Most artists of a certain vintage—particularly those who’ve enjoyed immense commercial and critical success and are entering their fifth decade as a U.K. pop culture icon—get to a point in their career where the inspiration has long since dried up and they’re comfortably cruising on auto-pilot, secure in the knowledge that their still adoring fan base will lap up any old product, no matter how tawdry. And if their album sales go into freefall, which they invariably do, there’s always the fail-safe route of knocking the hits out to an audience desperate to wallow in cheap nostalgia. And in these grim cutthroat economic times, who, really, can blame them?
That’s not a route that Paul Weller—founder of the Jam and the Style Council, erstwhile “spokesman for a generation” and, back in his native Britain, a man who’s frequently referred to as a “national treasure,” alongside Jarvis Cocker, Alan Bennett and the late John Peel—has any truck with. It’s not even an option. Put it this way: Those coming to his live show next week at Union Transfer expecting an evening of nonstop Jam hits are likely to be bitterly disappointed.
“Yeah, well, they’re at the wrong show, ain’t they?” mutters Weller on the phone from England. “They’d be better served to go and see a tribute band, d’you know what I mean? It’s what they really want, but it certainly ain’t what I fuckin’ want … I can’t be catering to those people. It’s about where my head and heart are right now, and that’s it. You hope people will like it, and some will get it and some won’t. And that’s how it is, man.”
The last few years have seen an incredible creative resurgence from Weller. Following something of a lull in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s when he seemed content to release expertly crafted, but ultimately tedious variations on a patented brand of stodgy blue-eyed soul and R&B (which his ever faithful fans lapped up regardless), he’s gone and released by far his best two solo albums and some of the best music of his entire career. Wake Up the Nation in 2010 and last year’s Sonik Kicks were nothing short of revelatory, albums bristling with confidence, vitality and intent. Enlisting a stellar array of collaborators with the likes of Kevin Shields and Graham Coxon on board, both albums explored a head-spinning array of influences and styles, featuring propulsive Motorik grooves, Augustus Pablo-style Melodica-driven Dub, free jazz, electronic retro-futurism, deranged psychedelia and swooning space pop—sometimes, it seemed, within the same song. The word “eclectic” as a descriptor doesn’t even start to do them justice. So, where did this creative surge come from?
“I don’t know, mate. If I did, I’d try and do it all the time,” Weller replies. “It’s just a very creative time for me. I’m enjoying pushing boundaries … I suppose at the heart of it all, I’m still a huge fan of music. I try to listen to as much as possible. I always want to try something new. I get bored easily. I want to move on and explore; I want to explore myself as well, as a person. You’re never done with learning. There’s always new places to go. You have creative periods and low periods, but that’s just part and parcel of it all. It’s a never-ending process.”
Admirable sentiments indeed, but let’s face it: For whatever reasons, most people’s musical tastes tend to atrophy when they get into their 30s. Weller, however, only seems to be getting more adventurous with age.
“Yeah, that is true to an extent,” he says, “but I’m always looking out for something new, whether it’s contemporary stuff or older music I haven’t heard before. Regardless of my age, I ain’t into nostalgia. I’m not one of those people who’s like, ‘Ooh, it was better in the ‘80s’ or some bullshit like that—‘cause it wasn’t. I dunno, it’s that old cliche, innit? Life’s what you make it; it’s as exciting as you wanna make it. It’s important to keep that vibe going. It’s important to keep creating and looking forward.”
If there is one constant in Weller’s career, it’s that of frequently wrong-footing fans and critics alike. At his best, he’s a hard-headed contrarian of the best sort. This is the man, after all, who at the precocious age of 24, split up Britain’s most successful singles band since the Beatles, thus causing mass trauma amongst the U.K.’s pubescent Mod revivalists. He followed that up with the Style Council, where it all suddenly became La Nouvelle Vague chic, spandex cycling shorts and ludicrously homo-erotic videos—which, it should be noted, did not go down well with Weller’s largely male—and very straight—audience at the time. It seems safe to say that, if nothing else, he’s absurdly single-minded. There’s a pause at the end of the line.
“Yeah. Yeah, when I’m at me best, I probably am, yeah,” he admits. “When I look back over my career, I can see points where I wasn’t, and it’s shown in the music. But when I believe in something and I’m focused, it becomes a mission. Like, when I played Sonik Kicks in its entirety last year, it was ‘cause I was becoming so fuckin’ bored with all these bands getting together to play their classic album from 1980-whatever. So I thought, bollocks. Y’know what, I’m gonna play a classic album from start to finish, and it’s gonna be me new one. It’s always tricky doing that. It’s a lot to ask of an audience.”
There’s another pause.
“But y’know what? I think it’s a mark of respect to your audience, trying to challenge them,” Weller says, “as opposed to what, man? Just go out and play your greatest hits? I don’t fucking do that. I never have, and I never will.”
Wed., July 31, 8pm. $39.50. With Matthew Ryan. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. 215.232.2100. utphilly.com