Playing by Johnny Marr's rules: "I love living in the modern world, but I just don’t accept a laptop as being a band member"

As the legendary guitarist's solo and frontman career rises, he's found himself more comfortable calling the shots

Published December 4, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

  (AP/Jim Ross)
(AP/Jim Ross)

Johnny Marr's place in music history was cemented by his tenure in the Smiths, the influential '80s U.K. rock band. However, since leaving that band in 1987, the guitarist has carved out a career driven by forward motion and progress. He toured with the Pretenders and The The (and played on the latter's seminal LPs, "Mind Bomb" and "Dusk"), while also recording and touring with Electronic, his side project with New Order's Bernard Sumner.  More recently, Marr spent time as a member of the Cribs and Modest Mouse — and not coincidentally, each band released its best record when he was in the lineup: 2009's "Ignore The Ignorant" and 2007's "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank," respectively.

In recent years, however, the guitarist has embarked on a solo career, fronting a new band and releasing two fine, well-crafted studio albums, 2013's "The Messenger" and 2014's "Playland," which are indebted to the entire continuum of U.K. rock — from the British Invasion on through punk, '80s indie-rock and Britpop. Thanks to tireless touring, Marr and his band have grown into a formidable live act, something quite evident on the new live album, "Adrenalin Baby — Johnny Marr Live," which is released this week in the U.S. As the title implies, the collection captures the ferocity of Marr's concerts — check the marching "Generate! Generate!" and punk fury of "Boys Get Straight" — while including a generous number of Smiths songs and a barnstorming cover of "I Fought The Law" for good measure.

Marr checked in with Salon about his favorite live albums, how "Adrenalin Baby" came together and how his memoir is coming along.

It's nice to hear a live record that accurately captures the energy and buoyancy of a live show. So many live records sound sterile, but this one emphasizes what you guys were going for.

Well, thank you for that. I am glad that that is what comes across, that was very important. That was the thing at the top of the list. I wanted it to feel like if you stood right in the middle of a hall — not necessarily an arena or a festival, but just like a good-sounding traditional theatre or hall — the record would sound like that. [It's] too easy these days to make things too perfect. In our case, luckily, a lot of the gigs we recorded just came straight out of the speakers sounding good. But a lot of that has got to do with my band. The band is so good, and I really feel very proud of them.

We’ve played a lot over the last few years, so we were in the right space to make a live record. I guess a live record as a proper record on vinyl, double vinyl or CD or whatever these days, is probably somewhat unusual. But I'm happy about that. When the band are known for being good live, and they do a record, then I really like 'em. I grew up buying a few of those records, and then I would buy bootlegs of my favorite bands. Occasionally, I’d go through phases where I'd just listen to live records of The Only Ones, Wire, Jonathan Richman and David Bowie. There's a whole list of them I really like. It is nice to get away from the illusion that the recording studio is able to bring. I’m a fan of live records when they're a good listen.

Do you have any other particular favorite live records?

I always really liked the Ramones’ “It’s Alive” record. I stole that from a store when I was about 14, not expecting it to be particularly good, and I really loved it. And then there was one that I've always loved, which is "TV Eye" by Iggy Pop, from a tour he did in 1978, I believe, or '79. I used to go see him at that time. As a fan, you really live the shows that you saw; that's kind of a cool thing. I’d say really those two — and the Rolling Stones' "Love You Live" record was a pretty key record for me.

When I saw you guys live, the crowds were so into it and it wasn’t a nostalgia trip. There was so much immediacy and modernity to the shows. Even the Smiths songs and the covers you did — that really stood out to me and really came through on the record too.

I like the idea of modernity. I feel quite lucky to have a back catalog that people like so much, but I wouldn’t really feel quite so good about it if those songs were propping up the rest of my live set. The solo tours took off in a way I wasn’t really quite expecting, and the audience was with me really straight away. You know, when you play 13, 14, 15 new songs, it's then just really good fun to play stuff that people already know, love and that they've grown up with. As long as it isn't a nostalgia trip, and it's just more of a musical celebration, that really, in a way, gives balance to the fact we play so many new songs.

When I think of the live record, I do think it's a document of where I’ve been at with my band the last few years, with some nice kind of sprinkles on top. And those sprinkles would be the old songs. It's a little bit of razzle-dazzle — and why not, if you can do it?

Now that you guys have done all this touring and you're two albums in, are you completely comfortable being a frontman? Are there still any adjustments you've working on making?

No, I don't think so. I just think of where I’m going. Like any other frontman, really, I took to it without it being much of a big deal, mostly because I have a lot of muscle memory from when I was a kid. I used to front bands before I became known for being in The Smiths. I’m happy the way things have turned out, because I’ve got to learn about being on stage through the Smiths, Modest Mouse and the Cribs. I sang quite a lot in the Cribs, and that made quite a difference. I guess my guitar playing went up a few notches playing with The The. That band toured around the world a couple of times, and that was really, really a good live band. I was playing with some amazing musicians. I learned a lot about touring, and I needed to do that, because I was always so focused on the studio and making records.

But to answer to your question, it felt natural because I had done it. It was forced on me somewhat in my teens. And I knew about fronting a band as a guitar player; I knew about the technicalities of it. When I think about where we're going next, I do feel like the leader of the band. So, I guess I've made that transition very much so. I only really consider a song done when I have a title for it and most of the lyrics. Whereas when I was just playing guitar in people’s bands, or in my own band or the Smiths, when I'd done an instrumental backing track, I just considered that the song. And it was a matter of the singer putting something on top that either complemented it or took it in a different direction. I considered an instrumental track to be finished, whereas now, I need to know what the song is about in my mind at least, before I consider it presentable to the rest of the band.

So, yeah, I guess the transition's been well and truly made. I like it when I'm on stage. I think the audience knows what I do now, and they know the kind of performer I am. I do think of myself as a performer. That's an okay thing to be. All of those reasons kind of make me a front man. I’ve also developed a very worrying habit of being late for most things.

You’re totally a frontman now.

[Laughs.] I never used to do that until I started fronting this band. It’s annoying.

They can't start until you show up. They're beholden to you.

[Dryly.] Oh, that's what it is — oh, dear me. I've just thought it was because I had to wait for my nail polish to dry.

Get your hair fluffed up, get your outfit ready…

I've always done that. [Laughs.]

Are you already thinking about new music? I read something last year that Hans Zimmer said that you guys might be collaborating on some music. Is that something that's going to happen?

We've got one more show to play [this year], and then I’m going to get into writing some new songs. If I get the right songs together, I'll rope Hans in, because he's been kind of calling on me for the last few years to work on some movie soundtracks. I think I need to drag him away from the orchestra and get him on a disco song. So I’ve been threatening to do that for about a year now. I’ve got a couple songs that I need to finish that I’d like to get Hans on. He's a really incredible electronic musician, that's kind of what people sometimes overlook. He started out as a synthesizer player who just happened to have a knack for being a genius composer.

I've worked with him a lot when he's been just even fooling around on synthesizers. He's an incredible electronic musician. So, I’d quite like to get that on the next record. He's a really, really neat, fucking cool best friend, you know.

That would be very interesting. It's cool to bring in and incorporate different textures and approaches to things. That's very freeing.

The thing with the live record is that I planned on it being somewhat of a document for this period of my life and what me and this band sound like on any given night. It was more work than I initially imagined, because we recorded a lot of shows, and the temptation to fix things up or make it a little clever was always there. I had to stay focused and keep to my original intention for it.

I am really glad that I did it, and I put the hours and days into it, because it does feel like a bookend to what I started with [2013 LP] "The Messenger" a few years ago. And time goes by so quickly. In that time, we've played hundreds of shows, and it's drawn a line on this period. And had I not decided to do it, then it would’ve been too late, because I would’ve been onto the next thing — whatever that is. I don’t know whether I'll ever do another live record, I’m not sure, but it was a good idea mid-way through the touring.

And quite often, you can find reasons to not bother or to just let things go by or think, "Well, in this market, do people really care about much? Do people just go on YouTube and watch these performances that are recorded on people’s crappy phones?" It's easier to find reasons to not do things. But I suppose it kinda means we can sit in the corner now, and we’ve drawn a line on this thing we started out on almost three years ago. We’ve been playing for pretty much non-stop for three years.

What was the biggest challenge for you putting together the live record? What was the biggest amount of work that went into getting the finished product done?

The biggest thing was just going through all the recordings and getting the tracklisting right and not choosing too many different shows. The record is nearly all the Manchester Apollo and Brixton Academy [concerts]. And right at the eleventh hour, there was a couple of songs from Glasgow, that when I was listening to it in the car, I was like, "Oh, man, this version of 'Playland' is really, really so good, and 'Right Thing Right' …" I kind of changed the program at the last minute. But it was very important that it all holds together.

I think I was fried by the end of it, because we were also playing shows — we had gone to Australia and Japan, and so I was listening to a lot of mixes. Technically, it wasn’t too much of a problem, but just psychologically, staying focused … If you're the singer, and you're the guitar player, and it's your band, it’s hard to be the producer as well. It was a lot of work, but I’m really glad that we did it, and I’m glad that I’ve made such a thing as a live record, because they don't seem to be real things these days.

You’re right. Having this double vinyl, which people have been sharing pictures of online, it’s a tangible artifact that you can hold in your hands. It’s something like "Live at Leeds" or some of the bootlegs you mentioned, that people will have in their collection. That’s cool.

I hope so, yeah. I get really different things from listening to a really good live record. First off, most importantly, I hear what that band sounds like, without any illusion. I hear what the dynamic is on a stage between four or five people. That is a really great thing about, let's call it rock music or new wave music or punk rock — whatever you wanna call it — that isn’t necessarily always there in guitar music, because of the technology that's afforded us these things. I kinda joke on stage sometimes with the audience, I ask them to find the laptop. You know, regular rock ‘n’ roll bands these days, or whatever you want to call it, often may as well just be in the studio, because there’s so much technology going on. Even though we use a little bit of it, we never play to backing tracks, and we never, ever have a laptop on stage. Because I wonder what those four people are doing between them on stage.

The criteria for me and my band, once the songs are written, is this really happening in this room for us, in this rehearsal room? Okay, now, is it really happening on the stage for us? And then let’s get that across to an audience. I guess it’s a very old-fashioned, basic or fundamental principle that I’m trying to operate under, that I gleaned from the bands that I used to go and see. And that is: Do those four guys really gel together? You know, if that doesn’t happen, you’ll never get there. It doesn’t come across properly. And certainly, when you record it, it will suck unless you start fixing the whole thing up.

All my favorite bands, they weren’t particularly muso, although bands like Television could obviously play. But they had a musical chemistry between them — whether it was Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, Wire or Magazine, or any of those bands I used to go and see around the time I was in school. And they weren’t like ‘60s musos, they played like a really good band. I love living in the modern world, but I just don’t accept a laptop as being a band member.

It is so weird how, you're right, the band configuration — guitar, bass, drums — has almost become old-fashioned, or a throwback, when that was completely the dominant sort of configuration for so many years.

I just don’t think there’s anything sexy about two people standing there without bass and drums. Or someone with a kind of willfully crappy acoustic sound, and their partner playing some ironic bullshit on a little keyboard. I understand the charm, and I understand what post-modernism is, but I don’t think it’s as heady or cool or sexy an experience as four or five people plugged in with electricity on the stage. And that’s not to say it has to be perfect — I've got no problem with mistakes. Hopefully, you can hear and feel on our live record. You can hear the interaction between the band members.

I just think my band sounds really, really good in a little rehearsal room. And most of the bands that I’ve been in sound really good in a rehearsal room. The Smiths were a very, very good live band. We were heavy, and The The were heavy, and the Cribs were heavy, and Modest Mouse were heavy. I just come from that tradition. I ain’t fucking around with some crappy little acoustic sound and someone on a laptop. Who needs that? Well, they don’t need it from me anyway.

I’ve seen some of those bands, and it’s really boring. It’s really boring watching someone press play on a laptop. And there’s a time and a place for it, but it’s really difficult to do that remotely well. You have musicians on a stage interacting with one another, personal and musically, there's this chemistry and interaction. They manufacture something that’s greater than themselves.

Oh yeah, yeah. I think it’s something an audience picks up on. I’m not talking about going out and playing like some prog band or some kind of math rock, or anything that's just designed to prove how clever you are. I’m a big fan of short, sharp, well-edited, punchy new wave songs. Get a good intro going, and get a nice, good vocal channel over the top with some plush guitars, a short guitar break, really loud drums — bang, then it’s over. Then do it again, and do it again, and maybe do it again, and do it 14-15 times. That sounds like a pretty good situation to me.

But you know, the Ramones were a great live band — and it wasn't because they were loud and fast. There was a chemistry between the musicians and there was a commitment. Let’s put it this way: If they were phoning it in, they were smart enough to make you believe they weren’t. You don’t have to be some clever muso to put in a really compelling and dynamic performance, that people know you have committed to.

And also hopefully be entertaining too. For many years, I wrestled with the idea of whether rock ‘n’ roll music was art or whether it was entertainment. Sometimes I thought there was somewhat of a paradox there, but hopefully one of the things about getting older is that you can be a little wiser or at least pass off what your experience is of being wise. As I’ve got older, I've realized that a rock musician and a rock concert can be both, and it’s absolutely fine to be both. There’s no problem with it being entertainment, as well as art. I know if I’m going to get in the car and leave my house at 9 p.m. on a cold, wet November night, it better be entertaining. It can be art too. I don’t mind people looking at their shoes if they’re really, really committed.

You have a memoir in the works. How is that coming along?

It’s coming along okay. It’s okay. There’s a lot I want to talk about, or write about, rather. So I want to make sure I honor all the things that I’ve done and some of the great people I’ve been involved with. Much like I was just talking about, really keep that artful and entertaining and just really honor the very privileged and unexpected life that I’ve been able to live as an artist in music. I feel it is a combination of work, vocation and luck. It’s making sure I stick to remembering that, and that comes across. It takes a long time to write — even 10,000 words takes a long time, if you want to do it right. It’s just getting rid of loads of distractions and really learning to let go of writing music for a while, which I haven’t done for a long time. That’s the hardest bit, really, getting all that balance and sticking to the voice and just resisting the temptation to goof off.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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