JOHNNY MARR’S INFLUENCE OVER THE LAST 30 YEARS OF POPULAR MUSIC SIMPLY CANNOT BE OVERSTATED.
As an 18-year-old guitarist, in early 1980s Manchester, he struck up a wildly prolific songwriting partnership which went on to define the alternative genre for a generation, and exerts a continued wider influence to this day.
Morrissey’s comical, satirical, elegiac and profoundly human musings positioned him as a self-propelling Noel Coward for his time – and his lyrics could not have been better served than by the precociously inventive Johnny Marr. His energetic processing of ideas and surprisingly unexpected influences – not to mention the joyful elan and sheer dexterity of his playing – make The Smiths’ back catalogue (four highly acclaimed studio albums, two substantial and satisfying b-sides / outtakes compilations and eighteen hit singles) stand as one of the most astonishingly confident canons in popular music, and amongst the most masterfully precise artistic statements in any form of late-20th century culture.
Following the band’s confusing and seemingly acrimonious split, 25 years ago this month, Marr went on to guest work with several key bands, in addition to self-helmed projects.
Johnny spoke to The Mouth Magazine about some of these, and about his time as sonic architect for the band that redefined almost everybody’s expectations…
I actually want to begin by talking about a couple of interesting projects you got involved with early on in your time post-The Smiths… I was greatly impressed when you joined The The for a couple of albums, and your involvement signposted a change of sound for that band…
I knew Matt Johnson from 1981, before I formed The Smiths. We wanted to work together then, that was before SOUL MINING, so we were already friends and kept up with each other’s work. It was something I was always going to do and I got around to being in a band with one of my friends…
The MIND BOMB album, I was listening to it earlier actually, by chance, and it’s such a fantastic record… It seems much less sonically intense and much more organic than what had gone before for that band. It’s very textured. The single THE BEAT(EN) GENERATION, for instance, really sounds like nothing Matt Johnson had done up to that point… In the playing I think it is recognisably you, it’s very opened out. The follow-up album, DUSK, is an incredibly tough album – impenetrable, hard and robust. Was your time in The The an opportunity to visit those places, dynamically, that you had not been able to go up to that point?
My role in The The was to be as inventive a guitar player as possible. It was an opportunity to do things in a different way than I’d done before, with more varied guitar sounds, particularly live. It was Matt’s thing, he ran it and wrote the songs but it was very much a band at that point with all the members involved and contributing. DUSK is my favourite thing I did with The The. I like DOGS OF LUST, SLOW EMOTION REPLAY, LOVE IS STRONGER THAN DEATH…
Your work with Bernard Sumner in Electronic seems like it was good for you… Particularly the single you released with Neil Tennant, GETTING AWAY WITH IT… Were you into confounding expectations? It’s clearly a studio-based thing, Electronic, and I wondered if at this time you were locking yourself away just trying new things to see “where you were”? That first Electronic single is a lot of fun, it sounds very free?
Yeah. Electronic was an unknown situation when we started, which was one of the exciting things about it. We only knew that we wanted to collaborate with other people, like Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, or Karl Bartos, and that it would be different to The Smiths and New Order. Also, there was a musical revolution going on in our city and that was really liberating for me as I was only twenty three or twenty four and working with electronic instruments and the new technologies. It was good for Bernard for the same reasons, plus he wanted sanctuary from the four piece group ethic, as I did.
Since leaving The Smiths you have been a bit of serial collaborator – you have worked with a wide variety of artists, including Billy Bragg (who credits you with opening his ears to new possibilities, when you altered the rhythmic structure of his song Sexuality), Bryan Ferry, Beck, Beth Orton, Neil Finn….. I imagine most of your collaborations and involvements come about quite naturally? Are you ever asked to bring a specific thing to the table? Or do you find yourself heavily involved in the creative process and pitching in ideas?
I’m very lucky to have been invited to collaborate with artists I have respect for. Talking Heads was the first thing I did after going out on my own, I had a big part in the song NOTHING BUT FLOWERS… And RUBY DEAR from that album has a sort of Bo Diddley feel and I think they liked that I could do that. I’ve always just played what I thought was right for whatever record and I’m given free reign. As you say, it’s a collaboration. I have been asked by some people to work on records or play live and it’s not been right so I’ve refused the offer.
The Healers album, BOOMSLANG, in 2003, was, I think, the first time you truly planted your flag, by putting your name to something as “leader”. It met with a lukewarm critical reaction… How do you feel about that, looking back? Did it knock you?
No. I was expecting nothing from putting that album out – it just had to be done. There are some songs that I like on it and I enjoyed performing live. It was well worth it.
You joined both Modest Mouse and The Cribs during the last six or seven years, working on a couple of albums. What was it about these bands that excited you enough to step in?
I first heard Modest Mouse when I was on the BOOMSLANG US tour. I mostly liked American guitar music at that time – Quasi, Built To Spill, The Liars, Lilly’s. Isaac (Brock) contacted me in 2005 to ask if I’d get together with them to write and record and it was an intriguing idea as it was something of a mystery to me how Modest Mouse came to do what they do. I said I’d go over to Portland for ten days to see what would happen. The first night I was there Isaac and I wrote Dashboard then the next day we wrote WE’VE GOT EVERYTHING and before we knew it we had written a lot of good songs. I liked the guys in the band and I wanted to commit to them and to the songs, and to the fans too. So that was that; I moved to Portland. The album came out and did really well and we toured for a few years. They have the greatest fans. In 2000 and …eight(?) I felt like I needed to go back to the UK. I’d got to know Gary Jarman and The Cribs asked me to work on a four track ep with them. When we got together we wrote a lot of songs and as with Modest Mouse I wanted to see the songs through. We all understand that when inspiration hits you follow it wherever. I joined the band and I’m proud of the record we made and the shows we did. It was a good time.
It’s clear, listening back to The Smiths earlier, that you were absolutely full of gusto and care when the band began. You were absorbing influences and throwing new things into the mix all the time, all the way through… The “rush” of ideas and intelligence is staggering. That must have been an incredibly difficult level of interest and energy to sustain, particularly in light of the (well documented) “administrative difficulties” around the band?
Nothing that’s inspiring is difficult to sustain no matter what’s going on. I never had any problem with coming up with ideas. It was a lot of fun too. The story of the band has taken on a life of it’s own and a lot of it is out of balance. There was drama but it wasn’t just that one dimension. There was mostly excitement and happiness, and sometimes hanging around very boring service stations eating crappy food and smoking cigarettes!
Recently you remastered the back catalogue, which would have given you a good opportunity to really pick things apart – perhaps for the first time since those days. Were there, musically, moments that you are amazed you were involved in, ideas you are amazed you tried, bearing in mind you were so young? Is there anything in The Smiths output that you ever think you would have done differently?
Hmmm. Well, you can’t pick things apart when you master, it’s not like remixing. I took off a lot of equalization that had been put on the finished mixes in the 90’s. It needed to be done and if I hadn’t of taken care of it then our legacy would’ve been great songs with inferior sound. There wasn’t too many actual surprises in there because I know the records so well, I wouldn’t have done anything differently I don’t think, no…
The question that seems to rear its head (and increasingly so since The Stone Roses reformed) is: when will The Smiths do the same? But I think that your legacy is best left intact where it stands, and in any case, despite the public appetite, it’s probably in keeping with the spirit of The Smiths NOT to do it. Both yourself and Morrissey have intimated that you feel the same way. The perception seems to be that you fell out with each other, irreparably, and the whole relationship was parked for good. But I understand you have been in touch in recent years? Bearing in mind that 25 years brings a lot of changes to a person, could you even imagine writing with Morrissey again – or would it be a pointless exercise due to the associations and connotations with the past?
Well, those questions have either been answered many many times, or would take a year to discuss if I was so inclined. Who cares about all that stuff anyway? People seem to ignore the fact that I may have a lot of plans to do things and that maybe that might be more important to me as an artist, or as a person – going forward in life.
With that in mind, then, how do you feel generally about the current vogue for bands from that era getting back together – surely there’s no artistic merit in it?
If the Roses want to reform and everyone is happy then fine, I’m pleased for them. I don’t really have opinions about it. They’re nice guys and I hope it all goes well.
Your recent projects have included work on the soundtracks for the movies INCEPTION and THE BIG BANG. How did these come about? What was it you got out of these projects that you don’t get out the band set-up?
When I did the soundtracks for INCEPTION and THE BIG BANG I was asked because I have a specific sound and style. On INCEPTION, Hans Zimmer composed pieces of music with me in mind. It’s interesting, working on movies because there is a remit, which is all about the emotion of the scene or the film overall. You can’t just write a tune and expect it to work, or make an abstract noise and hope for the best. You have to make a judgement based on emotion, and that can mean a number of things; intrigue, suspense, calm, excitement, joy, sadness…whatever. At the end of the day the director has to be satisfied and happy so there’s a collaboration there…
Do you think this more esoteric work is something you would be interested to take further? What does the future hold for you – what projects are you working on?
I’d like to do more of it, definitely. I have the new solo records to do at the moment and then get into the next chapter of performing. I’m very much looking forward to that, and seeing where my guitar playing goes…