Johnny Marr, part 2

(Read Part 1)



People seem to really enjoy your tweets. I enjoy your ranty tweets in particular.

That’s why I don’t tweet so much anymore though. I’ve gotten a bit more guarded about it.  Twitter started out as a fun experiment for me. It’s something I never thought I’d do. Some strange things happen on Twitter though. Like, it occurred to me that when guys start going on about Led Zeppelin records and The Who records and all of that, it’s like when they go on about cars, but the girls I know are really pretty smart and they don’t like classic rock. I thought that was funny and I tweeted about it. The next thing I knew I had 400 people, mostly women, calling me sexist because they think I’m saying they’re too stupid to know a bloody Jethro Tull record, when in fact, I’m kind of making fun of the boys for being silly train spotters about stupid stuff.

I forbid you.

When that David Cameron thing happened it was about 20 minutes to 8 in the morning and I was about to go to bed. I’d been working all night and I was jetlagged. I’d only just started on Twitter then. I had like 7,000 followers or something.  I thought “It’s been a few days since I’ve said anything and these people who have been kind enough to follow me might think I’m sort of being lazy.” I had just come back to the UK from working with Hans Zimmer. …It just came to my mind. I wasn’t too bothered about David Cameron. I thought it was silly what he was saying about being a fan of The Smiths, so I just said it and then I went to bed. I woke up about noon, phone ringing like crazy. My manager was asking me what he should do about all of these requests from TV news programs. I looked at my iPhone and I had about 20,000 more followers in five hours. I didn’t know what was going on. What I learned from that experience was that there are a lot of fundamentalist people out there. So many people were saying things like “Johnny Marr, where do you get off telling people they can’t like your music?! Everyone can be a fan of your music! You can’t just tell people that they can’t be a fan of your music!!” And “You’ve got to get your politics sorted out!” I was like — Woagh! So many people just like to complain. They’ve had a sense of humor bypass. I was just being glib, as I often am. It’s a shame I have to be careful what I say, because most of the time I’m just trying to be funny. Loads of people caught it, don’t get me wrong. Mostly it was girls who got it. Around the same time I saw an article in the newspaper that said that social networks suit women more than they suit men. Girls are able to be succinct, and quite funny and poetic and have a dialogue in a way that guys just don’t.

I get the feeling that you don’t like men as much as women. Is that true?

Well, other than my first 11 months I’ve never not had a girl in my life. That was my sister until I was 15 or 16 and at 15 I had Angie… Then at 30 I had my daughter. I’ve never not had a girl with me. Maybe that’s something to do with it.

Does it bother you that so many people tweet you only to ask you when you’re going to reform The Smiths?

It’s just so dumb, but I try to remember that each one of those people is an individual and they’re not aware that I was just asked the same question ten times. I try to imagine that if I were to reply in an irritated way it might be hurtful to that person. They don’t understand it in the right context… and they certainly don’t care. The bigger problem is that I sort of have to try not to get disillusioned with a large amount of people. I have to consider everybody as being sort of one-dimensional. Sometimes I just go ARRGH  – [smacks forehead].

How many tattoos do you have?

[Counts.] Six.

Why did you wait so long before you got them?

I needed an idea to get me rolling. The first one that I got, Shiva, happened because Aldous Huxley explained it as being the greatest symbol. Anyone interested can hear what he has to say about that on the recording called “Speaking Personally.” What he said about it was incredible. It was better than getting Aldous Huxley’s face on my arm, which I toyed with.

Because (The Shiva tattoo) has metaphysical and religious connotations I wanted to balance it out with my own metaphysical and religious connotations to remind myself, as an old man, that however holy I get with the holiest of holy symbols not to forget that as a young child that that was just as religious to me. To never forget my religion whether I’m a musician or not and to make a commitment to the first half of my life. Putting that 45rpm on there was me committing to who I’d been up until I was about 45 years of age. It’s a reminder of who Johnny Marr’s been. It was also taking the high-mindedness out of the enormous symbolism of the Shiva. I know that my 45rpm is just as transcendent.

The next two I got were the North and South. I didn’t want the Ying and Yang, but it’s a similar kind of thing. Also because of my children, Nile and Sonny. And the Alexander Technique as well, being grounded but… And now I’m thinking of Casey Kasem.

… Why?

Because he said to keep your feet on the ground but to keep reaching for the stars. [smiles]

What does your Crow tattoo signify?

When I was in Los Angeles making The Cribs’ album — I guess it was 2008 — my daughter called me and she was really upset because the local counsel was planning to evacuate the crows who lived around my home. They advised that my family shouldn’t be around for the day because there would be debris. Basically, they were giving us notice that they were going to come in and shoot all the birds out of the trees. There’s no way of dressing that up, though they tried. It was a horrifying prospect, obviously. It was difficult for me because I was so far away. They had this stupid agenda to come over with shotguns. I have trees in my garden that are just filled with crows all year round. At my house there’s the noise of these birds all the time. When I pull up in the car they tell each other that there’s a human around. It’s always been that way. There’s so many of them. They’re amazing. This was a really difficult situation.

Both my son and my daughter, who were in their young teens, were determined to try to fight it. Me and the rest of The Cribs were wondering how it was going to turn out. Angie contacted our member of Parliament at that time to try to get some help. It turned out that he was planning to come along too. I never thought that there was anything but an unhappy ending to this story. I didn’t know which was worse, the fact that these people were going to come and shoot all the birds out of the trees or the idea of my kids’ idealism being killed off.

The counsel’s reasoning for it, they said, was that it was causing a problem at the airport. It absolutely wasn’t. The birds were not flying out towards the airports. The counsel were just being stupid about it. Angie contacted the airport and told them that if there were birds near the airport the reason they were there is because the airport workmen were littering the place with fast food cartons. The birds were going there for all the debris. We don’t even live that near the airport. It was a struggle being so far away. I listened to my family and tried to fix this, but I knew it wasn’t going to be fixed.

My kids printed up some flyers a couple of days before it was supposed to happen and went down to the town first thing in the morning. They gave the flyers out to everybody all day long, then they did it again the next day. It was kind of heartbreaking for me because I thought they were just going to learn a really terrible life lesson.  They thought they were going to win this because they were in the right… They thought they were going to save these birds.

Amazingly, they put a flyer in the hands of this guy who was horrified about it. He contacted the BBC and he got on their news website. Some people then contacted the airport and this snowballing thing started to happen. Within a couple of days the airport phoned Angie and said, congratulations — you’re a pain in the arse — we’re not going to do it. My kids, who were still pretty young then, believed that they were going to win this fight for good, and they did. [smiles] I also wanted a tattoo of some part of nature just so I don’t go off and become some sort of metropolitan robot… Something to do with an animal to keep me reminded of animals. He just symbolizes freedom, really. And winning… and riot and triumph and my kids and all of those things. All of this symbolism came together in that one story when I was in LA.

Do you ever look at your tattoos and think about the symbolism?

I do. I’m glad I got them when I did because when younger people get them they don’t really consider whether they’re going to be that significant when they’re older. When I was playing with Modest Mouse I wanted to make a definite statement to myself about being a musician — being a rock guitar player. It’s kind of the opposite of what most people would do. Most people would get to their 40s and think “Wow, I escaped my 20s and 30 without getting any tattoos. Now I’m looking at the second half of my life and it’s kind of good that I don’t have these reminders.” I thought, just in case I ever stop being a player, I want to make a commitment to the fact that I was a rock guitar player. Also, I was around some pretty cool tattoos in Modest Mouse.

Why are you such a big fan of Aldous Huxley?

First off, his essays and lectures from when he went to America are incredible. I really clicked with his work, first and foremost, but at the same time I became a fan of this person who had become so known and revered for the work that he had done in the first part of his life as a young man, but he got better and better as he was older against popular opinion. He was defined by Brave New World. He was defined as the person he was when he was in his early 20s and then he got so much better as an old man. It’s amazing. He was known for being kind of iconoclastic and quite cynical and a really skeptical person, which I think gave his later work even more credence. When he got into spirituality and metaphysical things, had he been some kind of flaky cosmic person he wouldn’t have been as credible as he was, having once been so at the opposite end of that spectrum… and having argued the opposite so well. I really like that he wasn’t afraid to bloom into the person that he was always meant to be — flying in the face of what everyone wanted him to stay as.

I can understand why you would relate to him. I wonder if he made that switch because he tried psychedelic drugs and they changed his mindset.

No, I don’t think so because the person who wrote The Art Of Seeing is the same person who took psychedelic drugs. I don’t think the drugs really changed him. I think he was able to appreciate his mescaline experiences, and more importantly, report them and contextualize them in a way that other people wouldn’t have been able to do. I don’t think his psychedelic experiences made him the person he was at all. He was the person he always was.

I should re-read some Huxley. I haven’t read him since high school. 

I don’t bother about re-reading everything, but the essays and lectures that he did in the latter part of his life I really really like. The essays on transcendence and silence, those are the ones I really like. Just like records I listen to over and over again, I can just keep reading those. I like that he was an intellectual with heart.  Huxley In Hollywood (by David King Dunaway) is a great book. It’s a really good insight into the Hollywood of the ‘40s.

What do you do to relax?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Even if I’m not playing or writing, everything is about being creative. I feel like I’m always discovering. I used to be searching and now — I’m going to pull out a cliché now — I realize that the search is the thing and that’s fantastic. I’m not saying the journey. That would just be too New Age. I’m not saying that. It doesn’t matter if you find it, the search is the thing.

I can relax. I’m a relaxed person, but the wheels are always turning. I don’t go and swim in the sea. I don’t go and sit on the beach …unless it’s late at night and I’m feeling poetic and it’s Santa Monica… That’s the only opportunity I’ve had to do that recently.  I will go and have a walk around the city, but I’m always taking in information. When I used to be on a tour bus, it sounds very rock ‘n roll, but I enjoyed listening to my friends talking. I liked listening to Modest Mouse — the way those guys would bounce things back-and-forth. The Cribs too. That’s what I like — being quiet.

The thing you have to watch is that people who are curious and creative now have this unlimited access to any information that they want.  I do pursue it, but I think there’s a danger in it too.

What’s the danger?

You just collect information without living with it enough. It’s good to try to be bored. People can’t be with themselves. When I was younger, before I had a phone, I used to sometimes walk home from Andy Rourke’s house and it was really far.  On those journeys I used to have some great ideas. If I was 17 and doing that now, I’d be texting or on the phone or listening to music and podcasts and all of that business. I couldn’t carry my record collection in my pocket then. The idea of it would’ve been incredible. But it was good that I didn’t. It was good that I just had to be with myself for an hour or two.  I see people at bus stops playing with their phones, and I understand because they’re bored, but boredom really has its uses. If Picasso was online all the time what would’ve happened?

Do you see technology as being worth the dangers, or would you like to see it go back to the way it was?

I wouldn’t want it to go back to the way it was because I think the Internet has given people a lot of freedom. The UK government’s plan to sell off forests was stopped because of an Internet campaign. It’s given people a voice to join together. That aspect alone pretty much justifies most of it for me.

Is the Internet fun for you?


I know you enjoy YouTube. 

Yeah! YouTube, yeahhh. [smiles] It’s funny about YouTube because if I want to send someone music or post some music, I’d like to send just the record rather than the video. How nuts is that? The video, unless it’s really great, is just getting in the way of your imagination.

What do you think of America and Americans?

I can only really answer with the generalization – Without a doubt I really really like Americans. So many of my American friends are surprised I’m so positive about American people. I like the culture, certainly. Like every British musician before me, I grew up with the exotic promise and mythology of America. The Beatles and that whole wave of it, had Elvis Presley and all that stuff. It was just the same for me and my band with the New York Dolls and Patti Smith and all of that stuff that we always go on about.

On a day to day level it’s the openness that I like. Unless it’s a place or a person that’s particularly conservative then generally Americans are very friendly, very positive. They’re very open as well. I think we notice it more because of that great British reserve. When you’re around it it’s such a contrast to what you grew up with. Not everybody here is uptight and reserved but the generalizations about the UK are true too. The classic thing that happens in England, as an illustration, is with people standing in line. In England if someone jumps ahead of the line people will not complain. They will not say anything. In America if someone is even indicating that they might be thinking of getting anywhere into the line, it’s taken as this completely unprincipled, unethical act. It goes against everything that America stands for. It goes against equality. It goes against liberty. Americans get crazy if someone cuts in line and it’s really endearing because it’s because it’s not fair. Now, English people feel the same kind of stuff but are too embarrassed, not necessarily for the confrontation, but for other people seeing them being confrontational. In America, if by accident, you look like you’re cutting in you might as well have desecrated the flag. That’s the American mentality. English people would just wish the very very worst on you silently, but not be open about it.

What would you do?

It depends on what the person looked like. I’d pull him up in a kind of sarcastic way, I think. I think I’d mention it. I wouldn’t be like [yells] “Hey, get back in line, buddy!” I wouldn’t bust a blood vessel over it. I think I’d kind of do it on behalf of the more timid of my compatriots.

If you hadn’t become a musician what do you think you would have ended up doing? Did you have a plan B or were you always going towards music? 

I was absolutely going towards music, so when I worked in a clothes shop that’s because that’s what you did as a guitar player in waiting — as a rock musician in waiting. The job requirements were to dress up and make compilation tapes, so I was pretty good at that. I guess when I was around 11 or 12 the only kind of fancy idea I had about an occupation, the only occupation that appealed to me, was the idea of painting signs on doors and on vans… before it became all printed and graphic. That’s what I wanted to do – paint little signs over shops.

What put that idea in your head?

Another guitar player. This guy was a little older and he was a guitar player. I always hung out with older guys. The older guys in my neighborhood. I still know one of them now – Billy Duffy from The Cult. I would’ve been 11 or 12, and my friend was maybe 16. He got a job doing that. He wasn’t actually very good at it, so I thought “I could do that better. That looks like a great job.”

Do you paint or draw or create any visual art?

Yeah, I do that. I like throwing a load of stuff on pieces of wood. I used to always do that when I was making records.

Do you mean paint?

Well, I start off putting some pictures down, then I paint over it, then I put some tape on it… so it’s sort of like a collage with painting involved.

What do you do with them?

I just stick them in my loft with my gold records. [smiles]  I like it up there. It’s good.

I’d like to see them.

Okay. There’s a whole lot of stuff I’ve got to do when this record is finished. I want to try to make my Facebook page actually creative. I’m going to do something interesting on there. Maybe I’ll put some of that stuff on there too.

I read that you’re also into photography. 

Yes, but Nile and Angie are really good at it so I kind of never think I am.

NEXT in Part 3: Johnny talks about The Healers, his sound, playing The Smiths songs live, and his up-coming auto-biography…


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