“I Went Much Further Than I Ever Thought I Could”: Johnny Marr Interviewed

Taylor Parkes talks to the formidable guitarist about why he's been happy since The Smiths just doing a bit of this and a bit of that

Four years back, on this very spot, I found myself reviewing a best-of compilation called The Sound Of The Smiths. One thing was clear to me: it had to be an unsentimental reappraisal of a band I had, in my youth, loved pretty much uncritically. Give credit where credit is due, I thought – which is an awful lot of credit – but poke around until you find the weak spots, too… every last one of them. This wasn’t devilment, neither was it (solely) the product of a mid-life crisis. It just seemed to me that the discourse surrounding The Smiths had pretty much turned to sludge. There were those who wrote like gladioli-swinging fans, and those a bit too keen to lay into a band whose critical canonisation had clearly been bugging them for years. This is what happens when you get too big: no one will speak the truth about you.

Anyway, reading it back today – wincing at clumsy turns of phrase, feeling a little embarrassed at how mean I was about poor Mike Joyce, occasionally thinking "no hang on, that’s a good song, what was I on about there?" – what comes across most clearly is how hard it was to find fault with the contribution of Johnny Marr. You could argue, as I did, that his song-structures and to some extent his playing grew less original, more predictable, towards the end of the run (complaints at least partially cancelled out, perhaps, by the lusciousness of what he does on many of those later records; in some ways the glossy eclecticism of Strangeways is his finest moment). You could point out, as I did, that certain Smiths tunes don’t perhaps sound all that great today (well yes, when you put out that many records in that short a space of time, only the very easily-pleased are going to think they’re all bloody marvellous). Ultimately though, you keep coming back to that one inescapable fact: this bloke’s really, really good.

Johnny Marr is that rare thing, a musician about whom almost no one can find a really bad word to say. The way he’s spent the last decade or so – turning Modest Mouse from a mildly interesting quirk-rock band into something you might actually want to listen to, trying to add some sparkle to the clattering of The Cribs, forming the largely-overlooked Healers with someone out of Kula Shaker – hasn’t been to everyone’s taste, but few would dispute that all this energy and enthusiasm compares well to what most successful rock guitarists tend to do in their forties. In person, of course, he’s famously charming and decent, the kind of interviewee who looks you in the eye and nods while you’re speaking, and pauses for thought before he replies; one wealthy rock star who neither feels the need to patronise nor act like a prick. Someone you might want to sit down and talk to.

Still, it can be very uncomfortable interviewing people you loved when you were 12: they tend to have some rotten new record out which they insist on talking about while you keep trying to sneak in questions about music they made when they were good. Happily, Johnny Marr’s new single ‘The Messenger’ is the best thing he’s done for many years… which is what they all say, of course, when they come to do these interviews. Critic’s code for "yeah, yeah, the last one was even worse – now let’s get on with talking about when he was 23, and I was even younger." But no, ‘The Messenger’ is very fine – a song in a style for which I have almost no time at all (post-Smiths Manchester indie, basically), and yet I’ve been listening to it all week, for pleasure.

See, what makes ‘The Messenger’ so good is not so much the song as the sound. Most of the records it kind-of reminds you of felt dead, the way so much modern British guitar music feels dead: flat arrangements, coked-up production, a lack of movement under the surface. This, by contrast, is glittering, shifting, three-dimensional, a little world. And strangely enough, it’s all done with guitars: guitars played quietly and mixed loud, guitars played loudly and mixed quiet, a hundred guitars all playing at once and – oh, hallelujah – not all playing the same bloody thing. It’s a guitar record, in the best possible sense, made by a guitarist who is – at last – his own boss, making his own decisions (for instance, "this needs more guitar").

"Yeah," shrugs Johnny, "and that’s OK. There have been times over the years when I might have avoided that, either because it was too obvious or because I didn’t want to be bagged – and it’s certainly the prerogative of someone in their 20s or 30s to do that. But when you get a bit older it’s good to drop certain worries, cos it’s not appropriate any more. I went to see Television a while ago, and it occurred to me that if I go and see Television, I don’t want to hear them to trying to sound like The Ramones. I want them to sound like Television being very, very good. I mean, it’s hardly profound, but it was a bit of a rule of thumb I had with this record: be me, and do it as good as I can. Don’t go trying to re-invent my own wheel. I’ve tried to do that plenty of times already.

"So I’m glad that it’s a guitar player’s record… I’m absolutely fine with that. It’s also a little bit about the people who’ve followed me and stuck with me for a long time, and what they want…"

You worry about pleasing the fans? Not many people in your position would admit that.

"I think it’s a valid consideration. Especially as I like ’em! I like these people, I think they’re interesting people. I have an assumption that they’re like me" – he laughs – "in some ways, anyway. I mean, I assume they must have a similar mentality. What they want me to do is probably what I want to do anyway. So I tried to keep all this in my mind, not get distracted and go off on too many tangents, or get paranoid or neurotic about playing in my own style."

I’m not really interested in gossip. I don’t get the impression that Johnny Marr’s particularly interested in gossiping – not right now, leastways. There’s not much point in talking to Johnny Marr about anything other than music, really: it’s what he’s interested in, it’s what he does. So we spend an hour talking about music. Those who find this deadly dull (and I do appreciate that there are many) might wish to read something else. But I’m talking to Johnny Marr, and we’re talking about music.

Starting with the way he plays guitar – I remember, when we first learnt that Marr’s pre-Smiths band was a funk ensemble (the little-heard, never-released Freak Party), many seemed surprised, in light of what they perceived as the pearly whiteness of The Smiths. In fact, it should have surprised no one: it’s always seemed obvious to me that his playing on many of those early Smiths songs (and the style in which they’re written, for that matter) is a welding together of British/Irish folk styles and late 70s funk.

"You mean like ‘Accept Yourself’, those kind of songs?" he says. "Yeah, that’s interesting. No one’s really mentioned that before, but yeah. When you’re doing it you don’t do it consciously, but I think that’s probably true."

Of course, Marr’s teenage listening wandered all over the place: Elvis Presley, Hamilton Bohannon, Rory Gallagher, David Bowie, girl groups, new wave, the good old Rolling Stones. Most of this came out in his playing, one way or another, over time. But how did that early funk/folk style come together? How did this long list of influences get whittled down to something so simple and striking?

"I left school in 1980. And the time I come from musically was right after punk, you know, post-punk. So you still want things to rock, but you don’t want to be rock… when you’re really developing your thing as a musician, there are – quite rightly – loads of politics laid down, musical politics. Certainly there were at that time. Certain things had been wiped out. You could no longer play bluesy, or play extended solos, have really a lot of effects on, play long songs, play anything obviously rockist… so right away there, you’ve thrown away a whole lot of what the electric guitar is about. So you’re left with this very skinny, clean way of playing guitar, and it’s lost its blues roots, so it was very white – but what if you like black music? What kind of black influence is going to fit these parameters? Well, funk will.

"That’s why Josef K sounded like they did, all those groups – and you had people like ABC around, applying that kind of thinking to pure pop music. So I’d just left school, I was really young, this stuff was current – and when you’re young you want to be absolutely current. So I was absorbing all this stuff, and at the same time I’d already been very influenced by people like Bert Jansch… I mean, folk music had been completely forgotten about, but I’d been into that stuff for a long time.

"So… when you take away the bluesy playing and the long solos, as a guitar player what have you got left? Well essentially you’ve got folk, and you’ve got funk. Which in my case, I was playing on the equipment of the Patti Smith Group, the Fender Twin Reverb [a guitar amp famous for its clean, clear tone], which gave it a particular sound. I think that’s how it happened."

The combination of discipline and space in that early Smiths sound worked miracles, allowing Morrissey’s irregular verses (and still more irregular vocal style) to function as pop music, rather than some sort of post-punk performance art. The songs’ hook lines are rarely in the vocal melody, suiting the singer’s limited range and allowing him to do his peculiar thing. Almost everything you remember musically from those songs is happening on Marr’s guitar.

"A lot of that was me leaning on my love of Chic," muses Johnny. "Which was about more than just copying Nile Rodgers as a guitar player – what interested me about Chic was a songwriting duo sculpting pop singles from a very big and distinctive guitar style which was not some rockist cliché. Using the guitar as a pop machine. It satisfied a lot of things I like: commercialism without being totally straight, a little bit of finesse, building songs around the guitar without all that horrible old nonsense that guitar culture became, really."

One problem with the old guitar heroes was that most of the time, all they could actually express through their playing was a kind of priapic aggression. Marr, and those who followed him, had a wider emotional vocabulary.

"I think a lot of that was down to the sexual politics of the time creeping into music. At that time, kids who played guitar, they were tired of that gaucheness. The showboating, the macho aesthetic of guitar music. Suddenly, smart young guys were OK about femininity, anything in their playing or their style of dress that wasn’t totally macho, or suggested they may possibly have a friend who was homosexual or – God forbid – they might be one themselves, it was like ‘so fucking what?’

"Because the generation before, particularly in America, they had that fucking repression and the naffness that went along with it built into their rock culture at a very deep level, without a doubt. The bands and the audiences. I mean, for 30 years now I’ve been meeting Americans, intelligent straight guys, rock fans, who came to see The Smiths and the big thing for them was ‘thank God, here’s a band who rock… and jocks don’t like them!’"

I’m still thinking about Chic. If you listen to something like ‘Le Freak’ you can hear parts of it working in a similar way to most of Hatful Of Hollow – except Chic were about the rhythm section, too. The bass and drums on Smiths records never completely gelled, and that lack of fluidity became a distinctive part of their sound (contributing to a shocking indifference towards the role of the rhythm section amongst white guitar groups that continues to this day, rendering most of what people call indie music toothless, though you can’t blame them for that).

It doesn’t harm The Smiths too much, though; one reason I feel a bit guilty for giving Mike Joyce so much stick in that four-year-old review is that to some extent I think I misread exactly how the band worked. A funny thing about those records is that the "real" rhythm section isn’t Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, it’s Andy Rourke and Marr. The rhythmic interest on those records (and there is some) has nothing to do with the drums; it’s generated almost entirely by the interplay of guitar and bass.

"Yeah, that’s true. Entirely true, cos we were best mates and we learnt to play together, and the guitar and bass would interweave in a particular way.

"In fact, when we got Mike in the band, we explained to him that the drums should follow the guitar, instead of the bass as they usually would, and the bass would go inbetween. That was something we’d got from early Rolling Stones, but it was how we thought our band should work anyway. Me and Andy had played together every step of the way – even before he played bass we’d be playing guitars together – so it was always going to be like that. We still hang out now, and there’s still a real empathy between us as people that comes out when we play.

"And then also, that was developed further when the time came to record the bass, on the records that I produced. Once the drum track and the vocal track were down, me and Andy would put a new bassline on there. I’d sit there as producer, egging him on, pushing him, cos I was his biggest fan – and it was my role to get the record done – so the way we recorded the bass is another reason the rhythm section doesn’t work in a conventional way. But you’re entirely right, the tempo and the swing of those records was between my guitar and Andy’s bass."

Marr’s greatest achievement in the studio, of course, is still ‘How Soon Is Now?’ – the fiendishly complex story of its creation has been covered elsewhere, so we don’t go over it again (but if you’re really into reading about linked-up chains of Fender Twin Reverbs and hours spent fiddling with harmonisers, you’re very welcome to Google away). What I wonder, though – and I’m aware that this might just be me being old and that – is whether access to digital technology, a godsend for so many other forms of music, has made it a little too easy for modern guitarists to find a "weird" sound, and ultimately dampened their ingenuity?

A long pause. "I think the answer is probably yes. It can certainly be an enemy of style. I feel quite fortunate that I came out at the time I did, really, because there were a lot of things you couldn’t do – technically and in terms of the musical politics of the time – and it forced me to pull a few things out of the bag which became my style. Like, I didn’t use sustain so I had to keep my right hand moving and get into picking, things like that. Maybe eight or ten years earlier I’d have ended up playing totally differently, but I was just using whatever tools I was allowed to use, and which excited me.

"So I mean, modern stuff like remodelling pedals and computer plugins, I’m not dismissive of them at all, but I approach them as someone who used to do things the difficult way. I try to really squeeze as much out of them as I can, really work at it, try to sculpt new tones, not just use it as a short cut… and I come to it with a sense of wonder because I really appreciate how much these bloody things can do. Whereas I think a lot of people take that stuff for granted and will just push buttons and go ‘OK, now it sounds like that,’ go out on stage and play and it just sounds… virtual. It’s like virtual tones…

"I mean, when you hear ‘How Soon Is Now?’, that was a combination of many things. It took patience, ingenuity, drugs, a good demo, the right people at the right time, focus, intensity, hard work… I mean, despite the drugs. It makes me value modern technology, and approach it in a healthy way. But then at the end of the day I’m alright with new musicians’ attitude to technology, because there are plenty of good young bands and musicians who don’t need to think about how things were done in the old days, they’re just cool guys, they’re all right, they’ve got their own thing going. So I think the answer to your question is yes, but luckily there are still people who’ve got good taste and good sense."

Speaking of which, there’s no way round the fact that The Smiths’ records suffered for having been made in the 1980s, when record production was in something of a dark age; all of them, to some extent, have that awful thin, metallic sound. The recent remastering (by Marr himself) has helped more than a little, but ultimately what’s on the tape is what’s on the tape – these songs were just badly recorded. They’re widely considered the best pop records of the decade, but they don’t sound half as good as they should. Does that gnaw at you a bit?


Another pause, and his mouth tightens.

"Well actually, no, because people love ’em so much. That’s the honest answer. I mean in my case, the records I made with The The – Dusk, especially – they were recorded so well, with such knowledge and good taste, that I got my shot at that anyway. And the same with stuff I’ve done with other people, like when I worked with John Frusciante (on the LP The Empyrean) and the stuff I did with Modest Mouse, so in a way I’ve had the best of both worlds."

Is there a "best" of that particular world? Massive, reverberating drums and tinny little guitars…

"Weirdly, there are people who love that 80s sound. Seriously! Young musicians, say The Cribs for example, they love that weird sound."

I suppose it is quite weird, if you didn’t grow up with it all over everything.

"The first Smiths album, I think everyone knows it suffered a bit from second-guessing itself, and John Porter getting wrapped up in what he thought was a ‘modern’ sound, and I was too young to have enough experience or knowledge to change that. I much prefer the demos, the original Troy Tate recordings, without a doubt, all day long. Way better. But luckily, because we were on such a little budget, ‘cos of being on Rough Trade – we had to do two songs in three days, including mixing – we managed to not put too much 80s crap on top. It could have been much worse!"

What was it that appealed about Modest Mouse? Their music’s quite loose in terms of the arrangements… did you see a space there in which you could experiment a bit?

"No, what appealed at first was the total intrigue. Because they were one of the very few groups where I couldn’t immediately identify their influences. Isaac Brock contacted me and asked if I’d help them write a record and get involved in the production, and purely because of that intrigue I said, ‘OK, let’s try it as a ten day experiment.’

"I knew I liked them, but it was weird because unlike The The, I actually couldn’t hear where I’d fill a space in there. I thought the whole thing would probably come to nothing, but on the first night I came up with the riff and music to ‘Dashboard’, then straight away we did another song called ‘We’ve Got Everything’, and then at the end of the ten days I changed my plane ticket. Just stayed on writing and writing. Throughout my career I’ve sometimes got attached to songs that I’ve been writing with other people which maybe I shouldn’t have pursued… but luckily this was a time when I was really clear headed and I was absolutely right to pursue those songs. If I’ve got a few songs going with someone then everything, my personal life, my family life, my professional life, just gets forgotten. Just to see these songs through. Luckily, this time it was the right decision."

And The Cribs… it’s not the kind of music that does the slightest thing for me, but even leaving that aside, I can’t see how an already-established guitarist could see a way to express themselves in there.

"Well, that wasn’t really the thing. The story is… when I joined Modest Mouse it was just timed fortuitously, it was a time when it was a good idea to get out of the UK… because in 2004, 2005 the only British guitar music I wanted to listen to was ‘I Can’t Explain’ by The Who, and I didn’t want to be living in 1965. I’ve had enough of retro, I don’t like the whole classic rock thing, but I was really stuck on that record and nothing that was out could beat it. Particularly the solo…"

It is a fantastic solo. The sense of chaos, the way it spends what seems (in its 14-second lifespan) an absolutely outrageous amount of time clinging on to a single note, then suddenly spirals off into something which blatantly isn’t the blues… considering the London R&B scene of the time was dominated by po-faced purists, the fucking balls it must have taken to do something like that on your first single, so unashamedly trashy, and yet so much more inventive and exciting than anything Eric Clapton ever did…

"It’s incredible. It’s so good. I was just stuck on it. Couldn’t get past it. But the American music that was coming out at the time was a different thing, it had nothing to do with that kind of sound, and I was alright with it. I liked The Shins and I liked Elliott Smith and I loved Modest Mouse, so I was able to forget that obsession with ‘I Can’t Explain’. So moving to Portland was exactly right for me, it was exactly the right place at that moment.

"But after being in what I thought was the best and most representative American group for a few years, doing hundreds of gigs, tour after tour after tour after tour, I started to get this notion, which has sort of been realised on this new solo album, a certain feeling that attracted me to certain bands when I was a kid… I started to get this feeling that I should make a record where every song should start with my guitar, and every song should sound like it came from the north of England. And by that I don’t mean visions of smoky chimney tops and all that, I mean a particular kind of banging new wave. And coincidentally around that time I met The Cribs, about whom I had this idea of them being a north of England banging new wave band… and I thought ‘Hey Scenesters’ was as good as any Buzzcocks record. I had this thing about that record, and I met Gary Jarman in Portland, we hit it off and we had this idea to do a single with me playing on it as a guest.

"And I thought it was a great idea because I’d seen in them this tradition of what I call street music – working class guys who aspire to change their world, and maybe their followers’ world, with a run of very direct 45s… it was me romanticising certain groups, really, and they are part of that tradition, it’s what they wanted to be. So we got together to write a couple of songs and the songwriting took off and I just got a bond with these guys, a kinship. I mean in that way I’ve never changed since I was 13. You find yourself in a situation with some fellas and just follow the music."

I suppose that’s something which is easy to overlook, when you’re just sat listening. Playing music – when you’re actually doing it – it’s as much about people as anything else.

"It absolutely is."

So, does it ever bother Johnny Marr that arguably the most creative and certainly the most celebrated guitarist of the post-punk era has basically been doing a bit of this and a bit of that since the age of 24?

"No, not at all."

Do you never think that maybe, after The Smiths, you could or should have done something a little bit bigger… something which was totally yours?

"I know about groups, and I know about how to form groups – I did before The Smiths – and I know I wouldn’t have been able to form a group of my own for a long time after The Smiths that was either going to get a fair shake, or where I was gonna have the mental energy and emotional strength and desire at that time, with all the shit I was getting, to propel three or four other people through those waters… that’s the reality.

"And as an adult I know that I found refuge in my favourite band of the time, which was The The. I was lucky enough to be someone who got to join his favourite band, with one of the strongest and coolest guys that I’ve ever met, and who was fearless enough to harbour me at that moment in time: Matt Johnson. And I got to make a couple of records, Dusk in particular, that I really, really love. And then at the same time, I got to drop being a rock musician completely, and work with possibly the coolest person I’ve ever met, Bernard Sumner… I mean, I’ll take that all day long. I’m making the solo record now, because it feels like the right time.

"I’m alright with it. I never wish I’d done anything else. I went much further than I ever thought I would anyway. I’m… happy."

Johnny Marr’s new album The Messenger is released on February 25th 2013

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