In Conversation: Paul Weller x John Varvatos

The legendary artist and fashion designer talk music...

The musical inspirations of renowned US menswear designer John Varvatos are never too far away from each successive collection. Calling upon his musician friends and heroes to demonstrate his wares, past campaigns have featured the likes of Jimmy Page and Iggy Pop modeling his latest range, looking resplendent in clean, timeless designs.

For his Autumn/Winter 2012 collection, he paired up the eternally dapper Modfather, Paul Weller, with upstart counterpart Miles Kane, in slim, ’60s-inspired suits, shooting the pair on the streets of New York. Three years later, Paul and John were reunited for an evening of chat, as last week the two delved into a long conversation on music and style in front of an audience in the John Varvatos London store, on Conduit Street.

More than just a pals’ reunion, or a chance to compare socks, it marked the launch of a special Paul Weller pop-up shop that will run for a limited time in the store, which includes a Real Stars Are Rare capsule, Saturns Pattern deluxe vinyl box set, and the Into Tomorrow book and vinyl set.

Hours before their public pow wow, Clash sat down with John and Paul to discuss their mutual tastes, the desire to continually innovate, and Weller’s questionable hairdos from his past.

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John: I was just telling Paul that I was walking down the street in Paris yesterday and Robert Plant called me. He’s playing in New York tomorrow and wanted to know if I was going to come along. I told him that we were doing this event with Paul, and he was complimenting Paul: number one, his whole career, and that he’s always been his own guy and true to himself and never satisfied – always trying to change it up and push the envelope – and it’s pretty great. I loved your comment when you played in New York. They said, ‘You could have played the Beacon Theater,’ and you said, ‘I didn’t want all those people sitting down!’ He played at a maybe 1500-capacity, something like that, and he could have played a 35,000-seater, but he said he wanted everybody standing up, and it was such a great energy in the audience.

Paul: It’s always good to play New York. The Apollo is a great gig. I loved that.

John: I loved when I asked you how you were feeling at the Apollo and you said you were nervous. Because, right before the show, you were playing in this hall that… It’s a special place, right?

Paul: Yeah! Imagine all those people… There’s that stone, isn’t there, that they touch for good luck before they go on stage. I just think of all those hands that have touched that good luck totem. All of them: James Brown, Motown, the whole lot.

You mentioned about being progressive, always wanting to change – neither of you are ones to rest on your laurels; why is it so important for you to keep innovating?

Paul: I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but I think if you’re a creative person, then you’re always kinda looking to move things along – ‘Where else can I go? Where can I take this?’ From painters to photographers – anything creative in the arts – if you’re a true artist, I think you’ll always look to do something else. ‘Where else can I go with it?’ Do you know what I mean?

John: And it can get boring. Not the playing the songs necessarily, or doing the clothes. You know, you need stimulus.

Paul: Yeah, otherwise you just start going through the motions, I think. It’s tougher in your game, though, definitely.

John: (Laughs) There’s only a handful of people like you that can write songs like that, so that’s really tough.

Paul: Yeah, but I only put an album out every two or three years. You’re working on your Autumn Winter ’16 collection.

John: Yeah, we do six collections a year.

Paul: Jesus.

John: Yeah, it’s crazy, but I look for that stimulation constantly. I’m looking for inspiration and stimulation. I would also say we get a little bored. Not bored with what we’ve done…

Paul: Bored with the process.

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I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but I think if you’re a creative person, then you’re always kinda looking to move things along…

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John: Yeah, you don’t wanna do the same thing. You want to push it, you want to play around, and I do think it’s a creative thing – I don’t think it’s an ego thing at all; it’s what excites you. It’s like your latest album – from the first note from when you put it on, you know sonically that something is changing here, you know? You know he’s on the move again. Like, he doesn’t want to get comfortable. (Laughs)

It’s the same for the listener: you don’t want to hear the same thing 12 times.

Paul: Some people do, mate. There’s a lot of that around as well, isn’t there? The whole nostalgia thing, and just sticking with what you always liked and what you know and not taking a chance on something or expanding. I think especially after a certain age, as well, you know? Which I don’t understand, because there’s such a wealth of great music, clothes or whatever. There is so much great stuff out there, that why would you not still be interested if you’ve grown up in that kind of culture?

John: It’s interesting that we were just talking about Robert Plant, too, because he’s still doing all kinds of interesting things – whether anybody likes it or not. He’s pushing. He doesn’t need to do anything but he loves playing and he loves doing different things. Like, he was telling me yesterday that he was back in Nashville with T Bone Burnett doing another song – he doesn’t know if he’s doing another album with him, but he’s done a recording – and it’s funny because he was complaining, like, ‘Fuck, it’s so slow! It takes a whole day to do one song!’ He goes, ‘We used to do an album in a day!’ (Laughs) But the reason I brought it up is because it’s the same thing; you go to the shows and people want to hear the hits. But it’s also what’s changed in radio and the music world and all that, and how people get music today. So, from your world, the source of it all is so different today, and it’s so instant and so quick.

Paul: Which is the good side of it. But I think, in terms of radio and the industry, they’re still very safe, aren’t they? Well, they are in this country, anyway. They still sort of stick to the hits and the mainstream, I suppose. There is great music out there, but it’s just getting to hear it.

John: There is. So much of it is filtered by pop music today, because the music industry is driven by single, single, single, single, the next single, not the nurturing of artists and that kind of thing.

Paul: No, those days are long gone, I think.

Do either of you have people that tell you not to change? Do you still have to fight to get your own way?

Paul: I don’t find it too much of a fight, to be honest with you, because I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do anyway, do you know what I mean? So I never get too many problems. You can never please everyone anyway, obviously. And some people take the easy route and just play the greatest hits, and their audience is happy to hear that as well, and that’s fine, but it wouldn’t please me. But it doesn’t trouble me, because I have to do what I’m doing at the time. That’s the most important thing. You might lose some people along the way, and you might gain other people on the way, that’s just the way it is. But nevertheless, if you’re driven by something, there is no argument about it; that’s what you have to do.

Otherwise you stagnate?

Paul: Well, it’s just something internal that says, ‘I’ve got to do this now. This is what I’m doing now.’

John: In my world there’s more things that kind of affect it. There’s the retailers we do business with, our own stores, my merchandising team… Everybody has opinions, and so you definitely have to filter through a lot. In the end, as Paul said, I still want to do what I want to do, but we also have to think about some sense of protecting the business that’s out there as well. I try to have an open ear, but at the end, it would never change direction to where I think I should go. Because if I listened to everybody else, they’re thinking about what’s right now or what was the last thing – they’re not thinking about what’s next, because they’re only thinking about what’s ringing the register now or what did well last season. And it’s important to know all those things, but part of our jobs is to move people along and to make people excited to buy music or buy clothes, and give them enjoyment, I think, too.

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In Conversation: Paul Weller x John Varvatos

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Paul, you’re apparently very nervous about tonight…

Paul: I’m always nervous, mate – I’ve spent the last 40 years nervous!

I imagine you two would be more comfortable sitting alone talking about music! John, you’ve spoken a lot about your love of classic British rock, while Paul, you’re known for your love of American soul – where do your tastes overlap?

Paul: We’re both massive music fans, I suppose. John: I would actually say that our music taste is very similar. I mean, there’s always peripheral things that you like that you don’t know, but starting with whatever his British influences are, are some of my favourite artists, and the American things are what I grew up on as well. In the end, for me, it’s those foundations of the music business – those things that are a lot of the foundations of what music today is. You can hear a bit of all of those things that we talk about in almost all music today.

What era would draw you deepest into a serious conversation?

John: I don’t think we’ve ever gotten that deep into that…

So, there’s been no arm wrestling over your favourite Beatles album?

John: You know, for me, I’m definitely obsessed about artists and the type of music and the playing and the tone and all that kind of thing – I’m not obsessed about what the best Beatles album is. I just think if The Beatles are great, they’re great. The period of time, at least, that they were great. Or the Stones, it was this period of time. Yes, I could say that ‘Exile On Main Street’ was my favourite or whatever, but I’m more about the songs and the artists and the sound that they bring.

That’s the good thing about iPods: you don’t have to listen to one particular album in its entirety, but can filter out the particular essence that you’re looking for.

John: When you look at so much of what we all love, there’s either soul-based to it, or it’s the blues. It’s really the beginnings of any kind of music. It really is; it all starts there. Because after that, it’s music of the moment. You heard it in ’92 but then you don’t hear it anymore because it had no real soul to it. I was talking to somebody today, and they were kinda asking me a similar question. I said, ‘When I discovered blues – I was 12-years-old – I didn’t discover it in America where it was from; I discovered it from Fleetwood Mac – the original Peter Green Fleetwood Mac, Saveloy Brown – like British blues interpretations of it,’ which then, when I started the liner notes and seeing all these names, I was like, ‘Who’s Willie Dixon?’ Then I go to the record store and ask the guy there and he goes, ‘Oh, you don’t know anything.’ And so, to me, that’s the root of most of it anyway. And even somebody like The Black Keys or Royal Blood, they all have this original roots base to what they do.

Paul: My own personal theory is that all popular music, in whatever form it is, to me, it all comes from Africa. Whether it’s filtered through America or whatever – African-American. But I still think there’s something in that roots music that’s very, very African, and I think that’s what unites people. It depends on what you believe in, but if you believe that the earliest bones of Man were found in Africa, the Cradle of Creation, then we all just got splintered up and split up around the world. But essentially, that heartbeat and that music, there’s something in there that we all kind of understand.

Have you ever heard of Alan Lomax, the musicologist?

Paul: Yeah, he did all the field recordings.

Yeah. He wrote a book called The Land Where The Blues Began, and in there he actually describes how you could physically trace where particular rhythms came from to certain parts of Africa.

Paul: I saw an interview with Keith Richards, and he was saying a similar sort of thing to what we’re talking about. He said, ‘How else could a kid in Dartford suddenly connect with and understand what Muddy Waters is singing?’ There’s a cultural difference, but there’s just something in that music that subconsciously or internally you just understand; it just makes sense.

It’s primal.

Paul: Yeah. Well, I think it’s just because it’s how we’re all connected. You can also hear it in a lot of indigenous folk music as well. There’s always something in most world folk musics that always seems connected; whether it’s a bagpipe or a tambura, there‘s always some sort of drone instrument, and there’s always percussion. There’s always that sort of connection, you know?

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It’s a global fashion thing; because of the Internet it has gotten really small. It’s cluttered, but it’s gotten small.

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John, your previous campaign brought together two generations and two different cultures, shooting Paul Weller and Miles Kane in New York City. Was it your intention to have that geographical contrast?

John: I approached Paul not because of the British thing, but just because, for me, he was the most stylish musician in the last 30 years out of the UK. Whether it was when he was in The Jam, or The Style Council, and then onto his solo career – even just looking at that picture [points to early-’90s portrait on wall]; the simplicity, the way he did his hair – most of your hair…

Paul: Some of it! There’s a few howlers in there!

John: (Laughs) But there was always the glasses, there was always something. Our campaigns have always been based on what we consider music icons that transcend generations and they’re not of the moment – they continue to evolve. I looked at Paul that way. And then, on top of that, he was a super stylish guy that just always looked good in clothes, so it made sense. And when I was first aware of Miles… When I would see Miles, I always would think he was trying to be like Paul. And also, because he had different iterations of your hair going on at different times – super short, shaggy – so I just felt that maybe he was the next generation, because he was a very stylish guy, he’s a great singer and a great song writer.

It’s interesting that you shot them in New York though. It nods to the British influence on music from New York, a city that doesn’t necessarily need anyone else.

John: I think part of what we do is there is a bit of dandy influence, always, or a little sprinkle of it. Not literal Savile Row dandy, but there’s a bit of sartorial dandiness in everything that we do – every collection that we do. There’s this British elegance that we, at times, have really missed in the States. We’ve always been more of a sportswear culture…

Paul: Apart from the ’40s and ’50s.

John: Yes. The ’40s were quite austere and super glamorous. And in the early-’60s, when you look at that period of time – up to the mod time – when everybody was wearing skinnier suits and skinny lapels and skinny ties – that came out of the States, and that was quite cool. But I think the world is really small today, and fashion, from that end of it, it’s instantaneous everywhere. So, in the past we used to come over to see what was going on in London or Paris or Milan or wherever – it’s pretty much the same stuff everywhere [now], and people are wearing the same things, because it’s all instantaneous with the Internet. You do your runway show, and it’s all over the Internet before I see anything on there, you know? And also buying online: everything is so easy today; the information is so easy. If you take skinny jeans – skinny jeans didn’t just happen in the US, they were happening in Japan, they were happening in the UK, they were happening everywhere. Some places a little faster than others. But, if we look at our best sellers in this store, they’re the same best sellers that we have in the States. Here, we’ll sell a little more tweedy things and some heavier things, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same. It’s a global fashion thing; because of the Internet it has gotten really small. It’s cluttered, but it’s gotten small.

Paul: Worldwide, most people dress more casually these days, don’t they? They have done for the last 20 or 30 years, I suppose. So, every place that I go to, the majority of people really wear jeans, trainers, T-shirt – everybody seems to dress more for comfort. Whereas, even in my lifetime, even up to the early-’70s, there was still that thing of dressing up. For me, my entry point, when I was old enough, was the skinhead/suedehead thing, sort of like ’70/’71. People didn’t have much money – they would save up, or whatever – but everyone always dressed up. You’d go to a dance at the football club on a Thursday night and all of us kids – all of us from maybe like 12 to 16 – were all dressed up.

John: You’re right. Today, we’re even into the whole sweat thing. They’ll wear a [suit] jacket like this, but they’ll wear it with sweat pants and sneakers. But I do think there is every generation – and it won’t be as big as it was when you and I were those ages – but every generation all of a sudden experiences that they want to dress up. Like, a lot of young artists and musicians that we work with, you think they’re gonna want to come in and buy the rock star-looking leather jacket – whatever it is that you think they’re gonna want. They all want a suit. They want a tuxedo jacket, they want a suit. They don’t want to look like their dad in it, but they want a suit. They want it skinny, or however they want it fitted, but they want to dress up. Miles is one of those guys; every time you see the guy, he’s always dressed up.

Paul has always been heralded a stylish musician, but he always wore timeless clothes – they weren’t necessarily of that era.

Paul: Well, I just pretty much love from 1966 to 1972, that’s my time. I think everything that needs to be said was said within that time. That’s just a subjective thing, as well. But they’ll always be my influences, always; the whole mod thing. And even, like I said, with the skinhead/suedehead thing: it wasn’t too dissimilar or too far away from the mod thing, really – it was all about attention to detail. But, for me, it will always be your formative years. When you’re at a certain age, those things stay with you.

John: For sure. For me, there’s always an early-’70s sense. There’s always a sprinkle of it – if I do it exactly like that, sometimes it becomes too costume-y or too thought out. But the influences are there, without a doubt, always, because to me, that was the part that I also felt was the most defining of my own personality and my own style, and I also think that it’s timeless. You never look wrong.

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The Paul Weller pop-up store is at John Varvatos London, 12-13 Conduit Street, for the next two weeks.

Words: Simon Harper

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