The Smiths are now legendary even though they only had a very short life span. Electronic (with New Order's Bernard Sumner was innovative) and now with Zac Starkey (The Who) and Alonza Bevan (Kula Shaker), Marr is back writing and performing rock.
Even t.A.T.u. have recorded one of his song, the old Smiths classic 'How Soon Is Now' for their latest album.
Johnny Marr talked to Undercover Media's Paul Cashmere
Paul Cashmere: It's good to have you back in Australia.
Johnny Marr: I haven't been here much. I came with The The in '91 and visited with my family a couple of years ago. I've always liked it here. I've got some friends and we hung out in Byron, around there. The glitter hippies. I was thinking of calling the band The Glitter Hippies at one stage.
PC: Not a good idea with the all the Gary Glitter troubles at the moment.
JM: Yeah right, it was before that, right.
PC: This is the first time in a long career you used your own name for recording.
JM: Yeah, it wasn't really my idea. The decision to use my own name was made collectively by the band and the management and the label. It was put to me that it would be a good idea. The main reason is that if we were to play Dusseldorf on a wet Sunday night the name 'The Healers' on the posters (which I would prefer) we may get 500 people but if it has my name above it we may get 504. That was the decision really. It was a commercial decision. I think also there is no point in pretending we are something we are not. I sing the songs. I write them. I guess that makes me the Big Cheese really.
PC: And a lot of the songs on the album were written before you put The Healers together.
JM: I wrote some of them. Some date way back but most of the songs came together around the time The Healers got together. It is an interesting synchronicity. I started to write a certain kind of song at the end of the Electronic album that could only be performed by a group of people playing and standing together at the same time. You couldn't really design it with a computer. At that same time I met Zac (Starkey) and we started to play with musicians but there were a couple of tracks on that last Electronic album that started off as Healers songs really. The songs and the people came together at the same time.
PC: There is a funny story about your meeting with Zac. Legend has it you met in an elevator.
JM: Yes we did. It happened in an elevator in New York. I didn't even know he was a musician. I put of late of faith in that. That happens in life sometimes. We just hit it off straight away and that was it really. We started to play in Manchester just for fun. We would get together and then I'd go off and produce somebody and he'd go off with The Who and then I'd get back and be writing with Beth Orton and he'd be doing some more Who stuff. We kept coming back to it and got to a point where we really liked the songs and wanted to turn this into a band. I had to pull my finger out and role my sleeves up and try and find some other musicians.
PC: When did Alonza Bevan (Kula Shaker) come along then?
JM: Alonza came aboard early 2000, not long after Kula Shaker split. They called it a day around then. I was fully aware of his reputation as a musician. The crucial thing was a mutual friend said we'd get along as people and that is really what counts for me. We need to have that friendship.
PC: Were you an admirer of the Kula Shaker records?
JM: One of two of them. I particularly thought they were good live. I saw them on a TV show and they surprised me. I wasn't expecting they would be so accomplished. It was obvious that they played quite a few shows.
PC: I'm going to jump to the end of your new album 'Boomslang'. My favourite song was 'Bangin' On'.
JM: Oh that's good. A couple of people asked me why I put one of the singles at the end and I didn't know it was going to be a single when I sequenced the record. I just put all my favourite songs together (because we recorded a lot) as a compilation. I just thought it ran best that way. For that song I wrote the words first and then I wrote the music around the words. I might do more of that.
PC: The fact you put it at the end, does that mean you don't have the same ear for your music as your fans do?
JM: I normally do actually. When I made this album if it had been put to me that there we no singles on it I wouldn't even have flinched because was a minor consideration. Record companies and singles and critics and radio stations were way down my list of priorities. Jus making a good record that my friends liked and people around the world liked and could get into as an entire album was all I was considering.
PC: Why did it take so long for someone in the record industry to give you a deal?
JM: I met a few people and I didn't bother to go back. I didn't really try very hard to be honest with you. The first friend who called me up who had a record company I signed with him. I signed with iMusic because Mark Giger who runs the label is a friend of mine. He called me up, it was a social call. We were talking about the record industry and he was talking about what he wanted to do with his label and I was telling him what I wanted to do with my band and an hour and a half later before we put the phone down there was a pregnant pause and a "well what are we waiting for" kind of thing. I was pretty much in the same situation with The Smiths. We were invited down to record companies and sitting under posters of people I couldn't relate to. It was down to me really. I wasn't in any rush because I didn't need anyone to help me finish the record. I got me own studio and the band wanted to get the record finished. It wasn't like I needed a big advance or a team around me. I wanted to get the record finished before I signed with anyone and when I did get it finished I just signed with me mate.
PC: With the songwriting in The Smiths it was pretty much you are Morrissey equally and then in Electronic with was you and Bernard (Sumner). This time writing yourself did you have a different mindset that went into the creative process?
JM: Yeah there is. It is more difficult but ultimately more rewarding. I'd like to write a bit more with the band. "Inbetweens' was written with the band musically because it came out of a jam. That was good fun for me. In the past, the first 20 years of my professional life (I don't like using the word 'career', it doesn't suit me). Whatever it is I have been doing for these 20 years has been me writing musical backing tracks and not really knowing how it is going to turn out, particularly when you are working with Bernard Sumner or Kirsty MacColl. In the early days it was Morrissey obviously. That was fine by me. But now I kind of want the vocals and the lyrics to be coming from the same place. I want it all to have the same underlining atmosphere. 'You Are The Magic', 'Bangin' On' and 'Last Ride' wouldn't have come out the way they did had I not written the lyrics. The lyrics are specifically related to the music.
PC: 'You Are The Magic' has a great Crazy Horse feel to it.
JM: That's good, yeah. I hadn't really thought of that. Yeah, that is a good comparison. I am happy about that. That is the favourite thing I have done for a long time. I think it is a song that only I could have sung and only I could have written. I kept coming back to it. Considering it is one of the most simple lyrics I have ever come across anywhere it was a real bitch to get that together because I wanted to say what I wanted to say simply. So I just said 'You Are The Magic' about 35 times.
PC: That works for me and it is the epic of the album as well.
JM: That goes down really well live. That is the turning point really. I think a lot of people understand where we are coming from when they hear that song.
PC: The Smiths had a very short career. 5 years all up. Are you amazed by the reaction that band gets even now and the influence it has on people even today?
JM: Yeah, I think you'd have to have some sort of gargantuan kind of ego to have expected that kind of reaction particularly that 20 years on people are still asking me about the songs. That music still means a lot to people. We knew we were happening when we were starting out. But when you are writing songs about the Moors murders and quirky sort of songs about hanging out under iron bridges in Manchester you can't expect people will be talking about the band 16 years after its demise and on the other side of the world. I just wanted to impress my peers in my home town. That was all I could consider really. To be big in the UK for however long was a bit of a dream really. The rest of stuff is kind of a bit difficult to analyse.
PC: What would it take to put that band back together?
JM: Everybody closing their eyes and pretending that the guitar player isn't me.
PC: Is it that dissolved?
JM: Oh god yeah. I wouldn't have left if I wanted to carry on playing that music. It wasn't like an ill considered decision. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
PC: You're career since certainly hasn't been affected as a result of that decision.
JM: Certainly not.
PC: There must be fans around the world putting the pressure on for a reformation.
JM: There are some fans who would like it. Mostly fans who never saw us which is understandable. Believe it or not there are actually a lot of fans who saw the Smiths that don't give a shit if we get back together or not. There are a lot of people who like music who are happy to enjoy the Smiths record for what they are but they also like the new Radiohead record or the new Aphex Twin record. They are kind of big enough to have a life. When I was younger I liked Velvet Underground but I didn't give a shit if they got back together again. I just liked the music.
PC: Morrissey was almost the Robbie Williams of his time, wasn't he?
JM: He was always like that during The Smiths. I think he always had outspoken opinions right from the first albums. To me it was business as usual.
PC: What I like about your music is that it doesn't matter who you work with, each project has its own sound.
PC: Electronic is another example of three great albums that fit into their own category and don't cross over with any of the other work.
JM: Right, yeah. I like to keep moving on. For me, records and groups are very much photo albums of periods of your life. I try my hardest to keep myself interested as a person. Certainly in music, but also in life and learning stuff. Not kind of getting stagnant. Hopefully that is reflected in the music. I can't imagine trading on the same sound that I had when I was 23. When that kind of thing crops up I guess that is what people think I should sound like. I'm cool with that too. It is just like coming back through a town. It is like a journey. I am just lucky that I get to document my journey with concerts and records. I don't know any other life. I have been doing it since I was 14.
PC: Did Electronic come to a natural conclusion?
JM: Yeah. It did. I am really proud that we still got a friendship that is really strong as I do with Matt Johnson and Chrissie Hynde and pretty much everyone I've worked with. I think with Electronic we did as much as we were ever going to do. My only regret is that Electronic didn't put out more records. We were together every single day, more than anyone else I have ever been involved with. I think this idea that we were a project and would get together every couple of years and make a project is false. In fact we were together every single day. When we took a break from working and being in the studio and writing these beats and these melodies, we would get on a boat and go sailing together. I have never been closer to anyone than I was with Bernard. I'm glad that we called it a day in a cool way. The last Electronic album had a couple of songs that could have easily been Healers songs. I think it was really right that New Order got back together when they did before it became too late. It is all good.
PC: t.A.T.u, a couple of Russian lesbian pop singers, have recorded your Smiths song 'How Soon Is Now'. I read that was a £200,000 winfall for you.
JM: Is it really? That would be nice. I don't quite know how that has worked out.
PC: That is the figure the English press are saying.
JM: Well I'm sure the taxman and the Smiths drummer might already have plans for it. I don't know. I have no interest in it whatsoever unless it is better than our version. I'd be very surprised if we made that kind of money.
PC: It's like a pub joke isn't it. Like 'did you hear the one about the old rock star and the two Russian lesbians'?
JM: Ohhh, the pretend to be lesbians. I know who you mean now. I don't really know anything about it.
PC: Have you seen the movie 24 Hour Party People?
JM: Yes I have.
PC: What did you think?
JM: I was absolutely amazed that it was as good as it was. I was expecting it to be dire. The feeling I got from the movie overall was a message of loyalty and idealism and a sense of the ridiculous. Factory Records was all those things. Thank God somebody was that ridiculous because sometimes that is the only way you get things moving. Obviously it is weird to see some events compressed. There is a scenario where maybe Martin Hannett said a thing to one of the Happy Mondays in a certain place when I knew that thing was said to a member of Joy Division in a completely different place. It doesn't matter because the point was made. I found it quite poignant.
PC: Where were you when that story took place?
JM: It was a long time period. In '82 I was putting The Smiths together. I was actually at the Hacienda the night it opened and it wasn't exactly like it was portrayed in the film. There were more people there and it was also very dark. The first ever session I did was with Bernard Sumner for Mike Pickering's band the Quando Quando. I was very involved with Factory. The guy I lived with was one of the DJs. I knew Tony (Wilson) really well. I was around and quite heavily involved. Even to this day a lot of me mates were Factory artists. People like New Order and a couple of the Happy Mondays.
PC: A final comment. I saw a quote which said "Johnny Marr is an elegant version of Keith Richards". What do you think of that?
JM: Is that right? Well I'll go along with that. That's alright. That's a compliment.
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