Johnny Marr on the Smiths, ‘The Messenger’ and Going Solo After All These Years

Legendary guitarist Johnny Marr discusses his new solo album "The Messenger," in stores February 26th

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Johnny Marr credit: Jon Shard

Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr is one of the most talented guitar players of all time — and he has the resume to prove it. Marr’s intricate and dynamic guitar work can be heard in the works of The Smiths (of which he was a founding member), The The, Electronic, the Cribs, and Modest Mouse. He’s collaborated with artists ranging from Eddie Vedder to Oasis to Billy Bragg to Talking Heads and helped write the score for the film Inception.

After over three decades in the business, Marr is on the cusp of releasing his first proper solo album. We sat down with the legendary guitarist to talk about his past in The Smiths, and his present, which is The Messenger, his excellent new album, which will be in stores on February 26th:

You’ve been in the music business for more than 30 years, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the industry?

The biggest change is that traditionally musicians would go on tour in support of a record they just made and now that situation is completely reversed. Now musicians make a record to justify their live performances. Quite an interesting change, I think. It’s fantastic that there isn’t really a substitute for live performance and that it isn’t something you can digitally reproduce. I’m happy about that. It’s a bit of a shame that records come and go so quickly sometimes. I still believe that they can be beautiful things.

Do you think you Meat Is Murder would enter the British charts at Number One these days

Sure! Modest Mouse hit the American charts at number one. So yeah.

What was the first record you ever really loved? And what’s the most recent one you bought?

I really loved the first record I ever bought. And it was a fluke for me, which is that it was T. Rex, which makes me the coolest 9 year old ever, but the truth is that it was it had a photograph of the percussion player on the center label and he just looked so great that I thought I was getting more bang for my buck. I bought it for those reasons and I decided I loved it on the walk home before I ever heard. From that moment on T Rex was my band.

I buy a lot of records all the time. It would have been Brian Eno’s “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). It was supposed to be a Christmas present for a friend, but I kept it for myself. I’m a bad friend.

(MOREA Fan’s Notes on a Biography of The Smiths)

I read an article that said your first band Freak Party was a funk band, which was surprising…

Not my first band, Sister Ray before that and that was a bunch of grown up guys I didn’t even know who invited me to be in their band and they were scary. I look back now and I can’t believe I was even brave enough to be in a room with those guys. Scary men and I was like 15 and I was only in it for 8 months. It was a good apprenticeship.

Do you think playing in so many different types of band helped hone your unique guitar sound?  

You are what you play. Or you should be. I was just kind of playing the way I felt I don’t really know what that says about me. Kind of hyperactive jubilant melancholic? What ever that is. It’s a combination of upbeat one minute and melancholic the other way. Doing it full tilt either way. I was playing the sound of my feelings from the technical points. I tended to join and form bands and be in bands that fulfilled a certain need at a particular time for me to develop, so nothing’s changed on that front.

Your new album sounds more like the work you were doing on The Smiths than any of your other recent work. Were you just ready to return to that sound or do you think you’d been fighting it all these years?

Yeah, I probably just let my guard down. The thing about this record is I only had a few considerations and one of those was that it had to be natural and to not overthink things and to do the things that come naturally and not try to reinvent my own wheel. I’ve tried to do that a few times before. I was more interested in connecting with the person that I was before The Smiths. I would say –if I had to put a label on it – it was half the groups before The Smiths and the rest of the groups after the Smiths. People hear Electronic in it! So I wouldn’t say I’m returning to the sound of The Smiths, that was just me.

You named your new album The Messenger. What message are you delivering?

The same messages that we’re all delivering all the time via our body language and our arguments and our praise and all the world’s a stage. We’re constantly playing roles and sending those messages out. The title track is a very simple song. Some parts are about self-less love and the way we communicate with each other and sending messages back and forwards. The song just came out.

“Upstarts” is a fairly political song. While The Smiths were quite political, bands like Modest Mouse really aren’t. Are political themes natural for you? 

Sociological is a better word than political. I’m more sociological than political with a Capital “P.” If you’re talking about political with a small “p,” than yeah I’m political. I’m not trying to be coy or cryptic, but I think where you buy your clothes and the people you associate with is a political act. I have strong reservations about saying I’m Political, because I don’t particularly like politicians, but I wouldn’t pay them enough attention to write about them in a song. This song came from me imagining a soundtrack to what a demonstration by school children would sounds like. I heard a young English girl talking very fast about the 2011 Manchester riots on the news. She was a little rioter and great and funny and she reminded me of someone who cam e to my concerts. So this song is for 9-year old rebels that hopefully everyone can relate to.

 When the Smiths broke up you joined The Pretenders, why not branch out on your own instead?

I played with them for 11 shows and Chrissie and I hung out for a year, but we didn’t put out a record or anything. We did a 7” cover version of Burt Bacharach on the A-side and The Stooges on the B-side and that was great. We’re still friends.

Were you just not ready to go solo then?

I’ve been forming groups since I was 14 or 15. I had just come out of a group and wasn’t keen to form another one, but was keen to play with my friends and people I thought were interesting. Luckily I got a lot of invitations and that was unexpected and things took off in a way, which I hadn’t anticipated. The group I most wanted to be in was The The. Matt Johnson had asked me to join when I was 17. but I was too broke to afford the train fare to move to London so I stayed.

If you had the train fare, would The Smiths never have happened?

Maybe, yeah. But I didn’t have the train fare.

(MORERead an Excerpt from A Light That Never Goes Out)

And what made you want to put out a solo album after so long? Why not do it right after The Smiths broke up?

The Healers was an important first step for me and I wouldn’t be able to do what I was doing now if I hadn’t learned to be up front with them. When I first started making this album, I realized I didn’t need a collective. I didn’t need people to give me support for my ideas. I knew what I wanted to achieve on it. It was planned out and it would have been very boring. I knew what impression I wanted to make when it was finished. A couple people around me asked why are you going to call it something else? I didn’t think it was a solo record, but I wanted to do something different than I had in the last few years where I was in groups. My own record seemed like the right thing if I didn’t want to be in another band. The most important thing was that I had an idea and I felt passionate about the idea and the sound.

When Taylor Swift wrote “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was she actually singing about Smiths’ reunion? Have you considered playing it for critics and fans who insist on asking?

Whatever is the wittiest answer just put that down and say I said it. I’m sure it’s an absolutely lovely song, but not really my kind of chord change.

Do you think you have another solo album in you or will you be joining up with a group again?

Me and the group are hopefully going to get on the road and play these songs. All the songs on the record sound good as a set, which is how I hoped it would be and I can rely on back catalogue and play those older songs that we want to for fun. I just want to keep doing what I want to do and go out and have a good time with people who get it. That’s as much as I want to do it some more and to do it some more and write more songs and connect with the people who get it and enjoy it and understand what it is I’m doing. That sounds like jolly good fun.

And if the Smiths won’t get back together, will The The?

Well I would love for that to happen at some point, but I get in trouble because I’m really kind of busy now. So who knows. Maybe we could make a record and put it out quickly. Matt Johnson and I have known each other a long time, maybe we could make more music together.

As someone who has been in so many incredibly popular bands over the years, do you get frustrated trying to over come your past?

I think that would be really over thinking things. If you’re lucky enough to be in bands that people really love, you should stop thinking after that. Take it for what it is. When I first started out I just wanted to be heard, like most people do. I was just trying to get something going. People who write are the same; people who paint are the same. It would be pretty churlish to complain about having done stuff that people love and still feel good after that. That would be over-the-top. It’s never stopped me from going forward and I’m here talking to you. It’s not that much of a problem.

Is that why you’ve started playing Smiths’ songs live after you didn’t for so long? I noticed they’ve been popping up in your live shows lately.

As time passes you start to feel differently about things. There are some songs that I like to do and people want to hear them and that’s what shows are about. When the point was not to live in the past, well then that point was made. Now I can do them. When I didn’t want to do them, it felt like I was living in the past and it was getting in the way of the future, now it all kinds of works out. When I’m seeing a band that I really like, I want them to play certain songs.

You were a guest star on Portlandia and the look on your face was brilliant. Have you ever considered doing more acting?

I think I would if the right thing came along. That was really good fun. I was just trying to not be the guy who messed everything up for the professionals. I’m sure you know this, but the hardest thing is not to laugh, especially because it’s just so funny. I remember this one bit where Carrie lay down and started cycling on her back and I remember it just being really funny and really hard not to laugh. I was in a movie in the UK. It was quite a small part. I don’t even know if it came out. But if something good came up I would do it. It was a good experience.

After so many years on the side of the stage, what was it like moving to the center?

I never harbored any secret sinister plot to liberate center stage. I had done it when I was a kid and when I was in my teens so I had some experience. And in some ways doing it back then was much more terrifying, because I was just learning. I leaned on those experiences. Working with the Healers was so great. They were very supportive and that was enough for validation for me. I really didn’t over think it. I’ve sung with a lot of good people, a lot of impressive people and they are still talking to me–Eddie Vedder and Chrissie Hynde and such. With the album I just did it for people who liked it. I have songs I have to sing and I’m excited about the songs yet to be written. I have songs that I know what I want them to sound like and I can only do that myself. I like singing. I like singing good upbeat manic new wave music. Not everybody does it. That’s what I like to do. I like doing what I’m doing and I look forward to doing more of it and doing more of it the best that I can.

What do you think is the secret to having such a long and steady career?

Stay up all night smoking, drinking and taking drugs.

Watch Johnny Marr “The Messenger”:


Johnny Marr’s new album The Messenger is out February 26th on ADA/Sire Records.