Johnny Marr on Making a Solo Album and Not Caring About His Age
It's been more than 25 years since the Smiths broke up. Why did it take guitarist Johnny Marr so long to finally come out with a solo album, this year's The Messenger ? Well, he's been a bit busy. Not content with simply creating the blueprint that most British indie bands followed ever since, Marr has worked with artists like folksy pop singer Kirsty McColl, Talking Heads, and Modest Mouse, a choice that's earned him plenty of criticism from former Smiths fans who would have preferred to see him forge a solo career more like former bandmate Morrissey. Why did things work out that way? We spoke with Marr during a brief stop back home in Manchester and asked. Marr performs at the Fillmore tonight, April 13, at 9 p.m.
So, where are you right now?
I'm back in the studio in Manchester for a couple of days. We've been touring all around the UK and Ireland for the last few weeks, and I've just got a couple of days of getting back and unpacking bags and then packing them again.
Why did you decide to move to Portland, and then why did you move back to Manchester again?
I went to Portland because I was invited to join Modest Mouse. That was in 2005. My plan was to just go out there for 10 days and write some songs together, maybe just do a few tracks, but the writing went so well that we ended up writing 19 songs and doing a whole album. It took off and was successful and that was great. I really clicked with the city -- it suited my life. I loved the musical community, the artistic community. It was just the overall attitude there that I really took to. I loved being in the band, and whatever band I'm in my life follows that, and has done since I was 14 or 15. Wherever the band is and wherever the music is, that's where I end up.
It seems like you're not at all interested in doing the thing that a lot of bands are doing now, where one person lives in London, another person lives in New York, and they really only get together when they have to tour.
I'm a bit old-fashioned that way. I have some values and influences that I picked up on like a lot of people when you're young, and maybe in my case it's because I started doing what I do at such a young age. I did bands with older guys when I was 14, 15 -- I guess I had an apprenticeship at a young age, and a lot of those values stick with you. I tried to have my own band in the early 2000s, the band members at different times lived in different cities, albeit in the same country, and it was one of the reasons why I decided not to continue that band. In the case of what I'm doing now it's a good example of what I'm talking about. Everyone in the band lives within 30 minutes of me. It didn't really have to be that way, I could have one guy living in Berlin and another guy living a few hours away, but I wanted to make this new record and start this new chapter or whatever it was and keep as many of my original values as I could. And I think that went into the music.
Parts of the new record sounds more like what you were doing 10 or 20 years ago than anything you've done in a while. Was it a conscious decision to go back to that kind of sound or was it something that just happened organically?
I never make a conscious decision to go back. I think it's more subtle than people might realize. I just decided not to not sound like me. If stuff came out and it sounds like me then fine. I'm asked a lot about the new record referencing what I did in Electronic [his band with New Order's Bernard Sumner], not just the Smiths. The Cribs record isn't 20 years ago, it's only three or four years ago, and I hear some of that stuff on it, too.
Did you feel pressure before, either internally or externally, not to sound like yourself?
Well, in the past I've enjoyed trying not to sound like myself, because when you get known for doing something when you're very young, you don't want to be typecast. If you're not careful you can be typecast for the rest of your life, and when you step outside of that people think you're not being you. What's cool about now is that songs like the title track on The Messenger get compared to Electronic rather than to the Smiths, or to some of the work I did with Talking Heads. If some of it sounds like the Smiths and some of it sounds like the stuff I did with Electronic or The The, then I'm more than happy about that because I'm very proud of that music, but also it's kind of logical because that was me making that music.
This is the first time that you've never really had a collaborator. How was it writing lyrics by yourself -- fun or intimidating? How has that whole process been, where this time it's really just you?
It certainly wasn't intimidating or else I wouldn't have done it. I don't really believe in torturing yourself to prove a point, and also I don't necessarily think that's very good for what you're trying to do. Some things have to be crafted, some things are pure inspiration, some things are work, some things are easy -- I like all of that stuff, because it's all work, and I like work.
What happened was I started to make the record, and then a few weeks into it realized I was making a solo album. I didn't think to myself "I ought to make a solo record and then I can take center stage in a dramatic coup -- I should have been in the spotlight all along," which is a little bit of what I've been asked sometimes. After quite a long time of touring I was really excited to get back in the studio, and each day I wrote a song. I only had a few plans. My plan was to write 30 songs, because it seemed like a good ambition, and I got to about 26 or 27. Another plan was to make a record that could be played live by a four-piece group, and that happened. I wanted to do something that wasn't overthought. I wasn't trying to reinvent my own wheel. I feel like I've done that a few times, and maybe I'll try to do it again in the future, but right now I'm just not interested in that. I also wanted to make a good rock record that would sound good in the daytime, that made people feel good on the way back from work, on the way to school, while you're doing your homework.
The way the record came out sounding is like you're very relaxed and confident and in your zone. How long have you been playing it live now?
Well, I got a bit brave, and after I wrote a number of songs I got a couple of friends to play a few shows with me and we played a lot of the songs to a few hundred people a few nights. That was a bit scary, because you didn't know. I felt good about the songs. I thought they were good, I liked the words, but because they went down really well and some bands came from around the world to see it. We went back into the studio really enthusiastic.
Now we've been doing the songs for about 25 shows, [and] what's really cool is that the young people in the audience react to the new songs more than they do the old songs. Because I'm playing most of the album and I'm not just propping up my new stuff with the old material, it makes the playing of the old material all the more fun.
It's interesting that this album is coming out right as you turn 50 -- that's a fairly big birthday. How do you feel about where you are in your life and your career right now?
I don't care at all about what age I am. Some people do, some people don't -- I honestly don't. I've been lucky enough to kind of map my life out from a very early age by what record I'm on and the different bands that I've been in. For example, working on the movie Inception a couple of years ago was way more significant than a birthday. Performing that with an orchestra behind me was much more of a milestone in my life, and always will be, than a birthday. That's how I measure my life, and that only happened a couple of years ago.
The fact that I've made my first record under my own name, I guess subconsciously that makes it feel like it's still early days. If you're an artistic person all you're concerned about is what you're going to do today or tomorrow. David Hockney's in his '70s now and he's doing amazing things, Lucian Freud painted up until the day he died, and I don't see why musicians should be treated any differently. I've been doing this since I was 14, so I don't know any other life really. I'm not a sculptor, and I'm not a painter -- the higher arts weren't really an option for someone of my background -- but pop music was an opportunity to be an artist. Because I was an artistic kid with a knack for playing the guitar, that's what I did. David Hockney paints pictures and I make pop records.
There's always this incredible pop 45 somewhere out there that I'm reaching for, and you try for that. Sometimes you make really good stuff along the way, and sometimes you find it.