Northern Transmissions Interviews Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr sits down for an interview with Northern Transmissions' Doug Bleggi

There’s an advantage to being the eternal sideman – you have the freedom to come and go as you please. For Johnny Marr, he has always moved according to the wishes of his internal muse, breaking off from the Smiths the minute it stopped being fun, and he hasn’t stopped since. From stints in the Pretenders, Electronic, the The, Modest Mouse, and the Cribs, he always has dedicated his full attention his current project, but when his time is done, he hops out to see who needs him next, like a musical version of Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap.

Now after decades as a collaborator, Marr is now trying life in his own skin as a solo artist. His debut The Messenger came in the winter of 2013, a record that should have come two decades earlier. He’s making up for lost time though – despite having sustained a broken hand from a jog gone wrong, Playland comes just a year and a half after his debut, and is ushered in with a slew of tour dates from now through February. Having always been a studio hound, Marr has in recent years grown to love playing live, something he picked up from his time in Modest Mouse and the Cribs. “I really must be a singer, because I can’t wait to get out of the studio,” he says. This newfound appreciation shows in the performances, which are electrified and pumped up as his new record, which was largely written on the road. His shows are a wealth of his new batch of songs as well as being peppered with favorites from his Smiths years.

Johnny Marr is always an excellent interview subject – he loves to talk and when he does, it’s always something insightful, educational, and above all unjaded. We talked previously in an interview I did for Death and Taxes, and like that interview, we were able to analyze being new to running the show so late in the game while also darting back into his past to talk about his varied artistic endeavors.

Check out Marr’s upcoming tour dates here, and read our interview with him below.

Northern Transmissions : When we spoke last, we were talking about what you’d want to do on a second solo record, so it’s cool now that we can actually discuss it first hand.

Johnny Marr: Yeah, that is cool. Yeah, it is unusual that a second record would come quite quickly,  but I didn’t see any reason to go away.

NT: Yeah, in general artists often take a while between records now – usually about two years or more. In fact, I feel like you were part of the last era of artists where releasing albums annually was normal. Why do you suppose it changed?

JM: Well, I think there are a few reasons for things changing. One is that technology is supposed to make things go quicker, but in fact it often slows things down. In the case of bands that relied on programming and technology to make their records, it became such a big deal for them every time they started writing up again. It would almost take a year to make samples and loops and get the whole thing sort of programmed again. This is something that I know from one or two bands firsthand. Also the stakes got really high economically with big bands, where they would go and tour a record for a couple of years. I heard Brian Eno say that the paradigm shift from the late 70s and early 80s to current time was very simple, in that bands used to tour to promote their record, whereas nowadays, bands make a record to justify touring. I think a lot of that culture came about in the 90s, and touring seemed to go on for a couple of years. Plus things started to happen where people had access to their own studios, and they get stoned and fuck around!

NT: Yes, I do agree that there has been an increase in studio access to a lot of artists coming into the 90s.

JM: For myself, I’m really antsy and would not want to do that. I don’t want the music to sound too far away from the stage. The sort of music I make relies on having an energy and an amount of adrenaline in it and in turn, that helps when you’re out on tour because they’re fast and have sloganeering vocals. Not to simplify it because there’s much more to it than that, but The Messenger was born out of me doing a lot of travelling with Modest Mouse and the Cribs and getting these notions, particularly lyrically, in the back of my mind. I think there was a lot of energy in the words and what I was singing about. The touring was very successful and shows would get longer and longer. And audiences, I think felt pretty tiered out by the end of the show. And I think that’s a very good thing. So I kept that energy going when I started to write Playland.

NT: When we talked about The Messenger last year, you had told me that you had written about 30 songs. Were any songs from that record used here?

JM: No. The only thing that happened was that the outro to one of the songs became “The Trap.” Aside from that I started from scratch. I was coming up with stuff on tour or in between festivals. And that meant that the band were listening to the demos whilst we were out on the road and we would work on things so that when went to make the record, it was made quite quickly. As a producer, I know that you could hear that where the band is really on top of it and it sounds like a proper performance. So as well as it being time effective, there’s also energy and that word “vibe.”

NT: Did this record come together quicker than with The Messenger

JM: It was kind of the same. Things happen in your life too – I’m very lucky that I’ve lived a life since I was a teenager that has always supported whatever musical trip that I’m on. Whatever I have to do as a musician has always led my life. I’m a true believer in the word bohemian and that I’ve lived a very bohemian life, but things do happen that are out of your control regardless of how dedicated you are. So in my case, I fell and I broke my hand while I was making the album. And that was difficult technically and schedule-wise. It was kind of upsetting too because I was trying to play with this cast on, and I was able to do it, but it didn’t sound right. It was really a downer.

NT: Which hand was it?

JM: It was my right hand, so it could have been worse. So I just concentrated on the vocals and had to move the schedule around. But that made it a little difficult because I was up against a time limit of my own making in order to get the record out this year, and all the touring was set up. So it was somewhat stressful. It was pretty tough but anything worth it is never a walk in the park, is it?

NTIt’s pretty amazing that you could get the record out so quickly considering that injury. But still, it’s only relevant to now. Like we talked about earlier, when you were in the Smiths, you guys had an album out every year, with several singles in between. 

JM: The writing thing is something I like to do with passion but the thing that I’m addicted to is just ideas. I think that’s what can make being a rock musician art. If you’re chasing ideas, regardless of how well it’s received, that’s a life to live really and that’s the thing that keeps me going. As well as playing live shows now. Getting out and playing gigs now is something that I really love. And it wasn’t always that way by any means. I used to really hate touring in the Smiths days. I hated it.

NT: Really?

JM: Oh yeah, I always hated it. I just wanted to be back in the studio. It was the other band members that really liked it.

NT: What changed your feelings towards touring?

JM: I think very simply – I had spent so many years in recording sessions and built a couple studios myself, and I just took it to the nth degree. Modest Mouse and the Cribs gave me a different insight into playing shows. I really enjoyed the experience. I didn’t have any kind of the hassle of running the band. I didn’t have any of the dramas. Modest Mouse always kept things very interesting, let’s put it that way. You never knew what to predict on-stage or off. The dramas weren’t my dramas so I could really focus on music and being a musician. So getting away from windowless recording studios, and getting out on the road with people who really loved it – [it] rubbed off on me. And then my interest in architecture and cities and towns, and my lifestyle just really suited travelling. The shows themselves also started to get really great because I was seeing a lot of people that were coming out to see me who had followed me for years and years, plus young people who had been introduced to the Cribs or Modest Mouse, or had gotten into the Smiths years later, and just dig what I do without wanting it to be 1984 again… It’s very gratifying. I like them very much.

NT: When you and I spoke last year, I had asked if you felt that your time in bands like Modest Mouse and the Cribs had rubbed off on you, and I suppose the answer is yes, but in their interest in playing live I suppose, more so than style. 

JM: The main thing I learned from Modest Mouse was – and they might not thank me for this but – a certain appreciation of theatricality. Because one of the things about that band is, unlike a lot of regular rock bands, they are not casual when they hit the stage, in spite of appearances. That’s something I really admire and saw firsthand. Many musicians are somewhat cavalier about it all. Or have a pseudo-professional approach to it. Modest Mouse have always been like a vaudeville band, like something from the 20s and 30s. Isaac Brock knows about the stage. It’s a place for doing something on, even if that is standing still. Let’s put it this way — it’s never casual. That’s something I really admire and that I hope I’ve taken with me. And the Cribs would never phone in even a rehearsal. Just singing to the top of their lungs and meaning it as if their lives depended on it. That is another really admirable trait that I was really lucky to be around.

NT: You mentioned that Isaac Brock had contacted you to be in Modest Mouse. How did that come together, and how in general did you get so deeply involved with already active bands?

JM: I was intrigued by [Modest Mouse] and I thought it would be an interesting experiment. So I went over there and we started writing songs that were very good the very first night, and as always is the case with my life, if something pretty good is happening, then that’s where I want to stay. And we wrote and wrote and one thing that people might not consider is that you form a bond with these people. You form a friendship and frankly it would have bee just too weird to bail. So that happened, and with the Cribs, because I was living in Portland – ironically, two men from the north of England met, and I struck up a friendship with Gary Jarman. They were fans of what I’d done but the friendship had come first, so we decided to record a 4-track 7” EP. And then the same thing happened again where I came into the studio with ideas for a bunch of songs and we wrote really quickly. We were all smart enough to know that the chemistry was good. Hans Zimmer called me at my house. To this day I still don’t know where he got my number from. And that’s how I ended up working with [him]. It’s just been an amazing situation in that all the bands that I’ve worked with full-time, the Smiths, the The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and the Cribs – they were all very, very solid incredible friendships. It has to be that way for me to live and share my life with someone because that’s what it is – my musical life is my actual life. It doesn’t switch off at 6 o’clock and my personal life is a long way down on my list of priorities. And that means my family having to uproot and move to Portland, or maybe not seeing each other so much, or having a band and crew living in the house for months on end. It’s all good though. It’s a great life, and I realize how lucky I am.

NT: There’s a guitar tone that was essentially invented by you and that exists all throughout your career – on Playland, it’s most prominent on the song “This Tension.” Can you explain how that sound is achieved?

JM: First off, I’ve managed to actually put it into a guitar and that’s why the Fender Jaguar Signature model with my name on it, is what it is. That guitar that I play makes that sound and technically, it’s the sound of a Rickenbacker crossed with a Gretsch that plays like a Fender. But you are what you play, and you play what you are, so a lot of it is in the fingers as well as in the actual composition. As esoteric and corny as that sounds, that is actually a fact because pretty much whatever guitar I plug in, I sound like that.

‘Playland’ is out now on Warner Bros.


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