Considering the fact that he was co-founder, songwriter and guitarist for the highly acclaimed '80s band The Smiths, Johhny Marr has some pretty lengthy coattails to ride on. But then again, the talented Marr has never been one to look back.
When The Smiths called it a day in 1987 Marr pushed forward, busying himself over the next fifteen years collaborating for a wealth of artists such as The The, Electronic, Oasis, The Pretenders, Beth Orton, Neil Finn and many others.
But while Marr has predominately worked as a guitarist and songwriter for other artists and groups, he's finally stepped from the shadows to emerge as not only a competent, but quite engaging rock 'n' roll frontman for his own new band The Healers, which also features drummer Zak Starkey (son of Beatle Ringo Starr) and bassist Alonza Beven (Kula Shaker).
Livewire's Tony Bonyata recently spoke with Marr about The Healers and their debut album, as well as his former band and what it's like to go from the guy on the sidelines to the one shaking his bum in front of thousands.
Livewire: First off, Johnny, I'd like to say congratulations on your new album, Boomslang. It's really a great record.
Johnny: Well, thank you.
Livewire: You've been on the road for quite awhile promoting your band and the album. Can you tell me a little about your tour?
Johnny: It went really well. We had a really good time doing it. North America, then Australia and Japan, Europe and then back to North America again. It's all good, you know. We're wrapping up the tour and then going to go back to the U.K. to start working on our new album, which is really exciting. I'm not going to change anything too drastically, because I think that where we're at is pretty good. It'll be more of the same. I think that playing live informs you of a direction in good way. You're able to put faces to the people that are out there and you can sort of gauge what works. It's the most direct way of getting feedback. I want to do something that sounds pretty live this time, but it'll still have elements of the first album 'cause we like it.
Livewire: I have to admit that when I first got your album, I listened to it for a couple of weeks not realizing who the singer was. And I thought to myself, 'you know, Johnny's really found the perfect singer for this band.' Then when I checked out the liner notes and discovered it was you singing I was floored.
Johnny: That's fantastic to know. I think that's the best way - to not know. I do appreciate that. The band is smart. When they pushed me into being the singer they knew it was the right thing.
Livewire: Pushed? Was this something that Zak and Alonza forced you into?
Johnny: Yeah. I'd done a little bit of detective work and found a couple of unknown singers from Manchester who were in rock bands, who I'd thought would be the singer. I'd played these demos to the guys and then they went off to a cafe and came back and said they thought I was wrong. They thought the guys that I'd found were really quite boring.
Livewire: They weren't Morrissey sound-alikes, were they?
Johnny: No, they weren't at all. They were just guys who had pretty good rock 'n' roll voices. They were nice guys and had the prerequisite haircuts and all that sort of business. Now that we've done so many shows, and I've heard quite a lot of live tapes, I have to say that I like the singer in our group.
Livewire: So do I.
Johnny: Well, that's great. It's fifty per cent subjectivity for me and, hopefully, I'll try and retain fifty per cent objectivity, because it's when you step outside of yourself that makes you better. Some fan in L.A. came up to me and said, 'you sound like a ghetto angel,' and that's something I try to live up to. It's something to aspire to. I'm very happy with it. It's very liberating for me.
Livewire: Was it a hard transition, when you first got out there on stage and had to sell yourself as a frontman?
Johnny: Well, it wasn't because I really had a certain kind of detachment. I felt like we liked it, the band liked it, and I know it's hard to believe, but I felt that if the public just didn't get it, then I was happy to disagree. I didn't care. I didn't think my career or my past or my reputation or anything was hinging on it. In talking to people about it, I get the impression that I may have been wrong about that, you know. Maybe my reputation really was depending on it. But I just couldn't think that way. I just thought that it sounded pretty good. I trusted in the fact that going out and treating the audience like they were an intelligent body of people was enough.
Livewire: Which I believe your fans are.
Johnny: Oh yes, certainly. They're very affectionate. And there's a real kind of mutual respect that the audience are aware of. Plus I think I was probably a little over-qualified as a guitar player in the end - in the wardrobe and dance-move department anyway (laughs). I didn't have to go to frontman school or anything like that. I put trust in when I'd go out and react to the crowd and the way the music is and do it with complete sincerity and as much conviction as I can muster. And that creates a ripple in the audience, and we keep feeding off each other. And by the end of the night I'm jumping around all over the place and it's totally natural.
Livewire: Speaking of jumping around all over the place, I saw your first Chicago gig here in February, but unfortunately wasn't able to catch your last gig here. But from people that I talked to that had attended both shows, they informed me that in just those few months you seemed much more confident and more at ease in your role as a frontman. Do you feel that it's possible that in that short period that you've already grown more comfortable with the role?
Johnny: I think that must be the case, or something drastic happened at that second Chicago show. I got a lot of comments from some people on that show particularly, who said pretty much the same thing. So maybe I was really going for it at that show. I also think at the first smaller show at the Double Door, it wasn't that I was lacking confidence, but I was trying to act appropriate to the occasion. I think on a bigger stage with more people I tend to go for it a little more. But I think the answer to your question is probably yes. I do stuff now that I don't even know what I'm doing, whereas before I might have been more self-conscious. Although it's also important for me to keep my shirt on, because when you wear shirts like mine, you don't want to throw them in the audience (laughs). I'm not exactly David Lee Roth...
Livewire: Thank God.
Johnny: But some nights I do lose myself, and when I come out of the song I have to really remember where I am. That is only something that has happened to me as a frontman. I'm really happy that I can get to that place. I'd like to always be in that place, really. I'm enveloped in this great rock 'n' roll music and there's such an energy there. I've just started to understand what Patti Smith and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were talking about with their whole theories of electricity, and not just being up there singing a song, but trying to lose yourself.
Livewire: You're not going to break out the peanut butter like Iggy used to?
Johnny: (Laughs) No, but I might do it and smear it over the guitar player.
Livewire: Speaking of... how did you hook up with Alonza and Zak?
Johnny: What happened was I was starting to write a certain kind of song that could only really be executed by a band playing in the same place, at the same time together on the studio floor, and that was around the time of the last Electronic album. Amazingly, as is often the case in life, the right people showed up in my life at the right time. I met Zak in an elevator in New York. I didn't know he was Zak Starkey. I didn't even know he was a musician. He just struck up a conversation with me and we went and had a cup of tea in the bar and after about ten minutes I got around to asking him what he was doing in town and he told me he was playing drums with The Who, so the penny dropped. Then we spent the next couple of days running around New York together and we arranged to get together later in the U.K. and just jam. When we started to play together I recognized, from all the years of putting bands together since my teens, that we had a chemistry that was worth pursuing. Then I was going off and doing other things with Neil Finn and Beth Orton and he was playing with The Who, and then we'd get back and write some more songs. During that time I was just laying bass down on demos and we were having a lot of fun, but then we started to play with some other musicians around Manchester. Jimi Goodwin from Doves came over and played with us a couple of times. And then a friend of mine who I trusted said that Alonza, from Kula Shaker, and I had a lot in common and that we'd get along. That was the crucial thing for me, really. It doesn't matter whether you've been in a band before or not, it's where you're at in your head and whether I can really relate to it. That was the criteria and that matters. If we're going to have something in common as people, we're probably going to have something common as musicians. Actually, I don't think that Alonza has actually ever agreed to join yet; he's just been sort of held hostage.
Livewire: So he's not locked in?
Johnny: Yeah, he's totally locked in, although it just occurred to me while I'm talking to you that I don't think he at anytime said, 'okay, I'll join.' He kind of just worked under the assumption that he was in. And then we had a couple of people living in my house, who were great musicians who'd never really been in a rock band before, and they played on the record. When we first went out live, we were a tribe of a six-piece, 'cause we were invited to go out on the road by Oasis, and whoever was in the studio I just said, 'right, you, you, you and you are in the band. So it wasn't like you had to be in a Brit-pop group or The Who or be the son of a Beatle to be in the band, it's just if we click as people and share the same kind of outlook. It's important for me to work with cool people, you know? We're doing it for love at the moment, and because we believe in it. That's pretty powerful.
Livewire: Have you been performing any new material on the road?
Johnny: Yeah, we do a couple of new tunes. There's one that's called "All Out Attack," which I wrote just before we went out on the road. I did one not too long ago called "Turn To Love" that the band had not heard before, I just kind of sprung it on them, and I was just shouting out the chords while we were going along. We've also been doing another new one called "Here It Comes," and we do the album stuff as well.
Livewire: You haven't been playing any Smiths material on this tour, have you?
Livewire: Will there be a day when you will incorporate some of that into your shows?
Johnny: Yeah, I wouldn't rule it out in a few years time, but right now I couldn't conceive of it, because I'm still riding a wave of stuff that is new to me. That's been happening since I first started. I've never been in the position where I've wanted to play old stuff at anytime in my career. Now is no different. I'm always sort of looking to next week, really. I might get to a place as a person where I really feel alright looking around the room, as it were, and reconnecting with some mementos. I don't really even like using the word 'career.' I very rarely tend to use that word. I just regard what I'm doing as a journey, you know? I feel very blessed that I have all these mementos that were really great musical moments that people really like, but, I don't know, the idea of 'career' just seems like too much of a business concept to me really.
Livewire: How do you feel your voice works with The Smiths' material?
Johnny: It's okay, but I don't really like singing those melodies, to be honest. I'd want to change them so they'd be a little bit more like my thing. I mean, I do a version of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" by Bob Dylan, but I changed the tune so it'd sound more like one of mine. I like some of those Smiths tunes, but whether I find words that I could sing and a tune that I would sing, I don't know if that's yet to be seen. I sang "Meat Is Murder" at the Linda McCartney memorial concert, because I felt there was a higher principle at stake, instead of my silly little concerns. I was really proud to do it, and I'm really so proud of all The Smiths' songs.
Livewire: Well, they're your songs as much as anybody's.
Johnny: Oh sure, yeah! Exactly. It's not like I've got any hang-ups or anything, I think I'm just either brave enough or stupid enough not to rely on the older material right now.
Livewire: Even though many of your fans would go nuts if you threw in just one Smiths number, by the same token, I think they also realize that your new material holds up well enough on its own.
Johnny: I try to never underestimate my audience. The people who really like The Smiths stuff are with me, and are open minded. They're not the wilted-wallflowers that the media would like to believe they are - afraid of a drumbeat and a distortion pedal. But then I also have a consideration for people who come along who don't necessarily think the best thing I've done was with The Smiths, because there are also people in the audience who really like Electronic and some people who really like The The. There's even some younger kids who know me through Oasis. I think what I'm doing now is the best solution to all those sort of issues. As I say, I do love The Smiths stuff. There will be a time when I really fancy singing a couple of those songs. I'll know when it happens, really. The other thing is, I quite frankly think The Healers are the best rock 'n' roll band around. I like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and I like The Kills and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, but I think The Healers are a really great rock 'n' roll band. Being the singer and guitarist in a great rock 'n' roll band has taken all my attention and all my energy. The Smith's were great, but there comes a point where there's a certain kind of discussion about The Smiths that I have to take myself out of, because it becomes very self-indulgent. I understand it, though, because I could talk about The Velvet Underground with my friends all day long, but when it comes to The Smiths...(laughs).
Livewire: There seems to be a kind of organic, psychedelic vibe running through Boomslang. Do you see this carrying over into future material?
Johnny: Well, I think the way I sing generally has this psychedelic thing running through it no matter what, and I'm not unhappy about that. I think there'll be slightly less technology on the new record, just because we've got a big enough sound as a live band now, especially with James Doviak joining us on guitar. I think we'll always have a little bit of an acid twist, and that's okay for me. I don't want to be knocked off course with fashion, trends, reviews or anything other than my band, the people around the band and the feedback from the audience. So I don't want any concepts of how we fit in with other modern bands or what's going on in the pop scene or anything like that. I really don't think I need to do that.
Livewire: I understand that earlier this year in Sydney you were joined onstage by Eddie Vedder where you performed a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" in honor of George Jr.
Johnny: Yeah (laughs).
Livewire: Are your political views as strong as Vedder's?
Johnny: Yeah, they're as strong as Eddie's, although I have slightly different take on it, in that I'm more concerned with how the Bush administration and the general U.S. foreign policy is affecting my own personal freedom. I absolutely concur and share Eddie's viewpoints 100 per cent, but Eddie's a paragon of virtue and he very much put's himself out for every man. I wish I could do that. I'm more concerned with protecting my own personal space. I'm not talking about my possessions, but rather feelings and just not being duped. Put simply, where Eddie will take Fox and CNN to task, I just say, 'Eddie, they've always been bullshit." I try not to even pollute my consciousness with that shit. It's kind of a long answer, but I became obsessively protective of the information that I would take in. So basically I just avoided the media. It was like if I got in the car and someone had the radio on, I'd asked them to switch it off and I wouldn't read any newspapers, just as an experiment to see how it affected the creativity and how it affected my personal life. I have friends who are absolutely idealistically driven and in the right place, who are almost addicted to what they think of as being informed and what I regard as being mis-informed. But Eddie'll get in there and tough it out and might take on the media and find out what's going on with the nuts and bolts of it. But essentially we're coming from exactly the same place. I really feel that, particularly in Eddie's case, just when you thought that rock 'n' roll had been completely co-opted, here's a guy that'll stand onstage in front of twenty-thousand people with the bottle to say some things for everybody, you know? That makes me feel pretty good about art in general. God bless The Dixie Chicks, but when it comes from Eddie, he'll have the bottle to argue right to the death. Someone like Eddie, or Bob Dylan, or John Fogerty, or Bruce Springsteen really could only come out of North America, because you have that sense of the lonesome troubadour. It started with Woody Guthrie, I guess, didn't it? It really means something in North America - it's the guy standing up and using his voice for the people who don't get a chance to be heard. I really respect him for that.
Livewire: You just finished your tour and then you're working on a new album. When will we get a taste of that?
Johnny: I really want it to be released right after the new year. It'll be super nova next time, man!
More Johnny Marr
Concert Review - House of Blues, May 8, 2003
Concert Review - The Double Door, Jan. 28, 2003
CD Review Boomslang