Interview: Johnny Marr
PUBLISHED: 11:17 21 September 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 29 October 2010
Johnny Marr made up half of the songwriting partnership behind The Smiths, widely regarded as one of the most influential bands ever. Now he has joined indie three-piece The Cribs. ROB GARRATT spoke to him.
Johnny Marr made up half of the songwriting partnership behind The Smiths, widely regarded as one of the most influential bands ever. Now he has joined indie three-piece The Cribs. ROB GARRATT spoke to him about his old band, his new band, and his favourite guitars.
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Johnny Marr is not unfamiliar with joining new bands. Since walking out of genre-definers The Smiths in 1987 he has band-hopped and style-shifted as often as most of us buy a new pair of jeans.
On the way he has gone on to join The Pretenders and The The, formed Electronic, invented his eponymous Healers and joined US alt-rockers Modest Mouse.
He has also found time to appear on records by literally dozens of other artists, everyone from Billy Bragg to Talking Heads; Pet Shop Boys to Beck, Tom Jones, Bert Jansch, Crowded House and Girls Aloud.
But despite all this, it still raised eyebrows in the music business when it was revealed that Marr, 45, was joining The Cribs - an all-brother indie trio hailing from West Yorkshire already three albums into their career.
As with all of Marr's musical moves, his decision to join The Cribs seems to have been as unplanned - and, crucially, non-committal - as all of his post-Smiths career moves. They met up at the beginning of last year to make a celebrity single, and he never left.
“Being a full-time member came about because we'd written enough songs for an album,” explains Marr in his Manchester drawl. “It wasn't a plan to write enough for an album.
“I liked the idea of doing a goofy kind of single but it sounded really good when we started to play. It sounded like a band.
“And by that time we'd been through some stuff together in some rough and ready environments. It just would have seemed strange to not stick around.
“To us we've been doing it 14 or 15 months now, to everyone else it's new.”
After first appearing on stage with them last February, Marr was announced as a full-time member the night they headlined the Reading Festival last year.
Now they have emerged from the studio with the first Cribs album to feature his input. Ignore the Ignorant is tipped to be come cult record label Witcha Recordings biggest release to date.
“It sounds like what people expected me and The Cribs to sound like,” said Marr. “I jumped on their riffs and they jumped on mine. Before we had too much time to think we'd written half of it.
“It's collaboration between all four of us, which is a very unusual situation. It's a band where you don't really want to write the whole song.”
Was there an awkward moment then, when they asked him to stay, or he suggested tentatively he might stick around? “Nothing was very awkward,” states Marr. “I gave them the option to get another guitar player. That took them by surprise and I made a commitment to them. On paper its one thing and it might look surprising but it's all about chemistry.”
But it wasn't a decision Marr made lightly, he admits: “I had to give it some serious thought.”
Marr enthuses about The Cribs in a way that is surprising given the list of stars he has played with, and his mixed experience of the business. But he insists it is the same energy that drives him in all his musical endeavours.
“I am always excited with what I do,” says Marr. “I am very rarely not excited by what I do. Or I don't do it. I like playing the guitar in a band. It's the thing I do best and I am always really excited about it.”
“Playing the guitar in a band” perhaps best sums up Marr's adult life. Forming The Smiths when he was just 19-years old, their first single, the aching lament Hand In Glove, was released just a year later in 1983.
After releasing four full LPs in three years - the classic The Queen Is Dead among them - the band disintegrated in 1987 when Marr quit after falling out with Morrissey.
Marr returned two year's later in New Order star Bernard Sumner's super-group Electronic, going on to release three albums, the last of which came out in 1999.
During this time he also played on two albums by The The, before going on to form the critically mauled Johnny Marr and the Healers, who released a single album, Boomslang in 2003.
Recent years have seen him release two albums as a fully paid-up member of Modest Mouse, which he balanced alongside his commitments with The Cribs.
Marr seems to view all these as one long journey, parts of the jigsaw of his musical life, and struggles to pick out a highlight.
He said: “I really loved the Modest Mouse album. I like a lot of Smiths records. I like Dusk by The The. I like some of the Electronic singles. It's all part of the same life to. If I owned a jukebox, which I don't, I could probably fill it with 45s out there that I've played on and enjoy.”
Marr is far more chatty and genial than his jet-black hair and stern rock image would suggest.
Whilst we talk he clatters away with a screwdriver, making alterations to what he rates as his current favourite guitar, from his “40 or 50” strong collection, a customised Fender Jaguar.
But he is keen to remind me that the elusive star rarely breaks his silence.
“I don't really do days and days of interviews,” he laments. “It gives me a sore throat. It gives me a sore brain too.”
Why then is he breaking his silence to talk to Going Out? “You've got to do your bit, you can't let the lead singer do it all - even though it's their job.”
One of his more long-lasting musical relationships is with fellow Manchurians Oasis, who he championed in their early days, and their guitarist Noel Gallagher has repaid the favour by frequently quoting Marr as one of his largest influences. Their only formal collaboration saw Marr lending his expertise to a couple of tracks of their 2002 LP, Heathen Chemistry.
Did he feel as excited about the band as when he offered to lend them his equipment in the mid-1990s when they were making their iconic first album?
“I don't like critiquing bands, I'm not very good at it and I change my mind every day,” says Marr neutrally. “Working with them was fun. We spent so much time together for years without writing anything together. It was all pretty causal - they had a couple of songs where the guitar wasn't working and I played on them - it wasn't very formal at all.”
Marr's measured responses are not surprising for someone who has made an effort to shy away from the media, and he is quick to dismiss the notion that he might be frustrated with people always wanting to talk to him about The Smiths.
“I am still really, really proud of [The Smiths],” he says passionately. “It would be pretty churlish to be annoyed by how much people like your group.
“To me it doesn't seem that long ago since I was a guitar player just wanting to be heard on one 45 inch single, so I don't complain about it too much. And it still sounds good.”
And he is protective and respectful of the band's monumental legacy - a recent NME poll put The Smiths above even The Beatles as the most influential band ever - devoting hours to re-mastering and restoring their albums for new CD incarnations.
Marr said: “That mantle and responsibly seems to have fallen on my shoulders. I've finally got the opportunity to make it sound like it did in the studio.
“Over the years I was unhappy with the way compilations had been put out. I didn't like the artwork and more importantly I didn't like the sound. They weren't as I remember them. They put on all sorts of compression in the 1990s I just had all that stuff taken off.
“Now it sounds right - it didn't sound right for years.”
And The Smiths album he holds most dear? The experimental finale, Strangeways Hear We Come.
“I always liked the last one,” he explains. “In America Meat Is Murder got more known so I am reminded of that one by Americans. I used to be surprised when people say it's their favourite one, but it's got a lot of good songs. But Strangeways is my favourite - it came out so easy. It had a carefree atmosphere, there's a lot air in it.”
Given his apparent affection for the band and his protectively over their legacy, it's only natural to ask if the band will go the same way as so many aging rockers and do a reunion tour.
In 2007, you told Radio Five Live a reunion could be “10 or 15 years” away…
“When did I say that, two years ago?” repeats Marr. “You'll have to ask me in 10-years. I could just put another year on it now, maybe it'll be 12-years.
“I like The Smiths songs, but I like playing with two guitars and writing new songs. Unfortunately a reunion would go against both those things.”
Does that mean he and Morrissey are still fighting?
“It's not necessarily the case that we're not talking,” he offers diplomatically. “We have email. We worked on that Sound of the Smiths [compilation] together. That came out about a year ago.
“Who's got time for a feud? Right now I have got screwdrivers inside guitars, my car broke down yesterday… I've got no time for a feud.”
So with Smiths fans left with an ever-growing ache of apprehension, what instead is over the horizon for Marr?
“The Cribs keep us all really busy, really I am just thinking about that. I have no idea about collaborations. Anyone I have worked with has been very unplanned - it's always music or striking up a friendship that leads the way. I never planned to work with anyone.
“I just look forward. I really love that I get to play the guitar every day and work with people I admire. I have just made a record that people like.
“I just sort of sit out somewhere in the middle distance. Stuff just happens. Before I know it I've made a record or done a tour or written some songs.
“And if I'm lucky enough for people to like the way I play guitar that's an extra buzz.
“I just want to do what I've done since I was 14, 15, it all still feels like the same thing.”
t The Cribs play the UEA on September 24.
t Ignore the Ignorant is out now.
JOHNNY MARR'S JUKEBOX
“If I owned a jukebox, which I don't, I could probably fill it with 45s out there that I've played on and enjoy” says Marr.
Here's the five singles featuring his own work he says he would put in that jukebox.
Electronic - Get The Message
Modest Mouse - Dashboard
The Smiths - Bigmouth Strikes Again
The Cribs - Cheat on Me
The The - Dogs of Lust
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