'This country is run by idiots and fools': Paul Weller on politics, God and the state of everything

Paul Weller, joined by actor Johnny Harris, reflects on the state of the nation, ageing and spirituality as he readies his new album, 66

Paul Weller and Johnny Harris

Paul Weller and Johnny Harris by Dean Chalkley

Today, Johnny Harris, one of Britain’s best character actors, is looking very sharp. Tailored navy blazer, knitted silk yellow tie and light blue Brooks Brothers button-down. He’s making an effort, he says, “because it’s Weller”. Paul Weller joins us, a few floors up in a Central London club, looking tanned, tired (he’s just back from LA) and less formal (Lee cords, leather loafers). During the interview, his tailor will drop off some clothes for the shoot that is coming later. That feels very Weller. 

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Paul Weller, or the idea of Paul Weller, has been a dominant thread in popular British culture for almost 50 years. He has just turned 66 and has been the Modfather longer than many of his fans have been alive. Through it all he signalled that the elements many people want him to remain locked into – hits of The Jam, a feather cut and Fred Perry top, music that is tied in the past – are not for him. Forward, never looking back; ever changing moods for the changing man. He has been clear and not spoken in code. His direction of travel was set 42 years ago. He split The Jam when they were dominant in the UK and on the cusp in the US. He was just 24.  

Harris and Weller first worked together almost eight years ago on Jawbone, the dark but redemptive movie written by Harris about a former boxing champion who is trying to lift himself back from alcoholism, homelessness and hopelessness. The film, which echoes some of Harris’s own story, saw Weller write his first soundtrack. The pair have been friends ever since.  

Paul Weller and Johnny Harris with a copy of the Big Issue
Paul Weller and Johnny Harris with the Big Issue, by Dean Chalkley

Harris’s own breakthrough came as Lol’s (Vicky McClure) monstrous father in This Is England ’86 and has seen him move through roles that varied from playing one of the dwarves in the big-budget Snow White and the Huntsman, to currently starring alongside Ewan McGregor in A Gentleman in Moscow

Today, he’s talking about his work as a director. He has created the video for Weller’s forthcoming single I Woke Up. Shot in black and white, it details a day in the life of a homeless man in London, told simply and without hyperbole, but ending with a call to help St Mungo’s, the charity primarily focused on getting rough sleepers into a bed.

“It was a strange mix in the song, a kind of an optimism and an acceptance at the same time. And that’s a rare combination,” says Harris. “There are many types of homelessness, we know that. And it would have been easy, I think, to go out and just present visceral images of homelessness – the most vicious stuff, suffering of addiction and physical suffering. And that’s been done and it’s been done powerfully.”

However, the challenge of making the point in a different way appealed to him. “I was intrigued. I thought we could do something that spoke to me, which was, there are incredible people out there, like St Mungo’s, trying to get solutions. I wanted to draw attention to that.” 

The Grass Arena, the autobiography of John Healy, the London-Irish memoirist, telling of his life drunk, dissolute and lost on the city streets for years, was in mind for Harris as he created the film.  

“If you watch the video, there’s a sequence where our character’s reading a book, just very quiet and peaceful in a little garden,” he says. “That’s actually the Grass Arena. That’s where all of that history took place there. The stairs that [the character] walked down to the place where he’s begging, that was the old cardboard city. There’s lots of that kind of stuff. I wanted to go around and kind of pay homage to that history. But there’s a sadness today, as you’re filming in those places, and you’re thinking it hasn’t really changed. They’ve moved the problem out and on but the statistics show a real spike recently. How is this happening, what is the root of this problem? I don’t really trust the politicians to have the answers. The answers lie within places like St Mungo’s, like The Big Issue.” 

It’s not the first time Johnny Harris has directed a video for Paul Weller. He also did Gravity, a simple moment but one of Weller’s most affecting late-period tracks, from 2018’s True Meanings.  

“I know he’s after the truth,” says Weller. “I’ve got absolute faith in him.” 

I Woke Up wasn’t initially anything to do with homelessness. The decision to make a video looking at homelessness then calling for positive action is an overtly political act. Weller has always been a political artist, either in song, from The Eton Rifles and Town Called Malice or Walls Come Tumbling Down and The Whole Point of No Return, to his campaigning work with Red Wedge in the ’80s and backing for Corbyn in more recent years. Did he decide the time was now to clearly say, this is the state we’re in? 

“State is the operative word,” says Weller. “This country is run by idiots and fools. And it’s not like they even try to cover it up. It’s like all these grown-up posh kids have all been let loose in this asylum.

“With the matter of homelessness, it’s how do you fix this? You can’t just keep moving people off to another area. It’s sweeping it under the carpet. Why don’t we try and fix it? I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to fix. Some of the homeless people round my way, some I chat to, it’s a mixture of things – some have definitely got mental problems and they should be helped, some people have drug problems and could go through a programme. But then you need a support system so that once they go through that programme they can’t go back on the streets. They need work to help stop that. But that’s in an ideal world. Because of all the cuts, that’s not going to happen. It’s fucked.” 

With an election coming, does he have more hope if Keir Starmer becomes PM and changes things? 

“He’s just a slightly softer version of the Tory party, isn’t he?,” says Weller. “He’d be well served to remember who built the Labour Party, trade unions and communists. So, I don’t see much difference between him and Sunak and all that mob. The fact that he’s a Sir puts me off a little bit in the first place.” 

Paul Weller and Johnny Harris
Paul Weller and Johnny Harris by Dean Chalkley

The political is not a dominant theme on Weller’s new album, 66 – and yes, this is a reference to his age. In fact, the album is reflective and mediative and at odds with the Weller only-ever-forward mantra. In many ways it’s Weller’s most significant record since Stanley Road, his great defining album of the ’90s. If that album was his call back to youth and the places that had made him, before really motoring forward (it was Stanley Road that carried The Changingman) then 66 is his long, at times gentle, and frequently sentimental pause at where life has brought him. Weller is asking big questions about why we’re here and where next. A very clear thread between the albums are the cover illustrations – both designed by British pop art king Sir Peter Blake.  

Though Weller isn’t allowing for such talk about considered links. 

“I’m just writing songs,” he says, smiling. “I got up to about 20 songs or more over the last two or three years, and I just thought, there’s an album there somewhere. I didn’t have any grand concept. Whether it’s a pivotal record for me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you until a couple of years’ time. I never know at the time. I don’t know what’s important or not.” 

Still, he mustered some heavy-duty resources to get this one finished. Quite a few old friends were called to help deliver. Bobby Gillespie, Suggs and Noel Gallagher bring lyrics (Noel returned his within 20 minutes of the request), while Richard Hawley plays lap steel guitar (on I Woke Up), great Northern Irish contemporary orchestrator and instrumentalist Hannah Peel brings a lushness to strings and Erland Cooper, the mighty Orcadian modern classical composer, collaborates, not for the first time, on a track.

Of Cooper, Weller says: “He’s an incredible artist. It’s lovely to see someone just doing exactly what they want, and then be successful doing that as well.” 

But there is something of a change going on. 66 feels like it could only have been made by an older man. Weller concedes he has mellowed. 

“I’m not just trying to be confrontational,” he says. “I don’t see the point in it anymore. I’m a different person than I was, 15 or 20 years ago, let alone 40. So I think life has softened me and my outlook has softened my view of things – up to a point anyway. I see a bigger picture now.” 

What has done this? Age? Becoming a grandfather (I’m still waiting to see the Modgrandfather as a moniker), or something else? Faith and the idea of faith is a motif on 66. On Soul Wandering he sings “there’s something greater than me”. 

Does Paul Weller believe in God? 

“Faith to me is multifaceted,” he says. “It’s got many faces. More spirituality has come into my life in recent years. Whether that’s an age thing or because I stopped drinking, however it works, it’s come to me. But I don’t particularly like any organised religions. If I picture it in my mind, it’s a big rock, and sometimes you get further away from that rock and lose faith, and then you come back to it and feel alright again. Whatever that is. 

“I can find it in a lot of things. I find it in love. I find it in kindness, in music, because music unites the world, it’s strong and powerful. Lots of little things that make me believe. What do I believe? I don’t know. When I say prayers, I’m not saying them to a Christian god or any other organised religion, I just praise and give thanks to this life and universe and why we’re here. Perhaps we haven’t got a purpose. If we’re lucky enough, while we’re here we get to enjoy it. A lot of people are living through a hell. And it’s hard to put those two strands together. It’s a belief that there is something better and something better within us.” 

Weller said his wife Hannah Andrews (they’ve now been married for 14 years), gave him an ultimatum – the booze or me. He hasn’t drunk since.

Paul Weller and Johnny Harris
Paul Weller and Johnny Harris brewing up a storm, by Dean Chalkley

“I stopped drinking 14 years ago  – 1 July. Everything changed when I stopped drinking. It’s like night and day, it really is. First two years were hard. I didn’t have any relapses and I didn’t go to AA, though I would have done if I felt I needed to,” he says. He also says he “definitely” classed himself as an alcoholic. “It was something in my body that said, you’ve got to stop now. It was a bigger force than me just consciously saying ‘I’ve got to stop’, which I’d said many times. It was a much stronger force than that. It brings so much more clarity to your thinking and your actions, how you view the world. I’m glad I’ve got to this point in my life.  

“When you’re younger, you’re just a funny pisshead. Then you cross a line at a certain age and you’re just another old drunk. It’s a hard thing to admit but once you do, it gets easier.” 

Harris hasn’t had a drink in 17 years. He looks at Weller and takes a deep breath.

“It still blows my mind now. I was one of those who couldn’t stop. I don’t want to waffle on about this too much publicly. You just deal with these things.  “We have conversations [he looks again to Weller]. It’s a fascinating experience to go through. If you spend half your life out of your nut chasing that thing, whatever it is, then other things start becoming important in life, it’s a profound experience to go through, to experience peace and serenity in your heart.

“I didn’t know that was a real thing that was possible. Closest I got was when I poured that shit down my throat. It goes and you’re free. And you have friends going through the same thing. It’s like sharing about a great record you’ve heard.” 

Weller is looking forward to touring the record. He’s planning on following it soon with an album of covers and has already decided on what they’ll be. He’s keen to remain on the road for as long as he can. 

“It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world really,” he says. “Richard Hawley said to me that when he’s on stage it’s the most zen feeling in his life. And I get that. All the niggling things drop away and you have this connection and it’s a really beautiful thing. When that happens on a great night, with that complete communion with so many other people, all strangers, we’re all strangers in some way, this thing just grows and grows and grows. It’s beautiful. That will always call me back. It’s beyond ego, it’s something else.” 

Though he’ll always remain Weller, Britain’s boss of Mod. That fine Brooks Brothers shirt Johnny Harris was wearing for today? It is a gift from Weller.  

Saintly behaviour 

Before making the I Woke Up video, Johnny Harris called on some expert advice. “A dear friend of mine, Natalie Rose-Weir, works for St Mungo’s. I asked if she’d help with research. Her and a couple of her colleagues, David Roskin-Thomas and Marian Torres, were really helpful.”

The video depicts a day in the life of a person experiencing homeless in Central London: washing and dressing in a public toilet; walking alongside the Thames; moments of respite among the chaos of rush-hour; finding food and shelter. Shot in bleakly beautiful black and white, it’s as serious as its subject and never feels exploitative. 

A pic from the Johnny Harris-directed video for I Woke Up
The Harris-directed video for I Woke Up was made after the actor contacted St Mungo’s for advice on how best to represent the homeless crisis in the UK

The result is a tough and honest video that will move whoever sees it. “I think an artist’s job is to present the truth,” Harris says. “From that, whoever wants to take it up can. Whether it’s the people, whether it’s politicians – the supposed leaders. I’m more interested in dealing with people who are actively working on the solution.”

The video started a valuable relationship with St Mungo’s. Weller and his team asked for donations for the charity from their guest list attendees during his recent UK tour, raising over £4,200. Laura Herring, St Mungo’s director of fundraising, says: “We were delighted to be approached by Paul and Johnny. Their passion to represent those experiencing homelessness in an authentic, compassionate manner is appreciated by all of us at St Mungo’s. The situation is worsening, with a 33% increase in rough sleepers in the capital between January and March 2024, compared to last year, and a 37% increase in those sleeping rough for the first time.”

“Donations like this could help to fund our frontline workers, who are on the street every day connecting with people sleeping rough, to fund our hostels, emergency accommodation and our recovery programmes – all necessary to end homelessness
for good.”

Find out more about St Mungo’s here

Paul Weller’s new album 66 is out now. Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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A version of this article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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