By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Lawrence Watson
"I DON'T KNOW IF I SIT THERE THINKING, 'OH, I'm very English tonight,'" muses Paul Weller, addressing the alleged barrier between his message, with its peculiarly British slant and slang, and American ears. "People say, 'Is it too English?' But Monty Python's fucking massive [in the U.S.], and you can't get much more English than that!"
There are legions of American Anglophiles who feel that being British is a required pedigree for a melodic guitar band — an attitude reflected in the success here of acts from Oasis to Coldplay. But bands who've been lyrically Anglo-(ec)centric — the Smiths, Blur — have, like Weller, settled for stateside sales that only hinted at their U.K. dominance.
They don't call Weller 'the Modfather' lightly: His influence has permeated everything from Britpop and garage-rock to No Doubt. Still, he's strictly a cult figure in the U.S., where he's left a trail of canceled shows and unreleased albums that runs back to the disappointing '77 debut American trek of his late-'70s mod/punk trio, the Jam. Now Weller returns with his first stateside studio release (Illumination) and full-band tour since 1997. (He played one-man acoustic shows here in 2001, including three hysterically received nights at West Hollywood's House of Blues.)
To Brits of a certain age, the Jam were besuited icons. Bringing 1977's bristling discontent to the melodic vision of the Kinks and the Who made them superstars in their native land; they tore out six increasingly accomplished and stylized albums in a five-year spasm that arguably established them as the missing link between the Beatles and today's influx of English guitar acts. In '82, Weller split to indulge his increasing fascination with '60s R&B and soul through the Style Council. This ambitious, self-aware project enjoyed initial acclaim but had wilted by the turn of the '90s, and Weller decided to go it alone. He's had growing success in the U.K. ever since, partially thanks to being name-checked by Oasis, Blur, et al., as a major influence, and continues to be romantic and political, angry and contemplative — and defiantly British.
CHATTING WITH PAUL WELLER IS LIKE INTERVIEWING a character from a Guy Ritchie movie: He has the ambling, street-level timbre of a much younger man (he's 44); his conversation is a cascade of English colloquialisms and silent H's.
A mellower Weller is now philosophical about his mixed fortunes in America. "It's never kind of 'appened for me in any big way in the States," he says, "but then, every time we've played there, the gigs have always been really, really good. Going back to the Jam days, the reaction was just as good as it was in the U.K." (Weller's apparently blocked out the ill-conceived 1978 U.S. tour that saw the Jam consistently booed while opening for Blue Oyster Cult.) "I s'pose it's that certain amount of frustration, really, because you see this reaction from the crowd but can never get through on records or radio play."
Though still opinionated, Weller oozes a bloke-down-the-pub contentment these days: "I don't give [overseas success] a great deal of thought. As long I've got an audience, that makes it worthwhile enough to come out and play." (Apparently that wasn't the case when Weller's 2000 U.S. tour was pulled at the 11th hour, with punters showing up to locked doors and refund notices.) "It's not like I'm out for world domination!"
Illumination finds Weller reflective, yet still barbed: Summery, hand-holding strolls ("Now the Night Is Here") and open-heart celebrations ("Who Brings Joy") are punctuated by more cynical, worldly pieces like the robust soul-stomper "A Bullet for Everyone." For all its contrasts (traversing grooving folk, meaty Motown and even Indian raga), Illumination exudes a confidence that Weller attributes to the circumstances of its genesis: "All the time I was making this record I was on the road doing the solo acoustic tour, so I'd be grabbing two or three days here and there to record. You've got that kind of self-assured vibe, because you've just come away from playing for people."
Playing most of the instruments on the album and self-producing helped retain Weller's focus: "After my last album, Heliocentric, took seven weeks to mix, I thought, 'I'm never going to fucking go through this process again.' I wanted to get back to more old-style recording and mixing." The lo-fi Weller's well aware of his strong suits: "A lot of what I do is about performances. It's not that sort of thing where you can polish it up later on — it's either got to be there or not."
One of Weller's enduring charms has been the way he offers Byronic sentiment and melting melody through the lived-in, accented voice of the workingman: Like a caress from callused hands, the effect's at once disarming and reassuring. "A lot of the imagery I've used is from that kind of [Romantic] thought," Weller confirms. "I s'pose Shelley and English writers like that I've been inspired by. And I think there's always been a core of positivity in a lot of my music, despite the media images of me being grumpy!" Illuminationreveals Weller to be in better voice than ever, loosing a textured glow from sometimes-limited pipes. "I'm probably just less self-conscious about it now. When I listen back to some of my old stuff, I can hear where it sounds a bit mannered at times, whereas now I just open my mouth and sing. But I can't say I've worked on it — I'm still smoking and drinking like a fucker!"