Friday 2 December 2016

Johnny Marr: 'I'm often asked to tell my story - eventually I couldn't turn it down'

Ahead of a hotly anticipated Irish show, the former Smiths guitarist says he's finally ready to take centre-stage

Published 17/10/2015 | 02:30

Never the backward glance: Johnny Marr is now fronting his own band.
Never the backward glance: Johnny Marr is now fronting his own band.

So Johnny Marr, when was the last time you spoke to Morrissey? This is the question every music journalist on the planet (and further afield) has been itching to ask the former Smiths guitarist since the iconic band's exceedingly acrimonious 1987 break-up.

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"I've had 30 years of people telling my story - on a couple of occasions I've had people tell what they claim to be my story and it's absolute bulls**t," says Marr. Here he pauses to mention by name a controversial Morrissey-Marr biography which claimed to shed light on the cult quartet's often tortured dynamic.

"I thought, well, in this case I'm going to have to tell my truth. I'm often asked to tell my story. I've had so many offers in the past 12 years. Eventually I couldn't turn it down. It was really obvious the interest was there."

For those not au fait with late 20th century independent rock, The Smiths are perhaps best thought of as The Beatles crossed with a very depressing Booker Prize winning novel. From deepest, drizzliest Manchester came catchy, funny, precocious songs, their finest songs evoking the soaring despondency - that unique cocktail of yearning and self-loathing - which is so often a feature of adolescence and young adulthood.

"It doesn't drive me crazy," says Marr of the constant speculation over whether he and Morrissey will patch things up (our guess: it's not going to happen). "It depends on the manner in which it is brought up. If someone has an understanding that I've made a hell of a lot of records since 1987 - that it was 30 years ago and that now it's 2015 - then I'll join in. If it is someone who is stupid, I don't pay every much attention."

For all their differences, Morrissey and Marr have one thing in common. Both are first-generation Irish and keenly cognizant of their heritage. Morrissey's parents are from Crumlin and he spent several of his post-Smiths years living in Dublin (he is second cousin once removed to Ireland striker Robbie Keane and, by every account, was a tidy soccer player in his day).

Marr, meanwhile, was the first of his family born outside Ireland and spent his youth visiting the family home in Athy. For this reason, even at the peak of their popularity, The Smiths made a point of keeping Ireland on the radar and would tour such unglamorous locations as Dundalk and Letterkenny.

"As a kid in the provinces in the 70s, I had an empathy with people who didn't get to see big bands. Manchester was a great place to spend your youth in terms of seeing musicians," Marr has said (his real name is "Maher" - he changed it to the phonetic spelling so that British people would pronounce it properly).

"Nonetheless, the scene was incredibly London-centric. I felt a kinship with Ireland, growing up. Those [Irish] gigs were memorable for [The Smiths]. There was always a sense of celebration. Ireland is one of the only places where, to this day, I get nervous playing."

The distinction was that, where Marr embraced his Irishness (Cork bluesman Rory Gallagher was an early influence), Morrissey appeared to hold it at arm's length.

"Anyone who looks back on the past 30 years of my career will know that I've always described myself as Mancunian Irish," says Marr.

"I was the first of my family to be born in England. I've never described myself as British or English. I'm either Mancunian or Mancunian Irish - that is a culture and a nationality that is a thing unto itself."

Marr is perceived as the quintessential side-man. Fronting his own band, as he will in Dublin on Sunday, was a big leap forward.

"When I was playing guitar with The Smiths... 100pc of my focus was on providing interesting guitar hooks and putting some kind of space-age twist on the guitarist's role. The pop guitarist crossed with the mad professor. That's how I thought of myself. I have to modify that now, in terms of being the person who fronts the outfit.

"That was one of the things that excited me about putting the group together. I imagined what kind of band I want to go and see. Would I prefer to see one where the lead singer was holding the microphone - or where he played guitar as well? For me, the latter is far more exciting. Eventually, I thought 'well, that person might as well be me'. "

He plays Smiths songs too - something he refused to do for years. Marr's logic is straightforward: if it means a lot to his fans to hear those tunes, who is he to deny them? Also, with age, his relationship with the past has changed. He is less averse to looking back.

"Nearly all the Smiths songs I do have been covered by other people," he says. "I sing them in my own style. It's satisfying."

People were rather alarmed when he released his second solo album, Playland, 12 months after the first, The Messenger (he's just put out his third LP in as many years, a live collection called Adrenaline Baby). He isn't at all concerned about the curse of the difficult second record. You've got to put your shoulder to the wheel and press on.

"The amount of times I was asked if I had any trepidation about the second album, because that is usually considered the tough one. Actually, I'm a big admirer of second albums, whether by The Talking Heads, Franz Ferdinand, Siouxsie and The Banshees.

"As a fan, I couldn't wait for their second records to come out. In America, the album that introduced people to The Smiths was Meat Is Murder - our second. With The Messenger doing so well I got on a roll. I didn't stop writing - the ideas were coming thick and fast and so I just carried on."

Johnny Marr plays the Olympia, Dublin this Sunday. Adrenaline Baby is out now.

Irish Independent

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