Johnny Marr has no negative thoughts about The Smiths, seriously
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At age 19, guitarist Johnny Marr coerced an eccentric young Manchester writer named Steven Morrissey to join him in a band they’d call The Smiths: the name chosen to reflect the duo’s original sound and aesthetic, which was all about simplicity and classicism. Within a year, they’d recruited drummer Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, and in 1983 the band released its first single on Rough Trade. Over the next four years, The Smiths released four LPs and a slew of 45s, winning legions of fans (and more than a few detractors) with their jangly guitar-pop, distinguished by Marr’s inventive riffs and Morrissey’s exaggerated croon and half-dramatic/half-comic lyrics. The band broke up acrimoniously in 1987, tossing accusations back and forth about unreliability and financial mismanagement. Marr has gone on to work extensively as a solo artist, sideman, producer, and collaborator, sharing stages and studios with musicians as diverse as Pet Shop Boys and Hans Zimmer (for whom he played guitar on the Inception soundtrack). Marr spoke with The A.V. Club about his career, and about The Smiths Complete, a beautiful Rhino box set that brings together all of the band’s albums and singles collections in sterling-sounding new editions supervised by Marr himself.
The A.V. Club: The Smiths albums have been rereleased before, but never in a package quite like this. How does it feel to have this music that you created when you were so young preserved in such a prestige format?
Johnny Marr: Well, this is the first time since the records were made that they sound right. There was one compilation that I liked a few years back called The Sound Of The Smiths, but up until then, and when they’d been put out in the ’90s particularly, they’d been messed with and sounded terrible. It was a real source of frustration for me. Every time I would hear a CD in a store or something, I would start thinking, “Whoa, I’m sure it didn’t quite sound this thin,” or “Why is everything so bright and happy-sounding?” I fought a real battle for quite a few years to be able to get the opportunity to fix it, and what I did wasn’t so much remastering as—in my mind—restoring. Because I really didn’t put a lot of stuff on; I just took off all of the silly stuff that was put on during the ’90s.
So from that point of view, it’s been very, very gratifying. The process was a lot of work and was more concentrated than I expected, but it was worth it because there’s not one person that’s said it doesn’t sound like the old records. I didn’t put the music on steroids, so to speak. I didn’t jack anything up; I didn’t try to make it the loudest record on iTunes or anything like that. I just wanted it to sound like I remember it sounding in the studio. The facts are that when I got the original tapes and put them put them up on the machine, they really didn’t need very much done to them at all, so I knew I wasn’t that crazy. [Laughs.]
Packaging-wise, I have to be fair and say that I think the label’s done a really good job with the boxes, and really have stayed true to the original designs, not putting anything that doesn’t represent the group on the cover, which is another thing that happens.
AVC: Were there any discussions at any point of presenting the music in any other way than in the form of the original albums? Like, say, a “Complete Smiths” with all the songs in chronological order or anything like that?
JM: No, because the whole point was to be faithful. To represent the body of work with integrity. I’ve had no problem with shouting out and complaining for years about my right to have my records sound the way I made them, and when I started sitting there with Frank Arkwright, the mastering engineer, to go through the songs, the realization came to me clearly that I mustn’t mess this up. [Laughs.] It was quite a task, because I felt a responsibility to the other Smiths members, and a responsibility to the people who love the music.
Come to think of it, that was a lot like my experience of being in the band, and being who I am anyway: feeling a responsibility to the other members of the band, primarily, and then a responsibility to people who already love the music. About three or four songs in, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, you’ve got to make every song right, and you can’t mess this thing up or else you’re be in big trouble.” My head was on the chopping block from all corners, really. So I’m super-pleased everybody seems to like it and understand why I wanted to do it.
AVC: When you hear these old songs, do they conjure up memories of when you were recording them? Do you still have that sort of connection, or have you heard them so much that you can’t have that same kind of feeling?
JM: I’ve almost never played the Smiths records, once they’ve gone out. I was always like that and probably always will be. It was so intense when I made them. Whether they were made quickly or took a long time, it’s still the same all-encompassing experience for me. It’s almost in my muscle memory, so to speak. There are plenty of Smiths songs that I haven’t heard for years because they don’t get played in stores, or on the radio, or in the movies, or I don’t play them live. So I haven’t heard them for many, many, many years. However, when one comes up, I know every note that’s about to happen just before it happens. I know every tambourine hit. I know every discreet hidden piano overtone. It’s uncanny. There aren’t too many sonic or musical surprises.
But to answer your question, yes, I was transported back to a lot of different feelings. Not for the entire period that I was remastering all the songs, but here and there. I remember feeling as I did when I was making those records and it was a very… There were many feelings of love. [Laughs.] For want of a better way of putting it. And that’s why I sent an email to the members of the band saying I can hear the love in it, you know? It wasn’t nostalgia. It was partly because we’d managed to capture the atmosphere of where we were at, on the records. We weren’t one of those bands who designed songs over a period with different producers or an A&R man. We were a bunch of young guys who were super-tight, very close, and isolated, who would get in a car or a van and go into the studio with just us and Stephen Street or sometimes John Porter. And we would just put our vibe, or our world, into the sound of the songs we’d written. It wasn’t music made by a committee or by the record company. We were left alone to do it ourselves, to get on with it and just do it. Whatever was going on with the group on a day-to-day basis was worked into the sound of the band. The atmosphere of Meat Is Murder is very much of us on a very bleak and blustery industrial estate in Liverpool in 1985, and of how we were feeling as 20-year-old young men.
So those memories came back to me and were a pleasant surprise. It’s quite intense though. It wasn’t really a nostalgic trip down memory lane, because there was a lot of technical work to be done and a lot of focus and a lot of concentration. It’s what I do and what I’ve done for years now. I did it when I was in the band, and I’ve done it for 25 years since I’ve turned solo. I’m a working musician and I get the job done, so I wasn’t too carried away or getting too misty. But yeah, sure, there’s a lot of feelings in there.
AVC: Those first Smiths albums sounded very different from anything else coming from your part of the world at the time, and yet at least from what we heard about here in the U.S., the band seemed to be pretty well accepted from the beginning. Did you meet any resistance to your sound when you were first starting out?
JM: Oh yeah, sure. The first eight or nine months of the group’s life were just Morrissey and myself trying to find the right other two—which we did, eventually—and trying to find places to practice, and trying to find people who might know someone at a record company, and trying to get some demo time. Because we were really broke, and just had each other, and my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife. Oh, and also our manager, who is still my manager to this day. The few resources we had, we tried to work with, but as I say, we were pretty skint. Because the word in Manchester was that we were just too weird. [Laughs.] Our very early songs, like “Suffer Little Children,” “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle,” and “You’ve Got Everything Now,” which were represented on the first record, eventually, were pretty weird songs to start out with.
So yeah, there was some resistance. We didn’t have to battle for years like some groups do, though, because people saw the good in us essentially quite quickly—say, after a year of performing. Which could’ve been worse. What really happened was that our first set of songs went into an aborted version of our first record that never came out—which actually is a more faithful document of where the band really was. They were what we playing, and what were people’s introduction to us, in terms of people on the street and the people that would come see us opening up for other groups and all that. But when we signed to Rough Trade and got some support from people like John Peel after our first year, which is relatively soon, we quite quickly found our songwriting feet, and Morrissey and myself were able to sound like the band that people know. I guess we got slightly more listenable and more commercial.
We were never a “straight” band. We always knew that we were our own thing and were kind of unique, but we wrote a few hits. Amazingly, we were able to be who we were and actually get into the charts and then start playing quite big shows. From after that first year, we got accepted quite quickly. But the radio in the UK played us very reluctantly, and had to play us because we were big, and not the other way ’round. It wasn’t the radio or TV that made us big; it was our shows and the reaction of people at our shows that meant that the “straighter” kind of industry couldn’t really ignore us. We had a strong connection with our fans, and that really came through playing shows. The John Peel show was the one radio show that played us, but regular daytime radio hated us, really. And radio in America was just a no-go for us, really, because it was all Tears For Fears.
AVC: You mentioned John Peel, and some of your recordings from John Peel’s show later made it on to your actual albums. Did you prepare for a John Peel session the same way you would for a regular recording session?
JM: Absolutely not, except for one occasion when we needed an extra song and I wrote “This Charming Man.” There was great pressure, and something really helpful came out of adversity. [Laughs.] I had no idea what a John Peel session even was when we did our first one, other than that we’d heard that the engineers were all these grumpy, old, stuffy engineers, and that turned out to be true. You’d get in there at 10 in the morning, so in our case we’d have to take off from Manchester at like 6 a.m. And you’d have to have four finished songs by 9 or 10 o’clock at night. Our first session was so popular that it got repeated quite quickly, and then we got invited back to do, I think, three more. So obviously it wasn’t so much of a surprise on our subsequent sessions. We just played what we were playing live.
I think the answer is that we were always working and always writing new songs, so we played whatever new songs we had at that time. Luckily for us, we seemed to always have new ones. But in the case of “This Charming Man,” we had a John Peel session at the end of a week, and I had a vague idea of what songs we were going to do, but I felt like we needed a cheery one and a kind of commercial one. So that just got me to do the hard work and get it together. I leapt out of bed one morning, and the kind of pressure of it made me come up with that riff. There was also a little bit of competition in the case of that moment, because Aztec Camera, who were also our labelmates at Rough Trade, were starting to get on the radio, and I wanted to get on the radio too, or at least give it a try. Luckily, I was feeling pretty chipper that day, and the sun was coming through the window at 11:30 a.m. or whatever time it was, and I just put that riff down. But essentially, we needed a certain kind of song for the John Peel session, and that’s how that happened.
We never rehearsed for anything though, The Smiths. We never needed to because we were always playing. From when Morrissey and I first met to the last days of the group, we were The Smiths every day, all day, and didn’t need any reason to not be. I think Mike went on holidays, but aside from that, it never occurred to us to take a break because we were doing what we loved, you know? Every day.
AVC: In the songwriting process, how much input did you all have into each other’s parts? Did you offer suggestions about the lyrics? Did Morrissey offer suggestions about the music? Did the other band members add their own thoughts?
JM: I never had any suggestions about the words, and Morrissey never needed to tell me what to play. Right from the very start… Well, the group’s start was just me on my own, trying to get a group together, and then I approached Morrissey, and from that moment it suited us both fine that I did the music and he did the words and the vocals. And it stayed that way all the way through the group. Of course, we had an amazing rhythm section. Andy Rourke and I had been playing together from 14 or 15, and we had a very great musical chemistry. Andy’s just a very respected and unusual musician. Over the years, every bass player I know has always quizzed me about Andy and what he did. We fit together very well. And Mike was exactly the right person for the job. We were very tight and we just clicked together.
I would come up with some chord changes and a riff on top and give it to Morrissey on a cassette, and he’d have his side of it worked out. We would go in the studio, and I’d play it around a few times with Mike and Andy, and we’d get it sounding like the band, then Morrissey would sing on it, and then we’d record it. I’d make sure we got the vocal on it, and then I would start putting the “guitarchestra” on it, layering lots and lots of guitars. The rest band of the band would just leave me to it because they trusted me, and there was a job to be done. It was all in the spirit of encouragement and oneness. Why do it any other way? We all had our system, it worked perfectly, and everybody was very happy to do it that way.
AVC: So there was never a time where, say, you brought in the track for “How Soon Is Now?” and the band would say, “This doesn’t sound like The Smiths”?
JM: No, no. We spent a whole lot of time together, so we kind of thought like a four-headed beast. This very wrong idea has grown up over the years about us living on different planets, because we’re both quite different people, Morrissey and myself, but we were actually incredibly close. And all four of us would see each other every day for five years, so we listened to the same type of music, we all had similar influences, and we were all very much on the same page. In the case of “How Soon Is Now?” and many other tracks, there was a real spirit of… not experimentation, but discovery. The other members of the band were always really encouraging and super-happy with whatever road I wanted to go down musically, and vice-versa.
AVC: What about the packaging of the band? Your records had a very distinctive look. Was that something you all agreed on as well?
JM: Same as with the above. We were all fans of what we were doing. Morrissey did all the artwork, and it was always a surprise, and a great sense of anticipation of what was going to happen next. I loved the sleeves, and I still do. Obviously you have your favorites or some you like over others, but I like them all. That was there from day one as well. Even when we were making little cassettes, Morrissey would do little photocopied ideas on the cassettes. Just like the music, it’s like, “This is what we’re going to do today, and here it is.” There wasn’t stuff laying around on the cutting room floor, musically or aesthetically. We didn’t try stuff that didn’t work. Everything we did, we put out. Every song, every sleeve.
AVC: You mentioned the early version of the first album that you scrapped. Did you consider including that in the box set? Or any other kind of rarities, like live tracks or alternate takes?
JM: I would’ve liked to, but the label’s got some kind of legal issue there that I never want to talk about, so that’s unfortunate. There are monitor mixes and instrumental versions and slightly different versions of songs. When I said that nothing ended up on the cutting-room floor and nothing ever didn’t come out, I meant songs. There aren’t any songs that didn’t come out. There were versions of the songs, though, where I put keyboards on it, or before some strings went on, or extra guitars. I went through everything, and there were a lot of nice things, like unplugged kinds of things, that are valid and do have integrity and that I would like, at some point, to see the light of day. I think they’ve come out on some bootlegs over the last few years, and fans really like them and they’re good. But I can’t say why they won’t go out.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that radio kind of had to play you because you were already popular. Was there any hesitation, do you think, in the mainstream culture because of Morrissey’s sexuality? Was there sort of a homophobia of some kind, maybe?
JM: Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. I think we just weren’t Tears For Fears or Fine Young Cannibals.
AVC: You talked about your Rough Trade labelmates Aztec Camera. The UK pop scene has a reputation for bands being very competitive, much like you mentioned. Did you have colleagues in the scene that you were friends with? Or was it all sort of every man for himself?
JM: Well, I played on Billy Bragg’s records, and he came on tour with us and we had a respect for Billy, because he was a great songwriter and he was politically aligned with us. There was Kirsty MacColl of course, who I went on to write some songs with and had a very strong friendship with. We respected Kirsty. I personally liked a number of things that New Order did, even before The Smiths. They were like the new band around when I was a kid, or in my teens anyway, in Manchester. So I had a respect for New Order, and Bernard Sumner, which I guess was the main reason why I went on to work with him all through the ’90s. There was a band called James that we took out on the road with us. Everything But The Girl were around. I thought the Bunnymen made some good records. But I can only speak for myself.
We detected a slight feeling of resentment from The Fall when we started getting popular, I guess because we made the label very busy. [Laughs.] But you know, what’s new? Mark E. Smith has kind of made a career out of being resentful, so it didn’t bother us too much. It was a little bit of a shame for me because I was a fan of The Fall when I was a kid, so that kind of disappointed me at the time, I remember. But I don’t think there was too much competition. You know, we were bumping into bands on TV shows, and I liked just whoever was making good music. There were plenty of bands that were kind of dominating the airwaves and MTV who we didn’t like. The usual culprits, you know—the kind of major label, very, very straight groups.
JM: Well of course it’s an honor—absolutely. There’s no bigger honor. Occasionally, though, there’s a sound from some of those groups that is, shall we say, quite fey. I’ve heard some records by bands that came after us who had their music been any more fey and lightweight, then I’d expect petals to come out of the speakers. [Laughs.] That’s kind of missing what we were about, because The Smiths were not all “Oscar Wilde at 3:30 in the afternoon” and feyness. The truth of it is, if you were to see any songs from any of our shows, we were, what I would say, quite heavy. Even the ballads were intense. We were a rock band, really, that played a type of pop music, if I care to analyze it. I don’t know very much about The Wedding Present’s music, but what I’ve heard of Belle & Sebastian was often quite fey, and light in a very deliberate way. I think they have their own thing, which is absolutely fine. But I don’t actually think they sound like The Smiths.
AVC: There seems to be a lot of current American independent bands trying to recapture the sound of your first album. I keep thinking that they should listen to The Queen Is Dead or Louder Than Bombs. Get a little more muscle into it, you know?
JM: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, that’s interesting. I wasn’t aware that bands were trying to sound like the first album. I became aware over the years that Meat Is Murder was the main introduction to The Smiths for many people in America, I guess because “How Soon Is Now?” is on the American release. And that’s quite gratifying, because we made that record without any singles on it as such. We didn’t care about singles on that record; we just made what we thought would be a great album, or as good an album as we could make. It’s not trying to be a radio-friendly record—though we were always fairly melodic. I’m really happy that most people’s introduction to this unusual group from England was actually called Meat Is Murder. [Laughs.] You know, I’ve been a vegetarian since then.
AVC: You mentioned the albums versus the singles, and you recorded lots of singles that were not ever released on a proper album, only on anthologies. How did you decide that, say, “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” would go on The Queen Is Dead, but “Shakespeare’s Sister” would be a single?
JM: We were fans of the 45, and we always thought like fans. It didn’t occur to us that it would be much more profitable and business-savvy to wait to record these songs when we had another nine songs to sell off the back of it. It was really when we got to America that the label had to deal in those terms, because the 45 culture was even less in the States than it was even in England at that time—and it was fairly non-existent in England. When we got over there, they didn’t really know how to deal with us, because we had these very strong tracks that were very popular, but they just existed in isolation. And this was at the start of video culture, and the idea was you spend massive amounts of money on the one lead song that then sells your album. Well, we didn’t want to make videos, and we had these songs that weren’t even attached to the albums. [Laughs.] We just thought the 45 was really valid. It was just being led by our love of the culture, and being fans, and an acute disregard for business.
AVC: There’s a documentary about The Clash, made when Joe Strummer was alive, in which he talks about all the little things that led to the breakup of The Clash, and how he wishes he could go back to that person he was in his 20s and say, “None of this matters. The addictions don’t matter. The personality conflicts don’t matter. You are in one of the greatest bands of all time. Don’t fuck it up.” Do have a similar feeling about the end of The Smiths? What’s your take on how and why everything fell apart?
JM: Well, I don’t think anything was fucked up. I don’t have that kind of perspective at all. I think it’s sad that four guys who were so tight went through such bitterness, that was encouraged by the behavior of some members of the band. Obviously, it was very emotional. The band was incredibly dramatic, and I’m philosophical about that because I think without that dramatic element, some of the music wouldn’t sound the way it does. Not all, but some. I think the only regrettable thing is that as adults, only Andy and myself get together and give each other a hug and make fun of each other and like seeing each other. To be honest, it’s unfortunate that The Smiths don’t have the relationship where they can sit around and even get complaints out, or philosophize. That’s unfortunate for four adults who are always going to have a tie to each other. And unfortunately lots of water’s gone under the bridge, you know? But I can only speak for myself, and say that I don’t have any negative thoughts about the times back then or the times now, or the people in it. I just personally feel a sense of pride, and an incredible degree of luck. All I want to say about that, on behalf of the other three members of the group, is that we worked very, very hard and we really, really cared.
AVC: Once the band was over, you worked on a lot of different projects: Electronic, The The, The Pretenders. On a lot of those, you seemed to be purposefully not using your sort of Smiths-y guitar sound.
JM: Yeah, I think that’s right. One of the reasons why I wanted the band to end anyway was because I wanted to try to learn to be a different kind of guitar player, which I saw as progress. Because at 24, you really hope that you haven’t learned all you’re going to learn. I mean, that’s the way I feel even now. For someone like me, that would be very disappointing. So for me, that was the reason for the band ending. It wasn’t just all personal, or business. It was musical. Who wants to be put in a box at 25 years of age? Throughout my career, I’ve had an agenda not to rely on a “signature sound,” and to try not to repeat myself.
Things change somewhat when you get older. You get a slightly different perspective. By some weirdness, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve played a Smiths song in front of an audience. That’s partly because plenty of other people have done it, and because the songs are mine. And as a more mature person, I’ve had the realization that when I play these songs in front of an audience, there’s a great feeling in the hall. Things have become much more simple, really. I don’t look at it any more deeply than that. If I play “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” and it’s a song that I feel okay singing, there’s a fantastic feeling in the room. That’s it.
But as a musician, I wouldn’t change a note that I’ve played, because I’d hate to think of just years and years of playing the same way. All I can say personally is that I feel like I’m a better musician through everything I’ve done. It’s been hard-fought, but worth it. And I think after a while, people started to understand what my motivation was and go with me on it. So people now know that I change when I do something like Inception, or when I play with a band like Modest Mouse. And then I’ll do something else. But really I was that way before I formed The Smiths anyway.
AVC: Do you have a favorite from the non-solo, non-Smiths projects that you’ve worked on?
JM: I really had a great time working with Modest Mouse, just because of the people. I loved writing songs with Isaac Brock, and Jeremiah Green is probably my favorite musician that I’ve worked with. So that was really fantastic. And being in The The was a really, really great time in my life. I have a very close friendship with Bernard Sumner; he’s the coolest person I’ve ever met. And what I’ve just done with The Cribs has been a reconnection with the person I was, and wanted to be when I was 18 or 19, that is to say: playing in a UK street group, making a run of singles. So I feel very fortunate.
AVC: Have you kept up with Morrissey’s solo career at all?
JM: Not really, but I don’t really keep up with anyone specific anyway. So the answer’s “no,” but it’s not really that big of a deal.
AVC: One last question, and I don’t know if this is something you care about, but would you like to see The Smiths in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
JM: Uh… [Pause.] Not really, no. I mean, I don’t mean to be ungrateful, and if the opportunity came I would never be ungracious. I hope this doesn’t sound ungracious, but I don’t think awards mean dick. I’m a musician; I’m not in the television business.