Johnny Marr has nothing to prove. Even discarding his role in A Certain Iconic Indie Group, the guitarist has – in the past decade alone – provided guitar craft for Modest Mouse before a highly successful stint in The Cribs. Yet with his new solo album ‘The Messenger’ the musician seems to have gained a renewed sense of vigour, a distilled sense of energy. Punchy, direct and refusing to hold back it’s the sound of a songwriter who has looked at the world around him and clearly decided that enough, frankly, is enough.
Seated in East London boozer the Old Blue Last, Johnny Marr ripples with the same confidence which runs through his music.“It’s about realising that you’re a target for crass commercial forces” he explains, “insane materialism but instead of complaining about it, it’s me saying: I’m aware of this, sticking two fingers up to it saying ‘you ain’t going to get me because I’m aware you’re trying to get me’. I may be a target but I know I’m a target”.
Returning to the UK from his new home in Portland, Johnny Marr realised that his new material had to be constructed in Manchester. Seeking the comforts of familiar surroundings, the guitarist was also being deliberately selective in the influences he exposed himself to. “I know myself pretty well and I’m very effected by my environment. I’m like a sponge and that’s not always a good thing so I just have to try and be aware, at least, of what input I get from the media, television, my environment, the people I’m with. I just soak everything up and as life goes on I try to be as selective about my input as possible” he says. “So to answer your question, maybe I could have written somewhere else but.. man, I don’t know – if I’d have done it in Nashville I know there would’ve been a banjo sneaking in there somewhere”.
The results represent some of the most daring moments of Johnny Marr’s recent career. Sure, some of it doesn’t come off but when ‘The Messenger’ strikes home it does so with a deadly accuracy. Looking back, the songwriter used an adolescent persona as a lens with which to view the world – something which colours each note on the album. “I think the experience of being an adolescent is similar for somebody like me” he insists. “As in, you occasionally are lucky enough to be given inspiration and support by one or two teachers but you can see that a few of them are just arseholes and hypocrites. Parents can often be annoying no matter whether they have groovy record collections or not. Things are very competitive – it was the same when I was younger”.
“One difference that I see now for young people which has worsened for me is that the minimum wage is just ridiculous – you get treated like a slave, especially if you work in retail or a bar or something like that, you’re just being entirely exploited now” he says, his face grimacing. “The experience for school leavers is terrifying now, because there’s only uni now if you know what job you want to do. There’s only going to uni and that just means getting into a shitload of debt. I think the positives of being an adolescent is that you can see through a lot of hypocrisy. I’m not being patronising there, I think it’s a fantastic thing – I think that quite often as an adult you lose that capacity to see through bullshit. So that I don’t think will ever change – teenagers are not always right, but they have a good capacity to spot bullshit”.
Kicking off at the tail end of 2010, work on ‘The Messenger’ began in earnest during the summer of 2011. Working out sections for each song, it quickly became apparent that rather than a band record this was a true Johnny Marr solo effort. Taking charge of each aspect of the songwriting process, the guitarist even became an impromptu engineer as the studio sessions gathered momentum. “For the recording – I wanted to be in charge of it because I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to my own stuff” he admits. “But I was like that way back in The Smiths, that was my job. It’s only when I’ve been in someone else’s band that I’ve been a bit more relaxed but I’ve always been involved in mixes. I was involved in mixing The Cribs album and I was involved in mixing the Modest Mouse album but I’m really involved in mastering my own stuff”.
Informed by post-punk, there’s an immediacy on ‘The Messenger’ which isn’t easily shrugged off. At times, the guitar tones a reminiscent of Magazine – or even Marr’s old Electronic sparring partner Bernard Sumner. Throughout though, there is the awareness that this is a Johnny Marr effort: whether that is the sweeping guitar lines or the subtle arrangements, this belongs entirely to his canon. “I had a few considerations on making this record – not too many, but a few which were very important. One was to keep the tempos up so that it would be good live, as I’ve said. The other one was that if it sounds like me, in a way that fans of my stuff will like, don’t erase it – that means it’s a good thing” he explains. “In the past I’ve made some records and when I’ve come up with parts I’ve been like: I’ve done that before, I’ve done that before. I decided on this record that I wanted fans to like it. So the guitar parts are post-punk because that’s the era I come out of. But I don’t want to sound like anyone else – I’m happy to sound like me so long as I don’t feel like I’m re-treading old ground, which it certainly doesn’t to me. I know that I sometimes do that but I think it’s good to be authentic”.
Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that Johnny Marr remains a passionate music fan. Introducing himself by asking what bands I had been listening to lately, the guitarist becomes notably animated when the topic of Abbey Road is brought up. ‘The Messenger’ was mastered in the fabled studio, a process which saw Marr re-united with Frank Arkwright – who recently worked on ‘The Complete Smiths’. “You know that you’re in this hallowed ground” he says, “it’s not stuffy, it’s not like a stuffy institution – like the old BBC used to be super stuffy. You know that musicians have been in there and it does still feel quite creative. It’s not a let-down going into Abbey Road”.
Set to take ‘The Messenger’ out on the road, Johnny Marr admits that he has not always been comfortable with the touring process. Yet now he feels more eager than ever to get his music heard – especially since the process behind making the album has proved to be so re-energising. “I wish I could make another record straight away – but I’ve always been like that, I used to be like that in The Smiths and The The too” he reveals. “I didn’t like touring. Ever. I like it now but not as much as I’d like to make another record but I’m looking forward to seeing the faces of the people who want to see me play”.
- - -
'The Messenger' is set to be released on February 25th.