Blink and you might miss him.
The scene is part of a rapid-fire montage that closes out “The Final Problem,” the last episode of the recent season of BBC’s popular latter-day reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective Sherlock, after Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular Holmes character faces off against his most devious enemy to date, his own institutionalized sister Eurus, who is hellbent on destroying him and their brother Mycroft. With the case closed, and the 221B Baker Street offices back open for business, a cavalcade of earnest, hand-wringing clients flickers by, including, inexplicably, a man in full Leif Erikson regalia, sprawled across the sitting room, unconscious or perhaps dead. The camera doesn’t focus long enough for Holmes or his associate Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) to make a proper diagnosis. Or to actually see the face of the surprise guest star credited as The Viking—ex-Jam and Style Council bandleader Paul Weller, one of Sherlock’s biggest fans.
The singer—who turns 59 this month—happens to be one of Britain’s busiest Renaissance men, with: a posh new clothing line to his credit, Real Stars Are Rare, influenced by his lifelong love of classic Mod fashion; a textural, at times jagged soundtrack album for his actor/screenwriter friend Johnny Harris’s latest boxing flick Jawbone; and a sleek, R&B-retro solo album, A Kind Revolution, his 12th. Additionally, he’s coming off a well-received 2015 exhibit at London’s Somerset House, “The Jam: About the Young Idea,” a collection of 1976-1982, punk-era band photographs and mothballed stage outfits (partially curated by his own sister Nicky Weller), celebrating a razor-sharp look that long ago earned him the affectionate nickname The Modfather. Accompanying the show: an in-depth book, Growing Up With…The Jam and a Universal-released Young Idea greatest-hits collection. In 2010 overseas, he received NME’s Godlike Genius plaudit and a prestigious Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award. There are few remaining fields left for him to conquer.
But a role on television—however prostrate—was an unexpected coup. Weller’s closest chums can’t be pigeonholed (“Some of my friends lay kitchen floors, some sell used cars—I have all sorts of different friends from different backgrounds,” he explains). So it’s normal for him to hang out with actors like Sherlock’s Freeman, from whom he felt quite comfortable requesting favors. “I’d been bugging him for ages to get me a little bit part in Sherlock, because I am such a fan of the show,” he unabashedly admits. “I suggested I could just be like a junkie busking in the street or something. But instead I got the dying Viking.”
Filming on set in Cardiff gave the fledgling thespian pause, however. Cumberbatch greeted him warmly, and it was fun palling around with Freeman there, he says. “But I take my hat off to anyone who’s working that industry,” he adds. ”Because it’s just a lot of waiting around. Music videos are bad enough, but actors literally wait around for hours and hours. So I was in full Viking dress for a good four or five hours, and then the actual scene took about half an hour. So it was interesting, you know? And slightly different from what I’m used to.” He coughs, clearing his throat for a final Sherlock pronouncement. “But I’m not sure if acting is an actual vocation that I could do. And I certainly couldn’t do that job full-time.”
Then again, Weller never imagined himself composing music for an indie project like Jawbone, which stars the BAFTA-nominated Harris alongside hard-boiled UK screen legends Ray Winstone and Ian McShane. Harris was put in touch with him by a mutual friend who had read a revealing Weller interview, wherein the singer listed his bucket-list career ambitions, movie soundtracks among them. “This was maybe four and a half years ago, and Johnny just had the [Jawbone] idea at the time,” he recalls. “He’d just written a very rough first draft of the script. So we met up, and he took me through his idea of the film, and straightaway it appealed to me.” Especially the boxing-underdog storyline. “Because my dad was a boxer, so that really interested me, as well as the whole subplot of booze and alcoholism. And after our first initial meeting, I went off and created the big long opening piece on the soundtrack [the 21-minute “Jimmy/Blackout” that inches from orchestral sweetness to otherworldly, often growling guitar filigrees, before segueing into more traditional folk balladry like “Bottle” and “The Ballad of Jimmy McCade”]. And this was before the film was even made. I just really had a strong vision—just from what Johnny had told me—about the idea, and that was the template for how I saw the soundtrack, really.”
Weller felt that most British films had very similar-sounding soundtracks, reliant on timpani-huge house/hip-hop percussion. “And I wanted to do something a bit more moving and atmospheric and jarring. So the Jawbone music is sometimes jarring, sometimes quite beautiful and harmonious, so it’s flicking between the two, really. It was a new discipline for me, and I think it’s worked out well.” He hopes that the movie snags good US distribution, as he thinks it’s some of his old buddy Winstone’s best work in years. He laughs, remembering one of Winstone’s earliest performances, as the Teddy Boy singing “Be Bop A Lula” in the bathtub scene in The Who’s Quadrophenia, with ultra-Mod Phil Daniels yowling The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” from an adjacent stall. “I’ve known Ray for several years now, and I think that he’s just gotten better with age,” he notes, warmly.
The same could be said of The Modfather. An exemplary moment occurs a few tracks into A Kind Revolution, on the subtly funky chugger “One Tear,” wherein Weller’s seasoned vocals blend almost seamlessly with a certain peer he chose specifically for said song—Boy George, whose voice carried equal charismatic authenticity. Shortly into the six-minute number, it’s difficult to tell where one singer leaves off and the other begins, their projection is so eerily similar. It might seem an unusual choice, but Weller swears he knew exactly what he was doing. “I’ve been hearing George in recent years, and his voice was just sounding better than ever, and our voices go really well together, you know? I think they sound great,” he enthuses.
“I know in some cultures, when the cranes return—or when the birds, in general, return—it’s a sign of good fortune. And I was looking around the London skyline one time, and I saw more mechanical cranes going up alongside more buildings, which I took as a good sign that people are starting to spend money again, and they’re building again.”
The album—Weller’s 25th overall, which stylistically follows in the Northern-Soul footsteps of his previous 2015 set, Saturns Pattern, as well as his smoother post-Jam combo The Style Council (1983-89)—opens with the Stax-Volt-classic wallop of “Woo Se Mama,” penned with the disc’s co-producer Jan “Stan” Kybert, and ups the historic with steamy backing vocals from P.P. Arnold and Madeline Bell. Weller himself plays almost every instrument, from bass and lead guitar to piano and Hammond, as he does throughout the proceedings, aided by his longtime studio collaborators, drummer Ben Gordelier and keyboardist Andy Crofts.
Kind meanders through string-billowed ‘70s soul (“The Impossible Idea,” “Long Long Road”). Jazzy neo-psychedelia (“She Moves Through the Fayre,” with Robert Wyatt chiming in on vocals), and two urban-gritty, Big Apple-inspired cuts (“New York” and the Edward Hopper-themed “Hopper”). Some of the material—like the thumping “Nova” and a finger-popping ballad called “The Cranes Are Back”—lyrically infuses its author’s growing environmental concerns. With his wife Hannah, Weller is expecting their third child this summer, and he worries about the increasingly dire effects that global warming will have on the planet his kids will inherit from this shortsighted, corporate-greedy generation. Which is why he employed cranes as much larger imagery.
There are no flocks of cranes flying home to Britain as he mentions in his song, Weller allows. “But I know in some cultures, when the cranes return—or when the birds, in general, return—it’s a sign of good fortune,” he says. “And I was looking around the London skyline one time, and I saw more mechanical cranes going up alongside more buildings, which I took as a good sign that people are starting to spend money again, and they’re building again. So it’s a dual metaphor, really, and it’s a song of hope.” The title for “The Impossible Idea,” he brazenly confesses, was nicked from his longtime friend Noel Gallagher, two years ago when they were writing a new ‘60s-jangly song for The Monkees to record for their recent comeback album. “I thought it was a great title, so I immediately kept it for myself,” he says, chortling, knowing that the ex-Oasis anchor would never mind. And as for the song’s subtle call to activism in this chaotic post-Brexit/Trump era, he says, “I think for all my lofty ambitions of what I think the world should be, and what we should be doing, I really have to look at myself and think, ‘Am I doing that as an individual? Can I talk about such lofty things as peace and love if I can’t actually do that myself in my own surroundings?’ So the song is about your own personal aspirations, and whether you can live up to them.”
Weller’s surroundings only enhance his perpetual creativity. He has a private studio, Black Barn, on his property, where he can record any time wants, with no expensive meter running. Usually, he assembles his team for three-day session bursts, putting in 16-, 17-hour days. Then they return to the material a week or two later and listen to it with fresh ears, adding or subtracting instruments as necessary. He also allows other young bands access to Black Barn, even if they have no money. “It’s not really a commercial thing,” he says. “But I think it’s better for a studio to keep working and not stand idle—you’ve got to keep the soul alive in a studio.”
The singer staunchly believes in keeping the Mod flame flickering. For his ultra-chic Real Stars line of menswear, he and its co-founder Phil Bickley spent several months just perfecting the collar on their button-down shirts, which sell for 120 pounds, sterling. “The first shirts we had made looked like more of the Pilgrim father’s collars,” he sighs. “It took us a while to get it right. But it’s kind of a labor of love, really—we’ve done three collections over the last couple of years, and, like acting, it’s been something that’s really different for me. I never set out to be the next Dior or Gucci—I was just fed up with not being able to buy cool clothes in the shops. So I thought it would be nice to make some clothes that I like and see if other people like them, too.”
Check out this 1992 Weller performance, an exclusive from the Paste Cloud:
Hearteningly, the designer notes that a generation of young Mods has been snapping his items up as fast as he can manufacture them. And he’s also proud to see whippersnapper new outfits like The Strypes—whose whiplash guitarist Josh McClorey he turned loose on “Nova” and the scruffy stroll “Satellite Kid”—doing research on that era and actually getting it right. “Josh is a really great guitarist and all of The Strypes are good players,” he praises. “And I think it’s great—just really great—to see that these four young cats have picked up on that style of music and are out there doing it. It’s the same thing when I hear Alabama Shakes doing what they do, or Jack White and his whole blues-country thing. It’s great that these forms of music are still being played by younger artists, who are adding more life to it and turning their peers onto it.”
As he pinballs from album to album, accomplishment to accomplishment, does The Modfather ever stop to ask himself why he can’t pause to catch a laurel-resting breath? He laughs. “Why stop?” he asks, rhetorically. “Unless you’re not enjoying it, that is. If you still love what you do, why stop? There will be plenty of times when you can’t do it, so I say enjoy it and appreciate it while you can. And I guess that comes with age, as well—I think I appreciate a lot more of what I’ve got now than I used to.” Since Sherlock and Jawbone, he hasn’t received any new acting or soundtrack offers, he adds. “But I’m always up for it, man. For anyone who’s reading your article, you put it out there—if any sort of Vikings are needed, feel free to call me!”