The The's Matt Johnson Explains Putting the Band 'Into Deep Freeze' and Reemerging With New Doc, Tour
British alt-rock troubadour Matt Johnson hasn't been idle during the 18 years since The The's last tour of North America. There were children, film soundtracks, travel, deaths in his family. "Time goes fast, doesn't it?" he muses to Billboard.
But he's certainly happy to have reactivated The The, the band he brought into the world during the late '70s, and to be back on familiar soil with the Comeback Special Tour, a seven-city trek starting Sept. 14 in Boston that's accompanied by screenings of the lauded The The documentary The Inertia Variations.
"It's very effortless the way everything came back together," Johnson says. "I think it's age. You get older, you start to appreciate things more. You enjoy the moment, appreciate people. I'm less anxious and uptight as a person. You start to adopt a more philosophical and, I suppose, wiser approach to life. It makes doing (The The) again very refreshing, and pleasurable."
Johnson acknowledges that he deliberately "put The The into deep freeze" all those years ago. "Back in 2000 the state of the music industry was pretty perilous, and I felt I was losing a lot of my pleasure and joy with the music," he explains. "I didn't want to go through the motions and fake it and dial it in. I felt I'd rather go off and do other things in my life. Months turn into years, years turn into decades; before you know it a lot of time has passed."
The key to The The's return was the one-two punch of director Johanna St. Michaels' documentary and Neil Fraser's biography Long Shadows, High Hopes. Johnson authorized both projects but had no supervisory role in either. "It would've have devalued them if I was a control freak telling them what to do," he says. "It wouldn't have had the authenticity." For the film, however, Johnson staged a three-hour broadcast from his home studio that helped whet his appetite for the band again -- as did, more profoundly, the death of his older brother and collaborator Andy "Dog" Johnson during January 2016.
"All of that caused me to reflect on what I want to do with my life," Johnson says. "I felt very galvanized to get back to doing what I loved, because none of us knows how much time we have and, as I said, time goes fast. I started to rediscover my love of music. I realized this is who I am, this is what I wanted to be doing. I want to be writing songs again, singing on stage and connecting with my audience again."
Johnson signaled the return of The The with his first new song in 15 years, "We Can't Stop What's Coming," for Record Store Day 2017 in the U.K. More new music will be coming, he promises, but his main order of business has been assembling a new lineup of the band -- which includes previous members Earl Harvin, D.C. Collard and James Eller, along with Little Barrie guitarist Barrie Cadogan -- and returning to the road, which happened in Europe this June.
"Some of (the songs) sound quite similar to the album versions, other songs sound very different," Johnson notes. "I wanted to maintain a freshness. I didn't want to just recreate the album. It's still got to be interesting for me. The essence of the songs obviously remain, but there's a freshness to the way we play them that's important." Johnson is pleased that The The's material holds up well more than three decades later.
"I think the longevity of the songs, how much they still feel relevant to people, that is something that's very gratifying," Johnson says. "Obviously when I wrote the songs I worked as hard as I could to make something a strong as I could as songs. Obviously you don't know how they'll stand up until time has passed, but the fact they have is, like I said, gratifying." But he is a bit miffed that some of the more political and topical songs still seem current, too.
"That is unfortunate," Johnson notes. "I wish the world was in a better position. But that means I can sing them with conviction 'cause they're still very timely and relevant and I'm angry that they are still timely and relevant."
The The will be on the road in North America through Sept. 27, with Inertia Variations screening the night before. More performances are on the horizon, but Johnson is also itching to start creating new material for the band as well. "I would like to maintain the momentum," he says. "I would like to keep the band together, as many of the members I can, and start to do some recording and more playing live next year. I think these guys would really do a great job in the studio, too, and I really want to keep (The The) going on in an active, vital way once again."