The Q&A: Paul Weller

Most people reach a point in their career where they just need a clean break, a chance to try something new and spread their wings. That's exactly where Paul Weller was in 1982, when he shut the door

Most people reach a point in their career where they just need a clean break, a chance to try something new and spread their wings. That's exactly where Paul Weller was in 1982, when he shut the door on the Jam, a U.K. phenomenon who was at the time finally making inroads in the States with the single "Town Called Malice."

"I just felt it was time for me to move on, artistically and creatively," Weller tells of the split, which ended an astonishing hit streak in the U.K., where 13 Jam songs were still on the charts.

Twenty-five years later, Weller is returning to the Jam canon for two immediately sold-out stands in New York and Los Angeles that mark the 30th anniversary of the Jam's debut album, "In the City." In both cities, he is playing three shows. On the first night, he's playing an entire Jam set, with the second dedicated to his post-Jam act the Style Council and the third to his solo catalog. "It was a way for us to come over to the States without losing an arm, leg and a shirt in the process," he says.

The dates are more blatantly meant to promote a new string of retrospectives on Yep Roc, all sharing the title "Hit Parade." Arriving on Jan. 23 is the first single-disc U.S. collection to span Weller's entire career, encompassing Jam favorites, the hits of the Style Council and the highlights of his celebrated solo career. "Hit Parade" will also be issued as a four-disc box collecting every solo, Jam and Style Council single, and on Feb. 6, a two-DVD, career-spanning set also bearing the same name will be released featuring all of Weller's videos, plus rare performances by the Jam.

Over the phone from London, Weller recently spoke about the demise of the Jam, the ups and downs of the Style Council and how he had to start again from scratch in the early '90s en route to a solo career that has found the 48-year-old making some of the best music of his career. For proof, check out songs like the seemingly 9/11-inspired "All Good Books" from 2003's "Illumination" or his stark, acoustic version of "English Rose" from 2001's live disc, "Days of Speed." "I think it probably took me 25 years to be able to play that song properly, just physically, as well as step outside of it," he says.

When you look back on the Jam, is there any sense that there was unfinished business? Looking back all these years later, is there anything that you wish you had accomplished, something like conquering America, or...

I can't honestly say there is, really. It would have been nice to have conquered America, but, ya know, I haven't lost sleep over it. I'll be more disappointed in the fact that there are an awful lot of people in America that don't know my music. If they did, I think they'd like it. But it doesn't stop me sleeping at night. What will be will be, really, what's meant to be. But I don't really feel like there's unfinished business. I've done whatever I thought was the right thing to do at the time, ya know, and that's all you can do in life, really.

When did you know for yourself that the Jam was over? At the time, did it just feel like that was the next thing to do as a man and an artist?

Yeah, totally.

Can you tell me about that moment? When did you know? Was there a certain conversation, a certain day, a certain song that kind of signaled the end?

I don't know if I could pinpoint it to a specific time. I just knew generally toward the last sort of year or so. Before the Jam split up, I just felt it was time for me to move on, just artistically and creatively. I needed to find something different and different kind of avenues to make music, and a different way of making music. Even though the Jam only made records for, I don't know, five years, or whatever it was, we were actually together for more like 10 years. We spent four or five trying to make it, so it was an awful long time as well. So whether it was a selfish move or not, for me, I just knew, instinctively, it was time to move on. The other things I wanted to try I couldn't have tried within the framework of the Jam. It had to be something different, or something looser.

Fans can be pretty unforgiving when a band like the Jam splits, a beloved band. There's no allowing for a guy to simply want to do something else with his life.

Yeah. There's a big difference between 17 and 24. Your mindset's totally different. So, naturally, you just move along and you go along with it.

When did you come up with the idea for the Style Council? Did you have the idea in mind before the Jam split?

Yeah. The last sort of six months before we split, I was kind of forming the idea of a much looser group where I could bring different musicians in and not have to be stuck with the same lineup. So it was a very different thing. It was kind of a group: it was a group, and it wasn't a group, in a way. There was a nucleus. There were me and [keyboardist] Mick Talbot, and eventually Steve White and Dee C. Lee, but we also brought loads of different people in as well. And that was really nice, 'cause it was always kind of changing, and it was kind of free to be whatever it wanted to be at that time. It wasn't stuck in one little group. I think eventually it did [get stuck], but that's kind of inevitable in a way. But, initially, in the first two or three years, it was just fun to do. There was no music we didn't feel we couldn't attempt. And whether it was successful or unsuccessful was by the by -- at least we attempted it, and at least we had the freedom to do that.

That was what the band was all about for you -- the freedom to experiment.

Yeah, totally, probably things you wouldn't be able to get away with now, in the current climate, and the way the music business is.

Speaking of the business, does the modern day music industry bear any resemblance to the one you encountered as a teenager?

To be honest, no. There's a whole corporate side to it, which has kind of happened in the last sort of 10 years or so. But I think there's also much more pressure on people now, on the young bands starting out: If you're not successful on your first record, you probably won't get a chance to make a second or your third. There just seems to be less room to let bands evolve these days, whereas, with the Jam, our first two albums did okay, but didn't do great. But at least we had the chance to make the third one, which did do well. I don't know if you'd get that opportunity now. I just feel there's that kind of pressure [where] if it doesn't sell 1.6 million on the first outing, it's not a success, which is just nonsense to me. It's like all these young bands, they should let them evolve. Who knows -- two or three albums down the line, they could be the greatest thing ever.

Toward the end of the Style Council, when the negative reviews started to roll in, what kind of impact did it have on you?

I found it pretty f*ckin' devastating, to be quite honest, because all my life, or in a large part of my life, all I was used to was being in a band -- touring and making records, and doing whatever you do when you're in a band. And, all of a sudden, all of that stopped. I didn't have a band; I didn't have a label; I didn't have a publishing deal; I wasn't really playing live. So everything I knew or was used to had gone. So it took a while for the smoke to clear, and then for me to realize, "Listen, you almost have got to start again." At the time, that was pretty devastating. But in hindsight, it was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it was a humbling experience. It's taught me a lot of good lessons, really.

Tell me about some of those lessons.

The first thing it did, after a period of about two years, or 18 months, was to get me back on the road, and just get back out there and play live again. We would be playing to 200-300 people at times -- I mean, it was really like starting again. The lesson it taught me was that no matter how much you've done in the past, and whatever kind of legacy you've supposedly built, it doesn't mean sh*t, really. You're only as good as your last record, and that's no bad lesson to learn. I think that kind of keeps you on your toes, and keeps your eye on the real prize.

How did you get your confidence back, just playing?

Yeah. Just playing. From about late '90 onwards for about two years, we just played pretty much solidly, and I think my confidence and my muse came back to me, just through playing through it really and just sort of honing it down and getting used to playing again.

When was the first time after the Jam split up that you started playing Jam songs?

Probably when I first started getting back on the campaign trail in the late '90s. I had no new songs at that time, or maybe I had like two or three new tunes, so I kind of had to play whatever I had, really. So I was kind of not forced into it, but it was kind of through necessity that I had to start playing old songs. So it was done on a much more practical level, which is kind of alright. But it felt sort of weird to play those tunes. I think the turning point for me was a few years ago when I did a live acoustic tour, a solo acoustic tour, where I was playing old songs and new songs next to each other. Because that was stripped-down, because it was just the bare bones of the song and just the voice and the guitar, I didn't think of any sort of stylistic trappings, like, "Oh, this song came from this era, or from that time or this band." They were just my songs, and I think that kind of led me to view 'em differently and see the value in playing 'em and the value for other people to hear them as well. I mean, even now, we play older songs and I really enjoy playing 'em. But it isn't like we're on a sort of greatest hits trip at all. It's kind of like they're still there amongst the new songs. Predominantly, we're playing the new stuff, so that is the right balance for me.

I was going to ask you how these songs have changed over the years, how have they evolved in the live setting?

A lot of them have almost become like public domain, really. It's almost like they belong to the audience, not just to me anymore. When you play something like "That's Entertainment" or "Town Called Malice," they become the people's songs.

What's that feeling like, to play those songs and hear the entire crowd singing back to you?

It's amazing. It's like hearing modern day folk music. That's the only thing I can liken it to. And like I say, it's become their tunes, they've become their songs. That's quite an amazing feeling, actually.

I wanted to ask you about American soul and R&B. Were there specific albums or songs that really got you hooked as a young man? What really reeled you in and hooked you?

Well, that sort of goes way back to 1966, "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," by the Four Tops, and hearing Motown as a kid. It's been an ongoing love affair for me, really. That connection has always been there, I think. There's a very strong connection between American R&B music and English people. There's always been that really strong bond, for whatever reason. But I don't know if there's one specific record. I mean, I'm still getting knocked out by stuff that I haven't heard before.

Like what?

There's a record called "Wear It on Our Face" by the Dells, which I don't know when it's from, maybe the late '60s or early '70s, but it's just f*ckin' amazing. It's one of these records that keeps building, building and building. I'm just sort of amazed to hear a record like that, the thought and artistry that goes into those records. But I just think it's a spiritual connection with African-American music, really. I'm a little white boy in England. I don't know why that should be, but it just is. Why do people connect with hearing Muddy Waters or Curtis [Mayfield] or Marvin [Gaye]? It's a different culture; it's a different era, but there's something in that music that just connects with your soul really.

Beyond celebrity and all its sort of hollow trappings, when was the first sense you had been important and your music was an important part of people's lives, after the Jam had split up, after all the hoopla?

I'm always kind of amazed by the Americans in England, or the American bands who tell me how much my music has meant to them -- albums like "All Mod Cons" or records that I wouldn't even thought Americans would know particularly. It seems a constant. Maybe you have to be a certain age to accept those things or appreciate them. But there's a lot of young bands that couldn't have been born at the time the Jam were around, but they come up to me and tell me how much they love the music -- young bands in their early 20s, who were probably being born when we were splitting up. We did a show in London the other night, and there were all these young kids, and ya just sort of think, "How did they even get to know the music? Where was their entry point?" I just find it quite amazing. I'm constantly quite amazed by it. I suppose, in some ways, I never took much notice of that side of it. I never sat around thinking about my importance in music. I just kind of have always been getting on with it. If anything, it's a real testament to the music.

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