“At first, I thought you were from Sheffield. Sorry about that.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but like Johnny Marr, I’m from Manchester. It’s a fact that doesn’t crop up in our conversation until after we’ve spent the best part of forty-five minutes running through the questions I’d prepared; he isn’t obliged to still be on the line, at this point, but my accent had obviously piqued his interest. The ensuing discussion of music and the north sees him send me off with a pretty hefty reading list, too.
In truth, consciously or otherwise, I hadn’t let on to Marr that we share a hometown because, given the amount of interviews he must have done down the years with journalists who have a very singular idea of what the word Manchester means in musical terms, I rather imagined him clamming up at the mere mention of the city. It’s ridiculous, of course - present-day Manchester is as vibrant and eclectic a hive for new bands as it ever has been, and certainly not the vortex of faux-nostalgia it’s so often miscast as - but there are approximately one million different things to ask him about that don’t involve that band he used to be in back in the eighties, especially given that his new solo record, Playland, is his second in as many years.
The Smiths are still important to Marr - he included a slew of their classics in his live set when touring last year’s The Messenger - but you kind of get the sense that it was actually the time he spent with Modest Mouse and The Cribs that’s had the more immediate impact on where he is, currently, as a musician; in putting together his present live band, he was clearly trying to emulate the gang mentality he’d enjoyed with Isaac Brock’s men and the Jarmans, eschewing the bus for the van on tour and lining up some pretty gruelling live schedules. At the risk of being too presumptuous, I imagine Marr could probably get away with only playing the major cities and living in relative luxury on tour. That he instead only seems interested in writing, recording and performing as much as possible is a testament to his frankly intimidating level of productivity. Plenty of musicians get to his age and sound jaded; the sheer enthusiasm that runs through every topic we touch upon - from decamping to London to make Playland to winding up David Cameron - is as disarming as it is refreshing.
It’s only been eighteen months since the release of The Messenger. Why put out another record so quickly?
Everyone’s been saying that, but eighteen months seems long enough to me. I just stayed writing, because I had the ideas, and there wasn’t really anything more clever than that to it. When we went on tour for The Messenger, I could’ve switched off the writing process, which probably would’ve been the normal thing to do, but these ideas kept cropping up; I wrote ‘The Trap’ as we were finishing up the last record, and then ‘Dynamo’ started on the road; they just started pouring in from there. I was excited - because ideas are exciting - but also because I know it’s a positive thing, for the kind of music that I make, to capture the energy of their live band, and all the activity that goes along with being on the road and traveling, just the buzz of the whole thing. When I look back on it now, it was like I had this ringing in my ears; literally, obviously, because I was playing rock music for nearly two hours every night, but figuratively, too, in the sense that I couldn’t really shake the energy of the audiences, even the next morning. I channeled that into coming up with riffs and melodies; every time an idea presented itself to me, I’d really chase it down.
You recorded this one in London, right?
Yeah. That was intentional, because I wanted for it to have a different kind of atmosphere to The Messenger, which was mostly done in Manchester and Berlin, and a little bit in New York. I went to New York for this one, too, but I felt like London would capture a certain kind of vibe, so I demoed on the road, and in Manchester, and then headed down there. It was a good thing for me, observing everyone in London and having the place rub off and me.
I remember you said that you went back to Manchester for The Messenger to get back in touch with some of your musical sensibilities from a time before The Smiths; were you trying to tap into something similar by going to London?
Maybe, but it was mostly just that, for me, London’s currently the busiest and most frenetic major city in the world - even more so than Tokyo. I understand it there, and I still wanted to do something that was European, or even, dare I say it, particularly British. I mean, nothing ever gets too far away from sounding like me, which is fine, but it was important for me to walk around the city at night on my own, and to take the train into the studio and get jostled around with everybody else. The environment does inform your sound, I think; you know how Kraftwerk and The Beach Boys sound like where they come from? I can hear that on Playland; I can hear some of those journeys I took in the lyrics.
Any specific examples?
Well, ‘Speak Out Reach Out’ is a good one; I was in the city late at night, and I went past a bunch of - let’s say - well-oiled, well-heeled city types at a cash machine. They were just completely oblivious to the boy and girl sat on the floor next to them, freezing cold. I came up with the line “sophisticated minds, you are your country / situated and aligned in my city” there and then, and I spent the next few hours walking around and thinking about it. By the morning, I had the whole song ready to record. It was similar with ‘Dynamo’, too, although that one’s got a little bit more of New York in it. I was trying to put a different spin on this love song, and just sing about the buildings I was admiring; I didn’t ever really think I’d write a song about a love affair with a building, but it’s happened.
It definitely feels as if there’s an anti-establishment attitude at points on the record. Was that deliberate?
I can’t really help but have a few digs here and there in my observations, just because of the type of person I am, and the kind of background I have. I haven’t got any strong agenda to be political with a capital P, or anything, but songs like ‘Little King’ and ‘Speak Out Reach Out’ just turned out that way because I was writing about society. I hope I’ve managed not to be too critical or po-faced about any of it, but t answer your question, there’s certainly a few comments on there about the greedy fuckers who treat not only the people, but the place like it’s their own resource. There’s a fair bit of idealism on there too, though, and that’s why I’m happy that the record starts with ‘Back in the Box’, which is just an all-out celebration of what euphoria is; it’s about ecstatic states and transcendence, and I like to think there’s a correlation between that and what happens when you press play on your favourite record. ‘Playland’, too, is like that, so I think it’s pretty balanced; I’ve celebrated culture as much as I’ve criticised it on this album.
Am I right in saying there’s some nods to your upbringing on ’25 Hours’?
Yeah. It’s really about escapism, actually, and my experience of growing up in the inner city in a pretty tough environment - or an environment that was tougher than I wanted to deal with, at least - with a backdrop of a pretty heavy Catholic school system. I think it’s important, even if you’re writing something autobiographical, to try to make it something that other people can relate to. I already had the music for ’25 Hours’, and when I was improvising lyrics in the studio whilst the band played it, I came up with that line “this door really goes somewhere.” It reminded me of that feeling I had - as a ten or eleven year old - when I had the realisation that the alternative world, which for me was learning to play the guitar, television, pop culture in general, was one that I was going to make more real than the one I found myself in - whether I made a success of it or not. I kind of made the assumption that there were going to be other people listening to the record that would be able to relate to that scenario; knowing that the world you’re in, the one that’s supposed to be your destiny, is actually not the one you care for. Instead, you go through your own door, and make your own world. When I was a kid, I only really had the guitar, and my passion for it, as a means of escape.
I saw the British Masters interview you did with John Doran, and you told him that The Messenger was fifty percent the musician you were before The Smiths, and fifty percent the musician you’ve been since. Is that still the case on Playland, or are you leaning more towards your post-Smiths bands? The riff on ‘Easy Money’ sounds very Modest Mouse...
I guess ‘Easy Money’ sounds that way because that Modest Mouse stuff was built on my guitar, really. I think, on The Messenger, people were trying to piece together what my solo sound was, and I was happy to try to explain what I thought the influences on the record were. With Playland, I’ve really just built on that; after all, your influences are always going to come through in one way or another, unless you’re willfully trying to prevent them from doing so. It wasn’t really about much more than putting together a band who made a sound that I’d want to go and see myself. There’s always going to be echoes of the other bands i’ve been in, the other albums I’ve made, because so many of those songs were built around my guitar riffs. As long as I feel like I’m moving forwards, then I’m happy with that.
Did you still take something out of working with those bands, though?
I don’t think I’ve really taken anything out of them in a guitar sense; that goes for anybody I’ve ever played with, really. That’s only because I was always so busy thinking about what I could bring to the table, one hundred percent of the time. There’s other things I’ve learned, though, without a doubt; in the case of The Cribs, it was just the idea that as soon as you walk out on that stage, you’re totally there, and you have to give it as much energy as you possibly can. Those guys would never, ever be able to phone it in even if they tried, let’s put it that way, and their audiences know that. In technical terms, too, it had a big impact on me to be singing backing vocals with Gary and Ryan (Jarman); I think that definitely had an effect on my voice. It was the same singing with Isaac Brock, too, especially given how big some of the venues were with Modest Mouse. In that band, there was that marathon ethic of just going out and playing til you drop, just going on and on until you run out of steam, and it was a real eye-opener; you’d finish a show, and the audience would be as wiped out as the band. Some of my shows in the US last year were two hours long, and I don’t think I’d ever have had the stamina for that if I hadn’t played with Modest Mouse.
Do you feel as if your vocals on Playland are stronger for having had the experience of singing every night when you were touring The Messenger?
Without a doubt, because I’d be recording on Playland having just gotten back from playing in South America a couple of weeks before, or something like that; we’d record for a few days, and then go and do a festival in Paris or something. It keeps half of your mind on the stage, so you’re still singing really loud, as if you’re in the club or the field. I guess you’re match-fit, for want of a better term, and I really like it that way. You don’t do that thing where bands down tools at the end of a ‘campaign’ - I hate that word - and dick around for a few months buying luggage and expensive outdoor coats before they reconvene. You’re a working band, and you’ve got a gig in three nights’ time. That was a big part of wanting to put my own band together, because that was how I wanted to operate.
What’s your relationship with recording technology like, now that you’re making your own records?
The way we made ‘Easy Money’ sums that up pretty neatly, I think. We got some Apogee interfaces given to us when we went to LA, and I’d had the idea for the song for a couple of weeks; it’d started off as having the concept to write about money, and then it dawned on me that it’d be funny - and really appropriate - to write something really upbeat and catchy if I could, so I came up with the riff and the melody, and added it all together in my head. It happened to be the day we were given this equipment, and instead of just dicking around on the bus, I was really eager to get this idea nailed down, so we started recording; it turned into a bit of a party on the bus. I kept getting the driver to stop every twenty-five minutes, so I could sing the vocal without any engine noise on it, and then we’d drive off again and put the guitar or the synth down. When we got back to the studio and tried to re-record that demo, we just couldn’t recapture the same spirit we’d had on the bus that day, when we were all buzzing about it, so we just re-used all the same tracks - just with live drums. I’ve always been into recording tech like that, from Amplitude through to ProTools and Garageband, but it’s when something comes together like that that you realise just what you can do with it. It’s massively exciting when it works that well.
You played some Smiths songs when you were touring The Messenger; was it as big a deal to you as it was to the crowds?
If nothing else, I understand the significance of it from looking at the audience’s faces when we go into those songs. There’s a couple of ways of looking at it, really. You could be quite precious about what you’re doing, and about legacy and that kind of stuff, but frankly, you’re probably forgetting about what music’s supposed to be for. There comes a point where theorising can become over-analysis, and then you’re just in the realm of being an academic - I’ll do everything I can to avoid that. On stage, it’s the last thing you want to do. I think there was a time in my life where I wouldn’t have been playing those songs, and that’s OK too, but another way of looking at it is that if you’ve got songs that people really, really love, then you’re pretty fucking lucky. You need to be able to avoid thinking about it too much. Art and entertainment don’t necessarily need to be mutually exclusive.
Put it this way: if I go to see a band I really love, say Television or Broken Social Scene, I don’t want them to be stood there with some fucked-up attitude. I want them to be enjoying playing. I want the band to know that the audience are behind them, and I want the band to reciprocate. That’s how it feels when we play the old songs. It’s not a nostalgic, misty-eyed trip down memory lane - far from it. It’s still a celebration of the here and now; just that joy of sharing music, the same joy that leads you to say, “check out this intro”, or “how about this riff”, you know? Especially now, when we’re playing new tracks that people like; it’s all good, man.
So there’s going to be the same balance between old and new this time out, then?
Yeah, I think so. I’m really happy that we’ve got the Playland songs to put in there, because all my solo stuff is designed to be played live anyway; even on this record, where there’s more keyboard sounds, we’ve just recreated them on the guitar. We’re a laptop-free zone on stage. I think the most exciting thing about the shows - and just the experience of making these records in general, come to think about it - is that when we toured The Messenger, we’d sometimes play every song off the record in the one night. I’ve never been in a band where I could do that before. It’s an achievement in itself, I think.
Playland is available now via New Voodoo.
Johnny Marr tours the UK this October:
13 - The Engine Shed, LINCOLN
14 - Cliffs Pavilion, SOUTHEND
15 - De La Warr Pavilion, BEXHILL-ON-SEA
17 - Civic Hall, WOLVERHAMPTON
18 - Great Hall, CARDIFF
20 - O2 Academy, BOURNEMOUTH
21 - Corn Exchange, CAMBRIDGE
23 - Brixton Academy, LONDON
24 - Pavilion, BATH
25 - Apollo, MANCHESTER
27 - O2 Academy, GLASGOW
28 - O2 Academy, NEWCASTLE
29 - O2 Academy, LEEDS