NOT many rock idols wait until they're 39 to front their first band, but it's not as if Johnny Marr has been goofing off. Just in the last three years, the British guitarist has played, toured, produced or written songs with Oasis, Beck, Neil Finn, Beth Orton and Haven while also making "Boomslang," the first album by Johnny Marr & the Healers. In fact, he's been working overtime ever since he introduced himself to Stephen Patrick Morrissey two decades ago in Manchester, their home town.
The result was the Smiths, perhaps the most celebrated cult band of the '80s. When that quartet split after four studio albums, Marr withdrew a bit. He was interested in more "music and performing, and less of a circus, " he says by phone from Manchester. "It was the drama and the politics I wanted to avoid."
Marr began a long stint as a sideman and a collaborator, first by joining The The, "probably my favorite band in the world at that time. I'd already had a strong friendship with [The The singer-songwriter] Matt Johnson, and I was really knocked out by his albums. So it was totally logical for me to do that. All I wanted to do at that time was play innovative guitar and not really have any pressure of running a group."
Along the way, the guitarist also collaborated with the Pretenders, Kirsty MacColl, Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads and many others. But the crucial development, Marr recalls, was Manchester's acid-house explosion. At the peak of the Smiths' success, both he and Morrissey had moved to London. Whereas his former bandmate exiled himself to Spain and then California, Marr was drawn home. "I found myself involved in what felt like a revolution in my home town, the musical revolution in Manchester in the late '80s, which was really exciting," he says. "I had been hoping that something like that was going to happen for my generation since the days of punk, because I was a little too young for that."
Marr's next songwriting partner was New Order's Bernard Sumner, with whom he founded Electronic, a synth-pop outfit. That project produced three albums and swallowed most of Marr and Sumner's decade. "In the mid-'90s, Bernard and myself were just planted into a recording studio," Marr explains. "We stayed there for a long time. Electronic was working every day, but we did lots of songs that we didn't finish. I've always felt like I've been doing similar kinds of stuff. It's just that some stuff goes out, and some stuff doesn't."
In late 1997, while Electronic was still planted, Marr met Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son, and the two bonded over a shared love for T. Rex. Two years later, Marr and Starkey began the Healers, a band that plays the second date of its first U.S. tour Monday at the Black Cat. The group is officially a trio, with former Kula Shaker member Alonza Bevan on bass, although a second guitarist supplements the live sound. Yet at their first few gigs, supporting Oasis in Europe in mid-2000, there were six Healers. "It was just people who were working on the record. Friends, some people who were living at my house," Marr says. "I said that anybody who was around could be in the band. I was really into having, like, a tribal band. I wanted a lot of people. But it just became a little too difficult to deal with. These people are still around, they play on the record. Maybe one day I'll get back to the tribal thing."
There could have been one more Healer, if Marr's auditions for a singer had gone as intended. "I was never going to sing," he says. "I wasn't standing in the shadows waiting for my turn." His original plan was "to work with an unknown singer. But I thought it would be a tall order to find someone who could write words I like, and sing the way I like, and be the right kind of guy. So I thought, if I write four or five songs and do the vocals, then the person will know exactly what I wanted to hear. I did find a couple of guys I thought had really good voices, and I was kind of pleased with myself that I'd been able to do that. I played them for the band, and they sloughed off to a cafe, came back with a kind of conspiratorial air and said the guys were wrong. Their words actually were, 'These guys sound too normal. Your voice is weird.' I guess that's a compliment."
The guitarist also gradually altered the album's sound. Songs like "The Last Ride" have a heavy, psychedelic-rock flavor, layered with multiple guitar parts and electronic treatments, but they were originally even more elaborate. "I really love synths," Marr says. "I love the way they work with guitars. But I also was up on percussion at the time. I wanted to have congas on everything. If the album had come out a couple of years ago, it would have been bongo-tastic." As Marr came back to the songs, "having been away on these useful diversions, I weeded it down. Now it's a little more recognizable as me, but without losing the initial agenda, which was to keep it rocking and have some energy and be groove-based." Ironically, the notion of this guitar-happy sound came to Marr while he was working on synth-pop material. "On the last Electronic album, I got on a bit of a roll with the songs I was writing," he says. "They were going in more of a rock direction. Crucially for me, I was starting to get an idea of how I wanted the vocals to sit on top. So I saw the big picture, whereas before I had been more than happy to do something without knowing how it was going to turn out."
The Smiths songwriting team was a traditional one, although unusual in rock: Morrissey wrote the lyrics and Marr the music. With Electronic, Marr began contributing words, but "Boomslang" is "the first time I've written lyrics to a song entirely, or written a whole song. I always wrote stuff down. Just strung words together for the sake of it. But I've never put them out in public as a complete writer of songs."
In some ways, "Boomslang" is a return to Marr's indie-rock background. The album is being released by iMusic, a Web-based company that allows musicians to own the masters of their recordings, and the Healers are guided by Joe Moss, the Smiths' original manager. Yet Manchester's outbreak of psychedelia seems to have affected Marr profoundly. He took the name "Healers" from "The Secret Doctrine," a book by 19th-century spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, who was once popular with British intellectuals. "You've got to be interested in something besides Gibson guitars," Marr jokes. "It's just kind of a hobby, really. I don't think you're going to see me turn up with a picture of some dude around my neck, or shaving my head and changing my name to Simon or anything like that."
Still, there is the fact that Marr, a master of the pithy guitar line and a devotee of studio craftsmanship, briefly thought of the Healers as a "tribal" group. "At one time, I just wanted it to be like a jam band, pretty free, really, " he admits. "Maybe I'll get there one day."
JOHNNY MARR & THE HEALERS -- Appearing Monday at the Black Cat. ・To hear a free Sound Bite from Johnny Marr,
call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)