The same ...only different.
Matt Johnson & Johnny Marr in conversation . . .
In the winter of 1981 I was, as usual, hanging out at my friend's house listening to music and trying to stay out of the Manchester rain. I was 17, played guitar and wrote songs. My friend had just returned from London with an album by a guy he'd met on a street in Soho in the early hours one morning when asking for directions. I was immediately impressed that someone who was not much older than me had got it together to make his own solo album, but when I actually heard Burning Blue Soul by Matt Johnson I loved it. The following week Matt came up to Manchester to visit my friend and as we sat face to face, passing my guitar back and forth to show each other riffs and songs, we knew we had an amazing connection and thought that one day we might be in a band together. Now, more than 20 years later we find ourselves at Matt's house on one of the Spanish Islands. Neither of us can really believe that so much time has now passed. We've both managed to make music for a living and make names for ourselves, which was our dream, and from 1988-93 we did get to be in a band together when I played guitar in TheThe. What follows is a conversation about TheThe between two friends, who still feel the same ... only different.
J: Well, I've got to ask you this very obvious question right from the start, so letfs just get this one out of the way. What were the earliest musical and lyrical influences that you think were important to you when you decided to become a musician?
M: I refuse to answer that
J: See? My very first question (laughs) Especially lyrically.
M: The weird thing was that I didn't really pay that much attention to lyrics. When I would listen to records and get affected by them it was more by the spirit of the music itself. Not so much a case of what they were saying but more how they were saying it. But living above a pub, some of my earliest memories are of being surrounded by music and I suppose the first stuff that made a real conscious impression would have been Tamla Motown and The Beatles. So in retrospect just tightly focused and brilliant songwriting. Progressing onward from there into my teenage years Ifd say the early glam-rock groups. I loved the really chunky guitars and drums on Mike Leanderfs Gary Glitter productions. Also Marc Bolanfs T-Rex sound was really exciting. That influence would still be there many years later on songs like SwineFever (from NakedSelf) where I recorded about 40 guitars all playing the same simple lines. Continuing from there Ifd say Tim Buckley, Syd Barratt and assorted singer/songwriters, still including, of course, John Lennon. Then wefd get on to the post punk movement and Thomas Leer particularly. He's almost completely forgotten about now sadly, but he was a huge influence on me, particularly his single, Private Plane. The fact it was just one guy in his bedroom doing the entire thing made a massive, massive impact on me. He was years ahead of his time and actually inspired me to create TheThe really. He later told me that the reason his vocals were so whispered on that song is because his girlfriend was asleep in their bedsit while he did it!
J: So, when he made a bit of money and he could get in proper studios, his vocals sound changed, because that Four Movements record ...
M: That was a great EP.
J: I think a lot of people don't realise that kind of context that you came out of, that post-punk movement, because most of the people from that era have fallen by the wayside now, but when we first met, it was Winter of 1981, and at that time you were just about to start writing Soul Mining - I think you'd just got your deal hadn't you?
M: Had Burning Blue Soul been released?
J: Yeah, Burning Blue Soul was out but you were just signing to CBS then weren't you?
M: Yeah, I think I was. But I know what you mean, that particular little era has really been neglected in the media. For years, we've heard about the 60fs or about Punk and now I suppose there's a certain amount of reference to, and reverence for, the German bands from the 70fs like Can, Faust, Neu and Kraftwerk etc. but there was that secret little pocket of post-punk British underground music. And thatfs really my roots.
M: Yes, they were a really interesting band. They weren't really punk, they were much more imaginative and out on a limb than that. Bruce Gilbert & Graham Lewis produced my first single and some of Burning Blue Soul. We supported them live too. They were very kind and supportive towards me as well as being hugely influential. Also, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Thomas Leer, The Normal, Robert Rental, Scritti Politti, whose early incarnation were also terrific. I saw their first show and was supporting them on their third. This Heat were a really great band too and we had some association with them as well in the early days. They were very encouraging and let us use their studio in Brixton. And Early Human League, before they signed to Virgin and got the girl singers ...
J: Being Boiled and ...
M: Circus of Death, yeah. I used to go to a lot of their early shows, where they just used those simple projectors and synths and drum machines but armed with a great sense of humour and irony. Cabaret Voltairefs early shows were absolutely fantastic too. I was only about 16 years old and if Ifd been 10 years older maybe Ifd have thought gWell this is just like the early Pink Floyd showsh, you know, those early multimedia happenings and freak outs of the late 60fs, but I suppose what makes those things so intense is onefs age at the time. People say that contemporary music isn't as innovative but if you were 16 now you'd probably think the music around today was a lot stronger than the stuff from 10 or 20 years ago.
J: Yeah, but don't you think that was firstly underground though that kind of movement?
M: Yes it was and the sad thing about it all is that nowadays, before any fledgling movement even breaks out of itfs shell and begins blinking in the daylight, itfs sniffed out by some trendy advertising brat and featured on a car, beer or financial services commercial. Itfs much harder for things to stay 'underground', for want of a better word. And I think that was a really important thing really, that younger generations felt that there was something they had of their own. I'd imagine there's a certain amount of resentment if you're young now. You just discover something thatfs close to your heart and which resonates with your own private experiences and then before you know it, itfs completely over exposed and everybody's discovered it, devoured it and then discarded it. Before itfs even had a chance to breathe and develop. There's something really important about having your own sense of culture, and in that respect punk never really belonged to me, it was my older brother Andrew that used to go and see the Sex Pistols and all the other punk bands.
J: Yeah, I was the same.
M: I never really enjoyed the music either, I found it pretty unimaginative generally. The Sex Pistols I liked and some of The Clash, some of the good New York stuff like Television, Talking Heads and Patti Smith was great too but a lot of it I just thought was third rate and dull. But this post-punk era wefre talking about here? That I found really innovative. After having been in bands since I was a little kid, I suddenly realised you could do it all in your bedroom and on your own. And the one record that really brought it home with a bang was Private Plane by Thomas Leer .
J: Well I was going to mention that stuff to you because the difference between Burning Blue Soul and Soul Mining is really quite drastic in terms of the way that it sounds in itfs overall production. It still sounds like itfs coming from the same person but, for want of a better term, Burning Blue Soul seems more like a bedroom record, very much like one guyfs endeavour. You used to work in a studio though didn't you?
J: Did you do some of it after-hours or during downtime in the studio?
M: Some of it, particularly the drum and percussion loops, which were early forms of sampling really. The company I worked for had a massive music and sound effects library, so I would play around with looping sounds although of course in those days, looping really did mean looping. Huge spools of tape all over the place. I sometimes go back to that method of working because I love old tape machines and I just love tape. Not only the sound of it but the smell and the feel of it too. Itfs funny talking about it now. I start to sound like my dad talking about his first job, but when I started working there as a 15 year old, as part of your training for the first month or so youfd have to sit in the corner in front of a big old Ferrograph/EMI tape machine. A big old green thing, with big knobs and dials. Youfd sit there with a pair of outsized headphones on all day long, week in and week out learning how to edit tape. Theyfd give you the gash tape at first. The stuff they were going to throw out and gradually youfd work your way up to editing the real stuff, with real music on it. They also taught you how to do loops and all this sort of stuff, tape delays, flanging and phasing by running two machines together. You know all the sort of stuff you can now do with a 15 stomp box. But they really took it seriously in those days, teaching you to be a tape-op. Nowadays, kids just start and they want to be producers and re-mixers before theyfve learned how to make a decent cup of tea. I could tell you some real horror stories about that (laughs) anyway, having that kind of training meant that I built up a vast library of weird ethnic percussion and sound-effects loops in my spare time. I was obsessed by it and a lot of that stuff then carried over into the early TheThe shows and my early albums. I even used a tape recorder on stage then, an Akai 4000DS mk2 that I saved up for months to buy. In those days TheThe was just me on an old Crumar electric piano and electric guitar, both fed through a big muff fuzz box, with Keith the keyboard player on a little Wasp synth plus we had an Electro Harmonix drum machine and the reel to reel tape recorder. It was very mobile and a lot of fun and I wouldnft mind trying that kind of format out again at some point. Anyhow a lot of those ideas then carried over into Spirits (unreleased first album) and Burning Blue Soul. The reason Burning Blue Soul sounds very different to Soul Mining is because there's a missing link between the two which is The Pornography of Despair. Thatfs like a cross between both albums.
J: That makes a lot of sense, because when Soul Mining first came out it really struck a lot of people, because the songs on there were quite classic. Here, someone had arrived who was very much a songwriter and I remember that being the feeling at the time, that there were all these great songs, but what was different about it was the context . It was sparse sounding and it wasn't done on traditional instruments. There was some guitar playing here and there, obviously that you did, but on some of the stuff you just used drum machines and other gear like that. Was that part of the influence of Thomas Leer and people like him that you were speaking about? Or was it perhaps more because you liked technology and that's just what was available at the time?
M: Well both really. I liked and still like technology, but also maybe because of being somebody who, instead of practising to be a musician, spent his hours playing with old tape recorders and bits of equipment. So when drum machines first came out I just really loved them and took to them instantly. TheThe were one of the original electronic duos (laughs) just two guys on stage with a drum machine. There was an amusing rumour going round when we were playing live shows in the late 70fs. Apparently the Musicians Union said they were going to make an example of groups like TheThe because they felt our use of drum machines could spell the end for drummers. There was a lot of paranoia in the Musicians Union at that time and they were going to make an example of us and try and get us all banned, because they felt it was going to destroy the livelihood of their members. The irony in all this being of course, that I went on to employ more Musicians Union members - orchestras, choirs, brass sections - than virtually any of my contemporaries. And I always pay my dues (laughs) but whatever, I just loved those early little Electro Harmonix drum machines. The ones that looked and sounded like little tin cans? But also you know what drummers are like to deal with (laughs)
J: Hell hath no fury like a drummer scorned (laughs) Who would you say were the key people around you at that time? Did Stevo, your first manager come into the frame at that time?
M: Well he was really my second manager. My first manager was Tom Johnston, who you've met I think. He was a cartoonist by day, actually I think he's still doing cartoons for the Daily Mirror now, but he was really my first manager. One of the first people to really believe in what I was doing. He met me through Keith Lawfs younger brother and I think Tom actually he paid for the recordings we did for the first single, Controversial Subject. He was also friends with Wire, particularly Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert, so he introduced us to them and they took us under their wing and encouraged us and let us support them at a show they did at the Notre Dame Hall in Leicester Square in London. It was a really big deal for us at the time and I would have been nervous if it wasnft for the fact that I was taking my driving test on the same day. Or was it the other way round? I canft remember. Anyway, one set of nerves cancelled out the other and I passed my test first time at age 17 and did a brilliant show with Wire in the evening. Useful lesson in life that. If you ever have something coming up that makes you sick with nerves then make sure youfre doing two or three things on the same day that make you really nervous too. Works like a charm. Why canft life be as simple and sweet when you reach 40? Anyway, Graham and Bruce produced the first single and Ivo at 4AD picked it up and released it. The single did really well. It topped the independent charts in the days when there really was an indie chart and John Peel played it to death on his late night show. Ivo then took a big leap of faith and asked me to do a solo album for 4AD, which became Burning Blue Soul. A lot of thanks go to Ivo for giving me that chance. So before Stevo came along I'd already put out an album and a single and been playing a lot of shows around London.
J: And then ...
M: Stevo came along. I remember getting these odd phone calls completely out of the blue by this weird character that called himself Steve O. He wanted me to support Cabaret Voltaire at a gig he was promoting in Sheffield. I turned him down three times because he wouldn't pay any money at all. He just kept saying it would be good for me (laughs) ... anyhow we ended up doing it for a crate of beer in the end and Stevo, another support band and us all travelled up to sunny Sheffield in a little old Transit van and played the show with Cabaret Voltaire. It was great really because they were fantastic guys and Ifd always had a lot of respect for them. It turned out to be really enjoyable. The Stevo connection really started out of that. Then he put together a compilation album of so called futurist and electronic bands called ... what was it? Just called the Some Bizarre compilation album I think. Anyway, he asked us for a track so we, thatfs my keyboard player Keith Laws and me, put a track called Untitled on it. The album came out on Phonogram and through it some of the bands got signed, including Depeche Mode, Blamange, B-Movie and Soft Cell. Stevo was managing a couple of those bands and Soft Cell suddenly became very, very successful with their cover version of Tainted Love. Consequently Stevo had immense clout within the record companies. Just prior to this Ifd recorded my second single - Cold Spell Ahead - for the independent side of Some Bizzare. But as his influence grew he then got Decca Records to pay for me to re-record the song with Mike Thorne in New York. Mike was Wirefs producer but had also been responsible for producing Soft Cellfs huge hits. He was a hot producer in those days. The really smart thing that Stevo had managed to do though was that he got Decca to pay for the recordings but he somehow got them to sign a clause saying that they didn't own the recordings. To this day I don't know how he did it even though I was in the office at the time when he was negotiating with their lawyer. He got the lawyer to sign this clause to say that they'll pay for it but they don't own it. Amazing. Seeing them beaten at their own game was a rare delight.
J: Maybe he offered to move in next door or something ...
M: Probably (laughing) I really don't know what he did, something like that. But I flew across to New York and recorded with Mike Thorne. After I came back Stevo then started a bidding war between CBS and Decca. CBS won, with Stevo famously forcing Maurice Oberstein to bestride a lion in Trafalgar Square and put pen to paper. So the version on this new singles compilation is the version that was recorded in New York in 1982. Its been deleted for about 18 years so itfs good to have it back in the land of the living and on CD for the very first time.
J: Oh, so this version of Uncertain Smile is what appeared as the original 7" single then?
M: Yeah, the original 7" single recorded in New York in 1982.
J: So this is really interesting. Your first - I know you'd put singles out before that - but your first single with a proper budget was done in New York. Why New York? Did you have an attraction to New York even then?
M: Not until I got there, although I was always fascinated by it just through seeing it on those gritty early 70fs films, but suddenly arriving there, there was such an overwhelming sense of ... Deja Vu. Alien yet somehow utterly familiar. I don't know whether that was just through growing up in Britain, where wefve had such a pervasive American influence upon our culture and our subconscious. I had gone to America as a teenager but that was to California so I donft know, but wefve really grown up with American films and American TV shows to the point where their culture has been superimposed upon our own, but it just felt instantly comfortable and I felt more at home than I did in London. I knew instantly I was going to live there.
J: So it wasn't your decision to go and record the single there?
M: No, it was just because Mike Thorne was there. Interestingly enough though around about 1978-79 there was anothe band called TheThe, a punk band in New York. They were only around for a couple of years, but a lot of people confused us and they would say "Oh I saw TheThe playing in New York getc. I only found out about them after theyfd split up but even now I occasionally meet people who swear they remember seeing me play in New York in the late 70fs. People always did think TheThe were a New York band and I suppose now, in a way, it actually is.
J: Why I mentioned this is that to anyone who knows you therefs always been this strong link to New York. It's run right the way through your career and up to the present day. It's interesting that some of your best known early songs were actually recorded there, particularly the version of Uncertain Smile that introduced a lot of people to The The.
End of part 1.