Photo: Sean Dooley
Speaking exclusively to Designer Magazine we caught up with Manchester legend Johnny Marr to catch up on the all the latest Healers news. Over the past year he's been recording the Healers debut album, toured with Neil Finn and produced up and coming Manchester quartet Haven. Rather than run simply another retrospective piece on the Smiths we took time out to find about the fears and insecurities he had as a frontman, how it was Chrissie Hynde and the rest of the band who persuaded him he was up for the job and how he's taking it day by day. Read on to find a man living in the present day with his sights set firmly on the future.
Q: "The Last Ride" seem like a new beginning. Almost as if you're trying to wipe out the past and make the year 2001 year dot?
A: If it gives that impression I'm not unhappy with that, but I'm not trying to wipe out the past because the past is there and I'm fiercely proud of it - but you know the past is a long time ago. Its really nice for people to know where I'm at and to not have to talk about the past all the time. Just having a document out there saying this is what I sound like at the moment - where I'm at and where my heads out - and i just want to continue to do that really.
Lots of people have asked me about my ambitions for the new band and I don't really have any. All my ambitions are musical ambitions to keep on doing better stuff and get onto tape what's in my mind really. So in that way its a new start, but i'm really proud of the past and it would be churlish to complain about it - it doesn't seem that long ago that I was a frustrated musician waiting to get heard!!!
Q: It would have been so easy for you to right a 3 minute guitar pop song and go for instant chart success?
A: You can only do what you believe in can't you and it will stand or fall on its own merits. I can only do what I believe in anyway. If you're working on something you've got to be really passionate about it because for me its never been a hustle or a lifestyle for me. It was never "Ok then i'll be a guitarist, that's a good career because its a good lifestyle". Having guitars has always been part of my life as has being around musicians. It just always been my life like wearing shoes or whatever.
Q: And it does seem to kicking against everything around - the sort of light-weight music of today?
A: I don't get that - when did music become like sport!!!! I thought music was supposed to be different from the soaps and from the magazines. Now it just seem like music is just......pop music just seems to be a commodity like Eastenders. Yer know, just part of the culture - but to me it was supposed to be holding a mirror up to the culture and saying this part's shit and this part of the culture's great.
Now it just seem like the opinion of everyone who wants to conform. I'm not a class warrior or a political warrior. I'm not really a political person but if it was society I was interested in I would conform _ I think society sucks therefore I'm non-conformist and I want my music to sound that way.
Q: You've never really fitted into any particular scene over the years. Does it feel sometimes that it still is you against the world?
A: To be honest, as a person and as a little boy I didn't really think the world made very much sense until I discovered pop music. I'm not one of these people who thinks pop music isn't important, I think pop music is really critically important. If I didn't have pop music I'd feel it was me against the world because I wouldn't understand the world - but music makes me understand, yer know!!!!
That's the world that I built around me from being a kid and I can't really imagine life without it. Its not just a bloody commodity and I think it really important to some people. When I was kid and in school, I would play records really deafening volume at 8 o'clock in the morning - just playing the same song over and over again. Whatever that song was at that particular time the Patti Smith group or the Rolling Stones or Television or Magazine - I would play it until it filled me up and it took over my entire personality for that whole day.
I understand people saying that being a musician isn't as important as being a Fireman or being a Nurse - but when I was 15 and I needed to get through a school day I didn't need a Fireman!!! Its too late for me to think otherwise.
Q: Its better to stand up for what you believe in / be yourself in, rather than just fade into the crowd. Would you agree?
A: There's an interesting mythology about the pop music I grew up with in the 70s. Everyone wants to demystify themselves now and say "I'm just a regular guy". Well, I don't mind of not being thought regular. If regular guys are people who glorify hooligans, glorify beating people up when they're pissed or coked up on a Friday night then I don't wanna be a regular person. Pop music should be for people who don't buy into that ideology!!!!
I don't mean to sound mean to sound sanctimonious or taking the high hand because there's a lot of fantastic people and angels in the world. But I just feel that if you put them on the television I feel totally alienated. The messages that everybody's given are to dumb everyone down. There seems very little encouragement of individuality. People can't dress up now and walk down the street. I mean, when did that happen? Its not just punk or the 60s, we had it in the rave days - but now why does everyone look the same? Why is everyone afraid to stick their neck out and stand out and be different. Its because the masses are encouraged to be the same - were all encouraged to go to Starbucks or McDonalds and all wear the same clothes.
Why I mention all this is I think that's what's pop music for - its to stick your neck out and say I want to be different.
Q: Vocally and lyrically there must have been some insecurities - like a sense of "I'm Johnny Marr - I'm not allowed to do this"?
A: I was helped out because the decision for me to sing was made by the band - it wasn't made by me. I had a guy that I had in mind to sing in Healers. He really could sing and was a good guy but the rest of the band had a meeting and elected Zac to say that they wanted me as the singer. Apparently they preferred my singing cos' it was a bit weird.
I sang with the Pretenders live and I sung with The The and I sang on records with The Pet Shop Boys. Chrissie Hynde, Matt Johnson and Neil Tennant - they're not going to let you sing on their records if you're not any good. It was just discouraged really in the Smiths, it was like that isn't what i do.
Q: It must feel right singing your own lyrics and getting you're own thoughts and feelings out there rather than each bands respective frontmen?
A: The first time I was in this position I had to sing somebody else lyrics. Chrissie Hynde bullied me, I'm glad to say, into singing "Meat is Murder" at the Linda McCartney concert a few years ago. Before I was about to sing I realized a truism about singing and that was if you don't believe in what you're singing then it isn't right. I mean I've been vegetarian for 18 years now, but some of the lyrics I didn't agree with because I believe each to their own. I had a bit of a dilemma about it, but then I just changed some of the lyrics!!!!
I realized then that you're communicating something inside you and if you're not doing that it's just phoney. That's what is so liberating about the Healers. I've got some ideas that I want to get across and if I had someone else singing them or writing the lyrics then it would water it down.
Q: Was that the need for the significant break between the Smiths and the Healers?
A: I didn't really ever harbour any desire to sing, but I knew one day i'd want to put my own thing out. When I met Zac the drummer in New York I thought "right now, the time is right". Also music had got so far away from rock music in this country that it would have just fallen on deaf ears.
I was in a partnership that i really loved being in. I loved being in Electronic and I love being in The The so things rolled all right for me - I didn't feel frustrated in any of those bands.
Q: When you did the first few Healers gigs it must have been quite humbling to be supporting Oasis. After all these were guys that would have grown up listening to you.
A: Well there's not many bands Oasis can support because they're so big!!! I didn't ask to support them, they invited me out. This may sound a little unbelievable but about 3 weeks after we played the Bolton gig, I played in Plymouth at a place called the Wedgwood Rooms. It was a piss wet day, the ticket prices were too high, about 200 people were there and it was one of the best gigs of my life.
I've never really been that arsed about gigs to be honest and I realized later in life that I was unusual in that with most musicians 50% of the thing is to get up on stage and show off. For me all I ever wanted to do was be in a recording studio and make records - that was my thing.
Then I started to get this notion about gigs and the transference of energy. And basically what a noble notion that people who have all these problems (the problems that we all have) can forget those things for an hour. I know this has been said and it can sound quite trite but I thought it was really something. So i got to this gig as I say and I thought "Hey, Mr Transference of energy like - lets see how you handle this". When you haven't put a record out and no-one knows the songs its so easy for people to get distracted and that's the real test if you're any good.
So I didn't really give a shit about supporting Oasis and I didn't see it as being humbling. And I think humbling experiences are good for you anyway.
Q: Do you see it as a good or bad thing that the generation of 13 or 14 years olds won't know you're past. They may hear you on the radio and say "Johnny Marr & The Healers - who's this?"
A: I don't want people to focus on my past. If i was 14 or 15 and heard Healers I think i'd like it. but If I knew if was from a guy who was in an 80s band i'd probably be put off. I don't want to bring a load of baggage with me and i'm very flattered that people sight me as an influence, but you can't live of that.
You'd have to be some massive ego freak to think in 1988 I made this record blah blah blah - i'm always looking towards the record i haven't made and how to make it.
Q: You've got a couple of kids yourself. Do you find yourself acting the typical parent and saying things like "Why don't you listen to some proper music?"
A: Of course I do!!! Well I'm pretty lucky because my kids like loads of stuff. Do you know what is a weird one? The one or two tracks that my daughters played and I've been like "oh no, I don't like it". She'll play it 15 times and its exactly what I used to do.
My son, depending on what mood he's in, it can be anything from Bob Dylan to Limp Bizkit. Some morning I get up and I just put the pillow over my head. Its good though because it keeps you informed and puts your feet on the ground.
Q: Over the past year as well as working with the Healers you've been producing Haven's debut album. How's that been going?
A: I feel really privileged to be able to do it and be a musician. The Haven record is really good. Its really exciting for me when a band make their first album , that to me is the best bit. I turn down production all the time but we clicked - I'm friends with every member of the band and its got to be that way for me. I think they're the only band I really want to produce.
Its an emotional investment and you almost work more than you do on you're own stuff because its only polite. You feel a massive responsibility, especially when its a new band, to get it right for them. I couldn't do production as a career, it has to be personal for me.
I've been writing some songs with Beth Orton, toured with Neil Finn and did a Pet Shop Boys album as well. Make hay while the sun shines you know!!!
Q: And the Neil Finn shows. It seemed quite strange at one point that both yourself and Radiohead suddenly started endorsing someone, who up until that point, had been almost ignored.
A: To be honest I didn't realize how great Neil was until I started playing with him. A lot of the stuff he's know for it tied up with a production sound that is very slick and the way we played it was very raw. When you get inside those songs you realize what a talent he's got. I went over to Auckland with Phil and Ed O'brien to play with new musicians and learn some new songs and then 30 songs later (literally in a week) I realize what a great talent he is.
There is this assumption about Neil in that he's very pop or a light person. And he's not - he's as heavy as anyone I've met. He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met and he's got this talent that's either god given or crafted and the truth is its both. He's someone who's going to surprise a few people over the next couple of years.
I hadn't seen the Manchester Apollo rock that much since the days of Thin Lizzy. It takes someone like Neil Finn to get me playing "How Soon is Now?" - he did a good job of singing it as well.
Q: You do seem to be warming towards the old Smiths songs don't you?
A: I've only done them with Neil and the Linda McCartney thing someone had to do "Meat is Murder" - there was a bigger principle at stake other than some silly sort of pop notions. Its great to just get rid of sacred cows and put things in there context. I don't know whether Healers will do any Smiths songs because it gets back to that thing of believing in what you're singing. I think its a good thing that New Order do Joy Division songs!!!
Q: You're warming to the old days, so is Morrissey. Is conceivable that one day you guys may get back together?
A: Its not conceivable, not at all!!! The Smiths were put together, we were a bunch of strangers for all intents and purposes who then became incredible friends. Whereas every other band I've been in we were friends and then we decided to play. We came together to make that music so unless were going to be making music together then there's no point to be hanging about.
I don't have enough time to see the people i'm friendly with now. I don't believe in looking back. I don't believe to looking back to next week. There's too much to do.
Q: It must tarnish things a bit though. It would be good to look back and everything be perfect?
A: I thought everything was when I left. I didn't speak to the press or anything about the relationships in the band. The truth is I didn't speak to the press for ages because I didn't want to drag out any negativity. Then it got to the point 10 years after where there was the 5 years of the band and almost an entire industry built on back biting and negativity. I'd kind of had enough of it.
It was going against me that I'd kept my mouth shut and the typical thing is you do a couple of really big interviews. The 1st time with the BBC was 4 hours and the 2nd time with Mojo it was 5 hours. In those hours you make a point of how fantastic the gigs were, how Morrissey was a fantastic frontman, what magic we made in the studio, how close we were, the battles we fought against the radio - all these really good things. In that 5 hours you have 20 minutes of negativity and that becomes the story.
The rest of the band without exception have dragged that thing out for publicity. I don't mind saying that because its a matter of record that I didn't talk for years about it, but they would just go out and do all this negative stuff just to keep themselves in the papers. That's there hard luck!!!
Q: Back to the present day what's the future for the Healers?
A: After the 2nd single I want to do some more gigs. What I'm really excited about is wanting to put the album out on my own record label so that's what were working on at the moment. I've been trying to deal with all this business nonsense and touring with Neil so I'm waiting until we find a home for the label before we finish the album.
"The Last Ride" is out October 1st