Words by Mr Dan Cairns
Mr Paul Weller is in a hurry. The 53-year-old has pressing matters to attend to and, as is so often the case with a man who has appeared permanently wired since he first unleashed his fire and fury on the world more than 35 years ago with The Jam, the tension manifests itself in a routine of fidgeting, teeth-grinding and checking his watch. What is exercising him is not the promotional campaign for his remarkable new album, Sonik Kicks. Or the germ of a new song, nagging away in his head and demanding to be attended to. Or rehearsals for his forthcoming London gigs. The matter at hand? "I've got to do the school run," says the singer, with a wry smile.
Off the sauce and the cigs for more than a year now, Mr Weller looks spruce and, as ever, stylish in his customarily understated way. His sartorial choices remain fiercely individual - he sits opposite me in a pink cable-knit sweater and pale grey trousers with razor-sharp creases, and works the look in a way that few others could. The hair is pure silver now, spiky still, and tops off a lined, chiselled face dominated by eyes that dart hither and thither, or fix you with a steely gaze. But they also sparkle with humour - a quality people often choose to overlook in Mr Weller - and today they're positively twinkling. When I suggest that Sonik Kicks can be seen as the third instalment of a trilogy - following 2008's 22 Dreams and, two years later, the Mercury Prize-nominated Wake Up the Nation - that represents a mid-life renaissance, he shoots back: "Mid? F***ing hell, mate," before breaking into a knowing chuckle.
The truth is, growing older suits Mr Weller. Ever since As is Now, the 2005 album on which he seemed to dust down the cobwebs, banish the Dad rock inertia and come haring out of the traps again, revitalised, the singer has come across as liberated from the pressure of expectation. All three albums see him roaming far and wide across the musical palette, as if all his wanderings, all his different incarnations, have been leading up to this golden age.
You'll never get Mr Weller to agree to such a potted history, though, and today is no exception. "I've never really considered what people think. Whether I've totally led myself and other people down a blind alley, or they've completely embraced it, I've never been mindful of that. I'll admit there have definitely been some songs, though, where I've been writing them and thought, 'People are going to f***ing love this', a song such as 'From the Floorboards Up' or, further back, 'Going Underground'. But then there are times when I'm really excited about something and people just don't get it at all."
The fact that he can refer to the latter song so casually is a reminder of just how indelibly Mr Weller has defined at least one generation of music lovers, and arguably - given his profound influence on Britpop luminaries such as Blur and Oasis, never mind the nu-folk revivalists of recent years - more. Press him for some acknowledgment of this mentoring role and, characteristically, he downplays it - and downplays, too, the importance of his own work. "I have to look at it like it's a whole life's work, really, and obviously, within that, sometimes you make a great record, sometimes you make a good record, and sometimes you make a lousy one. There's not a lot you can do about that; if you do it long enough and make enough records, that's going to happen, isn't it? No one's ever consistently brilliant - I don't know anyone who is, anyway. I'm not crazy about some of the records, and I don't go back and listen to them, but even the ones that are like, 'Hang on, something's missing there', I still see them as stepping stones to somewhere else."
From left: Mr Bruce Foxton, Mr Rick Buckler and Mr Weller as The Jam in New York, October 1977
Mr Weller's new album, Sonik Kicks
Mr Weller at the Burberry Prorsum show with his children (from left) Mr Natt Weller and Ms Leah Weller, London, September 2011
Mr Weller performs at V Festival, Chelmsford, UK, August 2010
Black Barn, Mr Weller's recording studio in the countryside outside his birthplace of Woking, Surrey, has played a huge part in his return to form: he doesn't have to watch the clock, he says, and his mates - including, on the new album, Mr Noel Gallagher and Blur's Mr Graham Coxon - pile down there, plug in their guitars and join in the fun.
You can hear that freedom on Sonik Kicks. OK, the album is unlikely to do an Adele (though Mr Weller's new single, the self-deflating "That Dangerous Age", might have been designed to blast from car speakers on sun-baked inner-city streets), yet commercial success long ago ceased to be the singer's motivation. He's having far too much fun, he says, to bother with calculated self-editing. The songs come out as they do. The way Mr Weller describes it, he doesn't have that much say in the process. "It's a selfish business anyway, songwriting, because you're kind of there to please yourself - you're trying to knock yourself out with something before trying to do the same to anyone else." On Sonik Kicks, love songs sit alongside blasts of polemic. "Study in Blue" features a duet with Mr Weller's new wife, Hannah; while "Kling I Klang" is three minutes of rage inspired by the war in Iraq. The singer sees nothing unusual in such variety. "There's always been that romanticism in my music, alongside the hard, abrasive stuff. And in terms of the latter, well, the alternative to being enraged by things is to not care. Those sorts of songs, I've only ever written them because that is what has come to me at that time - naturally. You're going, 'I've got to write this down'. But I couldn't sit there and go, 'I'm going to write a song about the Middle East now, or about government cuts, or bankers'. I'm not Billy Bragg - I'm not knocking him, but I'm just a songwriter. Whatever is in my head that day is what finds its way out, through my pen."
What's in Mr Weller's head today is, of course, the need to get to those school gates on time - to pick up his children by his former partner, Ms Samantha Stock. He and Hannah recently had twins, named, in hero worship, Bowie and John Paul, so he's been rediscovering the fatigue of sleepless nights. How's he finding parenthood again? "It's f***ing brilliant - I love it. Kids keep you young, no matter how tiring they can be. They haven't got time for cynicism or pessimism; you just have to get on with it. And be joyful. There's a lesson there." He's describing his new children, of course, but he might as well have been talking about the blistering form he has discovered in his music. Mr Weller is back on song. Be joyful indeed.
Sonik Kicks is out now