“When you’re asked about having political ideals as a musician, there’s often the assumption that you are by nature someone who is looking for negatives or are a radical, but in my case it’s the opposite. I grew up as an idealist.”
Dialling a telephone number to interview Johnny Marr, a guitar legend who has written some of the all-time classics of pop music’s canon, could freak one out, but research tells me it’ll be OK, and it is. And then some. When I ask how he is at the start of our chat his response is a down to earth, “Hi Ed, I’m good thanks, how are you?” It’s immediately apparent that this won’t be an hour in the company of an aloof rock star.
Whilst he’s incredibly personable, there’s a desire on his part to talk about very serious issues close to his heart, namely politics, femininity and today’s music scene. These themes have all had a cumulative impact on the music he’s making now as a solo artist. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what a prolific writer of different genres he’s been - be that indie, funk, rock or film soundtracks. What I want to talk to him about however is the wider narrative of his musical journey and specifically how he ended up as the lead singer in a brilliant new wave band.
Our talk is a few days after the Conservative Party election victory. As someone who dished out one of the most memorable social media slaps - to the Prime Minister no less - “Stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it”, the result has left him dissapointed with the political conviction of the nation.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are misguided and I was surprised that the right-wing media has still got such a big hold on the lives of people. I’d rather put it down to that than start to believe my fellow countrymen are really so selfish and care so little about people with disabilities and people leaving school. I’m not prepared to buy into a theory that Mrs Thatcher was a good thing but that seems to be a dangerous paradigm that’s creeping back into our culture, the “she really wasn’t so bad, who needed those mines anyway?”
When The Smiths arrived in 80s there was a clear ‘us and them’ mentality in music and Marr was very much part of the movement of left wing musicians operating subversively in the mainstream. The night before we spoke I watched an interview he conducted with Matt Johnson of The The a few years ago and it struck me how political they still are. “Myself and Matt and other people had no choice but to be political then because you came out of school and were absolutely destined for no prospects and even worse no one gave a shit. That was the lot of myself and other working class people, particularly in the provinces.”
Marr sees it as a duty to be political, that creatives have a responsibility to commentate on society. “I’m not by nature someone who will go on the attack but it’s always been the job of artists and creative people to blow the whistle and I’m proud of that. Artists have always been political, whether it’s the Cubists or Dadaists or the Situationists or any other ‘ists’, I guess in my case it’s ‘The Indie-ist.’”
Marr’s solo records, The Messenger and Playland are certainly political, but subtlety so. There’s a passion for addressing what he sees as the imbalance of the class system in the words, as on Playland’s “Easy Money”.
“I’m not at all about hectoring. I want the music to have a positivity and empowerment about it. If you start thinking too much about our government, the last thing you think about is empowerment. Socialism, when it works as it did in the late 60s was an idea that was really brought home to me, because my parents were from Ireland and I was taught that this country was the land of opportunity. It’s the breakdown of idealism which informs a lot of my comments.”
It’s not just party politics he’s focused on; I tell him I interpreted his new single “Candidate” as the story of the man on the street. It turns out I’m nearly right, it’s actually about the woman on the street. He's honoured to have had the privilege of being personally and professionally connected with inspirational women, including Chrissie Hynde, Kirsty MacColl, his wife, sister and daughter.
“One of the things I’ve picked up from these amazing women is that they have more of an awareness and a sense of purpose than men. To me, men don’t think things like ‘Does this university course complete me? Does this job complete me? Does this relationship give me what I need?’ Men seem to either just get on with it or maybe not have that to the fore. I think women are more conscious of how things complete them.”
I’m curious about how he views the music industry in 2015? When The Smiths crashlanded onto Top of The Pops in the 80s, performing alongside airbrushed pop stars of the time they were literally so normal ironically they actually looked like aliens in comparison. “Actually I see a lot of parallels between mid-70s corporate rock and today’s corporate scene. The mainstream seems to be a closed door and its hard again for real people with real ideas that you can relate to infiltrate it.”
He sees not just obvious targets like Simon Cowell being responsible for this state of affairs, but also entrepreneurs who emerged from punk, such as Richard Branson, who have moved into the realm of corporates. He doesn’t begrudge that, but draws a line if it makes it hard for young bands to cut through.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurs who call themselves promoters, whose very first principle is to make sure that young bands getting on the stage to play to their mates have to sell fifty tickets”, he allows himself a laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation. “It’s a long way from ‘Indieville’ these days and I’ve seen how hard it’s been for young bands.”
Whilst he doesn’t see this state of play changing immediately, Marr isn’t part of the ‘The guitar is dead’ camp. He believes there will “always be very smart, talented, creative young people who can see through the bullshit and make good stuff.” He’s still an avid listener of new bands, citing Chastity Belt and Menace Beach among his current favourites. “There are just too many bands who prove the contrary to the guitar being finished. I’ve been asked year in and year out about it and if Aphex Twin can’t kill it off no one can, and he’s really fucking good!”
He thinks the internet has created a channel of connection for musicians, despite the density of content. “It’s so vast that you have to know where to look, but that’s the answer at the moment and clued up young people will find each other. Whether that means being able to play in an establishment that’s owned by a brewery and run by some little fucker who wants to exploit his mates, then that’s a different matter. We’re talking about the virtual world here, but thank god for some websites, at least people can get to see their peers doing pretty good stuff.”
We talk about his decision to take on vocal duties. His journey to being a frontman started with The Healers in the early 2000s when the musicians he was working with, particularly Zak Starkey and his friends Chrissie Hynde and Matt Johnson encouraged him to sing. “Zak said, ‘write some songs, let’s go around the world and I’ll be right behind you.”
However at the time he didn’t feel ready for it, which saw him turning the volume down on his vocals when he recorded The Healers sole album Boomslang. “I think I probably bought into that idea that the guitar hero shouldn’t start singing too much and listen to the collective idea, which is essentially a cliché. I was a bit timid; it’s not good to be timid when you’re writing a song.”
The idea of resuming the role of frontman was a gradual one. He found himself building on songs for the type of band he wanted to be in whilst in Modest Mouse and The Cribs. Whilst he’d have made more records with both bands in a heartbeat, taking time off is something he’d never considered doing since he started The Smiths.
“With both those bands I found I was purposely spending time on my own, in a great way. Whether that was going off running for two hours or walking around cities, all these notions were starting to build up and I had them all written down in a notebook. So at the end of doing The Cribs album and touring for two years, they were talking about taking some time off and I just didn’t want to take time off.”
He describes the first clutch of songs for The Messenger as pouring out of him. He played them to his then co-producer and now bandmate, guitarist Doviak who told Marr to finish them, but go under his own name.
“Everybody around me gave me that same advice and I walked around for a couple of weeks getting my head around that and just carried on writing songs and songs. I had no choice but to do a solo record, the ideas for the songs and the need to do it was so strong that I had to put everything else down and follow it.” He also arrived at the aesthetic he wanted, which was that of a Manchester New Wave band, which informed his approach - taut, direct and economical rock music, both musically and lyrically.
However the line-up he settled on nearly didn’t materialise. “I was overthinking it when I first started putting a band together, at the eleventh hour I was working with other musicians and it didn’t sound that good and it was “Doh! Why shouldn’t I get my mates Jack and Iwan in? Particularly as they’re the best musicians I know.” Marr has known them ever since recording their band Haven, and raves about his drummer Jack. “When I produced them I turned to the engineer and said ‘This guys the best drummer that’s ever come out of Manchester’ and that’s the reason I got him in my band, he’s as good as Bobby Elliot out of The Hollies and he’s almost as good as Aphex Twin!”
For his solo adventure his initial instinct was to be quite small scale live. “The idea was if one of my friends sat directly on front of us on a couch it would be a punchy, intense experience. Short and sharp, but fairly expansive too.” He had the idea they’d play in art galleries, albeit at a loud volume. I tell him that when I reviewed him at Brixton last year it was the opposite of small scale, it reminded me of a Smiths concert, with a football crowd terrace atmosphere, not just a bunch of people in their 40s soberly watching a gig, did he feel that?
“I did get that vibe and I’m glad that you noticed it. That’s funny, that idea of a load of people in their 40s standing soberly looking on, I hadn’t considered that it would be hard work, bloody hell. A lot of the shows have been that way. Brixton felt like a homecoming, as of course Manchester Apollo did and all of these things were unexpected to me. When I put my own band together I didn’t have in my mind that I would play Brixton Academy and it would be so celebratory. I didn’t have career considerations, let’s put it that way, the way the live shows have gone has been a revelation, a real joy.”
Live he plays Smiths songs but the selections from that period of his career are either very upbeat, such as “Still Ill” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” or the very cinematic “How Soon Is Now?” and fit the energy of his band and I wondered if these were deliberate choices, to fit his current aesthetic?
“What happens with The Smiths songs is because I feel like the new stuff gets a fair shake, my audience understand it and make me feel like they’ve enjoyed it, there’s nothing else to do than just be celebratory with the old songs. I don’t take it as anything other than just happiness.”
He tells me that he’s been asked whether doing those songs give him a sense of nostalgia, poignancy or a reconnection with his past but it’s none of those things. “I let the audience lead me and that’s always to a place of fun and celebration. We can all be guilty of taking music to academic extremes, that’s because we’re all fans and it can be discussed, because pop culture has a history and a context. It’s cerebral and there’s all these different layers to it.”
His fundamental belief is that art and entertainment can co-exist. “I think there’s a nobility in being entertaining, I wouldn’t describe myself as an entertainer but I try and keep the ticket prices down as much as I can. If someone’s paying £22 they might want to be analytical and they might want to get deep about things, but sure as shit you want to be entertained for that.”
Going beyond the music I ask him about his artwork. The sleeve of “Candidate” looks very 60s stylistically, he tells me “I dress the way I dressed in 1979, I’ve just got this red cardie on, but the combination of standing in that London street and that photograph just lent itself to that kind of design.”
Having worked with partners who were heavily involved in sleeve designs, from Bernard Summer, Isaak Brock and not least Morrissey, whose ideas for Smiths sleeves Marr describes as “utterly brilliant”, how does he approach it now? “I was spoiled and just left those guys to it. I got lucky; my partners all had a very good aesthetic sense. The sleeves are a good example of my solo career happening at exactly the right time because I do think I know what I’m about. If you’re going to do it it’s got to say something about the band and the music you’re making.”
This summer will bring him not to art galleries but festivals, including a huge show at Hyde Park with The Who and two other solo artists who were also previously in iconic bands, Paul Weller (“I played with him at The Albert Hall a couple of months ago and that was a good fit”) and Gaz Coombes (“He’s someone who knows what he’s all about. I want to see one of his shows; I’m psyched to see it at Hyde Park.”)
Yet one thing that strikes him as peculiar is that whilst he’s very well known as a musician, the songs he’s writing now and his solo incarnation aren’t as fully formed in the audiences mind as the concept of Johnny Marr the guitar hero prior to launching his solo career.
“The audience are already very familiar with me but maybe haven’t seen me play. There are a lot of people who haven’t had the chance to see me, they’ve just read about me for years really and that’s a really interesting scenario, because the material has to deliver. If you’re standing in front of 40,000 people you have to really get it across and there’s a certain degree of expectation. You’re a little bit on the wire, there’s a combination of a reputation to live up to and a bit of good will.”
He’s also writing his autobiography, which is due out next year. The only thing stopping it being published quicker is the amount of other projects he’s doing and when he does write, he has to set everything aside. “There’s a lot to tell and it’s probably something I’ll only do once in my life and you’ll know yourself, when you’re writing you’ve just got to switch your phone off, roll up your sleeves and get on with it.”
Key to the book for him is celebrating what he’s achieved as a working class man. “I don’t have too many agendas because honouring the life I’ve led is a big enough agenda to follow through.” He’s taking his inspiration from friends who have written books, such as Andrew Oldham and Nile Rogers. “These are people who have sat down and done some really good work and that’s the kind of company that I’m looking to inspire me.”
He may be a songwriter, singer, lyricist and film soundtrack composer, but when he looks back on his career so far, rather than any sense of entitlement, above all else Marr considers himself to be lucky. The Messenger and Playland are the first two instalments in a musical trilogy and whilst touring commitments and writing a film score with Hans Zimmer for an upcoming Julianne Moore movie will delay its third part, this is a streetfighting man determined to keep moving. This most modern polymath is simply happy to follow his art as a creative and he sounds as good as ever - just listen to Playland’s “Dynamo”. But ultimately, he comes back to politics, albeit the 'small p' of personal politics and the licence he has as a musician that allows him to follow his singular path.
“Because I’m fortunate enough to be able to do movies and sessions with people, it gives me the freedom to be able to see the other side of what I do quite clearly and I can be quite simplistic about things, because I do have that other side of me that I’ve been able to get out in Inception and Spiderman. I’m very lucky, I realise that, I’m very, very lucky.”
“Candidate” is released 29th June. Johnny Marr is playing at the UK British Summertime Festival Hyde Park, London 26th June as special guest to The Who.
All photos courtesy of JohnnyMarrvellous.com