If you have ever been to the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, you probably noticed that they have framed photos of many of the acts who have performed there: Blur, Radiohead and The Killers, just to name a few. These photos continue into the dressing rooms where I was to interview former guitarist for The Smiths, Johnny Marr, soon after the release of his first ever live album ‘Adrenaline Baby’. As he sat down I noticed that all of these photos were perfectly in-line with his head, almost making him look like one of them. He was sat next to a photo of the now late David Bowie, which I pointed out when he brought up the fact that he was one of the inspirations behind his new live album.
There was only one photo that was out of line in the entire room and it was instead placed directly above Johnny, as if it was intentional. That photo was of former bandmate, Morrissey. I was too afraid to point this out.
Having discovered Johnny Marr through The Smiths as a young teenager I of course wanted to ask him about his former bandmates, but it felt like a futile endeavour, as none of them have had great relationships with each other since the band broke up in 1987. However, to my surprise he brought them up more or less on his own on more than one occasion, citing their shared Irish heritage as one of the things that established a connection between them as individuals.
“Without discussing it, the Irish connection between all the band members was one of the main connections because that was just a coincidence. The band didn’t know each other. The three guys didn’t know each other. I was like the spokesperson and the centre of the wheel so I brought everybody in and it just happened that we all came from Irish families. That gave us something in common when we were learning about each other – we all had Irish mums and dads.”
Johnny Marr was born on Halloween in 1963 in Ardwick, Manchester and like many other Mancunian’s he has a long line of Irish family members. Luckily for us, this means that he always tries to come to Ireland whenever he tours performing at events such as Electric Picnic in 2013 and Leopardstown in 2014. “Everyone always has a good night when they play in Dublin. In my case, anywhere in Ireland or Northern Ireland, there’s some kind of special thing. Growing up in an Irish family and an Irish household, you’ve got all of your relatives there and you can’t escape your culture. I don’t particularly want to escape from it either but I don’t really get a chance to see everybody that much. It’s a feeling of familiarity.”
By the sounds of it, growing up in an Irish home in Manchester seems very much like growing up in an Irish home over here, “Me and my relatives all lived on the same street so every house you went into there were little harp ornaments and accordions and all of the religious Catholic stuff going on and the green, white and gold everywhere. St. Patrick’s night was always a big night”.
Of course, Johnny Marr and the rest of the former members of The Smiths are not the only Manchester musicians with Irish heritage. “A lot of Irish descendants became musicians, obviously the Gallagher’s and Mani from The Stone Roses – his family lived minutes away from my family in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We didn’t know that until we got into our thirties. We’re practically related.”
If you want to know more about Johnny Marr’s upbringing and the numerous bands that he has been a part of, you’ll be able to read all about it in his long-awaited autobiography. Fans have been waiting for an autobiography for years now and 2016 is finally the year, or so we hope, “I was going to say try and make sure to make the deadline but I’m not sure I’m going to make the deadline.” It’s quite reassuring to hear that even one of the greatest guitarists of our time still manages to put off doing his work just like us. “I’ve been procrastinating an awful lot and I’ve been finding all sorts of excuses to do other things.” However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel when you finally finish it, “I’m looking forward to getting it done so people can read it and stop hassling me about it and they can just read it. I’m writing it all myself and that’s quite an undertaking as you’ll know.”
Many musicians that Johnny Marr has worked with over the years have also written autobiographies. Morrissey’s autobiography, appropriately titled ‘Autobiography’, was released in September 2013 and more recently, Electronic co-founder and New Order frontman, Bernard Sumner, released his late last year. So has he had any advice from his friends? “Andrew Oldham who was the manager of The Rolling Stones in the ‘60’s, his book is great, so he’s given me a little bit of advice. Y’know mates just help each other out. Nile Rogers from Chic as well, he wrote his book a few years ago and he gave me a lot of encouragement. Their two books happen to be really good and they’re my good friends. One of my best friends for years has been Jon Savage, the journalist and writer, so I’ve seen at close quarters what it takes to write a good book. I’ve known Jon for about twenty five years now and you have to really lock yourself away and be disciplined about it.”
Adding to the list of his famous friends is Hans Zimmer, with whom who he has recently completed another film soundtrack. Freeheld, starring Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, is the third film soundtrack that Marr has officially worked on with the Academy Award-winning composer. When I brought up Hans Zimmer Johnny’s admiration for him is palpable. “Hans Zimmer is a really amazing person. He has the mind of a European intellectual and the soul of a rock musician. It’s a great combination. The music he makes is very beautiful and he and I have a lot in common. When we do things we tend to understand each other very well and we look for the beauty in music.”
Johnny Marr first worked with Hans Zimmer on Inception back in 2010. “When I started I thought the movie was beautiful and the music was even more beautiful. I was looking for something very simple and something that expressed the heart of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, who was searching for redemption.” So far it’s only been big Hollywood blockbusters that Johnny Marr has worked on but that might change in the future, he says.
“A movie doesn’t have to be a big Hollywood production for me to do it. I got lucky in the fact that the first few movies I did were big films. Maybe down the line I’ll do something that’s more obscure.”
Speaking of collaborations, at this stage Johnny Marr is almost known for his countless collaborations with other musicians. In the last few years alone he’s worked with the likes of Pharrell Williams, Alicia Keyes, Noel Gallagher and has even been an official band member in The Cribs and Modest Mouse. “You just want to work with someone when you hit it off, it’s great. It’s just such a joyous thing. Making records together is amazing. The process of making a record can really bring you together. Pharrell and Johnny Marr are seemingly two very different worlds but when we started writing songs together you find your common ground. Music is so great. You’ll know yourself when you go to school when you’re eleven and there’s someone in the class that you don’t think you’re ever going to get along with and then before you know it they’ve got the same music as you on their iPod and wear the same kind of clothes and you become really really great friends. I love that culture does that.”
By the looks of it, Marr has worked with every other musician working today, but he’s not done yet. As for future collaborations he says that he’d like to work with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist, Nick Zinner, “Nick is a very interesting musician, he’s great. If I had to pick anyone it’d be Nick.” Two of the greatest guitarists of our time working together? Now that’s something we would like to see happen.
But of course, it all started for Johnny Marr with his first band, The Smiths. The Smiths formed back in 1982 in their hometown of Manchester, England and their self-titled debut album was then released two years later. While the album was met with positive reviews by critics alike, it would never match the success of the album that followed a year later, Meat is Murder. To this day, Meat is Murder is the band’s only UK number one album having stayed in that position for thirteen consecutive weeks. Back in 1985, calling an album Meat is Murder was not a subtle statement and its effects are still being felt today. “The album being called ‘Meat is Murder’ was a statement you couldn’t ignore. If you were really committed to being a fan of the band then you were going to become a vegetarian, it was as simple as that. Then these people grew up and a couple of them were in Modest Mouse. The drummer, Jeremiah Green, one of the most interesting musicians that I’ve ever played with, was a vegetarian because he bought Meat is Murder when he was in his teens.”
Jeremiah Green isn’t the only person who is now vegetarian because of that album. I constantly meet people who are vegetarian at least partially because of Meat is Murder and I can’t even imagine how many Johnny Marr himself meets. As a vegetarian, it must feel great to have co-written the song that is the reason for so many people giving up eating meat. “I was always really proud of it when the record came out but when you’re younger you kind of take those things for granted a little more because there was so much going on around the band. When you’re older you realise how significant it is to influence someone’s life choices in such a big way… As I got older I started to realise what a radical thing it was to have your album called ‘Meat is Murder’ and see it go to number one in the UK. I’m very very proud of it. I have to say that was Morrissey’s doing. I didn’t call the album ‘Meat is Murder’ but I am very proud to have co-written the song.”
Meat is Murder has definitely had a lasting effect on Marr as he still doesn’t eat meat to this day. While many people may consider this a huge sacrifice, he doesn’t believe that it is. “My girlfriend back then, who is now my wife, was vegetarian and my best friend at the time, who was my song writing partner, was vegetarian so I just got on board with it. I don’t know whether the other two guys in the band stuck it out for long but it wasn’t that much of a commitment for me because, as I’ve often said, food wasn’t exactly high on my priorities. I was, what? 19? I just lived off of coffee and cigarettes and weed and hash so it wasn’t like some great sacrifice. I think people fetishize food too much. I know it’s slightly different subject but I believe very strongly in vegetarianism as something that’s better for the world. It’s certainly better for the animals and I’m proud of it from that point of view… But I’m also someone who doesn’t believe in telling other people how to live their lives so I just do whatever I can do to make the world a better place when I’m smart enough to think about it.”
Johnny Marr definitely does not live the lifestyle that many people would think a legendary guitarist would. Having been vegan now for the last ten years he is now completely teetotal as well. However, this doesn’t stem from any severe alcohol or drugs problem as many would assume. Instead, it was just “a progression in my life” and “seemed like much more of an appealing life.” Marr explains “the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle’ – smoking, drinking and taking drugs – I don’t have a moral problem with it but it’s definitely a little bit of a cliché if you do it in your thirties and forties. I think it’s in the rightful domain of the people in their youth. It has charm when it’s combined with youth but when you’re more mature and older you just fuck up and who wants to be that guy? It was more of a positive thing for me really rather than it being some negative thing. I felt that being very clear-headed and philosophical and fit and full of energy would give me the inspiration for me to do what I needed to do. It worked for Iggy Pop when he was young so why not me?”
Clean living isn’t the only thing that Iggy Pop has inspired Johnny to do. He lists Iggy Pop as one of his many inspirations when it came to making his live album, Adrenalin Baby. “When I was growing up, live albums were a thing that bands did and they were often not very good, but when they were good they were great. I had The Ramones one when I was a kid. There was an Iggy Pop one which I really loved. There was a Rolling Stones one and a David Bowie one as well.” This is the moment I pointed out the David Bowie photo next to him, “Spooky. Maybe he’s listening in.”
Adrenalin Baby was released in October of last year and is a perfect representation of what he has been getting up to during his recent solo career – creating two critically acclaimed albums while touring extensively with both them. The album was recorded at live dates in Manchester, Brixton and Glasgow and Marr modestly describes it as “a good document of the band right now.” His solo band is really the reason why the album was made in the first place, “This is going to sound very boastful but I know when you’re in a really good live band and I’ve got a great live band. I was prompted by a lot of people when we first got together because songs like ‘Getting Away With It’, that I wrote with Bernard Sumner, are very different the way we play it. That was it really – a combination of knowing that as a fan it would be a good listen and people asking me to do it. I’ve been asked so many times that I became convinced that it was a good idea.”
Although live albums are generally much quicker to make, Marr stresses that this does not make Adrenalin Baby any less of a real album. “It was just a matter of recording a few shows and going in the studio and resisting the temptation to tidy it up too much. Just get a few good versions and make it a proper record because to me it’s a proper record, it’s a proper release. It’s not just some kind of ‘content’, which is a word that I really loathe when it comes to music. Music shouldn’t be content, nor should it be a project. It’s a band and it’s an album.”As you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes into making any sort of album, from writing to recording to getting the right album cover, the latter being very important for Johnny: “The covers need to be proper record covers.” His debut solo album, The Messenger, was released in early 2013. Its cover art features a black and white photo of Marr which was shot in Berlin while he was recording the album. “I wanted a slightly European vibe, even if it was just me who knew that. Me and my friend who does the art for my sleeves and shirts and things were leaving the studio really late one night. I was at the end of making the record and I walked under that bridge: he was in front of me and he just took his camera out. As I walked under the bridge the sun came up so that’s why it’s all white behind me and we just managed to get that snap. He said something like, “do something that shows how your life feels”. I did this thing that looks like walking on a tightrope so that’s what I’m doing on that record cover. It’s just one of those things that all came together really quick. We thought we wanted a colour shot so then all day we took hundreds of pictures trying to recreate it in colour. We couldn’t get that. That’s art though – catching your inspiration at the right time.”
All of Johnny Marr’s records are also available on vinyl, which is one of the reasons why his cover art is so important as it’s on a much larger scale.. “Vinyl’s are beautiful objects. Older people sometimes talk to me about vinyls like they’re a retro thing but I’m saying “no, no, no”, younger people that I know see vinyls as things that are just much better than a CD. You got CD’s that are like “meh” and then you’ve got these great things that sound really great. It’s got nothing to do with “I wish it was like the old days”. Aesthetically it’s beautiful as an object. My bedroom was always just a display of records. My house now is a little bit like that now, I leave them standing up on the floor and next to cupboards because they’re good things to look at”.
It seems that Johnny Marr has gained a whole new generation of fans since beginning his solo career. His fans are no longer just people who grew up listening to The Smiths but they are instead those who discovered him though his solo work. The crowds at his gigs are getting younger and younger and I’m no longer the youngest person there, which is a first. While talking about his younger fans, Marr says, “It’s not really important to me if younger people like my stuff because I would understand if they didn’t, but when they do it just blows me away. Maybe that’s the secret – don’t try. I mean ‘Upstarts’ was written about a sixteen year old fan. She’s not sixteen now, I see her at the shows sometimes, she’s like eighteen now”.
Perhaps one of the reasons why he has had such an effect on his younger fans is that he was previously a lecturer at University of Salford. His time at University of Salford included hosting a number of workshops and masterclasses to music students and he says that he would go back and do it again if he had time. “Speaking personally, it’s something I really enjoyed because it’s something that’s happened to you where you’ve made mistakes and you think “okay everybody, don’t do what I did there”. It’s something that passes off as wisdom. You think, wow, that time I locked myself out of the studio and twenty years later I can say to someone, “make sure you have a spare set of keys” and someone writes it down like “yeah, good idea, Johnny”, that is now wisdom. It’s an overused phrase but you do feel like you’re giving something back and the young people who are interested in what I do are always very interesting people, always.
I’m not completely out of touch. I don’t live in a limousine or on top of some mountain somewhere but nor do I think it’s crucial for older musicians to have their finger on the pulse of the young or anything like that, because there’s something vaguely pathetic about that – but I get to learn too.”
Words – Sophie Butler
Images – Tarmo Tulit