As guitar heroes go, Johnny Marr is a fairly unassuming one. His riffs, fills and solos – usually exceedingly terse and to the point – have helped shape countless indelible songs over the last 30 years for the Smiths, The The, Electronic (with New Order’s Bernard Sumner), Modest Mouse and the Cribs. He released an album with the Healers in 2003, a band that included Zak Starkey on drums. But he has never released a solo album – until this year. Marr’s “The Messenger” (Sire/ADA) consists of a dozen songs steeped in melody, biting guitars, sharp lyrics and unassuming vocals.
In an interview, Marr talked about how three decades of collaboration prepared him for going it alone:
Q: You write songs constantly. When did you know this would become a solo album?
A: Two weeks into it. I was enthusiastic about it. I got on a roll pretty quickly. The songs were coming quickly, and the demos were sounding like a record. I realized I didn't want to wait for people to become available to form a band, or audition players. I've been defaulting to the "band animal" mode since I was 13, 14 years old. But people said, "It's your record," when they heard the music. When I sat with that for a couple weeks, I just focused on it being very personal. I had been playing live for so many years, and there were all these songs wanting to be written -- notions turning into theories turning into subject matter for lyrics.
Q: You talk about aiming to make this record "artful British guitar pop with hooks." What makes it particularly "British" to you?
A: There's something about the tempos. The hi-hats are louder, and I'm a little more liberal with modulation on the guitars. Kurt Cobain, for example, had a really dry sound. I have an association with my own early work as a guitar player, a bunch of guitars tracking each other, more pure modulation. And I think a person should sing like they talk. I had lived in Portland for five years, then moved back (to England), and my concerns lyrically were definitely coming from the same place that I was coming from when I left school as a teenager. My observations and conclusions now are consistent with those I had when I was younger. I was interested in attitudes that are shared by older and younger people in my audience, where they meet. Songs like "Upstarts" and "The Right Thing Right" are upbeat celebrations of defiance. In "The Right Thing Right", I'm singing about being a target for commerciality, a certain kind of capitalism, and my mind goes immediately to High Street (the commercial business center of a city) in the U.K. "Upstarts" is a pop song about High Street being burned. I was in New York watching school kids looting streets in Manchester (in a 2011 riot), and that image influenced the sound and lyrics.
Q: In some ways, the blend of pop melody, the lyrics about U.K. life and the richness of the guitars suggest this could have been the follow-up to "Strangeways, Here We Come" (the Smiths' last album in 1987). Do you buy that?
A: I can see where people would think that. The reality is that there are some of those elements in music I did with the Cribs and a few places in Modest Mouse. You can listen to “Missed the Boat” and other Modest Mouse songs, those elements are in there. “We Share the Same Skies” and “Last Year’s Snow” with the Cribs, The The’s “Slow Emotion Replay” -- they all come to mind, because when I did them, people in the studio said, “That’s a Johnny Marr part.” A lot of stuff came out between then and now that points to this album.
Q: When you talk about the "Johnny Marr sound" – when did you become aware that you had a readily identifiable style?
A: When people first heard me on early Smiths songs, you're always known for the thing that you first got famous for in any walk of life, and that's fine. As a youngster I used to try to pick up any bits of wisdom about the guitar I could. It's not like now where you have books and books about every aspect of anything. Any little pearl of wisdom was welcome back then. If people can finally recognize you on radio without being told who it is, that's what you aim for. That struck me when I was 13, 14. But I don't let that define me. Songs like "The Messenger" and "Word Starts Attack" wouldn't have been written if I thought about "my signature sound." "Word Starts Attack" has been likened to the Clash and Franz Ferdinand. That was the first song I wrote for the record, and it wasn't like anything I'd done before.
Q: You're the type of guitarist who prizes songs over solos. Where did that develop?
A: That's the thing that gets me excited. I can get passionate about songs, the placement of guitars within the song. I relate to people like George Harrison for the same reason. From being a very young boy, I always loved everything about my guitar. It was my most precious possession. I carried it everywhere, like other boys would carry around a toy car or toy gun. And then alongside that I loved pop records. The two went hand in hand. I explored rock culture and what the guitar can do though people like Jimmy Page and John McLaughlin, and the music moves away from pop. That was of interest to me, but I wasn't passionate about that, as I am about marrying guitar culture with pop music. Once I got a chance to do that in the Smiths, I felt like I had found my path. A few years before I stated overdubbing on a two-track machine in my bedroom -- not guitar solos, but what you can do with a guitar in a pop structure. I was much more excited about hearing pop music with guitars than clever, experimental rock music.
Q: Is there a common thread musically in all your different projects?
A: A certain sense of exuberance, I hope. I always feel I'm onto something when it makes you want to stand up at 2 in the afternoon in the studio, it gets you on your feet. I would take that over music to listen to at 2 a.m. any day. There are plenty of songs I've done with the Smiths and elsewhere, that have also valued intensity. Whichever direction it's going, I want it going full blast. A day-time song like "Word Starts Attack," I want to make your heart blow up and make you want to punch the air with your fist. It can't be ponderous. On the other side of the scale, if it has some beauty, and it's emotional music, something like Smiths often did -- I like something deeply dramatic, without it being avant-garde. I like things to be catchy. I always admire people who work within certain parameters. David Byrne impressed me in that regard. Surely, he's unpredictable and clever and not run of the mill, but he's also about (playing) "A," "B" and "E" a lot. That's more difficult to do.
Q: So the guitar is still not dead?
A: (Laughs). I always have an underlying feeling when people talk about guitar culture having seen its days, this old rockist, curmudgeonly, dusty, not necessarily negative, but old-fashioned aspect to that. It also shows an unhealthy side of respect for classic rock culture. No one has to tell me how good (Jimi Hendrix's) "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" or (The Who's) "I Can See for Miles" is, but I came from a generation that questioned the relevance of holding classic rock too high. Along with that was a lot of musical politics and party politics that didn't relate to my generation. Young people project things they want onto things they like. But could guitar culture become a relic like jazz? People still go out to shows and throw their hands in the air. It's important that musicians act in a way that they don't think it's outdated. As long as they do that, the guitar is going to be just fine.