Preview: Guitarist Johnny Marr hits the road with a solo record
November 7, 2013 12:00 AM
Guitarist Johnny Marr
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The still-shocking Smiths breakup of 1987 has produced at least two surprising long-term results.
First and foremost is that more than 25 years later, the four lads have resisted all cries for a reunion and the fortune it would heap upon them.
Second is the journeyman career path of Johnny Marr, one of the premier guitarists of his generation. He largely went on to be a hired gun, providing support for such already established bands as The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
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Aside from his brief collaboration with Bernard Sumner in Electronic, he never forged another steady alliance with a singer, and he just released his first proper solo album, "The Messenger," this year (not counting the lesser 2003 Johnny Marr and the Healers record).
"Everything I've been doing leading up to it has kept me busy, to be honest," he explains in a phone interview. "All the bands -- The The, Modest Mouse, Electronic -- was more than enough. After The Cribs, I wanted to do something really different, because I always like to just change things up, and then 'Inception' came along and after I did the movie soundtrack, I wanted to do something different again, and a solo record seemed like a good idea, but also the most important thing was I had the ideas for the songs.
"The work kind of led my life, which is pretty much always the way it goes. My personal life, my private life sort of follow what I need to do as a musician, and I think that's always the best motivation, really. So once I was out on the road with those bands I was getting a lot of ideas about what I wanted to sing about. It wasn't a case of me saying, 'Now is the time to do a solo record. How do I go about it?' "
Although he's no threat to Morrissey in the vocal department, Mr. Marr carries himself well as a frontman and his dreamy to jangly guitar work is its usual thing of beauty. "The Messenger" has been described as the record he could have made in 1990.
"Yeah, I'm all right with that. That's fine," he says. "Although I'm not sure I could have made this record in 1990 because I think I needed to learn more as a guitar player. I'd like to think I've learned a fair amount from each one of those experiences. It made me a more versatile guitar player. Making records with Bernard Sumner taught me a hell of a lot about production and making records. Before that, being The Smiths, we were like, let's say, a street band, if you like. You get together, and you learn to play in that group. I think throughout the '90s I just learned more and continued to get expertise that might have shown up on this record. I think my experiences with Modest Mouse and The Cribs on tour probably show on this record."
Although his post-Smiths career has been defined by collaboration and secondary roles, he says it wasn't foreign to him having to take the full reins on a song.
"In some ways, it was exactly like what I was doing in my teenage years when I was writing songs in the bedroom. Obviously I didn't have the experience or expertise that I have now, but I wrote words and I sang melodies, and I had to stand up in front of my friends and play them, which is probably more scary than it is now. I didn't know how to do that. In terms of making the record, I just applied the same criteria to my own vocals and my own performance and lyrics I would when I was working with Morrissey or Ryan Jarman [of The Cribs], or whoever."
As always, the strength of his guitar work is the way it's woven into the melody and dances with the vocal. Johnny Marr has always been about serving the song rather than showing off how flashy he can play.
"From being a little boy I loved every aspect of guitars and guitar culture. I was one of those children who drew guitars on all my schoolbooks and bags, and would go see everybody with a guitar and watch any television show that had someone playing a guitar in it.
"It's just when I started, when people started to know me in The Smiths, it was a transitional phase and there were a lot of aspects of guitar culture that were outdated and, frankly, a little corny, you know. I certainly couldn't relate, nor could my generation. When you're young it's important to be of your time and it's important to your peers to think that you're cool. And that's a good thing. You have to be cool. So, the time I came out of was against all of that showboating, should we say, and there were a lot of cliches that had really been done to death. And in that I'm including some stuff from out of the punk rock scene as well. My generation came a couple steps after punk rock, and in punk rock from the UK, there was still a lot of rock 'n' roll and pub rock and Chuck Berry riffs, and a lot of stuff that came from the Dolls, who I loved -- there was still a lot of rock 'n' roll in it. But when we came along in, if you had to define it, the original indie scene, there was a whole lot of different rules, it was a different game. There was different level of sexual politics, there was a lot of fashion in music and things were thrown out the window."
He couldn't go wrong, he says, reaching back to the glam-rock era of Bowie, T-Rex and The Sweet.
"I was lucky because those songs were all built on great guitar playing. If you listen to 'Ballroom Blitz' by The Sweet or those T-Rex records, they're all people singing on top of riffs, and they're not progressive rock or blues rock -- just great pop records that have guitar and singing and street poetry as a key element."
His current tour goes heavy on songs from "The Messenger" -- he's proud that every one of them can translate to the stage -- and while it may be strange for fans to hear Smiths songs without Morrissey singing them, he's not shy about dipping into that history.
"When all is said and done, it's a matter of: Does it make everybody in the place feel really good? Does it sound good? Do we do these songs justice? And if the answer to all of that stuff is yes, then you just remember you're in the business of making people feel good. Get on with it and do a good job, and you know yourself whether it's going well, whether you're singing well, whether it's going right. And the audience certainly lets you know it, so in our case, it's going very well. A song like 'How Soon is Now? ... it's something I'm expected to play because I'm closely associated with it. I'll let other people analyze it. It's not good to analyze things too closely yourself."
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