This article originally appeared in Q393.
The Q readership anointed Paul Weller the Best Act In The World Today at the 2018 Q Awards and nobody is more surprised about that than the 60-year-old himself. Q’s cappuccino kid Chris Catchpole meets him at his local coffee shop to hear about a thirst that cannot be quenched.
It’s a drizzly October lunchtime and sitting outside his local café in Maida Vale, West London, Paul Weller is meeting his public. Not, as you might imagine for someone with 18 Top 10 albums and a legion of hit singles under his belt, to provide autographs or selfies, but to dish out cigarettes from the packet of Camel Lights he’s been steadily puffing his way through.
“Fucking hell, anyone else?” he grumbles after obliging a passer-by for a second time, widening his arms and addressing the afternoon traffic: “Free cigarettes! Free cigarettes!”
Maida Vale has been Weller’s manor for 20 years now. He likes it here. He’s mates with the postman, Noel Gallagher is just around the corner, as is fellow punk-era icon Chrissie Hynde, who walks past later to be greeted with a friendly pat on the back. People tend not to bother him, he says. He’s just Paul. Paul who happens to be very good at making music.
“How’s the new album doing?” shouts one elderly neighbour from across the pavement.
“I have no idea, man. See you later.”
The album in question, True Meanings, is doing rather well as it happens. Weller’s 14th solo record, in September it pushed past the ever-present roadblock of The Greatest Showman motion picture soundtrack to enter the charts at Number 2, narrowly missing out on being his fifth one to hit the top.
Something of an anomaly in his current decade-long run of ever-changing, forward-facing sonic adventures, its delicate acoustic ballads found Weller at 60 years old sitting back and taking stock of his life. Quivering strings drifting around him as he mulled over the past, his own mortality, parenthood and the passing of his father and long-serving manager, John Weller.
“I thought if there was ever a time to be reflective it’s probably now,” he reasons, draining the first of three lattes he’ll polish off this afternoon. “I’m at the crest of a hill [puts hand in front of his face and peers over it]. I’m not necessarily over the hill, but I can sort of see over it. I don’t normally allow myself to get reflective or nostalgic, but I thought it was a good time to take stock and see where I’m at. Now that I’ve done it, I’ll crack on and move along.”
True to his word, Weller is already halfway through the “spacey and soulful” follow-up (“I’ve moved all that fucking furniture out the way and now the room is bare and I’m starting again”). Last week, however, he did allow himself a promotional concession to the record that’s been in the shops for less than a month. Performing True Meanings and a smattering of older songs with a live orchestra at two sold-out nights at London’s Royal Festival Hall. After 10 years of indulging his own creative whims, does he ever worry that his doggedly loyal fanbase might not come along with him?
“Of course. I wouldn’t do it to try and alienate people. I would hope that people would come along with me on the journey,” he notes. “Not everyone does and that’s fair enough, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if I was a fan I’d take it as a compliment that the artist in question was trying to challenge me.”
As anyone who cried into their parka at the news The Jam had split up can attest, it wasn’t always thus. “I was doing it from a confrontational point of view back then, which is absurd really,” he recalls, casting his mind back to a few of his more fan-baiting decisions. “Instead of trying to involve people and be nice about it, I was trying to set up a wall. [Aggressively] ‘What do you mean you don’t fucking like it? This is great, this is where we’re going.’ Now if I do something different, I genuinely want people to come with me.”
Right on cue, a middle-aged couple approach our table to tell him how much they enjoyed last week’s show: “We’ve seen you lots of times but it was just stunning,” gushes the woman, “the best ever. Thank you.”
He leans back in his seat and beams. “There’s your article right there, mate.”
The epic poem that is Paul Weller’s musical career has been well-documented in the pages of the music press. Breaking up the most popular British guitar group since The Beatles at the height of their fame; the arch and occasionally confounding moves of The Style Council; his return as a solo artist in the ’90s, becoming the elder statesman of Britpop – and frequent drinking partner – for the host of bands who grew up with pictures of him on their bedroom walls.
The main player in this story much prefers the current chapter, though. The one centred around his unbroken and wholly unexpected late-career resurgence that began with 2008’s 22 Dreams; a double-album splurge of creativity that arrived at a time when the former Jam leader was widely thought of as a byword for worthy, trad rock conservatism.
“I loved my 50s. I’ve got a creative freedom in the last few years where I’m not afraid to try whatever. I feel like the sky’s the limit,” he enthuses. “Time’s the biggest thing for me: my clock is ticking over, my meter’s on the go…”
Mortality and loss are themes that raise their heads again and again on True Meanings. Not so much in a dramatic, dark clouds are forming way, more a philosophical acceptance that the father of an impressive eight-strong brood isn’t going to be around forever.
“It’s not morbid, it’s just reality,” he shrugs. “I got to 60 and thought, ‘Fuck, that’s gone quick.’ My 20s seemed to fucking last forever. I was like, ‘When is this going to be over?’ But now every year just goes flashing before my eyes. Out of that, I’ve learnt to try and savour life as much as I can and appreciate it.”
In 2018 Paul Weller is doing exactly that. Tanned and lean, he radiates warmth and good vibes. Punctuating his sentences with a friendly “man” he’s like a New Age life guru, only with better clothes and a fondness for swearing. He’s got a smartphone he downloads music onto (Villagers, Drake, Jorja Smith and house-influenced project Mr Jukes are current favourites) and has discovered emojis: the thumbs-up and – naturally – a scooter get regular use. There’s the occasional glimpse of the flintiness of old under the peaceful waters, but mostly his face crinkles into an all-over grin. Now is an exciting time to be alive, he declares, despite the constant squawk of political vitriol and furious indignation threatening to harsh his mellow.
“We live in a time of extremes. Violence, TV, films, art. To me, cutting a sheep in half and sticking it in a plastic box is extreme. I don’t know if it’s a case of us becoming desensitised so much that we have to have extremes to prod us or wake us up, but I don’t like it,” he says. “I’m hoping the tide will turn against it. Towards understanding, peace and kindness. I’m optimistic, man. I have to be.”
As the string of beads poking out from underneath his navy blue jacket confirm, the angry young mod railing against the teachers who said he’d be nuffink has grown into a massive hippy. Buddha from suburbia preaching peace, love and the beauty of the present moment.
There’s a lot of spirituality on the new album, stuff about accepting life as it is, it’s almost Buddhist at times…
“Definitely, yeah. But not through any teachings or philosophy as such. I just see that as the way to go. I would like to think that the time I do meet my end that I will have my soul intact before I go on to the next journey or whatever we go to. To be at peace with myself and others in the world. I think it’s worth working on your spiritual self without any sort of organised religion or all that bollocks. I think all the answers are within us, which is Buddhism I suppose.”
You’re a Gemini, have you ever read your horoscope?
“No, never. I suppose that split personality thing, though – I’ve definitely got that.”
Apparently Geminis have a low tolerance for boredom…
“Yeah, I’ve got that.”
A tendency to suddenly get serious…
“Yep, OK, maybe.”
…and have a lot of sex appeal.
“[Grins] Well, I don’t know about that. Perhaps for the more mature ladies these days.”
There is a more earthly reason for the new fitter, happier, more productive Weller, too. Once a drinker of legendary repute, eight years ago he knocked it on the head for good. He tried to do the same with smoking, but evidently that didn’t go so well.
“If I’m really honest, I spent most of the 10 years prior to 22 Dreams drunk. I had a great time. I made a bit of music in between, but I don’t think of it as any sort of inspired time,” he recalls. “And there were some rubbish records around that time that I made as well.”
Last orders were eventually called. In 2008, the Daily Mail ran pictures of Weller, drunk as a lord, lying in the street with his future wife Hannah Andrews after a particularly heavy session in Prague. Not a great look for a pop star now in his 50s, and it was Hannah who soon after gave him an ultimatum to pack it in. He’s visibly healthier and happier for it, and maintains he doesn’t miss it. Most of the time, at least.
“I miss the chaos sometimes. That moment of madness where you’re all off your fucking nut and everything is brilliant and a laugh,” he concedes. “But not enough to make me want to go back to it. I’m a better person for it. I used to get such bad depressions, genuine depression. I can see now how booze was making that worse. I had 35 years of it so I can’t complain, but I don’t miss it. I do not miss those hangovers.”
Two days later, Weller arrives at London’s Roundhouse for the Q Awards. Dressed in ice-blue slacks, a double-breasted corduroy jacket and ’70s-style aviators, he’s shaking hands and merrily chatting away to all and sundry before making a beeline for the smoking area.
“You’re lucky I’m not drinking any more, I would have been a nightmare,” he notes between puffs. “I remember presenting an award to Noel completely pissed. I got onstage and was like, [does “pished” face, sways and slurs] ‘Roll the VT.’ He came up to me afterwards: ‘What the fuck was that!?’”
Weller is on presenting duty again today and has put a little more effort in this time. Preparing a heartfelt, handwritten speech for his all-time songwriting hero, Ray Davies. When the time comes later on to announce Q’s Best Act In The World Today award, the entire venue rises to its feet when Weller’s name is read out. He’s chuffed to bits, doubly so that the award was voted for by the public: clearly, those fans have decided to come along with him on the journey after all.
Just as he exits the stage, U2’s Bono – a man Weller has a long history of saying less than complimentary things about – walks up. “Is he going to bless us?” he mutters, looking back over his shoulder. Fifteen minutes later Paul Weller, Bono and Noel Gallagher will be stood smiling with their arms around one another’s shoulders. Détente at last! Peace in our time! Kindness and understanding have won the day!
Well, momentarily. Weller steps to one side: “Can I go fucking home now?” He’s out to make peace with the world, but even the new Zen-like Paul Weller has his limits.