“We were kind of hoping they were going to use our backing track, but they re-recorded it,” Paul Weller tells me of the song, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” that he wrote and demoed with Noel Gallagher for the Monkees’ 2016 album Good Times. “It came about because someone in the Monkees’ office asked Noel if he had a song for them. He asked me to try to do something with him, so we got together and did a demo and then I finished the words much later on. That was it, really.”
The song was unique and adventurous on an album of otherwise pleasant, but undistinguished, songs.
So was Weller – an avowed fan of 60s pop and soul – a fan of the pre-Fab Four growing up?
“Not really,” Weller says. “Good singles, though.”
Paul Weller, 59, is an icon in the U.K. He gained prominence as a teenager as the frontman and principal songwriter for The Jam during the punk explosion, then jettisoned the band at the height of its fame in 1982 for the soul/jazz stylings of the Style Council. When that band’s 1989 experimental deep house album was rejected by Polydor Records, and the band’s new direction was roundly booed by a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, Weller found himself without a label for the first time in his life.
“I was completely adrift,” he told me in 2015.
His father, who had managed him since the earliest days of The Jam, told him to simply get on with making music, and Weller started again from scratch, playing to small crowds, until his first solo album, Paul Weller, and its smash follow-ups, Wild Wood and Stanley Road, all recently reissued on vinyl, put him back on the map, just as BritPop was ascendant.
A string of successful albums followed, and Weller, even then barely in his 30s, was dubbed the Modfather by his acolytes.
“It’s silly, yeah, but it was an amazing time,” he says now of the heady and hugely fertile period of his career.
But by the mid-00s Weller found himself again at a creative crossroads.
His excellent 2005 album As Is Now met with a lukewarm critical and commercial reception, and Weller began looking again for a new direction.
He again jettisoned his longtime touring band, married again – to the backing singer Hannah Andrews, with whom he is expecting a third child (he has eight in total) this month – and began an artistic odyssey with the 2008 album 22 Dreams that has turned into a late-career renaissance which continued through 2010’s Wake Up The Nation, 2012’s Sonik Kicks, 2015’s Saturns Pattern and, just this past May, his excellent new album, A Kind Revolution.
“A musician like Paul just feels compelled to keep moving on,” Ian Snowbell, author of the new book about Weller’s 25 studio albums, Paul Weller: Sounds From the Studio. “It goes back to his Jam days, in that each album is different and a progression. It’s a very conscious thing with him, and he’s just never stopped approaching that way. Paul just carried on and made the music he wanted to make. In the UK that’s earned him a very loyal fan base, and it has been building for 40 years. The rest of the world is still catching up, I guess.”
Indeed, in the U.S., Weller has a similarly loyal, albeit far smaller following relative to his audience elsewhere around the world.
“They’re great, though, man,” Weller says of his American audience. “They’re fantastically loyal.”
He embarks on his most extensive U.S. tour in years this October.
Still, even given the hugely politicized times we’re living in, not to mention its title, Weller says A Kind Revolution isn’t a protest album.
“It’s not about politics at all, man, no,” Weller insists. “I don’t think any politics is the answer. The answer for us – for the human race – has got to come from people. There’s got to be a spiritual awakening – a revolution of a kind – for this world to change.”
When I speak to Weller on the eve of his 59th birthday, he sounds like a man half his age: Energized and inspired, and unafraid to speak his mind. His recent shows have been warmly received, and tickets for a tour of his homeland, set for early next year, were selling like hotcakes.
“It’s been mega,” Weller says.
“How he keeps delivering is just magic from the sky,” Weller’s bassist, Andy Crofts, of the band The Moons, who acted as a sort of Jack of All Trades on A Kind Revolution, playing a long list of instruments and contributing some fantastic backing vocal arrangements, tells me of his boss and friend. “I can’t think of anyone else in his position with such an exciting and creative output.”
Typically, Weller wasn’t afraid to shake up his process in the studio while making A Kind Revolution.
“Probably over half of the songs were written beforehand, but I didn’t really have a clear idea of how they should sound,” Weller admits. “I had the words, the chords and the melodies together, but then we’d demo those ideas and sometimes we’d scrap those, but sometimes they captured something and those recordings would go on to be masters. It could have been just a beat or whatever, and then we’d add electronic percussion and stuff to it; just whatever felt good. But that’s how we made it something different than it might have been otherwise, and a bit more fresh and modern.”
Still, Weller wasn’t afraid to work in a more traditional way, if the song warranted it.
“Something like ‘The Impossible Idea’ was a pretty complete arrangement, so that didn’t take too long to get down,” he says.
And the scorching lead-off track, “Woo Se Mama”?
“Ha! That thing took me months to get together,” Weller says with a hearty laugh. “I changed the song, like, three times because I wasn’t happy with it. I just wasn’t happy with the lyrics and the melody, so I changed it. It took three goes to get it, hopefully, kind of right.”
The results are an album highlight, made all the more sweet by the appearance of Weller’s childhood heroes P.P. Arnold and Madeline Bell on backing vocals.
“P.P. had come over for the sessions, and with a stroke of massive good fortune Madeline was flying in from Newark on the same day we wanted to record, so she flew in from Newark and then come straight down to the studio and cut the vocal and went straight back off,” Weller says. “It was one of those beautiful things that was just an idea, but it worked out. But I think I chose those people because I know what they can add, and for their sound – the unique sound they have. But it was a massive thrill, yeah.”
Another standout track is “Satellite Kid.”
“That was the last track to be recorded for the album,” Weller explains. “We got up to a certain point where we were almost finished and I thought, ‘What we really need now is something quite indulgent.’ I wanted something quite long and jammed. I thought we kind of needed that as a flavor on the record. So we cut it live, with me and Andy and Ben (Gordelier), our drummer, and Josh McClorey, from the Strypes, and yeah we just cut it live.”
McClorey’s distinctive and aggressive, yet melodic, playing is peppered through A Kind Revolution. Weller says he admires the 21-year-old guitarist tremendously.
“I think he’s really such a phenomenal guitarist,” Weller enthuses. “He’d come over from Ireland for a couple of days and just hung out and just played and it was easy, man. You know, I can hear the sound I want in my head, and he just comes from that same school of playing.”
Crofts agrees that there’s something special about the track.
“I think Paul prefers to catch live recordings as they have some magic you can’t argue with,” he explains.
Still, Crofts, who cites the stand-out tracks “Hopper,” “She Moves with the Fayre,” “The Impossible Idea,” “Woo Se Mama” and “Long Long Road,” each with a uniquely unabashed experimental nature, as his favorites, says that what he respects most is that Weller, even at 59, is still constantly searching.
“Paul is so creative in the studio, with so much attention to detail,” he says. “With this album he was also free and spontaneous. He’s not afraid to break the mold or do something different and that’s what I admire.”
“Paul allows the musicians he works with to be themselves and experiment,” Snowbell adds, citing one of the key things he learned about Weller while researching Sounds From the Studio. “His willingness to be open means a lot to the people in the studio and also his attitude that he is doing whatever he is doing because he wants to make the best song possible that he can in that moment.”
For his part, Weller is, perhaps predictably, already on to his next project.
“I might do something more acoustic,” Weller tells me as we wrap up. When I remind him that he told me the same thing when he’d just wrapped production on 2015’s Saturns Pattern he laughs. “Well, that’s just it, mate,” he says with a laugh, “no matter what your plan is you never know until you get in there and start recording. That’s what still excites me and keeps me going, I guess.”