerably less distinctive lounge-soul outfit the Style Council), Weller has never really cracked this country as a solo artist.

While Weller’s fourth effort draws from his usual influences and obsessions (early Who, Small Faces, and Traffic; the gliding, honeyed soul of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield), it nevertheless sounds like absolutely nothing else out there. The fortyish songwriter remains a seeker lyrically, searching for his place in the world (“Driving Nowhere”) and occasionally finding it (“Friday Street”). The album’s title could easily  refer to both the style of the music as well as the spiritual dislocation that continues to haunt its author. But despite this discontent, an essential human warmth and resolute self-possession shines through, hinting at optimism and the reassurance that, just maybe, everything will be all right. Of course, the lushly bracing guitars, vintage keyboards and “sha-la-la’s” don’t hurt either. 

PAUL WELLER/Modern Classics (Island)

Like other precociously gifted songwriters (Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello), Paul Weller’s been handed the unenviable task of matching his earlier legacy — namely, his seminal work leading the Jam, the mod revivalist outfit he fronted as a teenager.

As superb as Weller’s solo career’s been, it speaks to the furious brilliance of those early years that he’s never fully shed the shadow of his first band. But how could he? The Jam captured the Zeitgeist of a moment, and helped usher in a bold new era of pop. But revolutions like that happen once in an artist’s lifetime. The tough part is figuring out what to do next.

*Modern Classics*, which gathers 15 tracks (and a new one, “Brand New Start”) from Weller’s four studio albums, provides a compelling overview of  the man’s ‘90’s output — a decade in which he’s delved deeper into territory he hinted at 20 years ago covering Wilson Pickett and the Who. The supple retro-snarl of  “Sunflower”and  psychedelic vistas of  “Into Tomorrow” evoke the cream of ‘60’s British rock, and although “Above the Clouds” borrows a bit too liberally from Marvin Gaye, it’s still a sumptuous slice of blue-eyed soul. Though he may no longer be the angry young man remaking the modern world, Weller’s lost little of his gritty vitality or passion — it’s just been channeled in a less volatile, more introspective, direction.

Here’s a link to Paul Weller’s official site:

www.paulweller.com

Watch and listen to The Jam kick ass and take names as they perform “In The City” on the BBC here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXz7iOmNJ8E

One of my favorite Paul Weller songs, whether Jam, Style Council, or solo, period. Watch and listen to “Wild Wood,” from his album of the same name, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgIw51zmiy8

One of my other absolute favorite Weller tunes, “Sunflower,” performed live here on “Later With Jools Holland” in 1993. Killer!:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5QQEyM7QwE

Lastly, listen to this terrific Jam anthology and then go buy all of these songs (or better yet, the albums) immediately (but don’t forget to open these in a new window so you won’t lose us over here at “RPM: Jonathan Perry’s Life In Analog”!):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEN800Re5EE

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