This mod­est man

With The Smiths, he helped push the bound­aries of pop. Now, after years as a journeyman gui­tarist, Johnny Marris back in the lime­lights as a solo act – and loving ev­ery minute of it, he tells Lau­ren Murphy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

Just after we shake hands and sit down for a chat, I make Johnny Marr a solemn prom­ise. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m not go­ing to ask you that ques­tion.” He raises an eye­brow.

“Which one?” he dead­pans, mock-gri­mac­ing. “There are a few.”

He’s right – there are a few, mostly ones that in­clude the word “Mor­ris­sey” or start with “When” and end with “re­form”. Although Marr’s name may for­ever be pref­aced with “ex-Smiths gui­tarist”, his work in re­cent years has seen him less de­fined by his com­par­a­tively brief spell with the ul­tra-in­flu­en­tial 1980s band.

Last year, after aeons as a gun-for-hire with the likes of The The, The Pre­tenders, Mod­est Mouse and The Cribs, Marr’s solo de­but, The Mes­sen­ger, was re­leased to en­thu­si­as­tic reviews. Hot on its heels is Play­land (the ti­tle is taken from a the­ory by Dutch cul­tural his­to­rian Jo­han Huizinga). It treads a sim­i­lar line of punchy gui­tar-led tunes and beau­ti­ful, ru­mi­na­tive songs.

“Put it this way: I didn’t have a plan to have a break,” he says, shrug­ging. “I just saw this ex­panse of play­ing and writ­ing in front of me when I started The

Mes­sen­ger, and I just fol­lowed it. When The Mes­sen­ger was fin­ished, I started writ­ing new songs. I just re­ally try not to over­think be­ing in a band.

“There’s an aw­ful lot of op­por­tu­nity th­ese days to set things up; cam­paign this, cam­paign that, so­cial me­dia this and that. I un­der­stand that that’s the world we’re liv­ing in and that’s okay. And there’s an eco­nomic ne­ces­sity for peo­ple to get things right, that’s also very true. But I want to kind of ig­nore all that and just act like a band should act.”

Marr sips a Coke – pre­sum­ably the ve­gan, tee­to­tal run­ner’s only vice th­ese days – in a quiet cor­ner of a plush south Dublin ho­tel. He’s open, friendly and plainly ex­cited about some of the Ir­ish mem­bers of his fam­ily (from Athy, Co Kil­dare) com­ing to see his gig the fol­low­ing evening. The last year-and-a-half have been a lot of fun, he says; even when he broke his hand mid­way through record­ing Play­land, he saw it as “fate kind of help­ing me out” by giv­ing him more time to fine-tune the lyrics.

Hith­erto known pri­mar­ily as a gui­tarist rather than a vo­cal­ist or a lyri­cist, it stands to rea­son that the suc­cess of The Mes­sen­ger must have given Marr a sense of con­fi­dence in both singing and lyric-writ­ing.

“I think it gave me a bit of prag­ma­tism,” he says, paus­ing.

I’m my own harsh­est critic, I will say that. I think that’s how you get to be re­ally good. And I’ll tell you this: it’s not about be­ing per­fect, it’s about hav­ing the right kind of at­ti­tude

“I’m not sure that I needed con­fi­dence, and it’s not that I’m over-con­fi­dent, ei­ther, be­cause I think that’s dan­ger­ous, and also deeply unattrac­tive. But with the vo­cals, I try and be to­tally ob­jec­tive. I put my­self un­der the sort of scru­tiny that I would if I was pro­duc­ing Matt John­son, or Bernard Sum­ner, or Isaac, or Mor­ris­sey, or The Jar­mans.

“A job needs to be done, and some­times that needs a bit of sen­si­tiv­ity, or you need to do it over and over and over again; and other times, you just get in there, drink a cup of tea, get on with it and stop mess­ing around.

No fan of the big voice

“I’m my own harsh­est critic, I will say that. I think that’s how you get to be re­ally good. And I’ll tell you this: it’s not about be­ing per­fect, it’s about hav­ing the right kind of at­ti­tude. I love singers like Brian Eno in the mid-1970s, and I love Colin New­man from Wire, and Pete Shel­ley, and Ray Davies. They’ve all got small lit­tle voices with at­ti­tude; I’m not a fan of the big voice, at all.

“When I first started out, I took no end of shit from peo­ple who had never heard me, just be­cause I was known for be­ing a gui­tar player. But such is life and that’s al­right – as long as fans like it, and get it, then that’s al­right.”

Play­land is in­fused with a sense of both Marr and Manch­ester, where he still has a home after decades abroad. He has de­scribed al­bum track Dy­namo as a “love af­fair” with a build­ing in the city, while 25 Hours is per­haps his most con­fes­sional song to date, touch­ing on his un­happy Catholic ed­u­ca­tion and his de­sire to do some­thing dif­fer­ent with his life.

He’s not re­li­gious nowa­days, he says, rather more in­ter­ested in the­ol­ogy. “If any­thing, I didn’t just dis­miss re­li­gion out of hand; I ac­tu­ally went the other way and got very in­ter­ested in ev­ery re­li­gion un­der the sun, and how it op­er­ates, and what the ideas are be­hind it – whether it’s Tao­ism, or Bud­dhism, or Su­fism.”

Marr has never had any short­age of pots on the boil – most re­cently, he has worked with com­poser Hans Zim­mer on the sound­track for In­cep­tion and

The Amaz­ing Spi­derman 2. He says that if he was ever go­ing to doa solo pro­ject­that was more or­ches­tral-based at some point, it would be with guitars and in­volve Zim­mer in some way.

“The idea of mak­ing that kind of sound on guitars is very likely, and some­thing that I’m re­ally ex­cited about. I think I got close to it a cou­ple of times with – well, the best ex­am­ple, and my favourite, is prob­a­bly Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me by The Smiths. That emo­tion is one of things I’m most proud of with The Smiths – much more than our achieve­ments and what we mean to peo­ple, which is ob­vi­ously dead cool. But if you asked me what was so great about that

State of Play

Marr: ‘I just re­ally try not to over­think be­ing in a band.’ Be­low: on­stage with Mor­ris­sey in 1985

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