Johnny Marr’s Artistic Impulse

If you’re only just catching up with Johnny Marr now, he’s been quite busy since his prolific days as guitarist and co-songwriter in The Smiths.

Between 1988 and 1994, he was a member of the English post-punk band, The The. Simultaneously, he formed an indie dance supergroup with New Order’s Bernard Sumner called Electric. At the turn of the century, he moved to Portland, and subsequently joined Modest Mouse, playing on their 2007 album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. After a short stint with the indie rock outfit The Cribs, Marr returned to Europe to record his first proper solo album, The Messenger, released in 2013 to critical acclaim. A second LP, Playland, was released the following year, while Marr toured extensively with his newly-assembled backing band.

Last year, Marr released his third and most recent solo album, Call the Comet, and recently, he phoned AQ all the way from his hometown of Manchester, England, to talk about going solo for the first time, as well as what drives him artistically, and the impact he’s had on popular music over the last four decades.

Your latest solo album, which is your third, is called Call the Comet, and you recorded the album in Manchester. Had you done that for your previous solo records, or was it the first time?

I did some bits on The Messenger in Manchester, but I did a lot of that in Berlin. I deliberately came back from Portland to do the first solo record because I needed to soak up that atmosphere in Europe. I did nearly all of Playland in London and New York. So yeah, Call the Comet was the first of the solo records to be done in Manchester, in this new building I moved into, which was an old factory on the outskirts of town that was built in the eighteen-nineties. That was a lot of fun, and I think it seeped into the sound of the record. In fact, I know it did, because right from the word ‘go’ I was aware of all these effects it had on the music.

What’s special about being in that musical environment today, considering you had a massive hand in making it what it is?

Well, the scene definitely changes, which is to be expected. You can’t stop progress, and all of that. With that comes some benefits, and other things that are lost…. But, essentially, the attitude and the sensibility of the people here has not changed too much. Manchester is not unaware of its musical heritage and its legacy—which is considerable, really, because even when I was a kid, with bands like Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, that kind of punk scene… it always felt like it had a quite strong musical identity. But, from then on with what The Smiths, and James, and the (Happy) Mondays, the (Stone) Roses, and all the stuff that’s happened subsequently, it’s just built on that. In a way, it reminds somewhat of Seattle, you know? I’d say Manchester has had a few stabs at it—it was the host for a whole punk rock explosion, and the indie scene in the eighties, and then the whole rave scene. So, Manchester has had more than its fair share of cultural highlights. (laughs)

When you released your first solo LP, The Messenger, in 2013, many people were surprised it was actually your first solo record, because you’ve been so active throughout your entire career. Now that you’ve made a few records as a solo artist, what’s one thing you’ve either learned or noticed that’s different from the band dynamic you’ve been used to?

When I started with The Messenger, it came about because I had some ideas for songs, and I just didn’t see anybody else singing them. I also knew that I was going to move on, and I didn’t really imagine that I’d join anybody else’s group after being in Modest Mouse for a long time. I had such a great time in that band, but I just wanted a different sort of situation. I knew that I wanted to be in a group with two guitars, and I just had a sense that I wanted to be in a group where the front man played the guitar—I didn’t want to put together another group with someone waving a microphone around. So, all those things just conspired, and made me realize that I should front it, and I’d gotten on such a roll very quickly with the material and the lyrics, that I just followed that artistic impulse. And the band I put together, they just followed that along with me.

I must say, I’ve seen you guys play, and the shows are absolutely electric, Johnny.

Oh, thank you. It feels that way to us, and when I get a taste of that, I just want to keep improving on it. When I go to shows now, I see people kind of standing around, staring at their shoes or staring at the pedals, and I get really bored with it after three songs. I kind of expect everything to be really intense now because my own shows are so intense!

Indeed! You know, one of the things that I love about you since you started releasing your solo albums is that you still release stand-alone singles, which is kind of a lost art in America, unfortunately. But fans of those kinds of things are thrilled by it. For example, I love your cover of Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You.”

Yeah, you know…. I always had a subconscious feeling, starting out even in the Smiths days, that there were people who were listening and following who had the same sensibility as myself. I think when I did my autobiography a few years ago, I really enjoyed writing about the Smiths first experiences with touring America, because that hunch, or assumption that we were playing to people who were clued up, and on the same page as us, was right there in front our faces, and I said in the book, that if anything, it was even more obvious in the United States. The Smiths arrived as fully formed, anyway—we’d been going for a couple of years, and built up a reputation, and by then, we had a number of good songs…. But it was obvious to me, and a source of considerable pride, that the Smiths were part of a wave of groups from the U.K. including Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Cure—that generation of bands—who were doing things differently, and we were genuinely independent.

Johnny, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. So, my last question is a bit of a fun one: I know that Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, and yourself are mates. If the three of you made an album together, what do you think it would sound like?

(laughter) It would probably be loud! What I think it would sound like is Noel’s guitar would be louder than everybody else’s.

(Laughter) He’d probably drown you and Paul out!

Yeah, I’ve played onstage with Noel. He’s loud, man…. But you know, I’m proud of him. He’s doing good stuff.

Be sure to catch Johnny Marr at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ, on May 1, and The Paramount in Huntington, NY on May 6!!