Paul Weller talks politics, the past, and punk: 'There's no future in nostalgia'

Paul Weller (Photo: Spin)

British rock legend Paul Weller first hit the scene four decades ago, releasing not one but two iconic albums with his mod trio the Jam — In the City and This Is the Modern World, both of which were reissued on vinyl this year — that along with breakthrough LPs by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned ushered in a thrilling new musical revolution known as punk.

While the “Going Underground” band remained more of an underground phenomenon in the States compared to some of their MTV-darling peers of the late ’70s/early ’80s, the Jam developed a rabid fanbase that followed Weller over the years as he branched out with the jazzy sophisti-pop of his next project, the Style Council, all the way through to his recently released 13th solo album, A Kind Revolution (featuring collaborations with Boy George and Robert Wyatt), and Mother Ethiopia (an EP with U.K. soul band Stone Foundation, inspired by Ethiopian music of the ’60s and ’70s). With such a wide-ranging discography, it’s no wonder the BBC declared Weller “one of the most revered music writers and performers” of the past 40 years.


Yahoo Entertainment recently caught up with Weller in the midst of his American tour to reflect on 40 years of punk — discussing everything from how much rock music’s impact has changed since 1977 to, sadly, how much the world’s political climate hasn’t changed — and of course, whether or not the Jam will ever reunite.

Yahoo: This is a big anniversary year for you. 1977 was a landmark year for British music in general — the Sex Pistols, the Clash — and the Jam put out two albums that year. What are your memories of ’77? It must have been such an exciting time to be making music in England.

Paul Weller: It was exciting, yeah, because it was our generation’s time. We were a bit too young for the ’60s, so we missed out on that, on the chance to be totally involved in it. And then there was nothing, a kind of a real wilderness, in the ’70s — a comedown, I suppose, from the ’60s. And then punk happened. And for me and a lot of people, it felt like: “This is our time! This is our chance to make something of our generation, to make a statement of some kind!”

There have been a lot of celebrations in England recently of the 40th anniversary of punk rock. Does that trip you out, that it’s been 40 years? 

Yeah. Jesus. Where has it gone? My God, where has the time gone? That’s the first thing that hits me. It doesn’t feel like 40 years. That’s a lifetime, isn’t it? But it could be 10 years ago. It doesn’t feel like it’s 40, anyway.

That was an era when many bands were political, or were at least speaking to what was going on in the world, in society, in England, whatever. Do you miss that ethos at all? I suppose some bands are doing that now, but it doesn’t seem as prevalent in today’s music.

I don’t think it’s prevalent at all, really. And probably any [genre] where you find any kind of social comment in music — at least in England, I can’t say for America — would be in the grime scene and maybe hip-hop scene. They’ve been the only people who have been really talking about what’s going on. You don’t hear it in rock bands or pop music, I don’t think. Why is that, I wonder? I don’t know. But I think that could change in the next few years. There’s another generation coming up [in England] that are getting politically involved and engaged, and that could make a difference. Then again, I don’t think music has got the same cultural importance that it used to have. Perhaps it’s just had its time. People will always love music, obviously, but as a cultural force or a sense of identity for young people, I don’t know if that really exists anymore. … It seems music doesn’t feel quite as important as it once did.

Do you think young people in Britain have other ways to express themselves, to voice their opinion, to protest?

Well, when I look at the voting pattern … we had an election in England this year, right? The Tories, the Conservative Party, just about got in, only just scraped in. And there were over 400,000 young voters registered for that election, which is unprecedented; I don’t know if we’ve ever had that. And you can be pretty sure that they weren’t voting for the Tories. So that’s kind of encouraging; that’s like, young people getting involved again, just getting fed up with the same bulls*** we got fed. But whether that has a knock-on effect into music, I don’t know.

Last year you played a concert in Brighton celebrating Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. That was a rare political appearance for you, am I right?

Yeah, I just don’t like the whole kind of party-line thing. I mean, I’ll do benefits and stuff like that; that’s different. But I think after the ’80s I was kind of a bit scared off of getting involved too heavily, because I just thought there were a lot of careerists in politics generally. But I do believe in Corbyn. I think he’s a good fellow. I don’t think he’s like some sort of messiah who’s going to save us all — I think that’s all bulls***, really, but there are people who think that — but I think he’s a good fellow and his heart’s in the right place. And that’s what we need at the moment. We don’t need all this sort of glossy, PR, marketed politicians. We need real people.

Do you feel an increased need, through your own music, to address what’s going on, whether in England or in the world in general?

No, I can’t say that, really. I only write something political if it comes to me, if I just naturally write it. I wouldn’t sit down and force myself to write, because it wouldn’t work. And when I do try and write those thoughts down, they just make me think of what I wrote 30 years ago, in the ’80s. And I just think, “Well, nothing’s changed that much at all, really.” It’s quite a depressing thought.

The title of your latest album is A Kind Revolution. I know that title was probably written a while ago, before a lot of the recent political developments going on the world, but I’m wondering what it signifies, because I think a kind revolution is exactly what we need right now.

Yeah, that was the thinking behind it. It comes from like a lyric in one of the songs, “The Cranes Are Back.” But it’s just how I felt. I really think if the world needs any kind of revolution, it’s one of kindness and love and compassion. Not killing more people.

What was going on specifically at the time, in the world, when you were writing such lyrics? What was inspiring you?

Just everything that’s going on, and that has been going on for a long time now. Seeing what’s happening in Syria, and the poor people there. But that’s just one place; it’s just happening everywhere. The way the world seems at the moment, actually it is World War III; we just don’t realize it. It is really far-reaching; almost every part of the world has got some sort of conflict going on, or some form of ethnic problems. But I’m kind of an optimist, and I hope that the majority of people will come around. I still believe that most people are really good people, and just want to live and get on. And I think you have to keep your faith with that, really.

As I mentioned, the era that you came from obviously was a politically tumultuous time in Britain. Was anything going on in England now, specifically Brexit, on your mind when you made this new record? Because you witnessed similar situations then.

Yeah, especially up through the ’80s and through Thatcherism, Margaret Thatcher. And Ronald Reagan in the States at the same time. It’s not like we haven’t been here before, with all the financial depressions and stuff. But hopefully [even though] the world seems quite reactionary at the moment, perhaps something good will come of that. I’m kind of hoping that there will be some sort of revolution of a sort. The way the media is — the right-wing media — and the propaganda we’re force-fed, I think people are starting to see through it all. I think there will be a reaction to it.

Speaking of the ’80s, the Jam and the Style Council came up at a time when British music was really making waves in America. That era was actually dubbed the “Second British Invasion.” MTV and pop radio were dominated by bands like Duran Duran, Wham!, Culture Club, Bananarama. Yet you remained more of a cult figure in the States. Do you have any thoughts or theories as to why?

Well, [the Jam] played in America a lot of times, but it was hard to get radio play for us. [We were told we sounded] “too English” — which doesn’t really make much sense to me, to be honest. We just didn’t connect with a lot of American people; it’s just one of those cultural things. I think it’s also because you’ve got to spend an awful lot of time in America to really make it, and there was an element of schmoozing that you were expected to do — which we couldn’t do at all. We had no interest in doing that whatsoever, and that probably went against us. But I don’t know why — and I don’t really care, either, to be honest with you. I’m just happy that I can still come over and play and I’ve got an audience. I’m not really out to conquer the world. I just want to play.

You do have a very rabid audience; I’ve seen it in America as well as abroad.

It’s incredible.

Yes, the worship is intense. Does that surprise you? Does it ever weird you out?

I’m only amazed by it. I’m amazed that I’ve got that kind of following [in America], because, as I said, I never had any big hit records here. I don’t know how that’s happened, but it’s a very beautiful thing. I’m really overwhelmed by it at times. But I love it.

I imagine now your fans go along for the ride with whatever you’re doing musically, but when you first started Style Council and moved away from the Jam’s sound, knowing how huge the Jam had been in the U.K., I have to ask: What was the reaction at the time? Was there a backlash?

Oh yeah, of course. It was quite a mix [of reactions] — a split decision, I suppose. But there were a lot of people felt very let down by it. Which is a shame, obviously; I didn’t mean to make them feel like that. But at the same time, it’s my life and I’ve got to live it how I see fit. I can’t live my life for other people, apart from my children or family. I couldn’t shut myself off, cut myself off from trying something different, just because it’s going to upset some fans. My life doesn’t go like that.

You’ve been quite the musical chameleon over the years. What propels you to keep trying new things?

I think it’s just my love of music, really. I listen to so many different types of music, and the older I’ve gotten, the more stuff I’ve heard. I try not to put music into a compartment. I see it all as just one thing, as a whole, and I see that it all comes from pretty much the same source, if you look into it all. I like lots of types of music — indigenous music, folk music. I love the connection between it all. And within that connection, I like to think that’s really our connection. We might have not noticed it or understand it, but I think all people are connected in the same way. But yeah, I like trying different things. I’m just trying to see what I can do and can’t do.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, many times, but it seems like every band that ever broke up has reunited…

Yes. There’s s***loads of them.

Right. Even Guns N’ Roses and the Replacements eventually got back together. Only a handful of bands have held out. The Smiths are one. And the Jam are one of the other few holdouts…

Praise the Lord! Thank goodness!

I take that to mean there is no chance the Jam will ever reunite?

No.

Not even for a one-time event?

No, there’s no chance at all. Why would I? Well, of course I know why bands do it: for money. There ain’t no other reason. But that wouldn’t be a good enough reason for me to do it. I like doing what I do now. I think it’s the best I’ve ever been, and I think the music’s best for me that it’s ever been. I don’t want to play music I did 40 years ago. I don’t mind doing a couple of old songs now and again [in my own set]. If it makes people happy, fine. But to do a whole f***ing set [of Jam songs]? Jesus, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t do a whole set and get the old band back together and pretend we’re friends and blah blah blah, all that bollocks. No way.

You don’t strike me as a particularly nostalgic person.

I’m not nostalgic. There’s no future in nostalgia, right? It’s just making yourself unhappy for no reason. It’s all “Aaahh, I miss those days!” But you have to create the great days now. You know, these are great times; it depends what you put into them, how you view them in your perspective. So I don’t really find all that nostalgia stuff interesting.

I understand you played on the new Noel Gallagher album.

I only play a tiny little bit of keyboards on one song [“Holy Mountain”]. He got me in towards the end just to play “dit dit dit dit dit dit dit” on their keyboard. I did a few takes, and you could have got a f***ing chimp in to do that. So, that was it. That was the extent of my involvement.

Well, since we are on the subject of Noel Gallagher and Weller worship … you’ve been heralded as the godfather, or I guess they say “modfather,” of Britpop. How do you feel about that title?

I couldn’t care less, really. It doesn’t really mean nothing to me. If I’ve ever been an influence on anyone, that’s great. I’m very pleased with that, because I’ve been influenced, and I still am, by so many different things and people and music. So if I’m in any way passing that on to someone, then that’s a very good thing. But in terms of having titles, it doesn’t mean a single thing to me.

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