Johnny Marr: ‘Playing the old songs is an absolute pleasure’

Johnny Marr at Victorious Festival, 2015. Picture by Paul Windsor
Johnny Marr at Victorious Festival, 2015. Picture by Paul Windsor
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One of the undoubted highlights of the recent Victorious Festival in Southsea, for those lucky enough to catch it, was Johnny Marr’s set.

Despite a career stretching back three decades, the legendary former Smiths guitarist has only recently decided to trade under his own name and take centre stage.

Over the years he’s loaned his skills to acts from The Pretenders to The The, The Cribs and Modest Mouse, as well as playing on dozens more performers’ albums.

However, he’s been attracting wide acclaim for his brace of solo albums, 2013’s The Messenger and the following year’s Playland – and the accompanying live shows.

‘Victorious was really good fun,’ he says. ‘I was quite surprised by just how many people were out there to watch me. When me and the band strolled on stage, we were confronted with, I guess, 25,000 people or something like that.

‘I thought the atmosphere of the whole festival was really nice. It was an impressive thing. As I said on stage, it’s quite unusual to have an entire town seemingly involved in coming together for music over a weekend. It was really well done and it seemed like the entire city was involved in the festival.’

Since ‘coming out’ as a solo act, Johnny has also paid a couple of sold-out visits to The Wedgewood Rooms.

‘I first played the Wedgewood Rooms in the early 2000s. It’s one of those nice nights that sticks in your mind because of the people.

‘It reminds me of the Sheffield Leadmill for the same reasons.

‘The music kind of caught fire in the Wedge. I always have fun there, it’s a little bit of a weekend knees-up.’

During these shows, Johnny and his band have been playing songs from throughout his career.

A week today, he’ll be releasing a live album, Adrenalin Baby, that aims to capture the energy of his shows in the way that his favourite live albums and bootlegs by the likes of The Ramones and The Buzzcocks did.

One of the tracks on it is his new version of Getting Away With It by Electronic – the band Johnny formed with New Order’s Bernard Sumner.

‘I tend to just go through phases of liking different old things and luckily my band can play anything – Getting Away With It was a very different kind of song, we managed to turn it into a Northern Soul guitar track.’

Explaining how he picks what to play from his extensive back catalogue, he says: ‘I guess it’s a combination of stuff that I’ve got my signature sound on – it would be weird not to do (The Smiths’) How Soon Is Now, while another part is wanting to give the audience what they want to hear, to an extent. There Is A Light obviously comes to mind. But I’m lucky, there’s a lot of them and my band plays them well.

‘Playing old songs is an absolute pleasure, if you’re feeling satisfied that your new songs are really good and your new songs are representing you too.

‘If you don’t play some stuff that people really know and love, you’re missing a trick, it’s almost mean-spirited I think.

‘You’ve got to keep moving forward and playing new songs. Playing new riffs is what I live for, but if you’ve got songs that people love, then you’re lucky.’

Next up though is a short autumn tour and a date at the new Rockaway Beach festival at Butlins in Bognor alongside The Fall, Spiritualized and Public Service Broadcasting. Did he ever think playing at Butlins would be a credible ‘thing’?

‘I didn’t think it would be a thing. No,’ he laughs.

‘Many years ago, there was no such culture, or it meant something vastly different, but I played one at All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2008, I think with Modest Mouse, and it was really, really good.

‘It makes so much sense, if you think about it – people could go see a variety of different music and bands they love, stay out of the rain and stay over somewhere. I had a great time when I did ATP and I hope these kinds of events can continue.’

Once this tour is finished, Johnny is finally going to try and write his autobiography.

‘I’ve been pestered about it so many times. It’s probably been about 15 years ago since I first got a serious book offer, and it’s been every few years since. I’ve kind of run out of excuses not to do it.

‘Luckily I’ve got a very, very good memory. So while that’s still the case, I’m going to exercise it. And I’m lucky that the second half of my life my life has been kind of documented, which helps.

‘(Chic mainman and friend) Nile Rodgers has been really encouraging. He’s been twisting my arm, to do it.

‘I didn’t want to take time from writing and recording songs, but I’ve just finished a soundtrack and I kind gave myself that as the line to draw between music and writing the book.

‘Musicians, aside from Nile Rodgers, I think musicians’ autobiographies tend to be quite boring unless you’re a musician.

‘I want to avoid the usual anecdotes. I guess I’m just going to wing it. There’ll be lots of it that’s going to hopefully be surprising.’

And in what could possibly be a be a dig at his old Smiths bandmate Morrissey – whose 2013 Autobiography was happy to put the boot in – adds: ‘I’m not particularly into sensationalism, I’m not really into just kind of settling scores.

‘If you’re into people climbing on roofs and falling through them and trying to hijack mastertapes in the middle of the night and driving on Mulholland Drive with ’60s rock stars on drugs – then you might like it.’

That sounds good to The Guide.

Things have changed a lot in the music industry since The Smiths began, and with Marr now viewed as something of an elder statesman, he is concerned about the way that the internet and how we consume our media and music has affected things.

‘There’s a problem in the democratisation of music,’ he explains. ‘In principle it’s a great thing. What it’s unfortunately done in practice has made for a culture where mediocrity can shout the loudest if it’s got a lot of followers on social media, and a lot of really good, talented people can get swallowed up by that.’

So does he have any advice for bands starting out today?

‘These days bands, as well as writing good music and learning to play well, and having a good idea and being a good artistic unit, also have to be four little individual mini-managers and mini-promoters.

‘There’s a certain kind of entrepreneurial necessity in bands these days and I don’t know how you get around that.

‘I am by nature a pretty positive person, so at least the upside to that is that your destiny is to some extent is in your own hands.

‘I think the solution is not to forget to be a really good artistic unit, and don’t get too wrapped up in the business of promoting your entity and forgetting to make that entity a really good band.

‘You’ve got to tick all those boxes – but don’t forget the one at the top of the list: Remember to be good.

‘In the music business culture generally at the moment, it reminds me of the worst elements of the ’70s, where pop music in its purest form is entirely controlled by entrepreneurs.

‘I was never an Abba fan, but when you look back at that band, they were people who actually knew the songs they were singing and writing.

‘The big pop acts of today really do come across as puppets, so that’s a little concerning, but it’s a wide open ocean, and there will always be great young, cool young people forming bands and swimming in it.

‘There’s always going to be a number of them and I’ve got faith that young people can and always do kick against corporate restraints.’

JOHNNY ON...

..his time in Portland, Oregon

I ‘ve not been in a while, but I do still have a place over there and I’ve still got a lot of friends there – Gary from The Cribs lives over there, Modest Mouse are still based there – I need to get over there, I miss it.

...winning awards

I didn’t get any, and The Smiths didn’t get any, ever. And all of a sudden I’ve got loads. You can’t take them too seriously, but you can’t get too snotty either. If people want to say they like you, then you should be grateful and gracious.

...his inspirations

David Hockney, Lucien Freud, visual artists, more so than musicians. In the music world, it’s people like Nile Rodgers and Andrew Loog Oldham.

Johnny Marr headlines Rockaway Beach at Butlins in Bognor Regis tomorrow. The festival runs from October 9 to 11. Tickets from £79 for the weekend. Go to rockawaybeach.co.uk