Johnny Marr’s new album, Call The Comet, may not be a concept album in the grandiose 1970s sense of the term but its 12 songs do have a common theme.
The former Smiths, Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and Cribs guitarist turned singer-songwriter describes it as a plea to outside forces in the cosmos for a new way of life.
Yet the 54-year-old believes he’s alone in wishing for something better in tumultuous times.
“I think it’s just something I’m feeling myself that I’m assuming most of the people who are interested in me might also be feeling,” he explains.
“I use the fact that I’m a musician doing something artistic to work that out emotionally rather than intellectualising it.
“I sort of took refuge in the making of the record and hopefully there will be a bit of a refuge when people listen to it.
“That can sounds a little complicated but it isn’t really because we shouldn’t forget that listening to a rock record can be about escape. So it was about escape for me making it and if people feel a little bit of escape through listening to it or following me or coming to see me then that’ll do me, for sure. I am drawing on a feeling that I have about the world that I’m living in.”
Rather than directly address specific things that have gone wrong, Marr says he preferred to delve into his imagination for things he’d rather look towards “than things we might want to run away from”.
“In the song Rise, which starts the album, it’s a dialogue between two people in a new environment, a new situation and probably a new society. Bug is singing about what’s wrong with this one – hopefully with a little bit of levity which is why I married it to an upbeat pop tune.
“Something stopped me directly addressing whatever malaise there is going on. That was deliberate because I don’t think the people who cause these issues are deserving of my songs.”
Something stopped me directly addressing whatever malaise there is going on. That was deliberate because I don’t think the people who cause these issues are deserving of my songs.Johnny Marr
The Mancunian thinks there’s “some truth” in the idea that hailing from a generation that confronted Thatcherism in 80s he’s more willing to examine political issues in his work, albeit obliquely, than many younger musicians are today.
“But I’m starting now to think there’s a separate reason as to why new generations of musicians and artists aren’t directly taking on political issues on social media,” he says, “because before you know it one opinion that you’ve expressed then gets attached to your work within seconds virally. Then we’re back to what I’ve been talking about all your work being attached to people and issues who don’t really deserve it.
“It’s that problem with the soundbite era, going viral. Before social media if you gave an opinion you could give it in at least one paragraph, or several paragraphs, or on a page of a magazine that would have been read by like-minded people. Whereas now one thing that you’ve got to say makes your record a Trump record or a Brexit record. That is a problem that young artists and musicians have probably had to adapt to, so I think it’s a bit more complex than next generation musicians being less concerned or drawing less on issues for their work.
“I do rather think that the few of my generation who are left standing will always feel that there’s a place to have a kick back and complain and draw upon the controlling unfair forces.”
The album’s closing song, A Different Gun, is Marr’s response to the terrorist attack that killed 86 people in Nice on Bastille Day 2016. Marr feels it took on a new dimension in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing ten months later. “The Manchester bombing happened when I was recording it,” he says. “It was a very difficult period.
“My friends who are in the band Broken Social Scene arrived in Manchester the day of the attack for a show they were about to play and of course walked into this devastation and horror and the city trying to deal with it. They decided that they were going to go against advice and play their show in town that night and they invited me to come out and play with them. I didn’t really think that I could do that until the very last minute when I jumped in the car with my guitar and drove to the concert. We got up and opened the show with Anthem For a 17-Year-Old Girl and because I was recording A Different Gun that week the line ‘Stay and come out tonight’ made it to the song, that’s where that line comes from, and the line ‘There was something in her eyes’ made it to the song after I read about the amazing job that a homeless guy had done in helping the victims, in particular a girl that he was sat on the pavement with. That quote is directly from an interview with him.
“It was a weird thing but once I’d decided that I couldn’t ignore this idea I’d got for the song I just set my mind to do it. But I procrastinated for a long time about writing the song because I didn’t want to trivialise it. I wasn’t sure whether putting something so important into a rock song was the right thing to do, but seeing the Nice attack I had a feeling that I couldn’t shake off that I wanted to try and put into music, and then once I’d done the music I felt to bottle it and not find a way of doing the words was kind of short-changing myself as a songwriter.”
Ultimately the album ends on an idealistic note. Marr says he thinks by nature he’s optimistic, but adds: “I’m kind of a realist too. I’ve got a real firm belief in not only the idealism of the younger generation but also the amazing intelligence and adaptability of the young people certainly that I’ve come across. The impression I get is one of a pragmatic, brave, smart wave of young people who can not only see the bull**** but have learned to navigate a lot of things that could otherwise have overwhelmed the older generation.
“Something as simple as putting the manipulation of society by the media into perspective. The young people that I know seem to handle that much better than the older generations. Perhaps just being older you fret more or are more fearful, but they seem to be able to not let it overwhelm their lives so much whereas a lot of people are really worried about the future. The young people I know find ways of avoiding corporate control, as much as they can anyway.”
As well as Call The Comet, Marr has been working on music and spoken word collaboration with the actress Maxine Peake. The first fruit, called The Priest, a piece of social realism about homelessness, came out in December. A full album has been mooted later this year.
He says he thinks Peake has had “some influence” on his own solo work over the last year. “Just spending time with someone who has got a similar kind of outlook to me and helps me amplify it, her skill with words and emotions has probably had an effect,” he acknowledges. “If I think about Walk Into The Sea and A Different Gun and Actor Attractor they’re probably songs that wouldn’t have shown up on the first two solo records and are probably a result of the work that I’ve been doing with Maxine, and our friendship too and our interest in telling stories.
“Walk Into The Sea is an allegory, maybe. It’s certainly a metaphor and a story where I’m a character and has some relevance to my real life. A Different Gun is something from my viewpoint where I’ve tried to set out a real story in a poetic way. Actor Attractor is again another song about a character.
“Maybe the fact that I’ve been more deliberate and focused about having characters in my songs on this record has come about because of Maxine, perhaps, and Hans Zimmer [the Hollywood composer with whom Marr worked on the soundtrack to the film Inception] too.”
Marr’s sold-out show at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds is one of only two UK dates that he’s playing to launch Call The Comet. He chose it, he says, to fulfil a promise he made five years ago. “I heard myself promise the fans that we’d come back after we played there the last time and I try to keep my promises.
“It’s also a good idea because the culture that the Brudenell has cultivated is really special and I’d like to pay tribute to it, in my own way. When you find a place that you want to go to as an audience member, that you genuinely have an affection for, then it’s worth honouring those places. They are few and far between. There are a few places in America like that and there’s a couple of places in Japan where there’s a legacy and the audience appreciate that legacy and that carries over onto the stage when you go there. You just know that the audience are happy that you’ve chosen that place.
“To keep a place going for so long with its quality takes some real dedication and I want to really show my appreciation of it. It sounds great in there too, and everybody loves that.”
Johnny Marr plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on Monday May 14. Call The Comet is out on June 15. johnnymarr.com