Johnny Marr on His New Solo Album, Why the Smiths Won’t Reunite, and the Time He Almost Fell in a Volcano
In his 2016 memoir Set the Boy Free, Johnny Marr resigns himself to a fate of being asked about a Smiths reunion for the rest of his life. The guitarist has worked with Hans Zimmer, Beck, The Pet Shop Boys, The Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and the Pretenders, but he will always be known first and foremost as the co-founder and co-songwriter of a band that broke up when he was 23. He’s mostly okay with that legacy, though he has no interest in getting the band back together.
Aside from the obvious cash grab, why would he want to? His phone is apparently ringing off the hook with people who want him to play on their records, tour in their bands, or just hang out. Plus, Marr recently released Call the Comet, his loosely conceptual and relentless catchy third solo record, and is playing to sold out crowds with just his name on the marquee. Being on his own sounds like a lot more fun than going back to slipping all over Morrissey’s gladioli.
When Marr spoke to Spin via phone from his Manchester home base last week, he was just about to head across the pond to continue touring Call the Comet. He talked about the shock of Brexit (“a realization of disappointment in a lot of your fellow countrymen”), the industrial music that inspired the new record (“me just playing the drum machine through a whole lot of pedals all the way through the night”), the funny stories Bernard Sumner of New Order and Joy Division sometimes tells about him (“such a crock”), the nearly instant collapse of a Smiths quasi-reunion featuring neither him nor Morrissey (“a farce,”), and his own recent brush with literal royalty (“I felt quite ambivalent about it”).
As for his clear political and personal differences with his most famous bandmate, he’s diplomatic, to a point. “There’s so many reasons why we haven’t reformed,” he said. “I think that’s fair to say, and I don’t think that would come as any kind of puzzle or surprise to anybody.”
Read the full interview below.
Spin: You have said you projected cable news and other images on the walls of the space where you worked during the recording of Call the Comet. Were there any channels or videos that were particularly effective?
Marr: Al Jazeera 15 feet high, and the opposite side Fox News, is kind of interesting. I did that because the space is a very atmospheric, industrial place. It looked exactly how you might’ve imagined it when you think of the top floor of an old textile factory from the 1890s. Bright, with huge windows and pipes everywhere, and a lot of noises coming from God-knows-where during the night. It was pretty vibey. Those places make me think about Manchester in the late ‘70s, when I first started encountering these sorts of spaces, places where you could rehearse in in the city center. There’s one place on video, it’s quite famous, where you see Joy Division playing “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” that was in a similar kind of building. Actually, when I was younger, me and my band when I was 15 used to rehearse underneath Joy Division in that place.
Those spaces are few and far between now. It’s nearly all apartments. Maybe people might remember, like from Cleveland, places like that, or New York in the ‘70s. I’m poring over videos with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Warhol too. Being around at the time as well in the early 80’s, the Northern industrial music scene, people were putting drum machines through echoes and all of that. I just had those associations with the space we were recording in, so that’s why the record has that sound to it in places. On certain tracks, it’s very industrial, like “Actor Attractor” is very industrial and “My Eternal” has kind of got that sort of cold, trippy, industrial vibe, but UK industrial. When you say industrial in the United States, it usually means Nine Inch Nails, and quite rightly, too.
You mean like Throbbing Gristle?
Exactly, yeah. So, for instance, “New Dominions” started off with me just playing the drum machine through a whole lot of pedals all the way through the night. It’s very, very loud in the factory on my own. Then, I just started singing “I don’t know why, it’s understood” and I was just ringing it out for hours, going round and round and then dropped the guitars on it. The process was inspired by the space, and it helped that I didn’t go in there with any specific agenda of what the new Johnny Marr record should sound like. I was responding to the environment. And also just hiding from Brexit and the election, really.
What was it like being in New York City right when Trump was elected?
I arrived the next day and the country felt like a ghost town. I had been through it months before with Brexit. I felt like my American friends were going to be going through shock, and heartache, and eventually a realization of disappointment in a lot of your fellow countrymen. That was the thing that I experienced in the UK. It’s a very unpleasant process.
Both you and Prince Charles were honored at the GQ “Men Of The Year” Awards in London earlier this month. Was it weird being in a room together, since you’re the co-writer of a record titled The Queen is Dead?
It was a little. I don’t think I’ve been in the presence of the Royal Family before, so, yeah, I felt quite ambivalent about it, and surprised. But I’m not the sort of person that wishes any damage or ill upon anyone, really. I just have opposition to what they’re about.
You mentioned in your memoir that it’s incumbent upon alternative musicians to challenge and make fun of the ruling class.
That’s more in my nature. My problem with the Royal Family is that they don’t share enough consideration for a lot of the people that are happy to put them on a pedestal. It doesn’t take anything to acknowledge a huge part of the population, to whom that acknowledgement will go a long way. That’s just fucking rude.
What do you mean by ‘acknowledge’?
Taking time to actually show up, and mention the working class, and just appear to care, and appear to be aware of the plight of a lot of people who respect them. They shouldn’t completely run away at the plight of most of their subjects. But it’s not personal.
In Bernard Sumner’s memoir, he writes about Electronic, your band together. He says you were completely obsessive in the way you talked about music, that it was hard to get you to talk about anything else. He mentioned something about trying to broaden your horizons.
Well, Bernard, he’s someone who doesn’t like to hear about music when he’s sailing in his boat! He would put an embargo on me whenever we went pretty much anywhere. The poor thing, trying to put up with me being inspired.
He also wrote a funny anecdote from when you guys were on a press tour together: that you went running and you accidentally ran into a pole while you were checking yourself out in the reflection of a store window.
That is such a crock, by the way.
It’s in the book.
Bernard Sumner got off very, very lightly in my book. I’ve got so many more anecdotes about him than he does about me. If you ever interview Seal, ask him about the time that we took a ride into Harlem on the back of a pickup truck at 4:30 a.m., and we had no idea who was driving it. That’s an interesting story. I guarantee the Pet Shop Boys have some pretty hot stuff on Bernard Sumner. Bernard better watch out. If I ever write a sequel, I might not be so kind to him next time.
There’s another bit of folklore about your time in Electronic I wanted to ask about. Is it true that you almost fell into a volcano while shooting the “Get the Message” video in the Maldives?
That’s absolutely true, yeah. The helicopter would shoot down so low when it was shooting us, it took a whole load of stone and dust and rock. So I got it in my eyes and just ran in the wrong direction towards the volcano. Bernard actually chased me and grabbed me, and pulled me down, and he’s never let me forget that. He saved my life.
I’m not going to ask you if the Smiths are ever going to reunite, because I know the answer is no. What I will ask is, do you feel like you dodged a bullet not reuniting given the political positions Morrissey has taken recently?
I don’t know whether I dodged a bullet because of that. I just feel like we never reformed because we shouldn’t have reformed. I don’t like ‘dodging the bullet,’ because there’s so many reasons why we haven’t reformed. I think that’s fair to say, and I don’t think that would come as any kind of puzzle or surprise to anybody. I don’t feel like I dodged any bullets. And also we never really got close to reforming, except for a conversation that happened quite a long time ago.
What did you think of that “Classically Smiths” event that kind of fell apart very quickly with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce?
There wasn’t really much time to think anything of it. I heard about it when everybody else heard about it, which tells you all you need to know, really. It was particularly disrespectful that I wasn’t consulted, and I kind of feel it was a farce in the way it went down, really. I thought about it how I imagine everybody else thought about it, that it was really kind of sketchy. That is disappointing to me, that the band gets chained to that kind of sketchiness. It’s a good thing those guys weren’t organizing the gigs when we were together, otherwise we would’ve never gone on the stage.
When you were recording with The Talking Heads and touring with The Pretenders and meeting people like Paul McCartney, when did it start to dawn on you these people are your peers?
I’ve never thought of them as my peers, really. You’re never going to think of Paul McCartney as a peer.
At the same time, you have an anecdote in your memoir where Keith Richards is calling you out of the blue and saying “come over, let’s play guitars.”
Musicians are incredibly sharing people in a way that some of the other lads aren’t. Musicians are always very keen to share what music they’re currently into—that was my experience, anyway—so you kind of have this common ground. The great thing about collaboration is that regardless of your cultural differences, or gap in generations, or whatever it may be, you have this common goal of what’s coming out of the studio. For example, when I worked with Pharrell Williams on the Spider-Man song, we were both from different countries and different kinds of music. But when you start working together, it’s like being in a rowboat and you’ve both got your eyes on the horizon and you’re both going in the same direction. That’s something that I’ve been very lucky to have had experienced a lot for years now.
In your book, you talk about how you adopted a pre-show ritual of always keeping a 10 pound note in your pocket when you were first starting out, as a kind of good luck charm. Do you still do that?
It’s a 20!
Oh, it’s a 20 now?
I upgraded to a 20 on the first show the Pretenders opened up for U2 at the Olympic Amphitheatre, or whatever it’s called. I figured on that stage, going from playing to 2,000 people to 100,000 people, I probably needed an upgrade. And you know, inflation, the cost of living and all of that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.