For the past few years an interview with Johnny Marr always raised a certain temptation for asking the question everybody’s got on the lips when meeting the iconic musician: Will The Smiths ever reform? Instead of making fun out of that running gag like his buddy Noel Gallagher does when it comes to an Oasis reunion Mr. Marr politely declined while sometimes even leaving a backdoor open. As his 2016 autobiography Set The Boy Free revealed a reunion with former bandmate Morrissey was even on the table for a few days in 2008. Ten years later the chances for it to happen are below zero and by now basically every question about Morrissey seems to be worse than the ones asking for a comeback of The Smiths. So, despite actual meeting up on Morrissey’s 60th birthday I obviously don’t see the point asking it. By now, cultural worlds lie between the former songwriting partners who split up three decades ago. There’s no necessity to recall Morrissey’s verbal decline of the past years again (I already did this last year) but it’s even more fascinating to see how Johnny Marr turned out to be the exact opposite of well… that other guy.
Meeting Johnny Marr in person is always a delightful affair. Despite being an icon in his field and a free artistic spirit he’s actually a very down-to-earth lad who loves to come up with anecdotes of his rich musical past on his own, even if you don’t ask for them. As we meet on a sunny day in Berlin we don’t actually mention the birthday boy that much. While looking at some of the fancy new office buildings along the Spree the musician begins to smile: ‘I remember in the early 80s we jealously looked towards Berlin for their dark industrial scene and look how it looks today.’ A lot has changed over the past years but Marr remains as hungry and creative as he’s always been, especially since he started releasing albums under his own name. ‘My day job now is my solo career;’ he explains. ‘Anything else is bonus.’ His new LP Call The Comet is already his third one in five years and in-between he hasn’t been silent at all. He wrote his autobiography, continued to work with composer Hans Zimmer and even found time to help The The on their comeback music. ‘They are probably the only band I would rejoin,’ he tells me about the band of Matt Jonson. The The are his favourite group but he would also join Modest Mouse again if Isaac Brock would kindly ask him.
The evening before our talk Johnny Marr played a very pleasing small gig in Berlin which saw him debuting a lot of Call The Comet material as well as a few beloved Smiths classics like Bigmouth Strikes Again, The Headmaster Ritual, How Soon Is Now and the indestructible There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. To say the audience appreciated it would be an underestimation. While Marr isn’t even trying to copy Morrissey in terms of vocal power and stage presence (although he clearly got better at this) he managed to play those iconic songs the way they were always meant to be played while the band of his former bandmate tends to turn them into pretty flat garage rock tunes. Unlike with Morrissey the past isn’t a burden, Marr embraces it and understands the need to place them in his set. He even played 1989’s Getting Away With It, a track from the project Electronic he once had with Bernard Sumner (New Order) and partly also Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys). ‘I needed to find a way to do it so that it would still sound like something my band would have recorded,’ he explains the funky northern soul like version of it. ‘Neil recently came to my show and gave his blessing on that version and that’s all I need’, he adds with a charming laugh. ‘Bernard Sumner is really good at drinking and I’m really terrible at it,’ he continues the conversation. The other good drinker of his musical buddies remains Noel Gallagher while Marr himself has been avoiding drinks for quite some times.
‘I haven’t had a drink in almost twenty years. I’m quite cosmic naturally so I don’t need to get drugged up. I’m usually quite down to earth but once I start playing the guitar I get pretty esoteric and I don’t need any substances to confuse me here.’
And it’s that guitar that still dominates his music. While there was a time when he was tired of his beloved instrument (following the split of The Smiths, resulting in the formation of Electronic) it’s now hundred percent the instrument of his choice. ‘The guitar I made in collaboration with Fender in 2011 is absolute perfection to me,’ he explains, ‘so if I am interested in technology today it’s more about guitar technology.’ He confirms that he sometimes sings melodies in his phone but despite that Johnny Marr isn’t really the sort of musician who sits in front of a piano. Call The Comet is a record led by his guitar and the force it can create and the title is indeed a drastic call for a fresh start. It’s a comment on the current state of the world but also one that calls for a change. ‘The title didn’t came from my head, it came from a physical phrase that was inside me, dying to get out,’ he explains. Marr is a very spiritual person which I immediately sense when we talk about the themes and inspirations of this new record. ‘I didn’t think that much about the destructive aspect of the comet that much,’ he explains although he later realized that you could also interpret the title in that way. See, that’s how much of a positive spirit he his.
Lead single The Tracers is about a certain cosmic intelligence that lands on planet earth to show humanity a way into utopia. When saying that out loud he actually starts to laugh, asking: ‘Does that even make sense?’ Well, yeah, it does. In those current age of uncertainty and constant crisis it feels unusual when we are confronted with positive ideas and good intentions. And that’s what Johnny Marr is about in the year 2018.
‘The album is about imagining an alternative future. For me that’s the best way of approaching all the negative things. I’m not saying everything’s going to be alright; I’m not that naive. But I think we can be the resistance.’
Resistance can be entertaining
In a ironic way the current political system was a gift before he started doing this record because it gave him a musical and lyrical compass he could follow. The societal problems of 2018 partly reminded him of the time when he was a kid and got into music in the first place. He explains: ‘Things went pretty south back then but I remember: No matter how tough things are I’m still a bohemian.’ Bohemian is indeed quite an old-fashioned word. Marr is aware of that. ‘When the current political climate changed to the worse I asked myself: Am I an ignorant hippie flake? I looked at the idea of bohemianism and art and said: ‘No, fuck you guys. You can’t control what I read and what I think about. You can’t control what inspires me.’ And that’s the situation Marr wants to create with his music and in his concerts. Despite what critics say rock music doesn’t have to be old-fashioned. He lists people like Josh Homme, PJ Harvey and Jack White as visionaries in that field. ‘Rock music can be a meditation and a philosophized escape,’ he breaks it down. ‘It’s a decision to say: For the next fifty minutes of this record or for the next two hours of this live show I’m going to live in the music – and you can’t do anything about that.’ Marr’s middle-finger to the regressive forces in society is a stubborn continuation of what he’s always been doing, aware of the bullshit, yet trying to be unimpressed by it. He keeps his heart and mind open and yes, that’s another difference from you-know-who.
‘Music probably never specifically created revolutions but gave them soundtracks and that’s about as much as it can do,’ he sums it up, followed by an honest: ‘Well, and that’s okay.’ In many ways, Johnny Marr is a pragmatic idealist if a contradiction like this can even exist. He doesn’t need to make that many social commentaries – everybody already knows on which side he’s standing anyway. Call The Comet is an invitation for people to think about the current issues, exchange ideas and feel empowered to fight for the good things in life. Despite its love for old-fashioned British indie-rock it is also an album that lives in the here and now and partly also the future. ‘Angry music, whether it’s rock or rap, won’t make a change but shows discontent and gives a certain straw of a society a voice’, he sums it up. The message remains clear: keep your heart open, don’t spend the day in bed, listen to the news, educate yourself and be kind to each other. That is the actual light that never goes out. We might have just focussed on the wrong flame for too long.