Paul Weller: ‘The Modfather’ Discusses Life in COVID-19 Isolation and His New Album, ‘On Sunset’ (The Interview)

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

On Sunset, the new album from Paul Weller, was just released on July 3, but the U.K. music legend says he’s already deep into the making of its follow-up when he calls from his Black Barn Studio in England to discuss the making of On Sunset and how’s he’s been filling his days during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the cancellation of his 2020 live dates, including a fall tour of America.

(Click here to purchase On Sunset on CD, and click here to purchase On Sunset on 2-LP).

“The first track — ‘Mirror Ball’ — was going to a b-side for the last album, True Meanings, but it was too good for that, I thought, and the album’s been done for awhile, so I’m glad that I’ve been able to work while we’ve all been stuck at home, because my studio is right here,” Weller, the driving force behind The Jam during the heady days of the punk explosion and the Style Council in the 1980s, tells me of his fifteenth solo album.

Fans and critics are giving On Sunset high praise, calling it one of the best of the late-career purple patch Weller has been riding since 2008s 22 Dreams, and even amongst his finest, including his Jam and Style Council days.

On Sunset is an album of reflection, of triumph, of love, of life, seen through the eyes of Paul Weller, at his soulful best,” Ian Snowbell, the author of several books about Weller and The Jam, including Sounds From The Studio, says of Weller’s latest.

“Tracks such as ‘Baptiste’, ‘Village’ and ‘Equanimity’ carry the spiritual message of someone who’s happy where he’s at, and where he’s going next. In pandemic pandemonium, a new Paul Weller album is a welcome chink of golden light, putting sunshine on a long, dark road,” adds Stuart Deabill, the co-author of the forthcoming Style Council book Soul Deep, about On Sunset.

Although the album genre-hops in Weller’s typical, ever-restless style, its stylistic anchor is the soul music that captured Weller’s heart as a youth in late-1960s England. Full of sun-kissed gems and loping grooves, it’s the musical equivalent of the seemingly happy man seen in the striking and intimate backstage and on-the-road snaps peppered throughout bassist Andy Crofts’ forthcoming photo book, Paul: Photographs.

Rock Cellar: It’s good to talk to you again, Paul. How’s it been for you and your family during this lockdown period?

Paul Weller: Well, probably same as it’s been for everyone else, you know? It has its moments and good times and rough patches, too. But the sun’s shining today, so it could be worse.

paul weller on sunset album

Rock Cellar: It’s got to be handy having your own studio during this time. If family life gets a bit much, you can just pop down there.

Paul Weller: It has been, yeah. It’s been a blessing, definitely. And I’ve been doing a lot of writing, as well, because I’ve had so much time off. I’ve been writing a lot of new material, trying to store things up.

Rock Cellar: I know you’re voracious in seeking out new sounds and in your musical tastes. You’ve turned me on to some amazing stuff over the years. But you’ve got kids of all different ages, so I’m curious if they influence what you listen to?

Paul Weller: Yeah, it’s good, because I get to hear a bit of everything. They’re always playing me different things, and I’m always playing them different things, too. It’s a good mix, I think.

Rock Cellar: Your band is sounding great on this album, as always. Steve Cradock, Andy Crofts, Ben Gordelier, Steve Pilgrim and Tom Van Heel, of course. But there’s lots of guests, too. Jim Lea from Slade on violin, the Staves on backing vocals, Lee Thompson from Madness on sax, Steve Brookes from your pre-Jam days and a scorching solo by Josh McClorey from the Strypes on “Village.”

Paul Weller: They were all amazing, yeah. Brilliant. Everyone rose to the occasion. Everyone who’s on the record is amazing.

Rock Cellar: And even Mick Talbot, from your Style Council days, which feels perfect.

Paul Weller: Yeah, Mick’s there.

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about a couple of the songs. “Mirror Ball,” “Baptiste” and “Moving On” really run the gamut, stylistically. Since 22 Dreams, it seems, you haven’t been afraid to fill your albums with songs that might not seem as though they’d go together, but in the end they do.

And there’s that reflectiveness that’s been prevalent in your work over the last ten years, but here it feels more concise. How did you approach songwriting this time around?

Paul Weller: I did what I’ve done for some time, and that is just to write a lot of stuff, and throw a lot of stuff away, obviously, as well. But I write a lot of stuff. Every now and again, every few months or whatever, when the mood takes me, I’ll get all my notebooks out, and I’ll look through what I’ve written, and I’ll start cobbling the good stuff together. I mean, every song is different, and they’re all kind of written in different ways. But sometimes I’ll do that, and I’ll just take out the pieces that I like from whatever I’ve written. And then, for other songs, like, say, “Village,” for instance, I just kind of wrote that in one evening, after I had the backing track. I went back home after the session and finished the words there and then. And with the lyrics (on the album), I think I want to get a point across, like in “Mirror Ball,” especially, but probably all of them, I think.

Rock Cellar: It’s interesting you said you “cobbled them together.” Is it almost like Bowie’s cut-and-paste thing? Is that what gives you the left turns, and then you tighten them up once you get a structure?

Paul Weller: Because I look through my notebooks, I’ll find all sorts of ideas. So I’ll find something, let’s say, where I’ll have two really good verses — or two verses I liked — but the rest might be rubbish, so I’ll take those two verses and I’ll look through and I’ll find something else that I’ll think, “That’s nice as a bridge.” So it goes like that, and then I’ll think of whatever the chords may be. But it always starts from a couple of paragraphs — or a couple of verses of writing — and I’ll get a theme from that, really. Or a feel, you know?

Rock Cellar: We’ve talked a bit about how your process of building up tracks has developed over the years, and that you like to cut tracks live on the floor, sometimes. This, to me, feels like a little bit of everything you’ve done since 22 Dreams rolled into one. You’ve got horns and strings, you’ve got your great current band, and all the guests. Does that safety of knowing you can always work that way free you to then build up the tracks in unexpected ways, via editing, because you’re working in Pro Tools now?

How has the process changed since we were working on two-inch tape, back in the day, or even on 22 Dreams, which wasn’t all that long ago?

Paul Weller: Yeah, that’s right. That was still tape, I think. That was on 24-track.

Rock Cellar: I think you said it was tape back then.

Paul Weller: It was, yeah. I mean, digital recording has improved so much, and that’s something I never thought I’d say. So there’s that side of it. Back in the day, man, you’d have to just do a new take or something. So we’ve kind of made use of that, I suppose, really. Because you would’ve had a real job to have done the sort of edits on tape that we’ve done here. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been possible, but it would’ve been a much larger job. Whereas now, if you want to have a bridge earlier on, or a chorus to kick things off, it’s done technically.

In minutes, it’s there. It’s just there, you know?

Rock Cellar: So the band have certain roles in what they do. Steve obviously plays a mean guitar, and knows exactly what you want. Andy has certain roles he plays, bass and arranging backing vocals. Tommy and Ben and Steve do, too. But you brought in Mick Talbot, and you brought in (pre-Jam cohort) Steve Brookes here. How do you decide — once you get a shape and a form and you have an idea in mind of where you want to go with it – who you want to do what? Because you played a lot of the instruments here, too, but you did bring in other people.  

Paul Weller: I kind of just think, “Who’s the right person for what this part needs?” I mean, my band are all so good, and they all play so many different instruments anyways, so that obviously helps. And they’re all very musical. But then if I think of certain guest musicians to come in, to help focus in on something or whatever, as we’re doing a track, and we’re listening back, and I start thinking, “It would be great if we could get so and so on this.”

Or, “She’d be great on this.” Whoever it may be. So it’s really like that, and really it just comes from who I think would make that track, or if something would create a really beautiful moment. Like I was getting Jim Lea, who might not necessarily be known in America, but he was the bass player from Slade, right, who also plays violin. So you know, I just thought, “It would be great to get Jim Lea’s violin on this.” So I just got a number and called him up and asked him. So it’s just that I’ll ask someone because I know their sound will really suit a track and enhance it.

Rock Cellar: Mike Garson once said to me that Bowie was like a great casting director. He sort of knew in his head who’s the right person for the right role. I hear a lot of records with guests, and it does feel a little bit like stunt casting, but on your records it always feels to me that the person is just part of the band that day. Part of the larger picture. They sit perfectly in the mix. Even when you brought in Bruce Foxton on Wake Up The Nation, it felt like Bruce was the guy to play that part. So talk a little bit about bringing in Steve or Mick, and what you imagined they’d bring to the songs.

Paul Weller: Well, it’s just what you’ve said. Because obviously I know their sounds, and just the way you … that sound, whatever it may be, whatever instrument, will work on the track. And most of the time, it works. I think if anything it’s only been a couple of times that it hasn’t worked out with people. But most of the time it works.

Rock Cellar: It’s not that there’s less guitar on the album, but here they seem to be playing the groove and doing atmospherics. There’s a lot of keyboard playing, and it feels like it’s really developed and arranged. The melody lines are really developed. Each part is clearly defined. Whereas the guitar is sort of that soul guitar, laying the foundation and atmosphere. I’m curious what guitars you’re using, because it doesn’t sound like your old SG or the Casino. Are you using plug-ins? Or, I think last time we talked you said you had a little Epiphone or something?

Paul Weller: Hmm. I don’t know, because some of the sounds, right, are sort of done by the engineer, Stan, the producer, and I just go, “Yeah, I like that,” or, “I don’t like it.” Or I try to explain what I’m hearing in my head, and we try to get it and put it on something else. But it’s not generated particularly from me because I wouldn’t have a clue apart from saying, “I want it to sound a bit phasey,” or, “I want it to sound like so-and-so,” whatever reference. So yeah, that’s what he brings to the table as well, innit, that kind of knowledge and all that side of it. The practical side of it.

Rock Cellar: There’s the strings and the horns. To my ears, they’re subtler, but they’re more and more developed on each album. Did you learn a lot in the process of making a record like True Meanings? Because this album feels like a natural progression from that. Were they your ideas? Were they Stan’s ideas?

Paul Weller: To put the strings on the track, or horns on the track, was probably more my idea, generally speaking. But like you said, through True Meanings, we met an awful lot of great people, like Hannah Peel, who worked on that record, and she’s done the stuff on this record. I mean, she was just an amazing person to find because she’s just — in my mind anyways — brilliant in what she does. It’s never too much. And she’s melodic. She’s got something.

Anyway, yeah, those connections definitely helped with this album. The same with the brass, as well, man. Because it’s the same crew, apart from one track, that we used when we did the orchestra thing at the Festival Hall a couple of years ago. I guess it’s just working with people over a period of time, because you then all kind of understand what you’re after, if you’re lucky enough. If you find the right people, do you know what I mean? Because a lot of my ideas are fairly — they’re not vague, but they might be a bit abstract, to where I have to describe them in a certain way, because I don’t have the vocab.

So if you find somebody who can interpret those things, and understands what I’m trying to get at, then that’s quite rare, really.

Rock Cellar: Have you ever thought about learning to read? Because you’re doing some pretty advanced stuff as far as the arrangements go.

Paul Weller: I ain’t got enough life, Jeff.

Rock Cellar: Do you think much about the audience, and who you’re making your records for after all these years?

Paul Weller: No, but I’ve met some people along the way who only know a few of my songs, but they really love them. So they wouldn’t know everything, or like everything, but they love a particular song or some particular songs. And I don’t have a problem with them. Because that song — I can tell when they’re talking — that that song really, really means something to them, right? It doesn’t matter they don’t know my entire fucking catalogue. I’m not bothered.

I find it really beautiful that this one little fucking tune I’ve come up with means so much to this person. I don’t know what I’m rambling about, but I think it’s that people like your music for all different reasons, and I’ve come to discover that.

And I don’t really question it in my old age. I’m very grateful that they like it at all, because at the end of the day I’m only making music to please myself.

Rock Cellar: Fans still clamor for you to play your Jam-era songs – and now the Style Council seems very en vogue — but is it hard for you to connect with those songs after all these years? Is that why you shy away from playing them? I’ve got to imagine it would be incredibly hard to put yourself — forget about the nostalgia factor — you’re artistically in a different place. I would imagine night after night it would be incredibly hard to connect with those songs because they were so much of a moment, like this record is of this moment.

Paul Weller: Yeah. That’s true, man. I mean, even just because I can’t always see how I was, where I was when I wrote those songs. Although some of them are very, very clear memories to me.

But it doesn’t interest me that much, because I’m just not going to do what some people might like to hear. I’d have to really go through the motions, and it wouldn’t be something that came from my heart, which is a good enough reason for me not to do it, really.

I think I’ve done this thing I’ve always done for years; I’m more happy playing anyway what I’m doing now. I want people to hear those songs.

Rock Cellar: Obviously, you’re supposed to be on tour now. What’s happening? Have you rebooked dates for the tour?

Paul Weller: Yeah, we should be on the road now. But we’ve had to reschedule everything starting from next year, and we’ve got one more tour in October, but whether we make that, who knows.

Rock Cellar: We have covered a lot. Is there anything we didn’t cover that you want to talk about?

Paul Weller: We’ve sorted out the fucking world, Jeff. We have sorted the world out, my brother. The world is a better place.

Rock Cellar: Right on. How about America? Will you be coming here?

Paul Weller: It was going to be September. So that’s not going to happen, I wouldn’t have thought. But definitely I do want to. So hopefully, next year. They were talking about moving it until the year after that again. 20 … whatever the fuck. 2022. Which I’m not happy about.

So hopefully we’ll see each other soon, and there’ll be some shows in America in not too long.

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