an interview with Johnny Marr (on his own forthcoming autobiography, social media, Spider-Man, Andy Rourke & more)
Johnny Marr @ Fun Fun Fun Fest 2013 (more by Tim Griffin)
Having influenced everyone from The Stone Roses to Radiohead to Deafheaven, Johnny Marr‘s guitar sound is easily one of the most recognizable, unfolding and swelling its notes, layer upon layer, with a melody that’s as dense in its bombast as it is playful in its simplicity. A mere twenty-six years after leaving The Smiths, Marr released his first solo record, The Messenger, earlier this year. It’s not to say there wasn’t anything going on for Marr during the time between, however. In fact, while much of Smiths fandom has continued to revel in mourning and reunion speculation, Marr has spent the time since simply defining the terms of his own artistic progression. Membership in bands such as Modest Mouse, The Cribs, Electronic, The The, and innumerable guest spots for those artists who mince no words concerning the obvious influence for them has allowed Marr to properly illuminate the evolutionary arc of his career as a thankfully unfinished piece. I had the opportunity to talk with Johnny, who is on tour now, about The Messenger as well as his creative process and what his thoughts are on writing an autobiography.
For The Messenger, I’m curious as to what kind of worked as a creative catalyst for you with the album. Why a solo album now? Was the creative process for the album different here than with your other projects?
Johnny Marr: Well, the reason the record happened when it did is because I had the ideas for the songs. I always have ideas for music and riffs and guitar parts, but over the touring years with Modest Mouse and The Cribs, I got a lot of ideas for things I wanted to sing about. It’s a good start, so this album is actually driven mostly by lyrical concepts – ideas for what I wanted to sing about. That kind of ruled out the idea of me handing over the music to someone else to write lyrics, so it just fell together that way. It certainly wasn’t my thinking that now would be a good time to do a solo record or have a solo career and then try and go about doing it. I just heard the songs first. I couldn’t wait to get in the studio after coming off the road and just see if these things would turn into tracks. And the actual writing and recording of the record happened really quickly. I was demoing a song a day, and I ended up writing almost thirty songs – like, twenty-six or twenty-seven songs for it. It was a very inspired time. As for the creative process, I’d forgotten that I would be the producer. I was just working in the studio with my friend Doviak, and I had decided to do these songs. As I said, the demoing started to happen pretty quickly, and then I realized that the decisions of what microphones to put on the cymbals and what bass sounds to use was on me, and I’d not been in a position before where I was writing the lyrics and singing and playing the guitars and keyboards and finding the right microphones for cymbals. Technically, I was kind of a challenge I hadn’t considered. It made me a bit of a grumpy person to be around for a couple of weeks [laughs]. Whereas in the past, you see, I was always fine with doing that – with being the first person in the studio and the last person to leave. It’s a different thing when you’re singing and writing the words. You need to be in a different headspace. I found that somewhat of a challenge for the first week or first few weeks. But now I’ve done it, and I’m proud that we managed to pull that off. I roped Doviak as co-producer to stop me going completely out of my mind or killing everybody in the building when I couldn’t find the mic to put on the kick drum [laughs].
You’ve recently been dedicating some creative time to film including the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Was scoring film a kind of natural progression for you as an artist/musician? How is the creative process different given the visual context?
I’m not sure if it is a natural progression. I was asked a lot to work on films over the years, and I just thought it…well, I was too busy doing what I was doing in whatever band to take it on. I’ve scored a movie on my own, entirely, called The Big Bang, with Antonio Banderas in it a few years ago, and that was a good time, but really I just got very fortunate in that my first proper movie…or my second movie I got involved with was Inception. To work with Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan, it was an amazing thing. If you don’t learn from those two people, you’re not gonna learn from anybody. That experience gave me real appetite for it, and I decided that if any other projects come along I would at least make the meeting and hear out the director. Spider-Man happened because Marc Webb and Hans invited me to do it. Right now we’re in the thick of it. I’m sure it will turn out well, because Marc’s an inspired person. It’s a fun film as well. Of course it’s very different from what we did with Inception, but me and Hans have kind of got a thing now. We have a sound that, funny enough, seems to be popping up in a few other movies. For the longest time you wouldn’t hear guitar on film soundtracks. Inception seemed to kind of break that mold. I’ll be going back there after this tour’s finished to continue working on Spider-Man. From a working point of view, it’s a very different discipline to writing rock songs and running a band. Mostly because you’re given an emotional remit, and I actually really like that. I don’t see it as a limitation at all. If anything, it makes things very clear. The great thing about doing movies is that you immediately know when it’s wrong. Or I did. What I do when I’m working on movies is I watch the scene, without the guitar, and I try very clearly to understand what emotion I’m getting from that scene. Often when you use the word “emotion,” people think you’re talking about “emotional,” like they immediately perceive that it’s a sad thing, but it can be mania, fear – it can be excitement, it can be weirdness, it can be a love scene – all those things. Or some kind of tensions or whatever. I try and be very clear about what’s going on, on the screen, and then I try and do that with the guitar. That is a really exciting thing, because I tend to find that I know how to do that. When you get it wrong you know immediately, whereas in pop music or being in bands and writing pop songs or whatever, you don’t really know until you play it in front of an audience…about what it really, really means. Whenever a record comes out, you know, you get the reviews and you either the big thumbs up or the big thumbs down, but as time’s gone on, I’ve found that that’s sort of a virtual representation in a way. It’s just opinion. It can be valid, and it can be interesting and sometimes right, even, or correct, but that’s not the test of it. The test of it is when you play it in front of people. In a movie you get that straight away. You know whether it’s working or not.
Given the social media context that surrounds the music scene today, so much of what we’re exposed to in regards to musicians and artists is spectacle rather than art. For you, personally, is it more difficult to maintain that balance of substance now than when, for example, The Smiths were at the height of their popularity?
I don’t think that social media changes the relationship in as far as between audience and artist and as far as how they feel about the music. Ultimately, certainly the music that I’m making – it’s always about what you put into it lyrically and musically, and the sort of people you’re playing for, I think. I guess I’ve already established a certain kind of atmosphere and understanding between me and the people who really listen to my stuff. And I’m not just talking about people who’ve been around and known it for twenty years or whatever. But even younger people who’ve been following me over the last few years. It’s kind of not what I’m about, really. They know what kind of musician I am, and I’d like to think that they know I’m really serious about what I do, and that I have a kind of almost crusading idealism about what rock music and what pop music can do. I think they know that it’s not gonna change things in Guantanamo Bay, but it could definitely change your day when you go to school or you go to work. That’s as much as I needed it to do when I was a kid, you know. And that’s what I try and do with my stuff. So, I think people understand that about me no matter what goes on in social media. I’m not gonna change that for good or bad. One of the main downsides of social media is that people can just get into political games, and by that I don’t mean politics. I mean going through the games and making moves and what’s essentially hype. Ultimately, I’ve seen that bands are doing the job of what record companies used to do. It’s a necessity, and I get it. I’ve been in a band like The Cribs. I understand that some mornings you have to get up and you switch the laptop on, and you have to let people know that you’re playing in Atlanta, or you’re playing in Sheffield, and you want to know how the ticket sales are going. That’s part of being a musician in the modern world. I just see it as a fanzine than changes every day. I try to look at it in a positive way. I like that it’s like a fanzine that happens every day, and I look at it that way I guess because I come out of the time when fanzines first started out. I also like that artists can put people straight on things that happen. Not all journalists and publications are as polite and accountable and ethical as yourself [laughs]. I’ve read all kinds of shit about me that I’ve had to put right really quick, and I gotta tell you – that’s pretty satisfying.
You’re back in NYC on the 16th at Webster Hall. Now, last time you played here you had a very special guest and Brooklyn resident play with you. Any chance of seeing Andy join you for the show this week?
Well, you know…Andy and I have been friends since we were school kids, and he’s always been one of my favorite musicians. We try harder and harder to keep our relationship special, and we’ve managed to do that against some pretty amazing odds, and we’re both very proud of that, and we sound good when we play together. I hope he’s not out of town [laughs].
Can we expect a Johnny Marr autobiography anytime soon?
There is gonna be one, yeah. I’ve had so many offers and so many people advising me that my story is worth it, but I understand it’s something that I have to do. I’ll do it in the next couple of years. I’m into from the stance that I want it to be so thorough that I don’t make a record or tour whilst I was doing it. It is gonna happen, and I’ve already made an agreement with a publisher for it, so I will get it done.
Check out photos from Johnny’s set at Fun Fun Fun Fest, and from San Francisco. His next show is the November 16th Webster Hall show in NYC. Tickets for that one are still available, and by the way, Andy Rourke is in town, at least for tonight (11/14) because he’s DJing before Yaz’s Alison Moyet plays at Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom. Here are all of Johnny’s remaining dates:
Johnny Marr — 2013 Tour Dates
(all dates with Meredith Sheldon)
Nov 16 – New York, NY @ Webster Hall
Nov 17 – Baltimore, MD @ Rams Head Live!
Nov 19 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
Nov 20 – Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel
Nov 22 – Nashville, TN @ Marathon Music Works
Nov 23 – Atlanta, GA @ Center StageStage
Nov 24 – Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live
Nov 25 – Orlando, FL @ The Beacham Theatre
Nov 26 – Fort Lauderdale, FL @ Culture Room