Johnny Marr is someone you could spend all day talking with. He was The Smiths’ visionary guitarist and co-songwriter. He made three albums as Electronic with New Order singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner. He’s been a member of The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs. Following an excellent album with The Cribs, he contributed to Hans Zimmer‘s score for the 2010 film Inception. Monday, he performs at the 9:30 Club in support of his new solo album, The Messenger.
The album—-a pretty enjoyable record of rock-guitar music—-is the first to be released under Marr’s own name. His prowess on the instrument is best demonstrated on the title track, which is built around a mesmerizing riff and an electronic rhythm track. His lyrics don’t illuminate much, but his singing voice is better than you might expect for a guy who hasn’t spent much time behind the microphone—-at least not since his days with The Healers, which released its most recent album in 2003.
I spoke to Marr about his new album, his old bands, and what called him back to his hometown of Manchester, England.
Washington City Paper: Where are you calling from?
Johnny Marr: I’m in Manchester at the moment. I’m in the studio in Manchester. Very, very nice, sunny evening. Yeah, cool.
WCP: Do you no longer live in Portland?
JM: No, I came back to the U.K. to write and record my record. I came to make the record in 2010. I made the record here and in Berlin, also, in Germany. I moved back really to write and record, kind of the way things turn out. I go wherever’s best for what I’m doing musically, usually. I’ll probably go back to Portland at some point in the near future.
WCP: What is it about [Portland] that’s attractive to you?
JM: I won’t mention joining Modest Mouse. I wasn’t aware of how much I liked it until I started working with the band. I was just supposed to be there for a very short time. I clicked with the place pretty soon. And writing and recording with Modest Mouse was going very well, straight off. There was a lot of things that suited me about the city. … I was meeting a lot of musicians. It was a lot of musicians that I already liked. Liked their records but wasn’t actually aware they were from Portland. I like that band Quasi quite a lot and I like The Thermals. Several of the musicians reminded me of what Manchester was like in a period during the late ‘80s. A good community—-a good artistic community. The weather didn’t bother me at all. When you’re from Manchester, or Northwestern England, the Pacific Northwest is like Beverly Hills.
WCP: What was it that was musically good for you about going back to Manchester for your new album?
JM: Sure. I had a vague or subconscious idea—-that was pretty strong nevertheless; that I tried not to analyze to much—-about an attitude and an energy that excited me when I was starting out bands in my teens. And the way certain bands conducted themselves. I didn’t, as I say, I knew it was a good idea not to analyze it too much and keep something mysterious. And maybe it was almost like a superstition, but I just had this notion that coming back to the place where I learned a lot of my values—-and was quite excited about certain kinds of music, I guess in the early ‘80s and late ‘70s, when I first started following bands and getting out on my own—-was the thing to do. It wasn’t a nostalgic thing, though, at all. I avoid nostalgia and always have been.
I wanted the energy up and like a lot of the bands I used to go see when I was a kid. I just knew that I wanted to get away from people having laptops on stage for a start. … But I think what I’m talking about when I say no laptops onstage is this culture of rock bands using laptops. I don’t disagree that, as a kind of—ethically or in principle, I just wanted rock ‘n’ roll music to be made by four or five people plugging in to amplifiers. If I go to an electronic band, y’know, then maybe that’s fine, but just for what I do. I think I guess I’m talking about a certain spirit, an aesthetic that was in new-wave music. ‘Cause that was, in some ways, my rock ‘n’ roll, and they were the bands that excited me when I was a teenager. Again, I’m not about nostalgia in anyway, it almost seems like more of a modern conceit to me. And I wanted to know that the musicians I was watching onstage were actually playing what I was hearing.
WCP: When did you first start playing in bands? When you were like 13?
JM: Yeah. I started out in bands properly when I was 14. And luckily for me, they were nearly always quite a lot older than me—-with people who were quite a lot older than me. So, I got a fairly good apprenticeship and because I was with grown-ups, I was around people who took it very seriously, who showed me how to walk the walk, in many ways. There was one band I was in called Sister Ray who were, now that I look back on it, were just a scary bunch of reprobates and I’m amazed that my parents didn’t actually kick me out of the house—-oh, hold on a minute, yes they did. So, that was an interesting experience.
I was always working with musicians who were more accomplished and had done more than me and it was a great learning curve. Really, right from the off. As soon as I got 15, I was in it full time and whatever band I was in and their schedule was the thing that was my priority, including school and my home life. It turned out to be a good grounding for me. You learn about people in situations and equipment, y’know, being fourth on the bill and getting no soundchecks. You know, making way around a little bit, singing harmonies. I don’t know, all kinds of things that now I look back on it.
WCP: [Having formed The Smiths at age 18 and] finding success at a young age, do you feel like you had to grow up fast? Or maybe finding success on your own terms allowed you a certain freedom?
JM: Sure. Me and the rest of The Smiths all got our success pretty young. There was a few years of age difference between myself and Morrissey, which is fairly significant when you’re young. That definitely made it different from each other. Those years between 18 and whatever he was, 21, 22, can be pretty important in life. So, I had a lot of vitality and was good to go, you know? Then the other guys were the same age as me. One of them was older, but, on the one hand, the kind of success we had come quickly is weird, without a doubt. And a lot to deal with. Particularly, as we had a really great kind of success, which was on our own terms. It wasn’t like this kind of success where you’re put together by some svengali manager or record company and there’s a big master plan. We entirely had success by being who we wanted to be. In some ways it might have been somewhat easier for us if we had had a master plan, and certainly if we had a management. That kind of helps. [Laughs]
But it’s never really like a bunch of 18-year-olds who were ready for it. I was already very street-wise by then. And definitely wanted to be heard and was ready to be let off the leash in terms of given the opportunity to write a lot of songs and make records at a fast rate. That was one of the main things about our success that was quite freaky. But we stepped up to it. We made a first record that got to number two in the charts. And then a bunch of singles and then from then on, the bar was raised, mostly by ourselves. But expectancy levels from our audience and the music industry and all of that stuff just went higher and higher. Luckily we had the game and the desire and the look to match it. But it was kind of freaky in some ways, but I wouldn’t ever complain about it ‘cause it’s what every guy wants and everyone’s striving for success, obviously.
WCP: You’ve been working as a musician for so long. Was there ever a point over the years when you paused your music career to do something else?
JM: No, that’s never happened. Because being around a bit, doing what I do, it’s my life. I’ve brought a couple kids up. And now they’re out and doing things in their own right. I’m obviously very proud of that achievement. Without a doubt, I had to change things a little bit. I guess that was in the mix in the mid-’90s. But I didn’t really want to be a touring musician anyway then. I built a couple of studios and worked on a lot of other people’s records. That kind of worked out okay. But, no, I’ve never really wanted to pause. I’ve always considered myself a working musician.
WCP: When did you first start singing?
JM: I first started singing in my teens. In some of the bands I was in when I was younger, I had to do it more out of necessity than choice, sometimes. I only really stopped singing lead vocals when I put The Smiths together. And from that point on, I really wanted to concentrate on being a guitar player and a writer and really, I guess, all the things people have known me for until now. When I was in bands with Chrissie Hynde or Matt Johnson in The The or whatever, I was always able to step up and do harmonies or backing vocals live ‘cause I’d done it as a kid. I started singing in front of my own band in 2002 when I made this record called Boomslang with the band I had called The Healers.
WCP: How did it come to be that this would be a solo record and not a Healers record?
JM: Quite a little into the making of it, I got on a roll and was writing and recording pretty much a song a day, or demoing at least a song a day. And the people around me told me—-well, my co-producer and a couple other friends just put it to me that I shouldn’t stop to find a full-time band. ‘Cause that’s usually my default position. They advised me, y’know, ‘cause they’re my friends, to stick with what I’m doing. …
So I didn’t start thinking like a band animal ‘cause at the top, if you get that idea, you obviously need someone to play the bass and drums for you. Certainly when you go out live. But once I lived with the idea for a week or so, I thought, “OK. Yeah, if I’m gonna do this effort, now is the time to do it.” But I was already making the songs first. So when I decided that it was what I was gonna do, it seemed like the right and correct thing. I wasn’t harboring some desire to have my name up in lights after 25 years or anything like that. I certainly don’t think that anything I’ve done in the years before it is not worth the same commitment, I just started singing these songs and writing them like the leader of a band but with no fixed name. So, that’s the way it came about and it seems right now. Actually, to put a band name on it would have been somewhat contrived. To do the opposite wouldn’t really have been representative of what was going on. So, I just got on a roll and stuck with it.
Johnny Marr performs with Meredith Sheldon April 29 at 7 p.m. at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $20.
Photo by Jon Shard