Paul Weller: Eyes on the Prize

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Paul Weller  wanted to avoid the fate of so many of his peers from the punk-rock/new-wave movement of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The former leader of The Jam and The Style Council didn’t want to record new songs that sounded just like his old songs and disappointed those nostalgic fans who only wanted to hear their favorites from the past. At the same time, he wanted to retain the two hallmarks of his music: catchy melodies and rocking grooves.

“I was looking for a new sound, if such a thing even exists nowadays,” Weller says by phone in Germany, where he was touring in April, “new for me at least. Unlike a lot of my so-called peers who are peddling their old songs, I wanted to feel like I was making something in the 21st century. I’m still here, and until I’m cold in the ground, I’ll want to hear something new. Music is my culture, my life, and I want to see where it’s leading.

“But I was also determined to have really melodic songs. The melody has always been the most important thing to me since I was growing up in the ‘60s. Then there was a massive emphasis on great choruses. Whether I get to that or not remains to be seen, but that’s what I’m aiming at. I’ve always liked the way melodies affect people. They’re powerful things; they can bring you up or bring you down.”

Against all odds, Weller has just released an album, Saturns Pattern, that offers a welcome supply of tuneful hooks and dance rhythms within a sound that’s brand new—for him at least. Weller isn’t the first artist to combine the ghostly roar and bleeping computer noises of sci-fi movies with the loping pulse of ‘70s funk, but he may well be the first to make these elements seem integral to the songs rather than mere gimmicks glued on as an afterthought.

“White Sky,” the album’s first track, for example, opens with the sound of a spaceship’s nuclear engines rumbling through the vacuum between solar systems, the command console chirping like a high-pitched synthesizer. Suddenly this scene is interrupted by Weller’s industrial-scaled, blues-rock guitar riff and his hollering vocal soaked in reverb: “White sky coming down on me!” Weller claims the lyrics were inspired by bluesman Robert Johnson, but his anguished admonition that we look upward to the technological danger above lends coherence to this combination of psychedelic space-funk and the blues. And the title line is an incorrigible ear worm.

Issue188.jpg The movie continues on the second cut, the title track. “Saturns Pattern” refers to the hexagonal cloud hovering over the planet’s north pole, an anomaly first discovered by the Voyager spacecraft in 1981 and represented in a stylized illustration on the album’s cover. The song’s verse sounds like a bit of piano-pounding, music-hall song from The Kinks or Elton John played by Brits in an ex-pat colony on Saturn’s surface. On the stomping, contagious chorus, though, there are echoes of the spaceship that brought the emigrants to the ringed planet: pulsing synths and extraterrestrial noise.

“Our working method was different this time,” he divulges, “because I didn’t bring much into the studio. We started with nothing, really. We just played along, trying stuff, trying different melodies, looking through my notepads to see what lyrics I could use. Sometimes we’d start with a drum beat. The melodies were worked up from the jamming. Any sort of music will suggest some kind of melody to me. When we did Saturns Pattern, I said ‘This is where we should be going.’ It sounded different. It sounded fresh, like 21st century pop music.”

Weller’s first stab at reinventing his music came when he invited the duo of Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans, known alternately as Amorphous Androgynous and the Future Sound of London, to remix two tracks from his 2010 album, Wake Up the Nation. That went so well that Weller went into the studio with the duo and recorded at least eight tracks, but the singer decided not to release the results. He did salvage one track, “White Sky,” which was remixed and released as the first single from Saturns Pattern.

Weller then returned to the studio with Jan “Stan” Kybert, who had co-produced Weller’s 2005 album, As Is Now, as well as mixed Weller’s 2012 album, Sonik Kicks. An engineer for Oasis and the Verve, Kybert knew how to take shapeless improvisation and transform it into pop music.

“He took all of our jamming, all my piano and guitar tracks, cut it up and came back with a groove,” Weller explains. “Once we had that, I would put in the chorus parts, the chord changes and the words. All of this happens on the spot; I never study how we do it. Any piece of music that moves me to write, I’ll follow it. You’re playing along and all of a sudden you’ll get a tingle from a melody or a riff and you know that’s a place to start a song.

“There were elements of blues and of dance music. But it wasn’t like today’s dance records; it was more about movement and groove. The way the bass is playing is connected to the melody and the words, but it’s almost playing in a different key from the rest of the record. It’s really hard to play stuff like that.”

Not only is the sound different on Saturns Pattern, but so is the mood. Weller seems happier and more optimistic than ever. The mid-tempo thump of “I’m Where I Should Be” is filled with programmed, beeping sequencers that sound like extra-planetary sensors, but the planet seems to be the land of contentment. “I know exactly why,” Weller sings glowingly, “I’m where I should be.”

He visits the same planet on the song “Phoenix,” a house-music R&B number warped by psychedelic effects. “The blue of the sky,” Weller croons without irony, “the cool of the morning, I’ve got nothing on my mind, only love that’s coming.” Even over the distorted punk-rock guitars of “Long Time,” he declares, “For such a long time I felt so lost and confused, for such a long time I just wanted to lose.” But the exuberant joy of the final guitar solo indicates that things have changed.

“I am happy,” confesses Weller, who turns 57 next week. “I like my life and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I’m playing music and I get paid for it. I love my wife and my kids. I didn’t expect to still be doing this at 56, 57. But I am. You have to keep on keeping on. I think I’m lucky in some ways, because I’ve never lost the passion for it. Yeah, there have been periods where I say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ but never for very long. I’ve kept my love for the music.”

So many musicians from Weller’s generation have either dropped out of the music business altogether or cling to the fringes as nostalgia acts or as off-stage hustlers. This makes it all the more miraculous that Weller is still making interesting music into the second decade of the 21st century.

“It depends on what you’re in it for,” Weller suggests. “For a lot of people, it’s a way to make a living, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m after something more. I want to leave a mark of some kind, some kind of fulfillment. When I came off stage last night, I felt like I had done something well, something that other people care about. We all have to make a buck, it’s true, but you have to keep your eye on the real prize. Some of those people who fell by the wayside, maybe they took their eye off the prize.”

Stream Paul Weller’s forthcoming album Saturns Pattern in the player above.

Paul Weller Tour Dates
9 – Washington, D.C. @ 9:30 Club
10 – Philadelphia, Pa. @ Union Transfer
12 – New York, N.Y. @ Terminal 5
13 – Boston, Mass. @ Paradise Rock Club
14 – Clifton Park, N.Y. @ Upstate Concert Hall
15 – Toronto, Ontario @ Danforth Music Hall
17 – Chicago, Ill. @ Vic Theatre
18 – Indianapolis, Ind. @ The Vogue
19 – Pittsburgh, Pa. @ Mr. Smalls Theatre
20 – Brooklyn, N.Y. @ Music Hall Williamsburg

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