Along with Morrissey, he founded The Smiths. Now Johnny Marr is going it alone. Duncan Seaman talks to the legend of British music.
Johnny Marr is contemplating the significance of his latest award.
Music magazine the NME announced the former Smiths guitarist was to follow in the footsteps of Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, The Clash and John Peel in receiving its prize for Godlike genius for his enduring contribution to British music over the past 30 years.
Marr, ever modest, says simply: “It’s a very nice thing. I’ve seen a lot of people who have followed me over the years and fans who are really happy about it. There have been a lot of messages and congrats – that’s a good thing.
“It’s jolly nice to get a pat on the back. We all like that. It’s great when you get them.”
Since leaving much-loved Manchester band The Smiths in 1987, Marr has pursued a varied career, forming Electronic with Bernard Sumner of New Order, working with Matt Johnson in The The and helping Oregon indie rockers Modest Mouse to top the US charts. He even joined Wakefield band The Cribs for a three-year spell, before quitting in 2011.
“The work always leads me and my life and circumstances always follow. That’s the pattern I’ve been in since I was a teenager.
“I loved playing with The Cribs. At the end of that period of recording and touring I had a lot of energy and ideas to make a record but the band at that time were thinking about taking time off. I did not want to do that. I needed to get all of these notions that I had about the world into lyrics. I had this sound in my mind. It seemed the perfect time to make my own record.
“I told them I really wanted to write 30 songs. Now was the chance. I got up to 28, maybe. When you are on a roll you don’t analyse it too much.”
That period of prolific writing led to his first solo album, The Messenger, a record full of the 49-year-old’s characteristically dazzling guitar flourishes.
“The reason I enjoyed it was because of the notions and the concepts, in a way the finished lyrics were kicking around in my mind,” he says. “I’d have conversations about them and make observations in books. The opportunity to turn them into songs was really exciting. I got on a roll. I embarked on structured, disciplined days going into the studio at 11am and not coming out until 11pm, 12pm or 1am. It’s great when you are carried away by music.
“The good thing was that I put a group together to play a few little shows and road-tested quite a lot of the songs. That’s a luxury that a lot of musicians I’ve been in bands with talk about but rarely get the chance to do. In my case it was worth it. It went down well and I went back into the studio with real enthusiasm.”
The Messenger has echoes of several of Marr’s past projects alongside some of the post-punk bands that originally inspired him. “The fact that a lot of the record sounds like bits of everything I’ve done in the past was not at all thought out and happened because I decided to not do that,” he says. “I’m not trying to be cryptic [but] I was not going to censor myself to please anybody other than the fans.”
Leeds, where Marr plays on March 7, is a city with which he has some history. “When I was 17 or 18 I worked for a Leeds clothing company called X Clothes which readers of a certain vintage will have memories of, probably fond and maybe even gothic. I bounced around from Manchester mostly, Sheffield occasionally and Leeds sometimes. Like my own city, I have seen Leeds change quite a lot aesthetically over the last 20 years but I think the vibe of northern cities and growing up in British cities in general tends to stay the same. It takes decades and decades for those experiences to be eradicated. It’s the same for cities all over Europe. There’s such a heritage and mindset. I like that. I’m pleased young people can get on a tram and there are more places at university if your parents don’t mind going into debt. Where you have got young people, you are going to have a decent music scene.”
Two years ago Marr remastered the Smiths’ back catalogue. The experience didn’t make him nostalgic, he says.
“It was so much work and I soon realised once I got halfway through the first record that the job I had was keeping balanced here. I was trying so hard not to mess it up and trying not to incur the wrath of the indie-speaking militia as well as trying to get the job done.
“It was nice, though,” he adds. “I let the other guys know that it felt good doing it. It sounded great but all the records I’ve made with The Smiths, and any bands that I’ve spent so much energy on, I know almost psychically when that cymbal crash or bass note or guitar chord is going to be before I hear it.”
Marr has repeatedly said he won’t reform The Smiths. Their legacy, he says is: “that we really meant it when we were together and then a soap opera happened when we were not.”
He seems to have enjoyed the five years he recently spent working with students as visiting professor of music at Salford University. “It’s nice that when I’ve done things that are part of doing what you do and making mistakes along the way that you can pass that off as profound wisdom – God knows how,” he jokes. “There are just things I do as a musician and as a songwriter and, I guess, as a performer too; everybody learns from doing things wrong sometimes. It’s very gratifying, it makes it very much worth it when people can write it down and not have to go through the hassle that I went through.
“Hopefully students will see you can do it and not turn into too much of a nutter.”
Johnny Marr plays The Duchess, York on March 5, Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on March 7 and the Leadmill, Sheffield on March 18.
How it all began...
Johnny Marr was born John Maher in Ardwick, Manchester, in 1963.
In 1982 Marr approached singer Steven Morrissey of The Nosebleeds, suggesting they form a band. With Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums, they signed to Rough Trade and released their first single Hand in Glove on May 13, 1983. The band released four studio albums – The Smiths, Meat is Murder, The Queen is Dead and Strangeways Here We Come – before Marr quit in August 1987.
Marr went on to record with the Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, The Pretenders and Girls Aloud.