Guitarist, producer, collaborator, sideman: Johnny Marr has played nearly every role imaginable in his 30-year career. Since the Smiths broke up in 1987, Marr has left his stamp on Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, Modest Mouse, the Pretenders and the Cribs, to name a few. Now he’s added another title to his expansive résumé: frontman. This February, Marr released his first solo album The Messenger, a populist Brit-rock throwback full of the guitarist’s trademark jangle, semi-biographical narratives and nary a feeling about blowing up the Internet. Hive sat down with Marr this past weekend at Coachella and discussed the future of his solo career, including material in the works for The Messenger followup and recording with Modest Mouse.
Most of your career has been heavily collaborative. Have you enjoyed stepping out as the frontman and performing The Messenger?
I have enjoyed it because the songs are fun and they were designed to play in front of people -- not be too caught up in studio illusions. It helps that people like it. Nothing quite like people liking it to really encourage you to do more of it.
In an interview with Pitchfork you said that you didn’t want this record to be hard to listen to -- but, maybe, in the future that’s something you’d do. What would a Johnny Marr experimental record look like?
Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s actually more challenging to make guitar pop/rock that sounds good in the daytime. It’s easier to smoke a bunch of pot and do something that sounds atmospheric at three in the morning. I always admired groups when I was growing up like the Talking Heads and Blondie who made these very cool records that sounded alright at two o’clock in the afternoon. Some of it’s craft, some of it’s luck, and some of it’s inspiration. I’ve been in some groups that have done that too -- some of the Smiths music does that and some Modest Mouse music too, amongst others -- but it was important to me that I try to make a record that you can listen to on the way to school or on the way home from college or work, whatever it is. That was a little bit of a challenge to me. I want to do more of it.
You also recently told the New York Times that you had a vision of three solo albums. Is that still the case?
Yeah, I want to do a bunch of them. I want to develop what I’ve started and to do that I need to explore more towns and cities and meet more people, because I want to think about things that are outside of me. I’m not really interested in singing about things that are inside of me -- there’s plenty of people doing that and people can go somewhere else for introspective music. I’m the opposite of abstract expressionism; pop art is what I like.
Have you started writing new material?
I have, but I have to be careful not to get too enthusiastic and throw all of these new songs into my set because I’ve had a lot of really good reactions to this record and people want to see these songs live. We play 11 of the 12 songs, which is a lot to be giving people in a set. But the upside of that is that you can play the old songs and feel like you aren’t just some old guy propping up his new stuff with shit that people like. I would hate that.
What is your sonic approach to the new material you’re working on?
It’s like The Messenger, similar kind of a thing. I have a sound and it’s not something that I want to trade in. If it makes a fan happy then I’m all good with that.
Do you have any titles down?
I have a song called “Attack Dog” and another called “Cathedral.”
What’s the story behind “Attack Dog”?
“Attack Dog” is a song about all of these pompous jerks who are the sort of people who have to write in those little comment boxes after articles. What’s up with that? There’s a generation of people -- often men of a certain age -- who I’m so disappointed in. When did my generation of guys, who came out of the first wave of indie rock, turn into such curmudgeonly old bastards? It’s all reactionary. They don’t like gay people. There are these so-called enlightened liberal newspapers but yet their readers are these people who are these reactionary dicks. These are people who, if you pressed them, would say that they have liberal opinions. I don’t see that at all. Those people piss me off.
You mentioned Modest Mouse. Will you be working with them again?
I would like to go back to playing with them. I want to make a few more of my records then maybe do another movie but we’re all pretty healthy people and we’ll just keep doing it. I don’t want to collaborate for the time being because I just want to pursue my new songs.
Your generation in particular grew up with Margaret Thatcher as a common enemy. How did you feel after all of these years about her dying? Some people even celebrated her death.
I’m not that ghoulish or negative but anyone who sees the word “Thatcherism” and doesn’t agree that is stands for something bad is in the minority. I understand rhetoric and the kind of tributes that happen when anyone in the public eye passes away but I felt that the current British government’s statement that Margaret Thatcher made Britain great was an insult to generations of families all over the UK who have never really recovered from her legacy. These are people that the British government are supposed to be representing. Everybody knows what her legacy is: She dismantled the working classes and British industry. To say that she made Britain great is really distasteful.
The Messenger is out now on Sire.