Fresh back from a short tour of the US and Japan, Paul Weller talks about the 30th anniversary of The Jam's sixth and final studio album, The Gift, and where he's at right now.
Paul Weller bounds into his chair, an electronic cigarette gripped in his hand. We're in the BBC's Studio Three in Maida Vale. Visibly calm owing to post-tour exhaustion and a morning trip to the gym, Weller is here to be interviewed by John Wilson for BBC Radio 4's Mastertapes series.
"Back in those days, bands put out an album a year, you toured with it for a year, then you went back in the studio and repeated the process. Looking back, I was glad I experienced that pressure. It helped me refine my craft and find myself as a writer. It kept me on my toes," says Weller, Gibson acoustic on knee. "It wasn't a treadmill, it was just what bands did back then. I never questioned it."
Lest the passing decades dim our memory, always be sure that Paul Weller is a poet; it was ever thus. What will forever anchor the man in the national consciousness are the songs he wrote as a young man with The Jam. They were his first bloom and bounty, and they glitter to this day.
"I never saw myself as a spokesman for a generation. It was all a bit heavy for me. I saw myself as a songwriter and wrote for myself, which I still do, and I also wanted to communicate with my audience. That didn't make me a spokesman back then. What I did see were fights at every gig, which made me think that, while the enemy was as the door, we were still squabbling in the dirt. I wanted to write more positively in reaction to what I saw. I suppose I was much more serious-minded in the '70s and '80s," he says with a smile.
"I always wanted to be a musician. My dad worked on the building [trade] and he had seen what 'a real job' was like. Going to college was never an option. I was passionate about music, but how much talent I actually had was another matter."
The story goes that without his late father, John Weller, fighting his corner from day one, things may have been very different for Paul. "My dad saw something in me and pushed me, and the band. My parents were happy to see me doing something that I really loved."
When The Jam started out, they played the circuit of social and working men's clubs in the Surrey area. They were nights out for the whole family. But all that changed when Weller saw The Sex Pistols for the first time in 1976 at the Lyceum on London's Strand. "I thought, this is it, this is my generation's moment. The Pistols were the catalyst for a new awareness. My songwriting changed at this point."
Weller's songwriting shifted up several gears from The Jam's debut album In The City (1977) to All Mod Cons (1978) and Setting Sons (1979). "There was incredible pressure on us as a band as we progressed, but I'll never moan about that because 10 years prior to that it was all we ever dreamed of doing.
"Coming from a little suburban town, I wasn't a hip city kid. I was quite the opposite really. Songs like Saturday's Kids (1979) rang a bell for kids all over the country. That song was about the kids I grew up with."
Weller says the good side to success with The Jam spurred him on to a point where people started taking his writing seriously. "There were aspects of stardom I didn't like which were of no consequence really, but the positive things far outweighed the negative. By the time I came to write Setting Sons, I felt my writing was more like prose, set to music. I guess it all started with the song Down In The Tube Station At Midnight (1978) which began as a poem. That song came from my own insecurity and paranoia about being in London. You took your life and arse in your own hands when you went into clubs in the late '70s!"
When Weller first moved to London, his writing blossomed. "When I lived in a little flat in Pimlico in 1981, I'd write in the hallway. As you walked in, there was a tiny little recess type thing, hardly a hallway really, and I'd sit there writing songs with my guitar.
"You have to remember," he says, "big bucks weren't around in those days. There was later, but not then. I just wasn't materialistic. If I had £100 a week, that was fine with me. I didn't want a big flat. But it worked. I had a small flat in which I wrote... these big songs," he says with a grin.
"To this day I always carry a notebook. When an idea comes, I jot it down, then after a few months I reappraise everything. Though when I've really had to, I've written songs to hit a deadline. For example, Private Hell, a favourite song of mine from Setting Sons, was written in a west London office at a desk.
"I always have abstract ideas and concepts bubbling under the surface. I used to be very competitive with other songwriters, even up to as recently as 10 years ago, but now the competition is within myself."
With three decades having passed since the release of The Gift, Weller decided to include one of the album's songs, Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero? in his recent gig setlist. "Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero? was written about my dad. It begins with the line 'Hello darling, I'm home again' which reminds me of all those crappy '70s middle class TV sitcoms, then follows with 'Covered in shit and aches and pains'. My dad had been a hod carrier most of his life. It was tough work. He'd come home looking like he'd been sandblasted, covered in cement. I liked the irony of that. But he always had a smile on his face. You could hear him arriving home, whistling down the funny little alleyway that ran beside our funny little house in Woking.
"He was the '5 O'Clock Hero'. He made the money and fed and clothed us.
"A Town Called Malice [from The Gift] was about the UK under Thatcher. Industry had shut down. The lyric tells it how it was. But there's always a let up at the end of each verse with I'd sooner put some joy back in [this town called Malice]. But people love that song. It represents many things to many people, I suppose."
When the Mastertapes recording is over and the autographs have been dispensed with, I ask Weller if he's still in search of the perfect song. "I am, but such a thing doesn't really exist. Though I'll keep looking for it, because why else keep writing? If you write a song which you consider to be great, you naturally ask yourself, why can't I do that again? It's what keeps you going. The search."
And does he feel that his best work is yet to come? 'I'd like to think it is, so that I am propelled forward. But whether or not my best work is actually yet to come is irrelevant. Just to think that it is, is the important thing.'
When Weller came to split The Jam in 1982, he did so with conviction and foresight, for by doing so he gave himself to the wider world which fed the writing of his subsequent career. "It was horrible to split the band. My dad thought I was bonkers. Rick [Buckler] was quite philosophical about it. But Bruce [Foxton] was devastated. Then, of course, the fans... there were a lot of upset people," he says.
"But if you look at the photos of the final gigs, you can see us smiling, all three of us. A load had been lifted. I didn't shed a tear at the final gig. I felt a sense of relief. I was 24. My life was just starting."
Main photograph courtesy of the Guardian
The Gift photo by JAH