Johnny Marr: ‘A lot of people don’t even want to see The Smiths reform’
The former Smiths guitarist on his third album, ‘Call the Comet’ – his most personal yet – and why he's happy to stay solo
Johnny Marr: 'My solo records are so satisfying now that I’m turning down more things than ever.'
Rock stars don’t come much better than Johnny Marr. Nicer than the purported “nicest guy in rock” Dave Grohl, cooler than Kurt Cobain, more benevolent than Bruce Springsteen; given the weight of his history, his influence as a guitarist and his renown as a collaborator over the past 30 years or so, if anyone has a licence to have an ego, it’s the Manchester man.
But today, in the empty bar of the Olympia Theatre (down the road from where he will later play a showcase gig in the sweaty confines of the Button Factory) and looking a decade younger than his 54 years, Marr is more concerned with what’s happening in our lives.
“How is work? You busy? What you been up to lately?” he asks with a genuine sincerity, before telling us that he absolutely, definitely, 100 per cent remembers us from the last time we interviewed him (a charm tactic deployed by many – but we believe him after he recalls the day and the location. He’s that kind of guy.)
Far more interesting, however, is the topic we’ve met to discuss this afternoon – most notably his third album, Call the Comet, which comes on the back of two well-received solo outings, The Messenger (2013) and Playland (2014).
The four-year gap is no signifier of writer’s block; on the contrary. In between, he found time to squeeze in the writing and promotion of his entertaining autobiography, Set the Boy Free in 2016, on a promise to his late manager Joe Moss (who was also The Smiths’ first manager).
Trapped in your past
“I wasn’t really looking forward to it because me and the band had gotten on a bit of a roll – but nevertheless, it had to be done,” he says. “A couple of my friends had written similar kinds of books, autobiographies, memoirs – Nile Rodgers’ was three years and Andrew Oldham’s was two – and they both said, ‘Look, give yourself a few years to do a proper job.’ But I couldn’t see me just hanging around for three years in my past; that just seemed like torture to me, really. So I crunched it and did it in nine months.”
Towards the end of the process of trawling his past and committing it to paper, Marr got antsy to be back in the studio.
“In a way, particularly after the promotion of the book, getting in and making a record was . . . I don’t want to say ‘refuge’ or ‘salvation’ because that’s a bit too dramatic, but it was along those lines,” he nods. “I really, really needed to get in and make some music, for personal reasons. And I think you kind of hear that in some of the tracks, like Walk into the Sea, Actor Attractor and Day In Day Out. The things that are more emotional and dramatic are really how I felt when I was making the album, whereas the first two records were slightly more intellectual, in a way.”
He’s not wrong. Call the Comet is altogether less cerebral and more personal, which flies in the face of what he once said about refusing to be one of those soul-baring frontman.
He smiles when I remind him that he once said, ‘What’s wrong with singing from the brain?’
People react to you showing that vulnerable side of yourself. I just have to get used to sincerity, because people seem to like it
“It was partly because – being impatient to get on with things – I went straight from promoting the book into the writing of the record, and that meant I had no time to think about it or design it,” he says.
“People might imagine that some of the telling of the stories in the book might have stirred up some emotions, but it was actually when it was finished that that happened. I was just burnt out from writing it, and then I went on this book tour, getting on planes and all of that; I was wiped out.
“So rather than go and sit under a palm tree, I went into a new studio space, which is a very industrial sort of factory environment in the north of England. It’s actually very similar to where The Smiths first used to rehearse.”
That doesn’t mean that he regrets anything about his previous solo work, though. “I think I was right to have those agendas on the first two records, and I still think that there’s too much ‘confessional’ music for my liking in the rock scene at the moment,” he shrugs.
“It just seems to have gone completely out of balance, where we’ve become completely obsessed with the idea of ‘emotional authenticity or nothing’. Having grown up with people like Brian Eno and Siouxsie Sioux and Wire and whoever else . . . they weren’t afraid to be conceptual. It didn’t all have to be from the heart. I still really believe there’s a place for that in rock music, but I didn’t have time to consider it – so I ended up writing a lot more personal stuff on the record.
“And it is a fact that no matter how I frame it, that people really like that music. They react to you showing that vulnerable side of yourself. I just have to get used to sincerity, because people seem to like it.”
Marr hasn’t shied away from political opinions in the past (something you wish his former songwriting partner Morrissey would do, given his recent declarations) but, despite living back in a UK under the threat of Brexit, he made the decision not to allow politics to colour this album.
Instead, he set many of the songs in an imaginary future society, with galvanising imagery of uprisings and defiance audible on the likes of Spiral Cities, New Dominions and Rise. Many songs are more musically experimental and daring than his previous fare, too.
“As a person, I thought ‘Okay, this Brexit stuff and Trump and the whole political scene is either gonna inform my work, or I’m gonna have to circumvent it,’” he says. “As a responsible person, I don’t intend to have my head in the sand and be an ostrich – but frankly, I just thought that none of those figures on the political scene deserve to be in my songs. And so I made a deliberate effort to filter it – and with that came the realisation that being an artist, and being a rock musician, is escapism for both me and the audience. But because I didn’t want the entire album to be about me and my feelings, I placed the society that I wanted to sing about in the future somewhere.”
No time for Rumours
These days, Marr is known as much for his various collaborations as he is for his tenure in The Smiths, with membership of bands as eclectic as Modest Mouse and The Cribs and session work with everyone from Pet Shop Boys to The Pretenders to Blondie to Hans Zimmer under his belt.
I ask whether something like Lindsey Buckingham’s recently vacated spot in Fleetwood Mac – since filled by Neil Finn (Marr has played in Finn’s band) and Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell – might have appealed.
“My solo records are so satisfying now that I’m turning down more things than ever, because my own records and my own touring is my priority,” he says diplomatically. “As for Neil joining Fleetwood Mac . . . I have to say, it’s a real result for Fleetwood Mac, because if Lindsey Buckingham is gonna leave, you could do a lot worse than replacing him with Neil Finn,” he laughs.
“The The reforming was a proposition that I had to think about. I played on the comeback single and playing with The The is a really great part of my story. So I guess if I was gonna join another band – and I didn’t join The The – I probably won’t join anybody. But I will be open to collaborations again in a couple of years, I think.”
I’m not going to ask that question, I tell him – the one that begins with “will” and ends in “reform” – but he smiles as he admits that he has been asked it less frequently in recent years. “Yeah, much less,” he says. “I think a lot of people don’t even wanna see it happen right now.”
With all that’s going on with his own flourishing solo career, why would he? The bigger question is whether or not he regrets not forging that solo path sooner.
“To be honest, it is tempting to imagine that, because it’s been going so well – but then very quickly, I remember the sessions I’ve done with Pet Shop Boys and the gigs I’ve played with Modest Mouse and the records I’ve made with The The, and what I’ve learnt,” he nods sagely.
“Becoming an adult with Bernard Sumner in Electronic, all those life lessons . . . I wouldn’t really want to have lost any of those moments. And false modesty aside, I’m a much better guitar player for ever being in The The, and ever playing on Hans Zimmer soundtracks.
“Everything that I was doing in The Smiths I can do now; but there’s things that I do now that I wouldn’t have had the skill or the mindset to do in The Smiths. I would never have been able to stand in front of a 70-piece orchestra and play to thousands of people, for example.
“So it’s all good. I’m happy with how things have turned out.”
- Call the Comet is out on June 15th. Johnny Marr plays the National Stadium, Dublin on November 2nd.