PART 3: THE MARR SOUND & STYLE / THE HEALERS / FANS & CRITICS / JOHNNY’S SIGNATURE JAG / AUTOBIOGRAPHY & LEGACY
When you play you have a certain sound. What is that sound? What are you doing?
No matter what equipment I’ve gone through, I tend to sound the same. That’s maybe because I’m attracted to a certain kind of thing. It’s probably easiest to tell you the things I try to dial out. I don’t like a sound that’s too forceful. I don’t like a sound that’s too standard. I don’t like a sound that’s too macho. That’s the main thing about it. I’m looking for something that’s got attitude in it, but it’s beautiful at the same time. It has to be beautiful but certainly with attitude. If I’m talking about what I’m doing now, I don’t want it to be terribly emotional but it has to have a sense of refinement about it… and has to be emotive. There are groups like Sigur Rös — their sound is entirely emotive, soundscape-y, and quite epic. Very, very beautiful and dramatic. I like a lot of that but I’m glad I try to wrap up what I do in a sort of punchy, 4 minute power-pop song. I could write very moving, slow, emotional music all day long and maybe I will do that at some point… but, well, I’ve got the desire to do some punchy stuff. It has to be good to jump around to on stage as well. Also, I have to write music that I can sing.
Music you can sing?
I like singing and I like singing a certain way. Not all music is going to be right for me to sing over. I don’t really want to croon too much. I don’t want to be too ballad-y. I like that stuff but it isn’t really what I’m about and I want to do what I’m good at. That’s a consideration in my mind. I have to do what I do naturally as a guitar player but I want to write songs that I want to sing over – not for somebody else to sing over.
From what I can tell from hearing bootlegs of some of your recent shows, the lyrics on your new Healers songs seem more complex and poetic than the lyrics on The Healers’ first album.
On the first record I was just finding my way, I think, and I think I was too cautious – I know I was too cautious. It was a scary prospect. It was something that had to be done, but I was definitely over-cautious. Now, I can’t wait to do more and more. It’s not that I’m reckless about it, but I really want to be the best I can be and I really want to fulfill my potential for myself. I know it’s going to be judged in public– I’m grateful to have that opportunity. I want to be great on my own terms.
Do you care less now what people think than you did when you made the first Healers album?
In some ways, yes. I want people to like it and I do care, but I think I’d be less affected by it then I would have been back then. It’s been quite a while since the first record. There are new people who I want to like my stuff.
Did you start performing The Smiths’ songs again because you reconnected with them while remastering them?
No, I reconnected with them before that because of Neil Finn and Ed O’Brien from Radiohead. They have a mentality that I respect, so when I was asked if I’d play The Smiths’ songs when I was in New Zealand, my reservations seemed pointless. Also, other people do them and sometimes not very well. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people who’ve done Smith’s covers and done a really good job of it. That’s an incredible thing. Low’s version of “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is just beautiful and Placebo did a version of “Bigmouth Strikes Again” that was really good. Supergrass did ”Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, which was really good too. Other people were doing the songs and I thought, well, why shouldn’t I? I just dropped the attitude, really. I think I was right not to do them for so long. It just didn’t feel right to do them before that. Chrissie Hynde got me to sing “Meat is Murder”. Because the context was a celebration of Linda McCartney, who I will always have great respect and admiration for, the idea of turning that down because of some petty politics was ridiculous. It put it into perspective. All I had to do was sing a song that I’m really proud of in honor of a fantastic person – It really was an honor. I just felt it was time to change. I thought Chrissie Hynde was going to sing it until the day before. …I think she tricked me. [smiles]
Who are The Healers?
They are endearing oddballs who are really loyal and really sweet.
Tell me about Doviak [James Doviak - guitar]. How did you meet him and what is he like?
I met Doviak in San Francisco. A friend of mine turned me on to a website that he did back then called Radio Laos. He was playing all this really strange music. Doviak is a really interesting person. He’s very educated, very well read. He’s the studio science guy. He’s a boffin. He’s a very, very good guitar player. I’ve known him since about 2004. He played on the Boomslang tour. The first Healers were a six piece. I wanted it to be this trance-y, heavy band that played long songs and that I was just one sixth of, but people just weren’t that interested in that.
Why did you want that?
Because that was the sort of group I wanted to go see. Really simple. I wanted to see a group that did that. At that point, I was sick of one guy up front holding the microphone or even one guy with the guitar and the microphone and everyone else behind him. I just wanted a big equal group. We did a couple of gigs that were really great and really heavy, but I learned that people aren’t really that interested in me doing that because it didn’t have enough of my sound in it. And they were right.
How about Max [Max James – bass]? Who is he? He seems very serious. Does he ever smile?
He does — in private. Max is a really interesting guy. He’s really into writing stories. He’s a real DIY person who likes the underground music. He likes rock ‘n roll. He reminds me of when I first started to go to New York in the ‘80s and there was a lot of performance art around, and a lot of aggressive, un-commercial but rocking music. These are the things I really like about him. It’s kind of like he’s from a different time — like something from a ‘50s novel.
Do you have a drummer?
Not yet. I’m trying out a couple of different guys at the moment.
You’ve put a lot into your personal style, and it’s changed a lot over the years. Do you have a style icon?
I don’t want to give all my secrets away. [smiles] I think a lot of musicians have a connection to their early inspirations. I think most creative people are like this. If you make such a big deal of artistry and inspiration then I suppose it makes sense that you’re not going to throw it away too easily. A big thing that happened to me was glam rock – I might start wearing glitter on my eyes and such – and I guess that’s why I started wearing nail polish again.
This shirt that I’m wearing now – my sister and I used to wear these shirts in the late ‘70s. These guys called the Perry Boys used to wear them. They always made quite an impression on me. In the Smiths, when I used to wear a sheepskin coat and these necklaces over a sweater and sweaters around my waist — that all came from the Perry Girls. That’s something I saw girls on the street wearing. They weren’t very rock and roll. They were sort of street. Rock ‘n roll in the late ‘70s in the UK – there were a lot of students involved. It was kind of an intellectual thing. I’m talking about working-class people who considered music press to be pretentious. They were probably right. I always liked and admired their style even though I was into music press and rock ‘n roll.
When you were in Electronic you looked very different.
I think I was just done with rock ‘n roll at that time. I look back, and in hindsight it seems like I veered off and went down some kind of side road, and that might actually be the case, but I’m really, really glad I did. I was very lucky to do that. In the ‘90s rock music in the UK was very boring and obvious to me. Even though I was young I was fine with the new bands coming up and doing it. The groups who were really taking over rock music like Oasis and Blur – it was their time to do that. I wanted to explore something else. I suppose that was reflected in the way I looked. I didn’t really want to know rock ‘n roll. I’m really glad I did that because it got me back into Ennio Morricone in a really big way. These things are connected. For example, “Say Demesne” would not have happened if it had not been for Electronic. All these things are around me and they’ll go back into what I do now. I suppose it’s the same with what I wear — my aesthetic.
Not wanting to be a part of rock ‘n roll — was that a reaction to having been in a really successful and iconic band?
Sure. Yeah — and just not wanting to do things I’d done before. That idea of searching. I got the idea for that orange center parted haircut from — [searches - holds up a still of David Bowie from “The Man Who Fell To Earth”]
That’s lying around my studio because I like looking at these things. So, there’s a consistency going on there. Maybe if people google and look at some old pictures they’ll think “What was he doing there?”, but I was just being kind of mod, really.
I thought rock ‘n roll was really old-fashioned at that time. I wasn’t exactly recoiling, but I thought a lot of rock bands were old-fashioned. Bernard and I, we weren’t hibernating. I had a sense, not of pioneering but of crusading in my own life. It would’ve been terrible if I had gotten stuck looking the same and sounding the same for ten years.
For the longest time “Get The Message” by Electronic was my absolute favorite thing I ever did. I used to say that a lot. That wasn’t me trying to be perverse ‘cause I know people really loved The Smiths, but I really, really loved that record. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. To this day… It doesn’t sound like New Order, it doesn’t sound like The Smiths, and it’s got a really amazing atmosphere about it. Whenever I hear it I’m super proud of it. There’s a few like that but that was particularly special.
Tell me about your goggle collection.
You’ve said that you’re very DIY. Tell me about that.
I can iron on the sidewalk and shave in a puddle. I ran Johnny’s Laundry on tour. I fixed Andy Rourke’s suede jacket. I remember doing that. He was always coming to me — sometimes Mike too — asking me to help out with sewing things. So I know all of those tricks from growing up. I fixed Gary Jarman’s shirt, pierced Ryan Jarman’s ear, and stuff like that. I learned some pretty good skills when I was a teenager. Being left to my own devices as a kid was really good. I recommend it.
This kind of thing makes you seem more accessible. You don’t really act like a pop icon.
Is that a good thing?
I think it’s a very good thing.
I think the job is to be good on stage, be a good artist, be good in a group, and do your work. The work’s the important thing for me and part of my work is being good on stage. I like staying in fancy hotels and I like traveling in style but I like that I can fix somebody’s jacket for a video shoot as well. These are things I picked up from my sister. Guys aren’t usually good at this stuff.
Does your sister still go to your shows?
She came to see me when I played with Chic recently. She turned me onto Chic, so I think that was the biggest thing for her. For her, seeing me play with Chic was bigger than anything else I’ve done.
Was your guest appearance on Portlandia fun for you?
It was ridiculous because I was that guy who was laughing too much. That’s got to be so annoying but Carrie [Brownstein] and Fred [Armisen] seemed to like it because, well, maybe they were just being nice, but they said that’s how they knew it was funny. I knew that the first rule of being filmed is to not blow it for the others, but they’re both just too funny. I had a really, really good time. It was cool. The director’s a cool guy too. I was in London a couple of months ago and these two guys walked past me and said “That’s not my bike!” [smiles] I like that I’ve got a catchphrase now.
Did I read somewhere that you were on a TV show when you were a teenager?
Yes. I was on TV every week for about eight weeks on a show about disaffected youth, mostly because of the way I looked. A couple of guys and a woman came into the shop I was working in — not X Clothes but the one before that — with a clipboard, and said they were doing a program with about 100 unemployed teenagers. They wanted their opinions. “Do you want to come and be on the show?” I said “Well, you’re in my place of work, so how does that work?” They said they needed somebody who looked like me, so that was it. I got paid £35 and lunch and I got a free suit from my boss every week. So that was a pretty sweet deal. Around the same time I was on another local TV show talking about fashion. There weren’t too many people who looked like Angie and me at that time who were our age. People who looked like us were usually older.
At the time did you think of it as breaking into the business?
No, I didn’t really take it seriously at all. I didn’t ever want to answer questions. For eight weeks I only made like one comment, so I did pretty well at avoiding any responsibility. I didn’t really want to get my opinions out there, I just wanted to make £35 and get a free suit.
What did Angie’s family think of your influence on her?
They were a little nervous at first because she was so young and so was I, but they saw how serious we were about each other. When I look back on it now I think they were amazing. I’m really close to Angie’s family. They kind of just went with it. Any young people who click so well — good luck to them. People shouldn’t stand in their way. No one should stand in the way of that. It’s great.
Who are you writing your songs for? Is it the fans in your mind when you’re writing?
Mostly I’m writing for my mates and for fans. The band, and my slightly wider circle of friends — who aren’t a vast army — and then the fans — people who I think are like me. I want my peers to like it and I want my peers to play it and I want my peers to be impressed, but I want fans to like it, really – fans of what I do. There are people now who like the Smiths, they like Modest Mouse, they like Morrissey, they like me, they like The Cribs, they like Radiohead, and… I don’t know… Elliott Smith – just a whole sort of group of people. That’s really cool. That’s come over time.
Do you get feedback directly from fans?
No, it happens over time. I’m very lucky that The Smiths’ fans were really passionate straight off. We attracted a certain kind of person who was very into the group exclusively. It made me feel like I had a connection, made me feel like I was living in a world that was different from the regular world. I’ve never known any different. That’s pretty fortunate. It was never about critics, although obviously we were very lucky there too.
I’ve been around a long time — anything beyond 3, 4, 5 years is a long time, doing what I do. I go to Japan and someone will talk about a B side that meant so much to them when they were in college — they had this romantic encounter — I’ve had that with Boomslang. When that happens to you you know that’s more important than anything else. Other things might matter a little bit. The critics do have a bearing, but compared to what I’m talking about that’s way down there. You can’t design this stuff. You can be a clever musician and be clever with your career, but when someone comes up to you years after the fact to say “I just want to say that this song meant this to me” — and in my case it’s unusual because it’s not usually about the lyrics, it’s about the tune and the riff and all that. It puts all the other stuff into the shade, really. I’m very lucky because all of that other stuff that has a bearing on my career is secondary to much more personal things. Also, the stuff I want to do as an artist — it’s pretty much the same feeling I had when I was 14 and 15.
You have a very positive effect on your fans. I’ve spoken to some who have met you and they tell me that the conversations you’ve had with them after shows are always uplifting and encouraging. One woman told me that a brief talk with you raised her self-esteem and made her want to finish the novel she was writing.
Well, it’s a two way street though, isn’t it? I just think when I meet people, especially if they’re being nice to me and they’re fans, that they’re giving me something too. They’re really giving me something… and I’m not talking about compliments; I’m talking about how they’re so open. That’s an amazing thing to give to somebody. It’s trust. Trust is a fantastic thing.
I’d imagine it must be difficult for you to trust people though.
I have a pretty good instinct for sussing people out. I got that from my dad. I’m pretty discerning. It’s got nothing to do with fame or anything. Maybe it comes from the same place as being an artist. Most of us are pretty good at sussing people out. You know what? Most people who come up to talk to me — fans — are really nice. Really, really nice. That’s a good thing for me.
That woman you’re talking about would have been giving me her trust, would have been being gentle and kind, etc., so if I don’t reciprocate I’m the one who would lose. People who like me… I like them too. [smiles]
I know you’re very proud of your Signature Jaguar. Did you always dream of creating a custom guitar, or was that something that hadn’t occurred to you until it was suggested?
The second thing. It had been mentioned a couple of times during my career, but I never took it seriously. It wasn’t proposed to me like Fender proposed it to me. Other companies just liked the idea of having my name on the guitar for marketing reasons. I never took those offers seriously. I resisted the short-term vanity buzz of that. It didn’t seem real enough. This one turned out so well for so many reasons… because I was already designing and building the guitar that I ended up having my name on. I was already doing it of my own volition and Fender heard about it. “Why is Johnny buying all these parts? Why is he playing with all these Jaguars? He’s playing the blue one …now he’s playing a black one …now he’s got one with stickers on it and he’s talking about it. What’s going on here?” I think it was so great of them to just help me out when I needed it and let me go away and build this thing myself with my guitar guy who’s been working on my guitars since 1987. This guy, Bill Puplett, is the best in the world. And he’s such a humble person. That was a big part of it for me — working with Bill. He understands me really well. Fender said they’d do anything they could do to help. They were great about it, so it was such a great process. It was built on a really good foundation and people are taking it in the right spirit. People really like it. People are playing it who wouldn’t normally play it. I saw a picture of The Beach Boys — The Beach Men– The Beach Fellas playing it the other day and that was so cool. Troy from Queens Of The Stone Age was playing one and he’s cool too. Occasionally I’ve had people say “Well that’s all well and good, but why is your guitar so expensive?” Well, it isn’t. It’s the same price as their regular one. It’s very important to me that they at least try to make mine at the same price as one that doesn’t have all that work on it. We can’t do any better than that. Everybody involved has been really great and it’s super successful. I really can’t believe it.
Do you have any plans to play with Andy Rourke ever again?
If Andy and I were living in the same city, which may happen again at some point, then we’re going to play together. Definitely.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered for being a really really liked guitar player. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for. A well-liked guitar player who played unusual pop music. There are so many rock guitar players and it seems like if you’ve been known for playing the guitar anytime since the late ‘50s, then there’s a lot of cultural baggage that comes along with that and I don’t think that that’s part of my time. My time is a different time. I believe that my time from the early 70s, from the time I was 11 or 12 or so, had some quirks that regular rock guitar culture and all its baggage doesn’t include. I really liked Peter Green, the original guitar player from Fleetwood Mac and I really admire what Jimmy Page did, but my being 11 or 12 with the desire and the knack for it was strange timing. Everybody thinks that their era was fantastic – and I’m not talking about Smith days – I’m talking about my formative years. The things that I was really drawn to do when I was a formative musician still sound pretty quirky to me till this day. Almost more so now. Things like the T-Rex big A sides and some Sparks songs — all that sort of early stuff that I was really mesmerized by and inspired by. Not that my music sounds like a copy of that, or even that people can hear that in my music, but I’m a product of those times and of course I’m really happy to be in a lineage of great musicians for being a guitar player. I want to be remembered for playing guitar pop.
I know you’ve been asked to write your biography. When might that happen?
I really want to do it well. I know what I’m like, so I’ll get absorbed in it. I’m going to give myself 6 to 8 months to write it, which I think is realistic. I want to do it full-time when I do it. I’m probably going to write it at the end of 2014. Yesterday I was asked by management for a serious answer on that and I said 2015 at the latest because I know what I’m like — when this record’s done I’ll want to do two more. A year goes by so quickly, so 2015 at the latest. I also don’t want to absorb myself in the past at this point. When I do it I’ll be ready to really do it.
What’s going to happen next for you, say in the next year or so?
Well, I don’t want to say things that might not happen. I just want to carry on trying to be great. Success seems like a different sort of thing to me now. I want to be successful for the people around me. I want what I do to be successful because there’s quite a few people who rely on me. I want this record to be successful… I want people to understand what I’m doing. I want for fans to like it. I want my fans to like it. Something happened a few years ago. Some corner got turned and I didn’t notice I was turning it, but it happened and it’s great.
You mean you turned a corner in songwriting or…?
Yes, and the way I feel about performing and the way people who are interested in me know more about me now… and have a different opinion about me, I think, than the people who followed me years ago. …If I’ve got something to prove it’s not a negative thing. It’s just a desire to do good stuff.