By: Decca Aitkenhead
Paul Weller resembles an elder statesman of rock so precisely, he looks almost too perfect to be true – like a flawlessly styled, slightly over-obsessive lead singer in a Paul Weller tribute band. He has the perfect elder rock star demeanour – a blend of watchfulness and worldliness, poised with prideful dignity – and the perfect rock star voice, all innits and ain'ts. He is disarmingly courteous, and friendly – even intimate – in that way only the truly famous tend to be, and has just returned from promoting his new album in Milan when we meet in a Notting Hill private members' bar. The whole thing couldn't be more vintage rock star – until he starts talking about his day, when it all gets less backstage Wembley stadium, and surprisingly like the school gate.
His 11-year-old daughter came home from hospital earlier that morning, he explains, having just had her appendix removed, and his two-month-old twin boys are letting him get no more than five hours' sleep a night. "Bit knackered," he offers ruefully. "Proper knackered." He is now a father of seven children, distributed between four different households, and this is making life quite complicated.
"Yeah. And like with newborns you're constantly knackered anyway, ain't ya? It's been pretty bonkers really. They kind of sleep at the same time, and we're trying to get them to a pattern where they feed at the same time, cos it would be fucking mental otherwise." He's so exhausted, he apologises, he's finding it hard to think straight. "Don't know if this interview's going to go very well."
I hadn't been too sure if it would go well either. To pretty much every man I know who was a teenager when the Jam released Eton Rifles in 1979, Weller represents something approaching a quasi-religious icon. Fans of the Style Council, the band he formed in the 80s, remain scarcely any less fanatical, and his reinvention as a solo artist in the 90s – first with Wild Wood, and then Stanley Road – recruited a fresh generation of followers to a sound that's been endlessly evolving, from soul to folk, R&B to house. In 2009, Weller won a Brit award for best male solo artist. Then, in 2010, his last album, Wake Up the Nation, earned a Mercury prize nomination – the same year Weller's messianic status was confirmed by the NME award for Godlike Genius.
But he's come in for a bit of flak lately, on account of leaving Samantha Stock, his partner of 13 years, in 2008 for a backing singer less than half his age, Hannah Andrews, who is now his 25-year-old wife. And he's a notoriously ill-tempered interviewee, often grumpy and sometimes really angry. So what with the current exhaustion factored in, I was braced for the worst – which turned out to be quite unnecessary. At 53, Weller feels happier than he can ever remember.
Not being a music journalist, I'm not sure how to describe his new album, Sonik Kicks. On several tracks he sounds quite a lot like David Bowie (his new wife is a massive fan, and named one of their sons Bowie; Weller named the other John Paul), and a bit like Bruce Springsteen on others, and even like David Byrne on one. But on all of them he sounds like he's enjoying himself enormously, and when I ask him to describe the record, he agrees.
"It's from a certain platform of stability and being positive – and happiness. I think the music exudes that. It's very up. I think the mood of the record is really colourful, it's like modern psychedelic music – if there was any concept at all, it's to take people on a kind of sonic journey. Not in any thematic lyrical way, but a purely musical colourful trip." That's a pretty good description. "Oh good, thank you."
He thinks he's improved with age as a musician. "Lots of people would disagree, obviously." In fact, if he had to play Desert Island Discs with his own albums, the one he'd keep if everything else was washed away would be this one. "No plug intended," he adds quickly, grinning. Would that always be true of whichever album he'd just finished making? He thinks for a moment. "Not every one, no. Some have been like pulling teeth, I can't even listen to them – they were just such hard work, and I wasn't in a good frame of mind. People say you make your best work when you're in despair and all that, and at your lowest – but for me, I think happiness makes you positive, and I think that's a good creative place to write from."
Back in 1989, when the Style Council came to an end, Weller wasn't in a good creative place at all. For the first time since he was 17 he had no recording contract, and didn't work for two years.
"Yeah it was fucking awful, because that's all I'd ever known. I'd written and played. It was scary, yeah, cos I didn't know anything else – but I didn't even know if I wanted to carry on making music. I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know if I wanted to do it. It became this totally alien thing to me." Had he lost his nerve? "I'd lost everything. I'd lost the whole creative thing – and interest in it, really. I'd just lost my way. It was only really my dad's [Weller's manager until his death in 2009] pragmatism, saying you've got to get back on the road cos you need to earn some money – and I thought I really don't want to do it, it's like starting again."
But he did, playing modest venues to even more modest audiences – the sort of grassroots reinvention which some artists claim to find refreshing. "Well I didn't find it refreshing, I found it really depressing." Humiliating? "I don't know if it was humiliating – just depressing. I was like, I've sold all these records and done all this work, and I've got to start all over again. It was fucking painful, really. But then all of a sudden it started to clear. The more I toured and the more I played, the more I found myself, and started writing again and then that was it really. I was up and running."
He went through a tricky patch in the mid 90s when he left his first wife Dee C Lee, a singer from the Style Council and the mother of his two eldest children, Natt, now 23, and Leah, 21. It was a messy period involving a lot of drink and drugs, the birth of a third child following a brief affair with a makeup artist (both mother and daughter, Dylan, 16 and a model, now live in Los Angeles) and the beginning of a new long-term relationship with the mother of his fourth and fifth children, Jesamine, 11, and Stevie Mac, five.
He hit another wall again halfway through the last decade, when he didn't write a song for 18 months. "There was a time in my 40s where I thought, oh, it's all over – not just work, but I'm never going to feel young again, I'm always going to feel like I know what's going to happen, I'll know what to expect. Looking back I don't know if that was a midlife crisis, I don't know – but I don't feel that now. There's possibilities. It gets better."
These days he is relaxed about his own creative cycles. "When I was younger, a block like that would have had me tearing my hair out and thinking it's all over. But I think with age you learn that it comes in bursts and you've got no control over it. I'm not one of those people who says I've got to write a song every day. I just store up ideas and really I have to wait until it finds me; I know when I'm ready to write. It used to frustrate me, but it doesn't any more. It's just how it is."
In the past he's been quite contemptuous of legacy artists who keep churning out any old dross, playing on memories of earlier glory; "I never believed those artists who say they make music for themselves," he once said. "In that case stay in yer fuckin' bedroom then." But when I ask him now if he'd have carried on making records, even if people had stopped buying them, he admits, "Yeah I would – cos I can't do anything else. I'd just have been less successful, that's all." He could have lived with that? "I would have had to."
On paper Weller's life can look single-minded to the point of ruthlessness. He disbanded the Jam unilaterally, left his first wife for a new girlfriend, dumped most of his musicians again about six years ago, and left his girlfriend for his second wife. Would there be any truth in the impression that what matters to Weller is his music, and everything else comes second?
"I don't know really," he muses. "Maybe it would have been true up to a point. I don't think now." What's changed? "Being totally and utterly and entirely in love with someone." He makes it sound as if that's never happened to him before. "Oh I've been in love – but not like this. And it's not like it's some flash in the pan. I can feel it in my bones, it's going to last."
He's seen snide comments in the press about his love life, and just rolls his eyes and jokes mockingly: "Ooh, disgraceful!" Less expectedly, he then shrugs and says: "But this is what was intended for me, and I'm very thankful for it. I think that's what sort of God decided." Weller believes in God? "Yeah, definitely. Not in a Christian way, but some kind of force, energy, yeah. So that's the way my life has been mapped out. You don't always choose the life you have, do you?"
Critics of his second marriage don't bother him one bit. "I think it's just people who read the Daily Mail really – middle-class, middle-aged middle England people. You think, fucking hell get a life, get out and have a look around, you know? I suppose cynical people think, oh she's just in it for the money, which is kind of a normal reaction, I suppose, from society. But we don't really give a fuck, to be honest with you. We're happy and we're in love and that's it really. We were meant for each other; we were just born at different times, and what can we do about that? She could just as easily have been 42 or whatever age, you know?"
He's had to deal with some grief from people in his life though. "Oh loads of people really. My exes – which is fair enough, probably. But things don't always work out in life, do they?" So how are relations with the exes? He pulls a face, then laughs. "Next question, please. Nah, up and down, really. It is very complicated, yeah."
Even Weller's political fury seems to have, if not exactly mellowed, then dimmed from rage to resignation. He's still angry about military misadventures in the Middle East – "I think it's shocking, really. Awful" – but when I observe that the Jam's biggest hits, Eton Rifles, Going Underground and A Town Called Malice, sound more apposite today than at any time since he wrote them more than 30 years ago, he seems surprised.
"Well, for me personally, I don't know if it's ever been any different really. I dunno really. There's always been bullshit, corruption, suffering – the world's always been in chaos – so is it any different? I dunno. I'm just disillusioned now." We haven't seen so many Old Etonians in the cabinet for a long time though. "I thought they all are, aren't they?" They weren't under Labour. "Hmm," he offers gloomily, unconvinced. "Well what about Tony Blair, was he not from that background?" He went to Fettes. "Oh, right." Weller takes this in for a moment, then looks amused. "He went to Fatties?"
Weller's politics come across as more emotional than analytical; for all his famous disgust at new Labour's "phoney liberalism" he sends his own children to private school, which he concedes feels "a bit weird. But I don't feel guilty, cos anything I've got in life I've worked for." Does he still feel working-class? "I do, yeah. I do. I don't think that will ever change really," but he's not sure what class his own kids belong to. "I don't think they'd view themselves as being middle-class. I dunno really. They probably wouldn't even think about class. Maybe I'm the last of that generation that thought about it."
One thing hasn't changed: he still defines himself as a mod – "Yeah, definitely" – and wouldn't dream of leaving the house looking scruffy. "I come from that old-school working-class culture where everyone, regardless of what money they have or haven't got, when it comes to the Friday night dance you dress up. I have a standard, right, that was installed in me from the time I can remember. My mum and dad had fuck-all money but there was always that effort. It's about effort, isn't it? And caring. That's what it's about. You do give a shit – and that's important, I think. These days there's this element of people don't give a shit, and that's really sad I think."
He does look amazing – which may be down in part to clean living. Having been quite anti-drugs in the 80s, he became an enthusiast in the 90s, hanging out with the Gallagher brothers at the height of Brit Pop. "It was just like coke was fucking everywhere, you couldn't go anywhere without it being around. And for a period of time I enjoyed it, it was fun. But like any drug it's only fun up to a point, but then it's not fun any more." When I mention drink, he says at once: "Oh I've always drunk a lot – and very nice too," but he told another journalist a fortnight before our meeting that he hadn't had a drink for 18 months. According to his publicist, that's true – though he also told the journalist he'd stopped smoking 10 months ago, but is puffing away when we meet.
I tell Weller I'd expected to find him less sanguine and ruminative, maybe more volatile. "Well I'm tired!" he laughs. "I'm old and tired. I'm fucking knackered! I mean, I still get angry – but I just think I'm more comfortable being who I am. I think it's probably fair to say there's at least one moment every day where I just think, fucking hell, I'm so lucky, I'm just really grateful for what I've got around me – children and my wife and everything else."