As musical architect of the The Smiths' jangle-poppy post-punk sound, guitarist Johnny Marr is an outright legend. Or rather, a "Godlike Genius" — the top honor award Britain's NME bestowed upon him this year.
Like the U.K.'s answer to R.E.M. ax man Peter Buck, Marr almost single-handedly ushered in an era of guitar-driven rock, inspiring a generation of followers in the '90s. But he spent the past 25 years honing as much as defying that sound as a sideman in bands ranging from English alt-rockers The The and American indie-rock stars Modest Mouse, among others.
"It was important for me not to be type-cast," Marr tells the Scene via phone. "No one wants to have a stamp put on their forehead at the age of 23, 24."
Now at 50, Marr's made The Messenger, his first (and rather excellent) solo album, and one that echoes the Thatcher-era Manchester sound of his Smiths heyday and seems a quarter-century overdue. It sounds like the album fans might have expected him to make after The Smiths unceremoniously imploded in 1987.
"I like that people say that — that's pleasing to me," Marr says. "[But] I don't really agree that the actual song 'The Messenger' could have been done in 1988 ... or even 'New Town Velocity' or 'The Right Thing Right.' ... If I had done those songs in 1988, they would have been way, way, way ahead of the time."
Nevertheless, Marr notes that the album's potent, rocked-out assault — made up of his signature jangly, angular riffs — is a nod to the same musical heroes that inspired him as a precocious guitar god early in his career.
"I do think it's a kind of modern take on the late '70s, early '80s New Wave, post-punk thing," Marr explains. "That definitely inspired me, because that was what was [going on] when I was a kid.
"My favorite bands were The Buzzcocks, and Wire, and The Only Ones ... Blondie, Television," he continues. "I think what happens is you have this idea of what you think you're doing, hopefully it all comes out sounding like it's through your filter and through your capacities and through your limitations, even. I guess, really, that's what innovation is."
But it's taken Marr a career spent bucking expectations, at times self-consciously, to come full circle and make The Messenger. The inspiration came unexpectedly after a stint spent touring with English garage rockers The Cribs in 2011. With a head full of punky riffs and images of the buildings he'd see on his world travels and the people in them, Marr amicably ditched the band to do his own thing.
"I just had to say, 'Guys, I wanna write 30 songs,' " says Marr. " 'I wanna write 30 sets of lyrics.' And I know that when someone says that, you just don't stop them.
"I had to make a promise to myself that I wasn't going to get self-conscious and edit out something because it sounded like I'd done it before," he continues. "If something felt good, say [like] 'Generate! Generate!' — I've written so many songs like that over the years and deleted it because I would have this idea that it sounds too much like Johnny Marr — I need to do something more original.
"Obviously you need to feel like you're moving forward, and you certainly don't want to be some kind of caricature or parody [of yourself]," he goes on. "I think that's what I meant by honesty — when you sit back and you just don't overthink things, you just go, 'All right, is this a cool fucking riff?' "
Marr says that same mentality long kept him from including Smiths songs in his live repertoire, whether with bands he simply played guitar in or with Johnny Marr and the Healers, the Brit-pop supergroup in the early 2000s. "I never played those songs because I thought it was important to keep forging ahead, whatever that meant," he says. His thinking has since evolved, as recent sets have featured Marr leading his backing band through once-Morrissey-crooned classics like "Panic," "How Soon Is Now?" and "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want."
"I really, really enjoy playing the songs," Marr says. "When you have 800 or 2,000 or 15,000 people screaming really good — that's a great thing, and you're responsible for it. You'd have to be some pretty sad individual to have a problem with that."
Although past lawsuits, squabbles and the recent release of Morrissey's autobiography Autobiography make the rock world's long-desired Smiths reunion seem more unlikely with each passing year, Marr doesn't rule it out.
"If all four members of that band were able to hang out in a room together and it be just a nice thing, that would be the only way it would happen," Marr explains. "What people have got to understand is, it's a little like asking everybody to reunite with their old college roommates."
Damn Sean! Brutal.... Might wanna watch out for Nate around town. Haha. Shit! -Jaren
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