Johnny Marr was not always keen on going on the road, preferring the studio, but that’s changed, as he explains to Duncan Seaman.
Many’s the artist lauded for their debut album who’ve hit a stumbling block when it comes to following it up. Not so Johnny Marr, now frontman of his own band after years spent playing guitar with acts such as The Smiths, The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
Three decades writing, recording and touring with others have taught the 50-year-old Mancunian not to fall victim to the “difficult second album” syndrome.
Instead of lapping up the plaudits for first solo record The Messenger, which came out last spring, he was straight back to work crafting new songs. “I started writing it almost as soon as we started touring,” he says of his new album, Playland, out now. “There was not any plan to do that, it just worked out that way. I knew the best time to record a band is when they are playing live a bit. They’re tight as a musical unit and tight as a personal unit. We went out on the road to promote The Messenger and the songs kept coming.”
One song, The Trap, he already had in unfinished form, he admits, but Dynamo and Easy Money, the album’s standouts, came “pretty much as soon as we started touring”.
“It was like I sometimes literally had the sound of the audience and the sound of the band ringing in my ears on the tour bus at night. It was a good feeling. It’s a good time to write if you can do it.”
While he appreciates some artists flounder on their second albums Marr has discovered “the trick is to spend as little time as possible” idling away the hours. “You need to try to stay inspired. Luckily I was able to do that for Playland. The energy of the shows and the energy of being on a tour bus going from city to city inspired me rather than tired me out, so I was writing between festivals, that kind of thing.
“When we came to record the album proper we knew the songs fairly well. We’d played a few of them in South America – Candidate, Little King and Boys Get Straight – and they’d gone down very well. All of that adds up to a certain enthusiasm about what you are doing. For the kind of music I make, it’s pretty handy.”
Though not a concept album as such, many of the songs on Playland seem to be about escaping. “I look around and make assumptions about a lot of things for songs,” he says. “Essentially songs are likely to start off as theories you hope will develop into subjects that you hope are poetic and interesting enough to turn into a kind of song. For Playland I wanted to develop a couple of things on The Messenger about cities and towns and the preoccupations of us all while we’re running around often quite manically chasing things.
“It was important for me to start the record with the sounds of words of escapism and euphoria and ecstasy which Back In The Box is kind of about, as is Playland, in a way. I’m celebrating the culture as much as commenting on it. If I had to put a concept to what the album is about it’s the idea of everybody chasing escapism through consumerism and sexual gratification and chemical and alcohol gratification and money and whether what we are escaping from, like for instance tensions, anxiety, loneliness and bordom, is caused by the things we are chasing.”
He quickly corrects my assertion that Easy Money is about greed. “It’s about lampooning the preoccupation and sometimes unquestioning chase of money which is why I wrote it as a commercial pop song – well, I tried. I like the idea of talking about money and commerce and expense to the backing of an upbeat, catchy thing that people people might be dancing around to in Wetherspoons or a fun pub on a Saturday night.
“At the same time it’s important to acknowledge that there are a lot of people around for whom money is not something to be lampooned. And to have a dig at the Government for their tuition fees is always a good thing.” His new single The Trap, he says, is “about deception and double speak and manipulation in relationships – it’s not so much about society”.
Having played dozens of gigs in the past 18 months, Marr agrees it’s where he now feels happiest as a musician. “It wasn’t always the case – far from it,” he says. “I spent a lot of my time in recording studios. That was a great thing. As a youngster the process by which records were made was a mystical occupation to me. That has not exactly changed but I had many years of exploring and experimenting with that with various degrees of satisfaction.
“Whatever band I was in I would quite happily not go on the road. The day an album was finished I was always into going into the studio and doing another record.
“It’s an unusual trajectory. Nearly every musician bar none wants to go on stage and do their thing. My interest in recording was really deep and really obsessive. I spent a lot of the late 80s and early 90s learning about recording – that was in Electronic.
“Now it’s completely the opposite; I’m almost impatient when I’m in the studio now. Playing shows is an amazing thing, travelling is an amazing thing, but the actual night of being with an audience, getting to celebrate loud music and hopefully enjoy new music, makes you want to play the old songs too.”
He feels “very lucky” to have come to the realisation that “you can be an artist 24 hours a day and a performer as well – they’re not mutually exclusive”. He says he’s “got a real respect” for performance. “No one has a divine right to be on stage. When you are there you should do something pretty good on it.”
• Johnny Marr plays at O2 Academy Leeds on October 29, 7pm, £27. www.ticketweb.co.uk