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Paul Weller: On His Lockdown Record ‘Fat Pop, Vol. 1,’ Stockpiling Songs for a Return to Live Concerts (Listen)
In any decade of the latter half of the last century, Fat Pop, Vol. 1, the new album from Paul Weller, would have racked up at least four or five Top 10 singles.
Of course you’d be forgiven for thinking that on his fifth album in six years, Weller might have let the quality slip a tad. On the contrary: if anything, Fat Pop is as strong as any of its predecessors.
And that’s saying something.
Since 2008’s 22 Dreams, Weller has racked up one career highlight after another, making music as astonishing as anything from his days in The Jam or the Style Council.
Recorded during lockdown, hot on the heels of 2020’s superb, sun-kissed On Sunset, Fat Pop is nothing if not an album of old school pop gems, from the rollicking opener “Cosmic Fringes,’ right through to the glistening closing song, “Still Glides The Stream.”
Rock Cellar caught up with Weller at his Black Barn Studios in England’s Surrey recently, where the man referred to as “The Modfather” told us what he’s been up to during lockdown, and how the remarkable Fat Pop was made.
Rock Cellar: How have you been, Paul? How’s your lockdown going for you?
Paul Weller: It’s been alright, yeah. The first part of it I really, really liked. Once it got to everyone that we had all this spare time, plus the fact that we had a great spring and summer, really hot, it kind of felt like I stopped still for a bit. And I didn’t mind it; I really enjoyed it. And then, once lockdown was put in, and all of that was off, that’s when I decided I wanted to make an album. Because just before Christmas, it started to really kick in, like, this is going to be a long haul. So that was a bit depressing. But hopefully we’re coming out of it, and by November I’ll get back on the road. And we’ll resume what we were supposed to be doing last year.
Rock Cellar: The last time I talked to you was for On Sunset. It had to be a bit bittersweet, because that was such a great record, and it felt like a record to be played live.
Paul Weller: Yeah, definitely. I was very, very disappointed not to be able to do that. Because those songs, really, I couldn’t wait to play them to people. But looking ahead, hopefully, if we do start in November, then we’ll be playing stuff from that, and also obviously from Fat Pop. And there’s songs from True Meanings, the acoustic album that was before On Sunset, too. There’s so much stuff we want people to catch up with live, and not just in the UK.
Rock Cellar: Your set list is going to have to be 75 songs. That’s a great problem to have.
Paul Weller: Yeah. It’s getting longer and longer, man. But we can do it, I think. I told the band we’ve got to learn at least 60 songs that we can do at any time. But it’s doable.
Rock Cellar: Since you talked a little about the last couple of months, how much time did you spend at Black Barn versus at home in London during the lockdown? I mean, were you spending chunks of time at the studio? Or was this album spread out over the entire period?
Paul Weller: I sort of spread it out a bit. At first, I worked on my own and me and the band sent tracks back and forth. Then last July and August, when a lot of things were opened up again, me and the band got together to cut the rest of the stuff live.
Rock Cellar: You work, normally, much quicker and in short periods, because you have such a busy schedule. Did the ability to go back over a period of time, do you think, help focus the record?
Paul Weller: Yeah, probably. I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s probably true. And I think, also, because I was doing some remote recording, you know, sending tracks back and forth, et cetera et cetera, we were kind of just doing that one track at a time.
Rock Cellar: It must have felt good to be back in the studio last summer, and more recently. You had a studio at your disposal during all of lockdown, but it’s different just working with an engineer to having the whole band in a room.
Paul Weller: Yeah, that was back in the summer. Yeah, it was great.
Rock Cellar: I have to ask you about the gestation, the way the album came about, because you told me some of the songs on True Meanings came from the previous record, and some of them on the last album came from True Meanings, so did some of this record come from the ashes of those previous records? Not that they were rejects or leftovers, but because maybe they just didn’t fit, or they weren’t quite appropriate to the theme of the record as a whole?
Paul Weller: Whether they’re all connected, I don’t know. But I’m always working on stuff. I’m always constantly writing stuff down or making notes on my phone.
Rock Cellar: Did being at home — because I listened to a lot of music during lockdown — do you think informed the style of Fat Pop at all? Because you weren’t having to go on the road for six or eight weeks at a time and then coming back having to refocus? There was this continuum where you were able to — for the first time in your life, I’ve got to imagine — listen to music and think about how you wanted the album to sound.
Paul Weller: Yeah. It’s the longest ever man, yeah, definitely. I think all it afforded me was a lot more free time, that’s all. And what else would I do in my free time but, you know, try and write?
Rock Cellar: You don’t have any hobbies, then?
Paul Weller: I don’t really have any hobbies man, to be honest with you. I mean, apart from, you know, taking the kids out and stuff like that, and family stuff. But I don’t really have any hobbies, no. I just listen to music. And if I’m not doing that, I’ll play guitar or I’ll play a bit of piano. It’s just been free time and that’s what I do in my free time: I write a song, I try to write a song or put a track together. And it became like a little bit of a mission, as well.
Rock Cellar: I want to ask you about a couple of the songs. I’ve got to tell you, “Shades of Blue,” which you wrote with your daughter Leah, knocked me out. That had to be an enormously satisfying process, to write a song with your kid. I mean, I can’t even imagine how proud you must be.
Paul Weller: Yeah, but I mean, listen man, I’m proud of all my kids anyway. But that came about because Leah’s writing has gotten so much better. I mean, she’s been doing music for some years now. So it isn’t me just doing the proud dad bit. I’m saying this as a fellow songwriter, how good her writing has gotten.
Rock Cellar: She’s absolutely found her voice. The stuff she did recently with Steve Cradock was great, too.
Paul Weller: She’s working on an album at the moment, actually, and Cradock’s producing her. And I’ve heard songs off that, man, and I just thought, “Wow. Really good tunes, good work.” So, I’m very proud of her, yeah. But I’m proud of all of them.
Rock Cellar: There’s a couple of songs, “Glad Times,” “Testify,” “The Pleasure,” they’re really groove-based songs, and I was curious; did those come from you playing to a click track and sending them around, or were those some of the songs that came from being in a room?
Paul Weller: “Testify” definitely was cut live. All together, at the same time. And with “Pleasure,” that was a live take, but we chopped it up. And edited it. So that was a live take, essentially. “Glad Times” was a different sort of thing. The backing track was done by friends of mine, Tom Doyle and Anth Brown, who’ve got a project called White Label. I’ve done stuff with them before — they’ve done remixes on some of my stuff — so, they sent their backing track, and it sat around for a good sort of two years, possibly. I couldn’t find my way into it. And then — and then I did … I just kept going back to it, because I really, really loved the mood of it. It was just finding the right song.
Rock Cellar: I want to ask you about “Cosmic Fringes.” With each of the last few albums, the leadoff track — “Mirror Ball” on On Sunset, for instance, and “Cosmic Fringes,” here — they’re almost like a little manifesto. They seem to be there as the first track to engage the listener, almost saying, “Sit back, this is going to be a different ride. It’s not going to be the same as the last one.” Or the one from 10 years ago, certainly. Do you do that on purpose? Do you strive to come up with a track that’s a little bit of a manifesto?
Paul Weller: It’s definitely a conscious decision to do that, but I don’t know. I mean, I think those tracks are either there or they’re not, so I couldn’t necessarily write them, especially for that purpose. But if the track turns up, and you just think, “Well, that’ll be a nice opener, and that’ll kind of set people up a little bit or jar people a bit or make people smile,” that’s great. But it either happens or it doesn’t happen, really.
Rock Cellar: Well, you told me back before On Sunset came out that “Mirror Ball” you’d held back. It was something you had sort of percolating.
Paul Weller: Yeah.
Rock Cellar: And you held it because you sort of knew it was unusual and might set a tone. I wondered if “Cosmic Fringes” was similar.
Paul Weller: No, “Cosmic Fringes” was done last year, so that was kind of a fairly recent sort of song. But “Mirror Ball” was different really, because that was going to be a bonus track on True Meanings, and then I thought that wouldn’t have fit. I just thought, “Wow, this is too good for that.” So that was definitely always going to be the cornerstone of the next record.
But “Fringes,” no. That was more of a recent thing, really.
Rock Cellar: You’ve got Andy Fairweather Low — our friend from Amen Corner — on “Testify” here. Did you have the song and say, “Oh, this is perfect for Andy?” Or how did it come about to work with Andy?
Paul Weller: Well, I’ve played with him a couple of times. We did a charity show together in January 2019. We sang together. And he’d come up and done “(If Paradise is) Half as Nice” in, I think Cardiff, one time years ago. But he’s just a great, such a great fellow, as you know, and I love his voice. Really unique, his voice. And his guitar playing, of course. But anyway, after doing this charity show, I thought we should try to do a song together because our voices sounded good together. I had the backing track for “Testify,” and I’d had it for an awful long time.
But again, it was one of those ones I couldn’t find the right thing for, but I didn’t want to give up on it as well, because I really liked the vibe. I thought, you know, this definitely could work with the right singer on it. So, I sent that to Andy, and he sent me back a demo, his version of it, and that was it, man. And then we got together in July last year. He came up from Wales and cut the vocals live. Yeah, it was just great, man.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said this a couple of times. Do you have sort of an archive of recent stuff that’s sitting on a hard drive that you’re kind of like, “Hey, let’s pull that one out and kind of see what we can do with it”? Because it sounds like there are a few tracks that have been percolating for a while.
Paul Weller: Yeah, yeah, not many, though. Literally probably like three or four. And they’re always ones I would remember and that I remember to return to every now and again.
Rock Cellar: Like “Mirror Ball” didn’t fit on True Meanings. It wouldn’t be a True Meanings track.
Paul Weller: Yeah. But there’s not many of those lying in there … [adopts serious voice] in the vaults. [Laughter.]
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