Guitar hero Johnny Marr has waited more than 25 years since leaving The Smiths to make a solo album, but the timing is finally right, he tells Andy Welch
It’s been a long time coming, but some things really are worth the wait. After leaving The Smiths in 1987, Johnny Marr has been something of a wanderer, a roaming guitar-slinger for hire. Now, at the grand old age of 49, he releases his debut solo album today, The Messenger.
As a member of The Smiths, arguably Britain’s greatest contribution to pop music over the past three decades, Marr’s name remains one of the most respected in the industry despite it being 26 years since the band broke up. Although the spotlight fell on lead singer Morrissey, who went on to enjoy a successful solo career, the musical genius of the band was co-songwriter Marr on lead guitar.
While other groups might consider a reunion at this stage, Morrissey and Marr have never had any interest in appearing on stage together again, and have not remained friends. Those who saw The Smiths in their glorious pomp were the lucky ones. The rest have sought consolation in Morrissey’s solo work, and now at last have an offering from Marr.
“It’s late in the day to be making my debut album,” he admits. “But it feels like early days again, which people might be surprised to hear. That’s one of the advantages of making your first record under your own name having made so many with other people; it’s all fresh again.”
After leaving The Smiths – his departure led to the band’s break-up weeks later – Marr seemed intent on working with as many artists as he could. He briefly joined Pretenders and The The, and formed Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner. Subsequent years would see him turn producer with the likes of early Noughties hopefuls Haven, form his band Johnny Marr + The Healers, team up with Crowded House’s Neil Finn on his 7 Worlds Collide project, and become a fully fledged member of American indie stars Modest Mouse and Wakefield’s finest The Cribs.
“I just reached a point where I didn’t want to be in another band – or someone else’s band – anymore,” he says. “The ideas for the record started to haunt me, in a good way. I’m always led by my musical hunches, that then become strong ideas and concepts that sometimes lead to being in someone else’s band, but this time led to my own songs.”
He says he never had the inclination to make a solo album before, and the timing wouldn’t have been right. The Messenger is a result of working with so many others and drawing different things from each set up. Marr also realised over the years that, with each project he was involved in, he had his own fans following him.
“I’d say that’s been 80 per cent of the motivation for making this album, to play music to people who like what I do. It sounds like such an obvious thing, but it was an incredible revelation to me,” he says.
That a former member of The Smiths, a band with one of the most devoted and obsessive fan bases, would be surprised people were prepared to attend gigs especially to see him, says something about Marr. He’s unlike most rock stars, seemingly devoid of ego and uninterested in the trappings of his work environment.
“I prefer philosophy, really,” he says. “Mostly German. Pretentious, maybe. So shoot me. I want to read about interesting things about the human condition. And as much as I love rock’n’roll, I stopped reading rock biographies in my twenties when they became less crazy than my own life. Since then it’s been poetry, books about art, and philosophy. Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche are my rock stars, which I think is pretty amusing.”
One track on The Messenger is directly inspired by his love of philosophy. Generate! Generate! is Marr’s tribute to 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, most famous for writing ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’.
“It might sound like a stupid pop song, that one, but it’s me turning Descartes on its head. As a tribute, I wrote the line ‘Cogito ergo dun’ which means ‘I think, therefore I am stupid’. The song’s basically for all the people who say they think too much, but empowering them. It’s a celebration of hyperactivity.”
Otherwise, Marr draws inspiration from cities. Growing up in Manchester, he says he’s long been fascinated by metropolitan centres, what the architecture says about a place.
“I guess it’s called psychogeography,” he says. “The most important thing for me is to get out into the world and get the wind in my hair.”
Having left behind The Smiths and – later rather than sooner – going solo, it could be said Marr is following in the footsteps of Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher. They were respectively part of bands that helped define the 1970s and 1990s before going it alone. Is it now time for Marr to step into the spotlight in a similar way?
“I can absolutely relate to Paul and Noel for obvious reasons, but it’s good not to analyse these things too much,” he says, cautiously. “When I was starting out I might have analysed the hell out of that comparison, but I know when to leave well alone now.
“With the greatest respect to the profession, I can’t start thinking like a journalist – it’s not very good for making music. There are many considerations when making a record and the c-word pops up – career. I’ve learned over the years from some great people – Bernard Sumner and Chrissie Hynde being just two of them – that there are things other people would dwell on, but you shouldn’t consider them.
“Comparing yourself to another is one of those things, and how inspiration strikes is the other. Follow Picasso’s dictum, that inspiration does exist but it has to find you working, and leave it at that. Bernard Sumner always says that when the sun is shining, you shouldn’t look at it, you just have to accept that it is.”
The Messenger, written and recorded in a Salford barn, is a melodic, guitar-centric album that manages to pull from each facet of Marr’s career. There’s the unmistakable, jangly guitar playing first heard with The Smiths, the bratish energy, particularly on I Want The Heartbeat and Generate! Generate! of The Cribs, and, on the title track, a floating quality not a million miles from his work with Electronic. Crucially, however, none of it could be by anybody else, and there’s an immediacy to the album. These songs sound fresh and new, but also instantly familiar.
“It’s nice to have made a record and not hear people say it’s a grower,” he says. “It’s very important to me that the songs had energy. I can’t wait for the first live shows.
“It’s not been easy being a fan of mine, with me going in different directions. This record is for the fans. Well, if not for them, it’s for us – me and them together. It’s most definitely time to get into a venue, big or small, and for us all to just enjoy ourselves and have fun.”
• The Messenger is out now