Johnny Marr Steps Out Front With 'Boomslang'

Expanded from the magazine piece for

After leaving the Smiths in 1987, guitarist Johnny Marr spent the next decade-plus drifting from a host of intriguing, but largely under-the-radar projects. He provided a jolt of fresh creative energy to the The and Pet Shop Boys. He wrote songs for Billy Bragg, Beth Orton, and Kirsty MacColl. He played on albums by Oasis, Beck, the Talking Heads, and the Pretenders. And, in tandem with New Order vocalist Bernard Sumner, he crafted three studio sets under the moniker Electronic.

But on "Boomslang" (due Feb. 4 on ArtistDirect's iMusic imprint), Marr is finally stepping out front and center as the leader of the band the Healers, which also features drummer Zak Starkey (the Who) and bassist Alonza Bevan (ex-Kula Shaker). For the first time in his career, Marr is also serving as a lead singer and primary lyricist.

The artist, now 39, admits that he accumulated "tons and tons of stuff" since the demise of the now-legendary Smiths. But he never felt comfortable with the idea of leading his own project or even releasing a one-off solo album until Starkey and Bevan came into the picture.

"I wasn't interested in being in a group and going through all that stuff unless I had something seriously in common with the people," Marr says. But even after the chemistry within the Healers was well established, Marr wrestled with how to "write a rock album that sounds modern and doesn't have any cliches in it. I wanted to climb that mountain."

"I never tried to do anything like a solo album because I know you have to do it full tilt, especially if it's a band," he continues. "One thing I did know was that if I was ever going to my own record, the first record wouldn't be some obscure, instrumental late night thing, because that to me would have been somewhat of a cop out. People know I can write songs that are wide awake.

"To have hidden behind some sort of art project would have been short-changing people and myself as well, although I definitely see room for that in the future. Not for short-changing people," Marr chuckles, "but room for going down slightly more esoteric and artistic roads."

While "Boomslang" does not re-invent the wheel, such head-nodding cuts as "The Last Ride," "Bangin' On," and "Caught Up" display Marr's signature chiming fretwork and inventive melodic twists and validate the notion that he is the godfather of modern British rock. The artist, who self-produced the set, also proves himself more than a capable vocalist on stellar cuts like "Down on the Corner."

Though he wound up as the singer, Marr initially was unsure if he was the right man for the job. "I didn't want to work with another known singer," he offers, "just because I had done it and now was the time to do something different."

So, Marr sang a rough guide vocal for five tunes as a precursor to auditioning a couple of vocalists. He liked the sound of some of the candidates, but Starkey and Bevan had other ideas. "After a secret summit behind my back, they came back and told me they thought that I should sing," Marr recalls with a laugh. "I trusted them; they had no reason to suggest I do it for any other reason than it sounded good to them."

Once the decision was made, Marr eased into the role of lead vocalist. "I've sung loads of backing vocals quite extensively, with Pet Shop Boys, the The, and the Pretenders. But I'd never done a lead vocal on a record. It's not that difficult. I don't know what singers make such a God-damned fuss about!"

The Healers endured a bit of trial by fire when they were invited to open a handful of U.K. shows for Oasis in the summer of 2000. "That was really an interesting adventure because we got to go out and stand in front of large audiences who didn't know who the hell we were," Marr recalls. "A rumor would go around five minutes before we went on that the support band was Johnny Marr's new band. In some places, most people would say, 'Who?' That was great for us because there was no indication of what we were going to be like, so we had to really stand or fall on the quality of the show. Luckily for us, it went down really well. That gave us a little push and some more momentum."

With "Boomslang" in the can, Marr has embarked upon what will be his most extensive schedule of touring in years. A slate of 13 U.S. club shows began Jan. 15. From there, the Healers will jump to Australia to open 10 gigs for Pearl Jam. The band will then tour Japan and Europe before coming back to the States for more performances. The shows may even incorporate some material written since "Boomslang" was completed.

"I've got a couple new things I'm working on and Alonza and I are just working on this thing now," Marr says. "If I get the words together in time, I'll just play it. I might just improvise a little bit and do a section where I just play my guitar and see what people make of that. The show is very, very rock. I'm hoping people who come to see us know the album and know what to expect, because if they're clutching gladioli," he says, referring to a fan practice at Smiths and Morrissey shows, "those flowers ain't gonna last very long!"

"I'm really, really looking forward to it," he adds. "You get this idea of being surrounded by volume and musicians around either side of you. It's a very interesting thing for me, and it's kind of ironic that now when I'm singing I want everybody to turn up. Normally, it's the other way around!"

ArtistDirect co-founder/vice chairman Marc Geiger, who worked as an agent with the Smiths in the mid-'80s, has closely observed Marr's career ever since. He admits he "was worried [Marr] was turning into too much of a journeyman or a sideman," but says he is thrilled with "Boomslang" on an artistic level.

"Johnny is a somewhat mythical guitar hero but at the same time, there has never been anything you could put your finger on that was only him, so to speak," Geiger says. "Now there is."

Now that the Healers are on Marr's proverbial front burner, he doesn't anticipate having much, if any, time for collaborations (he did find time to play guitar on two tracks from Lisa Germano's upcoming album, "Lullabye for Liquid Pig").

"I don't have anything else lined up," he says. "The reality is, if I'm rehearsing with my band and recording with my band, I tend to pretty much be out of contact. When I'm out of contact, it means I'm out of contact with my friends who play. That is who I end up collaborating with, just by being in contact with my friends."

Marr is flattered by Smiths fans who have stayed with him after all these years (asked if the band would ever re-form, he replies, "Great books just don't have sequels"). "I have never looked back," he says. "But I've got a totally new appreciation for being onstage now, particularly as a singer. I've spent so long in the studio over the years, it's great to get into a new groove."

Visit tomorrow (Jan. 24) for a Q&A with Marr on the Smiths, his host of collaborations, and how his approach to guitar playing has changed over the years.

Expanded from an article in the Jan. 25, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of that piece is available in the members section.

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