Johnny Marr Q&A: Past, Present, Future

Q&A with Johnny Marr about his reputation for spending days on end in the studio, his varied collaborations with such artists as Neil Finn and New Order's Bernard Sumner, and his thoughts on the l

As the Feb. 4 release date of Johnny Marr and the Healers' iMusic debut, "Boomslang," draws near, the artist is more visible than he has been since the 1987 demise of the late, great Smiths. "Boomslang" is not only Marr's first dedicated solo project, but the first album on which he sings lead vocals. He admits the project took years to come to fruition, but he is confident that it stands amongst the best music he has ever created.

The Healers, which also comprises drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Alonza Bevan, are in the midst of their maiden North American tour. In February, the group jumps to Australia to open 10 gigs for Pearl Jam. It will then tour Japan and Europe before heading back to the States for more performances. (Click here to read yesterday's feature article about the "Boomslang" project.)

In a recent interview by phone from his home in Manchester, England, Marr fielded's questions about his reputation for spending days on end in the studio, his varied collaborations with such artists as Neil Finn and New Order's Bernard Sumner, and his thoughts on the legacy of the Smiths.

When was the last time you actually did an extensive tour? Also, I'm curious if you're excited to spend a lot of time on the road in support of "Boomslang?"

Johnny Marr: Well, the last fairly extensive tour I did was not that long ago with Neil Finn around Europe. You see, in the past I always had to be dragged by the collar by the lead singer, who would make me go out and play gigs. On every album I've ever done, if I would have been asked to come in the next day and start a new one, I would have just been whooping with delight. I love the studio. It came to me kind of pretty late in my career to discover that it's half the job, going out and playing live. I was never one of those musicians who were like, OK, well, you write your songs, record them, and get through that chore. Then you go out and shake your thing in front of an audience and show off furiously.

I grew up with the idea of the studio being this almost mystical kind of place. So when I got my chance to work in one, I wasn't going to let go, really. When I got a chance to live in one, then I was in nirvana! It was never that really a big of deal for me. There was possibly the assumption in the Smiths days that because I was the kind of archetypal guitar player and Morrissey was supposedly this wilting, shrinking wallflower, and that I wanted to drag the band around the world and be Slash. But I think time has shown that I'm more at home in the studio and he's probably more at home out in front of an audience.

At any point in the past decade, did you ponder doing a project like this? Was it something you maybe started work on and never fully completed until now?

JM: No, because everything I wrote went to whoever I was working with.

The last album by Electronic [Marr's band with New Order's Bernard Sumner], for example, had a couple of songs on it that were almost Healers tracks. I had just started playing with Zak around that time. Bernard liked them, jumped on them, and got to grips with them. I wrote "Vivid," the first single [from the last Electronic album, 2000's "Twisted Tenderness"], with the harmonica break on it. I wrote and demoed that with Zak's parts and things we were kicking around. I wrote a lot of lyrics for that song. Also the song "Prodigal Song" from that album.

When I would finish a song, someone would kind of ask me if they could borrow it for awhile. I wrote quite a lot of songs in the late '80s that Kirsty MacColl ended up using or Billy Bragg ended up using, stuff like that. It's just because my friends are always around and they always hear what I'm doing. I've got tons and tons of stuff that I left around that I will revisit one day.

Can you talk a little bit more about working with Neil Finn? I really enjoyed the live album, "Seven Worlds Collide," that documented the New Zealand shows you were a part of. Did you guys collaborate at all?

JM: We've got a couple of things floating around but Neil's working on a movie soundtrack at the moment and I'm going on the road, so we haven't been able to do any writing. But that experience with Neil was one of the highlights of my musical life so far. It came completely out of the blue, just a phone call from him. I had met him for five minutes when I played a Linda McCartney tribute a few years ago. We talked, but it didn't go any further than, "What's it like in Manchester?" and "How's it going in New Zealand?" When he invited me out to play with him, I was first intrigued, but then pretty much immediately charmed. What's there not to like? He's such an intelligent guy. Then when he sent me over his then-new album, I was really impressed and couldn't wait to get over there. It was such an intense experience that was either going to be absolutely fantastic or a complete disaster [laughs].

The feeling around Neil and his family is very similar to the feeling I'm trying to get round my family and band and people involved in what I do. He's been around awhile and knows how to do things right, but he's still pretty loose as well. I think in some ways I've got Neil to thank for some things on this record. He really made me very welcome and extended his invite for me to go around Europe, which I had no idea I was going to do until the day I got back from New Zealand to England. I got a music paper with his live dates and I just put a circle around his London shows. I put a circle around the London shows and said, "OK, I'll play there, and maybe I'll play Sheffield." When I thought about what a good time I had in New Zealand, I just put a circle around the whole thing in my mind, including the European gigs as well: Belgium, Holland, and Germany. Because I had gone out and played to Neil's audience and with Neil, I then went back to my album with a slightly different perspective. I just finished the job off with a renewed enthusiasm.

It sounds to me like "Down on the Corner" [included on both "Seven Worlds Collide" and "Boomslang"] may have sprang from the time you spent with Neil.

JM: Yeah. I had just written "Down on the Corner" when I got there. Neil really liked it and suggested that I play it. That shows you what kind of person he is, where he'll ask someone to play one of their own songs in the middle of his show! We'd even play it at the soundchecks, you know, "Johnny, do you mind if we do 'Down on the Corner?'" Sure! We ended up doing it at every show I played with him, which was maybe 20-odd shows. It was just such a good feeling, and what really playing with other musicians should be about.

That's why I ended up doing those two Smiths tunes ["There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "How Soon Is Now"], which I initially told him I wouldn't do. It would have been churlish of me to have not agreed to do that, but I would have only done that for Neil. He deserved it and he did a really, really good job. I'm really glad he brought those songs into the light. It was a great experience for me.

Is it possible for you to quantify how you approach guitar playing now, as opposed to how you did even five or 10 years ago?

JM: I approach guitar playing the same way I approached it when I was 11 or 12. That may sound a little bit unbelievable to people, but I do. It has just always been there. I know a few more chords this time [laughs]. It has always been a part of my family. I've had guitars as long as I can remember as toys. My family always knew me as someone who was completely obsessed with guitars. Do you want to know how many guitars I can see right now? [Starts counting out loud]. 17. 18. One in a case, 19. I happen to be in a room that is filled with guitars. But it isn't usually like that. There's normally only 12 [laughs].

Whenever my parents decorate their house, I've noticed they take all the furniture out but they always put my guitars back in the exact same place as they were, even though they don't get played very much. My brother plays them sometimes. I've noticed they do the same with the plants. It's probably the sort of relationship I have with guitars. Most people have plants in the house and don't throw them out. That's what happens with me and guitars. They have always been there, just like a plant on the windowsill or a piece of furniture. They're just there. For me, it would be like being mute, I guess, if I wasn't playing guitar. That really has got very little to do with the fact that I play in public. My uncle played guitar when I was a kid and my family sung songs. One of us was going to be a musician whether we liked it or not. I drew the long straw.

How do your collaborations usually come about? I would imagine artists are approaching you first, as opposed to you approaching them.

JM: Beck and the Talking Heads and Bryan Ferry are the only ones out of all the collaborations I've done where I didn't have a friendship with them first. Those three records I made were just a really intriguing idea to me when I was invited to go along. I've never gone out to work with anybody. I've never, ever planned on working with anybody. I've always been invited. It's just one of these things that happened. The situation I had with Beth Orton is a good example. We met. I don't think she knew who I was when we initially met. She knew who I was but she didn't know it was me. She just thought I was some guy.

We got talking and got along and everything, and eight hours later after hanging out all day, we were in hotel and she was playing me one of her songs. I wrestled the guitar out of her hands when I thought she got to a bit that was wrong [laughs hard]. We ended up writing a couple of songs that night on acoustic guitars.

That is how it happens normally. I just get along with people and they say, "Well, I've got this track and it would really sound good with you on it." So I go, "OK, I'll do it!" If I've got something in common with someone, it is very likely I'm going to like what they're doing in the studio. If I don't hear myself on it, I say, "You know what, give me a synth. I'll put a synth on it."

It must be a great feeling that all of these cool projects come to you. You don't have to actively pursue them.

JM: Yeah, I mean, that is really great. It was kind of like that for me in my teens. I grew up in a neighborhood that was just freakishly filled with bands in the late '70s. Anyone from around that time would tell you that, looking back on it, it was really weird. There were bands everywhere. I was being invited to join this band and that band. I learned a hell of a lot from the guys I was playing with because they were all older than me. That is just the way my life has sort of worked out and I'm really thankful for it. I don't know any different. The idea of sitting with a manager and targeting musicians to play would seem very undignified to me.

OK, Johnny. I just have one further question for you, but this is sort of a two-parter. I am curious if you feel that there is any unfinished business with the Smiths. I also want to know if there is anything in the vaults that you would like to see released someday.

JM: Well, there is nothing in the vaults because everything we wrote was good, so it came out. I don't feel like there is any unfinished business at all.

It was really amazing that we stayed together as long as we did, because I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find any band that produced that amount of work in such a short period of time at such a young age. And if you also throw in the idea that we were really in the center of this mad hurricane as it were, because we got so big in the U.K. and Europe so quick, and to an extent, live anyway, in the U.S. as well, you know? I was very, very considered in my decision to leave. It wasn't in any way impulsive or out of passion or anything like that. I went into the last album ["Strangeways, Here We Come"] thinking it may be the last record we'd do. It was a great feeling doing that last album. We had a great time doing it and I knew we were making some really good music.

To me, I've always just thought of it as like a great book. And, you know, great books just don't have sequels, whether it was "Catcher in the Rye" or anything. I'm always asked, will the Smiths reform? My answer is, "Why?" I am amazed and very touched that it still means such a lot to so many people, so I kind of understand the question. But to me it really would be like doing a 2002 version of some great classic. I'm totally cool with it. I don't believe in looking back. I would actually be more interested in some unfinished business between the The, because there are a few things we never got round to doing that I think would have been very interesting musically.

That's really intriguing. I don't suppose you ever play any of the songs you helped write from the The album "Dusk?"

JM: Well, I don't, but mostly out of respect to my band, because it's their band too, you know? Even though they love those songs, they weren't involved in it. Right now unless they were cool with it, I don't think I do it.

Also, I really feel like I'm doing something new. I kind of always do really, feel like I'm doing something new. I might change my mind, but right now for me going out and playing my old hits is kind of being a little bit cabaret before your time, really.

But I love those. I mean, I was heavily involved with every song on "Dusk" and that record, after "Boomslang," is probably the album I'm most proud of. "Boomslang" and "Dusk" and "Strangeways, Here We Come" are probably the three albums I would pick to play somebody.