Chatting with English rock icon Johnny Marr before his Las Vegas return

Johnny Marr will have you seeing double.
Photo: Amy Harris / AP Photo
Annie Zaleski

Over the past half-decade, Johnny Marr’s progression from beloved guitarist for innovative bands—The Smiths, Modest Mouse and The The, to name a few—to formidable, forward-thinking solo artist has been one of music’s most gratifying narratives.

The Manchester native’s most recent solo album, last year’s Call the Comet, takes a sonic leap that intersperses intriguing electronic textures and more atmospheric arrangements with Marr’s usual strident songwriting. Since that record’s release, the 55-year-old Marr has released a series of one-off singles, highlighted by the post-punk-leaning “Jeopardy” and a pulsating, electro-beat remix of “Armatopia.”

That creative drive carries over to the musician’s tour preparation. When the Weekly reached Marr on a Monday evening in England, he noted that he’d been busy rehearsing with his solo band.

You and your band practice a lot, impressive considering how tight you guys already seem onstage. I’m a bit compulsive like that. I like rehearsing; I always did. It keeps me connected to a philosophy and ethic I have from when I started out as a teenager. Ironically, the band that rehearsed very little was The Smiths, but that was mostly because we were always doing tours. We rehearsed very little, but The The used to rehearse a lot. I always enjoyed it. It’s part of being in the band for me, just getting together and playing, even if you don’t need to.

When I got my own solo group together, it was very important that we did that, instead of being a bunch of people who only get together when we’ve got a job or a tour. With some groups, if you’re not careful you can end up having to get together by appointment around people’s meetings with their interior designers or their architects or their gurus, personal fitness instructors, and the group comes second. Well, that isn’t the way I do things. The group always comes first.

Has anything come out of these practices musically that you weren’t expecting? It makes me sing better and, without getting too boring and technical about it, it really glues the group together. One of the things that I wanted from the group, aside from a vehicle for these new songs I had—I’m talking about in 2011, when I put the group together—was this very thing we’re talking about: a group of people that I would get together with to play a few times a week.

It’s one of the reasons why I picked the guys I did, because we live close together. We’ve been friends for maybe 20 years now, [bassist] Iwan [Gronow] and [drummer] Jack [Mitchell]. [Guitarist James] Doviak’s played with me since The Healers days in 2003. I’ve got a real group behind me, and, in some ways, it’s the situation that I imagined when I was playing in groups as a 15-, 16-year-old before The Smiths. In those days, I was often pushed to the front if we didn’t have a singer. In a couple of those bands I was the frontman. I guess I started to learn some stuff there that became unfinished business.

When I formed The Smiths, I had no intention of fronting the group. I wanted to just be the guitar player and composer and, I guess, the de facto producer. And everybody knows that’s the way it all turned out. After continuing as guitar player in different scenarios, with pretty much the same role in Modest Mouse, The Cribs and The The, it was time then to continue with the role that I actually knew from the days from before The Smiths.

I had very strong ideas about this group. I wanted to be in a two-guitar group where the lead singer plays the guitar, so it was obvious that that would be me. And, at the same time, this is in 2011, I was writing the nascent beginnings of the solo records. Songs like “The Messenger” I had when I was still in The Cribs. I had the song “Dynamo,” which turned up on the second album, and “Word Starts Attack” and things like that. So the group has turned out exactly as I wanted it at the moment, and we’ll stay that way until I get different ideas about the thing.

There’s so much creativity evident in the sonic progression of your solo music, from the first two records on to Call the Comet and these new standalone singles. Over the years of touring the first two records, we got more and more our own identities. The direction on the first two [solo] records [2013’s The Messenger and 2014’s Playland] was all about the tempos being up and the songs being very tightly arranged and very punchy and quite direct.

When I came to do Call the Comet, I acted in a natural way. I didn’t really have a firm set of rules for this material. It just kind of came out. For instance, we wouldn’t have put something like “Walk Into the Sea” on The Messenger or Playland. We wouldn’t have done “A Different Gun” and definitely wouldn’t have done “The Tracers.” So it was time to follow my nose a little bit. I think things have just developed through playing a load of concerts and ticking off quite a lot of boxes that I had when I first went into the solo records.

It does feel now like there’s a certain amount of discovery, whereas, when I first left The Cribs, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I like that now, the time of discovery. I also like that when we play shows, we’re now working on getting more and more intense—or I am, anyway. The band work in such a way that they allow me to push myself as a performer now. That’s very important to me.

And fans can tell. To be pushing yourself creatively, and as a performer, so many decades into a career, is something many artists don’t do. It comes with having a work ethic and a curiosity about things. But I have a real interest in performance, and I have no intentions of just going out there and winging it and making it just all about playing the songs as faithfully to the recordings as possible. I definitely feel that a show, either in a club or a festival, is a different discipline and a very, very different scenario than making a record.

Whether you wanna read [Konstantin] Stanislavski or think about choreography or any great people who have been on the stage, that’s where I’m at with what I’m doing now, and I didn’t really see that coming. But it’s just become a real area of interest and I think, “Why not?” I think about the audience. When I go to shows, I want to think that the person up there—whether they’re in a play or in a band—is in the moment and doing something different than the night before or the night after.

I’ve never understood bands that play the same set every night. I get it if you have a massive production, but I would think that it would be so difficult to make it urgent and passionate night after night. I mix it up a little bit. I don’t like playing the same set in the same town. I don’t get quite as improvisational as Modest Mouse. In that band, we really took it to the limit. You had no idea what was going to happen from moment to moment. Even if I play the same set for a few nights, I just feel different every night I’m singing. I really do work on being in the moment, and I definitely don’t phone it in. And this is all a discovery to me. I mean, I’ve been doing it a long time now, even fronting the band. I just think that anything’s possible when I go out onstage.

I like that you started playing Electronic’s “Get the Message” on your last tour, for the first time as a solo artist. What drew you to working up that tune? That’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written. I always wanted to do it, but I assumed that I would need to get the two-inch multi-track of it, and get the loops [in it]. The way the song was recorded, there isn’t a hell of a lot on it. It’s quite sparse, particularly by Electronic standards, but I just assumed that I would need some of the original sounds. I’d mentioned it to the band several times, and sometime early last year I just said, “Why don’t we have a go at it?” And within 10 minutes it sounded great.

I have to confess that when I sang it, I actually had a lump in my throat (laughs). I was so f*cking proud of the band. I love the song so much. It’s a very important release in my career.

When “Get the Message” was written, I knew that Electronic were not a Smiths knockoff and not a New Order knockoff. It didn’t sound like either of those two bands. It really is one of the top-five songs that I’ve been involved in to this day. So yeah, it’s gone down great, and it feels really good when we do it. We were just saying that very thing today, actually, how much fun it is to play that song.

As a fan, I was so excited to hear that live—and I think there’s this beat to it, this driving beat, that fit in so well with the rest of the set. It reminded me a lot of how the Call the Comet songs evolved live, too. There were things that are core principles to me, that were very dear to me when I started out—and I’m talking about before The Smiths formed now. I’m able to do it with this group, and I’m very, very happy about that. There was a sort of feeling that I wanted to get when I knew I was going to form a new group, aside from the ideas I had as a songwriter, just a way of being that seems authentic to me. I don’t really use the word “integrity,” because it implies a certain kind of highfalutin morality. But I like the way the more accomplished of the New Wave groups conducted themselves.

It’s probably very subjective, you know, bands like Magazine, Buzzcocks and The Only Ones, and to an extent Patti Smith Group. These are all groups that I saw when I was just leaving school and getting it together. In a way, they were my apprenticeship. And some of the values that I picked up on, they’ve never really been beaten. I’ve carried those values with me throughout The Smiths and with The Cribs and Modest Mouse.

Now that the group is run by me and fronted by me, I’m gonna use those. We don’t play with backing tracks; we don’t play with a click track. We don’t even have a keyboard player. All of that stuff’s done on the fly. We don’t play with everything in the same tempo every night. It comes back to your very first question: I get together to rehearse with my band because we’re a band.

I was talking to somebody else earlier today, and I said, “When you find musicians and creative people you’re on same wavelength with, you just know it.” And you nurture that, because it’s not easy to find. It comes in different forms throughout your life, but when you find something like that, it’s magic. I also think that if you’re a creative person, an artist, and certainly if you’re fortunate enough for it to be your occupation and your livelihood, then you need to honor it. Most of the artists I know—particularly people who are in the visual arts; a couple of my friends are painters, I’ve got a friend who is a sculptor and a couple of my friends are actors—they are very protective of their artistic life. So you try and live your life in a way that is gonna give you ideas, and put yourself in places and scenarios that are gonna be good for your inspiration and your motivation, really.

Maybe that’s just something that comes with age and not taking what you do for granted. But I’ve always had a sense of that, from being a child, that being an artist is not to be taken too lightly, or not to be too cavalier with your talent. I always took time to practice and went out of my way to work on my craft. I might sound a little bit pompous, but it’s not meant to be. I just felt very lucky that I had something that was different to my mates who wanted to be car mechanics and electricians and carpenters and doing normal jobs.

A remix of “Armatopia” was released recently. Yeah, the guys from Teleman have done a remix. They haven’t completely deconstructed it and turned the thing on its head, because I think they quite liked it as it was. It’s just a little bit different. I haven’t had anyone do any remixes of any of my solo stuff so far. I approached them because I thought they might do a decent job of it. It feels like a nice collaboration, and I might do more of that in the future.

There’s a lot of interesting new music out. Have you heard of that band called Yak? Y-A-K, from the U.K.? They’re quite noisy. They’re good. And there’s a group you might like called She Drew the Gun. They’re really good.

There’s so many new groups out now, it’s really hard to follow. If you hear a great song one day, and you think, “Oh, right, OK, there’s a new group,” and then you’ve either forgotten it or just becomes another in a list in Shazam. It takes a little bit of work to actually follow through if you’ve got an interest in a group these days. They seem to come and go so quickly. But there’s a lot of good music around, and that’s all that matters, really. It’s always about the music.

I agree, it’s an embarrassment of riches almost. Yeah, someone was asking me earlier about the modern times, and whether pop culture and rock culture means less. Well, it does mean less to a lot of people because, as we now know, rock culture is in competition with so many other entertainment forms and distractions. Certainly if you compare it to the way rock culture was for 50, 60 years or so, from post-war to the millennium.

However, all of those people who need rock music, pop music, whatever you wanna call it, rock bands and artists, in their lives, there’s just more and more avenues and outlets to engage with that music. The basic thing that people get passionate about—which is songs, words, good riffs, what bands are about, whether the people who are writing music are living it and are bona-fide 24-hour-a-day musicians—those things are still there. It may be that the culture is marginalized somewhat now, and reduced. But so what? For those people who are really still in love with what a rock record can do, or what a show can do, there’s plenty of it out there. So I don’t get pulled into the negativity of moaning about things changing too much.

I’m aware that it’s more difficult for young musicians because of the economics of being in a group. I see that very clearly. The closing of venues and just how expensive it is to get out and be a young band now. You know, you really need to have some kind of patronage or some sort of connection or some sort of investment. It’s a different ball game now. I’m not totally naïve. But there’s plenty of good guitar music around, and I don’t really ever see that changing, because it’s just a fabulous and very rewarding thing to even get involved in or to follow.

You’ve played Las Vegas before with Modest Mouse and solo. Oh, yeah. Modest Mouse played there a few times, a couple of times definitely. And I played it with my band about four years ago on top of a hotel somewhere [the Cosmopolitan in 2013]. Me and New Order played. I always enjoy going there, I suppose because I’ve always had an audience there. When I played there last, there were plenty of people who knew my new stuff. And I guess it’s the case wherever I play in the United States now; the people who come out to see me have been with me since day one, when The Smiths came over in ’85. I don’t think we played Vegas then.

But me and the audience have got a nice thing going where they know what I do now with my own band, and there’s plenty of girls who come out of all ages, which I’m very pleased about, because that’s the way it should be. That’s always very gratifying. There’s a lot of people of both sexes who liked The Smiths, Electronic and The The when they were in college. And as I say, that includes a lot of women, or some women. And then there’s the people who got introduced to me through Modest Mouse.

The audiences are very diverse, usually. We have kind of a nice relationship. I feel like they are behind me all the way with my new stuff. A lot of them really like “New Town Velocity” and “Hi, Hello,” or “Bug” or “Easy Money.” It’s not just all about the old stuff, [which is] nice and healthy.

JOHNNY MARR May 18, 7:30 p.m., $32-$45. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.

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