On Nov. 17, Morrissey returns with Low In High School. As the cover artwork – which shows a young boy standing in front of Buckingham Palace toting an “axe the monarchy” sign as well as an axe – indicates, the former Smiths frontman hasn’t mellowed with age. In fact, Low In High School is one of his most political musical statements in an already outspoken career, tackling everything from blood-for-oil wars to resistance to corporate media over the course of 12 tracks.
Ahead of the release of his 11th studio album (and first since 2013’s World Peace Is None of Your Business), Morrissey answered a few questions from Billboard via email about his new record label Etienne, the kid on the cover of his LP and why police brutality is “the worst form of street crime.”
The album is very musically eclectic, from the muscular rock on “My Love I’d Do Anything for You” to the bossa nova of “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel.” In terms of a song’s musical style, do you write lyrics with that in mind, or does that decision come after the lyrics are completed?
The situation volunteers itself. It’s a bit like a dating agency where two people might seem right for each other, and so it is with music and words.
Having two books, Autobiography and List of the Lost, under your belt, did it change your songwriting process at all on Low In High School, or is it much the same as before?
It’s much the same as ever. As long as words behave on the page, then the song works. I don’t ever feel that it’s time to be different or new because I feel that I’ve always had so much to say. Restraining it is often a problem!
Naturally, the monarchy is a target on the album, with Max Lopez holding up the “axe the monarchy” sign on the album cover. He’s the son of your bassist Mando Lopez, right? Why did you choose him? Is he excited about covering your album?
Yes, Max is really excited. He went into a shop somewhere and a woman said to him “I’ve seen you somewhere before,” and he said “well, I’m on the cover of the new Morrissey CD,” but she didn’t mean that. I think she was his teacher, or something.
Like World Peace Is None of Your Business, much of the album is directly political, talking about blood for oil and police brutality. Why do you think your writing has gotten more explicitly political than the songs you were writing in the ’80s? (save for a song like “Meat Is Murder,” of course). Or do you not see it that way?
The people have become sick of the establishment, and I’m a part of the world.
No small kid wants to grow up to be President any more, and there’s a sense that the world is close to its expiration date. There’s no point hanging back with whatever feelings and views you might have. This is tomorrow.
What’s the wailing sound that opens the album on “My Love I’d Do Anything for You”? Do you still turn to the BBC sound effects albums for audio samples?
The wailing is Jesse Tobias (guitarist). The studio in Rome had very deep cellars, one of which was a tight, airless, circular, windowless room. We put Jesse in the room and recorded his screams. We let him out eventually, of course … a week or so later.
“Who Will Protect Us From the Police” is a sentiment a lot of people are feeling now. But when you sang about something similar on “Ganglord” [in 2006], that wasn’t the case. Why do you think people are waking up to that now?
It’s an unavoidable part of everyday living. In the United States the Death Penalty is administered by armed police officers who will kill you if the whim strikes. The officers should be held to account by the people, not by their superior officers – who will always protect them. We see shocking footage of police in Spain, Venezuela, Germany assaulting anyone who is anti-government. We cannot control security forces and this is why societies are shredding everywhere. I have experienced it first hand in Italy, and it is the worst form of street crime. The police must answer to the public. If they did, police brutality would end. It is the people who pay their wages. The monarchy or governments do not pay police wages.
You’re creating your own label, Etienne, for this release – how involved are you in the business end of that? Has it been more work or less work than you expected? Is it enjoyable?
Whatever happens in the world, music is for eternity. It’s a great pleasure and very healthy to produce and create, and I’d love to expand Etienne and sign up music that counts. Not marketing nonsense, but artists whose lives depend upon singing and playing music. They count in the long run.
“Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on The Stage” – have you ever felt like that in your life, or is that pure fiction?
It’s factual! I didn’t ever feel destined for the clergy, for example.
Your voice is still one of the most distinct, emotive and nimble in music – do you have any particular techniques for taking care of it?
No, never. A lot of vocalists attempt to sing with their throats, which gives no vocal shape because it’s all bawl. Consequently all you’re hearing is throat. At the age of 8 I bought “Walk Away Renee” by the Four Tops. I heard Levi Stubbs and I knew what I wanted.