Johnny Marr’s first proper solo album, The Messenger, is reviewed in the new issue of Uncut, dated March 2013, and out now, so it seemed time to revisit the guitarist’s impressive back catalogue with the man himself… From Uncut’s February 2008 issue (Take 129), Marr relives the making of records from The Smiths and The The to Electronic and Modest Mouse. Interview: Stephen Troussé
“I’m less bothered about sounding obviously like me these days,” says Marr, taking a break before the final leg of his sell-out tour with Modest Mouse. “When I started The Healers I was keen to not do something that sounded like someone copying someone sounding like me. But when I do what’s natural now, I know that’s OK. What is natural for me? I let other people put words on it. What’s natural to me could be anything from ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ to ‘Slow Emotion Replay’ to ‘Getting Away With It’ to ‘Dashboard’.” Calling from his American home in Portland, Oregon, this chiming man takes us on a tour of his greatest musical moments…
THE SMITHS – HATFUL OF HOLLOW
(Rough Trade, 1984)
Some say it’s The Smiths’ real debut: a stunning collection of Peel Sessions, singles, B-sides and more…
Johnny Marr: “At the time it surprised me how popular it was. Originally my feeling about it was that it was going to be like one of those cut-price best-ofs that you used to be able to get in the ’70s on Hallmark or Pye. I’m glad we did it, because it definitely captured that time when we were in between phases and somewhat embryonic. It had a certain kind of musical exploration on it… It’s definitive, but quite what it’s defining is mysterious. And that’s a good thing.
“You could work quickly in those days. But even at the time we were unusual in that regard. No-one had to encourage us or get us to hurry up or go into the studio. The record company couldn’t keep up with us, really. In terms of booking studio time, writing songs and releasing them. We were practically tripping over ourselves with releases.
“I was in a shop on tour recently and they were playing Hatful… – ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ and ‘Accept Yourself’ I heard for the first time in years. And I was surprised by the complexity of the music on those songs. Because they really were our early songs. Chords I’d been playing from being 16. You can hear our girl group influence, yeah. I was super obsessive about The Shangri-Las and The Marvelettes… When we met, Morrissey had Sandie Shaw covered and Billy Fury, and The Shangri-Las and Dusty were more my thing. We felt that we had everything that you need, really!”
THE SMITHS – MEAT IS MURDER
(Rough Trade, 1985)
Producing themselves for the first time, The Smiths notch up their first UK No 1 with their most musically adventurous album…
“Is it the Johnny Marr Smiths record? Maybe… I was exploring what I could do. I suppose I was feeling really let loose on that second record. The first period was over – of getting known, learning to play onstage, getting a label and getting a relationship with the audience and then that’s worked out. And then I went into it just rolling my sleeves up and thinking, ‘Let’s see what we can do!’ I have to say we were really lucky as a band that we had Stephen Street, who was also around the same age as us and a real talent in his own right waiting to happen. We had a feeling that the grown-ups had left the building and it was left to us to break some rules and have some fun.
“We recorded in Liverpool. The tour manager took it upon himself to provide us with a ’70s Merc limo, which wasn’t actually a limousine. Just a big white stretched-out Mercedes that we drove out to an industrial estate in Liverpool every day. I remember the start of the record because I moved back to Manchester very deliberately – to get the atmosphere right for the instrumental tracks I was writing. And that worked out immediately because ‘Well I Wonder’ came out of that, with the rain and everything. When we did it we knew it would be popular because it had that real sense of yearning in it. ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is one of my favourite guitar tracks. I wrote it over a period of two years, always looking for the next section I needed. I saw the Radiohead version, yeah. I have shown Ed [O’Brien] the chords, but maybe he was looking out the window! But they do a better job of it than anyone else I’ve heard.
“And ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ was always one of my favourites. It just fell through the roof. It was one of those lovely times when the feeling just falls down on you from the ceiling somewhere and it almost plays itself. It gives it an almost esoteric feeling.
“With ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, a lot’s made of the funky aspect of the bassline, but that track harks back to what I was doing with Andy before The Smiths. I guess it came out of this love of retro kind of James Brown records, and things like Rip Rig & Panic and The Pop Group. That period of anaemic, underfed white funk. It’s me and Andy being townies in Manchester, liking a bit of the American No-Wave thing, James Chance, I guess.
“When we made an album, we weren’t thinking that we needed to pull a single from it. That’s the prerequisite these days, and maybe even then. Because we were also writing singles. We wrote albums to be albums and if some singles came off them coincidentally then fair enough. We assumed that most people who followed the band were the same as us, and presumed that they didn’t need to be spoonfed a commercial track to buy an interesting piece of work. So that’s why Meat Is Murder is the way it is – almost unfettered by chart considerations.”
THE SMITHS – THE QUEEN IS DEAD
(Rough Trade, 1986)
For many, The Smiths’ finest moment: an epic and intimate state-of-the-nation and state-of-the-heart address…
“For a long time I worked on the premise that we should always have a song on each album that people said, ‘That should be a single.’ But in fact really wasn’t. ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ was that for the first album and ‘There Is A Light…’ from The Queen Is Dead. I thought it was a sign of a really great album that there was a track that everyone wanted as a single, but you had stronger singles instead.
“With a lot of my stuff, especially my acoustic work, like on ‘I Know It’s Over’, I’m not usually thinking about anybody when I do it. I was a big fan of Bert Jansch, but there’s not a lot of my stuff that actually sounds like him. I try not to sound like anybody. I think it was a sense of displacement and yearning that I remember having when I was writing it, where it’s beautiful but unnerved. That’s how I was feeling and that’s what I was trying to capture. I was playing the sound of my feelings! Luckily that was never interfered with – we didn’t want record companies sticking their noses in or management or anything.
“For the title track, one of the things musically that I always had my antenna up for were things you could dance to that weren’t obviously ‘dancey’. I was always looking for the alternatives to straight rock beats but not falling into the trap of being ‘dancey’ like A Certain Ratio or New Order or even Orange Juice. I was looking for Eddie Cochran… The Stooges… riffy drums.”
TALKING HEADS – NAKED
Marr makes one of his first post-Smiths outings on Talking Heads’ swansong, produced in Paris by Steve Lillywhite with a cast of hundreds…
“This must have been ’87, just after The Smiths split. Talking Heads had asked Steve Lillywhite to invite me over for the early stages of recording in Paris. They were about to try another period of augmentation after a couple of stripped-down records. I got the feeling that David Byrne particularly enjoyed that left-field surprise approach that other musicians brought in. When I got there they put down some bass and drum tracks. ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ sounded almost like a reggae dub track.
“I wasn’t to trying to play in an African style – although some people pointed out that I sometimes sounded like that anyway! I knew all about King Sunny Adé and I love Fela Kuti, but really I just played melodies that sounded good in a high range. The intro to ‘Flowers’ was me playing without knowing the tape machine was on – that’s how little attention I paid to any kind of remit! I built that track from the ground up. I was impressed with what David did on it. He worked super quickly.
“‘Flowers’ was the big hit but ‘Cool Water’ is probably my favourite – that was something David and I built up one afternoon: I was playing and he was encouraging me and egging me on to try different things, miking up a semi-acoustic 12-string without putting it through the amplifier and putting it into weird tunings and drones. That in itself was really invigorating.”
ELECTRONIC – ELECTRONIC
The first supergroup of the ’90s, comprising members of the three best British pop groups of the ’80s: Bernard Sumner, Johnny Marr, and associate members Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys…
“Bernard and I had always known each other – I played with him in 1983 on a Quando Quango record! But Madchester, that time was pretty amazing and somewhat unfathomable, really. There was an incredible explosion of creativity and newness in fashion and music and design – back smack in the middle of my hometown. And often back smack in the middle of my kitchen! It was really necessary. The Smiths and our aesthetic dominated the underground music scene so much that when we stepped aside the inevitable change was allowed to come blasting through.
“I remember what would often happen with Electronic is that we recorded at my house and, after having worked all day, I would say to the engineer, ‘You can work on the hi-hat sound and I’m going to go and hang out for a couple of hours.’ And about 3.30 in the morning, three cars would arrive outside my house with a bunch of people falling out, or dancing out, and we’d all pile into the control room. And I’d start working on the track. I looked over and in the corner Bez was talking to someone, and I got the pitch wheel of the tape machine and slowed one of the tracks – it was ‘Feel Every Beat’ – down until he started to dance. When it attracted his attention to start grooving, I knew then that was the right tempo. I used him as a human metronome. At the time he was probably the best indication of when something was in the right swing.”
THE THE – DUSK
Johnny hooks up with old friend Matt Johnson on this brooding exploration of a troubled world and a troubled mind…
“Dusk is my favourite of the two The The records, yeah… Because it’s one of the few records I’ve made that I can detach from and just enjoy as a listener. I don’t listen to anything after I’ve made it. As soon as it goes out I’m almost pathologically working on the next one in my mind, wherever it’s going to come from. But Dusk I continued to listen to for quite a long time afterwards. A lot of the music and the songs just appeared from this atmosphere of retreat, because of what had happened in Matt’s life – losing his brother – but also a real creatively inspired time, after being on the road for a year.
“We knew we were a great band and we’d had validation from the audience and we knew that The The had a lot of people out there willing us on, whereas with Mind Bomb we hadn’t toured and the only feedback we were getting was from the press. We were making a record for a different reason than some musical statement and bravado. We were forced to do something that had real emotions in.
“Matt was really adamant that I played as much harmonica as I could, because he really loved my playing. ‘Slow Emotion Replay’ was really the best hit that never was. There’s a real intimate feeling. It’s a very London record, but in some ways almost New Orleansy. A little like that movie, Angel Heart… and therefore pretty sexy.”
JOHNNY MARR AND THE HEALERS – BOOMSLANG
(Reincarnate Music, 2003)
Marr finally fronts his own group, including Zak Starkey and Alonso Bevan (ex-Kula Shaker)…
“Why did it take me so long to front my own group? I never really had the ambition – apart from one week when I was 11. But eventually it was just a challenge and situation I hadn’t met that had to be done. Chrissie Hynde had really let me have it one afternoon in London and told me I was being a big wimp and that I had an interesting voice. And Matt and Bernard had been on at me. And when people who love you say that, they’re not going to put you out on the line.
“The band came together really because I was following a sound that I had in my mind that I couldn’t get anywhere else. Which is probably the best reason to form any band. It was a kind of thick, psychedelic pop with singing and lyrics that went along with the music rather than against it. I had never done that before. And I wanted to work with musicians like Edgar ‘Summertyme’ Jones and Zak Starkey.
“Singing and writing lyrics weren’t really the issue, it was going out and fronting a band for 90 minutes which was the big mystery. And I found that I quite liked it. It’s a different discipline, different creative sides, and I miss it when I’m not doing it. I like getting lyrical ideas and fronting a band live comes pretty naturally.
“When we get a break with Modest Mouse I want to put out a second Healers record – several records, in fact. I’m less bothered about sounding obviously like me, too. When I just do what’s natural now, I know that’s OK.”
MODEST MOUSE – WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK
A quarter of century into his career, Marr achieves his first US No 1 with the intense American indie rockers…
“When I first met Isaac from Modest Mouse it just worked straight away. But we weren’t there to mess around, although we gave ourselves that get-out. Whatever it was we were gonna do, we were going to have fun trying over a 10-day period. On the first night we just set up two amps opposite each other and just got louder and louder and improvised. I just started playing ‘Dashboard’, which I’d been playing a few weeks before and forgotten about. And he instantly started improvising the lyrics, which knocked me out. To see someone produce those lyrics just off the top of his head is amazing: I’ve never seen it done in such a way. Next morning I woke up at 4am, jetlagged as usual, wondering whether it had really happened, that we’d written this super-commercial couple of songs. The writing was like little fires starting all over the room – this inspired atmosphere.
“There’s six of us, one of the drummers might want to do something Prince Buster or The Minutemen, the bass player will want to get something like old Celtic music, the other drummer wants it to sound techno. And I’m on whatever trip I’m on and so is Isaac. And that’s about as much as I want to work out with this band as far as the writing goes. By the third or fourth day working I remember standing in the middle of the room playing very loud and wondering to myself what this music actually is. And not being able to work it out – which was perfect.”