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Johnny Marr on a Life in Rock: The Smiths’ Story ‘Has Become So Distorted’

Johnny Marr / Photo by Jon Shard

For more than 30 years, self-taught English guitar virtuoso Johnny Marr, 49, has added jangle and class to the sounds of the Smiths, the Cribs, and Modest Mouse. He’s also designed his own custom Fender Jaguar, became a visiting professor of music at the University of Salford in his hometown of Manchester, and contributed to the score for Inception. But he hasn’t yet released an album under his own name — until now. On February 26, Marr will finally make his solo debut with The Messenger (Sire/ADA), an aural evocation of his youth in Britain.

While visiting New York City, Marr took time out to share the lessons learned during his storied, multifaceted career.

It’s easy to forget that things one takes for granted are hard earned.
I went into my first lesson at the University of Salford not knowing what the hell I was going to say. So I said, “Let’s see what’s in Johnny’s bag!” I pulled all these notepads and stupid little cords and adapters that I carry around out of my bag and two hours later it led to a discussion. One of the things I ask a band is who they think their bandmates are trying to be when they improvise, and most people are unable to say what’s on their bandmates’ playlists. When you impart those lessons about being in bands and for some weird fluke it comes across as profound knowledge, it makes you realize all the stuff you’ve been doing has some value. You just take that for granted.

Every decent band needs to be like a tight little world.
Every band I’ve been in is like that. Like the Cribs. You can’t really get tighter than three brothers talking about birthdays and Christmas and dogs and holidays and vacations and so on. It’s just that it has to be explained in the case of the Smiths because the story has been about how we had become fracturous. We just need to put people straight because the story has become so distorted. But any band of any worth is an intense, tight unit.

A lot of us in the modern world operate on a low energy level and we’re trying to get onto a higher energy level.
I’m not talking about esoteric shit, by the way. Madame Blavatsky, I’ve found her to be really interesting. But New Age, my God. What, my body and wallet? I’m into energy and attitude and focus, so I concentrate my nature on running, getting away from the studio and the tour bus and getting to see cities. Everything stays uptempo, and when you hit the stage, you can jump three or four feet in the air. It gives you more energy than sitting around in a bar at 3:30 in the morning.

Straight-edge is fantastic.
I used to smoke at least a pack of cigarettes a day. Two, if I could have afforded it. And I’d stay up all night in the pursuit of being a classic rock musician and a hedonist, learning how to write songs. My [healthier] lifestyle now started because I hung out with Naughty by Nature in the early ’90s. I asked them why everyone was so fit and why they didn’t drink alcohol, and they said it was self-protective and empowering. I thought that was fantastic. I just wasn’t interested in falling into that particular pattern, the guitar player in a rock band who gets into his 40s and struts around telling anecdotes and hanging around people’s dressing rooms.

Playing music is the refusal to conform to grownup values.
It’s not about arrested adolescence or wanting to be a child, because that would be incredibly undignified. There’s a twilight zone between adolescence and whenever you want, really, where you can just hang on to the refusal to conform to some of the pressures of growing up. Some great older people refuse to do it, like Pablo Picasso or Dali or Vidal Sassoon. You can grow up without having to conform, stop going to shows, stop having a record collection, start being politically iffy. I’ve known people who were quite radical in the ’60s and early ’70s and now they live in gated communities and would call the cops if they saw someone walking down the street. I used to go out and say to people, “Where are the hippies? Where did they all go?”

We didn’t give a fuck whether people thought we were singing about gay politics.
The great thing about boys in my generation is that they liked bands that didn’t give a shit if some people thought they were gay. Whether they were or not was almost fuel to the fire. I’m sure that was true for those British guys of that generation: Ian McCulloch and the rest of the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, Martin Gore and Dave Gahan and those guys, or Robert Smith. That was something that guys in our audience, straight or not, clicked with. Jocks didn’t like us. I used to play football with loads of gay guys, and to me, jocks don’t necessarily have anything to do with sport. It’s just that macho, meathead, beer-monster scenario. That’s a good thing about the period I came out of, that we started thinking about gender and sexual politics.

Having girls around keeps it from being some testosterone fest.
I’ve been fortunate, because in 30 years of playing I’ve worked with a lot of girls — you know, women — Kirsty MacColl, Chrissie Hynde. If you do all kinds of different collaborations, especially in the modern age, girls are going to be involved. It makes the mid-’60s and ’70s look strangely archaic with [its] lack of girls. One of the benefits of punk that my generation of musicians inherited a few years later was the involvement of girls. Before punk, you didn’t see people like Tina Weymouth playing the bass, or the Slits. It softened things up and made the sexual politics much, much cooler. It made that cock-rock thing look all the more dated. And it keeps things on the road from being all smelly.