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!” Illumination reveals 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!”
Though Weller shuns the “political artist” tag, his lyrics and interviews have long flashed left-wing leanings. Like many Brits who endured the Conservative Party regimes of the '80s and '90s, he was ultimately disappointed when the socialist Labor Party finally regained power in 1997. “We waited a long time,” he laments, “just to find out that nothing's really changed. I think it's led to a kind of apathy for a lot of people, me included, where you just think, 'What's the point in voting?,' which is a dangerous outlook, because then you leave the door open for all these extremist nutters.” Weller also feels detached from mainstream musical trends in the U.K., where — contrary to the folklore portraying a Radiohead on every street corner — the airwaves are dominated by generic dance music and manufactured teen acts. “[U.K. radio] is fairly unlistenable, like karaoke night in the fucking lap-dancing club or something! Awful!”
Weller views himself as principally a melodic torchbearer, despite the reams written about his bearing on British guitar music: “I only hear [my influence] in terms of a long line of English pop music going back to the Kinks and the Beatles up to the Jam and the Specials, the Smiths, the La's, the [Stone] Roses.”
ON HIS CURRENT TOUR, WELLER WILL BE PLAYing Jam and Style Council songs with a band for the first time since their demise, a concession fans have bawled themselves hoarse for. So why now? “Because during that solo acoustic tour I was playing a lot of old stuff, and I think that broke a lot of barriers for me, helped me see that I can play the old stuff amongst the new stuff, and it's not like it jars at all.” Weller's solo shows here two years ago summoned staggering reactions: Far from just 30-something English geezers yelling for Jam songs, diverse audiences poured out respect and nostalgia to the point where every tune received a virtual standing ovation. Weller himself was taken aback: “Because it had been so long since I'd been to the States, to get that depth of emotion from people nearly brought a tear to my old eye!”
Weller's ambitions for this tour are about fundamentals: “I would like [audiences] to walk away feeling good about what they've seen and inspired by it. And to add to the belief in music that we've all had, but that kind of diminishes at times.” With a quality solo album on parade and a newfound willingness to embrace his past, Paul Weller's about to repay the patience of his U.S. fan base and remind us why he's one of Britain's working-class heroes.