Interview: Johnny Marr on growing beyond the Smiths, remaining maverick, and being the guy from Modest Mouse

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]e’s considered to be one of the most influential guitarists of the last 40 years, his resume extends to everyone from Paul McCartney and Pharrell to Modest Mouse and the Cribs, and he has a new solo album out that’s drawing critical praise.

And yet, Johnny Marr still needs no long-winded introduction.

The legendary guitarist comes to the Paradise Rock Club this Sunday in support of his second solo record, Playland, another effort that draws from his start as co-songwriter with Morrissey in the Smiths but also adds to his growing resume beyond one of the more beloved bands of our generation. As Morrissey wallows in a series of hateful rants, concert cancellations, label drama, and all-around bizarre behavior, Marr has assumed the role of friendly liaison to the Smiths’ glory run in the ’80s. He even busted out “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” earlier this week on The Tonight Show, not too long after performing “How Soon Is Now?” in London with Noel Gallagher. Both performances, in addition to the increasing number of Smiths songs he’s played live over the years, have further pushed Moz out of the spotlight and into the gossip pages.

Before Marr takes the stage at the ‘Dise on Sunday, Vanyaland caught up with the guitarist to discuss the influences of his new record, writing on the road, future collaborations, being a young person in a band today, and being the guy from Modest Mouse…

And no, we didn’t ask about a Smiths reunion. That joke isn’t funny anymore.

Rob Duguay: Welcome back to the States. Being a musician from the UK, do you notice any differences or similarities when it comes to playing in the here versus England and Europe?

Johnny Marr: There are some differences and a lot of similarities, a lot of it depends on where you are and how the media is relating to you. If you’re being liked and championed by the younger, teenage demographic, then you’ll get young people at your shows and that goes for both sides on the pond. Luckily for me, I get people who came to see me when I was in Modest Mouse who are maybe younger than the people who came around when I was in the Smiths.

In the UK there were a lot of people who saw me in the Cribs and people who were discovering the Smiths for the first time. I do get a mix of people, but I think a lot of artists these days are kind of at the mercy of media attention. I just feel very lucky that I got a pretty loyal audience. Aside from that, I think there are a lot more similarities between the States and the UK than there are differences.

You’ve been both involved in British and American music at different times in your career. Last month you released Playland, which is fantastic, there’s a lot of pep and energy throughout the entire album. What influenced you this time around?

Well, thank you. I’m glad you like it, that makes me happy and it’s nice to be understood. The main direction that went into Playland was that we were trying to capture the essence of our live shows. While I was writing the record we were out on the road in support of The Messenger last year, which meant that I literally had the sound of the band and the audience ringing in my ears when I was back on the bus and was coming up with riffs and lyrics and stuff.

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A couple of songs were recorded on the back of the tour bus, with “Easy Money” being one of them. The energy and excitement of the shows and travel and the band went into the record. Also, it occurred to me recently that the stuff the band and I listened to in the dressing room before we go on was usually pretty high energy, and a lot of what people would call new wave or UK punk rock and American rock and roll went into the record. Outside influences would probably be everything from Eddie Cochrane to Magazine and the Buzzcocks, Pere Ubu, Television and the CBGB’s vibe, which was what we listened to before going on stage. Nearly all the record was written on the road and I demoed it in between shows.

I definitely hear that late ’70s, early ’80s punk influence. As you mentioned earlier, people know you from your time with the Smiths, Modest Mouse and the Cribs along with numerous other collaborations including more recently with film composer Hans Zimmer. Is there anyone else that we can see you working with in the near future?

I don’t really know, these collaborations have usually happened pretty organically. In nearly every case I’ve been invited by either the Talking Heads or Beck along with the people you’ve mentioned. All those people I’ve worked with I have a great respect for and I consider myself very lucky to have done that. Nile Rodgers and myself have been talking a lot about trying to carve some time out to actually go into the studio. I’ve played with Chic a few times on stage now and that’s always a joy because I grew up as a fan.

Hans and I are trying to get back into the studio to maybe work on one of my records along with having already worked on a couple movies with him. I can’t really think of anyone right now, I like the opportunity of getting young bands to open for me on my solo shows.

In the UK recently I had a band called Childhood who have made a good debut record, I hopefully will play some shows this year with a band called Palma Violets. In the States I have a singer named Meredith Sheldon up before me and she sings on a few songs on the Playland album so I’ve kind of turned the tables a little bit now and I’m in a situation where I can ask people to play with me so maybe I’ll get Hans on the next record and hopefully we can make that happen.

That would be pretty exciting to have a guy like Hans Zimmer on a rock and roll record. Last year you received a crazy accolade called the Godlike Genius award from the NME along with numerous amounts of worldwide acclaim throughout your career. How do you handle it, Johnny? Do you ever sit back and look at the influence you’ve had on bands and musicians or do you not let it get to you?

I never sit back and think about how I’ve influenced anybody, absolutely not. When it crops up I’m usually fairly startled in a overwhelmed fashion. Hopefully it comes off as modest and humbled because it really does make you feel that way. I grew up knowing that there is no higher accolade than to have influenced anybody, let alone someone who you really respect.

In terms of awards, all I know is that I first went to an awards ceremony like 20-odd years ago and it was a very abstract thing for me. At that time I was making music that was considered fairly maverick with the Smiths. I remember on that occasion Ray Davies was given an award. When he received it, I stood up like everybody else and applauded very naturally because he was an artist that meant so much to me and my peers and you just wanted to make him feel appreciated. When that stuff eventually started happening to me, I tried to remember that and accept those kind of accolades in the same way. It’s really nice for people to say they like you.

When I started out the music I was making was really quite maverick and I hope that there’s a fair amount of maverick in what I do now. I still consider myself as an outsider guitar player, so being an influence on people is really the greatest thing but to sit around and put your feet up on the table with your hands behind your head and applaud yourself for it would make you a jerk.

That’s great. As an artist who has played a big role in the history of independent music, what do you think of the current landscape where a growing number of artists are starting up their own label or using the internet instead of trying to get on a major label to become successful?

I believe that there will always be cool young people forming bands and making music who don’t give a fuck and they are doing it for their generation. They may want to be rock stars, and that’s OK.

Personally, I don’t really buy in to that indie militia pose of anti-rock stardom because I believe that Kurt Cobain wanted to be a rock star. I think that kind of pose is somewhat naïve. The only band that I think that followed that ethos to the letter was Fugazi. They did so with such dignity and integrity along with making great music. My point is that it’s fine to want to topple the generations above you, I think it’s a healthy thing and I think that it’ll never ever change. Whether it’s done on the internet or people starting their own labels or house shows, it’s completely relative to the times that you’re in and people use the tools that they can.

It’s harder for younger musicians now because one of the consequences of a huge marketplace through the internet is that there is so much wading through crap. I know as a fan of music and as a consumer you have to be really discerning these days to search through a lot of mediocre stuff. My heart really goes out to a lot of young musicians who find themselves second or third on a bill on a Wednesday night with some bands who aren’t even going to be around in three or four years time.

One of the things that was more unfortunate in my day was that it was more difficult to be in a group, it was more difficult to get the equipment and it was more difficult to find somewhere to play. That meant that people have to be really committed. I feel that a lot of young bands now are having to wade through the shit to get heard. They’ll get there, and you’ll never be able to stop a talented 18-year-old with nothing to lose. There’s not really any more powerful things in the Western world an 18-year-old boy or girl with a guitar and something to say. Nothing is ever going to change my mind about that.

JOHNNY MARR + MEREDITH SHELDON :: Sunday, November @ the Paradise Rock Club, 969 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $25 :: Advance tickets :: Do617 event page

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