Johnny Marr has led one of British music’s most extraordinary careers. An underground sensation while still in his teens, together with Morrissey he forged a sublime songwriting partnership before splitting from The Smiths, releasing records with The The and Electronic, before embarking on a plethora of session opportunities.
The release of solo album ‘The Messenger’ in 2013 was a kind of reset for the guitarist. It was a bold move – his first truly solo album – and it found Johnny Marr re-assessing his role in music.
“The solo thing has got so many possibilities,” he tells Clash. “It’s a lot of work. Running a band is a lot of work. Being the frontman is so much more work than just being the star guitar player. But those challenges are really good for you.”
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Seated in a small room at his record label’s West London HQ, Johnny Marr is a picture of vibrant confidence, an infectious, positively charged conversationalist. He’s been up for hours – training has already resumed for yet another marathon – and he’s matched a snappy blazer to classic denim jeans and some impeccably cool black suede boots.
New album ‘Call The Comet’ has just been released, and the material more than matches the confidence of its creator. A broad, diverse, yet impactful release, it’s themes of sci-fi dystopia are echoed by stunning musicality that veers from neo-industrial sounds to lush chords of fragrant acoustic guitar.
“It was an emotional necessity, really,” he says of the album’s genesis. “A feeling that I knew from being young, when I first started out... and also a little bit of a feeling of the unknown.”
“On ‘The Messenger’ I very much had an idea about what I wanted to do, which is why I did it. It was led by this vision of the band I wanted to form, and the songs, and everything. And then ‘Playland’ it was always my intention to make the second record – the classic second record! - with everything that entails. Do it quickly, with the momentum of the first record. But this one was more of an emotional thing, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I think it’s all the better for it.”
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The studio was like a refuge...
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Secluding himself away in his Manchester studio space, the building – a former factory, long since emptied – acted as a point of inspiration in itself. “The studio was like a refuge,” he says. “When you’re sat on the top of a factory floor, in a place that was built for the industrial revolution looking out over the Northern hills, sometimes in the sunshine, sometimes when it’s foggy. It made me come up with some things.”
Embracing new equipment, Johnny Marr surrounded himself with knackered drum machines, running these industrial, analogue beats through multiple effects pedals to produce something absolutely of the moment. Tricks like these run all through ‘Call The Comet’, reconstituting industrial noises for what are – in effect – pop songs.
“I have an association with that approach from 1980, 81… around that time,” he reflects. “Which – paradoxically - is still a very futuristic notion to me, and still actually sounds futuristic. I wanted to take the band slightly more in that direction live, too, to add a bit of a dynamic and kind of almost force the point home that we are a certain kind of group… beyond just being a guitar band.”
This approach seemed to open up something fresh within Johnny Marr, resulting in dynamic, lucid songwriting; songs like ‘The Tracers’ quickly fell into place, while the rhythmic contortions that power ‘New Dominions’ recall his own work with Matt Johnson of The The.
“I let that beat go around for ages on my own,” he explains, “and just lived with it in this big echoey room for a few hours while I was doing other stuff, like scribbling out some lyrics and wandering around, answering emails and all of that. Then day turned into night, and this feeling started to come around”.
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“A big part of it is that the process is a performance,” he insists. “In other words, you can create that same effect pushing a mouse around the screen with plug-ins, design it, but the way I did it was stamping on pedals, and then once I got the beat going I fed the beat out through the pedals, and I was stamping on and off these delays. And that is very Suicide, and makes it a bit more – dare I say it – rock ‘n’ roll rather than academic, and too designed.”
Influenced by ideas of dystopian science fiction, the political context ‘Call The Comet’ was created in looms large on the record; yet this is context, rather than design, with Johnny Marr intending for the album to be an explicitly positive statement, a means of counter-acting the rise of right wing populism at home and abroad.
“It was something I absolutely wanted to get around – on a very personal level – if possible,” he states. “I was just done with it, and almost running away from it, really. And part of that is a feeling that a lot of people have, just fed up of it. And the other thing is that I actually didn’t have any answers, and certainly not enough to go on record and put those ideas forward and have them as part of songs.”
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It’s re- building the world, I think...
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“As the weeks went on I did feel liberated from everything that was going on,” the guitarist continues. “A little bit like, I’m dropping this shit. And I’d be on the phone to a friend who were still discussing Brexit and all of that and I felt like what I was doing was definitely escaping and doing something positive as a reaction.”
“For me, ‘Call The Comet’ isn’t about destruction it’s about reset, and rejuvenation,” he says. “It’s re- building the world, I think. Resetting ecology, resetting sea levels, carbon levels, and actually starting to think about the reality of that.”
These themes have come from the influence of literature on Johnny Marr’s songwriting. Piecing together his own celebrated memoirs has helped trigger something, unearthing an increased instinct to explore words as devices in themselves. ‘Call The Comet’ is littered with different reference points, all drawn from science fiction’s deep rooted sense of technological dystopia.
“When I was making it I was reading books like Ian Forster’s The Machine Stops and HG Wells,” he reveals. “Science fiction that was obviously futuristic but quite psychedelic as well, way before psychedelia was a 60s flower child thing. Something trippy, otherworldly, sinister almost.”
“I think HG Wells is a particularly intriguing character,” Johnny continues. “He was so prolific but his imagination was really working in a way that he was almost tapped into something. I don’t mean because it was prescient, but the trippiness was really ahead of its time.”
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This thing I have about honouring the guitar as a machine to make pop records is unfinished business for me...
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Continually changing, constantly adapting, Johnny Marr has radically altered his role, the position he holds in British music. Yet he remains at heart a guitar player, someone who views the instrument as an electronic device, an industrial object that chimes with possibility, with hitherto unexplored paths.
“It’s never reference points,” he insists, shaking his head. “Never reference points. Part of the solo idea, putting this band together, was a definite identification that I do these things with the guitar. Almost like: boys, it is our duty. We do this because we are a guitar band.”
“I know there are plenty of guitar bands out there, but this thing I have about honouring the guitar as a machine to make pop records is unfinished business for me, I think. There’s obviously plenty of examples of where I’ve made that work but it’s almost like a crusade for me now, I think, being in a guitar band.”
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With ‘Call The Comet’ now out on record shelves and a full list of tour dates to be completed, Johnny Marr’s resolute mission is about to enter another chapter. It’s curious, though, that despite his endless innovations and personal changes, he remains – essentially – the same musician who fell in love with the guitar as a child.
“As I got older I realised how unusual that is,” he reflects. “One of the things I realised when I wrote the autobiography is that my story, as far as being a musician is concerned, almost reads like something out of the 1940s or 1950s.”
“Some of my friends… Bernard Sumner for example. He became a musician because he saw the Sex Pistols. And it should be even more urban for me because I’m a few years younger than him. When we first met he was laughing at the fact that I played harmonica as a little boy because it was like something out of a country and western song to him. And it is actually like that!”
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As you get older you do get philosophical about things...
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“So all of that as I’m older I’m actually proud of now,” he insists. “There’s no change in it – that is my story – and I like that it’s slightly anachronistic and completely at odds with the lads I went to school with who were jumping up and down to The Jam and The Specials. It’s real 100% musician. Which sounds a bit smug, but I don’t mean for it to be smug. I’m proud of it now as an older person with grown up children, who’s navigated the 80s… and the 90s too – thank God! So that relationship with the guitar is very important to me.”
“The other thing I can say is when you’ve got something you can get better at, and you feel has possibilities – even though you’ve been doing it for a long, long time… that’s really special. No matter what you’re into. As a human that’s a great thing.”
“As you get older you do get philosophical about things. I don’t…” he pauses, before breaking out into laughter. “I almost said I don’t let that light ever go out! I don’t want to let that flame for the guitar that I’ve had since I was a little boy got out.”
Continually delving into the architecture that makes the electric guitar such a beguiling instrument, Johnny Marr’s flame remains one of British music’s guiding lights.
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'Call The Comet' is out now.
For tickets to the latest Johnny Marr shows click HERE.
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