December 18, 2014

An Interview with Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr is just getting started.

Sure, it’s been more than three decades since the British guitarist first ventured into immortality with The Smiths, his six-string virtuosity complementing Morrissey's often esoteric lyricism. And, sure, he’s played in a handful of other bands in the more than quarter century since the Smiths broke up, from The The to Electronic to Modest Mouse to The Cribs. And, okay, he’s appeared on even more albums by even more bands, including those of Talking Heads and Oasis and too many others to mention.

These days, however, Marr is immersed in a musical pursuit all his own.

Barely a year after the release of his critically hailed solo debut, The Messenger, Marr now forges ahead with ever-evolving artistry and imagination on his latest, Playland. As he suggests in the following conversation, this is only the beginning.

Were there elements or distinctions about Playland that you sought to be different than ones on The Messenger?

I kind of felt instinctively that we were going to go in a little more of a stronger kind of direction musically. The drums were going to be louder and… I wouldn’t say bombastic, but I just knew that [from] the way we were playing live it was going to be a little harder sounding — along the same lines, but harder.

Starting the album with “Back in the Box” is a dramatic way to get into things. That song’s got a real kick.

Once I got that song written I thought it’d be a good opener because, as you say, it’s got a kick. Also, the song is really in praise of euphoria and feeling good — a sort-of-ecstatic stage, shall we say. I researched, actually, things like schizophrenia. I came across a couple of reports on schizophrenic episodes and that gave me a couple of phrases, like “walk on the wind” and “breaking me out from the inside and the outside,” that kind of thing. The song is really a celebration of those moments in life when maybe you just want to punch the air. I thought that was a good balance, really, and a good way to start off a record. I think when music does that it’s the greatest thing.

It’s an exuberant way to start the album.

Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. Exactly, yeah.

“Dynamo” really draws in the listener, particularly when it reaches the chorus: There’s a melodic lift, so to speak, that elevates the song to another level.

Good. That’s nice to hear. “Lift” is a good word because the song is a love song, essentially. It could be about anything, and I happened to conceive it about the love of a building. But it was important to me that it felt like someone could sing it to a person who they love — romantic love, family love, anything really. So, I like that you used the word “lift” because that was the feeling I was trying to evoke. The music really led to concepts of the song.

Sometimes I’ll have the concepts first, like “Easy Money.” I knew I was going to write about that subject and I went then into a suitable kind of musical background for it. Well, in the case of “Dynamo,” I had the tune, had all the melody, and I wanted the words to match that atmosphere of what was going on there.

“Easy Money” was a tricky one because I felt that if I was going to write about the outside world and about society I was going to have to mention money in some way, but it’s been done so many times in music, it could be a little bit hackneyed. Also, I didn’t want it to come across as a complaint or a downer. I wanted to almost lampoon — if that’s the right word — our relationship to money and how we view it. So I then went on a search to try to write something really upbeat and catchy.

The phonetic way you sing the word “money” in that one gives it a rather striking rhythm. 

Funnily enough, when I think about those things in my approach to singing sometimes I’ve not really managed to find a better term for the approach than “rock ‘n’ roll.” Over the years the term “rock ‘n’ roll” has taken all kinds of associations and meanings.... Regardless of how long it’s been around, [though], rock ‘n’ roll — whether it’s Eddie Cochran or the Buzzcocks, or early Lou Reed or Ray Davies — is the thing that influences my singing, really. If my singing comes across as rock ‘n’ roll singing then I’m more than happy with that because it seems to be somewhat of a dying art.... I like singing that’s got a rhythm to it. Joey Ramone really knew how to do that. Even if you’re not necessarily singing words then the attitude and the sound of it can be really catchy. I really like that approach.

Yeah, that’s the way “Easy Money” comes off. Whereas, say, The O'Jays sang the word “money” on “For the Love of Money” in a more fluent style, the way you sing it comes off as cadenced and cut-up. 

Yeah, interesting. You can have a lot of fun with that stuff. On that song the record was literally recorded on the back lounge of the bus, except for drums of course. I went in the studio to make the record and I just could never beat what I’d done on the bus, the guitars and the vocals. All the singing is what I did at two-thirty in the morning on the way to El Paso. I had to keep getting the bus driver to stop so I didn’t get the sound of the bus on the vocal track. It’s got that enthusiasm of when you just write something and it’s all new and you think it’s the greatest thing.

How comfortable are you as a lyricist? Obviously you’re most known and respected as a guitarist, but you’re writing all these songs now. How comfortable are you in that role?

I’m comfortable because, without being overconfident or too cocky, when I do something that I think is right, I think it’s pretty good and I’m kind of proud of it. I always want to get better, of course, and I’m still that way on the guitar. If you don’t think that way, then… Hubris isn’t such a great thing. So I do want to get better, but some songs I’ve written, like “Psychic Beginner,” which is a B-side, and “New Town Velocity,” “Upstarts,” and “Speak Out, Reach Out”… Let’s put it this way. I wouldn’t want anyone else to replace the lyrics no matter who they were.

You still regard the guitar as a challenge?

Yeah, absolutely. Because I started playing as a little kid and it’s been in my life for as long as I can remember and part of my family, I have an almost mystical appreciation of it, but at the same time a healthy opinion that it is a machine. On the one hand, like most guitar freaks I could fetishize guitars and guitar culture. And that’s a really nice thing to do. But I also enjoy that it’s a machine. There’s just something really cool about that. It just makes it an all-encompassing, awesome thing.

I remember reading over the years [about] some guitar players who feel that they kind of plateau out as they work. That might be okay for them, but that’s not okay for me because there’s still a real matter of discovery. If I felt that I’d gotten to everywhere that I could get on the instrument I’d either be kind of depressed or I would stop what I’m doing and go back to school and just study it. I just kind of made a pact with myself when I was nine, ten, eleven, that it was my greatest companion and it was my doorway out of not just my social situation but out of these regular three dimensions. It’s kind of complicated to describe. My relationship with the guitar is sometimes otherworldly. I talk about that in the song “25 Hours” — “this door really goes somewhere.” That’s kind of what I’m talking about, my relationship with the guitar, with art and pop culture. Guitar is my vehicle for that.

So there’s always something to learn.

I try to think about the guitar along the spectrum of James Williamson, who was in The Stooges during the Raw Power era, on the one hand to John McLaughlin and his solo record, My Goal’s Beyond. I like all the spectrum in between, and that might be — and is — Richard Lloyd [of Television], John McGeoch from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nile Rodgers. To me these people are magicians and artists. What James was doing on Raw Power was just pure attitude and magic. He could say so much in one little — one big — riff, but yet John McLaughlin shows you that you could spend your lifetime literally on Devotion. And I really love that. I love that. It’s as great as Cézanne or Magritte or any of the master painters as far as I’m concerned… Picasso. It takes the same dedication, that’s for sure, the same imagination.

interviewed James Williamson a few years back, actually. In discussing The Stooges legend and influence, he suggested that the band essentially created its own musical vocabulary, which subsequent bands later picked up on and assimilated into their sounds. The same could be said for you and your music, too. When a song you’ve played on comes on the radio, it’s distinctive; people know it’s you playing.

Well, that’s a real privilege. I understand what he’s saying. What James has come up with there is absolutely right and really, in a way, gets back to this idea of why I like sometimes to remember that it’s a machine because then it’s all about what the artist — the creative person — does with that machine. The guitar doesn’t necessarily lead you.

Someone like Lou Reed, what he was doing with the early Velvets on those records — with the feedback — his lead playing was just so unique, particularly for the times. What you’re hearing there is the person. You’re hearing the person and their approach. And [your] limitations are actually what make you great. Again, it’s about the creativity of a person, and I think that’s absolutely right.

In my case, when people ask me about specifically how I could come up with my style I point them to some landmarks like James or Nile Rodgers or the Patti Smith Group, those kind of things. But really what you’re doing is you’re trying to play your own feelings and you’re trying to hear yourself and you’re trying to recognize yourself in the sound that comes out, particularly if you’ve spent a lot of time playing on your own, which I did in my bedroom. You use the building blocks of your heroes. You want to hear how you feel coming out of the speaker. Some people don’t really approach it like that. They just want to hear the sound of other people coming out of the speaker. That’s the difference between people who are artists and… I know that I could spend — if I wanted to — a couple of days sat down learning Lydian scales and playing like super-fast-lightning raid that would sound very impressive. It’s the sonic equivalent of a race car driver driving around and around and around and around at high speed. But that wouldn’t be expressing my being and expressing my attitude and who I am. So, that has always been bullshit to me.

You mirror your influences until — as you progress — your own musical voice emerges.

Yeah. I was very lucky because I spent a lot of time really working on my guitar playing in my teens. My apprenticeship really started at fourteen. I left school at just fifteen to be in a band, and I was playing every night with all these different bands, different people, and being asked to join different bands. Even though people obviously know me from 1983 onwards in The Smiths, which is cool, what I was doing before that started the pattern that really was the course for the rest of my life, which was to collaborate, go to places where it was musically intriguing to me and where I was musically curious and I thought were going to make me be a better musician. That’s what happened when I played with The The, and that’s what happened when I played with Modest Mouse, but that pattern started for me when I was fourteen.

To what do you attribute your continued musical enthusiasm? There aren’t a lot of artists who over the long term sustain their creative curiosity and desire to continually try new things, but you’re one of them.

I just generally feel that I have no alternative because the idea of life without doing that really sucks. That’s the way I’ve been since being a child. The regular five senses, should we say, or just the way of perceiving life, it’s just not enough for me. So on one hand you could say that I’m trying to compensate for failing to deal with the world as it is, but I think most creative people are like that. It’s just what’s going on. Even though I’ve got a really good life and have been blessed with good relationships and all of that kind of stuff, it’s just not enough for me. It’s the pursuit of ideas — and in my case it’s musical ideas or ideas for doing a movie or projects — that really gives me my sense of purpose.

You must know this, of course, but you could live solely off the legacy of the music you made in the ‘80s, going around playing just those songs for people. You clearly have a different mindset, though, wanting to create new things and pursue new directions with your music.

I’ve got a couple of friends who are artists. One’s a sculptor and I’ve got a couple of friends who are painters. We live exactly the same way. [One of them] told me recently that each age he went through he just squeezed as much enthusiasm and use — and I think he used the word exploitation, although that’s not a word I would use — out of that particular period. And then it ceased to have any nutrition for him. I’ve been very fortunate that what I’ve done is there for prosperity whether it’s The Smiths records or the Talking Heads album or whoever, but … [y]ou just need to go forward. The idea of some guy sitting around with a bottle of wine late at night listening to the old records, there’s something mawkish about that to me.

There are plenty of artists, though, who come from bands with far less legacies than that of The Smiths who bankroll the rest of their lives solely on their past.

I guess I’ve got this subconscious goal of an array of different records to make in my life that I just don’t feel I’ve gotten to the end of yet. With each song I’m trying to write the coolest 45, whether it’s a chart record or not. Some come out different. Some come out weird. Some come out commercial, some don’t…. I found my medium really young, like my friend who works in acrylics found her medium. I love that culture. As you get older you realize what you’re doing better be art or else you studied too long thinking about something. When I put it in that context it’s just all about being an artist. I just happen to be a rock musician. Artists work ‘til the very last day they drop.