Home Is Where You Plug In
May 06, 2013 Web Exclusive
Johnny Marr is one of the few living players who might be referred to as a "guitar hero" with a genuine nod of reverence. During his five years with The Smiths in the '80s, through which he drew acclaim early on as a remarkably imaginative guitarist, his love for collaboration and self-development drove him to work on outside projects. Over the years, Marr stayed busy with The Pretenders, Electronic, The The, and more recently as a member of Modest Mouse and The Cribs. And while the association with his earlier band will always be of interest, peers seek him out for the unique sparks and colors he might bring to their sound. Marr's a gifted musician who may always wear a mantle of celebrity but won't be defined by it.
Where 2003's Boomslang, recorded by Johnny Marr and the Healers, was considered a band effort, Marr offers his new album, The Messenger, as his first solo release. As Marr discusses with Under the Radar how he finally got around to doing an album of his own, his ongoing enthusiasm as a collaborator and a fan are also evident and, in the latter case, highly amusing.
Hays Davis (Under the Radar): You've stayed extremely busy over the years working on quite a few projects, but aside from the Healers album, a solo album has been a long time coming. How long have you been working on the songs for The Messenger?
Johnny Marr: I wasn't working on the songs hardly at all before I started recording it. I had a lot of ideas for things I wanted to say, or some kind of attitude in the music in my mind just backed up. I wasn't squirreling away songs here and there and waiting for my magic moment or anything. It's just that after a lot of years of touring with the groups, [including] Modest Mouse, I got back into the studio and just turned these notions and vague ideas into songs pretty quickly. In truth, the album got written in about eight months, and then it was a matter of just finishing up all the recording.
I'd sort of write a song a day. I gave myself this agreement to write certain songs, which is actually a lot, because I had the enthusiasm for it and I just got a window in my schedule to do it. That was what I did, and it was only once I actually got the songs going I realized I was making a solo record, in fact. I just wanted to make a record for a group that I happened to be singing in. The difference between making a solo record and a band record, in my opinion is that...if it's not a solo record, I'm trying to do something that represents what all of the guys in the band are into, are inspired by. That's what made the Healers record different. When people have asked me why it's different, that would be the answer.
On this one, I just had the big picture but not any actual details. It's just more about an attitude and a sound that I was going for. And then I just sort of colored it in on a day-to-day basis as I went. It wasn't like a really long time of stashing away songs and ideas. I just had a lot of notions back-put in my mind.
I understand the song "Lockdown" was a response to a book about the worst places to live in Britain (Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live In the UK). Did anything in particular prompt you to write a song about that?
I'd seen an article that a guy had written this book. I disagreed with the premise. Most of these songs, if not all of them, I needed to at least try to relate to my audience. I didn't want to do stuff that was really, really vague, no matter how poetic. Whether people know it or not, the words on the album are really quite direct and not particularly obscure. I didn't want to do a load of flowery gibberish. I wanted it to be about things, and not necessarily myself.
A lot of these songs do relate to the younger people in my audience as well as people who've grown up following me. "Lockdown," I think, is one. When I saw the article about the book I wondered about how it would feel if you were 16, 17 in one of those towns and trying to make a good go of it. For some reason, I don't feel terribly different from the way I felt about some things when I was that age myself, and I think that is pretty much true for most people that I know, and therefore some of the older people in my audience. There are some things that stay with you and that you never get away from. I do remember that feeling of being in a small town with not a lot going on and feeling like you haven't got many prospects. And, in my case, having to escape into my imagination and whatever I was doing in that other band. I spent a lot of time standing outside the shops on dark nights, freezing cold, with nothing to do and looking to get something going. Also, when I'm off the road, me and a couple of my friends get into cars at night and go driving around. England's so small you can get to the coast in any direction within a matter of a couple of hours.
And so I know that there are communities with young people living in these towns that this guy was putting down. I kind of wanted to sing the song for them really, about what it must be like being in that town. And the idea of a lockdown just being what it is: stuck somewhere and trying to make the best of it, really. So, I didn't need some pompous intellectual trying to make fun of that. Maybe I take things too seriously, but I was looking out for people in my audience and it just inspired me.
You've always seemed to be driven to contribute to multiple projects, even going back to Smiths days. In earlier times, was it primarily a matter of having the opportunity to do something that fell creatively outside of your regular band work? That's the closest I'll come to asking a Smiths question, by the way.
[Laughs] A lot of musicians like the opportunity to stretch out a little bit. A lot of musicians who came from America know about the culture from playing with their friends. There's a lot of that in rock music. But over the years, what I've done...if I have to compare it to someone else, I think what I've done, I guess, is probably closer to what Brian Eno does, certainly more than a rock guitar player who sticks with the same three or four guys over 40 years. It's just the way of my nature; that idea of playing with the same people all your life seems like a waste of an opportunity. That's just the way I've always been. I was like that when I was a teenager. I always liked playing different music to different people because I liked to learn, and I like the opportunity to do what I do in different situations. It's very inspiring.
For instance, when I worked with Talking Heads, it was a buzz, not only to work with a band that I respected, but to have my sound on their songs was an interesting thing. It's something that I've done since I've gotten the very first opportunity, and that was when in 1982 or '83. When I was working on the first Smiths record I did that record for a Factory band. And then on the second Smiths record I was working on Billy Bragg's stuff and Everything But the Girl, and I guess on the third record I would have been working with Kirsty MacColl and then Talking Heads. I've always wanted to collaborate.
I think sometimes if you're known for coming from one certain band you kind of get typed, so when you break out of that some people may get a little surprised by it. But, hey-it's not like I'm Johnny Ramone. You know what I mean?
Funk music has been an interest of yours for many years, and I'm aware that you're a big Chic fan. How did you come to play with Nile Rodgers recently?
I think Nile had heard about me over the years. He contacted me in the mid- or late '90s when Chic put out a record, and obviously I was thrilled about that. From what I've gathered, people kept telling him about me, and my name cropped up. He's one of a very small list of guitar players who inspired me, so it was great to get to know him. We got in ongoing contact and we kept meaning to get together and do something over the years. So when he came out again playing shows a couple of years ago he invited me to play with a couple of good friends. It's a great thing when you get to work and be friends with someone who inspired you as a youngster and find that they still inspire you, but in a different way, as an adult, and I was one of those people. His example of the way he conducts himself on and offstage is a privilege to be around. He's a good example of what I was talking about in your previous question as someone who likes to work with other people. He just has the energy and the imagination to do lots of different things. That, back in the day, was one way that he inspired me-when he was writing with different acts and producing other people as well as putting his guitar sound on a lot of different records. That, as much as his career changes, was something that I could relate to. I think [that's] probably an even better example to answer your other question. We've got more in common than people would realize.
During the time that you worked with bands such as Modest Mouse and The Cribs, do you remember instances where an audience seemed to be paying you the lion's share of attention to a point where it felt a bit weird with the rest of the band? I'm sure they prepared for that possibility when they extended their offers for you to join them.
I don't know. You'd have to ask them. Everybody I've worked with has had a strong enough sense of themselves and also enough success to not really get too hung up about that if it were to happen. Modest Mouse already had their own audience with their own aesthetic and their own show, and I always thought they were very cool to invite someone else with a big kind of style as a collaboration. That, to me, showed a real open-mindedness and a kind of creative ambition. The opposite of small-mindedness; big-mindedness, I guess.
All of these people put the music and what we're going to do and the outcome before any other kind of considerations, I think, so I was never that aware of any of those that I played if there was a weird atmosphere. I don't think that really happened very much.
I hear you ran into Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood while trying to get into a Fleetwood Mac show without paying when you were about 15. Is that true?
[Laughs] That's true.
A mutual friend from northern England suggested that I throw that question out to you, by the way.
I never would have thought I'd be asked that question. Well, there's very many cool things about that situation. First off, me and my friends used to go to every concert in town. I don't think there was ever one that we didn't actually get into, even if it took us three or four attempts, because I don't remember ever being unsuccessful in getting in. Sometimes, having seen a band and their first few numbers, I realized I probably shouldn't have busted in so much. I'm thinking of when me and my friends got to see Uriah Heep; I had no [idea] that was a band.
What was interesting about that for me was that we used to hang out in a youth club and it had a really cool jukebox. There was a couple of Fleetwood Mac records on there, "Green Manalishi" and "Albatross" or something. When I heard that this band Fleetwood Mac were coming to town I assumed that it was a bunch of very old guys with long hair and beards. So when we were hanging around the stage door, ready to sneak through, this big old Bentley pulls up and out gets these two utterly beautiful, blonde '70s rock girls on either side of Mick Fleetwood. Yeah, I was 15 and I was three feet away from Stevie Nicks in 1977 or whenever it was, so that worked for me on a lot of levels. But Mick Fleetwood recognized me from having walked by. He gave me a nod and a smile, as if to say, "Yeah. This is as cool as you think it is, son." I already was pretty committed to the life of a musician but that definitely helped to swing things, I can tell you. I remember thinking, "That looks like a good job, John boy."
And I bumped into Mick Fleetwood in 2005 and I told him this story, and he was kind of knocked out by it. I didn't hold it against him that he didn't remember me. I let that one go, but hey, what can I say? It was a great concert. I saw them on the Rumours tour, and that was amazing that I got in there before the show started because usually I had to wait for the band to come on. I saw the band's opening song and off they went. It was quite evident that it wasn't a bunch of fat old guys with beards. It was an amazing, exotic California band playing these really great tunes, so that was a really good night. And it's nice to remember that. It's funny.
And if you happen to be ready to walk onstage and notice a really tall, older fellow lingering around backstage at your show, maybe you can have a similar moment.
I should be so lucky. Hey, hope springs eternal, man!