Johnny Marr, Superstar
The legendary Smiths guitarist on his first solo album, his approach to songwriting, and which of his songs he’d want to survive an apocalypse
Published: November 13, 2013
Hear the name Keith Moon, and you automatically picture drums. Hear Miles Davis, you think trumpet. When someone says Johnny Marr, you immediately recall those jangling guitars that were such an essential part of the Smiths, so legendary that the always-eager British music magazine NME recently declared Marr a “Godlike Genius.” Of course, Marr would go on to lend his talents to The The, Pet Shop Boys, Modest Mouse, and the Cribs, keeping his finger in the pot of independent music for more than three decades. Earlier this year, Marr released his first-ever solo record, The Messenger, which naturally came packed with great lick after great lick and also featured Marr as the primary singer and lyricist. In advance of a show at Rams Head Live on Nov. 17, we talked to Marr about his process for writing lyrics, keeping an air of mystery around the guitar, and his favorite songs from throughout his career.
City Paper: One of the things you’ve talked about is how this album is inspired by Manchester and the ebbs and flows of urban life. Are these ideas you’ve had for a while? Or was there something about moving back there that inspired that?
Johnny Marr: I decided to move back to focus that a little, ’cause that was what was already on my mind through touring and being in so many cities since I guess 2006, when Modest Mouse started touring, right through 2010 with the Cribs. I really like cities anyway. I grew up in the inner city, and I’ve always had a feeling for it. I think I just identified that and my interest got more keen, certainly to theories and notions, and I wanted to turn those notions or theories into songs. I just felt maybe I might be a little lazy if I stayed in Portland. It’s maybe even a superstition, but I thought Manchester, or the U.K., was a good place to go and get a little uptight and get some good energy. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with nostalgia.
CP: Did living in Portland for a stretch alter or affect your view of Britain?
JM: Yeah, I think it did, really. As I said, it didn’t make me nostalgic. But I think you can take things for granted somewhat. I picked up a vibe about the U.K., which is that it’s part of Europe—people who live in the U.K. often forget that, we get a little islander sometimes. One thing about living in Portland is I realized how close my hometown was to Paris and Berlin and Barcelona and all those interesting parts of the world. You get so close to all these amazing historic cultures. So I started viewing Europe in a different way. Politically, anyway, I’m very, very pro-Europe, I’m very pro-the European Union. That was heightened by being in the United States for sure. That led to the song “European Me,” of course.
CP: Obviously you’re mostly known as a guitarist, but what is your process as a lyricist? Has any of your past collaborations or work in previous bands informed the way you approach writing song lyrics?
JM: This might sound like a little bit of an obscure answer, but all the collaborations I’ve done have influenced me in my approach to writing lyrics, but not in the way people may think. I’ve found that one’s own approach is the one you should focus on, and that there isn’t one particular way of doing things. I wouldn’t copy the way Isaac Brock does things, for example. I wouldn’t copy the way Matt Johnson does things or Morrissey or Bernard Sumner. Everybody’s process is their own thing, and whatever gets the job done is what you encourage, really. Some people read ferociously, some people have to take themselves off in isolation for a few weeks, some people get drunk. People ask me about it, and I think sometimes, in a way, they almost expect I write a tune like I always did—sit, gazing out of the window, chewing on a pencil, wondering what to write now. But it’s not at all like that for me. It’s really the same as it is with the music: sometimes it’s craft, sometimes it’s wild inspiration, sometimes it’s working things out as a puzzle, sometimes it’s very, very easy. But it’s only enjoyable because I love the end result and I love what I’m going for. If it was a chore, I wouldn’t do it, because I don’t believe that’s the way to do anything in the arts.
CP: What still drives you as a guitarist? What do you hope to discover with the instrument that you’re so associated with?
JM: I’m almost more focused now on what great things the guitar can do. I’ve learned, as I’ve got older, a bit of mystery in anything in life is great. And some things you should just leave alone. We live in this age where you can find out everything about anything. Things can become somewhat academic, and you can analyze the hell out of everything. And that’s just made me appreciate more when there’s mystery in any side of life, particularly songwriting. The temptation is to go for the right formula: How I did it last time, or how someone does this, or how somebody does that. How about just leaving things up to chance and not knowing? I just know I want to make better records with exciting guitars on them and then do that on a stage, because I think making exciting little three-and-a-half minute records with cool, let’s say, street poetry—which rock ’n’ roll is, to me anyway—is just a fantastic thing. You know, I’ve worked on it as a craft, as my life, from being 14, 15. And now I sort of almost protect the kind of mystery of what there is to do, other than what I just said, which is just make dead-cool records if I can. Anything that’s more analytical than that I think would spoil it. I just know it’s a dead-cool thing to do in your life, and I keep my fingers crossed and try not to jinx it and feel lucky that I can do it, and I’m still doing it, as an adult and still love it.
CP: In another interview, you talked about how, with this album, you weren’t really trying to reinvent the wheel and how you wanted to appeal to your established fan base. Is that to say there are certain hallmarks or sounds that should be present on a Johnny Marr record?
JM: It’s important to me that fans and people who have followed me over the years and are interested in what I sound like liked it. That really, believe it or not, is a very realistic and important consideration to me, because it’s got nothing to do with critical praise or getting in the charts. And luckily that happened. The way to do that is to try and not censor yourself. I wouldn’t be so crass as to try and create some classic thing that I’m associated with. It wouldn’t work. If that could be done, everybody would be repeating their hits year after year. But what I meant with that comment is that there’s been a lot of times in the past when I’ve edited that out of what I’ve done, and I think that was the right thing to do, to keep me interested and not be a stereotype. No one wants to do that as a young person. That was my prerogative as a young man in my 20’s, to try and not be put in a box. But I think where I’m at in this point in my life now, it’d almost be a little bit unseemly to be kind of hung up about that. So if things come out and it sounds like me, as long as it feels honest and it happened by accident and it’s natural, then I’m fine with it. I wouldn’t want to do an entire album of things like that. I think the song “The Messenger” is maybe something that I might have done with Electronic or Pet Shop Boys maybe. And I think “The Crack Up,” which we’ve just been playing tonight, is something I’ve not done before. “I Want the Heartbeat” is not really like any other band that I’ve been in. So there’s enough new, different things to keep me feeling like I’m moving forward.
CP: You play a lot of Smiths songs in your set, and I was wondering: Does it ever feel strange to sing those vocals? Is that a decision you wrestled with?
JM: If it felt strange, I wouldn’t do it. We play, on any given night, every song off The Messenger, so you gotta give people some old stuff. I approach it the same as I do the songs in the set that I play from Electronic, and maybe if I do a couple of The The songs, it’s just the same thing. Whether my band sounds cool doing it, whether it work in my set, it makes everyone in the place feel really good and it sounds good, that’s what we’re all there for. When people walk out the door and they’re all hugging each other and slapping each other on the back and they’ve all got smiles on their faces, then that was a good night out and that’s what I’m there for, really.
CP: If, for whatever reason, only a couple of your songs could survive past some sort of global catastrophe, what songs would you want to be remembered for?
JM: Obviously right now I’m thinking about the new record and what I’m playing live, so “New Town Velocity” is a real favorite with people. The reaction to that song’s been almost moving. “How Soon Is Now?” has been with me through a long journey. It’s part of me, like a fingerprint, that song. “Get the Message” by Electronic I like. And “Dashboard” by Modest Mouse I really like, simply because if I’d heard it and it’d been some other band, I would have thought it was cool. I like “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave” by the Pet Shop Boys, that’s a particular favorite. And, you know, there’s a few other Smiths ones and “Slow Emotion Replay” by The The. The list will get longer and longer, so I’m a lucky guy.
Johnny Marr plays Rams Head Live Nov. 17.
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