The party had to end... Polly Vernon's interview, Sunday Times.

Paul Weller is teetotal, monogamous, a non-smoker and the father of twin baby boys. He tells Polly Vernon why the party had to end. Paul Weller sits at the front table of a smart café in Maida Vale, the London district in which he lives, in a canalside house that faces one owned by his friend, Noel Gallagher. Weller dominates the café with his height (considerable) and his hair (cockatoo-ish) and his celebrity. He’s been famous for 30 years, and he’s causing a delicate stir among his fellow brunchers. He wears a chunky knit cardigan, suit trousers, proper shoes (he doesn’t approve of “trackies and trainers outside of the gym”, he will tell me); and he toys with his phone, which is a rather ancient Nokia. He is watchful. He is (still) sexy.
Weller – who doesn’t much hold with journalists – has agreed to be interviewed in the interest of promoting his new album, Sonik Kicks. I want to interview him partly because I’ve had something of a crush on him ever since his 1993 single Wild Wood, and partly because I am intrigued by his love life. Two weeks before I meet him, Weller’s wife, Hannah, who is 25, gave birth to twin boys, John Paul and Bowie. Weller is 53. He sees me arrive and half-rises to greet me. “Hello,” he says; he knows my name. He is incredibly softly spoken, and incredibly Estuary. He pronounces everything “everyfink”, nothing “nuffink”; the final “k” resonates hard. “Do you want a coffee?” Skinny latte, please. “What’s that mean? A ‘skinny’ one?” It’s low-fat. I’m watching my weight. “Is that why you write for Grazia?” he asks. I do write for the weekly women’s magazine; although how Paul Weller knows this, and why he’s interested, is a mystery. Why would that mean I write for Grazia?
“Dunno. Cos it’s always: ‘She’s too fat! She’s too thin!’ They’re obsessed with weight. I don’t understand why women have ended up so paranoid about the way they look. Because it’s like: so and so’s too skinny, they’re on death’s door, anorexic; or so and so’s gone obese, and it’s just… F***ing hell! Is there no middle ground?”
Does it bother you particularly, because you have daughters? Three of his seven children are girls: Leah, 21, Dylan, 15, and Jessie, 11.
“It bothers me anyway. Most women, young or old or whatever, they’re kind of in the middle, aren’t they? They’ve got hips and bums and figures and they look all right, don’t they? Although my youngest girl, she’s 11, 12 soon. And she’ll sort of comment, whatever, I’m fat… Not obsessing about it, but she does mention it. She is aware of it.” He considers me. “Why are you watching what you eat?” Because I am alive and female. He laughs. We address official business first. Sonik Kicks is Weller’s 11th solo album. It is assured and only vaguely experimental, and if you are a fan of his voice and his work (and who isn’t?), then you will like it. He thinks it’s better, lyrically, than his last one, Wake Up the Nation; it has songs about midlife crises, songs about the nature of fame and songs about fatherhood. But no love songs. Why not? “They’re too easy to write. There are so many of them already. Because they’re easy to write. More choice of images. He’s left me, or whatever. And it’s easier to get a response from people, isn’t it, with that. It’s easy for people to write about how sad they are and all that b******s.” You aren’t a fan of Adele’s work, then?
“Adele’s great. Great. Isn’t she?”
Sonik Kicks will be released barely two years after Wake Up the Nation, which was released barely two years after the one before that (2008’s 22 Dreams). You’re churning them out, I say. “Well, you have to, at my age.” The clock’s ticking, is that it? “Well, it is. I do see the importance – not in any morbid way at all – but the importance of an artist leaving as much work behind as is possible. So when I look at, like, Amy [Winehouse], she only left two records in the world. And it’s dreadful that she’s gone anyway, obviously.” Did you know her?
“A little bit. I worked with her a few times. But it would be nice, wouldn’t it? It would slightly soften the blow for people, to know there was all this other work that she left behind.” Weller has done a lot already. Two bands: his first, the Jam, was era-defining, responsible for The Eton Rifles (1979), Going Underground(1980), 1981’s That’s Entertainment, 1982’s Beat Surrender. His second, the Style Council, formed in 1983, was poppier, smoother, effortless and deft; it was 1984’s My Ever Changing Moods andShout to the Top, 1985’s Walls Come Tumbling Down. The first of his 11 solo albums was 1992’s Paul Weller, the second was Wild Wood; and in 1995 Stanley Road included You Do Something to Me. (How many times have couples told you that that’s their song? “Hundreds,” he says. “Hundreds and thousands. First dance at their wedding sort of thing.”) And then, there’s his style legacy. How many middle-aged men reference Weller’s signature look to some degree: with a flash of colourful lining on a jacket, an extra-sharp crease on a suit trouser, a neatly ironed polo shirt, a khaki parka slung over a three-button single-breasted slim-fit suit. Liam Gallagher has built Pretty Green, a clothing empire, according to Weller’s aesthetic principles; Weller himself has put his name to a range of shirts, suits and coats for Pretty Green. He could pack it all in tomorrow and the cultural hangover would be significant.
“Yeah, well, I started young, didn’t I? A lot of people don’t really get going till they’re in their twenties. I was 18 when I made my first record.”
Were you ambitious?
“Yeah. Not ruthlessly. Not in that showbiz ‘I’ve got to make it!’ way. But I was ambitious. When I first started playing music, it was me and a bunch of friends from school. And we were all into music, but I think I was the one who thought we could really make it. This wasn’t us just playing at something.”
Wasn’t that entitlement, that sense of possibility, unusual in a working-class kid from Woking, whose father was a builder and mother a cleaner?
“Is it, though? All those people I liked, in the Sixties, when I was growing up, they were all working class. And they all made it. The opportunities may have shut down now, but then, the people that inspired you, they seemed similar to you. Now, it’s been replaced by that phoney X Factor thing, where you can be s*** but still get on telly.”
Does Simon Cowell depress you?
“He doesn’t figure in my life that much. There have always been those people in the music industry. There’s always been manufactured music. But I am surprised there’s no reaction against him. The cynicism of him doesn’t surprise me, but the fact that the younger bands aren’t reacting, that they’re letting it wash over them... It would be a good time for a revolution. There doesn’t seem to be any voice, does there, with music.
“I’m waiting for celebrity [culture] to die. How long’s it been going on now? Fifteen years? I think it’s the same as pointy shoes for men. It’s time we moved on.”
What about your own experience of celebrity culture? Has it changed you? “I don’t take any of it seriously really. I get caught up in it sometimes. I get written about. It just annoys me, because I think, I’m not even part of your crappy little celebrity world, so I don’t know why you have to include me in it.”
When did it last happen?
“I suppose with me splitting up with my last ‘partner’, as the posh people call it, and going out with my… well, who’s now my wife. And getting married and having babies. Even in Grazia, which I thought was quite funny, there was some article saying about, um, Mutton Dressed As Ram. Which I thought was quite funny.” (I get the sense he doesn’t actually think it’s all that funny.) Did you want to be famous? “Yes! Yes, but I wanted to be good at what I did. I didn’t want fame and money for nothing.” You wanted to be rich? “Yeah! Yeah.” Is it what you expected?
“Being rich means you get a certain amount of freedom. If I want to buy an extra pair of shoes or go on holiday next week, I can do that. And I love that. I kind of come from nothing. So it’s nice to have money. It’s nice to spend it.”
How rich are you? “Dunno. Well off. Well off.” Can you buy anything you want?
“I think the things you’re thinking of, I probably wouldn’t want anyway. So I wouldn’t want 250 grand’s worth of car. Apart from children and bills, the only thing I spend my money on is the same things I spent my money on when I was 15: clothes and records. I can buy more of them, that’s all.” Is making money still important to you? Is it important, for example, that Sonik Kicks is a commercial success?
“It’d be nice. I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, haven’t I?”
Sonik Kicks is, it transpires, a Weller family effort. Hannah, whom Weller first met when she sang backing vocals on an earlier record, also sings backing vocals on this one; Leah, his daughter from his marriage to the singer Dee C. Lee, sings on another track, and Mac, Weller’s six-year-old son with Samantha Stock, his girlfriend before Hannah, sings on a third. “He was 5 at the time. Two takes. He’s really, really into music. Proper. Natural. And he’s started playing guitar. I didn’t push it on him. He said, ‘Can you show me how to do that?’ I went into his school, where they were having a show and tell. And he wanted to take his guitar and he wanted me to come in and play with him. We played together first, and then he played on his own, Yellow Submarine. And seeing all his little peers clapping along to it. And then he took questions from the floor – ‘How long have you been playing?’ Brilliant.”
What kind of a father are you? “I’ve got a great relationship with my kids. Natty, my oldest, is 23, and the twins are two weeks old, just over.”
That’s quite an age gap. Are you exhausted? “Yeah.” You don’t look it.
“You should see it from this side. Oh, not shagged. Like… that thing where you’re constantly tired. Not drop-down tired, but just a little bit. One of the mums was talking to me yesterday morning outside the school, and I was thinking: I can understand what you’re saying, but I just can’t answer you.”
Are you good with babies? You’ve had some practice.
“It’s amazing how quickly you forget. And equally amazing how quick it comes back to you. Silly things like changing a nappy. Bathing them. Stuff like that. First time, you think: I’ve forgotten how to do this. Even though it’s only been a few years. But it soon comes back. Like riding a bike, as the cliché goes.” Twins must be extraordinary.
“It’s just brilliant. They’re so sweet. The other night, I picked them up on their little mat thing, just scooped them up, and there’s two little people, just looking at you! And they’re not identical, so they look similar, but different as well.”
You sound besotted. “I am besotted! I’m besotted with all my kids. I think that’s what God put us here on Earth to do.” Are they spoilt?
“Some of them. Some of them are and some of them aren’t. Have you got kids?”
No. I’ve never wanted them. “Never?” Never. Did you always want children?
“No. I was 30 when we had Natt. I think it took me a while to get my head round it. I’ve always been so consumed by music. When I first had Natty, my son, my eldest, it was a weird time for me. I wasn’t doing music. I was still obsessed by it, but I wasn’t doing it. I’d been dropped by my label. After Style Council. It was devastating, but it did me an awful lot of good. Brought me down to earth. I got caught up in my own self-importance. All my concepts and plans were of great value to everyone! When they’re not, really. So it was a good time to have a kid, because I wasn’t on tour, I didn’t have to make records. I was around a lot when Natt was little in a way I haven’t been, for the others.”
Do you regret not being there for the younger ones? “Sometimes. I do feel guilty. School plays. I wish I’d seen that. But now, the last two years, I haven’t wanted to be away as much. I’m really happy at home.” What’s changed? Hannah?
“I s’pose. Yeah. I guess. That’s the major thing.” You’re madly in love? “Yeah. I am. I’ve never really felt like this before. She’s beautiful and sexy and intelligent and funny and supporting, loving.” Pause. “An awful lot of women are going to be going: ‘F***er!’
What about those other women? The singer Dee C. Lee, mother to Natty and Leah, to whom Weller was married for 11 years. The make-up artist called Lucy, with whom Weller had a relatively brief relationship, as a result of which, his daughter Dylan was born. Samantha Stock, whom he met in the mid-Nineties; the couple never married but had two children together, Jessie and Mac. They split up in 2008 when Weller moved in with Hannah Andrews, whom he married in October 2010. Do you think of those earlier relationships as failures?
“I think I f***ed up in them. But I don’t think I’d consider them failures. I’m sure the women in question might think totally differently. But if you think: you’ve got two beautiful kids at the end of it, and they are happy and they are loved… Well, how’s that a failure? And it wasn’t like I was with them for two minutes. It was years.” Pause. “So, I’m sure they’d see it differently. But I don’t. I don’t see it as failing.” Pause. “At least we’ve got something to show for it as well.”
Are you capable of monogamy?
“I am now.” Is it just a question of meeting the right woman?
“Definitely. I think it’s a shame in some ways; I think that a lot of men should maybe leave it to get married, settle down, till they’re in their late forties or fifties.” Do you think all men struggle to be monogamous?
“Yes. Well, it’s by design, isn’t it? We were here just to procreate so the species didn’t die out. And it’s only because we tried to civilise ourselves that… but there’s still, nonetheless, that primal thing.” But you hit the right age and met the right woman? “Yeah.” And that’s it, now?
“Well. I hope so.” Hannah is two years older than Natty, Weller’s eldest son. His PR asked me not to mention “the boring old age difference” between Weller and his wife, but I chance it, anyway. “We never notice it,” he says. “Never ever notice it. I don’t think people care.” We move on to the related issue of physical ageing. Is Weller – former pin-up, eternal style icon – vain? “Yeah.” In what ways? “I spend too much time in front of the mirror.” Preening? “And pruning. Preening and pruning. Well, it’s nice to have some self-pride, isn’t it?”
Do you feel handsome?
“I don’t know about handsome. But… unless I look in the mirror, I don’t feel any different than what I did 20 years ago. I feel fitter now. I go to the gym. Stopped drinking about 16 months ago. Stopped smoking ten months ago.”
Why? “Time for a lifestyle change. I couldn’t keep doing it. It was killing me.”
Do you miss drink? “I miss the silliness. I don’t like it when it gets dark. I like it up until dusk.” (He’s speaking metaphorically. I think.) “I’m not one of those people who can just have a couple of drinks. If it’s 2, it might as well be 20. If it’s 20, it might as well be 40.” Was drinking a problem? “I think I’m an alcoholic, definitely. Yeah. I would have thought so. It’s hard to know where a p***head becomes an alkie. Fine line. But yeah, I think so.” Was it a struggle to stop? “Not really. I didn’t want to go to AA or any of that b******s.” You’re keeping your hair. That’s good. “I am very happy about that. Very happy.” What about cosmetic surgery? Have you considered it? “Oh yeah! I have thought about it. But I don’t know if I would. I’m always talking to Hannah about it. She’s really, really, really against it.” Pause. “And it does just look really wrong. Not for your article, but you know the thing with…” He names a very famous singer. “And she was on the telly the other day and her head is just like… what’s gone on here? She don’t need to have all that!” Pause. “But what is that then? Is that fillers?” Yes. Fillers puff you out; Botox freezes you.
“Well. That looks wrong ’n’ all.” Is it important to you to be fancied?
“It’s always important, for all of us, isn’t it? Everyone likes their ego massaged a little bit. Course they do.”
We order more coffees, and we chat on and on, for half an hour over our allotted time. We cover clothes, with which he’s obsessed (“Still! Always have been. Obsessed!”); music-sharing and free downloading, of which he disapproves; and phone hacking. He was hacked, he tells me, but he couldn’t be bothered to pursue it. We talk about drugs: he took a fair amount of cocaine in the Nineties, he says, and, “It’s a rubbish kind of a drug.” Now? “I smoke the odd spliff.” We talk about reforming the Jam. “I never would. It’s against everything I believe in.”
Are you fearless? “No!” What scares you? “Getting run over. Ha! Were you hoping for something grander?” What keeps you awake at night, apart from the twins?
“When I split up with my last partner, that was really tough. I’m sure it was tough for her, too. The whole guilt thing.” It was your decision to end it?
“Yes.” Is it always your decision to end things? “My decision?” Yes.
“Yeah.” You’re a heartbreaker? “I have been. Which I’m not proud of. Obviously. But I have been. Yeah.” Have you got any better at breaking up?
“I don’t think it ever gets easy. Especially if someone else is involved as well. It’s different if you both say: ‘Look, it’s not working.’
But if one of you is leaving to be with someone else… “It’s never going to be good, is it?”
And you have always left to be with someone else?“Yeah. Yeah. I think so. It’s not a good place to go. At all.” We are winding up our conversation when Noel Gallagher’s wife, Sara, walks past the café. Weller tells me she’s very nice. I tell him I recently interviewed Noel. “He’s grumpy, isn’t he, Noel?” I didn’t think he was grumpy, I say; but perhaps he was being nice to me because I’d featured him in a weekly column called Chart of Lust. “What’s it called? Chart of…?” Lust. Chart of Lust. “Really? Lust? What number was Noel at?” No 1. “Well… it’s not just about looks, is it?” Well, no; it’s a general statement of approval. Would you like to be in Chart of Lust, Paul? “Ha! No! No, thank you! No!” he says. I put him in, anyway. I hear rumours that he’s pleased.

Polly Vernon March 3 2012


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Karen Stephen said...

Great interview! Despite really loving his music I'd always thought of him as angry and stand offish. Just shows how wrong you can be. Nice to know he seems to be just as happy 4 years on. Saw him play at Plymouth a few days ago and he was just so alive and energetic. The music just gets better and better, and so does the voice!