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Paul Weller, Jules Buckley & BBC Symphony Orchestra

Paul Weller in front of a Barbican tower as radio broadcast signals emit from it

James Drury talks to Paul Weller and composer Jules Buckley about what it’s taken to create this celebratory return to performing live.

Paul Weller is an artist who’s always pushing forward. Each album offers something different – a new sound, technique or technology. Mawkish nostalgia isn’t going to cut it for this musician, whose vision is set firmly ahead. 

‘The most important thing to me is playing new music, not just for this show, but in general,’ he tells us. ‘I always like playing people what I’m working on at the time, so provided that’s all covered, I don’t mind playing a few old songs. The fact that they’re going to be in a different setting makes it even more appealing.’

The ‘different setting’ is something of an understatement for tonight’s concert, which sees Weller and guitarist Steve Cradock joined by Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra plus special guests for some brand new music and reimaginings of songs from Weller’s almost 50-year career. From the mod-revival of The Jam, through the breadth of genres in The Style Council to his 30-year-old solo career, his oeuvre was summed up by the Daily Telegraph as ‘it’s hard to think of any British solo artist who’s had as varied, long-lasting and determinedly forward-looking a career’.

With a reputation for collaborating with some of the biggest artists in the world, Buckley is particularly known for frequent Proms performances with his Heritage Orchestra (the Ibiza Prom with Pete Tong was particularly notable) and as Conductor of the Metropole Orkest.

The Aylesbury-born composer taught himself Weller’s You Do Something To Me as a teenager while he was learning the piano (‘I was always trying to learn pieces by ear’), and says after a childhood hearing The Style Council on the radio, he really fell for Weller’s work when Stanley Road was released in 2015.

Since he was appointed Creative Artist in Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2019, he’s already produced the unforgettable concert with Lianne La Havas at the Barbican in February last year. Yet despite 70 Grammys and work with the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Emeli Sandé, Michael Kiwanuka and many more, he admits the prospect of approaching Weller’s titan back catalogue was daunting.

To create a shortlist, he listened to every song Weller has recorded and made notes on the ones he felt would work. Some to-ing and fro-ing over video conference calls followed before the pair finalised what they describe as a ‘mix tape’ of tracks, including brand new music from Fat Pop and songs from 2019’s On Sunset, which have never been played live.

Weller is full of praise for this evening’s arranger and conductor: ‘Jules is so great – he’s so good at this’, and he says he had no qualms about handing over creative control of his music to Buckley. ‘I’m very, very comfortable with it. I’ve got absolute faith in what he does, anyway. He’s not going to turn anything in that I wouldn’t like, or anyone else won’t like, so we couldn’t be in better hands. I’m not precious about these things, you know, it just makes it more interesting for me, it gives me another challenge.’

Buckley says he took an ‘orchestra-first’ approach to the arrangements. ‘When you’re working with phenomenal musicians like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, you have so many musical spices at your disposal – from the softest quietest colour to the loudest, most bombastic – that often what happens is when you amplify orchestra and you have a band in the middle, you lose quite a large portion of the soft dynamics and the colours that lie within those frequencies. So I wanted to take it back to the orchestra’s neck of the woods, sonically. I talked to Paul, and he was up for unplugging it too. He’s been really open to that idea from the beginning, which has been brilliant.’

This unplugged approach wasn’t without its challenges when it came to the arrangements – but the 41-year-old composer says that has resulted in some novel creative responses.

‘Some of Paul’s stuff is pretty like soul-orientated; the horn writing on the originals has that Stax Records sound. But those tracks rely on the bass and the drums to be the driving force of the feel-good element, so we’re taking a couple of risks on a few tunes to try something really different.’ 

He says he was particularly keen to avoid ‘the cliché “orchestral percussion guy plays the drum kit” moment’, describing tonight’s performance as more like ‘this is one band for this one night, comprising of all these forces coming together’. 

This will be one of just a handful of times Weller has performed with an orchestra – the most notable was in 2018 at the Royal Festival Hall for live album Other Aspects. He describes the experience as ‘a different way of playing’. Coincidentally or not, the other was the first time Buckley and Weller collaborated, when the guitarist and singer joined the Metropole Orkest, under Buckley’s baton for a BBC Proms tribute to Quincy Jones in 2016.

‘We found this when we performed with the orchestra before – it was a good challenge for us because it’s a different kind of discipline,’ remembers Weller. ‘Because the orchestra sticks to their charts, we have to go with that. Normally when we play as a band, we might improvise, we might go off a little bit for a while and come back. But with the orchestra, you’ve got to stick to the script – it’s a good discipline. I’m looking forward to that.’

Weller will be joined by some special guests this evening – all of whom he says he chose ‘for their voices, for the sound they create’.

James Morrison will be performing a song. ‘I've met James a few times and I really love his voice. I think he's one our greatest vocalists. He's got an incredible range. And the tone of his voice is really natural as well.’ Also joining for a song will be Boy George, whose voice Weller says ‘has just got better and better over time’, and later, Celeste, who’s worked with Weller before, and he describes as ‘great’.

One of the highlights for Weller and his fan will be the debut airing of tracks from his latest album, Fat Pop, recorded during the lockdown last year.

‘I had a few songs in the bag left over from last time, maybe four or five. And the rest I wrote in March, April last year,’ says Weller. ‘I don’t know what impact lockdown had on it apart from the fact it gave me that time to work on it because obviously, we had no other work on. We were supposed to tour all last year, so that was off the cards.’ 

To make the album, Weller recorded demos and sent them to the band, who laid down their parts remotely and sent them back. Them last summer, when restrictions eased and the group could get together in Weller’s studio, they recorded the final versions.  

‘I didn’t enjoy lockdown at first because I, I can’t think of a polite way to say it - I was very upset. I was so upset we couldn’t tour. Because we had an album out called On Sunset last year, and I really wanted to play that to people. But that wasn’t meant to be, so at first, it was very, very weird. And then I accepted it. I just thought, “this is just a period of time you have to go through” and once I got my head around that, it was all right. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much free time.’

Both musicians talk with passion about how much they’ve missed playing live – for Buckley, this will be the first concert since he was last at the Barbican with Lianne La Havas in February last year. And this is Weller’s first show for two years – one of the longest periods he’s gone without playing live.

‘I can’t begin to say how much I’m actually looking forward to this concert,’ he says with real emotion. ‘For a variety of reasons, but mainly just to play music again, live. I know it won’t be to a physical audience, but still. But also what we’re going to do with the orchestra and Jules – it’s very, very special. I mean, this would be very special anyway, but being the first concert back makes it extra special.’

© James Drury



Paul Weller

Boy George


James Morrison

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Jules Buckley conductor

Steve Cradock guitar

LaDonna Young backing vocalist

Vula Malinga backing vocalist

Patrick Linton backing vocalist