Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: Johnny Marr

| September 13, 2018

Johnny Marr just made the best record of his life. And he knows it.

Dubbed Call the Comet, it’s the ex-Smith guitarist’s third, following 2013’s The Messenger and 2014’s Playland. And it finds him: Lyrically delving into grim socio-political issues that he’d often avoided; Letting his axe provide the chiming hooks in places instead of a rousing chorus, although those are in great abundance, as well; And most importantly, taking center stage as a full-throttle frontman, his voice perfectly miked on every track. It’s a startling step forward that many who have followed his post-Smiths career – working mainly as a sideman for Electronic, The Cribs, Modest Mouse, even film scorer Hans Zimmer – simply won’t be expecting. He’s finally shaken the long shadow of charismatic Smiths vocalist Morrissey for good.

The disc kicks off with the menacing stop/start static of “Rise,” then segues into a tumbling “The Tracers,” and an eclectic mix of huge chimers (“Spirit Cities” and “A Different Gun,” which sounds like Bowie’s “Heroes” slightly retooled sideways), gentle acoustic janglers (“Day In Day Out”), and bludgeoning punk pounders (“My Eternal,” one of the most feral rockers Marr as ever forged). But the material’s brutal honesty originated in another confessional place — Set The Boy Free, Marr’s 2016 tell-all autobiography via which he re-examined his entire existence and tried to make concise sense of it all. Naturally, that frankness seeped into Comet, too.

Eventually, Marr, 54, began to think of his album as a lifeline, a guiding force. Nobody made great Bohemian concept records anymore, his wife had commented. So why shouldn’t he set those standards untouchably high again? After all, wasn’t that why he started forming bands in the first place as a Manchester teenager? For 45 minutes, he leisurely chatted about all of this and reaffirmed his devout belief. “I think I made a pretty good record, all told,” he reckons, downplaying the drama just a tad.

ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER: What’s it like for a musician out there in the world right now?

JOHNNY MARR: What’s it like? Everything’s changing, the world has changed, as we all know – we all feel it. And the way people are relating to music has changed. Gone are the days when everybody will listen to, as a matter of course, listen to several remixes of an artist, plus their new album. Some people still do that, and I will always test myself that I have the attention span to listen to ten new songs, back to back. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule these days. However, what I meant when I said that people relate to music differently is that I find that I’m not resisting this new world – I’m not wired that way. But potentially, people still liked to get moved by a song to either think or feel or act, whatever. But they can’t necessarily feel it the same way. So things have changed, and it’s now a lofty idea just to listen to an album side without skipping around like we used to do in the past. But people seem to have lost touch with what makes a song work – honest words and some good guitar.

IE: Stiff Records legend Wreckless Eric is back with a new album. But that guy could write an epic anthem on almost any topic even not having the guts to say hello to a cute girl he sees every day on the commuter train. What happened to that kind of songwriting?

JM: Yeah. One thing that happened was that the popularity of the cheap, sensationalist reality TV show of the last 10 or 15 years has wrongly conned the culture into thinking that a song is only as valid, and a singer is only as good, as when they’re singing from the deepest recesses of their hearts. And authenticity is just the sugary coating on top. That then formed a whole future generation of singers and entrepreneurs whose whole stock in trade is combining that surfacey sentimentality with lyrics to match. And that is so widespread in our culture that hundreds of thousands of people will tune in to watch it every week, without seeing the diversity of all these other outside-the-box artists with something to actually say. When you look back, take a record like “Summertime Blues.” Or “Come on Everybody.” Both great records in pop culture, but Eddie Cochran’s not just singing for everybody to come on – the song is so much more than that, although it sounds deceptively simple. And a great song doesn’t have to be about shouting, either – take Lou Reed, who was calm, cool and collected on every song but still managed to get its emotion across. And I was always listening to Brian Eno, who could do the same, and even more subtly.

IE: But this all boomerangs back to you. You’ve finally found yourself as a vocalist with this record, and put yourself up front in the mix where you used to bury yourself before.

JM: Yeah, I think so. And really, I wouldn’t have put my name and my voice to a record if I wasn’t confident in it. But now I perceive that people do like my voice, so it’s all part of the narrative, where I started out as just a guitarist, but I’ve made the migration from the typical left to the more difficult center stage. But I was happy with the way the last two records were. But on this one, the music is more emotional, and it’s more dramatic. So I didn’t think quiet vocals would have worked. But there’s a song on the record called “My Eternal,” which started off with just a trumpet and a synthesizer, and I built a song on top of it based on a dream I’ve had where I’m being chased. But it was good to listen to what was coming out of the speakers and determine the fate of the material accordingly. I think I’m on the right track with all of these songs, and I wanted people to hear them for what they were and not make a big deal about the lone guitar hero 30 years on. That’s just a bit of a narrative that goes hand in hand alongside all of this. In hindsight, I think I did improve my technique and was finally able to expand on it. But now I like the way my voice sounds as much as my band, so I do feel like I found myself on this one. But it was a situation that was called for by the songs, really, some of which address the current political climate while others discuss climate change.

IE: You said there was a conversation you had with your wife that spurred you to outdo yourself.

JM: My wife and her friends were discussing Brexit, and I just recognized something in her attitude, something I hadn’t noticed before – a longing for some kind of positive, creative process, not just from me, but in general. So I just got to a point in my life where I realized the philosophy that defines me, and that the era of the protest singer was back again. Especially after hearing the older generation talk about Brexit. I had to get involved and clarify what it was I stood for. Like everybody else, I feel like things are very, very bad today. But the heartbreak comes from that so many people voted against their own self-interests for this kind of horrific change. So there’s the corruption of democracy and an all-out attack on the media – which seems to be the only branch holding anybody accountable these days – and I realized that, no matter what, they can never take my mind or take my music. So I saw how fortunate I am to have a voice in such a difficult time. Which doesn’t mean that all my songs are expositions or answers? But I have a lot to say if people want to hear it. And I really think that people are desperately looking for answers right now. I just hope I can offer a few suggestions.

IE: How is your new home base, a studio that’s the entire top floor of an old warehouse?

JM: It’s great. It’s slightly out of town, and it’s got a ‘60s/Rauschenberg vibe that really adds to its appeal. I really needed a new place to make music, and this was it.

IE: What have you learned about yourself through this whole process?

JM: That’s a good question. I feel somewhat unchanged, but decidedly a little different, too. But I think that records made in the aftermath of an autobiography like mine was will always take on a life of their own. And my book did pretty well in the UK – people seemed to enjoy it. But having just written my entire life story, chapter by chapter, it gave an extra urgency to what I was already doing, musically. And I don’t want to come off as sounding too precious, but the songs really did start to take on a new life. And it actually made me realize just how precious life itself is. I think I might have forgotten that.

IE: But it’s cool to define yourself. Anything you do from now on will have this record as a jumping-off point.

JM: Yeah. And as I get older, the more I understand how great it is to know your shit. I’m quite happy to reach those moments of clarity. And of course, death is always there, lurking around the corner, so you’d better learn a few things because you don’t have forever. But I do feel like I’ve got a pretty good starting point for whatever comes next.

Appearing 9/16 at Riot Fest, Douglas Park, Chicago Roots Stage, 3;50pm

-Tom Lanham

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