It’s been a long time coming. After leaving The Smiths 25 years ago, guitarist and founding member Johnny Marr has (finally) struck out on his own with The Messenger. But that’s not to say he hasn’t been busy. Over the course of the last two decades, Marr has lent his talents to everyone from The Pretenders to Modest Mouse to, most recently, The Cribs, as well as written music for films and produced albums. “I was a super studio rat, and I thought that was where I wanted to be forever,” he said recently from his rehearsal space in the U.K.
For fans, The Messenger is classic Marr, filled with bright Brit pop melodies and jangly guitar riffs that lovingly nod to his post-punk past. It’s a record that’s big, dreamy, and, many would argue, well worth the wait. This Thursday, April 18, Johnny Marr plays the Santa Barbara Bowl alongside New Order for a night that, Marr admits, even he’s excited about.
After so long, what made now the time to do a solo record? I’d been touring for so long, so my enthusiasm for getting back in the studio was really high. In my case, it was unusual just because I’d spent year after year before I joined Modest Mouse full-time being in studios and working on people’s records. But when Modest Mouse started touring, we played and played, and I really got to like it. I went from one extreme to the other, and it really surprised me. So when it came back to being in the studio to work on my own stuff, it was somewhat of a novelty. It made me really happy and taught me not to take things for granted.
What kind of headspace were you in going into the recording process? I couldn’t get into the studio quick enough, but I didn’t have a super concrete plan. I thought over the years that it’s nice to keep some things mysterious and up to the process. I took a lot of things that I wanted to say lyrically, but you don’t really know how it’s going to go until you start doing it. … I knew it was important to not analyze the hell out of what I was going to do before I did it. I knew I wanted to make a record that was good to play live, that expressed things that I’m interested in, that hopefully people could relate to. I wanted the fans to like it; I knew that much. And that came directly from playing to a lot of different people between 2005 and 2010.
You’ve talked a bit about how you wanted to make a record that wasn’t overly introspective. Are there certain lyricists that you looked to for guidance? Brian Eno in the mid-‘70s was really definitive and set the tone for a lot of the music that became new wave and punk rock. On the more classic tip, someone like Ray Davies, who was able to sing about his environment — I know he sang about himself, too, but he’s someone who’s more looking out than looking inwards. I always liked Lou Reed for his observational and storytelling techniques. There are quite a few people. I just wanted to deliberately avoid some situation where I was just putting my feelings onto rockin’ music. There seems to be a certain trend towards earnestness in rock music, and I think it’s boring.
Do you feel like that’s pretty indicative of your disposition, not wanting to navel-gaze? Yeah. It just doesn’t seem very interesting to me. The things I am interested in, like my environment and the feeling I get in cities and the energy of cities and travel and society, make for cooler music when it’s put together with electric guitars and drums. It’s not all “me me me me me me me.” Being a songwriter is such a cool thing if you look at it as a creative way to come up with poetry that perhaps moves at the speed of life. I wanted to make a record that you could get into when you’re on your way to work, or on your way to school, or traveling on the train. I certainly didn’t want to make records that you kick back to at 1:30 in the morning with a glass of red wine and some candles. Or a joint.
You’ve spent a chunk of the past few years in Portland, Oregon, yet you decided to make the record in England. Why? I was on tour a lot in the U.K. and Europe directly before making the record, so I was getting out and about quite a lot in the day, moving around town a lot in different cities. Portland is a city that really suits me, and I fell in love with it like a lot of people fell in love with it for all the reasons that most musicians and people on the political left do. It’s a very groovy town, as everybody knows. But [for the record] there’s an energy and a certain kind of uptight attitude that I thought it might be good to be around, and the place to do that is the U.K. I also recorded some stuff in Berlin, just so it wasn’t U.K.-centric. I didn’t want to be that guy making a “British record,” so to speak. I just knew it would be good to go back and be in the place where I got a lot of my values for the kind of rock music I was working on in the days before The Smiths.
You’re playing in Santa Barbara with New Order. You guys go back a long time. Yes. Bernard Sumner and I were writing songs together for pretty much nine years in the ’90s, so New Order feels like family to me in many ways. I grew up around the time when Joy Division was putting records out, so Steve Morris will always be one of my favorite musicians. It’s been an interesting thing to see them evolve over the years and be sometimes quite close to some of those really great records they made. They were a part of the music community and came up around the same time as The Smiths, and, in more recent times, they’ve become friends of mine. They’ve got quite an amazing legacy and have become this really good live event. A lot of that has to do with the songs, but there’s also this relationship between them and the audience now that’s really great to see. And they sound really good. It’s going to be a lot of fun. They’re also older than me, and I’m always going to like that!
Johnny Marr and New Order play the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) on Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.