Paul Weller is a true icon. As leader of The Jam, he influenced countless punk and new wave bands with an aggressive yet melodic sound. He courageously broke up The Jam at the height of their fame to follow a more soulful musical path with The Style Council, and for the past two decades, has enjoyed a prolific solo career. Respected for his vocal and songwriting abilities, Weller is legendary not just for his musical achievements, but for his mod revival style.
Weller could likely be forgiven for just living off his legacy at this point, but he is still driven to create relevant new music; his latest album, Sonik Kicks, released in 2012, melds rock, jazz, funk and even electronic textures. A massive star in his native England, Weller enjoys more of a cult following in the United States. And though he tours extensively in Europe, Weller’s appearances on American soil can seem as rare as an emerging swarm of cicadas. This summer, Weller has plotted a brief American tour of only six shows—three in New York City and stops in Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C. Before heading to New York, “The Modfather” chatted with me about the tour, his forthcoming album and other topics.
This U.S. tour you have coming up is just a brief visit, where you’re playing only four cities. What made you decide to set up the tour this way?
We just wanted to come to America and play. Originally it was just going to be New York, then we decided to stretch it out a bit. We just wanted to play some shows there, there’s no reason other than that.
How do you enjoy playing for American audiences, and how do they differ from crowds in Europe?
I’ve always enjoyed playing in the States. Even if my audiences are smaller there, there’s always a great vibe, I think. I’m past the point of thinking that I’m going to make it really big in America, so I can just focus on my core audience. It’s a nice position to be in, really. I like America. There’s so much history there and so many of our influences are from there. Some crowds in Europe are really crazy. In America, they’re always attentive and appreciative.
With a wealth of material to draw from, how challenging is it to create setlists? Is it both a blessing and a curse to have so many choices to make?
It’s a blessing, definitely. It’s difficult choosing what we’re going to leave out, really. We always play a lot of new material, because that’s where my head’s at, but we do a mixture from my entire career. It’s hard to condense 30 years or whatever the hell it’s been into an hour and a half. We go with whatever we’re feeling at the time and hope for the best!
The mood you’re in that night dictates the setlist?
Often, yeah. We’ll do a different set every night. It depends on what we feel that day. You do soundcheck, you play a few things and see what the mood is like.
Fans in the northeastern U.S. are clearly the lucky ones. Did you consider doing any other major American cities on this tour?
Not at the moment. On the last tour, we played a gig in Los Angeles. But hopefully we’ll come back next year and do some other cities.
Where do you stand in terms of a new record? Are you working on one right now?
I am, yeah. I just started writing again recently. I’ve got six or seven songs written so far. Where the album is going to end up is anyone’s guess; the songs are all quite different at the moment. I won’t really know where it’s going to go until I’ve got some more songs and the album starts to take shape. Like any album, I’m always up for the challenge.
You’re looking at a 2014 release date?
Next year, definitely. Either spring or fall. We’ll see how it goes.
Your last release, Sonik Kicks, was a very diverse sounding album. Do you intentionally want to make something that goes in a different direction than that?
I hope so. I always try to move on from the last album. But what direction that is I have no idea, and I won’t know until I’m about halfway through writing the new record, I guess. But yeah, I’d like to see that it can be different again.
Describe your songwriting process. Do you ever write while on the road?
Yeah, I do that. I write anywhere, man. I write a lot at home, maybe after everyone’s gone to bed and I’ve got a bit of peace and quiet. A lot of times I just play for myself and get lost in that. I’ll jam on little parts myself and get an idea from that. I’m always looking to write; I’m always jotting down a lyric or an idea, something I’ve heard someone say or something I’ve seen or whatever.
So it’s a constant process for you?
You’re considered an inspiration to many younger artists. Are there any newer acts out there today that you really enjoy listening to?
Yeah, there are loads of great bands at the moment. I think we went through a dull time in England for like the last 10 years, but I think recently there’s some good music coming out. There’s a band called Toy who is great. Another band called Charles Boyer & The Voyeurs who are really good. I like Phoenix. There’s an Australian band called Jagwar Ma; I really like them.
You’ve seen so many changes in the music business during your career. Is there any advice you’d give to a band just starting out?
The business has changed beyond recognition from when I entered so long ago. The best advice—other than find a good lawyer (laughs)—I don’t know; it’s a totally different world. It’s always been a tough business. I’m just as confused as anyone else! The only advice I can give is that you’ve got to stick to your guns and not get swayed or changed by too many people.
Basically, just be yourself?
You have to, really. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have some people around you who can give you good advice and steer you in the right direction.
I saw a video segment that you did for Amoeba Records in Los Angeles, where you went on a shopping spree at the store. Are you an avid collector of vinyl?
Not just vinyl, but of music in general, really. Whether it’s CD or vinyl, old or new, I’m always on the lookout. I’m a fan, that’s the bottom line.
You’re still with the same touring band you’ve been with for many years, featuring Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene on guitar and Steve Pilgrim on drums. Is there a certain comfort level playing with musicians so familiar? You guys are like a finely tuned machine at this point.
As long as we all still play good then it’s fine! If we don’t, then there would have to be some changes (laughs). So far, so good. They’re all great players and we get on well. There are no egos involved. You’re lucky to find people like that.
When you visit New York City on the tour, you’re playing three very different venues, including the legendary Apollo Theater.
We played the Apollo before, about two years ago, which was a really big deal for us. So many of our influences have played there. That was a bit of history for me, just to be in the building, let alone play there. It was an amazing gig.
When you’re in NYC, will you have any downtime?
We’re there for about five days, so we’ll get a little bit of downtime. I’ve always liked New York. Who doesn’t, really?
What are some of your favorite places to visit here?
I like Greenwich Village. I love the area and just like hanging out there, walking around. I like all the bars and restaurants.
You’ve remained a prolific artist even at this stage of your career, when many people in your position would just rest on their laurels. What still inspires you to create?
Well, this is what I do in life. It’s what I feel I was put on Earth to do. That’s kind of reason enough for me, and I don’t question it beyond that. Also, I’m always looking to get better at my craft and try to improve. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you tread water and sometimes it feels like you’re up and running. That’s just the way it is. But I’ve never questioned “Why am I doing this?” This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a kid, and I’m lucky enough to still be doing it.
Paul Weller performs at the Apollo Theater July 25, Webster Hall July 26, Music Hall Of Williamsburg July 27, and Union Transfer July 31. His latest album, Sonik Kicks, is available now. For more information, visit paulweller.com.