Johnny Marr: “I tried to rebel against what I was known for”

Ahead of his appearance at Southbound/Falls, guitar god Johnny Marr tells ANDREW P STREET about leaving the Cribs, going solo, and “that weird little group from Manchester”.

Something rather wonderful has happened to Johnny Marr. He’s become content with sounding like Johnny Marr. And yet that’s quite an oversimplification: Marr is an amazingly diverse and wide-ranging guitarist, playing everything from fiddly African hi-life riffs (as on Talking Heads’ ’(Nothing but) Flowers’) to countrified blues (The The’s ‘The Beat(en) Generation’) to Nile Rodgers disco (Modest Mouse’s ‘Dashboard’) through to big stomping glam chords (The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ and ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’).

But when someone is described as playing like Johnny Marr, you know what they mean: the chord-based riffs and – look, we can’t avoid the word – “jangly” arpeggios that characterised so much of The Smiths’ best music (from ‘This Charming Man’ to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ to ‘Ask’). You may have been intrigued by Morrissey’s voice, but you fell in love with the gorgeous melodic architecture behind it.

That sound is all over The Messenger, the quietly brilliant Johnny Marr album from earlier this year that you didn’t listen to because you thought “Eh, he’s better as a sideman than a frontman” (more on which later). Or perhaps you heard the Johnny Marr & the Healers album Boomslang a decade back and thought “Um … look, it’s OK…”

“Well, on Boomslang I was part of a group,” he counters, “even though it has my name in front of it. I’m still very pleased with that record, it was a bit of a learning curve. With Boomslang though, in 2002 when it was made, me and my friends were really into a certain kind of music, there was a bit of a movement of musicians writing things like Krautrock. I was trying to go for a sort of heavy Can psychedelia, you know?”

It came at an odd time, marking the point where he entered something of a late renaissance. The Smiths split up after Marr called it quits in 1987 following the recording of Strangeways, Here We Come, after which he followed a remarkably diverse path, from sessions with Bryan Ferry, Billy Bragg and the late, great Kirsty MacColl to stints with the Pretenders, The The and Electronic, the band he formed with New Order’s Bernard Sumner (‘Getting Away With It’ remains one of the greatest pop songs of all time).

It wasn’t until Boomslang that he put his name on the front of a record, but before too long he had moved from the UK to Portland to become a fully paid-up member of the on-the-ascendant Modest Mouse (he’s all over their magnificent We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank) before a writing session with barely-out-of-their-teens UK trio The Cribs unexpectedly turned into a couple of years as a full-time member.

“When [The Smiths] started we were a weird little group from Manchester.”

That ended when he started writing the songs that became The Messenger. “I’m asked about why I chose now to make a solo record now, and it’s purely because I starting writing songs that I didn’t want to bring to a group,” he explains. “The songs came first, and the idea of the solo record came from the songs. I started having a lot of titles, which became notions, which became theories, and if you’re lucky they can be turned into some kind of poetry.”

And they couldn’t have been Cribs songs? “Well, most of the record started from the lyrical standpoint. I had a bunch of lyrics that needed to be turned into songs, and when I started doing that I turned to the fellas and said ‘I think I wanna write 30 songs’. And in my experience anyone who says that, you don’t get in their way: you let them get on a roll.”

Significantly, it’s only Marr’s name on the front of the album, with no “& the Healers” to be seen. “When it was put to me that I should put the album out under my own name, it began to feel more personal then – like ‘this is my viewpoint of the world’. And it felt good, so I went with it.”

The result sounds like … well, like what you’d think a Johnny Marr record would sound like. “I think there’s some truth in what you’re saying,” he says, lauging. “If people think that The Messenger sounds like they want me to sound, then there won’t be any complaints from me.”

However, it’s as much about Marr making peace with his past as it is acknowledging that he has a recognisable style. “In my case – and I think this is the case for many people in their 20s and 30s – I tried to rebel against what I was known for. And I think that’s a good thing, that’s the prerogative of any artist, particularly if you’re trying to avoid being typecast. Which I could have been in danger of at the age of 20. But it’s all turned out to be a good thing.”

We discuss the difference between working solo and working with bands, and he immediately bristles at the inelegant suggestion that he was Isaac Brock’s sideman during his stint in Modest Mouse. “Look, no matter what group I’m in, I don’t really put into that role of sideman,” he counters. “Sideman is maybe a term from the ‘60s or something.”

I was getting at the idea of coming into a band where there’s an existing vision of what the band is because of the strong personality of the band’s leader – such as Brock, or Matt Johnson in The The. “I understand what you’re saying, but every group I’ve been in fulltime I’ve been a partner of the singer. That was the case with Modest Mouse, and some of those songs were really written off my riffs. Same with the Cribs. And that’s a role I’ve being doing since I was 15.

“The bands I’ve been in – The The, Modest Mouse, the Cribs, and the Smiths, because Electronic wasn’t really a band – I’ve been very intense about, and they take over my life. I feel very, very lucky to have been in so many of my favourite bands. It’s been very, very interesting. But I’m just a musician, and I only do things that are interesting to me – if I had any sort of plan then I’d be an A&R man or a manager.”

Johnny Marr (second from left) with The Cribs

So opportunities have presented themselves and the interesting ones win out? “That’s it. Like, I didn’t plan on making [the soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s] Inception, and I didn’t think that it would turn out so good. I just liked working with Hans Zimmer. And I thought it was a great movie, but nobody thought it was going to be number one at the box office. You just cross your fingers and follow your heart,” he shrugs.

“And I did that when I formed the Smiths. No one knew that band was gonna be big. When we started we were a weird little group from Manchester. All I wanted was to make music that I thought my peers would think was cool, and nothing’s really changed since.”

His live sets include a handful of Smiths songs, as befits his position as the man who co-wrote them and was largely responsible for the band’s sound. Speaking of which, he spent a great deal of time remastering the entire Smiths back catalogue a few years back – which must have been odd, going back and intimately listening to something that was hermetically sealed.

“It wasn’t hermetically sealed – that why I did it,” he laughs. “The record company [EMI, who bought the catalogue off Rough Trade] had allowed it to sound terrible in the ‘90s by mastering it [for CD] very badly, so it was just a technical exercise. And it was a lot of hard work, but I knew I’d only ever get the one chance at doing it. And I’ve fought a lot of battles to make the Smiths music sound like it did in the studio, so I knew that I’d better not make a bad job of it.”

How does it feel playing songs written more than half a lifetime ago? “Great. I think if you’ve got agendas or weirdnesses about the past, once you’ve been around for a while you should drop that shit,” he says. “Just do what makes you and your audience happy, because you’ve got enough to be getting on with.”

Johnny Marr is performing at the Falls and Southbound festivals over New Year’s, in addition to sideshows in Melbourne and Sydney. Dates below.

Johnny Marr sideshows:

Saturday, January 4 – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne (SOLD OUT)

Sunday, January 5 – The Northcote Social Club, Melbourne

Tuesday, January 7 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney (SOLD OUT)