Back to the front
Over the past three decades, Johnny Marr has played with some of the biggest names on the planet, but almost always as a guitar…
Over the past three decades, Johnny Marr has played with some of the biggest names on the planet, but almost always as a guitar-for-hire; now he’s finally taking centre-stage with his first fully fledged solo album The Messenger. He talks to LAUREN MURPHY
After more than 30 years in the music business, the adage “you can’t go home again” is one that Johnny Marr is very familiar with. Not that he’d want to, of course – at least in the philosophical sense. The Mancunian’s renowned dexterity with a guitar (not to mention the small matter of being part of a generation-defining band in The Smiths from 1982 to 1987) has taken him across the globe, into studios and onto stages with some of the biggest names in indie and rock music over the past three decades.
It’s strange, then, that Marr has arrived back where it all began for the release of his solo debut album, The Messenger. He denies that his return to the UK after several years spent Stateside has anything to do with nostalgia or reconnecting with his roots, but nevertheless, his surroundings sparked a purple patch, cultivating a new set of songs that didn’t fit with any of his more recent collaborators.
Marr had previously dabbled in the art of being a frontman with The Healers, a group that included Zak Starkey on drums and released an album, Boomslang, in 2003. The Messenger also involved assembling a new band and recording with them over four or five months, but this is the first record bearing his name alone. The big question is, why now?
“It wasn’t a case of me thinking ‘A solo album would be a good idea – now, where do I start?’ The songs and music were just there,” he says, eminently friendly and chilled-out after a long day of rehearsals.
“I was led by the work; I always have been. I was excited about a sound, and a way of doing things, and there were things I wanted to say about the way I see my world – and it just happened to fit into a solo record. I’ve been in an American band that was successful and that I really loved, with Modest Mouse; and I’ve been in a UK band that was a really good time and did really well with The Cribs. And then I did the movie, the soundtrack to Inception – so it was time to move on to something else. I just didn’t want to repeat anything that I’d done recently.”
Writing the album was a fluid process, although being known primarily as a “guitar god” meant recalibrating his approach slightly when it came to writing lyrics.
“It’s all personal, but I’m not particularly interested in singing about my feelings, because I’m not really interested in hearing other people singing about their feelings, for that matter,” he chuckles. “Seriously. I like hearing about what people think and some of my favourite records can be love songs – but the people I really like lyrically are singing about what’s in their mind, rather than what’s in their heart. Particularly in this day and age, where so much of what’s in the charts seems to be about sentiment.
“What’s wrong with singing about buildings, and society, and advertisements and those other aspects of life that go through our minds? I thought, ‘well, someone’s gotta do that – so I might as well do it’. I just knew a lot of things that I didn’t want to be earnest and sentimental and overly emotional. I think one of the reasons that the record sounds sort of upbeat and quick and energetic is because the songs were being written really quickly. I wasn’t sitting around, chewing on the end of a pencil and looking out into the sunset.”
Songs about society and technology (I Want the Heartbeat) sit astride a multitude of upbeat tracks littered throughout the album, their tempo a by-product of Marr exercising his rusty vocal muscles. Of the 30 songs written for the record, he says that the ones he enjoyed singing most – the “upbeat, punchy, new-wave ones” – were the ones that made the final track listing. Occasionally, The Messenger also harks back to the bands he loved before he formed his own; echoes of early Jam and Buzzcocks abound on Generate! Generate! and Word Starts Attack.
Others stretch further into an era inhabited by The Who and The Beatles (The Right Thing Right, The Crack Up). Generally, the overwhelming feeling is that this is a very British-sounding record. Is it intended as a riposte to the increasingly stale UK indie rock scene? A case of the established guitar god returning to teach the kids a few tricks?
“Absolutely not, that just happened entirely by accident and is a fluke. It’s down to my brilliance,” he chuckles, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Nah. Obviously you have a few considerations when you’re making a record, but with The Messenger, I just focused on what I knew was important. I tried not to be all things to all men. Whether it felt right when I was writing was one thing that was important to me. Whether fans and people who like what I do would like it was also very important.
“And I ended up with a load of almost entirely uptempo, punchy songs, which I think isn’t what solo records are supposed to be about. From what I gather, they’re supposed to be about experimentation and playing with an orchestra. But I’ll do that on the next one.”
Still, it’s obvious by looking at the charts that there are few bands prepared to take up the mantle of bands such as The Smiths, who wrote songs with political and ethical heft alongside the more frivolous tunes in their canon. Does it worry Marr that there’s no comparable voice of a generation, perhaps when one is needed now more than ever?
“I don’t think about voices of generations, but I do think that it’s a great shame that artists of all kinds aren’t sort of shouting louder. If artists aren’t going to say this stuff, who is? It’s something of a missed opportunity, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no interest in pulling out an acoustic guitar and standing on a soapbox singing some really dreary tune – but if someone makes promises in public to not put up tuition fees, gets voted in and then puts up tuition fees, then why aren’t we all kicking up a stink about it ?
“It’s not that I am someone who wants to be a provocateur – there are other people that are more qualified than I am in that regard. It’s just that, y’know, why aren’t more people like Jerry Dammers? Or Joe Strummer? These are exciting, interesting, funny, smart people in pop culture, but we seem to have this idea that you’re just going to be a pain in the arse if you bring up social issues. But I say that because I understand it – I’m as bad as everyone else.”
Mention of The Smiths brings about the question of legacy. While Marr’s reputation for humility is well known, there are certain topics that you imagine will test his zen demeanour. I’ve already promised not to ask his most dreaded question – the one that begins with “Will the . . .” and ends with “reform?” .
“Good,” he good-naturedly grumbles. “Just Google it for the answer.” But my editor will kill me, I tell him, if I don’t at least ask whether Morrissey has heard the album, or, gulp, whether the two are still in touch.
An audible harrumph follows, followed by a nifty sidestep. “Well, I don’t actually have a copy of my own album myself – I’ve got the masters, and I’ve got tracks on all of these different devices, but I was just thinking that very thing yesterday. So that’s probably your answer, really. If I haven’t got one, I doubt he has, either!”
Marr is understandably reluctant to continue to re-tread the same patch of old conversational ground, but it is difficult – impossible, rather – to mention him without also mentioning his part in the band that are regularly hailed as one of the most influential in modern music.
Now, perhaps for the first time, he is being faced with frequent reminders of his past work acting as more of a burden than a buoy. Does his name being constantly prefaced by “former Smiths guitarist . . .” ever bother him particularly when he’s embarking on a solo path for the first time?
“Maybe if I indulged myself I could go down that road, and I understand the question – but Id rather have a legacy than not,” he says.
Plus, people say some really amazing things to me, and I think it would be pretty churlish to complain about anything in light of that. To have created something that people are really passionate about; it’s kind of mind-blowing, really, because I know when a record or a band has really hit me and meant something in my life, how important that is.
“So to be part of someone’s personal lives is a privilege. It’s more than a privilege. So I just take it for what it is, and know it’s a really nice thing, and I don’t analyse it beyond that, because otherwise I could go around in circles, or my head might explode. And also, you can forget to keep moving forward.”
Moving forward is not something that is up for debate. Later this year, Marr will turn 50, (“Thanks for reminding me,” he cheerfully grouses), but that doesn’t mean that a quiet retirement is within sight. If anything, making The Messenger has set him on a newfound path of self-sufficiency after decades of working with other bands and musicians – and it’s one that he intends to continue along.
“I have to be careful that I don’t say things that I might change my mind on, but there’s a lot of songs that I wanna write, and a lot of songs that I wanna sing and play riffs on,” he nods. “You do, by definition, give up a lot of that when you collaborate, so at this point in time, I’m not really that interested in collaboration. Or if I do, it just has to be in the studio, and not be about taking up two or three years of my life.
“I mean, I’m talking to you about a record that I feel quite good about. It could have happened earlier in my life, or later in my life, but I kind of mark my life out by the work I’m doing. So in some weird way, I think doing this record or Inception felt like more of a landmark in my life than turning a certain age would – especially the latter, because I was stood in front of a huge bloody orchestra and they were playing very loud,” he laughs.
“Those kind of things mark out time for me more than my birthdays. So what I’m saying is, maybe I should try to get my next record out pretty bloody quick. Because there’s a lot of songs left to write, isn’t there?”
The Messenger is released on Warner Bros. Records on February 22nd. Listen to the album exclusively on irishtimes.comfrom next Monday. Johnny Marr plays Dublin’s Academy on March 27th
Non-provocateur: Marr on . . .
The new songs
“I didn’t want to be earnest and sentimental and overly emotional... I wasn’t sitting around, chewing on the end of a pencil and looking out into the sunset”
“What I’m saying is, maybe I should try to get my next record out pretty bloody quick. Because there’s a lot of songs left to write, isn’t there?
“To have created something that people are really passionate about; it’s kind of mind-blowing, really, because I know when a record or a band has really hit me and meant something in my life, how important that is”