Q&A: Guitarist Johnny Marr

The former guitarist for the Smiths and Modest Mouse returns to Portland for a concert at the Aladdin Theater April 16.

By Sam Coggeshall April 16, 2013

Guitarist Johnny Marr maintains his balance on his first solo album, 'The Messenger'.

Thirty-one long, empty years after the Smiths were formed, their intrepid guitarist Johnny Marr is all set to release a new album (his first official solo) entitled The Messenger. In the 12-track riot party, Marr addresses the absurdity and frustrations of the modern world, while also chanting for “sweet defiance” against the uglier financial, technological, and human forces in play (more on this later). In our interview, he discusses poetry, protest music, humility, and his special love for Portland, where he will be playing April 16.

It should be noted that there is a suspicious lack of mention about the Smiths in this piece. Last week, I called Marr’s publicist in New York with some Smiths-related questions in mind (ignoring sound counsel against doing so) who says “Hi, I’ll connect you with Johnny, just one thing, NO questions about the Smiths. Don’t talk about them.” With a list of suddenly irrelevant questions in my hand, Marr is on the other end, asking me sweetly about beloved Portland.

Culturephile: Hi Johnny, how are you?
JM: I’m very well thank you how’s Portland?

Portland is in the midst of some torrential rain right now. Shocking.
You don’t say? Oh, well, never mind. I like that though, I like it. I miss it and I’m coming back, back to the Aladdin Theatre on the 16th, it’s a cool place.

You were in town for quite a while, weren’t you?
I was in Portland from 2005-2010. I really clicked with the place. The original idea was to be there for 10 days, but I changed my plane ticket and had a real love affair with it—and why wouldn’t you? There’s not a lot of cities like it.

What exactly did you like about Portland?
Well, the easy answer is the people, in my case so many musicians who I liked before I met them. I was a big fan of the Thermals, a band I was really knocked out to see a few times. That atmosphere of musicians is so cooperative there, it’s just a theory, but I think that’s a reason so many good musicians are coming out of there, it’s a similar atmosphere in Manchester, as well. But, I love Portland, I just really clicked. I think I went to Powell’s on a Thursday night and I thought to myself, I’m going to come here every night.

You mentioned Manchester—is that where you recorded the album?
I recorded the album in Manchester and in Berlin and that was fun because I came back to Europe just to change things up, but also I had this vague idea that if I were to make a certain kind of connection with where I’m from and that came out in the sound, then it was gonna be a good thing all around.

Did you have to go home to go solo?
I had to go home to put it all together—the sound and find out what I wanted to say, I didn’t come back to write about a strong political agenda with the UK, but I definitely had an agenda to make comments on my society. It’s a little bit like thinking in your own language. No matter how long I’m in the US, my society and where I comment on it happens to be the UK—that is just my default. I had to go back there to check it out. I also didn’t want to comment on American society because I don’t come from there.

I read somewhere that a song off the album "I Want the Heartbeatwas about fetishizing modern technology. It seems like a lot of the album is about human behavior in the modern day and our interaction with our surroundings.
Yeah, that’s right. "I Want the Heartbeat" started off with having the notion, a theory, of how we fetishize technology. It's not in the music, but in the words. Every time I turn the magnifying glass onto something I’m able to turn it on myself as well and I was wondering about how we all fetishize technology so much and I understand it myself. I just jumped from there to the kinds of relationship you could have with a piece of technology and of course a heart rate machine came up, a flat-line machine, the ultimate one, the one that keeps you alive and it’s just a short leap from there to this story about a guy who wins the lottery and gets rid of his wife and swaps her for a heart-rate machine which he has an erotic relationship with the rest of his life and that is OK. We all know that story.

We’ve all been there.
(Laughs) Yes we have. I think it’s a pretty cool thing to be able to look outside yourself and at your environment and make observations and if they’re poetic enough marry them to loud electric guitar and drums for 3 1/2 and 4 minutes. It’s poetry that moves at the speed of life. I really like poetry, often it makes me feel like I’m living in the wrong time period or want to take a nap, which is unfortunate. To be able to think, talk about everyday life over up-tempo rocking music is great work if you can get it, you know?

Being a songwriter is a great opportunity, but the important thing is I don’t want the poetry to complain for the simple reason that I don’t want it to bring the music down. I want it to go with the music and I want the music to be something that is energetic and I’m not really making music to kick back to at 2 am with a joint and a bottle of wine. Maybe I’ll get around to that (laughs).

So, you didn’t want the content of the songs to depress the music?
I didn’t want them to be a complaint, I didn’t want to be sanctimonious. If you’re writing about external things in society, you’ve got to not be high and mighty. The song "The Right Thing Right" is a commentary on being a target for powerful market forces. The music is so upbeat that I wanted to start the record with a sense of awareness being an empowerment, sticking the middle finger up to those forces. I often feel like no matter where I look—a petrol station, on the highway, on my phone-there’s some screen trying to tell me to empty my wallet or behave in a certain way, or dress in a certain way—it’s very, very powerful. So, I was making a commentary on that, on the society spectacle, but instead of being brought down by it, I wanted it to go with the music which is quite upbeat so I tried to make the lyrics a celebration of defiance, awareness as a "f**k you" set to pop music without being angry, like an upstart that has a similar kind of attitude, inspired by rioters who were actually angry, but I wanted it to feel like a triumphant protest song for school children, almost.

Was this album building up in you for a long time? Did it come out spontaneously, how thought out was it? 
The process of writing is pretty quick, but the album was building up in my mind in dressing rooms and tour buses over the 18 months prior to 2011 when I started recording it. I didn’t actually write anything down until I started the record. I didn’t record any demos or snatches of songs so I was kind of chopping at the bit to get some of these ideas out.

It’s an extremely spirited record. Were you pissed off were you while you were recording this?
I don’t know whether I did really get pissed off, I was particularly interested in the student demonstrations that were occurring because of the promised spike in tuition fees. Before the current government got into office, they promised to raise tuition fees and then surprise, surprise. ... That really hit home quite a lot, a lot of my audience were involved in it. I have a lot connection with those students through social media. When I think of politics, it's just a heavy, heavy disappointment which is probably worse than pissed off. I have a lot of admiration for the way the students stood up for themselves. A lot of the generation are accused of being lazy, apathetic. The kids I’m around are not apathetic in the slightest, particularly the students from Kent over here who sat in for almost two weeks in a peaceful protest. I have admiration for them, the way young people set about it. It’s almost humbling really, it’s really inspiring.

So in the album it was more of those kinds of feelings rather than plain pissed off. I like the opportunity that being in a rock-and-roll, alternative or indie band or whatever label want to give it gives you the opportunity to marry certain ideas you have with good riffs. It's a good situation and then other times its important not to get too high and mighty about things and to focus on entertaining people and being interesting.

What I do best is make records and play guitar in a band and you should always play to your strengths (laughs).Johnny Marr
Aladdin Theater
April 16 at 8 pm 

I do feel like over here it's the job of the artists and people outside of the mainstream with a certain kind of voice to at least make fun of people in power who are messing things up.

Well, thank you for your time. Welcome back to Portland when you arrive.
Thank you! Im really looking forward to coming to PDX. Happy to see everyone. The guest list is the longest on the entire tour, but that's OK. I’d rather it be that way then not, we all want to do a good job over there, so it’s going to be fun.


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