Johnny Marr is a guitarist’s guitarist, a modern-day icon of rock and roll, and a man who firmly believes that pop music can still be made with guitars. As one of the leaders of Manchester’s The Smiths, Marr’s jangly guitar, loose grooves, and haunting effects helped elevate the Mancunian quartet to such a level of influence that today the band is often considered one of, if not the, most important British band of its era.
After years of high-profile collaborations and fronting his own band, Johnny Marr and the Healers, Marr has returned with his first solo effort, The Messenger. The album features ex-Healer and producing partner James Doviak, a handful of guitar-driven pop songs, and once again, Marr on vocals. Consequence of Sound recently caught up with the legendary guitarist as he prepares for The Messenger‘s release.
The Messenger is being touted as your first official solo album. What went into this album, and who plays on it?
The drums are a guy called Jack Mitchell, who I first produced when he was very young in the early 2000s. He’s in a band called Haven, and I always wanted to steal him for my own group, if I have to be honest, and now I’ve got the opportunity. The bass is a couple of different people, a friend of mine from Manchester, who was around, but he wasn’t actually in the group. The bass player in the group is a guy called Iwan Gronow. He was in Haven at one time, too, but he played with me and my band when I played at Patti Smith’s Meltdown in 2005, so I have a history with Iwan as well. I did all of the guitars. It was produced by myself and my co-producer. He’s called Doviak [James Doviak, member of Johnny Marr and the Healers], and he sometimes comes out and plays with me, behind me on guitar. But as I said, I play guitars on the record. Doviak played some keyboards. It’s just me and those three guys. That’s who’s playing on it. Oh, my son plays a couple of solos on it, and my daughter sings backing vocals on a couple of songs. It’s handy to have good people around.
What went into it is about six months of proper recording by myself with my co-producer and then pulling in the guys in and out when I needed something done. But really, most of the time, it was just me and Doviak from late morning until very late at night, every day. I wrote about 30 songs and just got on a roll, really. The reason it was a solo record is because, not long after I started it, I realized I pretty much had the big picture worked out in my mind. I didn’t have all the details, but I felt like I knew what impression I wanted people to be left with when it was done. So far I think it’s turned out okay.
Considering you handled all the major parts on Johnny Marr and the Healers’ Boomslang and this album features Healer Doviak, as you mentioned, how is this album different than a Healers album?
The Healers record was… the guys in the group, Zak Starkey, and Alonza Bevin, and Lee Spencer on keyboards. We were like a gang, and I was kind of the spokesman for the gang on and offstage and on and off record. Like any group , it was a shared aesthetic and a spirit of collaboration, which is what a group should be about. I guess what makes this record a solo album is I didn’t really collaborate. Doviak works with me a lot, and he’s great at facilitating what I need to do, and I don’t want to work entirely for six months on my own like Birdman of Alcatraz with a guitar. That would be very weird to have no people entirely involved.
The thing with this record is we, me and Doviak, engineered it ourselves, so there wasn’t even an engineer involved. The Healers record had a lot of people coming and going, being in the studio. I guess it’s been 10 years or something like that. I was a different person then. It was a great experience doing that first Healers record and an even better experience touring, because having to go out and lead it was a really invaluable experience, and it taught me a lot. It was like a jumping off point, in a way, for stuff that I did throughout the 2000s with various other people. It was good fun, but I don’t know, it feels like quite a different time now. Mostly because I’ve been in a few different groups since 2005.
Playing with Modest Mouse was an amazing time. We made a record that I think is really good. And then being back in the UK, playing with The Cribs, and making a record that I liked a lot and was good. And then working on Inception. All those different projects led me to want to do something where I wasn’t collaborating.
This isn’t the first time for you on lead vocals, but as someone known more as a quiet man who lets his guitar do the talking, how do you like being out front? And what was it that led you to do the singing yourself?
Well, the decision was really left by the songs, because I had the tunes ringing in my ears, on digital devices, and little notes, and all of that, and I couldn’t really imagine anybody else doing it. I didn’t want to hand over that role to anybody mostly because I felt I knew how to do it. I knew how to execute the songs. The group I’m in now… It’s important that the group I’m in right now, the singer is playing the guitar. I don’t know why. It just is. I think, maybe, the groups I used to like when I was younger, a kid, usually, the guy out front was playing the guitar. That just seemed the natural thing to me. Also, the songs are quite upbeat, kind of punchy, I guess, kind of kicking new wave songs, really. And that sort of suits the way I sing. And I want to do more of it. I like writing words. I like writing these kind of words. I like writing words for these kind of songs and fronting this kind of band. So I was the right man for the job… I guess.
You are the feature artist in the February issue of MOJO. When referencing the Healers track “The Last Ride”, the magazine said when watching you perform this track on David Letterman in 2003, “You see a great British guitarist still unsure of how to be a great British frontman.” As you’ve said, 10 years have passed. What are your thoughts on that, and do you think with The Messenger that you have finally found a comfort zone out front?
My thoughts on that is that they’re saying that because in the interview I said I was finding my way. They’re putting two and two together and getting five. I wasn’t unsure of myself on the David Letterman performance. I was very sure, and that’s why I’m so relaxed.
So, it’s safe to say that you were already comfortable out front?
I wasn’t uncomfortable out front. And they mention that performance, and I thought that performance was really good. They said that because I told the journalist back then I didn’t really know, I was learning, rather, how to front a band. By the time we got to American soil, I only needed a short time to work that out. That’s kind of obvious really. If you haven’t done it for a long, long time, which was the case for me, and you’ve been playing guitar in other people’s bands, you have to work that stuff out. That’s my own fault for getting too open with a journalist.
Well, I’ll try not to make any mistakes like that.
I’m just fuckin’ with you, man [laughs].
When The Smiths broke up, you busied yourself working with myriad artists, something that was also cited as possibly contributing to the breakdown of your relationship with Morrissey. Why do you think you avoided the solo option at that time?
Well, the band had already broken up. That’s like something out of one of those dumb Smiths books. I’ve always worked and collaborated with people. I like recording studios, and it’s one of the things I do besides writing songs. So, when The Smiths broke up, I joined The The, which was a band I was going to be in before The Smiths were even together.
Yeah, yeah. I was going to be in The The when I was 17.
I knew you were a big fan of The The, but I didn’t know that.
Yeah, yeah. Matt Johnson asked me to be in The The, but I just didn’t have enough money to get to London. Matt and I were always going to work together at some point. So, I was in The The for, I think, five years, and that was great, joining that band. Then being invited to work with people that I really respect was something fantastic, particularly someone my age. I was still very young at that point. Jamming and working with David Byrne on the Talking Heads album Naked was a real thrill. And then people like Bert Jansch. Everybody I’ve worked with…It’s good work if you can get it, believe me.
The rhythm section on many Smiths songs was built around your guitar and Andy Rourke’s bass. Do you still write this way, or have you learned to incorporate the drums in a more traditional rhythmic role?
As soon as I have a riff, I kind of hear how a record is going to come together. Since back in those old days, it’s been like 25 years of playing with lots and lots of different kinds of musicians. You learn a lot. The most important technical lessons I learned was in Electronic with Bernard Sumner. He and I designing records, in a way, designing pop records. Working with sequencers and drum programs, and programming bass lines and synthesizers taught me more about timing, and fills, and the technicalities of records than anything else I’ve done. Getting a chance to really study it graphically, beats, hi-hat patterns. I’m serious, working with technology in different studios I’ve built throughout the ’90s and experiment in really taught me a lot about dots, and pulses, and bass lines and all of those things. So, a combination of technology and a lot of different types of musicians have led me to the point where I’m at now, and I sincerely hope that that will continue. I’d hate to think I know everything that I’m going to know.
You mentioned your collaboration with Modest Mouse. When Isaac Brock called on you, you told him to give you 10 days to see how things could work out between you all. In December, when I spoke with rapper Big Boi, he too mentioned working with Modest Mouse and coming away with the concept of taking 10 days. So, it seems that your idea is now Modest Mouse’s way of working, and Big Boi, himself, has taken to using this idea. Is this your modus operandi when working with other artists, take 10 days and feel things out?
I think the idea of trying to work with Modest Mouse for 10 days was for two reasons. One was that a week just seemed too formal, and the second, that was a cheaper plane ticket.
It’s funny how things work out.
I then lost money because the songs were so good I turned the ticket in anyway. So, it shows you how much I know. Music always gets in the way.
Well, that’s a good thing to get in the way.
Yeah, it’s a nice problem. Maybe I’ve got some good credit left on that ticket.
The way the airline industry is today, I doubt it.
Or the music industry either, right.
It’s my understanding that you’re back in the UK, but you’ve lived in Portland, OR, for the better part of a decade now. Portland has steadily grown into a musical Mecca of sorts, drawing in as many outside artists as it creates. So, why do you think you decided to record the album back in Manchester and Berlin rather than stay in Portland?
I knew that I’d have to go back to England because I’m a British musician, and I didn’t want to run the risk of sounding different. It may be that concept was just in my imagination, but you have to do what you think is best. Some part of what this record was going to be about was kind of unfinished business that I never got around to before I was in The Smiths, when I was in bands when I was a teenager. The kind of songs that I was writing with these little bands I was in, a lot of that came from my environment. So, aesthetically and environmentally, things have changed in that time for sure. The experience of being back here, sitting around in cars in the rain, and being under cloudy skies and with just your imagination to fill your life with color and inspire you was the thing that made me come back. I didn’t really over-analyze the move back other than just a hunch that it would be the right thing to do.
Berlin was important because I didn’t want to get too nationalistic about it. I didn’t want it to be a little island. So, going back and forth to Berlin gave me a sense of the right tempo of Europe, which I have to say I really appreciated from my time in Portland. American people who have a concept of the rest of the world have a good take on Europe as a collection of interesting old countries with a close proximity to each other. A lot of people who actually live here don’t. So, I could thank my smart American friends for opening my eyes to that.
When I first entered college in the late ’80s, I remember seeing a family tree poster of musicians, and I swear I remember some connection between you and the Cult’s Billy Duffy, something along the lines of one of you teaching the other guitar. Am I crazy?
Billy and I have been friends since 1975, ’76, when we were little kids starting out playing guitar. He never taught me guitar, but he taught me how to wear the right shoes. He turned me on to a few really key records like The Stooges’ Raw Power and the New York Dolls. I’m eternally grateful to him for that. We never were in a band together, but I guess he’s my oldest friend. And we’re still friends to this day. He was a really, really good guitar player back then, and he still is good now. It’s kind of funny how that turned out. We’re from about maybe two miles, 15 minutes walk, from each other. We’re from the same neighborhood.
You said recently that as you get older, it’s good to drop certain worries. As you approach 50, what no longer worries you, and is there anything that can still lead you to pause?
Seriously, I don’t really worry too much about what other people think about me. Other than fans, anyway. If people don’t like what I do or how I go about doing it, that’s absolutely fine. It’s just opinion. You can tend to take those things too seriously when you’re younger, and that’s your prerogative. Other people’s opinions are probably the thing I don’t take too seriously, and now that I think about it, my own opinions either.
How so? You don’t value your own opinion?
I value them, but I don’t take them too seriously. I take my belief system really seriously. I take my ethics very seriously. I take my principles seriously. But opinions… I might change my mind about everything soon. And that’s all good, too.