The Mes­sen­ger.

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

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

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