Johnny Marr is collaborating with SoCal surf-poppers Best Coast, British songwriter/producer Tom Vek, Brooklyn all-girl keyboard trio Au Revoir Simone, and Nashville alt-rockers Mona on an interesting new project called "Ray-Ban Raw Sounds," which finds the ex-Smiths guitarist presenting the four up-and-coming bands with five different ideas or objects to inspire them to write a song. "It sounded confusing to me at first, too," Marr admits to SPIN. "But it turned out to be amazing." And it resulted in some excellent new music. Listen below!
First, Marr had to nail down the five different inspirations. "I just looked around my studio and life and took the parts of my world that are of interest to me, and then rolled with it," he says. He wrote a poem, took a conceptual photo in his hometown of Manchester, pulled a favorite quote from the famous German philosopher Friedrich Schiller, recorded a piece of music, and presented an old map of New York City's Lower East Side. "I wanted this to tie Europe, England, and America together," he says. Here's what they meant to him:
"It was inspired by a trip to Russia. I had this idea of a girl in a city. I wanted it to be about a girl, and by a girl. It was important for me to try and tie Europe in with this project. I didn't want it to be a guy-fest because that's old-fashion."
"I took two of my friends, a boy and a girl, out in Manchester. The idea is that the girl is being watched, but let's not pretend that girls aren't watching too [laughs]. It's this idea of girls and guys looking at each other, basically. Then I'm taking the photograph. I wanted to present things to the musicians that they can get songs out of. I didn't want to be just like, 'Here's a book, here's a movie.' It turned out to be the most popular inspiration."
Friedrich Schiller quote: "Keep true to the dreams of your youth."
"I like that period of German philosophy — Kant, Schopenhauer. But Schiller was my favorite because of his love of aesthetic. It's a quote I had written in my journal a few years back. In many ways, the dreams of your youth could be to find romance, to avoid the bully, avoid the asshole. I think the dream of my youth was to be heard."
Strum and Drang guitar piece:
"It seemed weird to be in a collaboration with other musicians without my guitar somehow involved. I wanted to involve the internet, too. I thought I'd put a movie up on the internet of me playing the guitar, but that seemed a little vain, so that's why my head's not in it [laughs]. Each band could go on the net and sample it. My challenge was how to play a repetitive piece of music but with a sense of it evolving. Au Revoir picked up on that idea of it staying the same, yet evolving."
Old map of Lower Manhattan:
"I'd brought Europe into the equation, so I wanted to come full circle and focus on New York, since that's where we were performing, too. But I wanted to avoid cliches. A friend told me about the Bowery Boys, who were these stylish, counter-culture teenagers at the turn of the last century. So I decided to use a very, very old map. It's this idea of rock'n'roll always evolving but within the same ideology. It's also a nod to the CBGB scene. Like with the Schiller quote, I wanted to pick something that was very rock'n'roll yet avoided the usual stuff people expect."
Next, Marr picked four up-and-coming bands to use these five elements as the inspiration for a song. Hear each song and read about the collaborations:
"Their record had been out a couple months when I was approached by Ray Ban, and that's what I was listening to at the time," says Marr. "I like good pop songs wrapped up in a garage sound." Best Coast's track is called "In Your Sleep." Singer/guitarist Bethany Cosentino explains: "I was inspired by Johnny's photo, the man and woman looking at each other through vintage cameras, because my brain goes straight to romance. I also listened to the Strum and Drang loop on the road and it influenced ideas about the song."
Best Coast, "In Your Sleep"
Au Revoir Simone
"I liked that they were from Brooklyn and had a lightness about them," says Marr. "They're modern and have a sharp melodic sense. There's something so poetic in the music." The band's song, called "How Long," uses "a lot of repetition and overlapping layers," says Erika Spring, "and we connect it to the finger picking in the Strum and Drang video because some elements change whilst others stay the same, and each new layer allows you to hear what remains constant in a new way."
Au Revoir Simone, "How Long"
"I wasn't aware that Tom Vek was going to put another record out," says Marr. "I liked his earlier stuff, but he'd been away for a while. So it was my way of hearing his new stuff before anyone else [laughs]." The song, called "Film Your Own Television," borrows "parts of the poem and the Schiller quote," Vek says. "There are parts of Strum and Drang too; while the lyrics involved working in the map and the photo."
Tom Vek, "Film Your Own Television"
"Because I picked Au Revoir and Best Coast, I thought Mona would represent the other side," explains Marr. "Mona provide something that wasn't East Coast vs. West Coast, and there's no mistaking that they're boys. They've got a good mix of manliness and poetic style." The band's contribution, called "Jericho," is inspired by Johnny's photo. "[It] conveyed a sense of two artists trying to outdo one another," says the band. "It called to mind the Biblical story of Jericho, where music brought the walls tumbling down."