He’s rightly chuffed about his cracking new solo album but, a quarter of a century after The Smiths’ break-up, Johnny Marr remains testy about those never-ending reunion rumours...
Next August will mark the 25th anniversary of the break-up of The Smiths. Given that that’s five times the number of years the seminal UK band actually played together, it’s hardly surprising that founding member Johnny Marr gets a little peeved at being endlessly asked about the possibility of them reforming. After all, the fact that they turned down a reported $10 million to play a short North American comeback tour a few years ago should be answer enough.
Unfortunately for him, it’s one of the Ten Commandments of modern music journalism: ‘Thou shalt always ask Morrissey/Marr about the chances of getting back together with Marr/Morrissey’.
When Hot Press puts the inevitable question, Marr – who’s sitting dapperly in a reception lounge of Manchester’s Blueprint Studios after a long day’s rehearsal – emits a weary sigh and goes silent for a moment or two. “Why does everybody keep asking me that?” he eventually says, in his distinctive Manc accent.
Sorry, Johnny, but rules are rules…
“Well, I’ve no idea about any of that,” he shrugs. “I have no idea how to answer that question anymore without coming off as being really rude. And I don’t like being rude. But I’ve just made a record, do you know what I mean?”
The record in question is The Messenger, Marr’s debut solo offering, which we’ll come to in just a moment. Before that, though, moving swiftly on from the unwelcome Moz reunion query, some serious congratulations are in order. At the age of 49, the veteran guitarist has just been awarded a UK music weekly’s ‘Godlike Genius’ award (previous recipients include Dave Grohl, Joe Strummer and Robert Smith).
He’s obviously chuffed about it.
“Yeah, there goes my knighthood,” he smiles. “They offered me a knighthood, but I thought I’d take the Godlike Genius award instead.”
Do these things matter to you?
“Yeah, they do when you get them,” he admits. “They don’t when you don’t. But it’s nice to get a pat on the back, and it’s a cool thing for people who follow you. You know, fans sort of share in it as well. So it’s just a feelgood thing all round. And fans of guitar music feel that things are all as they should be. I’ve been asked for years whether I think guitar music is going to die out – and of course it isn’t – but for me to get an award like this kind of proves that guitar music is very much alive and well. And has a good haircut!”
Have you bagged many gongs in your career?
“I didn’t for years, and then I started getting a bunch over the last five or six years or so. I’ll have to watch it though. It’s not good for my image.”
In fairness, the NME award is long overdue. Openly acknowledged as a serious influence by the likes of Oasis and Radiohead (‘Knives Out’ was their tribute song), The Smiths were widely considered to be the most important British rock band of their generation. Barely 24-years old when they split up, Marr had already written some of the most memorably distinctive guitar riffs of the 20th century.
Since then, he’s embarked on a long, varied and mostly successful career as guitarslinger-for-hire, stamping his musical passport all over the world with an impressive array of bands, composers and artists. Marr’s enviable CV includes collaborations with everyone from The The, Talking Heads and Electronic to The Cribs, Hans Zimmer and Modest Mouse. Not to mention Paul McCartney, John Frusciante, Beth Orton, Edwyn Collins, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Lisa Germano, Robyn Hitchcock and many, many others.
Do you find it difficult to say ‘no’ to people?
“I’ve said ‘no’ plenty of times, just the people who I’ve said ‘yes’ to are irresistible, usually,” he explains. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve collaborated with so many people that I respect and like on a personal level, too. Things like Talking Heads happened when I was very young, and that was just a professional invitation to go over to Paris and work with a band who were really big news to me when I was a teenager.
“And before that I’ve played with people who I was friends with, so I’m just sort of continuing a trend that a lot of musicians tend to follow, which is you make music with your friends. And you accept invitations from people who you think you can do something interesting with.”
Would you ever work with somebody that you didn’t like on a personal level, but thought
you could produce something musically great with them?
“I would never do that knowingly. It’s a strange thing because when you really like someone’s music, you subconsciously assume that you’re going to get along with them as people. And I’d say that’s the same for everybody. Music makes a sort of connection between people, particularly if it’s emotive music, where it’s a person to person kind of connection in a way. But it’s emotional music and you’re kind of getting an insight into a particular person.
“So for example, I’ve always loved Hans Zimmer’s work, particularly on the soundtrack that he did for a film called The Thin Red Line. And then years later when he invited me to work with him on Inception, we hit it off straightaway. And it was almost obvious to me when I started to work with him, that he was the person I could hear in that music, that I liked so much. And I tend to think that people who make really beautiful or cool art are usually people that I’m going to get along with. I’m just fortunate that I actually get to work with these people.
“And I hope that theory is true for the way people relate to what I do. I’ve always assumed that I make music for people who are like me, and like the same kind of things as me, and have a similar kind of personality, maybe, or just have a similar kind of mindset. I just assume that fans that follow us are people that I’d get along with.”
Not necessarily every single fan though. David Cameron proclaims himself a huge admirer of The Smiths, even choosing ‘This Charming Man’ as one of his Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. Two years ago, Marr hit the headlines when he sent the UK prime minister an incensed tweet: “Stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”
“Well, I’m talking about people who actually really like music,” he sniffs.
While Marr generally jobs around solely as a lead guitarist or producer, he handled vocal duties when he fronted Johnny Marr & The Healers a decade ago. How does it feel being a frontman again?
“It feels absolutely fine. I’ve never harbored any secretive plot to liberate centre stage and carry out some sinister coup or anything. I didn’t have any secret ambitions to do it, it was just a pragmatic thing that happened in the early 2000s when I had The Healers. I knew I was up to it.
Do you ever get nervous before playing a gig?
“I sometimes do, yeah, in a good way,” he nods. “The dangerous thing is when you’re too complacent, but it’s a fine line. I used to get horribly stricken with nerves when I was in The Smiths. That was very unpleasant. I’m not entirely sure why that happened, but it might have been something to do with being so young and having a lot of expectation, and being catapulted into some sort of living mythology in some way. That’s kind of what it felt like – and it was unpleasant. But I’ve been doing it long enough now, and enjoy it enough, to know what it’s all about.”
Following a five-year stint in Portland, Oregon, Marr returned to his home turf to record this new album last year. Very much a back to basics affair, with its roots firmly in New Wave and the post-punk sounds of Gang Of Four, Wire and Buzzcocks, The Messenger features the kind of scorching riffs you’d expect from a player who’s right up there on the British guitar pantheon alongside Clapton, Page and Richards. There’s nothing wrong with his vocal performance either, as he delivers some blistering lyrics about toddlers protesting primary school cuts and lottery winners having sex with heart monitors.
What message is The Messenger attempting
“Well, if there’s an overall message to the album, it’s about me looking around as a kind of urban person who has grown up in an urban environment, and lived most of his life in an urban environment, and commenting on the world as I see it. I made a fairly conscious decision to come back to the UK, the places from where I took a lot of my attitude, so that, subconsciously or otherwise, it would go into the work and the vibe of the music. And I didn’t analyse it beyond that. I am trying to comment, but trying to not make complaints.
“So when I finished the record, sometime afterwards it did occur to me that I had kind of achieved that agenda. There is an overriding bunch of themes that run right the way through the album that are all to do with having grown up in cities, and having travelled around cities, and the life that I’m living now, and really how it relates to people who are like me, but also how it relates to the decisions I made as a young person as well.
“I can tell you what it isn’t; it isn’t me singing about my feelings, because there are plenty of people who do that, and that’s their business. But I’m not particularly interested in either doing that – and now that I think of it – I’m not particularly interested in hearing it either.”
One of the standout tracks on The Messenger is the lush, melodic and affecting ‘New Town Velocity’, an autobiographical song about his decision to “leave school for poetry” at the age of 15. Does he have any regrets about that?
“Ha! What do you think?” Johnny laughs.
Well, if one of your own kids announced that they wanted to leave school early to pursue an artistic ambition, would you be cool with that?
“Well, my son is now 20 and my daughter’s 18, but, had they said that, then yeah, I would,” he affirms. “I think 15 was a pretty radical age to do it, but my circumstances were different from the norm at that point. I’d already been in bands with grown-ups and the future that I was looking at was very restrictive, and was really quite a cul-de-sac for me, in terms of not just career and career opportunities, but creatively too. I wasn’t in an environment that was particularly encouraging. It’s a different situation for me and my kids.
“The school I went to was pretty goddamn awful. I was in a pretty no-win situation, so I was definitely right to do what I did, regardless of how it turned out. That song was written for the record right at the end, because I wanted to bring something of my own personal experience to the record. Because as I told you, I wasn’t really wanting to sing about my feelings, but there seemed to be a slight personal dimension to it that I wanted to bring to the record that wasn’t there. But rather than it just being about me, the song is as much about that feeling of anything is possible, transcendence if you like. Most of us have experienced it, unless we’re very unlucky, and maybe we’ve experienced it more than once if we are lucky. And it doesn’t have to stop with childhood or adolescence or anything like that, and it’s a very human thing, it’s just a memory. So people seem to like it because it is me talking about being human and being more open. Maybe the next record should be me singing all about my feelings.”
When was the last time that you cried?
“Do you know this is the third time I’ve been asked that question recently?” he laughs. “What is it about people thinking of me crying? Oh, god knows! So I do know the answer. It was walking through town a couple of years ago at Christmas-time and hearing a kids’ choir, and I shed a manly tear or two. I didn’t fall down on the road blubbing, that would’ve been just too unseemly. There’s just something about children singing in choirs that really does it to me. Little bastards!”
Marr married his childhood sweetheart, Angie, in 1986, and they’ve been happily together ever since. He himself admits that the lack of turbulence in his youthful romantic life allowed him to properly concentrate on developing his musical talent. He’s clearly been lucky in love, but what’s the secret to maintaining a rock ‘n’ roll marriage?
“Well, in my case, it’s just all about being on the same page,” he says, after a short pause. “And as you say, being very lucky. That is the truth. Also, I’m not an idiot. I know when I’m onto a good thing. So I just try not to be a dick. Which I think is probably a good philosophy for any part of your life really: ‘Thou shall not be a dick’. I fall short sometimes. And that’s it really. Luckily Angie and I are very similar. And another thing, because we’ve been together since we were kids, we’ve always kind of shared experiences and shared life. I’ve been with her longer than I was without her. And what more can I say? I’m very, very lucky. I’ve had to pay for my life in other ways. No-one gets away with being that lucky.”
Although Marr will turn 50 next Hallowe’en, he looks a good decade younger. Always a sharp dresser, with a fetish for expensive suits, shoes and haircuts, he seriously looks after his health, reportedly jogging up to 50 miles a week.
He immediately objects when I mention his health regime.
“I don’t jog, Olaf, I run. I don’t jog. Come
He wasn’t always so health conscious. Back in the Smiths’ daze, he famously used to down up to a bottle of brandy a day when touring. A major fan of the work of Aldous Huxley, he also apparently ingested more than his fair share of hallucinogens and chemical stimulants while working with The The.
You’ve been clean and sober for many years now, but do you think that all your drinking and drugging helped your creativity, or do you find that you’re now much better off without them?
“I’m not sure that drinking helps creativity that much,” he muses. “I think you think that you’re being creative. A little bit can come of it, I guess, but I don’t think that karaoke culture would’ve quite thrived in the monasteries. And thanks to karaoke culture, we’ve got X Factor. So, don’t get me started on about that! I mean drinking is the worst thing in the world for people thinking they can sing. Jesus!
“I’m not puritanical. I would like to say that. My lifestyle choices have always been in the pursuit of what’s going to make me creative. So I guess the answer to your question is, yeah, I do think that drink and drugs can be creative, or certainly the life of a creative outsider, and to be a creative outsider you have to be part of that culture, then it works, let’s put it that way. I don’t think ingesting certain chemicals immediately brings forth great ideas. I just think overall you have to live an interesting life. And the reason why I live the way I do is because it’s actually more radical than your messy musician who’s been around for a bit.
“I’d hate to be messy,” he continues. “I’ve been making records since I was 18 and you should be kicking up some dust when you’re a young musician, particularly if you’re in one of the biggest and best rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world, that’s exactly what you should be doing. And I got to do that. It was always part of my ‘to-do’ list; wearing sunglasses indoors, having a good haircut, crashing your car, and making great records. The important thing, no matter what for me, is that the music took priority over everything – my personal life, or partying, or everything I’ve done – and it still does. And on the subject of lifestyle, you don’t get to make as many records as The Smiths did, or that I’ve done since, if you’re not on the case. It just can’t be done.”
He’s known to be a total perfectionist.
“If you ask anyone I’ve ever worked with, they’ll tell you that I’m obsessive about the work,” he admits. “’Workaholic’ is probably the word that would get used a lot. And any other ‘-aholic’ is very much in the background. And by the way, I like Aldous Huxley because of all the work he did when he was in his later years, all his essays. I think he’d be really spinning around in his grave very, very fast if he knew what happened to his legacy because he wrote The Doors Of Perception. That’s got very little to do with why I like Huxley. It’s all to do with his essays and his lectures.”
As a certified Godlike Genius with an interest in philosophy, do you believe in God?
“I believe in a universal organising system that is more scientific and has laws – scientific laws more than particularly mystical laws,” he explains. “I do think there are things that are esoteric and beyond these dimensions, and I think art taps into it. But I don’t believe in a guiding human-like benevolent guy with a big beard and a judging human-like presence that sticks his thumb up or down and opens the pearly gates. I just don’t buy into that at
all. But I definitely believe in esoteric dimensions, yeah.”
Have you read any of the numerous biographies of The Smiths?
“I read one, but that was years ago. One about the songs that was quite good. But I haven’t
read the others that have been out. That would be weird.”
Why are you so reluctant to revisit your past?
“Well, because it’s someone else’s version of it – or about 50 people’s different versions of it!”
Would you ever consider writing an autobiography?
“Sure, yeah,” he nods. “I’ve been asked so many times now that I’m guessing there must be something in it. I’ve met so many interesting people along the way that it would probably be pretty funny, especially if I try to keep it upbeat and not too clichéd or just the usual business. The reason I haven’t done it over the last few years is that I get so into things that I’m doing that it would’ve invariably taken me away from the music I was making, but otherwise I probably would’ve done it by now. But I will get around to it in the next few years. I’ll just have to stop writing songs and stop touring for a bit.”
Does Johnny Marr have a motto in life?
“Yeah,” he laughs. “Just don’t be a dick!”
The Messenger is available now via Warner Music. Johnny Marr plays the Academy, Dublin on March 27.