Johnny Marr is one of the few cats to whom the living legend mantle sits comfortably on able shoulders. A lifetime devoted to song has recently been laboured over printwise and I recently finished thumbing my way through the results: ‘Set the Boy Free’, Johnny Marr’s long awaited autobiography and handy companion piece to Morrissey’s similar endeavour from 2014. A brick-like tome, as far as rock biographies go it’s pretty stock, containing few surprises and little in the way of inspired turns of phrase. For instance, did you know that Johnny really likes guitars? Also jogging.
Some books are more than the sum of their physical presence, and a slight, slim volume can be as both as deep as a well and as wide as a horizon. ‘Set the Boy Free’ however is pretty much exactly the sum of its dimensions and 428 pages, no more, no less.
Not that that’s its damnation. It’s a breezy weekend read that shines brightest in the telling of his childhood and latter day projects after the demise of The Smiths. His belief and pride in these projects is palpable, like each successive page is a way to remind us that his legacy will be inked with many more chapters than merely that of his boyhood band. As a bonus, Johnny’s take on the famous court case is both revealing and mercifully briefer than Morrissey’s belaboured shoulder-chipped re-telling and you can tell throughout that the business side of things was always an unwanted ordeal for him as the band continually struggled in the absence of a manager.
What really comes across throughout is that first-and-foremost Johnny is a musician. A musician to the bone. A musician’s musician, completely and irrevocably and probably to the detriment of other elements of his character. He is besotted of music and of the guitar as an instrument. He is refreshingly devoid of rockstar cliché and for him it is the song that is king, but what makes for a good human being often makes for a bit of a beige book, informative without being memorable, unlike the shimmering threads he spin with his amplifiers.
As someone who is intrigued by the song-writing process, I was hoping for more insight into the act of crafting some of the classics that seemingly fell out of Johnny’s myriad guitars over the years but little time is devoted to the minutiae of this process or even the state-of-mind and inspiration for each piece. This is a shame as the instances in which he does deign to elaborate are consistent highlights, both of his story and of his prose and storytelling acumen.
I was first made aware of the book whilst interviewing Johnny on the promotional trail for his tour to support the Playland LP. We spoke whilst he was in the final stages of penning it and surprisingly towards the tail end of the book he directly references things we spoke about that day. As a massive lifelong fan of The Smiths and Johnny’s playing in general it was both an honour and an extremely nerve wracking experience dialling him up for a chat, especially as his publicist had informed me in no uncertain terms not to mention The Smiths mere minutes before the interview was scheduled to begin. My stomach twisted butterfly-eruption-wise and I thought on my feet as the dictaphone captured my every laboured breath and nervous tic. Fortunately Johnny was ace.
First published for Collide Art & Culture, here’s the piece in its entirety:
With their name scrawled on countless ring binders, bedroom walls and the ever mercurial pages of the NME, The Smiths appeared seemingly out of nowhere to define a generation. While uniquely Mancunian, their vulnerable and romantic anthems were embraced worldwide with almost religious fervor by legions of disaffected youth.
It seems that everyone has a Smiths story – a tale of double decker buses and cemetery gates that pinpoints and utterly defines a certain period in their life. It’s hard to believe that by the time he walked away from the band’s five year reign, Marr was only 23 years old. Since then, he has worked continuously to stretch his palette – contributing to a dizzying number of musical projects with everyone from Paul McCartney to Beck, including more substantial stints with bands such as The Pretenders, The Cribs and Modest Mouse (with whom he went on to find his greatest commercial success).
Refreshingly at odds with the notion of the rock star archetype, Johnny doesn’t drink, is a committed vegan, and has been in the same relationship with his wife Angie since his teenage years.
In 2013, Marr finally saw fit to release his first solo album The Messenger, followed in late 2014 by his new LP Playland, with both albums hitting the UK Top Ten. Playland is a boisterous, energetic record that draws from his varied past projects whilst still resonating with an engaging freshness. Lead single, ‘Easy Money’ sways with relaxed swagger. These are the types of songs that are sure to come alive on stage.
Ahead of his Australian tour, Collide phoned Johnny to talk about the new album, what it means to sound like Manchester, and his ridiculously fulsome resume.
You’re visiting Australia in support of the Playland LP, are you happy with how it turned out and the reaction it’s received? How do you feel it builds upon your previous album, The Messenger?
I’m really happy with how it’s turned out and that the two records have been really well received. I didn’t know what to expect when the first one came out – I just hoped that fans and other musicians would like it. I wasn’t expecting the kind of reaction I got in the media, so that gave me and the band a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement. I was going to do a second record anyway, but it’s nice to know that people are onside and interested in what you’re doing, and that they get it. It makes you want to go out and hit the stage with a little extra bounce.
The turn-around time between the records was pretty quick, are you feeling particularly inspired of late?
Because the records are my own and not a collaborative thing with another band, it means I can work to my own schedule, which is usually faster than a lot of other peoples’ – mostly because I don’t really see the need to go goofing off for too long between records or tours.
But yeah, I am inspired. I was very inspired to put my own group together. I had all these ideas in the back of my mind that I was very keen to explore. After working with The Cribs, when I got into the studio to do The Messenger, I was just churning the songs out ‘cos they’d all been percolating in the back of mind.
When I started Playland I started from scratch. Although I had some songs from The Messenger sessions that I hadn’t finished or that didn’t make it to the final cut, I just liked the idea of working with a clean slate. The most important thing to me is that all the songs work well live and that may change in the future, but the whole idea of my band as it is now is to be able to bring what we do in the studio onto the stage and vice-versa.
I can imagine that songs like ‘Easy Money’ and ’25 Hours’ are a lot of fun to do live. Did your return to England after five years in the US factor into the mood of the records at all?
Absolutely! I did that very deliberately. Maybe it’s just superstition, but I didn’t want to take the chance that my record wouldn’t sound right. I kind of felt that I needed to get uptight (laughs), and England’s a good place to get uptight!
I tend to believe that the records I’ve made all sound like their environment, from The Smiths records right the way through things like Electronic and Modest Mouse. With my solo records I think The Messenger has a really strong Northwest of England spirit to it, with songs like ‘Say Demesne’ and ‘Upstarts’. The title track reminds me of living in the northwest in the winter. One of the reasons why Playland is a little different is ‘cos a lot of it was made in London and when I listen to it I can really hear London in it.
Speaking of that concept of a regional mood, how much of The Smiths’ success do you think can be attributed to the dourness of the times? That bleakness of Thatcher’s Britain?
I think that The Smiths could only have come from Manchester in that time period, in the same way that Joy Division sounded like Manchester in their time period, and The Hollies sounded like Manchester in their time period. I think that pop music, if it has any kind of intelligence to it, reflects the culture of the people creating it.
You’ve been incredibly prolific with your collaborations, notably with The Cribs, Electronic and Modest Mouse. Is that because you get restless? Or do you feel more comfortable as a side man or partner than you do when fronting a band?
I’ve been asked whether I feel restless for 30 years now, and I don’t really necessarily see the connection between working on different styles of music and restlessness. If you think about any other artist who came from around about the same time as me – like say Gary Oldman in acting, or Damien Hirst in the visual art world – if those people were still making the same work, or still playing the same part as they were in their 30’s, they probably wouldn’t be getting much work. They’d probably be considered somewhat redundant (laughs).
It always surprises me when musicians are judged under a different criteria. Maybe I just think differently to other musicians, but I feel like it’s really important to change, and the idea of making the same sounding records with the same people year in year out is really unappealing to me, especially if you don’t need to. I guess playing with Beck, playing with The The, and playing with Modest Mouse just sounded better to me than looking at the same bass player for 30 years.
What do you think is the project that you’ve been the most proud of or found the most satisfying in that sense?
I’ve been very, very fortunate to have been involved in a lot of things that people really like. Believe it or not, it doesn’t really feel like that long ago when I was a guitar player just feeling like I needed to be heard. I’ll always stay connected to that.
The continued success of The Smiths is not only amazing, but makes me continually proud. There’s a lot of the songs that we did that really have some kind of magic in them, but then again I became a much better guitar player when I was in The The and some of the shows we did in that band were really off the scale.
Modest Mouse made it to number one in the American album charts. which was really something because the music is not the usual kind of thing that would chart so highly over there. But ultimately I’m very proud of my solo records because I’m writing the lyrics, I’m singing them and I’m producing. So it’s really hard to say, you know? It’s all of the above really. I’ve been so very lucky.
The last time I saw you was actually with Modest Mouse when they came to Australia on the back of that record. What was it like working with Isaac Brock?
Well, I think the word brilliant has been overused and misused in the last 20 years – but Isaac Brock is actually brilliant. I’d say he’s one of my top three favourite lyricists of all time along with Ray Davies (The Kinks) and Lou Reed.I think he’s very much of his time and a fascinating person, and Modest Mouse are the only band I’d possibly, and maybe will, re-join. I don’t think you can really say more than that.
So, with the UK elections just around the corner, do you think David Cameron’s going to be appropriating The Smiths again and dropping your name on the campaign trail or do you think you’ve pretty much put a stop to that by now?
He’s probably got a thick enough skin to just keep doing that whether he owns the records or not, but really I’m just kind of sick of the Prime Minister getting publicity off the back of my band! (laughs)
With your work being so influential to generations of musicians in particular, you’ve received so many awards, from the likes of the NME’s ‘Godlike Genius’ award to the Ivor Novello Award, and being included on countless ‘best of all time lists’. Do these kind of accolades mean much to you?
Well, I think you’d have to be some kind of arsehole and terribly ungracious to not feel grateful about that. I suppose the narrative of a rock musician is to be dismissive of things like that, but the fact of the matter is that when I’ve been to an awards ceremony and someone I respect gets an award, I’m pleased for them and I applaud them ‘cos they’ve given me pleasure and I like them. So I ain’t gonna piss on that man!
That said, if I was never to get one again it would never affect my sense of self or make me feel any differently at all about the records I’ve made or shows that I’ve played, not one bit. But when you do get them it’s nice to get a pat on the back, so I turn up for some of them and some of them I don’t.
We’re looking forward to the tour here in Australia, what kind of set-list and what kind of show can we expect?
Well our shows tend to have a lot of energy, that’s what keeps it fun for me. It’s the kind of music I like to listen to and it’s the kind of music I like to make. I know it sounds obvious but I just try and put on the kind of show that I myself would like to go and see – so that means the guitars are loud, the drums are loud, and the bass is loud… I guess everything is kind of loud! (laughs)
I try and be the best Johnny Marr on that night that anyone could be, and I try and work as hard as I can getting it right. The important thing for me and the band is that these songs that were recorded over the last couple of years work well in the live show. Every single one of them. And that means that if we want to play some of the more well known stuff too, then it just feels like a celebration.
It’d be different if I was propping up this stage of my career with my old stuff, I wouldn’t really want to do that – but because me and the band do play pretty much every song off the new records it means that playing the old songs is really good fun, and I just let the audience lead and see where we go with that. It’s great.
Finally, what’s next for you after the tour? Are you thinking about going back into the studio with these chaps? You mentioned you might like to work with Modest Mouse again, or will it be something completely different? Do you have anything mapped out?
Well me and Modest Mouse don’t have a plan, I was just saying if there was any band that I would want to join re-join then it would be them, but I don’t have any plans to work with them as such.
I’m working on another movie this summer and I’ve got this new single coming out which is a version of ‘I Feel You’ by Depeche Mode that we’ve been doing in some of our encores. We’ve got that coming out as a special ‘Record Store Day’ release, ‘cos Record Store Day is a nice thing that’s happening these days and it’s good to support it. But basically more touring this summer, writing the movie soundtrack and then a new album and my book comes out at some point next year.
Outstanding. What’s the book about?
Makes sense (laughs). Cheers Johnny!