Johnny Marr’s new album addresses today’s burning issues. He spoke to Duncan Seaman ahead of his gig in Leeds next week.
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 not 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.”
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.”
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, and the line ‘There was something in her eyes’ made it in to the song.
“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.”
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 that I’d like to pay tribute to, 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.”
Johnny Marr plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on May 14. Call The Comet is released on June 15. johnnymarr.com