Interview by Mark Bayross
What kind of introduction does Johnny Marr need? He’s been a full-time member of Electronic and The The, and played with a list of rock and pop greats that includes Billy Bragg, Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Kirsty MacColl, The Cult, Pet Shop Boys, The Pretenders, Beth Orton, Ian McCulloch, Black Grape, Beck, Neil Finn, Bert Jansch and Bernard Butler. He is also a close friend of Noel Gallagher, having given the Oasis man his first guitar and championed the band from the outset.
Most famously, his distinctive guitar playing was an influence on thousands of aspiring musicians during the five years that he and Steven Patrick Morrissey were re-defining the 1980s as The Smiths. So much so, infact, that he recently made Channel Four’s Top Ten Guitar Heroes of all time…
Now, Johnny Marr is here with a band of his own, a single (“The Last Ride”) and a totally new sound. He has even drafted in Alonza Bevan, who used to play bass for Kula Shaker, and Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey on drums.
I was lucky enough to have a chat with Johnny about his new band and his plans for the future.
At last you’re back with a new band. Can you tell me a bit about how The Healers came to be?
I’ve been asked over the years whether I’d do a solo record or put a band together, but I wanted to wait until the time was right. I feel extremely privileged to have worked with some great musicians and I was perfectly happy in The The, but I guess I was waiting until I found some other musicians I could empathise with.
Then I had a chance meeting with Zak in New York and we really hit it off. We agreed to get together back in England and jam, and we had a really good time, so we started song-writing. The songs we wrote wouldn’t have worked in the context of a band like Electronic – I knew we had something different. We started looking to fill positions in the band, tried a few people out, then we came across Alonza and kind of became…complete. We then started looking for a singer and I found a guy in Manchester who I thought would be great, so I presented him to the rest of the band. They went off and came back saying I should sing instead…that was the start of the conspiracies against me! [laughs] That was their first uprising! [much laughter] We had recorded a demo and they said they preferred my vocals on it, so I became the singer. I trust ‘em, you know? They know what’s what. I guess they wouldn’t have suggested it if my singing hadn’t been up to standard…
So, we started recording an album and halfway through Liam and Noel came and asked us to play with them. That was really weird…I mean, obviously it was great to play in front of thousands of people, but it was really unusual, because no-one knew any of the songs. I suppose it was a blessing in a way…we knew we would stand or fall on just the music – we knew pretty quickly whether we were any good!
How was the music been received by your fans? Do you think it was what they were expecting?
I think there was some confusion for the first few songs, but after a bit people were shouting and screaming along. I mean, we headlined the Fuji Festival, playing to 50,000 people when no-one heard a note – that was very surreal! They dug it, so we knew we must have been a good band.
What were they expecting? Hmm…it would be interesting to know! The Smiths? I don’t see how without Morrissey. I have been lucky enough to play with some great people and in some fantastic bands like Electronic and The The, but now people will know where I’m at. It’s frustrating in a way, because my career has been a bit ‘virtual’. But it’s been a real privilege to have played with all those people.
For those who have yet to hear your music, how would you describe it?
Psychedelic glam-rock. You know, like most musicians, I’m not comfortable with labels. Some people have said to me it’s psychedelic, some say it’s rock, some say it’s glam, so I’ve just thrown them all together…[laughs]
Would you say there’s an element of recent Primal Scream in there?
I know Bobby [Gillespie] well, and one thing we have in common is a hatred of the current de-mystifying of rock music. It should be mystical. I find it absolutely loathsome that pop music is marketed like a can of beans. When I was young, I became smitten with pop music and how it made the world complete… That’s what bands should be doing – the fact that so many of them celebrate the mundane now is fucking tragic.
Yes, if you can’t look to rock stars to escape the mundane, who can you turn to?
You must have been exposed to more musical influences over the last 13 years than most people have in their lifetime. What, in particular, do you think you’ve absorbed into The Healers’ music?
I’d say the sound I’ve got now is everything I’ve done before, removed. That makes sense when you think about it logically… I have been so privileged to play with so many great people – Matt Johnson, Bernard Sumner… I took certain ideologies to the limit, especially with Electronic. Now, I’m turning my attention to playing some loud, aggressive rock with psychedelic melodies. You have to try and put your life into musical form. All the tracks on the single are a distillation of that – once you’ve done stuff, it’s gone.
One of the things that comes with success is that other layers of motivation come on top of the original motivation for making music – whether it’s staying on top, or pleasing your fans, or even the fact that you are employing people. All these things can get in the way of your original motivation to make music, so I took some time out to re-acquaint myself with that original motivation – what was it at 14 or 15 years old that fired me up? There is a timeless quality in the spirit – apart from maybe your mental capacity, you are the same person all your life – you have to stay in touch with that side of yourself. I just looked back at what buzzed me and set me on fire to begin with.
You have played with a real Who’s Who of music and even fulfilled your ambition of joining The The. What’s next?
Things find their own level, you know? I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve always just wanted to make music that makes people like me go “nice one”. Only recently have I started to think about getting big and keeping my ideals. At least that way we can follow records with other ones, even if it’s a risk…that’s the only upside of being really big…
What has been your most fun memory of your career so far?
Probably the very first time I saw the first Smiths single, holding the vinyl in my hands…we had made a record – it was a great feeling! Also, the first time I heard the finished version of “Get The Message”… The Healers headlined the Benicassim Festival last year and they ended up pulling the plug on us, which has always been my intention from the start…[laughs] This, my first solo single, as well… The first time I sang lead vocals, it was during a soundcheck in a very empty auditorium with Paul McCartney in the audience. Afterwards he came up to me and said, “You should have done that a long time ago!”
You mentioned an album. How close are you to putting it out?
I don’t know about that. I am looking for a home for my record label; I’d like to put it out on my on label. It’s called Pacific. I can’t believe no-one ever used that name before! [laughs] All the singles are there, anyway.
I know you are none too pleased with Warners at the moment. Has your experience with the business side of the record industry made you hesitant about which company you sign with?
Therein lies the problem. I wanted to put the first couple of singles out on my own, just so I didn’t have to explain to some record company what I wanted to do. I mean, I met with a couple of record industry guys… One of them wanted to have me walking through Barcelona in a white suit in the video for the single; another one wanted a guest appearance from Morrissey, I mean, hello…?!
There had to be some way to put the band together so that it didn’t splinter, and we didn’t succumb to drug or booze problems, so I was looking for a certain ideology, and that is what we have stuck to…The album should be out early next year.
As a big fan of New Order, have to ask about Bernard Sumner. What is he like to work with?
He’s amazing. Of all the people I’ve met – Jack Nicholson, Paul McCartney – he’s the coolest. He’s a real artist, you know? He knows himself, he’s a great friend and he doesn’t give a shit. I mean, I was out in Spain with him last week, just having a laugh… I think he’s been really overlooked as a guitar player… Bernard’s an artist, and if he hadn’t been into punk rock, he would have found way of expressing himself. You don’t step into Ian Curtis’ shoes and make even bigger music without being really smart. You know, he and I were in a band and we had a laugh. We lived for nine years in each other’s pockets, we’d even go on holiday together, yet we still didn’t drive each other mad. He’s a fun guy to be with, which is more than I can say for a certain other person…I think you know who I mean! [laughs]