Johnny Marr on The Smiths, his solo work and everything in between
On the eve of a non-stop three month tour, Exposed spoke to guitar hero Johnny Marr about The Smiths, his critically-acclaimed solo work and everything in between.
Johnny Marr is an artist in love with his craft. As he waxes lyrical about everything from his creative process to the meaning behind latest album Call the Comet (in a nutshell, “escapism and defiance”), there is no doubt that, even after decades of relentless writing and performing, The Smiths’ legendary co-founder has so much more to say. “I’d be working whether I was getting paid or not. I’m not career motivated, but I’m very work motivated.”
There is no escaping a career of Marr’s calibre, however. The Smiths were not only commercially successful, they were – and still are – creatively revered. Their songs spoke to a younger generation desperate for an identity, politically and ideologically. Their second album, Meat is Murder, inspired its own vegan movement. It was a bright-yet-fleeting light though, shining for only five years before the band ultimately split. After such intense success, any artist might feel burnt out. Lost, even. Not Marr. His post-Smiths legacy characterises a man who loves to create regardless of the circumstances, taking on project after project with musicians from the likes of Kraftwerk, Oasis, New Order and many more. These experiences take him all the way from 1987 to the present day, culminating in his decision to finally work as a solo artist. If musicians needed a CV, his would be airtight. There’s not a single gap.
Our conversation reveals an artist more concerned with his art than the limelight. Morrissey’s charisma and provocative lyrics might have been the The Smiths’ headline-makers, but it was Marr’s creative engine providing the backing tracks that kept the band fresh. He admits being more comfortable in the studio than touring, a preference that has only very recently reversed. Perhaps this change of heart was influenced by going solo. “When I was younger, working with either Morrissey, Kirsty MacColl or Matt Johnson, I expressed 100% of how I was feeling with the backing track,” he recalls. “I was happy with that process: there’s the track, it goes like this, sometimes it sounds like a single, sometimes it sounds like an album track. Then they put their thing on top of it. I was lucky that I got to do that to a high level. But now I do it a different way, I can’t imagine going back to that.” So being involved in every part of the process has rewarded him with new skills? “Yeah. I still write songs from a riff, but now I feel confident writing a song from my own lyrical concepts, a title or a phrase.
The decision to go solo has provided rewards in other ways, too, including claiming the vocal responsibilities. “I like being the singer in my own band – a really great band.” He sees this setup as a throwback to his own youth. “The lead guitarist being the lead singer in a four-piece band isn’t as common as when I started out. When I was leaving school most of the bands I followed were four-piece – five at best, without any backing tracks.”
This familiarity may have inspired some of the musician’s most varied work to date. Call the Comet represents a departure from Marr’s previous solo records, particularly his buoyant first album The Messenger. “Back then I was excited about putting a new band together, and had all these songs in my head to create as a solo musician,” he says wistfully. Nowadays though, there’s an awful lot to be worried about. Marr’s distress at our post-Brexit, mid-Trump society is well-documented. “I tend to look outwards for my material and sing about what I see around me, I find that a rich source of inspiration. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen around me over the last couple of years was not really something I wanted to sing about. Rather than complain in my music, I found myself accidentally imagining an alternate society…Not entirely futuristic, but definitely a better future.”
Creating the album, then, was as much for himself as for his fans. “It was intense. The record is a personal refuge – I didn’t make it because the record company or my career needed the next chapter.” Creatively, he refused to let his music become weighed down by politics. “If I was explicit about it, it would just ruin my record.” I ask if he wanted to free his music from any specific time period, so that it might apply in the future too. “No. You know what, I didn’t want to tie it down to specific people. Because I think they’re wankers.” Ironically, Comet’s defiant apoliticism comes from a highly politicised place.
Released in June, the album enjoyed a strong reception from critics and fans. “I had no idea how it was gonna turn out, no plan for it,” he admits. “I think it’s been well received because it’s emotional. There’s more drama in the music…People like to react to how an artist is feeling, and there’s something very honest about it.” The emotion ranges from more personal songs, including ‘Day In Day Out’ and the mellow ‘Walk Into The Sea’, to the classic driving guitar riffs of call-to-arms ‘Rise’. The latter tells a relevant story. “It’s about two people – lovers, friends, me and the audience, whoever – faced with the adversity of dealing with what we’ve got to deal with in the future. It’s saying we’ve got to rise to the challenge. It’s not something I’d have written before; I came up with the lyrics ‘here they come/it’s the dawn of the dogs’ in New York the day after the American election.”
The album’s philosophy is summed up by lead single ‘The Tracers’; Marr even refers to the album as “coming out of that song”. “It’s a distinct story about humanity sending out a call to a more evolved version of us”, he describes. “I wasn’t entirely thinking of aliens, I was more thinking of an evolved intelligence in the cosmos – it’s a call out for some guidance.” The song feels straight out of old-school science fiction, in the style of War of the Worlds. “If you’re thinking along those lines then I’ve absolutely done my job because that’s exactly what I was going for! I was trying to turn H. G. Wells into a late-seventies New Wave track.”
He continues, expanding on his songwriting process. “Writing songs is so great because craft can come into it. It’s not all craft, sometimes if you’re lucky it can be 100% inspiration. In the case of ‘The Tracers’, I made a concept that turned into a story that then led me to write the music. It was exciting, because I had to conjure up out of the air the correct tone and the riff.”
Looking past this musical variety, does Marr write for anyone in particular? Fans of The Smiths perhaps? “I write for an audience of guitar music fans”, he says. “I am aware – having been around for a long time – that there’s people who’ve probably stuck with me for half their lifetime. That’s added a dimension to writing, because me and the fans have been with each other for so long.” Marr is now touring Call the Comet, embarking on a string of 50 consecutive dates spanning three months and two continents. The intensity doesn’t phase him, even if he’ll be 55 by the time the tour is over. “I’m looking forward to it. Most people go out, do 16, 18 shows and have a few weeks off. 50 shows is quite a lot!”
The tour starts in the States before returning to the UK, with a date at Sheffield’s O2 Academy on 13 November. When shamelessly pressed, the Mancunian maestro reveals a lot of love for the steel city. “My association with Sheffield goes right back to 1981. I started working for a clothing company who were Leeds-based but had a shop in Sheffield called X Clothes. At that time it was a thing for people from Manchester to go to the Limit Club and the Leadmill. You had that whole first wave of Sheffield post-punk industrial music: Clock DVA; early Human League; Cabaret Voltaire. It seems to be that way now again: Yorkshire has its own [musical] identity … there are a lot of great musicians coming through.”
To his amusement, there’s a running theme with the locals he meets. “Most of the people who come to my gigs seem to live in Crookes! I always tell them it’s alright, you can’t actually OD on pizza,” he laughs. “But yeah, I meet so many young people who are from Sheffield, and every one of them is proud of it … In fact, I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, and Sheffield is the Portland, Oregon, of the UK. That, or it’s the Berlin of the UK. It’s where young people go to retire.”
That’s something Marr himself shows no sign of doing.
Touring vs studio? Touring – and that’s a complete reverse of 25 years of my life. I never liked touring, but now I’m all about touring and performing.
Country you’re visiting with the best food? Even though I’m vegan I’ll say France. Good cuisine.
Favourite place in the UK apart from Sheffield? Bristol. It’s very much like a southern version of Sheffield. Bristol is like one big festival with some buildings in it.
Band to watch for the future? Crewel Intentions, led by my friend Chilli [Jesson] who was in Palma Violets. I’m very pleased to say they’re coming out with me on the UK dates. Also, Dreamwife. Kagoule. The Belle Game who are opening for me in America are really good too. My son’s band Man Made are a very Sheffield-friendly band, they’ve played a lot in Sheffield. They’ve got an album coming out at the end of this year – and it doesn’t matter that he’s my son, I’d be bullshitting if I didn’t mention him because I think they’re a really good band!
Food or drink to enjoy while listening to Call the Comet? Even though I don’t drink myself, I’m not averse to people slamming down some champagne cocktails or a mojito or two. Non-alcoholic? Carrot, ginger and turmeric. Give it a bit of orange juice too.
Best gig you’ve played, no matter how small or big? Modest Mouse, Santa Barbara Bowl, 2008. Two and a half hours on stage. You had to be fit to be in that band – either very fit or very drunk. I got fit.
Best way to spend a free afternoon? No matter what level of physique you’re at, get out and run until you just feel great – because you will feel great! Put some headphones on, listen to Call The Comet, Cornelius or Maxine Peake.
Ever named an instrument? Yes, but totally ironically. I named one of my guitars Betsy, because Hank Hill named his acoustic guitar that. Otherwise, I would absolutely not go there.
Thoughts on Manchester United? Tragic. They just can’t take it. Watch this space, enjoy the zeppelin going down. City fans have had 30 years of tragedy and it’s a great spectacle watching [United] freak out. It’s called being too entitled, it’s not good for you!
Johnny Marr will perform at Sheffield’s O2 Academy on 13 November while touring for his newest album Call the Comet, available now.