After more than 30 years in the music business, the adage “you can’t go home again” is one that Johnny Marr is very familiar with. Not that he’d want to, of course – at least in the philosophical sense. The Mancunian’s renowned dexterity with a guitar (not to mention the small matter of being part of a generation-defining band in The Smiths from 1982 to 1987) has taken him across the globe, into studios and onto stages with some of the biggest names in indie and rock music over the past three decades.
It’s strange, then, that Marr has arrived back where it all began for the release of his solo debut album, The Messenger. He denies that his return to the UK after several years spent Stateside has anything to do with nostalgia or reconnecting with his roots, but nevertheless, his surroundings sparked a purple patch, cultivating a new set of songs that didn’t fit with any of his more recent collaborators.
Marr had previously dabbled in the art of being a frontman with The Healers, a group that included Zak Starkey on drums and released an album, Boomslang, in 2003. The Messenger also involved assembling a new band and recording with them over four or five months, but this is the first record bearing his name alone. The big question is, why now?
“It wasn’t a case of me thinking ‘A solo album would be a good idea – now, where do I start?’ The songs and music were just there,” he says, eminently friendly and chilled-out after a long day of rehearsals.
“I was led by the work; I always have been. I was excited about a sound, and a way of doing things, and there were things I wanted to say about the way I see my world – and it just happened to fit into a solo record. I’ve been in an American band that was successful and that I really loved, with Modest Mouse; and I’ve been in a UK band that was a really good time and did really well with The Cribs. And then I did the movie, the soundtrack to Inception [he played the guitar parts on Hans Zimmer’s score] – so it was time to move on to something else. I just didn’t want to repeat anything that I’d done recently.” Writing the album was a fluid process, although being known primarily as a “guitar god” meant recalibrating his approach slightly when it came to writing lyrics.
“It’s all personal, but I’m not particularly interested in singing about my feelings, because I’m not really interested in hearing other people singing about their feelings, for that matter,” he chuckles. “Seriously. I like hearing about what people think and some of my favourite records can be love songs – but the people I really like lyrically are singing about what’s in their mind, rather than what’s in their heart. Particularly in this day and age, where so much of what’s in the charts seems to be about sentiment.
“What’s wrong with singing about buildings, and society, and advertisements and those other aspects of life that go through our minds? I thought, ‘well, someone’s gotta do that – so I might as well do it’. I just knew a lot of things that I didn’t want to be earnest and sentimental and overly emotional. I think one of the reasons that the record sounds sort of upbeat and quick and energetic is because the songs were being written really quickly. I wasn’t sitting around, chewing on the end of a pencil and looking out into the sunset.”
Songs about society and technology ( I Want the Heartbeat) sit astride a multitude of upbeat tracks littered throughout the album, their tempo a by-product of Marr exercising his rusty vocal muscles. Of the 30 songs written for the record, he says that the ones he enjoyed singing most – the “upbeat, punchy, new-wave ones” – were the ones that made the final track listing. Occasionally, The Messenger also harks back to the bands he loved before he formed his own; echoes of early Jam and Buzzcocks abound on Generate! Generate! and Word Starts Attack.
Others stretch further into an era inhabited by The Who and The Beatles ( The Right Thing Right, The Crack Up). Generally, the overwhelming feeling is that this is a very British-sounding record. Is it intended as a riposte to the increasingly stale UK indie rock scene? A case of the established guitar god returning to teach the kids a few tricks?
“Absolutely not, that just happened entirely by accident and is a fluke. It’s down to my brilliance,” he chuckles, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Nah. Obviously you have a few considerations when you’re making a record, but with The Messenger, I just focused on what I knew was important. I tried not to be all things to all men. Whether it felt right when I was writing was one thing that was important to me. Whether fans and people who like what I do would like it was also very important.
“And I ended up with a load of almost entirely uptempo, punchy songs, which I think isn’t what solo records are supposed to be about. From what I gather, they’re supposed to be about experimentation and playing with