SMITHS legend Johnny Marr tells Paul Whitelaw about playing it for riffs
One of the greatest guitarists of his generation, Johnny Marr is also a virtuoso master of understatement.
When I ask him to name some favourites from his vast and august musical canon, one of his choices is How Soon Is Now? by The Smiths. Anchored by one of the many singular riffs he’s added to the pantheon, its warped Bo Diddley surge is obviously a highpoint in the history of indie rock. Why does the man who wrote it rate it? “Because it turned out pretty well,” is all he offers.
To be fair, Marr’s natural humility is doubtless compounded by his polite unwillingness to talk about a band he left nearly 30 years ago. Since then he’s enjoyed a restless musical voyage, collaborating with artists as diverse as Pet Shop Boys, Black Grape, Jane Birkin and Beck, while being a member of groups such as Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
It’s only in recent years that he’s launched himself as a solo act, with last year’s well-received The Messenger and now, speedily released follow-up Playland. “I started writing it just after we went out on the road with The Messenger” he says. “I just had the ideas and didn’t see any reason to stop. It was a good thing because the energy of the live shows and the atmosphere around touring, being around audiences and having the band ringing in my ears, that went into the feeling of the songs.”
Dominated by notions of, in Marr’s words, “what I imagine our preoccupations are as we run around cities”, musically Playland has a bright, bristling drive and lightness of touch which belies its quizzical themes. “The idea of Playland is the modern culture of escape and entertainment through things like consumerism, sexual activity, drugs, partying, religion in some cases, and fetishising technology. And I’m wondering whether the pursuit of those things is an escape from anxieties, tensions, detachment, loneliness, and in turn whether those things are actually caused by the chase.”
In less capable hands, this could easily come across as earnest and pretentious. But where his old sparring partner Morrissey is the master of scalding putdowns, Marr is far more charitable. “It’s important to me not to point the finger or be accusatory, or indeed even critical, because I like the culture and in many ways I hope the record sounds like a celebration of it. But I’m just trying to question what we’re doing running around like nutjobs.”
Even when he writes a driving anti-consumerism mantra such as Easy Money, Marr can’t disguise his general sense of decency. “The idea behind that was just trying to lampoon ourselves, and make light of our chase and how we deal with money. One of the great things about being a songwriter is you can throw different ideas into a song, so with that it was important to me to acknowledge the people in our society for whom money is not a subject to be taken lightly. So that’s why I mention benefits and people who make their money on the streets in one way or another. I’m trying to honour those people, I didn’t want to be entirely trite. The idea of wrapping up all these ideas in a tune that everybody could be dancing around to Wetherspoons on a Friday night is appealing to me.”
Marr, 50, has been a working musician since he was 14. “I was in bands with adults,” he recalls, “and I left school to go straight into a band. So that’s the life I’ve always led.” Is it the camaraderie he enjoys? “The camaraderie, and the atmosphere is more about being on a shared mission, you have to really believe in it to make it work. There are so many different facets to bands, and so much of it is about chemistry and shared dreams.”
And what of The Smiths? How does it feel to be responsible for music that’s had such an impact on millions of lives? People paying heartfelt tribute must be a regular part of his life, so how does one possibly respond to such fealty? Typically, Marr simply shrugs. “I just say it’s a privilege. It’s humbling and beyond my capacity to work it out intellectually. You’d have to have an ego the size of Chicago to put it down to your own brilliance. I’m just a fan like everyone else, but one who has a knack for playing.”
He is, however, proud of the fact that so many of his songs and riffs are regarded as classics. “Those kind of things are what you fantasise about when you’re a kid,” he says, “coming up with stuff that people are going to punch the air to when they first hear it. But they aren’t something you can design, if that was the case we’d be doing it every day. You just have to try and be in love with the idea of the art that you’re doing, crossing your fingers and making something really good. That’s the best you can do, but sometimes 30 years later people are still asking you about it. It’s really kind of amazing.”
Not that Marr is interested in looking back too deeply. “I don’t really understand nostalgia,” he frowns. “It seems like a waste of your current time. You shouldn’t wallow in the past. I’m fine with acknowledging all kinds of things I’ve done with my life, on stage and off, but I try to keep my eyes on either what’s happening right now, or tomorrow. That way I stay interested, and hopefully therefore interesting.”
• Playland is out now. Johnny Marr performs live in concert at the O2 Academy in Glasgow on Monday 27 October.