Published Nov 17, 2014After forever cementing his name in music lore as the co-founder of the Smiths, legendary guitarist Johnny Marr played with plenty of other bands, his nimble, beguiling guitar lines raising the quality of songs by the The, Modest Mouse and the Cribs without ever stealing the spotlight or stepping on toes. Indeed, the soft-spoken Marr has garnered a reputation as the perfect collaborator.
That changed in 2013, when Marr finally decided to play frontman. "I had what I thought were good ideas for songs and there were lyrics that I wanted to write. There was a certain type of band that I wanted to be in, so I decided to form it myself." Marr recorded The Messenger and, less than a year later, followup Playland. That Marr's been reading a lot recently is evident: he names Homo Ludens and the study of psychogeography as influences on Playland's lyrics. Marr candidly and affably explains why 45s are so precious, how Patti Smith changed his life and the importance of wearing the right shoes.
What are you up to?
I'm just plugged into my amp, getting ready to go out on the tour that starts in a couple of weeks, surrounded by boxes and clothes that I'm trying to get together. There's a whole lot of mess, but that's okay.
What are your current fixations?
Current fixations are manyfold: Marcel Duchamp; David Hockney; Aldous Huxley, often; buildings; Bauhaus.
Are you finding you're into architecture lately?
I've always been into architecture, but now I'm getting more specific. I had an interest in buildings and cities and towns particularly from being really quite young and growing up near the city. I had a fairly vivid imagination about them. When I put my first solo album out, The Messenger, the word "psychogeography" came up quite a lot in regard to the way I was writing my words. What "psychogeography" was, the culture of it, I found it was true, but didn't really know until then that there was a term for it. I was happy to discover that what I was doing was psychogeography, and there was a culture of it that was rich, from everyone from Baudelaire and Thomas de Quincy to Walter Benjamin and architecture and lot of different aspects of physical and esoteric city life. That's a big preoccupation of mine at the moment.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in the centre of the city in Manchester, but my studio's out of town, out in the open space. I do the opposite of what most people do. Often, musicians live out of town in the country and go into the city to work, but I like doing the opposite. I quite like travelling in the city. I've always done it that way.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
It might seem a little obvious, but "I Am The Walrus" comes to mind. I've often cited that as a good example of why the seven-inch is my favourite work of art. The main reason is that the sound of "I Am The Walrus" is actually like Hieronymus Bosch put to music. What I always found fascinating about the seven-inch single is that it transcends its physical limitations, which is to say that it's a bit of plastic seven inches big, but actually, it's something that can change the course of someone's life if it's the right person at the right time. There are many, many other examples of a seven-inch doing that, but that's the best one to use as an example.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
My most memorable and inspirational was easily the Patti Smith Group in 1978, in Manchester. I would've been 14, I was going to a lot of shows at the time. Luckily at that time Patti Smith was my favourite artist, and she came into my city. I got right at the front of the stage, and it was as if I was watching someone who was in the middle of an incantation. Her and all the musicians seemed to be in a parallel universe to me. From the minute they came onstage, it was like a window into another world, a world I already knew I wanted to be in through sound, but now I got the chance to see it right up close with my own eyes. I actually still had a paper route at that time, because I remember the next day, walking around with this big bag of newspapers and at one point, looking up to the sky and knowing, in that minute, that my life was different than the day before. Those kinds of moments are very important to me. In some ways, they keep me going, because they remind me of the power of art and the power of rock music and the power of people getting together and idealism.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Career highs were, from the start: holding the very first Smiths 45, which was "Hand in Glove" — that was the first time I made my own record with my own band; recording "How Soon is Now." I guess the real career high is the Modest Mouse album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank getting to number one on the American album chart, because it was the highest achievement, career-wise. Also, it was unusual that a band like that could get so high, because that spot is usually occupied by people who are much more conventional, shall we say. The morning that our manager called me up to tell me the news was an amazing moment.
Career lows would be the Smiths court case and subsequent soap opera that lasted far too long. But, you know, I'm philosophical about it all because if you're around long enough to go through those kinds of things and you're still around making music, you're lucky.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
"You're not going onstage with those shoes, are you John?"
What should everyone shut up about?
The Smiths reformation, obviously!
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I'm easily excitable, and that answers both.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Let me see... Easter in the UK, unusually nice spring weather, getting to see my kids and my friends, getting to play music with my friends, getting to throw my friends out of the house and spend time with my wife.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
"Don't buy those shoes, John."
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
The wrong drugs, and yes, I have.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
T. Rex, "Ride a White Swan," which I know is very, very cool, but I actually wanted Electric Warrior, but didn't have enough money for it. The "Ride a White Swan" album [T. Rex] was kind of challenging for a ten-year-old, but I made myself love it. I used it as leverage to go around to my friend's house, because he actually owned Electric Warrior, which is actually a better LP.
What was your most memorable day job?
I only really had one proper one, and it was working in a clothes shop called X Clothes in Manchester. As jobs go, it was pretty good. I had to look the part, and took it upon myself to be the guy who makes mixtapes. My boss wasn't too enamoured with the Birthday Party and the Fall and the Gun Club, but the kids loved it, so they kept me on for a while. I was a pretty good salesman because I was just honest. I would just say to people if they didn't look right in whatever it was they wanted to buy, and I'd also send people around the corner to my friend's shop if they had the same item cheaper. People respond to honesty, because they just kept coming back. It was a cool place to hang out — a lot of the young musicians who were on Factory Records used to come around and try to get discounts.
Would you give it to them?
Of course I gave them discounts, absolutely! It wasn't my money!
How do you spoil yourself?
Books. Going online and buying books on a whim. When they arrive, I do love 'em, but you'd need 20 pairs of eyes to read all the books I've got stacked up. What can you do? It's cheaper than buying guitars — I rationalise it that way.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
A life coach! ... I'm so joking.
What do you fear most?
Switching off and liking it.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Have you seen my wife?
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
There've been quite a few: Dennis Hopper, 1988; Jane Fonda, 1988; Eddie Van Halen, 1988; Quincy Jones — that was quite a night! It was all in Jane Fonda's house. I still don't know what I was doing there, but it was alright. Ryan O'Neal, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Bono. Yeah, it really was some night. She threw a party for U2 and the Pretenders after a show we played in Los Angeles, and I was one of the first to arrive. Jane Fonda showed me around and went through her family photos, and her and I hung out, and she was all nervous like a regular hostess. It was really surreal, but very lovely. I ended up hanging out with Quincy Jones for most of the night.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
It would the Dalai Lama, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Jimmy Fallon. It would be tofu in all its many, many nutritious guises. Fried for some, sautéed for others, absolutely, yeah.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Well, she likes that I play the guitar, but maybe one of those Catholic priests who play the guitar, you know what I mean?
Playing for the kids? Rocking for Jesus?
That guy, yeah! That guy. Does the Pope play guitar? If the Pope played guitar, she'd want me to be that guy.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"I Will Survive"!