Weller is one of the most self-aware artists of his age. Accused of being “difficult” by music journalists when he was young, all he really was was shy and inarticulate. He still has no interest in suffering fools gladly, but his recall, when asked nicely, is terrific.
“There’s a good song I did when I was about 16 and I was going for a heavier Otis Redding phase,” he told me. “I wrote this soul-sounding tune in my mind, called ‘Left, Right And Centre’. That was probably the best song I’d written up to that point. And then years later, Dean Parrish, who was really famous on the Northern soul circuit, he did ‘I’m On My Way’, a big Northern tune. Anyway, he cut a version of it, but it was funny to hear a proper American singer doing this tune that I wrote when I was a kid, trying to ape this soul R&B thing, and then hearing it done properly, you know? But that was probably the first proper song I wrote. Prior to that, they were just Beatles copies.”
Mary McCartney: So, Paul, when did you become a Beatles fan? When you were 12?
Paul Weller: When I was five years old. I had some of the singles, because my mother bought them, but the first time I saw them was the Royal Variety Performance in 1963, when I was five. From the time I saw The Beatles I loved music and then when I was around age 12 I started trying to learn to play guitar. Me and my mate had a few lessons for a bit and got a few weeks in, but the guy was trying to teach us how to read music, so we got bored with that. And as soon as we learnt enough chords we stopped the lessons and we just start doing it ourselves.
MM: When did you actually start writing songs?
PW: As soon as we – me and my mate Steve Brookes – learnt the three or four chords. I’m still mates with him now. We started a band and we just learned together and we just kept swapping whatever we’d learned in the week, swapping back and forth. It was just me and him and then we just gathered up people as we could find them. There was never any doubt in my mind that’s what I would do and, even at around 12, I thought that was definitely what I was going to do for a living. Well, I didn’t know it could be a career, I just knew I was going to do music. So by the age of 14 we were playing pubs, working men’s clubs and social clubs with The Jam. But your dad’s band was the catalyst for all of it.
MM: You know, I’m directing a documentary about the history of Abbey Road Studios at the moment, so I’ve been taken back to those times. There is a photograph of me aged three months on one of the sofas in the studio, so I was there before I can remember being there. Whenever I walk in through the doors I still get a funny feeling. But I’m learning a lot about The Beatles’ recording process, though. What was your writing process in the early days?
PW: When we started to write songs we just used to pinch a lot of The Beatles songs. They were very basic, just us taking our first steps as songwriters. I was actually very passionate at the time, but I didn’t have the skills to articulate that passion. That kind of developed. Our first songs would have been nonsense songs, just “My Baby Love Me” stuff… But, like every other fledgling songwriter, I just started off by aping other people, like The Beatles did, like Dylan did. Everyone starts out copying other people.
MM: I assume you recorded your new album during lockdown?
PW: I did. I had about four or five tracks left over from [last year’s] On Sunset and they were just lying around, unused. So I started working away, chipping away, trying to put together a new batch of songs. As ever, I recorded them all in the studio down in Surrey, just me and a guitar singing along to a click track. If I couldn’t record with the band, I’d send the recordings to them and they’d play their parts and then send them back. It was a very odd process, but it worked. However, when we could finally all record again together, it was like the first day of school after the summer holidays. It was great. The writing process was actually the same as it always is, but because I knew I didn’t have any live work for the foreseeable future, we just created all this space.
I think the lockdown was actually hugely influential in a way, as all the quiet made me appreciate nature in a way I hadn’t done for quite some time, maybe ever. I could really feel and hear and see nature again, it started to take over. I loved hearing the birds sing and not seeing any aeroplanes in the sky. It helped me think about things I would never normally think about in any situation. I felt more in tune with nature. I had a thought that if we weren’t here, if we all disappeared, which I’m sure we will do one day, the earth would just reclaim itself and that it will always be here and we won’t.
MM: It was such a nice feeling, actually stopping and looking and appreciating, not rushing around. I was lying in bed one night in the middle of London. It was 2am and it was so quiet it felt like we had gone back 100, 200 years. I couldn’t hear the rumble of the underground and it was almost as though cars hadn’t been invented.
PW: How was your lockdown, Mary?
MM: Mine was good, but we’re not here to talk about me. I’m grilling you today. But mine was good. Well, I say it was good, but it was unnerving. I think, on a global scale, it was just unnerving because it was like living in a science fiction movie. I think the main thing a lot of us benefitted from was having to slow down and not being able to just go and do things. So, in that sense, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was obviously worried about people’s health and the economy, but, like you, I really got in touch with nature. I did a lot more photographic work outside. And, of course, I started to prep for the Abbey Road doc. What’s the perfect recording scenario for you?
PW: Well, I love my studio and, to be honest, I’d be quite happy to never come out of the place. I could quite happily stay there forever. I bought the building in 1999, but it’s only really been the past 15 years or so that we’ve really got it together, with the sound and the vibe and the equipment. I’m continually making little acoustic adjustments to the room. We’ve got a drum kit set up all the time, as well as a mic’d piano, so it’s always ready to roll. I can play guitar, obviously, as well as bass and piano, but I’ve never really enjoyed playing the drums, because I can’t sing and drum with any conviction. It’s a different art altogether, playing drums. I like drummers who play the song, who can play the tune and who aren’t trying to do their own thing. That requires a certain amount of discipline, a different discipline: not playing too much but playing the right thing. Your dad is a good drummer.
MM: Yeah, he is. Mum introduced me to a song he played drums on years ago, called “My Dark Hour”, by the Steve Miller Band. He’s credited as “Paul Ramon” and he does backing vocals, guitar, bass and drums. It was recorded in Olympic Studios in London towards the end of 1969, after an argument Dad had had with the others over Allen Klein becoming their manager. The others had gone off and he said Steve Miller walked in and asked if he wanted to play the drums on this track he was recording. I think the drumming on it is so good, but you can tell he’s letting out a lot of tension.
PW: I love that first solo album of your dad’s, the one with you as a baby on the back. That’s probably one of my favourite records. It was lo-fi before lo-fi was even talked about.
MM: I love the rawness of it, as it’s just so personal. I still listen to McCartney and Ram a lot. They shot the album cover up in Scotland. They were horse riding and he zipped me up in his jacket. He put me in the jacket so I was safe, as he was going riding. I love that picture from a photographic point of view as well, as it’s very real. It’s taken at the end of the day, during the golden hour. It’s so natural.
MM: Well, it was more like growing up as a daughter of Paul and Linda, because they were such a great couple. But,
also, they were such adventurous people. So, we were kind of following them around and going on lots of adventures. We went on tour with them and we really only stopped when we needed to go to school. So I have lots of memories of travelling as a girl. I even remember going on the double-decker that they used as a tour bus in 1972. The seats on the upper deck were replaced by mattresses and bean bags.
PW: I assume it was your mother’s inspiration that made you want to be a photographer…
MM: I think so, as I think I just always saw her taking pictures. She had such a casual style too. She didn’t do a lot of setting up and neither do I. It’s just so much nicer when you connect with your sitter and when you just casually take pictures. I much prefer that and I certainly know that you don’t like to have your picture taken in a very set-up kind of situation. What really got me into becoming a photographer was looking at Mum’s pictures from the 1960s. They were about her being with someone and taking pictures and very much not “This is Jimi Hendrix”. Again, casual. When I became a photographer, I took Mum’s talent for granted. She would take pictures out the car window and then they became these books or a print on the wall. When I started doing it myself I’d put the camera up and I’d be like, “Dad, can you turn the car around so I can take this picture?” And he’d be like, “No.” She would take pictures so effortlessly and I didn’t realise there was a knack to it. Mum and Dad would treat everyone equally; I do remember that. We were always surrounded by people, so I suppose that’s why I think I am a bit of a people person. I like meeting people and I like connecting with people, but I still find I’m quite shy about it. I find it stressful, but I like it. But I could never in a million years get up on a stage, ever. Even thinking about it makes me feel like fainting. When did you first walk out in front of a big crowd? How does that feel? Is it just feeling that adulation and love and appreciation and then giving that back? Does that feel really healthy? I always think when it works perfectly, it just must be such a healthy feeling.
PW: It’s almost a weird thing, because just prior to going on stage, especially in the hour before, I’m in bits. I’m so nervous and so don’t want to be there and want to go home, and then within minutes of actually being on stage, as soon as that first tune strikes up, I automatically feel as though this is completely where I’m supposed to be. It feels like the most natural, most comfortable, Zen-like place you could possibly be, it’s so weird. I’ve always felt nervous before going on stage. That’s never changed. I mean, it’s got a little bit better as I’ve got older, but not much. I think I need to have that feeling. It was weird, because there was a time when I tried to stop drinking – before I stopped completely – and when I stopped I suddenly wasn’t nervous before going on stage. And I didn’t like it. It felt really odd.
MM: Isn’t there something superstitious about this?
PW: No, I don’t think so. I just think it gives you an edge. Those nerves can make you edgy and I think that’s important for me.
MM: And then did the nerves come back?
PW: When I started drinking again they did.
MM: But now you’re not?
PW: When I finally stopped drinking it took me at least two years to get used to that feeling of going on stage totally sober and straight. And now I love it. But it took a good two years to get comfortable, as it was really odd at first. I’d be on stage and I’d notice so much, like there’s a guy in the front row who’s wearing a green shirt or something, and now I don’t feel that at all. Now it feels natural and I have a greater appreciation of it. That’s the other thing as well, getting more from it and being more conscious of what we’re doing.
MM: Growing up, watching Mum and Dad on stage just felt natural. But I’ve seen you play a few times and it makes me realise how much I couldn’t do it myself. There is such great energy and it’s really entertaining and you look completely natural, but I wouldn’t be able to feel comfortable in that position. Also, to me, it feels like your music has to be played live. I went to a concert before lockdown and the person was so vacant and not connected to the audience and, because of that, it made me nervous. You could tell they were going through the motions, that it was an act. They had no connection at all. Whereas when I look at Dad on stage he’s all about connection. I think I had taken it for granted before that, but when you see someone who doesn’t connect, you realise how important it is.
PW: I know some people who turn up just before they go on stage and as soon as they finish they get in the car and they’re off. I don’t understand that either. It’s a far bigger thing than that for me, because I’m looking for that connection. As much as the audience might be, I am as well, and my band too, because I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes and there are some nights where you get so connected together by an audience that this thing just grows and grows. It transcends the moment.
MM: It’s like magic.
PW: It’s something special. The last time I played at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a couple of years ago, it was like that, and it wasn’t because of gear. It was almost like we took off, like the whole room just lifted up.
MM: Have you got a ritual for after the show?
PW: No, not really. No.
MM: My dad has this sandwich and a Margarita, because he doesn’t eat before he goes on. He waits until after.
PW: I have a cup of tea these days. In the past, I would have got off my nut, but I don’t any more. But if you have a gig like that and that becomes your benchmark, you’re always looking to get back to that moment, which is not always possible. But that becomes the thing you’re always searching for, to find that connection. We’re always striving for the spectacular. It’s the same with record companies. Sometimes you have to compromise, but what you really want to do is pursue your own passions. It was more difficult when we first started, because the record company tried to step in more and tried to guide us to do this or that. In the early days of The Jam they even suggested we cover a 10cc song. We said, “No fucking way is that going to happen.” You’ve got to stick to your guns. You’ve got to pursue what you set out to achieve.
MM: Fashion and clothes feel important to what you do, maybe because they make you feel a certain way to be able to perform?
PW: Yeah. But although I was too young to be really involved in the 1960s, I still lived through that time and that whole thing has never gone away for me. I love that period and it informs a lot of what I do, including how I dress. The whole look and sound of that time is just really formative. I don’t feel I’m stuck in that time, but it will always be the cornerstone of everything I do. I just thought it was such a brilliant time for music and fashion and art and all that stuff.
MM: What do you think it is about it? Is it experimentation?
PW: I think so. It was those postwar years, coming out of all that austerity, that bleak black and white, grey world – large parts of the country were still like that in the early 1960s. There were still bombsites. There was still slum housing. So it took a long time for Britain to become modern, but when it did, it was explosive.
MM: Dad describes it as it all suddenly going technicolour.
PW: Yeah, I think that’s true and you just see the clothes and music expanding. Men stopped wearing demob suits and started wearing all these bright-coloured clothes.
MM: And the pill came about and made life a lot easier.
PW: Then the other pills came a little bit later and helped expand everyone’s horizons. These people were pioneers. And also look at the art world – Peter Blake, David Hockney, Bridget Riley. It felt as though everything was becoming more modern and opening up and becoming different and colourful. I was only a very tender age, but, nevertheless, that influence was of great importance and value and always has been. Punk was probably the first time I experienced that freedom. We missed out on the 1960s, had a lift with Bowie, but after that it was largely a cultural wasteland. I was always looking for when I thought it was going to be our term. The 1970s were still very much in the shadow of the 1960s until punk. And then it all blossomed. Then it all started to make sense.