Photo by Kevin Shea Adams
Music and fashion go together like pedophiles and children. It’s always been an uneasy, somewhat forced relationship that results from perversion and mental illness. Johnny Marr is one of the few musicians who got it right. We interviewed him about being in The Smiths, and about whether or not Morrissey could beat him at arm wrestling.
VICE: As a critic of music, there’s the tendency, when you’re given a solo album by a performer who’s been around for a while, to think “here we go, what’s this gonna be like?” But this was so good. Was there any specific pressure to make it something that people wouldn’t just listen to and go “oh, here’s that guy from The Smiths?”
Johnny Marr: Honestly I was really fearless when I made it. Other than the usual insecurities. In terms of what it all means, and how it measures up to my past, I really didn’t worry about it. Partly because I felt like if there wasn’t a certain sense of freedom about the whole thing, it wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t reckless, but I didn’t ponder too much on the significance of the album, and what it all means.
I would imagine you’ve had the tickle in your head to do a solo album for a while now. What ramped up to toying around with the idea, and maybe casually chewing on a few songs, to now being the right time to get it out there?
The (said name of band he was in) took a year off, and that made me evaluate what I was gonna do in place of us touring, because my default has always been to go in and make a new album. I just started to see this space, and all the ideas I was starting to get just turned into an opportunity.
There are very few bands that people are reverent about, and you happen to be in one of the big ones. As someone who both makes music, and as a consumer of it, do you see music as something that should be taken very seriously in terms of music theory and things of that nature, or as something that should be seen as just a pleasure?
I think pop culture, as I know it, gets intense, and it’s never just about music. Aethetics come into it, and lifestyle and politics with a small ‘p’, and sometimes politics with a big ‘p’, and that’s when it’s really good. When you care so much about that band, or artist and they create a world. I don’t mind when people take what I do lightly, or what they like lightly, but for some people it is very, very serious and they feel lucky to have found something with all those elements in there. It’s very very lucky.
Why do you think that doesn’t happen any more? This is a conversation I have with my Dad, and a conversation a lot of people have with their Dads, I’m sure. Up to a certain point, there were these groups, and albums, that were life changing and that just doesn’t happen anymore. People make albums now that are like candy. They just fart them out.
It depends on what you’re looking for, doesn’t it? If you’re looking for some profound poetry, not everybody is gonna provide that. If you’re looking to change your clothes, and you discover The Strokes when you’re 15, then it happens right? If you’re in high school, and you just discovered Karen O, then that’s gonna be pretty cool I think. It depends on what you’re looking for, but I think bands are gonna provide it. If you know a lot, then you’re looking for more.
Listening to this album, and as a fan of your previous stuff, to my ears it sounds like you’re pretty heavily influenced by girl groups, and the blues. Is there anything modern, like stuff that’s been released in recent years, that’s trickled into your influences while making this solo album?
Honestly, no. I had no interest in being regressive, or repeating myself, or trying to recapture anything I’ve done before, but at the same time, I had no problem with just being myself on this album. I didn’t analyse it too much, which is unusual for me. I kept getting stuck on this idea though, which is that if I went to see one of my favourite bands, I wouldn’t want them to sound like anyone else. I like a lot of different music, but I kept saying to myself, well if I can just capture what I do, and be very good at that, then that’s a very important consideration.
The stuff that I liked, and that was around when I went to school, had a pretty good ethos, and was aesthetically pretty cool. And I’ve never really directly, or knowingly drawn from that. One of the reasons why I moved back to the UK from Portland was to be in the place that reminded me of where I was when I first started writing songs. As far as worrying about being relevant, I really could not give a shit. I’ll let other people be relevant. I’ll put them on my Ipod. I’m just concerned with being the best at being me.
You’ve been a part of a number of different groups that had very strong front men, I’d have to imagine that that’s like getting used to a new car. Like each time you have to get used to things all over again, and adjust the seat so to speak, and now you’re driving your own car. Does that affect your playing at all? Each different, specific types of energy?
Yeah. I feel very fortunate, as a singer and as a guitar player, to have worked closely with all the different people I’ve worked with. You are right that I’ve worked with very strong male characters, but I’ve worked with quite a few girls too. I’ve worked with a lot of interesting people and I’ve tried to draw from the good things in those people, and not make too many mistakes. I don’t really feel like this record has given me a liberation, because I don’t really feel like I needed to be liberated from anything.
That’s something that I’ve always liked and appreciated about you as a performer. Coming from the UK, and being in all of these huge bands that you’ve been in, you could have very much turned out to be this “here’s my penis” malecentric rock star, and I’m not sure if it was because of the girl group music you started out listening to, but you’re really sort of a femalecentric, or at least female conscious guy. Was that ever a conscious thing?
It started to be conscious when it was pointed out to me by some of the girls in my life. I think it’s maybe a generational thing. Guys from my generation, both in the UK as well as in the US, were just not at all fucked up about femininity. For bands from my generation, it wasn’t that big of a deal for girls to be in bands. And I’ve grown up with girls, there’s never been a time when there weren’t girls in my life, ever. So yeah, it was pointed out to me, pre-Smiths, really, that the way I played guitar wasn’t macho, and I just sort of ran with it, and took it as a compliment really.
I always forget that you lived in Portland, because it kind of doesn’t seem like you would. Why would you move there?
I stayed there while playing with Modest Mouse, and then I changed my plane ticket because I just didn’t want to go back. A funny little thing happened that hooked me. I kept seeing this vinyl shop, and everytime I went to go in it, it wasn’t open. And I thought, “life just isn’t like this. This guy is great. He only opens when he gives a shit, and he’s probably not gonna sell you his best stuff.” It reminded me of my town, 20 years ago. And for someone from the UK who loves American music and American culture, it did all of that for me and more.
It’s always interesting to talk to someone who can do something that you can’t do. I can’t imagine what it’s like to make an album, and it’s fascinating to me. When you’re working on one, are you a procrastinator? Or do you have designated work hours?
Well I don’t like giving myself designated work hours because then that means that there’s a time when you stop. I don’t wanna be too easy on myself, because I wanna get the thing done.
When was the last time you got so angry that you felt like you were gonna just throw up. You know that kind of angry where you feel like you’re just gonna barf or cry?
It happened quite recently actually. It happens on kind of a weekly basis when I hear people sing on those reality TV shows. They make me want to go into the corner, in the fetal position, and just sob and sob and sob. And then, there are a couple people I know, who are just always always late. I’m not claiming to be some saint, but you know how there are people who you know are just never ever gonna be on time? That makes me mad.
I saved this one for last, in case you punched me out, but who do you think would win in an arm wrestling match, you or Morrissey?
Oh he would, definitely. Wait, what am I saying? It would be me. Definitely me.
More from this issue: