Music interview: Matt Johnson of The The on his return to the spotlight

Matt Johnson walked away from The The and spent almost two decades decining offers to reform. But now there's good reason to get the band back together, he tells Fiona Shepherd

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson

Last year, the Edinburgh Film Festival premiered The Inertia Variations, a documentary on the lesser spotted Matt Johnson, also known to lovers of classy, esoteric 80s and 90s pop as The The. The film shares its title with an epic poem on heroic indolence by John Tottenham, narrated with such investment and authority by Johnson that one could imagine he is the procrastinating protagonist, capable of swallowing up days doing a whole load of nothing.

For Johnson’s many neglected fans, that is maybe not such a hard notion to sell. Until this year, The The had neither toured nor released new music for almost 20 years, not since Johnson had effectively walked away from the mainstream music business following the death of his younger brother Eugene, to concentrate on less visible projects from civic activism to film music.

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He has since become accustomed to routinely rebuffing offers to tour again but, with a sad symmetry, it was the death of elder brother Andrew in 2016 which inspired the return of The The. Johnson wrote a song, the delicate, yearning We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, which he performed with full band backing in the documentary. When his elder son remarked that it was a comeback on behalf of his late brother, Johnson decided to run, or at least stroll with it. “I thought a comeback has got to be more substantial than just a single or a song,” says Johnson, “so that made me think about it. “

Johnson has since reformed a greatest hits line-up of The The, featuring a musician from each of their three major world tours, while stripping out all the samplers and sequencers. “I wanted to be fairly purist,” he says. “I’m a great believer in setting parameters, especially in this contemporary digital age when you’re so busy considering all the options you forget about the creative impulse.

“So I wanted it to be five musicians reinterpreting the songs which still resonated with me. There are some songs that I really didn’t feel any connection with at all, but songs like Heartland, Sweet Bird of Truth, Beat(en) Generation, Armageddon Days Are Here Again, they all feel incredibly topical, as if they could have been written now, so that makes it easier to sing them because I’m not just singing about the 1980s or the 1990s. I’m still very political as a person so it’s not some kind of nostalgia trip for me, they are very pertinent and very present.”

Although Johnson has always operated as something of a lone wolf, The The’s elegant eloquence was part of a wider political pop landscape in the 80s, a sort of subversion in plain sight. Given the parallels with today’s polarised politics, it’s hardly surprising that his songs retain a freshness and power.

And he is still speaking out in protest, though his medium has changed. Johnson hosts an occasional podcast called Radio Cineola, a themed online talk show. On election day in 2015, he broadcast for a marathon 12 hours, inviting academics and commentators to participate in an ideas convention. Edited highlights of that broadcast appear on the Radio Cineola Trilogy, released last year, also featuring Johnson’s edited version of The Inertia Variations and a CD where musical friends and associates cover their favourite song from his back catalogue.

Other Radio Cineola broadcasts include music and meditations but he highlights a podcast called Ten Years After, timed to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, an atrocity with a particular relevance for Johnson because he lived in downtown Manhattan at the time and it was only through a random change of travel plans that he was in Sweden when the Twin Towers fell.

“When I was watching it from Sweden, I felt guilty,” he says. “I felt I should have been there with my friends and in my neighbourhood because it was such a big part of my life. When I went back to New York a couple of months afterwards everyone was still in a state of shock not sure what to believe. It’s one of those mythological events now like the sinking of the Titanic. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to understand what really happened but all you can say is that it greenlighted this new wave of American imperialist adventurism around the world. They used that as an excuse to go mental in the Middle East, and now we’ve ended up with someone like Trump who in my opinion is just a symptom of the disease. The civilian infrastructure is crumbling in America and yet they are launching endless wars for profit so it’s not somewhere I feel comfortable being anymore.”

Following spells living in Sweden and Spain, Johnson returned to his native London to find it much changed, and not for the better. “There’s a real booze culture which I don’t like,” he says. “And with the deregulation of the planning laws, there’s this very aggressive form of property development largely for foreign investors. There was a bit of a breakdown in the old-fashioned civic infrastructure where there was more a sense of a balanced community and fairness. I got involved in local politics to try to protect old buildings but you’re fighting a losing battle because there is so much money involved and the local authorities tend to be on the side of the property developers.”

Johnson has never felt in step with pop music culture either which is surely part of The The’s appeal. If you are never in fashion, you don’t go out of fashion either. “I just do my own thing, express how I feel at the time,” he says.

But Johnson is fully on board with the democratic and DIY possibilities of music in the digital age. “I feel fully in charge,” he says. “I’m making the decisions and in control of my own destiny, whereas before it was always a battle with the record company and you’d feel a bit frustrated.” There may even be a new The The album stewing in his far-from-indolent brain. “I’m feeling very happy, I like the way that things are shaping up.” n

The The play Barrowland, Glasgow on 4 September and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 5 September