Johnny Marr interview: ‘There’s a trick to getting things sounding so simple’

You can buy a T-shirt online with the simple all-capitals slogan ‘JOHNNY FUCKIN MARR’. It’s a shortcut to a collective music memory, all wrapped up in a name. This directness also rubs off on Marr’s approach to songwriting. Chatting over the phone about his new album Playland, he offers me a shorthand manifesto: “There’s a trick to getting things sounding so simple.”

Playland isn’t out till October, but Marr’s label Warners sent us a stream and it’s already got an addictive post-punk groove and unashamed rock’n’roll swagger. “I’m glad you think it’s got a groove… it’s good to be getting feedback,” Marr says. “People are only starting to hear it now. You do what you think is right and when it’s done you think it’s as perfect as you can get it, it’s only when it goes out that you really realise what you’ve done.”

Very few of us have a record collection untouched by Johnny Marr’s guitar in some way. Paired with Morrissey in The Smiths, he secured icon status from 1982-1987, co-writing dozens of perfect outsider anti-anthems, earning a generation of devotees and influencing virtually every so-called alternative band since. Contrary to some reductive accounts of a revolving-door guitar man for hire, Marr’s post-Smiths career would make any guitarist giddy. He was with cult post-punk icons The The for a longer period than The Smiths, and recorded three albums with New Order’s Bernard Sumner as Electronic. He’s also recorded with Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Oasis, Kirsty MacColl and Bryan Ferry, and had extended stints with indie-rock acts Modest Mouse and The Cribs.

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The world wondered why it took so long for Marr’s first solo album, but The Messenger dropped last year to praise all round for its punchy new wave sheen and Johnny’s perfect transition to stage front. By modern standards, two albums in 18 months is lightning fast, but he hit the ground running after touring for a year, as he explains:  “I’ve been writing Playland since The Messenger came out. The bands I liked when I was a kid all made quick second albums that I loved. I loved Talking Heads’ second album and Wire’s second album. I thought I’d do the same and not over-think it.”

Playland is an even bigger jolt than The Messenger, with up-tempo motorik beats and synth washes snaking between Marr’s killer pop riffs — this one doesn’t jangle like The Smiths. He wrote it with gigs in mind, saying: “There’s a fair amount of rowdiness on there.”

He explains: “In some ways it is cos me and the band have had a year-and-a half playing in front of people and I’m always working at being better at what I do. I love the messenger, without being too corny it’s like my first child in a way, it changed my life in a lot of ways — because of it I’m going out playing to a lot of people under my own steam. I wanted Playland to be a development without trying to reinvent my own head, cos I don’t need to do that at this stage, maybe later on. I think it’s a step up in a lot of ways, particularly lyrically. I spent a lot of time going over and rinsing and rinsing making sure the words followed a narrative arc.”

Galloping tracks like Back In The Box, Boys Get Straight and the title track are live pogos waiting to happen, while lead single Easy Money is one of the catchiest songs Marr has ever written, coming on like a Franz Ferdinand take on LCD Soundsysytem’s Trials And Tribulations. He says: “People reacted really strongly to Easy Money, so that’s why it’s the first single. I just go along with people’s reactions. I used to be really good at picking singles, these days I just let other people pick it for me. I knew it was very catchy so I took the time to wrtite the lyrics to fit it. Believe it or not it took me a really long time to finish that song, even though it sounds so simple.”

The immediacy of the record doesn’t reduce it to mere air guitar fodder — Marr aims for the head as well as the heart. The title Playland references Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizanga’s 1938 text Homo Ludens, which posits that play sows the seeds for cultural development. Dynamo (“a love song to a building”) digs into his fascination with psychogeography — the study of an environment’s influence on our behaviour.

“I didn’t even know that was a term when I was a kid, but I always had a real thing about the environment and buildings, and imagining buildings as characters,” he says. “With Dynamo I just took it a step further, as a metaphor for a human relationship.”

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While Marr’s lyrics can be largely oblique, or observational in the key of Ray Davies, 25 Hours is his most autobiographical song to date, dealing with his Irish Catholic upbringing in Manchester, and a desire to break the shackles (“I ran from all the priests and all the freaks… all I need is myself”). He says:  “I wrote the riff, and it had a sense of speed and a sense that I was rushing towards something. I remember when I was a little kid, I had this idea that I should live 24 hours of the day, but what if the days were longer? It was an oppressive religious background. I hated the hypocrisy of it and the mind control, but I suppose it gives you something to kick about.”

For someone with such a rich legacy, Marr says he has an obsessive tunnel vision for looking forward. He recently tried to keep a journal, but adds: “I thought it would be useful, but it ended up feeling toxic… Luckily writing songs gives you a way of looking at the life you’re living… it can be poetry that moves at the speed of life. All my favourite literature does that. unfortunately I think poetry often gets caught up in its own importance and form and can be a bit languid, a little pompous, whereas a great lyric, whether it’s Bob Dylan or Ray Davies or Franz Ferdinand or Blondie, can just really make you feel like you’re living in the age we’re in, and can make you feel alive. So that’s what I try and do. You often end up talking about your own life whether you like it or not. I find the outside world and day to day life pretty fascinating so I don’t really need for it to always be about myself.

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Live, Marr plays Smiths classics like Panic, How Soon Is Now? and Big Mouth Strikes Again, and we wonder how this sits with his obsession with moving on, and 20-odd years of deflecting questions about getting back with Morrissey. He says: “It isn’t nostalgia. Nostalgia would almost spoil it — it’s a celebration. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in being emotive and I like poignancy. With regards to singing the Smiths songs, when I started singing, the audience made it really quite obvious that it’s a great moment. If I’m on stage I’m there to do something to people. I don’t think anyone has a divine right to be on the stage. people go to a show to feel good and be impressed.

“I like my audience and I know they like me so it’s become a bit of a love-fest over the last couple of years. If you’re lucky enough to have songs people love, you should play them. It’s something to be grateful for — that’s pretty much all I ever wanted.”

Originally published in The Irish Daily Star