It’s not easy for an Englishman of my generation, growing up with The Jam and The Style Council (the first two albums anyway, they went a bit ropey after that) to treat Paul Weller with anything other than respect bordering on reverence. He wrote Eton Rifles and Town Called Malice and That’s Entertainment. As songs about England, they’re the Penny Lane and Waterloo Sunset for those of us born too late for the Sixties. For three years, 1979-82, he could do no wrong. “I was on a bit of a roll then, wasn’t I? Knocking it out,” he remembers. And then he split up the biggest band in the land, which was upsetting if you were 18 at the time, but also kind of courageous, and then he did Café Bleu and Our Favourite Shop, both fantastic, and much later he did Wildwood and Stanley Road, also great. And his new album is pretty good, too. It’s a collection of cover versions, and not the Kinks and Small Faces classics you might expect, but an eclectic mix, encompassing songs originally recorded by Rose Royce, Sister Sledge, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot.
And throughout what is now nearly a 30-year career, even when he’s lost his way musically, politically and occasionally tonsorially, for those of us who remember him doing Going Underground on Top of the Pops in 1980 while wearing an apron and still managing to look cool, Paul Weller has just about hung on to his heroic status. I think this is because, in his surly, rather belligerent, prideful, iconoclastic way, he’s one of those people who makes you feel good about being English. He wasn’t xenophobic or monarchist but he was a patriot, and a lot of us liked that.
All that said, interest declared, I’ll try to compensate by saying, if he’ll forgive me (he’s been known to phone journalists to abuse them over any opinions he considers to be “fighting talk”) that The Man is now 46 years old and he looks it. Or his face does, anyway. It’s lined, with purply bags under the big, grey eyes, and there’s grey, too, in the few days’ worth of stubble on his chin. He’s pragmatic about ageing. “I’m not running around saying, ‘Isn’t it great to be 46?’ But what can you do?” (In mitigation, he’s just flown back from Japan, so maybe he’s not at his best.)
“I do think it’s a young man’s game in some ways,” he adds. “But then when I’m actually playing, I don’t feel any age. I think, ‘I’ll never give this up.’” The human connection with music is, he believes, “elemental”, as it is with nature, or colour. “It’s like you’re connecting with something locked inside you, like when you catch a smell on the air and it makes you think of something... There’s a place on the north Surrey Downs outside Woking I went back to the other day. A panoramic view with tiny hamlets dotted about. Fantastic, like it goes on forever, like a painting or something.”
It’s a working-man’s face, scored by late nights, Benson & Hedges, effort and genes. “My mum’s from Chingford, my dad’s from Brighton. We grew up in Woking but they both come from f*** all.” He smokes less now, his kids complaining all the while, “and rightly so.” He can drink all night when he gets a taste for it, but these days doesn’t want to be getting up at midday feeling awful. He’s had his moments with other drugs as well, especially around the time of his divorce in the mid-Nineties, but there’s an ingrained puritanism there, and a work ethic, and vanity, that has kept him out of serious substance trouble.
“I was in Los Angeles last year doing an acoustic thing and the dressing room afterwards was like a f****** club, packed, everyone doing loads of gear. Not me, mind. When you’re outside of it, you think, ‘F****** hell, was that me?’ Even when I was doing the gear, I can’t say I thought, ‘Isn’t this great?’ You wake up and for the next few days you’re a grumpy f*****. What’s great about that?” For a while, he was, he says, “wasting my life”. Now, he confesses to occasional bursts of activity in the gym. And his is a London face, too, and its owner speaks as he sings, with a strong London accent, as he has his little moans about traffic wardens and the congestion charge and says that his new Mini has turned out to be a bit bloody pricey at 17 and a half. I say, “They look great, though, don’t they?” He says slyly, “Oi, you don’t want to buy it, do you?”
The rest of Weller is in contrast to the undeniably middle-aged face. His hair is streaked and short on top and long at the sides, a bit like you used to see on girl skinheads. And his body, dressed in what he calls “classic Italian” - tight pullover, dogtooth, slightly flared check slacks, “Prada from a few years ago”, brown leather Premieta slip-ons - belongs to a man ten years younger. He’s very slim, girlishly so, and as we walk up the Holland Park Road from his record company office across to an Italian restaurant, Weller moves with a daintiness, an impression heightened by the Prada handbag (there’s no other word for it) slung across his narrow chest.
His output has always been varied, experimental even, from rock through soul and jazz to something close to what might be called modern English folk music. And his appearance and style suggest a great deal more ambiguity than the archetypal white working-class Englishman is usually credited with. We sit down in a corner. Weller orders a margherita, the pizza not the cocktail, and a glass of water (and later, he’ll have a mint tea), and we get going. Conversation is surprisingly easy, if meandering. We don’t do the standard I-really-loved-making-the-new-album chat for well over an hour. (“I am still trying to write my own stuff, but it just ends up in the bin at the moment.”) He’s a little nervy and distant. I don’t think this is the effect of fame. I think he is probably someone who has to know you well before he relaxes. People known for their aggression and anger are often shy. Accounts of him as a boy at school suggest the same detachment, the same aloofness. In his case, strength of character was allied to precocious musical talent and parents who encouraged his obsession and desire to be someone special.
“They never tried to dissuade me from doing music. Quite the opposite, they told me to do it, to go for it. She cleaned other people’s houses; he built them. They both had lousy childhoods, never got on with their folks, could never talk to them about anything. I had a very individual upbringing. I think it was their way of saying, ‘This is where the circle gets broken.’” His parents nursed his ambitions, bought him records and guitars. The Wellers had the proverbial piano under the stairs. “My old man could knock out a tune; that’s how I learnt to play.” Later, his dad became his manager. He still is. I say his childhood reminds me in some ways of Jonny Wilkinson, whose parents also chose to foster what, at the time, were no more than teenage fantasies. He says, “Who’s Jonny Wilkinson?”
Paul’s father, John, may have been a very useful amateur boxer, but sport has not been his son’s thing since he discovered the Beatles at the tender age of six. “As soon as I got into the music that was it. I love any art form really, whether it’s a book or a painting or a film, the way they stimulate people.” He’d like his children, he says, to do something creative. “I’ve always said to them, ‘Don’t tell me you want to be an accountant.’” His eldest, Nat, is now 16 and trying to get a band together. “He likes Marilyn Manson. Few too many costume changes for me. My middle daughter loves Busted. We took her to see them at Wembley.”
Born in 1958, Weller has always been bracketed with punk because he started out in 1977, but he wasn’t one. For one thing, he could play properly and was keen to get better. “The amount of flak we’d get for tuning our guitars between songs! Why would you want to play with your guitar out of tune?” For another, his ethic belonged to the aspirational English working class, not the middle, like The Clash, not the Irish, like John Lydon. He was class conscious from an early age. “You could see the divide, even in a little town like Woking. My mum has always been a devout atheist and when I used to ask her why, she’d say, ‘Because the f****** vicar never shows his face round here.’ Most of my friends left school and went straight off to the factory.” And for a third thing, how could he have been a punk when all along he was a mod? Mods don’t believe in everyone’s right to have a bash, or in making trousers out of offcuts of material. On the contrary, the mod creed is elitist and fanatically fastidious about style in all things great and small Weller’s mod allegiances have been something many middle-class fans have preferred to gloss over, but they explain a lot about him. “It’s a way of looking at the world... it’s hard to crystallise, to be honest. It’s saying, ‘We’ve got f*** all, but we can make ourselves look proper.’ I do think a lot of that working-class pride has broken down.” He enjoys a little digression about Mrs Thatcher, and how bad contemporary television is. “But I’m out of touch with that generation in their Burberry hats. They might have T-shirts on their backs worth a fortune, and to me it’s just a T-shirt.”
In contrast, his knowledge of his own era is encyclopaedic. “I can still remember all the shoes I saw when I was a kid. Older kids with red socks and a pair of black Royals, brogues with a wing tip. My mates were the same; the difference is I can remember all the details.” He still loves to window shop. Selfridges is a favourite, and he’ll regularly stop strangers in the street and ask, “Where did you get your shoes from? What kind of jacket is that?”
“My girlfriend’s always moaning, because my clothes take up so much wardrobe space. Outside of my bills, it’s my big expense.” When his mum met his dad, he says, “he had seven suits. She thought he was rich.” He’ll also regularly splash out on music. “I spent fifty quid on four albums last week; all had glowing reviews, all dross.” He likes The Libertines though, but he reckons the way you can skip tracks on CDs is a bad thing, buys vinyl whenever he can. He admits that he struggles to explain the mod code, and indeed while, on form, he’s a heck of a songwriter, Paul Weller is less analytical than you might expect. Ever since he had the “spokesman for his generation” label slapped on him at around 19, journalists have tried to make him into something he’s not. “It’s always been like that, analysing every f****** word. Sometimes I’m just writing a song. But then I always wanted to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to be the Bay City Rollers, I wanted to be Bob Dylan.”
I fall into this trap myself a couple of times. Once, when we are talking about school and how he hated it, and I say in sympathy, “And of course, you were bright…” and he corrects me, “Hmnn, so-so. Not academically, but street-smart maybe.” And a second time, when I say I can’t imagine him sinking pints in the pub, and he says with a trace of mock-apology and irony at my attempt to make him more like me, “Well... I do.” The best we do on the mod ethic, and it isn’t bad now that I think about it, is this: “Basically, it’s about being able to go to the Tate gallery and not feel like a prick.” Maybe he clings to the aspirational mod culture because it’s a way of taking on what are normally thought of as middle-class values while staying true to his roots. Or maybe it’s a way of rationalising the fact that he really, really loves clothes.
He says being a mod is about “bettering yourself, but it’s not to be confused with the middle-class thing of bettering yourself”. I’m not sure I understand the distinction. Certainly, he does not want to be seen to have taken on those values in the conventional way. “Years and years ago when I was still married, we had some friends over and they said, ‘Isn’t it funny how we’ve all ended up middle class?’ And I said, ‘Speak for your f****** selves, because I’m not. I might have a nice house but just because I’ve got money, doesn’t mean I’m middle class. I’m not having it.’ A lot of people think having money means moving into a different social strata, and I’m not having that at all.”
What does it mean for him, remaining working class, in terms of his everyday existence? At first he says it’s like being a mod, he can’t explain. “I’m not articulate enough. It’s an emotional thing.” Then he says, a bit bashfully, “My girlfriend’s always trying to talk me into going to dinner parties, for a start.” And if you find yourself at a nice dinner party in Maida Vale (he returned to Woking for a while after his divorce, but now he’s back in West London), as must happen occasionally, what do you feel? A sense of I don’t belong here? I’m uncomfortable with this? These people are a bunch of wankers? “All of those things, yeah,” he says, laughing. “But not all the time.” Even though, individually, they’re nice people? “A lot of them are, yeah. It’s just a different world to what I’m used to and what I come from.” I ask him if he’d feel more comfortable in some old boozer, and he says no, not more comfortable. “I’m very much my own man. I think you also learn,” he goes on, “if you’ve got any suss at all, that it’s down to individuals, that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Thank goodness I’ve got old enough to be able to find myself in those situations and not get too uptight, and to be pleasant to other people, try to make them comfortable. To say, ‘Right, have a f****** drink, I’m just flesh and blood. I like people enough now.” You did seem to be very angry, I say. “I was angry, and that’s not a bad thing at that age.”
But the anger seemed to go on for a long time. To take a trivial example, I read a silly little interview with him not so long ago in which he said he drove a Mercedes, “but I’d rather have a tank”. Is he still like that? “Do I still want a tank?” Do you still have that anger? “Yeah, I do at times. I think there’s too much acceptance these days, like it’s OK, it’s all right and it’s not always all right. If I’m at one of these nice dinner parties and we get into a conversation, I’m the only person who gets uptight or angry.” Like about what? “Like the way we’re taxed into non-existence or bombing another country and killing innocent people. My girlfriend is forever telling me to calm down.”
He talks for a while about Iraq and oil pipelines in Afghanistan, and how democracy in the West is all a pretence and how I ought to go to see Fahrenheit 9/11. I say, I will, and what was that you just said about taxes? Are you saying we’re taxed too much? “Yeah, I’m all for paying my income tax if I can see some benefit,” he says, “but our system’s f*****.” He also says he always voted Labour, ever since 1979, “but I kind of lost interest. They’re all interchangeable.” He didn’t vote in 2001, can’t remember if he did in '97. “I’m not a big politico. I don’t follow it avidly.” He says Blair wanted to use The Changing Man for a party political broadcast, but “I put the f****** blockers on”.
His work in the Eighties with Red Wedge, a group of musicians dedicated to helping the Labour Party, seems to have left him with a low opinion of politicians. “I realised they weren’t the sort of people I wanted to mix with.” I ask if his children are in private or state schools. (He has four, two by his ex-wife and former Style Council singer Dee C. Lee, one following a short-lived relationship, and a four-year-old daughter with his girlfriend, Sammi, 34, “very sweet gel, puts up with quite a lot from me”.) “They’re all in private school. No, one’s in state school,” he corrects himself. “If you’ve got the money, I don’t see how you’ve got a choice, really. I don’t want my kids mixing with crack and guns. I’m not saying it’s all like that, but there’s an element of that.”
We discuss how fast children grow up these days. It becomes apparent, in this part of the conversation, both that relations with his ex-wife are far from amicable, that he isn’t as well-off as he’d like or thinks he ought to be, and that these two states of affairs are not unconnected. “I could be richer, definitely, I’ve got many mouths to feed and bills to pay. But I guess we all say that. I don’t want to come across as moaning, but the lion’s share goes to other people.” He says he did well out of The Jam, “but we didn’t make millions. We didn’t make as much as people thought. The record companies have it all sewn up.” He makes more from Jam royalties now than he did when the band were still together. I didn’t think he’d want to talk about The Jam but he seems happy to, so I ask if he’s ever regretted splitting them up. “No, it felt the right thing to do and it still does. I couldn’t bear the thought of being in that band now.” But didn’t people around you, your dad for instance, just say, “Paul, you’re crazy, keep it going for another few years at least?” “Yeah it was along those lines. He was a good manager. We had rows about it. We still have rows about it. He still hasn’t forgiven me. There was a thing years ago, your paper, I think [he means the annual Sunday Times Rich List] saying I was the 160th richest person in the country, that I had 137 million quid or something. Noel Gallagher phoned me up the next day and said, ‘You’ve been holding out on me, you bastard, lend us a tenner.’” The other thing his friend always teases him about is his moodiness, his anger.
“Noel’s always going on about how miserable I am, but I’m much happier now. I’m very domesticated. I’m gutted that my youngest is starting school in September.” He admits, however, to an enduringly bad temper. Has he tried to do anything about it? “No I haven’t, actually.” Has he ever thought that he should? “Well, perhaps I should, doctor, yeah.” He is, he thinks, “just highly strung. I had a lot of love as a child but both my mum and dad are very aggressive, sort of pushy. There were rows, I ducked a plate or something, but they’re still together.” When he was younger, he says, he was extremely competitive. “To be number one, to be the best band in the country, you’ve got to be. Now, I’m not out to prove myself so much. I want to be as good as I can be, but I’ve calmed down. You’ve got to, haven’t you?” And he goes off to take his daughter for a bike ride.
Studio 150 by Paul Weller is out on September 13