Q&A: Johnny Marr On The Messenger, The Smiths, And Why He Can’t Stop Joining Other People’s Bands
Johnny Marr is, without question, one of the nicest guys in rock and roll. He’s also, without question, one of the most talented guitar players of all time. As a founding member of the Smiths, Marr helped change the face of English rock music forever and created a signature guitar style that would influence an entire generation of rock bands. After the Smiths called it a day in 1987, Marr went on to play in lots of other excellent bands, including the The, Electronic, the Cribs, and Modest Mouse. Other than one foray into solo-album territory (2003’s Boomslang, released under the moniker of Johnny Marr and the Healers), Marr has mostly been content to write and record in other bands as opposed to putting together a new band of his own. However, next February, Marr will release The Messenger, his first solo album in nearly a decade. It’s an album that — in both sound and style — hearkens back to Marr’s early days, which makes sense given that the record was largely recorded in his hometown of Manchester.
Despite his status as alt icon and guitar god (his jangly way with a Rickenbacker still sounds like no one else), Marr is refreshingly unassuming. I met up with him in NYC just prior to his recent guest performance with Dinosaur Jr. (a performance that involved Marr tearing through “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” with J Mascis on lead vocals, causing dozens of aging rock critics in the room to spontaneously combust from joy) and he couldn’t have been any nicer. His new record is excellent as well.
STEREOGUM: Where do you spend most of your time these days?
MARR: Manchester. I did go to Berlin a few times while I was making the record. I’ve kind of swapped Portland for Manchester as of late, but I’ll probably swap back at some point. I feel like there is a similar mentality in both places. My love for Manchester is really about being able to do work there, as opposed to it being about my roots or being nostalgic about the music scene. I tend not to be a person who looks back too much, but Manchester is a good place for me to get work done. I made most of my record there and I have a studio there. It’s a good music town — lots of musicians around and the sense that what you are working on is gonna be judged by a discerning community. At least it feels that way to me.
STEREOGUM: What was the impetus for making a new solo record? Had these songs been with you for a long time?
MARR: I started to get ideas and notions all piled up on top of each other, which eventually convinced me that it was finally a good time for me to go and do this. I’d been working as part of different groups and writing music for other people to sing, which is cool because it’s easy for me to come up with riffs, but when those riffs were married to these other ideas and notions that seemed bigger — and it wasn’t just about playing my part of the song on the guitar, but rather that these were my songs — it became a different thing. There was an overriding aesthetic to these things I was coming up which made it seem like they should all be a part of a record. I habitually think like a band animal, probably because I’ve been doing this now since I was literally 14, so I assumed that I’d put a group together and off we’d go, but within a few weeks of making demos by myself it became clear that I was already just making the record. I’d pull in various friends to play whenever I needed them, but I didn’t put a gang together and forge into it like we were a band, which I guess is what made it a solo record.
STEREOGUM: You’ve played in so many different bands over the years — the Pretenders, the The, the Cribs, Modest Mouse — I wondered if there was just something about that dynamic that appealed to you or felt more comfortable somehow. You worked a lot as a hired gun in a lot of already existing bands, when you could have easily just gone solo right out of the gate or simply assembled a new band of your own.
MARR: Yeah. When I first started writing songs — these terrible little ditties that I created when I was 11 or 12 — I found guys around the neighborhood who could play with me and we’d take it very seriously, trying to give it a go and play music together. Bit by bit I started to gravitate over to stage left. I was never particularly interested in being the frontman, even when I was still a little kid. Every so often if we didn’t have a singer I would step into that role, but it was never my primary interest. I always felt more free when I didn’t have to worry about the singer — and I become kind of good at being the sideman. Then when the first proper group that I started eventually started to take off and get popular — that group being the Smiths — being the guitarist became what I was known for. My role in the The was similar. Electronic was kind of a non-group; it was really more about me and Bernard Sumner learning how to be producers. I’m good at being in a gang, which is how I feel about being in Modest Mouse, and that’s probably the best gang I’ve ever been in.
STEREOGUM: Modest Mouse? Why, because it’s the most fun and the most interesting?
MARR: Both of those reasons, yeah. I mean, there was a time in my life when being in the Smiths was great — especially with all the success and the attention and the fact that we were so young — but I quite enjoy being around five American guys. I enjoy the conversations we have and it’s fun to make music with people who are such unique and distinctive individuals. To be fair to all the other bands I’ve been in, each of them has really contributed something to a specific period of my life. The Cribs were about me getting back to being in the north of England and making music that sounded really British. I thought of them as being in the same lineage as the Buzzcocks and the Smiths, a band that made a kind of street music. I wouldn’t call those bands punk rock because, as far as I’m concerned, that term means something different now and it wasn’t really about what we were trying to do. The Cribs was also interesting because the band contains three brothers, which presents a very interesting kind of dynamic. I’ve been in basically every kind of band there is, which is great. In a lot of ways, the stuff I’m doing now really takes it back to when I very first started — just singing and writing words. When you’ve done as many different things as I’ve done, the idea of switching gears and doing something different doesn’t feel so odd anymore.
STEREOGUM: As a guitar player, it must also be really fun to play with all these different bands — it allows you to really explore a lot of different styles of playing. The vibe of all those bands is very different from each other.
MARR: Yeah, for sure. There are actually a lot of different guitar styles on the Smiths’ records, which may surprise some people. We tried a lot of different things with overdubs and stuff while recording with that band, so it was actually a challenge to play with other bands and find new things that I’d never done before. That really happened in the The, which was cool. There was a lot more space in that music and it really allowed me to explore these new guitar technologies. The shows we played were very different from night to night and the songs weren’t entire held up by my guitar lines. It was unusual for me, since previously my guitar was kind of the backbone of the songs. It was very cool to explore that. Matt Johnson is a very unique guitar player in his own right, so it was interesting to get to play off of that.
STEREOGUM: Was that the first serious band thing that you did after the Smiths broke up?
MARR: Yeah. Well, I actually sat in with the Pretenders for some shows previous to that. It was really cool. I was playing riffs that I’d learned in my bedroom. I mean, I knew how to play all the songs from the first Pretenders record without having to really brush up on them, so that was very cool. Also, getting to partner up with Chryssie Hynde for a year was really good for me. I was still feeling a bit bruised from the Smiths fallout and spending time with someone who was such a strong, interesting person was really a good influence on me. Her attitude really toughened me up.
STEREOGUM: I have an old VHS tape of 120 Minutes that includes some behind-the-scenes recording footage of the The working in a really hot studio for Dusk…
MARR: Oh, that was for the video for “The Dogs Of Lust” … you must have just been a teen at that time?
STEREOGUM: I was about to start college. I played that record to death.
MARR: At the time, I thought the The was pretty much the coolest band in the world and a lot of people agreed with us. Our shows were always sold out and the records were well received. People still ask me about it. There was so much resistance at the time for me playing with Matt Johnson; it was like he was harboring this fugitive and I was supposed to be doing something else. We got a lot of grief from the press about working together. I think now people tend to just remember the records and not get caught up in the bullshit.
STEREOGUM: It’s a weird scenario whenever your first band happens to be one of the most beloved bands in the world — obviously it’s a great thing, but it also stands to overshadow anything you might try to do later on.
MARR: Everybody that I’ve played with over the years has been very strong-willed and has had a very strong sense of themselves, which is something that I’m very drawn to. I’ve made records with a lot of people and collaborated with tons of people — which I love and I view as a honor and a privilege — but the people I’ve toured with and spent lots of time with have all really had a strong sense of themselves and a very specific vision, which isn’t obscured by having me in their band. I like working with people who are very strong willed — people like the Jarman brothers or Matt Johnson or Isaac Brock or Morrissey. And when those relationships run their course, well … life goes on for all of us, doesn’t it?
STEREOGUM: Was the experience of making this new solo record in any way reminiscent of the Johnny Marr and the Healers record you made back in 2003?
MARR: No, it didn’t feel anything like that, really. The only thing that’s been reminiscent about this record has been — in a very small way — the reaction in the UK to the release of the singles, which reminds me of how it felt when the first Smiths singles came out. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Back in the Smiths days, we were playing shows nonstop and releasing things constantly — often booking tours apropos of nothing — so we would know right away whether or not a new song was working because we were constantly playing live and you had the immediate feedback of a live audience. We also had the John Peel sessions, which were a platform for us to play songs that weren’t out yet. It was a way to premiere songs — often, very important songs from our canon — that would appear later on albums. John Peel would get postcards from people with comments about the songs within a few days and eventually we might hear about it.
Now I find myself in a culture where you put a song on YouTube and suddenly you have a million views and tons of comments almost instantly. I’m not one to read the comments, but I do enjoy that my band can get a nice buzz from the fact that people are responding to the music. I was surprised by the response we got to “The Messenger” and how much people seemed t like it. Back when I was recording with the Healers we didn’t have YouTube and we weren’t really touring, so it was a bit like working in a vacuum, and I was just finding my feet in regards to trying to front a group as an adult. It felt very different. With this new record I went into having done so much touring in the past few years — and just having done the music for Inception — so it was a bit like, now what? Ironically, I went off and made this record on my own that sounds more like a band than anything I’ve done in years.
STEREOGUM: This record really allows you to show off a variety of guitar styles — it really references nicely all the things you’ve done in the past in various bands.
MARR: Yeah. I think it’s very good for any kind of art to operate within a certain set of parameters. When it came to the making of this record I really tried to do that — I kept the production fairly simple and structured — but when it came to my actual guitar playing, I did the opposite. To do otherwise would just have been me behaving like a fucked-up guy in his 40s with some kind of silly agenda. In the past I might have gone back and erased things that might have sounded too much like me — perhaps just to prove that I could do other things and to try and not repeat myself — but this time if something appeared under my fingers and it felt authentic and it had a certain spirit to it, I kept it. It means a lot to have a sound and a style of playing that people like. You should be grateful for that. When those moments happen that make you smile while you are playing, they often make someone else smile as well. Sometimes you don’t find that out until three years later and you’re doing a sound check before a show somewhere in Japan and someone says something like, “I really love the way you play that outro on that one B-side from 1986 ….” And it’s cool because you suddenly remember the moment of inspiration involved in recording that track. It just reminds you that any politics that happens in your brain that can interfere with the creative process just needs to be done away with. Your instincts are usually right. When something feels good, go for it. For this record I just wanted to write songs that were kind of catchy, that weren’t too experimental, and that I would be able to sing. It wasn’t too complicated. In the end I wrote about 30 songs and ended up just picking the 10 or 12 that I liked the most. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s good to just work as naturally as possible and drop all the other shit.
STEREOGUM: That’s a hard place to get to sometimes. It fucks a lot of people up. I talk to a lot of bands that get mired in that kind of second-guessing when it comes to making their second or third album. The whole “I don’t want to repeat myself but I also want to still sound like me” thing.
MARR: There are so many different considerations to take into account. You know, if I go and see Wire play, I want them to sound like Wire, not like Television or the Buzzcocks. If you are lucky enough to be known for doing something that people like, just try and do that thing and do it well. One of the privileges of being around for a while is being known for something, but you can’t rest on that; you have to be wide-awake, you have to be on your toes.
STEREOGUM: I like the idea that the creative process works best when you can get to a place of total un-self-consciousness. You absorb all these outside influences, then you turn off your brain and let the work come out naturally.
MARR: That’s exactly it. It’s funny; I think visual artists do it so much better in regards to studying the past masters and paying homage to them in the work. Rock musicians get all fucked up about it. They are often too reverential about it — putting people up on pedestals and all that. That used to frustrate me so much; the worship of rock and roll culture seemed to actually diminish all the great stuff happening in the present. That feeling that you’d always be second best, that you could never measure up to what had come before. You have to get over that.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, if you think about those things too much it becomes impossible to make anything. If you are competing with the entire history of music — why even bother? Why bother starting a rock band after Led Zeppelin or the Beatles?
MARR: Ha! Well, people forget that Led Zeppelin often sounded terrible in rehearsals. The past is great, but you also have to celebrate what is good now. There are so many great things happening right now.
STEREOGUM: Production-wise, this record really hearkens back to your roots in a lot of ways.
MARR: Yeah, a lot of it was going back to Manchester and reconnecting with the feeling and sound of a lot of old bands that I loved … or, rather, trying to recreate the way I remember them sounding. Also, rather than map everything out beforehand — like plotting out every mic I was gonna use for each track or whatever — I tried to just be more organic about things and go into the studio every day with just a simple enthusiasm for the song to guide me. In terms of subject matter, these songs deal with the things that concern me now which happen to be the same things that concerned me back when I was first starting.
STEREOGUM: And what are those things?
MARR: What cities are like, the feeling that you get when you are walking around buildings and cities and people. A song like “Upstarts” is a kind of lighthearted description of leaving school and getting screwed and not knowing enough to engage in some productive political discourse but still being wise enough to throw up your middle finger and say “Fuck you.” I remember hearing this young political demonstrator refer to herself and her fellow protestors as “upstarts,” which just seemed like such a lighthearted way to think of herself, especially considering that these protestors had just spent three days getting pummeled in the streets. That’s the way I felt when I was younger, too. I might know a little more about politics than I did back then, but at the end of the day politicians are still just ludicrous idiots. You kind of know that in a primal way when you are 16 or 17, then you come around to your mid-40s and realize that nothing much has changed, despite your understanding of it. “These guys are pricks.”
STEREOGUM: How will it be to tour and play these songs?
MARR: I’m excited. I’m digging it. I like rehearsing it. I’m working with a four-piece group. Everyone in the band can sing. It’s good. I just want to look forward, really. I look forward to that hour and a half on stage, and then the next gig and the next gig. Also, it’s kind of nice to have some older songs to work into the set.
STEREOGUM: Like what?
MARR: There are a couple of Electronic songs that I like to play, especially since the genesis of those songs were things that I kicked off. We do “Forbidden City.” Also, it seems a little like I’m shortchanging people if I don’t play “How Soon is Now.” I guess because the sound of that song is so much about me and the guitar. There are a few Smiths songs that I’ve done over the past few years, which always gets a really good feeling from the audience. I didn’t play any Smiths songs at all for the longest time.
STEREOGUM: Why? Those songs felt too loaded, had too much baggage attached?
MARR: Yeah, too loaded. It just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Then when everybody else started to do them, I thought, “How come I am the only person trying to say this shouldn’t be done?” Then Neil Finn and Eddie Vedder finally dragged it out of me to play one, and I saw the light. I’ll stop there before I make a terrible pun.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. I mean, I realize it’s complicated to be attached to this body of work that has such a legacy of it’s own, but it’s also cool not to be too overly precious about such things. You had such a large hand in crafting that work, you should be able to play it.
MARR: That’s absolutely right.
STEREOGUM: It’s also important to acknowledge how much pleasure it gives people to hear you play those songs, those guitar lines.
MARR: That’s entirely right. That’s kind of the way Neil Finn put it to me when we played in New Zealand together. When you play those songs for people — and you see the way they react to it — it kind of reduces all the other stuff to bullshit. That moment really does transcend intellectual preciousness. It has to be done with the right intent, otherwise it would be tacky, but I think if the audience knows that the person on the stage has respect for the material and for the audience, then hearing those songs is just a celebration. So why not then? Day to day life doesn’t always offer you that many opportunities for a celebration.
STEREOGUM: That must offer a kind of validation that really overshadows all the other negative stuff.
MARR: It does. It really does. In some ways it really renders everything else quite ridiculous, really. It’s great music, but it’s only music, you know?
STEREOGUM: There are so few bands that have been as intensely mythologized in the way that the Smiths have. There are very few people on Earth — very few musicians — who can know what it feels like to have been a part of something like that. It’s a band that will never go away and will never stop being talked about. I’m sure the ending of that band was painful to go through, but I’ve always thought it was for the best that the Smiths ended when it did. When you think about the bands of that era that didn’t end, the outcome was not always so pretty. Operating at that level of brilliance is a hard thing to maintain.
MARR: It was definitely a good thing that it ended when it did. Nothing has ever happened in the 25 years or so since then that has made me think otherwise. You’ve just to put these things in perspective in relation to the rest of your life, really. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for the four of us to stay together for the next 25 years — it would have been not only completely unhealthy, but also creatively impossible. Knowing what Morrissey needed to do in his life and his career, and knowing what I needed to do in my life and career, imagining those four people stuck in the one band for 25 more years … the operative word is stuck. I’m just being very pragmatic about it; there’s lots of other stuff to be done.
STEREOGUM: I understand how people can love something so intensely that they can’t seem to let go of the idea. I think bands are a lot like romantic relationships — or even friendships, really — they have a certain shelf life, be it long or short, and then they are over. That doesn’t take away from the meaningfulness of it, but its just life. Some relationships run their course. You break up. It’s not the end of the world.
MARR: No, it’s not. Particularly for bands. If you’ve left a legacy behind you — a body of work that people really love — then that itself is a good thing. That’s enough. I’ve been around lots of brothers — Oasis, the Cribs, the Kinks — and I always think that would be much harder. You might need to go off and be your own person, but you’ve got this family tie binding you. As much as was made of the band situation with the Smiths, there are always different types of situations that could be harder. I’m thinking of the Kinks in particular.
STEREOGUM: At least when a band breaks up you aren’t still expected to see those people when you go home for Christmas.
MARR: [Laughs] Exactly. You know, I remember the experience of the Beatles breaking up — and I’m not in any way trying to put the Smiths on the same level — but I remember Paul McCartney was about to play Madison Square Garden years later and still the only thing people can think to ask him is when the Beatles are gonna get back together. So, you know, I try and keep it in perspective. I feel very lucky to have been in a band that people still love while also being a person who, week by week, is almost pathological about always moving forward. There are always songs yet to write and riffs yet to write and shows yet to play….so many incredible possibilities. Who wouldn’t be excited by that?
Johnny Marr’s The Messenger is out February 26th via Sire/ADA