Johnny Marr and I are a star-crossed pair, at least in terms of phone calls.
My early October call with the guitar legend has been disconnected upwards of five times. Luckily, his very accommodating PR assistant has dutifully dialed him back up every time I lose him on the line. There's an ocean and five hours between us; he on a tour bus winding its way through Northern Scotland after a show ("I don't really sleep much on tour," he deadpanned, when I asked why he's scheduled our chat for the wee hours); me, holed up in our office on 38th and Meridian.
But I'm a bit happy about all these dropped calls. It gives me a moment or two in between questions to quietly hyperventilate, gather myself and select my next question in short order. I confess, I'm not nearly as cool, calm and collected as my teenage self would hope to be when on the phone with Marr. But the guitarist and songwriter looms so large in my teenage listening years that I can't really help myself.
A brief refresher: Marr smashed into the public consciousness in the mid-'80s as the guitarist and co-songwriter of The Smiths. (As a sidenote: I was asked very clearly not to ask about the former Smith's relationship with Moz, who later that week released his Autobiography. The book, which is by all accounts genuinely strange, details their feuding.) After his '87 departure, Marr spent time in sessions with Paul McCartney, Beck, The Talking Heads, Billy Bragg and numerous others. He participated full-time in groups The The, The Pretenders and The Electronic and kept side projects like The Cribs and Johnny Marr and the Healers on the side. For a brief, wondrous few years, Marr toured and recorded with Modest Mouse, relocating with his family to their home base of Portland to stay involved.
But it was back to Manchester, The Smiths' old stomping grounds, where Marr found the time and inspiration to record The Messenger, his first true solo record. It's a bit unimaginable that it took almost 30 years for Marr's solo debut, but he's just so damn good at being part of a group.
Marr will perform with his band at the Vogue on Monday, November 11.
NUVO: Can you tell me briefly what your setlist looks like for this tour?</p>
Johnny Marr: Well, I don't want to give too much away! ... When I was making the new record, it was very important that it worked live, and that might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it isn't always necessarily the case. You want to make a good record, and that's it really. You usually just think about the studio and the making of the record.
But it was important that every song work live. The new stuff has been going down very well everywhere we've played it and that's partly the reason – because we had that in mind when we did it. I went out and road-tested a few songs and that was a little scary, playing songs that no one had played before. But it was worth it, because you end up with all the arrangements being a little tighter and tempos being up. So, that's one of the reasons why there's a lot of new songs in the set. When you play nearly the entire new album, it makes the really old songs more fun and more of a, sort of, celebration. People like hearing songs they know, of course. It would be a bit boring if it was just a greatest hits kind of set, at this point in my musical life. I wouldn't want to just be up there playing old songs; it's very important to play songs you're excited about and that represent where you're at in your life now. That's the general picture, really. It's a mixture of telling the story of where I'm at in my musical life, but also being aware that I want people to walk out the door feeling like they've had a really good night.
NUVO: Over how long of a period of time did songs for The Messenger come together? What's the oldest song on this record?
Marr: It's not very old at all. The first song I wrote is the one that closes the record, "Word Starts Attack," and that was written maybe nine months before the album was finished. I didn't have any songs written when I went in the studio to write it. I just had lots of ideas and theories about subjects and my fingers crossed.
NUVO: What was your favorite song to play live when you were touring We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank with Modest Mouse? That's such a fun album; I can only imagine the experience of playing it live.
Marr: Yeah! Obviously, "Dashboard" was very important to me, and is an obvious answer because it was so popular. No one could resist going into a riff and enjoying a riff when the entire audience starts punching the air and the kick drum starts coming in on the [floor]. That was always such an enjoyable moment for me; it was such a popular song.
But I think that song "King Rat" would be my favorite [from 2009's No One's First and You're Next]. Or the song "Fly Trapped In A Jar," just because it's so unusual of a structure. I have to really dig deep to come up with all the different riffs on that. I found that I was playing a lot like how I was playing in my bedroom when I was a teenager. None of the guitar on "Fly Trapped In A Jar" sounds like anything like what I did with The Smiths or Electronic. It reminded me mostly of experimentation, when I was at my parent's house just trying out all these different styles, you know?
NUVO: You've said of those early days with The Smiths that songs were just pouring out of you. Did you have that experience on The Messenger? How has your songwriting ease changed?
Marr: It happened on The Messenger and I'm really – I don't want to jinx it – but it's happening now. Of course it's doubly exciting now because I'm writing the words as well, at this point. I always wrote words when I first started out, but to have words and music coming really fast is just an exciting thing for anyone who is creative. One doesn't know whether they're successful – you never do, until you get the record and play in front of people in a hall, or get feedback from friends or whatever. I didn't really, in honest truth, expect for the album The Messenger to be as well-received as it was or to get as much attention, to put it that way. I'm trying not to over think what I'm doing now.
My songwriting has changed in that [I] know more so [I] can be a little more self-conscious. I've heard it said that things get more difficult as you get older, as you've been around longer. To me, [maybe] that's the case because you have distractions in your life. In my case, I've been very lucky because I have not had all the distractions in my personal life. My family life and personal life have just kind of followed whatever band I'm in or whatever country I've chosen to live in or whatever record I'm making at any time. That's continued now. The only real difference from when I was writing in The Smiths is that I'm singing it. And in a lot of ways that's more work – obviously, it's twice the work – but it's more satisfying.
NUVO: What's your setup like? Do you have that signature Fender Jag with you now at every tour stop?
Marr: It's an amazing thing to have your own signature guitar. Particularly, the way we went about it with Fender, they let me take as long as I wanted to make my guitar entirely bespoke, so to speak, and perfect. If I had another six months or one day to work on it, I wouldn't change a thing on it. We didn't put it out until I considered it perfect. So I don't need to use anything else. I wish I had this guitar 20 years ago. I use that through a Fender Deluxe Reverb and a Fender Super Reverb. It's a really, pretty big sound. For the song "The Messenger," I use what's called a Nashville tuning, or a high-strung tuning, to give it a really, super high-string, ring-y thing. And that's it – I get everything I want out of this guitar.
[Music] DJs + Dancing
[A+E] Theater + Dance, Jazz + Blues + R&B
[A+E] Festivals + Parties, DJs + Dancing
[Music] Jazz + Blues + R&B