Johnny Marr: ‘I’m not happy-clappy but I have optimism’

The songwriter on his new double album and the musical influence of his Kildare parents

Johnny Marr, still as thin as a whippet, is holding solitary court in his spartan, white-walled studios "on the outskirts of Manchester, a big old factory built in about 1885. I'm on the top floor."

Marr has been on the top floor of many things for decades. Now a ridiculously sprightly 58 years of age (being vegan from the 1990s, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes and being an avid daily runner are likely to be contributing factors), he is about to release his first double album, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4. He pre-empts any questions about streaming and attention deficit spans by immediately saying that the hurry-up approach to music is unsatisfactory. “That said, back in 1979 when I was 15,” he says with a grin, “if someone told me I could just put my hand in my pocket and summon the latest song I was besotted with into my ears, then I would have said ‘Sign me up for the time machine.’ ”

Marr says the album title arrived a week after he began to write songs. “I didn’t know what the ‘1-4’ meant, but I liked the way it sounded; it had a good ring to it, and it made me think of a double album. I realised that of all the bands I had been in over the years – and there have been a lot – not one of them had made a double album. That idea then becomes a challenge you can’t really back out of, and the idea of the songs being more expansive, sonically and thematically, appealed to me. I also felt that lyrically there were challenges I had to meet or to go to another level, at least.”

Making this album made me realise that I have a very serious side, but that's okay

Marr wanted to dig much deeper within himself than previously. Aside from whatever the pandemic was generating, he says, he started to notice that people seemed very preoccupied; they looked worried. “While we are an incredible species capable of amazing feats of achievement, love, compassion and imagination, we also have tendencies towards lack of tolerance, cruelty, self-destruction and despondency. I just felt that people were hurting, and what I discovered, overall, was that my songs were my way of checking in with them, my audience, wondering about how they are in their lives, their human concerns. My nature is such, however, that I can’t leave things, or songs, at bleak. I’m not a happy-clappy guy and I’m by no means New Age, either, but inherently I’m someone who has optimism. Let’s put it this way – on the songs the verses are bleak, and the choruses are hopeful.”

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Unwanted discoveries

Of course, when we dig, we find things, some of which educate us, some of which we wish we hadn’t uncovered. The business of being human, Marr suggests, is “to be quite confused, isn’t it?” Without being overly philosophical about things, he adds with a note of caution, he reckons we’re all looking for some level of enlightenment.

“It’s built into us, whether you’re a songwriter, a call centre operator or a teacher. For some, it’s slightly out of reach but when we forget ourselves, there are moments of sheer happiness. Most people will know I’m, generally, a positive person. Making this album made me realise that I have a very serious side, but that’s okay.”

A feminine side, too, noticeably across several of the 16 songs but more evidently on Ariel, the title of which is taken from the Sylvia Plath poem of the same name. "With that particular song, I felt I wanted to write about empathy, a very female sensibility that addresses the album's wider issues, which is just wanting to put your arms around somebody, really."

The connections associated with the pandemic, he adds, fed into this. “It felt the entire world needed something like that. Besides, I relate to women a lot. I grew up with a very young mother. I have a sister who is 11 months younger than me – and that, as you know, is called an Irish twin – and I’ve been with my wife since I was 15. I have a daughter, and I have been in bands that have had strong women – The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde being one – so I’ve been fortunate to have had very interesting women around me all my life.”

Legacy issues

Is it easy to ignore his legacy when it comes to writing new material? (I deliberately don’t ask Marr anything about The Smiths or Morrissey because he must be sick to the teeth of fielding questions about them.) It isn’t difficult at all, he states, because “I’m on a trajectory that started when I was 15 so it all feels connected as a part of my life. As far as I’m concerned, it started seriously when I was 11 or 12, coming from a family from Co Kildare, a family that to this day is completely obsessed with music.

The assumption is that if you're from an Irish family, then it's only about The Chieftains

“Growing up, I got this idea from my parents that music isn’t just entertainment – that there is, in fact, magic in it. I remember my English mates would be talking about the albums their parents played – people like Perry Como and Andy Williams, all the easy-listening stuff – whereas my parents were buying chart singles, pop music, and playing them at home along with their older rock’n’roll singles and albums they had brought over from Ireland. That’s when I heard very loud acoustic guitars on Eddie Cochran records. What was interesting for me, and from talking to someone like yourself, is the assumption is that if you’re from an Irish family, then it’s only about The Chieftains, but because my parents were teenagers, they were into bands like The Hollies. They moved to Manchester and loved being there and the opportunities that came from that, but at the same time we were back and forward to Kildare, and they almost rebelled against the old stuff.”

And that was the start of it. He carries his pop-culture heritage with no small dignity. There is one more thing he wants to say, however, and then he’s off home for dinner with the family.

"First and foremost, the life of a musician – and this is before any idea of fame or cash – was everything to me. For my generation, it was all quite unusual in that regard because some of my peers and people even older than me – people like Bernard Sumner and Billy Duffy – did the classic thing at the age of 16, 17 when they saw the Sex Pistols in Manchester's Free Trade Hall. As we know, Bernard and Billy formed Joy Division and The Cult, yet I had already been playing guitar since I was nine or 10. I suppose I'm just doing a grown-up version of what I have been doing since I was a kid."

Fever Dreams Pts 1-4 is released Friday, February 25th

MARR’S ATTACKS! JOHNNY’S BEST COLLABORATIONS

The Smiths
From 1982 to 1987, the songwriting partnership of Johnny Marr and Steven Morrissey delivered song after song that made them, according to writer Simon Goddard, "the most influential British guitar group of the decade". Will the band ever reform? In 2006, Morrissey said, "I would rather eat my own testicles than reform The Smiths, and that's saying something for a vegetarian." Perhaps not, then.

Electronic
In 1988, Marr teamed up with New Order's Bernard Sumner and embraced something The Smiths never touched: dance music. Ad-hoc collaborations continued with Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) and former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos. Three UK top 10 albums were released between 1991 and 99, but by 2001 Electronic reached, said Marr in 2003, "its natural conclusion".

Modest Mouse
Working on production for US band Modest Mouse in 2006, Marr was subsequently asked to join full time. "We wrote three great songs straight away," said Marr of his contributions to their 2007 album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. "Something clicked; it felt right from the off." He left Modest Mouse in 2008 to record and become a member of the UK indie rock group The Cribs.

Hans Zimmer
Marr has been collaborating with the acclaimed film soundtrack composer since 2010, working with him on Inception (2010), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), and No Time to Die (2021), for which, among other soundtrack duties, he played guitar on Billie Eilish's theme song.