Johnny Marr On Quitting School, Moving To Portland And Wearing Capes The former Smiths guitarist says he's always jumped at whatever situation will draw the best music out of him.

Johnny Marr On Quitting School, Moving To Portland And Wearing Capes

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Once again, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


LYDEN: And not just any old musician. Today, we're talking to a Godlike Genius.


LYDEN: Next week, guitarist Johnny Marr picks up the fabulously titled Godlike Genius award at a ceremony hosted by the British music magazine NME. They'll honor a life spent largely in the shadows, off to stage left, supporting some of the biggest band leaders in rock history: Chrissie Hynde, David Byrne and most famously, Morrissey. Together, those two founded one of the most influential British bands of the 1980s, The Smiths.


MORRISSEY: (Singing) You shut your mouth. How can you say I go about things the wrong way?

LYDEN: The Smiths shone brightly through four albums, then collapsed in spectacular fashion in a flurry of insults and lawsuits. Johnny Marr is about to do something he's rarely done in his esteemed career. He's releasing an album of his own. And his new solo work is called "The Messenger."


JOHNNY MARR: (Singing) I'm here and I'm ready. My time's for taking if you want. Who wants to be a messenger?

LYDEN: Johnny Marr says it's not really a true solo album because he's always got his band behind him.

MARR: I don't really know any other way of life. I'd say I'm a band animal because that's been my life from being 14. Back in those days, I was in a lot of different bands with nearly always much older people. I mean, I look back now and I think, wow, I mean some of the reprobates I used to play guitar for. But it was a good apprenticeship for me.

LYDEN: Right. So it's time for you to kind of, if you will, control the narrative. That guitar of yours has been such a passport through so many lives and collaborations, and now it's your narrative. You're the lead singer. I want to quote something, Johnny, that you recently told the music site Stereogum...

MARR: Yeah.

LYDEN: ...and that is - quoting you back - "Everybody that I've played with over the years has been very strong-willed and has had a very strong sense of themselves, which is something that I'm very drawn to."

MARR: Well, there's got to be something in the fact that I seem to attract and be attracted to very willful and what I think are fascinating people. All my friends and - who I've had strong full-time writing partnerships with - Matt Johnson, Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse, Morrissey, of course - I love them. They're very, very, very interesting people. You know, I did realize years and years ago that it must say something about me. You know, well, maybe I'm just good at containing some people, you know?

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, a good foil. But also - you just said - you pick some great collaborators. You know, you just mentioned the American band Modest Mouse.

MARR: Yeah.

LYDEN: They had just scored a huge hit before you joined, and then all of a sudden, you're in the band. How did that happen?

MARR: That happened because Isaac invited me primarily because he liked that I'd played with the Talking Heads. He tracked me down. We didn't know each other. And just consistent with what I used to do again as a teenager, I followed where I thought I would make some interesting music. But initially, it was just supposed to be an experiment. And the first night we got together in Portland, we started writing songs straight away. One of them was the song "Dashboard," which became the first single off the record.


ISAAC BROCK: (Singing) Well, it would've been, could've been worse than you would ever know...

MARR: And I woke up, I don't know, 4:30 in the morning, like, full of jetlag, you know, wide awake and thinking: Wow, did we just write, like, two really great radio tracks, you know, within a few hours of meeting each other? Oh, OK.


BROCK: (Singing) Oh, we talked about nothing which was more than I wanted you to know, oh, oh, oh, oh, now here we go.

MARR: You know, artists, I think, good artists know when they're on a roll. And they recognize when lightning is striking, I think.

LYDEN: Well, part of the gift, to know when you're in the groove, eh?

MARR: Yeah. It's a very fortunate thing - it's very lucky to have that inspiration and you know not to overanalyze it or mess with it and you just follow it if you love what you do.

LYDEN: I'm speaking with legendary guitarist Johnny Marr. His new solo album is called "The Messenger." Johnny, there's a song here called "New Town Velocity."

MARR: Right.

LYDEN: And it goes: Left home a mystery, leave school for poetry - really, you're really great with lyrics - I say goodbye to them and me. And, you know, what I guess I'm drawn to is that every one of these, I know that there - that a writer is behind this, that there is a story behind this.

MARR: Right. Thank you. Yeah. Well, "New Town Velocity," it feels like a song quite close to me because - there are only two songs on the record that are actually directly about me. "New Town Velocity" is one of them. I wrote directly about one summer's day, I decided just to not get on the bus to go to school and to leave school and not ever go back.


MARR: (Singing) Left home a mystery, leave school for poetry. I say goodbye to them and me - mission velocity.

I persuaded my then-girlfriend, who's now my wife, to also bunk off school. And it's about the feeling of the world, that occasional feeling that if you're lucky you get, that you can shape the world to your own destiny if you want or your own command. This feeling that anything is possible, the future is yours, the world is in your hands. It's an incredible human moment.


MARR: (Singing) I got to live it up, oh, oh. I can't resist, make for zero oh, no. It turned out like I said it would. Can I get the world right here. Step out to symphonies...

LYDEN: Johnny Marr, you are constantly besieged by fans and interviewers. They're saying, hey, is there going to be a Smiths reunion? And...

MARR: Yeah.

LYDEN: I understand it, that is never going to happen.

MARR: Yeah.

LYDEN: So have you been able to put your finger on this other feeling of why so many people want you to try and basically recreate the past like that in a way that's a lot less creative than the past you've just made come alive?

MARR: Yeah. Well, thank you for recognizing that. That's unusual, really. My experience tells me, unfortunately, that so many people ask the question about The Smiths re-forming without really, really caring about the answer. They just really want to ask the question. It's a little bit like a journalist Tourette's. So in some ways, I don't look at it any deeper than that.

But to be fair then to the people who do care, I'd like to say I think that maybe it's because some people are nice enough to hope that there will be some big happy ending, and it sort of plays into this nice story. Well, the fact is there is a happy ending. I'm happy, and it's all cool. You know, it's slightly difficult when people assume that, well, your life will be complete, or everybody's life will be complete if this band from 25 years ago re-formed.

Well, guess what? Life doesn't need that to happen for things to be OK, really, surely. My goodness. Go and see the Dalai Lama or something. That'll make you feel better. It's fine. Really, chill.


LYDEN: Johnny Marr. His new album is called "The Messenger." And you can hear a few tracks at our website, Johnny, thank you so much.

MARR: Thanks, Jacki. That was fun. Thank you.


MARR: (Singing) Oh, I feel it coming round. I hear it. Sounds like the good life. I know. Oh, I feel it running down. Defiance comes, ooh.

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