What He Said: An interview with Johnny Marr

Photo: Jon Shard

One thing that’s typically true of any generation of rock guitarists is that they usually enjoy basking in the spotlight of their greatness. Not Johnny Marr. While certainly not shy about his praise, he is someone who has always taken it in his stride and has chosen a near consistent role as being the perpetual sideman. His most famous work will always be his five years as the heart and soul of The Smiths, but he’s had a prosperous career doing session work with everyone from Beck to Hans Zimmer, as well becoming a full-time member (albeit temporary) member of high profile bands like The The, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs as well as being one half of Bernard Sumner’s New Order vacation side project Electronic.

While Marr gave a stab at being the face in front of his work with “Boomslang,” the only album billed as Johnny Marr and the Healers, today marks the release of his first true solo album, “The Messenger.” Filled with the jangly hooks and the energetic charisma that made “Hand in Glove” such an electrifying debut single 30 years ago, it’s an album that any fan of Marr’s one-of-a-kind guitar-work has been waiting for from the man since he departed with The Smiths in 1987. Sifting through his collaborations over the years has always been a rewarding scavenger hunt, but the fact that Marr has never had a record to call his own for all these years has always been a frustrating missed opportunity. With “The Messenger,” we finally hear the artist in his purest and most direct form and the results are great.

When Johnny Marr gave us a ring from his hometown of Manchester, his trademark amicableness was in full effect. Aside from some inside info on his process for going about this big step in his career, we also dug into his past, such as his never-completed record with Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, his appearance at Dinosaur Jr’s “You’re Living All Over Me” anniversary show, “Portlandia,” and how his work ethic often outruns the bands he’s played in.

It’s been 10 years since the release of the Healers album. How does “The Messenger” differ from “Boomslang”?

It was very different actually. I kind of had it all mapped out in my mind before doing this record — not necessarily written but I had a very strong picture of how I wanted people to feel once they heard it and how it would be to play it live. The way we made “The Messenger” was different also because I’ve been touring nonstop for five years, and before that I had been a studio-rat for the previous decade almost. I was very much a live musician going back in the studio so I was very conscious, almost in an instinctive way about singing and playing live.

When did you start writing the material for this record?

I started writing them at the start of 2011 and kind of finished writing them a few months after that. I went out and did a few little shows to test them which was a really useful thing to do and that made me go back into recording properly with a lot more confidence because all the songs we played live went down very well. I wrote about 30 songs so it wasn’t a laborious process I just kept writing and writing and got on a roll.

How do you feel about writing lyrics? Is it a different approach than writing music?

Writing lyrics was pretty much the same as writing music — it kind of falls into a couple of categories. Some are inspired and come very easily and some other stuff you have to craft and spend more time with but that’s fun too. It’s not like this torturous process. In fact I’m kind of looking forward to writing more.

Your home is in Portland but you chose to cut “The Messenger” in Manchester. How important do you feel location is to making music?

I think it’s important that I didn’t get too much of an island-like mentality which maybe could happen coming back here but I’ve come back to Manchester because I feel like it’s a really good place to make music. It has nothing to do with that I’m from here and or nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person — I’m sort of pathologically forward-looking. It was a pragmatic decision to be in this city as opposed to London. I thought about writing the record in New York but I wanted to have some aspects Britain. I knew I wanted to write about my environment. I will say though that there’s a certain energy I remembered here from when I was a teenager. Whether I imagined it or not, I felt like it would be useful to have that moving me along.

This album sounds closer to your roots in The Smiths than anything you’ve done for some time. Did remastering their back catalogue in 2011 have any bearing on your approach to these songs?

It’s a nice idea but it had nothing to do with anything really. I think I made [the soundtrack to] “Inception” after I did that so I feel like it would have more to do with that. I’d been in an American group I really enjoyed with Modest Mouse, and then was in a British group that I really enjoyed with The Cribs. And then I did a film soundtrack, which I really liked so I think those things had much more of a bearing. The reason why the new record might sound like echoes of some of the stuff I’ve done in the past is because it’s me making it.

Do you feel like your time spent as a full-time member of different bands has any effect on your guitar playing?

It probably has although when I was doing it at the time I felt like I was bringing my world into theirs more so. I feel like a song on the record like “Sun & Moon” reminds me of a band I was in when I was about 16. I was in a lot of different bands as a teenager. To analyze it, I feel like there there’s a few things that came out in this record that were similar to my work with those bands. Some of the stuff I was doing with Modest Mouse was really an opportunity for me to dig into things that I had never done before. I was working out on myself in the studio and I think that’s not what people were expecting from me which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed that group so much.

I feel like the sound of “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” does creep in a bit on “The Messenger.” There are these guitar squalls on “Upstarts” that remind me of Isaac Brock and “Word Starts Attack”’s overall sound feels like it could have been an outtake from that record.

Maybe it could yeah. I think we really got into a certain thing with the guitars on the “We Were Dead” record. We really pushed each other along a certain road. It was real shoulder to shoulder and loud. Real 3 in the afternoon jamming rather than 3 am jamming although there was plenty of that going on as well.

What time slot do you feel “The Messenger” fits into?

I really think we successfully made music that sounds really great in the afternoon [on “The Messenger”]. I wanted this record to sound good when you’re on the train going to work or on your way to school. Kicking around the house in the afternoon playing really loud. It’s a given that uptempo guitar music should sound good at 8pm on a Saturday night when you’re getting ready to go out but I think anything but 2 am I’m fine with. I didn’t want to make music for kicking back after you’ve been partying all night.

Before this record you had been in and out of two previously established bands. When you joined Modest Mouse and later The Cribs, did you have a game plan of how much time you intended to stay with them?

No. My game plan is always to get tight with the people I’m with and get tight with the audience and get tight with the aesthetics of the band. But I always want to make another record. So if the group I’m with is taking a break or wanting to work at a different speed and I got possessed by an idea, I go with where the idea takes me so I’m always entirely committed with. I got together with Modest Mouse and started writing songs. You get tight with the band members as friends and then you make this work together. It was too damn strange to quit. I always want to make a commitment to the work and a commitment to the guys and that’s what we did. I’ve been very lucky because I love everybody [in Modest Mouse and The Cribs] and am still super tight with them to this day. They’re all like family to me but I move very fast and I have a lot of energy and I like to get on with things with the band I’m in but if that doesn’t click with the band then I need to follow the idea. I’ve been that way since I was 15.

Did you have a favorite Modest Mouse song before you joined the band?

It was probably “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine.” I played that one a few times. I also thought “Cowboy Dan” was an amazing track.

Recently you played “The Wagon” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” at Dinosaur Jr’s “You’re Living All Over Me” anniversary party at Terminal 5. How did your appearance there come about?

J [Mascis] and I first met in Japan about five years ago and I watched him play and I liked his songs. I always thought he was super melodic and I liked his lyrical approach. I think he’s very smart. He says very smart things very succinctly. I always keep an eye on what he’s doing. So he invited me to do the show in New York and I was really happy to accept. I hope I get a chance to do something [with him] again.

Yeah I mean I was pretty devastated I missed that show. Everyone awesome ever seemed to show up.

[Laughs] Yeah! My friend Kevin Drew was there he sang great and Kim Gordon was really fantastic. And Frank Black is always amazing. It was a really great weekend.

How did your recent cameo on “Portlandia” come about?

Fred [Armisen] and Carrie [Brownstein] contacted me and invited me to do it. I had been trying to not fall over laughing every fifteen seconds and ruin it for everybody. I really didn’t want to be that guy [laughs].

Were you able to keep it together for the most part?

I did lose the plot a few times. They are so good at what they do and you just don’t know what they’re going to say next. It was a really fun time. I did have a few guys shout “that’s not my bike!” to me since then so now I’ve got a catchphrase.

This is a little left-field but I’m curious – I had read that you had written and partially recorded an album with Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen in 1993 that never saw the light of day. Can you tell me exactly what happened?

We wrote a bunch of songs and recorded them and looking back now they were very elaborate demos. The record needed vocals to really get finished up and it didn’t quite get there at the 11th hour. There was certainly plenty of music there but they were not entirely finished from [Ian’s] point of view. The crazy thing was though that I shipped the tapes to Ian’s house in Liverpool and on the way they got hijacked.

No way! Really?

Yeah! The van got stolen and the tapes with it. Somehow it sort of seemed like a fitting end to it. But some of the songs saw the light of day. That song “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Echo & the Bunnymen. That was a song we worked on where I helped them out.

Wow, I didn’t know that. That song was a big comeback hit for them.

Yeah I was happy that they got back together and had some success with that.

“The Messenger” is out now on Warner Bros.