A Conversation With Johnny Marr


The Smiths couldn’t have been less like the Stones in most ways—sound and attitude, for starters—but don’t fool yourself about the parallels between guitarists Johnny Marr and Keith Richards. Both are impossibly skinny men of few words (Mick or Morrissey never stopped yammering anyway) but verbose, rhythmically intense guitar playing. Vilified by the press when he abruptly ended the Smiths in 1987, Marr—who many predicted would flourish while Morrissey faded into obscurity—kept a low profile for the next 15 years and became the ultimate six-string sidekick, playing with the Pretenders, The The, Billy Bragg, Neil Finn and Beck. He also put out three albums as Electronic, a dancey superduo with New Order’s Bernard Sumner that never quite equaled the sum of its parts. With the Healers—drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son and current member of the Who) and bassist Alonza Bevan (Kula Shaker)—the prodigal Mancunian returns to rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, he sings, with a voice that’s part Sumner and part Liam Gallagher, and his solo debut Boomslang feels like past and future Marr. His trademark 12-string jangle peacefully coexists with backward-guitar leads and groovy percussion in psych-friendly, four-to-seven-minute tracks. While Boomslang may not be privy to the hyperliterate lyricism of Marr’s past vocal collaborators, it’s got a kind of (Northern) soul that words can’t manufacture.

MAGNET sent its Smiths superfan to meet Marr at a New York hotel. Upon spotting Marr in the lobby, superfan admits to hiding behind a potted plant for a moment to collect whatever cool he could muster.

MAGNET: The general reaction people have had to me telling them there’s a Johnny Marr album is, “Oh, he can sing?”
Marr: It’s only been the last week or so that I’ve started doing interviews and therefore getting feedback from people who don’t have a vested interest in telling me that it’s good—no, I’m joking. But what I realized pretty quickly was that people were asking me about other stuff rather than singing, so I took that as being a really good thing. People were listening to the record and talking about the sound of it, or the words or how it related to the old stuff I’ve done. No one was making a big deal of the singing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a real tricky one, because when you’re known for something else—especially singing, and me being a known guitar player—it’s a bit of a leap for people. It’s a bigger deal to everyone else than it is to me.

So you weren’t self-conscious or nervous about it?
Not once I started to get my sound together. The band convinced me that I should be doing it. I wrote the songs, I wanted to get the songs together and I didn’t want to hold anything up by going on this interminable search around the world for mister frontman.

Did you seek out vocalists?
I did, because I’ve been doing that since I was 15. I was doing it before the Smiths, you know? Because I was playing with Zak, the drummer, at that time, I had the words, I had the melodies, I just sang on the demos. Then I found a couple of guys who I had CDs of, given to me by friends, and I heard they were nice fellas and they had good hair. And I played it to the band and it was somewhat of a triumph that I found someone. Then they went off to a café whilst I stayed talking to the manager. They came back about an hour and a half later, somewhat conspiriatorially.

I think they may have been talking about you.
They certainly had, but they’d been saying good stuff. They said, ‘Look, we’ve got something to tell you. We think you’re wrong about getting a singer, we think it sounds good as it is.’ They convinced me that what I was doing was not just strong but fairly … odd. They knew that would be the word that would get me. If they’d said “soulful,” “beautiful” and all that …

“Johnny, we like your vocal stylings.”
[Laughs] Exactly, exactly. They used words like “ill” and “weird” and “odd” and “white,” and I was kind of like, “OK, I can do that.” Because I trust them. And I know their only agenda being in a band with me is because they believe we can do something to turn them on. They don’t need to be in a band with Johnny Marr for their lives to be complete.

And this is basically Zak and Alonza, you mean.
Right. They wouldn’t put me out on a wire without a net. I started singing the record proper and got a sense of what my sound was. Luckily, I found I wasn’t falling into any -isms of anybody else’s and it’s fairly right with the direction of the band. One of the reasons I formed the band in the first place as well was I had this idea for a rock band that was fairly all-encompassing in terms of the sound. And for the first time since being in my mid-teens, I was getting songs together where I probably would’ve ended up steering the singer in certain directions.

Instead of trying to work the marionette strings, you figured you’d do it yourself.
Yeah, yeah. It just seemed like unnecessary hard work and not the right approach. Then the penny dropped that the record we made could sound like the whole picture that I had without any other colors coming into it. In the past, I’ve loved those other colors, it was a nice surprise. I’d do a backing track, and that’d be 100 percent of my inspiration. The singer, whether it be Morrissey or Bernard Sumner or Beth Orton, they put their 100 percent and you end up with 300 percent, the sum being even greater than the parts sort of thing.

So it used to be that you’d lay down your guitar part, leave the studio, and when you came back there was a vocal there.

Yeah. To use an analogy, it was sort of like doing the background of a painting. You think there’s gonna be a house in the foreground, and instead it’s a child or a ship or whatever. I feel really lucky that I’ve done it with some sort of artistic success, but to hammer this metaphor into the ground, I was getting the whole picture.

Why do a solo album now? Was it about the songs you had, or were you not ready for something like this before?
Two years before I met Zak, I was subconsciously looking for a band and a sound that never came. And was never gonna come unless I did it myself, which was like a wide-awake rock, but without an agenda to be incredibly modern. Not to say I wanted to be traditional or bring back any cause for real rock, but just melodic rock ‘n’ roll, really, with a bit of esoteric, druggy spin on it.

There is a slightly psychedelic texture to the album that hasn’t been on a lot of stuff you’ve worked on before.
It was occurring to me that I was going to make a record that was gonna be not layered and straight ahead. When the band formed, I was listening to a lot of John Mayall. Very sparse blues rock, really. Once the record started to develop, I realized that I had an agenda and I just fucking dropped it. Layering guitars might not be de rigeur, but it’s what I do, it’s what gives me a buzz and therefore it’s genuine. I had to tell myself, “C’mon, Johnny, make the assumption that your audience want you to sound like you. It’s been quite a long time.” And I started to listen to people like Bernard Sumner, who said, “What the fuck is wrong with sounding like you?” Making the Electronic records, I would play things and go, “Oh, that’s a bit Johnny Marr,” and he’d go, “Well, it’s supposed to be a bit Johnny Marr!” For a lot of reasons I felt like I was being boxed or pegged, because I did a lot when I was very young. Bernard would say, “Aw, Electronic’s records, they don’t have enough guitar on them, and everyone’s going to think it’s my fault.”

I think a lot of people did feel like you’d abandoned rock ‘n’ roll—the name Electronic was purposeful in that way, was meant to distance the group.
Yeah, but very simply, I was a 24-year-old guy living in a city that was just exploding with a new culture. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? I’d been waiting for my city to do that since punk, because I was too young for punk. Suddenly, the whole place was experiencing new music, new technology, new clubs, new drugs, new fashion.

You couldn’t very well bury your head in the sand.
I was an established musician with a certain place in pop music, but that shouldn’t exclude me from a movement in my own city that I wanted to be a part of, because I was just a young guy, you know? And also with a history of, before the Smiths, all kinds of music and an opportunity to work with someone who: a) I respected massively, and b) was probably the best, most innovative electronic musician in the pop field to come out of the U.K. So I’m very philosophical about the whole thing. It wasn’t about me turning my back on pop music, it was about me being a musician and wanting to make that music at that time.

I think you’re correct when you say that people want you to sound like you. Even the Electronic records, your fans did embrace the guitar-oriented tracks and listened for you in those records.
I think I was a little shy and not that confident. And why I say that is that a lot of the (Electronic) songs that people assume are Bernard’s songs were actually my songs. I did lots of dance songs. I just kind of went nuts with it once I learned how it worked, how the puzzle went together. I was crazy about S’Express in ‘89, you know? I wanted to just play “Superfly Guy” forever.

I’ve heard that the Healers gigs you’ve played so far have been, in a word, loud. Has that satisfied an urge for …
the rock demon in me? [Laughs] I got so tired of seeing bands in Manchester who were sub-Nirvana or sub-Oasis, and I started to think, “Are there no girls in music anymore?” I’m primarily around a lot of women, because most of my friends I work with, the guys in my studio, when we’ve got time away from each other, I hang out with my wife’s friends, you know? They’re frankly more fun, more so than the miserable bastards that are on my payroll. So anyway, I was very conscious of these girls going out to see bands. Are they gonna relate to these four guys pretending to be like very surly onstage? It was very boring. They don’t necessarily need to see women onstage to relate, but these guys were just not sexy, not playing sexy music. I thought, “That’s not right. Congas are in.” Also being a T.Rex fan I fancy the idea of having percussion in rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever synchronicity was at play led me to come across this great percussion player, Liz Bonney, so she came around. So it was the core of me, Zak and Alonza and then Liz, and then I wanted some technology involved as well so it wasn’t strictly guitar-based, and Liz introduced me to this wild guy, Lee Spencer. He plays keyboards. I did have an agenda of volume, electricity and rhythm, because I don’t have a natural desire to get up on a stage. That came to me late in my career. It’s unusual, most musicians assume that when you make a record, you then go onstage.

Well, for a lot of people, being onstage is the payoff, it’s being in the spotlight.
Everyone I know is like that. But with me, I grew up with this obsessive idea about the seven-inch 45, which I regarded as an almost mystical object. And the process by which those things are made has been magic and mysterious. I was so hung up on that thing and studios and what goes on in studios that there really wasn’t that much space for me to think, “Ain’t it great to go out on the road?” I don’t have any kind of problem with being onstage, I just have this overt attraction to recording studios and the process of orchestrating records and guitars and hanging out with players and so on. It’s also a refuge for me away from the bullshit.

Do you think that’s also you being a bit of a perfectionist? In the studio, you’re in a controlled environment, sound-wise, but onstage things can go wrong.
That hadn’t occurred to me but, yeah, I think that’s right.

I’m not trying to call you a control freak.
No, I think you’re right. Because I like things to sound absolutely great. It’s not enough that everyone’s getting their rocks off—I like it to have a good sound. About the live thing, I’ve found a way to make the prospects of going out onstage exciting. We went out and we’re very loud and we jammed very long and some people went, “What the fuck is that?” We took most of the songs that ended up on the record and extended them and made them heavier. We wouldn’t have gone out live had we not been invited, anyway. Oasis invited us and I just thought, “OK, now’s the time to sort of put my toe in the water.” And you’re about to go out in front of an audience who don’t know the material, don’t know who I am and about five minutes before showtime a ripple of a rumor would go around these 5,000 or 13,000 people that it’s Johnny Marr’s new band. Of which probably 200 of them said “Really?” and the rest of them said “Who?” Half of the rest of them said, “Yeah, the guy’s in a band with one of Kula Shaker.” “Oh, right!” [Laughs] It was a young audience, you know? That was tough, but really good. It’s hard to go out in front of a very big audience waiting for their favorite long-haired Mancunians to come out.

The people who did know your work were probably expecting an army of 12-string Rickenbackers jangling away.
Funnily enough, I’ve started playing the 12-string Rickenbacker again. Someone passed me one in a shop and it just sounded like me. I went, “OK. Guilty.” Also playing with Lisa Germano and Neil Finn brought that out.

Have you seen 24 Hour Party People?
I saw it very recently.

I was wondering what you thought of it.
Well, I was sent the script about two years ago and was asked to do a cameo in it. Before I read the script I said, “Oh, sounds good—only if I could be one of Joy Division’s roadies.” Being obsessive, I considered really getting into the role, like DeNiro, Raging Bull, eat pasta for breakfast. But then I read the script and went, “Oh, no. Forget that.” It was difficult for me to be objective about it because I was so close to it and it’s primarily about people I know and a scene I grew up around. I only saw it about six weeks ago because I’d made up my mind it was dire. When I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought it was quite sweet. Because to me, it’s about Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus and Rob Gretton, who I knew very well. It’s got a bit of poignancy.

I thought it was very clever. Steve Coogan is a well-known comedian over in England, but we really hadn’t seen him before.
He’s really funny. His portrayal of Tony Wilson isn’t that far off the mark. Tony is that ridiculous. I thought the guy playing Bernard Sumner was a bit lazy in his research. It doesn’t take much to dye your hair black to be in Joy Division. Put a tie on, you know? Bernard in Joy Division is actually Bernard doing “The Perfect Kiss” in New Order from 1985 in terms of the way he looks.

How do you mean?
In the movie, when it was supposed to be Joy Division, it was actually Bernard five years hence. Bernard didn’t discover peroxide and long trousers until at least ‘84. Get it together, man. But that’s just me being too close to it.

The film was admittedly focused on Factory, but did you find it strange that the Smiths weren’t featured? Was the music scene in Manchester more intertwined than was portrayed?
I was around the Hacienda all the time. Without my involvement in the Hacienda, the Smiths wouldn’t have had a lot of the resources and insights that we had into what was going on, frankly. The scene that’s the very first night in the Hacienda essentially was right, because the point was that nobody came. It was essentially right, but it was nothing like that. I was there. It was dark, the floor was wet, it was different. But to answer your question, the Smiths very much peeled ourselves away from Factory Records and consciously made the decision to sign with Rough Trade.

Which is London-based.
Yes. Mostly because the Fall was on Rough Trade; Morrissey was particularly a fan of the Fall and Monochrome Set. We didn’t want to be regarded in that family of Manchester bands. But I played on the Quando Quango record in 1983 with Bernard Sumner. Bernard was a mate and the guy I used to live with was a DJ there, and Tony Wilson came into my clothes shop the day they got the plans for the Hacienda and unfolded the plans on the counter of my shop. The blueprints for the building. It was really important for someone of my age, 17 or 18 in ‘80, ‘81 because it was the only place at the time to see bands. And there were a lot of bands at the time that sort of went into the melting pot. Birthday Party, Gun Club …

When you work at a magazine, you tend to compartmentalize things, and I was thinking that this year, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto came back and did the Buzzkunst thing, and a Factory band called Crispy Ambulance reunited—
Really? [Laughing, incredulous] They came back? No one’s said the words “ambulance” and “crispy” to me in the same sentence since 1983. Really? And there was Fire Engines and Josef K, I saw them at the Hacienda. That place was my formative years.

You’re still around Manchester recording bands, right?
My place could be anywhere in the world, really. I live a pretty insular life. I rarely go out, and don’t need to. I’ve got a real studio with a live room and high ceilings and an engineer. The studio could be anywhere in the world, but not London. The decision to move to Manchester was to follow where the music was. It wasn’t because that’s my home or that’s my roots or my family’s there or anything. I was in California after the Smiths split and was happy to be away from the British music scene. Friends were looking after my house and, as I remember it, I was speaking to them on the phone and they were saying, “Oh, we had an amazing night last night. Went down to the Hacienda and got in a few E’s and then we came back here and we listened to Donovan. Did you check out any Donovan? [Note: Marr is most likely talking about the reggae/dancehall artist Donovan, not the ‘60s folk singer.] He’s really, really good. And we’re listening to (Detroit techno duo) Inner City.” And I’m just sitting in L.A. with MTV on with Poison keeping me company. Damn, sounds like a really good scene over there—in my house, you know? Had it been in Glasgow or Seattle or Sydney, I’d have gone there. It just happened to be in my hometown.

Do you have a certain status in Manchester, where other bands seek your advice and things like that?
Whenever I’m asked whether I give bands advice, I always feel uneasy about it. It seems like a very patronizing, pompous, self-elevating position to take. However, if you’re around your friends, you just pop ‘em straight: “The live sound sucks because the guitar player’s got a bad amp.” You just give them the amp. Which is what I did with Oasis in the early days. I had no idea that Oasis were gonna be as huge as they are, nor did they or anybody. It was phenomenal success. I just gave Noel a couple guitars and introduced him to my management. And let him live in my flat—because I like him. I thought he was a nice guy, you know? I’ve given a lot of people a lot of equipment because I don’t like waste. Not because I’m particularly an angel, but because I got helped out by a few nice people along the way. Maybe it’s karma or whatever, or just being polite. My parents—particularly because of the Oasis thing—still get tapes and CDs sent to their house. They’re often not very good, but if it just takes a phone call to give someone a little bit of encouragement, it’s not a difficult thing to do.

Mind if I rattle off a few names of people you’ve worked with?
We’re going to be here all night but, yeah, sure.

Bernard Sumner.
I knew you’d say that. Complicated and simple at the same time. Simple in the best possible sense. Almost Zen-like detachment. Great guy with a real sense of what’s important in life. He deserves everything that’s come to him because he put the work in. Had it not been for punk rock, Bernard would have been completely lost and constrained and stifled because of what punk rock was supposed to be like: freeing up people who were really imaginative and genuinely artistic. Bernard is a real punk. Invented his own thing, you know? Really overlooked. Electronic is one of the rare examples of a band that split up with no acrimony whatsoever. We were too smart and our friendship was too important to let that happen. I learned a lot about singing from Bernard. It’s the approach: leave your insecurities and neuroses at the door ‘cause we’ve got a job to do. Be subjective when you write a song and when you’re getting your melodies together be as emotional as you like, but then when you’re doing the thing, just drop the shit and do the job.

Matt Johnson.
Matt’s an amazing guy. Incredibly misunderstood. He’s very, very funny. A great example of the value of self-education over taught education, because he’s a very interesting guy and didn’t learn any of it in school. He became incredibly worldly against the odds. He’s a real fighter. Matt’s someone who will constantly be looking for the answers to things and will put himself through all kinds of difficult experiences in pursuit of it. Noble guy and a friend. He was the first person who told me I should do my own record and sing, and that was in ‘87.

Well, it just took you a while to get around to it.
Shows you how much stock I put in his opinion. [Laughs]

Beck reminded me of David Byrne in the best possible way. He can get on pretty much anyone’s sense of humor and sense of the absurd. A good listener, that’s what I find from Beck. A very perceptive person, and one of those guys who likes to hear people talk. I saw him play last night, it was really good. His new record’s great, I really rate it.

Sea Change was a risky thing for him to do.
I think he’s the real thing because he’s not afraid to go down some necessary sideroads rather than just take the main highway. When all’s said and done, I think he’ll be able to be discussed in the same way as Neil Young. Obviously, Bob Dylan comes to mind, but Dylan is so mythical and legendary, but I can see Beck’s doing the same kind of thing in a way. And David Bowie.

Chrissie Hynde.
Chrissie’s a fascinating person. Incredibly complex. Really funny. And this amazing mixture of all things people assume that she is: ballsy, no-nonsense sort of balanced with this incredible femininity. She smells amazing. All the time. Chrissie is to England what I am to the States. It’s like she was born in the wrong place. Super attraction to England and English culture, as I did America and American culture. When she makes a pot of tea, it’s in a beautiful china teapot with great cups and it’s all a bit of a ceremony. Whereas I just can’t wait to get to Denny’s. But for me, she was really important. One of the things that people don’t know about Chrissie and myself is that my part in the Pretenders is 10 percent about the band and the music and 90 percent about my relationship to that woman. I met her at a time when I was fairly battered by the Smiths split and the things going on in my world with the media. And the manipulation of the media by certain people to make me look like the bad guy. I suddenly found myself hanging out with this person and I’m going, “Oh, things are tough. I’m bruised. Oh, I left my band. Oh, it’s really raw.” And her vibe was, “Well, two of my fucking band died. And plus, I don’t even really know who your band are. Let’s go see some life.” It was an amazing thing to be around.

[Long pause] What can I say Morrissey is like, genuinely? I’ve never been asked to sum him up. Because there was so much emphasis placed on the differences between Morrissey and myself, most people haven’t stopped to wonder what it was that made us so close. The thing that brought us really close together is the essence of why he lives his life and why I live my life. And that is that without what we consider to be the art of pop music and pop culture, life doesn’t make any sense. And that understanding: He needed it like I needed it. It was a pretty serious, deep need. It wasn’t just the need to escape our social situation, because underneath it all, one of the things that makes us the same is that we’re both incredibly sensitive. There was this serious burden with serious mental problems that were taken care of by records.

In the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll equation, rock ‘n’ roll has always eclipsed the other two for you. And that applies to Morrissey as well.
I guess I’m being flowery about it, but as kids we both felt absolutely crazy until we discovered pop music, and we’re not alone in it. And I guess that’s why people can relate to us. People think that I’m the antithesis of Morrissey. If that’s the thing they relate to me for, well, they’re wrong. Maybe it’s just my aesthetic that they don’t truck with; and I’m cool with that, ‘cause I don’t truck with theirs, either. The thing that they get from him, he got from me as well, and I get from him. As people, I was probably as dysfunctional in my own way as he was until I immersed myself in pop culture. The thing about the two of us is we heard and saw things in records that weren’t even there.

What kinds of things did you imagine or find in records?
Worlds. When he met me, he knew we were different in the way we expressed ourselves, but the most important thing to him spiritually was the most important thing to me spiritually. You can’t be that close with someone for that length of time and go through what we went through on a minute-by-minute basis without having the ultimate connection. I know it sounds very poetic, but that’s what kept us together. Only he and I know that something like a fight or a difference in lifestyles or court cases or who said what in the press about who, or what fans might say, is pretty small change compared to the connection we have. It’s very deep. In short, there’s a very big part of him that I understand. And he knows it.

To condense all that flowery shit and get to the point—it’s not your point, but whatever, right?—he’s got a great voice. He invented things in pop music. Brought things into pop music after 25 years of all kinds of stuff being there. Aesthetically, he’s a true innovator. What an innovator is, to me, is someone who can bring together what on the face of things seem like totally disparate elements, put them through their own funnel and then present the thing that is identifiably his in a new genre. And the Smiths sleeves are the perfect example. You see something that looks like a Smiths sleeve? It’s a Morrissey sleeve. You try to tell someone who can’t see what those elements are and they would think you were nuts. You’ve got film stars, sports stars, some kind of graphic. Those things should never work together, but they did. That’s what Miles Davis did.

Well, your role in the Smiths aesthetic was huge. If you don’t mind a bit of flattery, I think that the way you played guitar two decades ago—and a couple other people, as well—changed what people thought good guitar playing was. At the time, it was mostly about Eddie Van Halen, big solos. You brought it back to a level of…
Melody, rhythm and getting to the point. Emotive. There’s no musicality in technique for technique’s sake, as we all know. The thing about Smiths records and some other bands like us—some of the best Joy Division records and some of the real sad New Order records—is that they were emotive. I love playing guitar and I like guitar players, but I didn’t like anyone in particular because they, as just guitar players, weren’t saying as much to me as “All The Young Dudes” by Mott The Hoople.

You wouldn’t separate the guitar from the whole song.
I didn’t so much listen to these records as study them. When I was learning to play, I wouldn’t listen to the guitar player and then try to play the guitar part—I’d try to play the whole record. That was the thing that set me on fire. The guitar solo didn’t set me on fire like a kickass chorus with some strings in it and some high backing vocals. I wanted to do things that hit me—those sections of records that would explode for me. That’s why I played super-melodic and quite dramatic and tried to get some sadness out of it. I purposely bought a Rickenbacker so I wouldn’t play like a blues player. Obviously I appreciate Jimmy Page, but that wasn’t what it was about. I wanted to hear a whole Phil Spector record when I played the guitar.

And there’s no better way to do that than with a 12-string guitar and 16th notes.
It was a big sound. And it was only when the press started mentioning the Byrds that I went and checked the Byrds out. It’s kind of nuts to talk about this stuff. I only know about these things because people have told me.

Well, you’ve probably had to analyze guitar playing to death. People probably think you have a giant guitar tattooed on your back.
It’s not on my back. [Laughs] Morrissey and I felt like we could make it magical at the time. We were both getting the buzz out of our records that we would get out of the records that touched us when we were kids. That’s a highly emotional state to be in. That’s hard on the nervous system. You know, when the Beatles talk about their experiences being hard on the nervous system, that’s obviously because they were stuck in a hotel with 10,000 people outside. But what was hard on me and Morrissey, and why there was a certain resentment from us toward the other members of the band, was they didn’t have that. We were trying to set ourselves on fire all the time in what we were doing. It really takes it out of you.

As the Smiths went on, did the pressure just continue to get greater to achieve things, musically?
We were in an incredibly emotional state all the time because of what we were doing in the studio. He’d be going, “Oh my god, I don’t believe this piece of music that he’s brought to me.” And then when he’d sing on it, I’d go, “Oh my god, I don’t believe what he’s just sung.” And before we knew it, we had another one. It was pretty good going, you know?

—Matthew Fritch