Fun Fun Fun Fest Interview: Johnny Marr

Smiths guitarist puts emotions in motion

Fun Fun Fun Fest Interview: Johnny Marr

He’s been a Smith, a Pretender, and in Modest Mouse and the Cribs. With that first band – the Smiths – he created the blueprint for English indie-pop in the Eighties, and co-wrote the style’s most potent songs. He’s possibly the most influential UK rock guitarist of the late 20th century. He even has his own signature Fender model.

Now, Johnny Marr – who turned 50 on Halloween – returns as a solo artist with The Messenger, channeling the spirit of the post-punk of his youth. It’s the most vibrant Brit-pop album of the year. Prior to his Fun Fun Fun Fest set at Auditorium Shores Friday (4:15pm, Orange stage), Marr spoke to us from a tour bus, hurtling to the next stop on his Scottish tour this fall.

Austin Chronicle: How’s this tour been going for you? You’re coming straight over from Europe to play Fun Fun Fun Fest?

Johnny Marr: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. We’ve just been playing everywhere over here. The record came out in February, and we’ve been to the States a couple of times so far. We always like to go back, because we get such fun shows there and we get to see a lot of my old friends there, as well.

AC: Is this the first time you’ve played Austin solo?

JM: I think it’s the first time I played there. I might have played there with the Healers, I think, maybe in 2002. [Ed. note: Marr played with the Cribs at the Parish in 2010.] But under my own name? This is the first time. Looking forward to it, because everybody in the UK knows Austin as a major musical city.

AC: You’re no longer with the Cribs. What made you decide that you wanted to go back to doing your own thing?

JM: It was really the songs. I had ideas for songs, and I couldn’t wait to get into the studio and do them. It wasn’t a matter of me thinking I wanted to do a solo thing and then trying to decide how to go about that. I just had a lot of ideas of lyrics and a lot of concepts of what I wanted to sing about. I started to set them to music, and there was just no need to invite someone to collaborate, no need to invite someone to sing, because it was personal to me. So me and [bassist] James [Doviak] co-produced it.

The music didn’t follow my life. My life followed the music. If you keep doing that in your life, you’re very lucky. But that’s what happened, and that’s what I continue to do at the moment.

AC: Moving back to the UK was part of your process to shift back into this phase in your music.

JM: Yeah, I needed to do that. It had nothing to do with nostalgia or any kind of sentimentality. I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t mind it in other people, but it does nothing for me. I’m always very excited about going forward. But I wanted to reconnect with a certain kind of attitude in the music that I was playing before the Smiths, which was the time I was around 17. I was writing in a certain way and inspired by the bands after punk rock in the UK – the way those bands did things.

It may have been a bit of superstition or something like that, or a bit of nonsense theory, but I suddenly had the idea that I needed to be in the place where I was when I made that connection. The bands weren’t all necessarily English bands. I liked Television a lot, and I very, very much liked Blondie. I liked a lot of bands like Pere Ubu.

I guess it all comes under the banner of New Wave, but because I had all those experiences in the UK, I needed to be where I made that connection, and I suppose that had to do with association memories. I felt that I was almost too comfortable in Portland, Ore. I assume it would’ve been a different record had I made it out in Portland. I needed to get a bit uptight, and Manchester is a good place to get a bit uptight!

AC: You’re one of the most distinctive guitar players in UK history, but not in the same way that Keith Richards is recognized. There’s nothing that you can say is a “Johnny Marr-type riff,” or a “Johnny Marr guitar sound.” You have a very diverse way of playing, yet people somehow know it’s you.

JM: It’s all to do with using the guitar as a machine to get an emotion. I like what the guitar can do in four minutes. I’m not a snob about pop music. I think pop music is very good. It’s undeniable. It could be something like a cut by OutKast or some silly bubblegum from back in the day or some Sixties record. If it makes you feel really good, I’m all for it. And if what you gift wrap in a tune gets on the radio, then I really love that.

But I also go back to a time when pop music was made by electric guitars, in the Seventies, with great bands like the Sweet and T-Rex, David Bowie, and Roxy Music. It’s what I guess was called “bubblegum” in the UK, or glam rock. But those are amazing sounding records! Essentially, they’re rock & roll records, just modernized. I’m just not a snob about things, really. I guess I try to think of the guitar as being something emotional – intensely happy or intensely sad. I guess that’s a simple way of describing what I like to do. As long as it’s got something emotional to it, I’m happy.

I’m not really interested in just banging on a groove or playing on one chord for five minutes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That just doesn’t connect with me very much.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Johnny Marr, Fun Fun Fun Fest 2013, Smiths, Healers, Cribs, Television, Pere Ubu, Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, OutKast, Sweet, T-Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music, the Pretenders, James Doviak, Modest Mouse, Blondie

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