Johnny Marr & The Jarmans: The Cribs, The Smiths And The Trouble With Indie

In a revealing interview, Johnny Marr and The Cribs discuss what went wrong with indie, why LA destroys creative thought, the curse of the lad, and how The Smiths never had an afrobeat influence

It’s not exactly hard to have your suspicions about Johnny Marr joining The Cribs. On the surface, a midlife crisis to go with his dyed black hair, the equivalent of buying a motorbike and screaming off into the blueyonder with a dollybird riding pinion. And for The Cribs, a chance to bring in some credibility and give their fourth album a peppy boost.

But you only have to look at Jeffrey Lewis’ comic on the history of The Cribs to know that such preconceptions are way wide of the mark. Then again, preconceptions have blighted The Cribs ever since they emerged alongside the start of this decade. I must admit I had them pegged as yet another skifflin’ band of indie urchins, the North’s answer to the Libertines. But there’s a fierce intelligence to their lyrics, a subversiveness to their behaviour, that’s starting to increasingly come to the fore.

Sitting outside the offices of their label Wichita, Johnny Marr tucks into spaghetti, Gary and Ryan Jarman share a plate of nachos and brother Ross dines on a haloumi burger as they set the record straight.

So Gary and Johnny Marr, you met at a barbeque in Portland. Are you sure you weren’t just a pair of expats bemoaning the lack of English mustard?

Gary J: We did go out for afternoon tea a few times, which seems quite quaint but we got on really well from the start.

J Marr: We weren’t talking about things we missed about England because we were happy to be there. Our friends are there and we feel pretty much at home there, we wouldn’t be there otherwise. I don’t think we act like ex pats.

Gary J: It’s nice to have an English friend though, someone who . . . as much as I fit in there, I do feel that some things get lost, and some parts of American culture I don’t necessarily assimilate to well.

Perhaps having a countryman there stops you becoming a little Englander?

J Marr: That’s true

Gary J: I’ve never felt isolated. You don’t want to become a cliche, though I found myself going to the English pub a lot.

J Marr: What Gary didn’t realise was that all these musicians were really excited about him being there because they really like The Cribs. Clued up American musicians are very impressed when there’s a British band. The real cliche, that I saw in my earlier years, was when British musicians would go and live in LA and start looking, acting and behaving differently, even down to their choice of equipment or instruments or their clothes. They started, intentionally or otherwise, being American. What they missed is that clued up people in America don’t want them to do that. Without being too nationalistic about it, it made me realise the cool things about being in a British band.

British musicians and actors do get that awful English-meets-LA accent

Gary K: As far as being influenced by LA, that’s the death of your creativity. That’s a by-product rather than the incentive

J Marr: I’ve resisted being there so many times, it’s been on the cards and I’ve fought it tooth and nail. There were some ideas about The Smiths moving there in the mid-80s, I went over and I wasn’t having it. I knew it would be as Gary described, I didn’t think there’d be any good ideas there. I’ve had a couple of friends there sometimes, but I never felt I could write anything half decent there. I wrote one song there years ago, but that was it.

Morrissey lived there . . .

J Marr: [sharp] I can’t speak for him, I’m just saying for myself.

Ryan, you’ve been very critical of how indie has evolved, though of course it’s actually done the opposite if one considers Landfill Indie. When you look at The Smiths you can hear influences from Afrobeat to rock…

Gary J: Doo-wop, girl groups . . .

J Marr: [The Afrobeat influence on The Smiths] was by accident. Never deliberate. I only found out about that because people said the guitar sounded that way. It was around Rough Trade so I was able to investigate it. But the influences that we share are, as Gary was saying, girl groups and post punk contemporaries of mine. Without a doubt, what was in the air when we first signed to Rough Trade has a real connection to the Cribs when I first joined the band; Subway Sect or Orange Juice. That DIY ethic. The Cribs could easily have been on Rough Trade, the old Rough Trade.

Ryan, do you think the problem with ‘indie’ recently is that groups have limited their influences?

Ryan J: Scenes like this get created for the more commercial networks, and only last for 12 to 18 months before everyone’s sick of it. Lately it seemed like Britpop in the 90s when it was definitely a very commercial movement, and unabashedly so. The only reason I ever commented on it in the first place was because we got lumped in on it. We just wanted to make sure that people knew we weren’t part of it, we have different influences and different objectives.

Gary J: We existed at the same time in the same country as a lot of bands we had no affinity with. To be lumped in with that was really galling, bands on their first record, these kids who were just chancers . . . we were waiting for that ship to sink, we were never afraid. And regardless of the fact that we’re now wallowing in this pop hell, we’re not scared of it. It’s not a sour bake, but it’s nice there’s a distinction between mainstream pop and bands like ourselves.

Do you think that you’re more indie in the old fashioned definition?

Ryan J: It’s just a case of being your own boss. I can’t imagine a situation where for the sake of convenience, or being able to indulge yourself by giving the control to someone else. I think anyone in a band or anyone who has any kind of creative output should try and keep it that way. It’s fun for us too, you get to expose other bands by taking them on tour, or different artists with your sleeves, I wouldn’t ever swap that for having a big team so I’ve got more time to sit around and drink beer and watch TV. I got in a band to get out and do something.

Was that something you found appealing when you joined, Johnny?

J Marr: The people that I’d been close to, and joined seriously, have all controlled all the aspects of what they’re doing. So say in The The, Matt Johnson oversaw every aspect of his videos, and the time was known for that. He micromanaged his own career, and paid the price for it sometimes. I’m not interested in . . . let me put it this way, I couldn’t be involved on a day-to-day basis with people who left their artwork decisions to the A&R man, or didn’t care about the support acts, and I think there are a lot of groups around are like that. There’s no compromise with the way that The Cribs go about things, and I think the things that inspire them are very humble and down to earth, both in bands and labels. I doubt however successful The Cribs may or may not get that it’ll have any bearing on the way that they go about their business, you know what I mean?

An obvious example – when we came to write, it was down to me to choose a place to work, so I chose a pretty fucking cold rehearsal room in Stockport, rather than my studio in Manchester, because I thought my place might be too distracting. I didn’t necessarily want to write there. Some people given that choice would be going ‘what are we doing lugging our gear up these stairs into this rehearsal room’. We got on with it. We don’t have to stay in stupidly luxurious hotels, because it doesn’t feel very cool. For years and years coming to London on my own, or travelling around America I’d just stay in some cool area. I’ve done that thing where you get close to death by luxury. I don’t want to be churlish or be ungrateful, but it’s not very creative.

Gary J: We still tour in the same way as we started out. We’ve got a nice van which has got a microwave, and it seems kind of fancy for a van. I don’t need a bus; what would I need a bus for?

Ryan J: I heard about a band recently, I’m not going to say any names, who spent 42 grand on a private jet just to do an interview. It’s disgusting, it’s more than most people’s wage.

It’d pay for a few albums too

Gary J: You could even say ‘I really like Shrag from Brighton, I’m going to put them in a studio for a month to release a really great album and release it myself’. And you’d have loads of money left.

J Marr: That almost decadence has to have an effect on how you play, and what you produce. For me, the pay-off for being in a band, and what I’m after, is in the riffs. There’s a thing that means more to me than fucking lobster on room service, and if you mess with that you deserve everything you get. You want to stay sharp, and come up with good riffs, and marry it with people who come up with good lyrics. And that’s something that comes more in more in focus as I go along. That’s what I look forward to. It might sound a little abstract but if anything gets in the way of that, then I will be miserable.

How about the Mark E Smith idea: keep musicians on a tiny wage and only release music of worth, as vetted by a central body?

J Marr: Let’s have it right. There’s . . .

Ryan J: It’s a little bit dogmatic . . .

J Marr: Yes, thank you Ryan. Even criticising people can become your persona, being ‘I’m so purist’, that can be a pose.

How does this affect the political side to your lyrics? Do you think that musicians can often be dogmatic in the way they approach politics?

Ryan J: I just like to think that our values come, our personal politics, not soapbox politics. I don’t think it’s a contrived thing, it’s not preconceived to write political lyrics, but we only ever sing about what we care about, and that’s our personal politics.

J Marr: The band never talk about party politics or politicians, but as individuals they just have this idea of conscience in lifestyle.

Ryan J: I hope that our values come out in our music and interviews

Gary J: It’s not a self-righteous thing

It’s these people who shout the loudest who are the problem?

Ryan J: Johnny will always say ‘the knobheads shout the loudest’, and it’s totally true. I used to resent the fact that people saw the band as outspoken, and we never were. We just wanted to be left out of stuff, and left away from the things that we weren’t interested in. When the last record came out we were sucked into a world that we weren’t a part of.

J Marr: Also, one thing I noticed when I started doing interviews, and these aspects of the band cropped up that I had to learn about really quickly. It became a reductive thing. I’ve hammered this metaphor into the ground, but I had this 3D idea born about The Cribs and their lyrics, and the music, and the way they sang, and then it became two-dimensional. It was all about Ryan hurting himself, some political stuff, slagging off other bands, The Cribs as scamps sort of thing. A third of my idea of the band that I was expecting to talk about was never brought up, and that was intelligence. Like the cover of ‘Martell’ where Ryan’s looking into the camera and he’s got blood on his face, it’s funny to me. And the fact that the band collectively made that single cover, rather than something where they’re looking really cool and tough, is funny. And the fact that ‘Men’s Needs’, regardless of its chart position, was a hit. And I was starting to get asked all these really lowbrow questions about them getting wrecked. I think the humour was ignored.

But people missed the humour in The Smiths, surely?

J Marr: I don’t think it was. If you’re wearing a hearing aid on Top Of The Pops and singing about gender; I’m trying to avoid the word ‘politics’, because we weren’t too dogmatic, but those elements were all laid out in The Smiths. We had a picture of a naked man on the cover of the first single, and we had a picture of a half naked man on the cover of the first album. I think it’s more subtle in The Cribs. For all the subtleties in the lyrics, it’s more vaudevillian, music hall, and that music hall aspect is what I heard in songs like ‘Martell’ or ‘Ignore the Ignorant’. I see a song like ‘Animal Like Me’ to be a very deliberate Northernism, and that’s not an accidental title, and I was never asked about that.

Is it because you got tarnished with laddism?

Gary J: Yes, especially being a Northern band. Those people have my entire life been my nemesis, and it’s disgusted me we’ve been lumped in with stuff like that. It’s a differentiation between lad rock and punk rock. Lad rock, which was Oasis bar-room straight uninspired music, becoming assimilated into some approximation of punk. Being around that was so frustrating it made me not want to be in a band for a while, because the lines had become so blurred. I always hated it, I was disgusted at it.

With Oasis gone, is laddism over?

Gary J: They ruined my life on a small level, and when I got in a band they ruined my life on a bigger level. They somewhat debased what we were doing.

Surely they turn up to the gigs?

Gary J: On the last record we’d play gigs and have them bellowing back ‘Men’s Needs’. The Smiths had it, and they were so anti laddism. You had a hardcore lad fanbase.

J Marr: Yeah we did, because we got in the charts. But it can be an opportunity. Because that only happens because the band rock like fuck. If a band play in a wet style, and very fey, those guys won’t come back. With The Smiths, for all our ideas of Oscar Wilde and afternoon tea, we could do that, we knew that we really took care of business. No matter whether you’re an artist, a creative intellectual, if you want to see a rock band you’ve got to rock like fuck, and that isn’t being rockist. The Cribs do that, and The Smiths did it, and that’s where it starts getting really interesting, when you marry those guts with brains. To a certain kind of sensibility that’s a great opportunity. I’m super grateful that it’s touched my life.

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