Johnny Marr: 'It’s not about being perfect, it’s about having the right kind of attitude'
With The Smiths, he helped push the boundaries. Now Johnny Marr is back in the limelights as a solo act.
Just after we shake hands and sit down for a chat, I make Johnny Marr a solemn promise. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m not going to ask you that question.” He raises an eyebrow.
“Which one?” he deadpans, mock-grimacing. “There are a few.”
He’s right – there are a few, mostly ones that include the word “Morrissey” or start with “When” and end with “reform”. Although Marr’s name may forever be prefaced with “ex-Smiths guitarist”, his work in recent years has seen him less defined by his comparatively brief spell with the ultra-influential 1980s band.
Last year, after aeons as a gun-for-hire with the likes of The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, Marr’s solo debut, The Messenger, was released to enthusiastic reviews. Hot on its heels is Playland (the title is taken from a theory by Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga). It treads a similar line of punchy guitar-led tunes and beautiful, ruminative songs.
“Put it this way: I didn’t have a plan to have a break,” he says, shrugging. “I just saw this expanse of playing and writing in front of me when I started The Messenger, and I just followed it. When The Messenger was finished, I started writing new songs. I just really try not to overthink being in a band.
“There’s an awful lot of opportunity these days to set things up; campaign this, campaign that, social media this and that. I understand that that’s the world we’re living in and that’s okay. And there’s an economic necessity for people to get things right, that’s also very true. But I want to kind of ignore all that and just act like a band should act.”
Marr sips a Coke – presumably the vegan, teetotal runner’s only vice these days – in a quiet corner of a plush south Dublin hotel. He’s open, friendly and plainly excited about some of the Irish members of his family (from Athy, Co Kildare) coming to see his gig the following evening. The last year-and-a-half have been a lot of fun, he says; even when he broke his hand midway through recording Playland, he saw it as “fate kind of helping me out” by giving him more time to fine-tune the lyrics.
Hitherto known primarily as a guitarist rather than a vocalist or a lyricist, it stands to reason that the success of The Messenger must have given Marr a sense of confidence in both singing and lyric-writing.
“I think it gave me a bit of pragmatism,” he says, pausing. “I’m not sure that I needed confidence, and it’s not that I’m over-confident, either, because I think that’s dangerous, and also deeply unattractive. But with the vocals, I try and be totally objective. I put myself under the sort of scrutiny that I would if I was producing Matt Johnson, or Bernard Sumner, or Isaac, or Morrissey, or The Jarmans.
“A job needs to be done, and sometimes that needs a bit of sensitivity, or you need to do it over and over and over again; and other times, you just get in there, drink a cup of tea, get on with it and stop messing around.
No fan of the big voice “I’m my own harshest critic, I will say that
. I think that’s how you get to be really good. And I’ll tell you this: it’s not about being perfect, it’s about having the right kind of attitude. I love singers like Brian Eno in the mid-1970s, and I love Colin Newman from Wire, and Pete Shelley, and Ray Davies. They’ve all got small little voices with attitude; I’m not a fan of the big voice, at all.
“When I first started out, I took no end of shit from people who had never heard me, just because I was known for being a guitar player. But such is life and that’s alright – as long as fans like it, and get it, then that’s alright.”
Playland is infused with a sense of both Marr and Manchester, where he still has a home after decades abroad. He has described album track Dynamo as a “love affair” with a building in the city, while 25 Hours is perhaps his most confessional song to date, touching on his unhappy Catholic education and his desire to do something different with his life.
He’s not religious nowadays, he says, rather more interested in theology. “If anything, I didn’t just dismiss religion out of hand; I actually went the other way and got very interested in every religion under the sun, and how it operates, and what the ideas are behind it – whether it’s Taoism, or Buddhism, or Sufism.”
Marr has never had any shortage of pots on the boil – most recently, he has worked with composer Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack for Inception and The Amazing Spiderman 2. He says that if he was ever going to do a solo project that was more orchestral-based at some point, it would be with guitars and involve Zimmer in some way.
“The idea of making that kind of sound on guitars is very likely, and something that I’m really excited about. I think I got close to it a couple of times with – well, the best example, and my favourite, is probably Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me by The Smiths. That emotion is one of things I’m most proud of with The Smiths – much more than our achievements and what we mean to people, which is obviously dead cool. But if you asked me what was so great about that band, I’d put that song on and just let the music do the talking and the singing. I really, really love it.”
Enjoying the ride
“Luckily, I went into it thinking, as long as I get the music right, I don’t give a shit. Maybe that’s why it went well – because I wasn’t trying to make any clever moves with it,” he says, grinning. “It wasn’t like I was standing at the side of the stage for 25, 30 years, going ‘One day . . . one day . . . that will be me.’
“I was just trying to make music that I would like to go and see, music that I would expect from a guitar band. I just wanna sound like me, really.”