Paul Weller new album ‘Sonik Kicks’ – the interview…
Every now and then you hear piece of sublime pop music that comes out of nowhere- ‘That Dangerous Age’, the lead off single of Paul Weller’s new album stops you in you tracks. The song sees him sing about the absurdity of the notion of middle age over a Bowie/Kinks slice of bubblegum neo seventies Philly soul/Chairman Of The Board pop that is one of his best ever singles. The song is a truly sublime piece of tripped out pop with a killer backing doo wop vocal and a tripped out feel that takes you on a journey like all great records do.
It’s a truly great pop single and what of this dangerous age? could this be about Paul Weller himself, once the perfect, uncomfortable twitching teenage, firebrand spokesperson who, instead of settling into a comfy shoe middle age, has just made one of his most startling albums?
Just when you thought you had got the tailored, made to measure, perfect stitching , cufflinks and perfect mod hair take on someone they throw a complete curveball.
Paul Weller seemed to have settled into a comfy existence as a unique presence on several generations of British music, the skinny young punk De Niro firebrand in the Jam, the besuited mods who were far more part of the punk thing than anyone is allowed to say nowadays. There was the cocktail music with the sharp,political bite of the Style Council and then the solo career when he became the arch droog silver fox of Britpop, the go to guy for the young bucks on a sixties trip.
He was always there, each solo album another solid, very British suburban take on life, a John Betchiman with a shrapnel guitar and a Beatle head for great tunes sung in that distinctive white soul voice. The British love affair with mod culture enscapulated in one wiry frame singing through a pack of Wrigleys.
You were always glad of his presence and acknowledged his importance but then this album comes along and it jolts you. It’s a shocking album, shocking in its curveball brilliance, an experimental work that takes you on a real trippy trip with bubblegum pop sitting in with free, jazz, dub, the odd Kinks riff, wistful neo folk prog ballads, seventies phat soul when it went a bit wonky at the edges, biting electronics, left field experimentalism,wiggly noises, synth squelches and loads of great, kraut rock driven songs. Also lots of great lyrics and some really great singing.
It’s fucking brilliant and I’ve been lost inside it for days.
There are only two options left when a musician gets into their fifties.
One is to pastiche their classic sound, play the hits, take the money and coast along, the other is go completely off on one and record ground breaking material that is either a complete disaster or a career defining success.
Paul Weller gets a lot of stick for dad rock and is somehow thought of by some as an arch traditionalist, as a Modernist more than a mod this is not what he is about. He may have used the past at several points in his career but he was always looking forwards, a mod may be a pop culture moment but a modernist is always moving. Granted here have been moments when he, like Noel Gallagher, just gets on with writing classic songs with a magpie eye that soundtrack British suburbs and estates with their melodies, emotions and rainy day Everyman genius but every now and then he goes off on one.
The last two albums have seen a restless twitchiness of creativity as he stretched his template but this time he has gone completely crazy and made a Paul Weller record that I’ve not loved so much since the days of the Jam. It’s sheer brilliance makes it one of the contenders for the album of the year already.
He has pulled off that task of taking the past and fast forwarding to the future and released an album that is totally genius. The songs range from the Bowie sequel pure bubblegum pop of the single to plaintive ballads to collaged trips. It may have hallmarks of the sixties and early seventies to its template but it sounds bang on modern and is arguably his greatest solo release and a record that you can get lost in, a real trip.
If only there was another word for psychedelia, so we don’t get bogged down in this back story, a word for music this colourful, this mind bending that is also forwards looking. This is an album that could only have been made now and the dread sixties are only a small part of its DNA.
The new album sounds great, I hate to use the word but there are psychedelic elements to the album.
‘Well psychedelia is a big influence but it’s not about the past. We were obviously trying to make modern psychedelic music and not make it too much of a pastiche kind of thing, it was important to be a record made for now.’
There is a flavour of this around at the moment with the fab Amorphous Androgynous and their freaky wanderings and the delayed Noel Gallagher second solo album, it’s like a modern psychedelic movement, but with no name.
‘Definitely yeah, there’s another band I really like, not that my band sounds anything like them though, called Tame Impala who are from Australia. They have that psychedelic thing but they couldn’t come from any other time but now and that is what this album is like as well.’
This is true, whilst the album does have a mind altering twist to it and some great production that really does sound like the colour purple, if you get my drift/ with bits of sound flying everywhere it doesn’t sound sixties, if it came out in 1967 it would have sounded out of step, it’s hard to define. What makes it 21st century Paul?
‘For me what we label as psychedelic music is usually associated with the acid thing of the sixties and with this album it was a kind of sonic journey but not on acid, I was trying to take people on a trip with colourful music.’
If this was the aim it has really worked.
‘When I say psychedelic I mean not so much drug influenced, I think more in terms of colours really.’
Was it a conscious decision to create a curveball album like this?
‘I had fairly good idea of what I wanted the album to sound like but when you start a record you never know how its going to turn out because wherever you start off it always ends up different . I think the album ended up pretty much how I imagined it was going to be and that was to try and incorporate some elements of electronic music with pop music and melody. I think its done this, I wanted to make sure I had great songs on there as well. For me it was important to have concise, great pop songs but also to have that experimental, electronic edge to it as well.’
Did you consciously push to make the albums different?
‘On the last few records I’ve pushed myself more. It’s a process that started with ’22 Dreams’. I think it was time for me to move on from the way I was writing before and find new ways to work to keep myself interested. This time I have done that. Sometimes it’s difficult to think outside your own box or do something new and fresh and unlike what I had done before and that’s what I set out to do.’
The writing process was very different this time as well.
‘I’ve always written on a guitar or piano, written songs at home and brought them into the studio with a fairly realised arrangement for the song and then said to everyone in the band here’s the key and the chords and kind of like here’s the arrangement in a very traditional way of writing. This time I decided not to do that, I tried not to have too many ideas that were pre-planned and to go in and see what happens. It was starting from very small, more mood pieces like a little rough backing track that doesn’t seem like its going anywhere and then improvise on it and see where it leads to and it’s been very liberating to work like that. I’ve done the traditional methods and proved to myself that I can do that as well and it was liberating to find another way of working after all these years.’
Did you start with a sound or a loop or a sketch of a song?
‘All those things really. Sometimes one or the other, on something like ‘ Paperchase’ on the album it was literally a drum loop and some gurgling synth noises- abstract stuff like that and then it was a case of building it up from that really.’
This drive to be modern and break the mould is more in line with the modernist ideal than the cliched idea of mod culture being very sixties based.
‘I suppose so, yeah, at other times in my musical carrier I was very much not doing that and working with older ideas but in recent times I’ve tried not to. I’m trying to apply some of the modernist philosophy to it. It’s difficult where we are at now in pop culture where we have got so much musical history and 50 years of cultural history and pop history. We all know so much about it that we can’t help being in touch and influenced by what went on before because we are so immersed in it. I think, in many ways, it was so much easier for people in the 50s and 60s to be pioneering because the culture was fresh and new then. It’s difficult to be groundbreaking now innit? I think what is possible is for it to be ground breaking for me as an individual because if it’s original for me that matters and if it doesn’t set any precedents in any big way it does for me as a person. There are areas in music I haven’t been to before in the last three records, areas that I’ve touched on and it’s made me go, wow fucking hell it’s different you know
As you get older do you think there is more freedom in creativity and less restrictions.
‘Maybe, a lot of people say say the older you give less of a fuck about what people think, also, for me, there is a certain sense of, and, I don’t mean this in a morbid way at all, a certain sense of mortality which is more apparent the older you get and the more people you lose around you- all those things bring mortality into the question and the more that happens the more I want to create. I want to create as much as I possibly can not because time is running out and the clock is ticking more that I just realise how quick life goes. People talk to me about a record of mine I released 20/30 years ago and I think fuck where’s that time gone! If the next 20 or 30 years goes so quick, and if I’m even here, if it goes as quick, I’d better get my finger out and get working- not in a financial way but as an artist.’
When you started in The Jam the music was about youth and idealism, do you feel any attachment to that person now?
‘I still feel attached to it because I can still remember who that person was and how I felt and why I felt it. It’s the rightful property of someone that age to be like that, that’s how they should feel, especially from that time in the late 70s which was pretty fucking dull for kids my age at that time . I can relate to who I was, I can see that part of my character as well, that period of my life, you have to change in life, though. Change is good
Do you feel like an elder statesman now? The punk generation have, curiously, left us with some really good elders, quit different than from the sixties generation. There are. Omens on the album that seem to take on the Ageing process.
‘I don’t know you know about being an elder statesman because I never think of myself as being that. I don’t take those things on and it doesn’t bother me one way or another- it’s for people to think or say. I don’t feel I’m a statesman for anything- hopefully if a young band looking at my career or whatever you want to call it feels inspired and influenced then great, you know. But I don’t take that thing on because I’m too busy doing what I’m doing. It’s still on going for me man. It’s not like I’m getting misty eyed and nostalgic. I’m too busy living it still. I don’t think I’ve ever sold out, I’ve never had to pander to what people think I should be doing or what the business thinks I should be doing, sometimes that’s been to my detriment and sometimes it hasn’t. I think that’s a good enough guideline and a good influence on anyone young if they want to take anything from it.’
This growing older process, is that the theme of ‘A Dangerous Age’
‘For me that song is more of a piss take of someone going through a mid life crisis and how society tells people of a certain age how they should act, like people saying ”Ëoooh she’s wearing a mini skirt too short at her age’ and all that bollocks, it’s more me taking the piss out of the whole notion of the midlife criss, middle aged thing really. It’s not about me really, I had my mid life crisis in my thirties! I got it out of the way early, got it over with!’
The song is a great pop single, it has a really different sound to what you do normally.
‘I know what you are saying but I don’t get that. I hear things differently from everyone else, when I listen to the song I can hear strains of my old stuff in it. I can hear a little bit of the style of the ‘Sound Affects’ album in there. When you are in the middle of a song it’s quite different. I hear things people don’t hear and view things differently, like I view myself differently from how other people view me.’
There’s a touch of Bowie and a bubblegum psychedelia to it.
‘That”s great, I’m having that.’
He was a mod as well and arguably a real modernist.
‘He went through the whole thing, I can hear the Bowie thing on the song definitely.’
Was this song written from scratch in the studio as well?
‘It was the same thing man a the rest of the album. It came from a beat and a few mad synth nosies and I added that Kinksy guitar riff to it and then pretty much did all the vocals in one go and then I came back and added the last verse. The rest I wrote on the spot, the whole shop de woop backing vocal I wrote that straight away came, the whole song came together really quickly, it was really spontaneous.’
A really instinctive pop record?
‘Yeah it was, I know what you mean yeah!’
And you thought, there’s the single!
The album has so many great flavours to it, I can even hear bits of another ex Mod, Marc Bolan in there.
Do you think so? I’m not sure exactly what you mean but I like Trex.
Maybe some of the strings have that Trex sound and there is that warmth and funkiness his records had.
‘thats cool with me, I really like Trex, I was playing them this morning in my car for my son who is 6 when I was taking the kids to school. my son loves Trex, I was playing ‘Get It On’ and it sounds great, you hear it so many times that you forget how great it is but when you isolate it you think, fucking hell the playing is really great and there is this whole groove on it. He was a great guitar player, I was thinking that this morning, there’s some kind of funkiness in that track, there’s a different vibe going on there. My little son kept rewinding it because there is a bit of guitar at the end of the song that he really loves, it’s top all that stuff.’
The songs on the album have a real depth to them, its interesting to hear someone who had that fire and impatience of youth tackle some really introspective themes, Garden Overgrown could be another song about mortality…
‘Im not sure what I thinking when I wrote that! I was half thinking and half imagining Syd Barrett, who I’m a big fan of and I was wondering what his life would have been like if he had never been in the band atall and had fucked off with a set of paints and an easel and been a painter which is, from what I read about him, what he seemed he wanted to be. I imagined Syd bumbling round Europe just being happy painter, also the kind of idea behind the song, the chorus ”Ëdo you now your garden is overgrown’ is more about morality and the time to move on in life if you are not happy in the situation you are in then you need to move on, which is a recurring thing in my tunes.’
Syd himself made the ultimate change in life, from the brightest diamond in the pop scene to his semi reclusive life in Cambridge, in one way he saved his life from the early rock star grave like Jimi Hendrix, but maybe it was too late.
‘I think the story is sad from the point of view for his family watching him disintegrating mentally, for his family to watch that must have been sad and harrowing.’
On the album there are also three songs that fuse the motorik beat of Kraut Rok very successfully into your sound and even the title, Kling I Klang, which is one of the best songs on the record, which is a nod to the famous Kraftwerk studio.
‘Actually the title is not directly Kraut rock, it came about because some fella from the NME came to do a piece on me last year and got the title of the song song wrong and he called it ‘Kling I Klan’ and I thought that’s a great title, fucking hell I’ll have that! and I consequently found out that was the name of the Kraftwerk studio. I honestly didn’t know before that before that. On the album there is some kraut rock, and I don’t like that term, lets say seventies underground German influence on a couple of tracks but not on that track to be honest but on ‘Green’ and ‘Around The Lake’ I can hear the influence and we incorporated the driving motornik beat into the songs. I can hear on Neu and Kraftwerk in there, I was DJing and playing stuff with that beat and I wanted to try it on some of my songs.’
I can even hear elements of prog on the album as well, the bits of prog that borderline with late psychedelia or seventies prog folk.
‘Yeah, definitely, that could be an influence but not a conscious one. I can’t listen to a lot of that music but having said that and I fucking hated at the time in the 70s, there are now things I hear that I like, there that certain elements that I’m really into. There’s been some great compilations in recent years that I have really liked, I’m sure that’s an influence that’s in there, maybe a subconscious thing anyway.
Does the album reflect changes in you? you have two you children and a new found sobriety, was that famously reported drunken incident a few years ago a turning point in your life?
‘In some ways, yeah, but that incident was just me pissed and falling over in the street and then some cunt with a camera phone taking a picture and selling it. I have been drunk and falling over in many many streets in my time since I was 14. It’s no big deal for me, it was a big deal for people that know me and also for my kids who said pull yourself together! Like no one ever done that before! fuck off know what I mean! and if you haven’t done something like that in your life then you fucking should have done!
My life has changed though I have given up the booze not because of that incident but 16/17 months ago I stopped drinking which was the right time to stop. I’ve been drinking god knows how long, since I was a kid and I thought if I wanted to carry on living then that was a good enough reason to stop. It’s a shame sometimes I kind of miss the silliness and the bonkers-ness of drinking but every morning I wake up sober and clear headed and sane and I think fuck I prefer this now. I had a good run man, I can’t complain. It was really a big change for me.
Was it creatively different? Did you fear that you would lose the muse if you sobered up.
‘I thought it was going to difficult to be creative but I don’t think it has been. I was worried because being out of it can be good for the creative prices, but it didn’t make a difference to be honest with you. I didn’t feel any less creative and this album is evidence of that for me.’
The album, infact sounds like a creative flowering, maybe the booze was being restrictive before! And now there is an explosion of styles!
‘ I suppose so. I don’t think about what I’m doing in those terms, it’s only when someone like yourself asks me that I think about it. all I can say is that this feels like a very creative time. I can also see so many other responsibilities in music and I don’t feel in any way constrained by what I should be doing or what other people think I should be doing, there’s a blank canvas and I shouldn’t be constrained by any rule book and I do what I wanna do and that’s how I have always worked.’
Like any artist following the muse and the instinct creates the best work, the sober Paul Weller has ironically made his most tripped record, his imagination has run riot and the more off the wall he has become the more pop the record sounds, there are so many contradictions that it underlines the album’s brilliant rule breaking. A late period flowering a re writer of the rule book, this is the ultimate exercise in modernism and a masterpiece.