Legendary Smiths guitarist and acclaimed solo artist Johnny Marr will play a headline show at the famous Ulster Hall, Belfast Thursday 1st November 2018. in support of his new album Call The Comet. Recorded with his band at Marr’s Crazy Face Studios in Manchester, Call The Comet is his third solo album and follows the critically acclaimed Top 10 albums, The Messenger (2013) and Playland (2014). Mark Millar recently caught up with Johnny to talk about the upcoming show and Call The Comet.
You recently released your third solo album, Call the Comet. Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas about how it should sound and what kind of songs you wanted to write about?
JM: No, I didn't; it was the opposite. I went into the making of the record as almost a personal necessity. I had done my autobiography in 2016. In 2017 I was promoting it doing a book tour around the United States, and when that was done, I really needed to make music anyway. During that time, the world changed in a big way with the political situation, and I found that I needed to go into the studio on my own at first to play the guitar and make some tracks and arrange some songs almost as an escape or a sanctuary. In a way, I needed to do what I did as a teenager, almost just to be by myself and get away from what I thought was a problematic outside world that I couldn't really relate to. Because I'm a songwriter, tinkering with guitars and sitting around with machines usually turns into songs. I got about four or five songs into it, and I realised that there was a narrative building with the lyrics and an atmosphere in the music, and I started to get a record in my sights then. Pretty much all the songs are led by emotion rather than the kind of record I should make, so it's very intuitive, and maybe that's why it's gone down so well, I don't know, but there's something in it.
I read Call the Comet was a hard record to make. Why was it harder to make than you're first two records, The Messenger and Playland?
JM: It was harder because I was pretty burnt out going into it from doing all the autobiography publicity. When I was doing all the promotion for the book, I was asked about whether writing the book was cathartic or if it left me drained, or anything like that, and I didn't think it did, but funnily enough, the promotion of it left me exhausted, and I was feeling a little bit like some product. In fact, I found the mainstream media very evasive, and they naturally just wanted to harp on about the past. So I went in the studio somewhat like a sanctuary really, and I brought some emotional baggage with me, but maybe it was just a time in my life where I was feeling emotional, and the cultural situation really didn't help; perhaps I was picking up on an awful lot of that. Maybe I was taking on some of the feelings that were going on in my country and America.
I was feeling the heaviness that was out there, but it came out in the music and hopefully, it came out in a sort of positive way with songs like Walk into the Sea, which is very uplifting music and emotive. A few songs are like that that have a personal feeling in them, which I tried to avoid on the other records. I didn't want the other records to be too personal; I wanted them to be more about society and me looking out, and I didn’t want to be looking in too much. There is definitely more of myself and my own world in it, maybe why people like it.
Does writing lyrics come easily to you?
JM: Sometimes they do, and sometimes you have to craft them and I quite like that. Like anything that you put into it, you get out of it. After all the lyricists I've worked with over the years, I don't know whether lyrics ever come easily to anyone all the time anyway. I’ve worked with so many singers who absolutely agonise over the words. I find it easier than some people and more of a craft than others, I think. With some songs, you have to apply yourself, and they might take weeks to come together, and then other songs take an afternoon.
Hi Hello, that was written easily because it just appeared as a song, and they are usually good songs, but some other songs took a bit more work. I found myself on my own in this big old factory through the night. I stayed in the studio, and I had the drum machines going just writing reams and reams and then with other songs, I would sit on the couch with a twelve-string guitar, and a song would just appear. Songs are a real mystery; they all behave in very different ways; there is no formula. It's a combination of craft and inspiration and mystery, frustration, joy, and elation.
You mentioned your autobiography Set the Boy Free, which was published last year. Did you discipline yourself for the writing of the book as you would for recording an album? Do you get the same enjoyment from doing that?
JM: Yeah, I did. I mentally prepared myself for it. I started it the week after I finished touring for three years, so there was no break - I went from one into another. I knew it was a task, and I knew it would take some getting into, so I wrote for five or six hours minimum every day until I had to have a day off or until it stopped being productive or something in my life got in the way. And that continued for about nine months which was pretty quick from start to finish considering I had not done it before, but I'd still be doing it now if I hadn't rolled my sleeves up and got into it. I'm glad I've done it, but I don't know whether I would be in a rush to do it again, maybe in ten or fifteen years or something if I have the second part in me, I know. I’ll see if that happens. I’m glad I did it; it was an experience.
I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I just got the offer for the autobiography a few years before, and I thought, "Well, ok, I’ll write about something I know, and I know about my own life." It was a good discipline; it helped me as a songwriter, I think, tremendously.
You are playing the Ulster Hall in Belfast soon. You have played Belfast many times over the years with the Smiths, other bands and solo. Do you have any stories about playing in Belfast?
JM: I always wanted to play the Ulster Hall as a boy because its a place that I had read about. I knew Rory Gallagher had played there, and I was a big fan of his when I was a kid. The Ulster Hall is one of the mythical places for a band to play. The Smiths played there in 1984, and I seem to remember we were playing What Difference Does it Make? and I leaned into the crowd, and it was one of three occasions that I got pulled into the audience. It was during a time when I used to wear beads, and I was wearing a set of beads that I had been carrying around with me for quite a long time without losing or leaving in a tour bus or airport or a rehearsal room. So the audience pulled me in, and I was ‘ruffed up with love' is probably the best way of putting it. It seemed like I was in there for a long, long time (Laughs), and when I came out and got pulled back on stage, I realised that my beads had gone. So I stopped wearing beads after that. I never found a necklace that could replace it. Thirty years later, I will be looking around the floor in the Ulster Hall in the morning to see if there are any of the beads still there.
Growing up reading the music press in the seventies, the Ulster Hall always sounded like a really vibey and special place, and when we put The Smiths together, we couldn't wait to get over there. I know that not all bands wanted to go to Belfast, but it wasn't that way for us. We made that connection with Belfast very early in our career, and it has been a long time since I was there, but it’s one of those places where I feel like I get a really warm welcome. And I've got to say it's a real pleasure to see the city thriving and full of confidence having come through all kinds of stuff and it still feels like a musical city, maybe that’s to do with the fact that young people still want to go there to university. It’s got positive musical energy, I think, not really like anywhere else.
Three albums in are you comfortable being centre stage as a solo artist now?
JM: I am, yeah, but I was from the off, to be honest, and that's not to say I was overly confident or took anything for granted. I had no idea how the solo records would be received, and I didn't know whether we would be playing in art galleries or festivals or touring or what. I just knew something had to be done because I believed in the songs. I thought The Messenger was a good collection of songs. I knew that I had a really good band to put together; however, with all of those boxes ticked for yourself, you don’t know how it’s going to be received, but it took off really well, and it’s just been this ongoing journey of probably eight years now.
I can’t really imagine myself going out and touring just as a backup guitar player at the moment because I’ve too many songs to write and I like leading the band. In my mind, it’s a continuation of something I started in my teenage years from before The Smiths and then when The Smiths started. Of course, I was more than happy to develop my role as the guitar player, songwriter and musician.
For a long time, I was more than happy to take that as far as it could I wasn’t ever yearning to be a solo artist until it happened. It all happened because I had the songs and the idea for a group, and I didn’t see the point in it being led by anybody else. Now my audience and I understand what I do and what happens at a show, and I look forward to seeing them, and they look forward to seeing me. I’ve got my own thing; I’ve got things that I write about, my own way of writing lyrics, then I’ve got my way of singing. On this tour, we’ve played ten songs off the new record, which is more new songs than I’ve played with any band that I’ve been in bar none. Because of that, I’ve got no problem bringing out some of the old songs, and they become like a celebration, and there is plenty of them, so I think I’ve got a good balance now. If I had to rely on just playing the old stuff, that wouldn’t be enough for me, and I wouldn’t do it. I’m always someone who really needs to be making new music. The new album has gone down well, and people like all the songs we play off that. However, I have a great time playing some of the old songs as I would if I want to see a band I like and they played their old songs. Particularly when my band is so good, I think I've got the best band around.
You have collaborated with some great artists such as Noel Gallagher, Neil Finn and Hans Zimmer. Is there anyone you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?
JM: Right now, the path in front of my eyes is all about writing my own new songs. I’ve not really got any plans to work with anybody. I want to finish what I started with the actress Maxine Peake. That’s an interesting ongoing working relationship for me. I’m excited about doing more things with her - she’s an inspiration.
You have written some classic guitar riffs over the years, are there any in particular that you are most proud of?
JM: Yeah, obviously How Soon is Now comes to mind, it has stood the test of time, and it’s a sound that is instantly recognisable as being me. Guitar players particularly love This Charming Man; I like the sound of that; it’s got a good energy to it. It kind of jumps out of the speakers when you hear it. I guess Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is quite nice, which is very pretty, and it feels very personal to me. There’s a song I did with Modest Mouse called Dashboard. I think it is a good one, that again is unique. I think The Messenger is a good riff, and Easy Money is a good one. One of the new songs that we play in the set called Jeopardy, which is a pretty cool riff – I always really enjoy playing it live. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve done some pretty good ones over the years. All of these feel that they have got my life and feelings in them. It always amazes me what you can do with a piece of wood and six bits of wire, you know.
You are a keen runner. What kind of stuff do you listen to to get the miles in?
JM: It is pretty eccentric and eclectic; when I’m listening to a lot of new stuff, there seems to be an awful lot of girls making good music at the moment. There’s a band called Dream Wife that I like and La Louze and the band who are on the road with me in America when called Belle Game they’ve got some good stuff. The new Courtney Barnett stuff is good. I don’t know what it is now, but girls are doing a lot of great stuff. I think its pure coincidence and quite right too. The latest Gaz Coombes record Strongest Man in the World is pretty good. I've been listening to a lot of new stuff, but then I’ll put on a load of late sixties Jazz that gets under your skin and gets the endorphins’ going, particularly in America when I’m running around New York, that's atmospheric.
The Queen is Dead box set remastered was released last year. Are there plans to release the rest of the catalogue this way?
JM: I would be okay with that because some versions of the songs we put down as monitor mixes that are good in their own right. I would only be in favour of those things coming out if they sound like a good listen in their own right; we don't need to hear five versions of a song that isn't as good as the finished version, that to me, is a way of watering down the catalogue. However, there is not many, but the ones that are there are a good listen. To give the record company credit, they did an excellent job with the Queen is Dead release with the packaging, especially with fans in mind. I'd rather they did it officially than anybody else with the band's endorsement. Often when you get a band that broke up, there is a lot of politics involved, and I tend to stay out of that. So I'll have to wait until I get a call, and if there is no messing around or silliness, then I’ll get involved overseeing the mastering, but I can’t be bothered doing it if there’s a lot of politics involved.
I know you always get asked when the Smiths are reforming but Is there a band you would like to see reform?
JM: Ah, interesting; no-one has ever asked me that question. I think Wire is doing an excellent job of their reformation. They have managed to sound still good and be dignified and have made some good music too, so I'm pretty happy about that, but there's not really anyone else I’d like to see reform. I’m not a fan of reformations apart from Wire; I’ve not really been interested in any of them. I’m just happy for new music to be coming out, and I would rather new bands to make album after album after album.
Do you have a record that you always return to?
JM: Yeah, I do. The Velvet Underground record called 'VU' is a record that came out in 84 or 85. It was a discovery of many tapes of an album that was supposed to come out but never did. As a fan, I had exhausted the official albums and just when you think you have overplayed the band and you’re never going to hear anything by them again, these tapes are unearthed. I would have been twenty-one at the time and was really on a roll writing songs myself, and that album was like some archaeological treasure from a different planet, and I was so happy. It ticks all the boxes for me so that I can recommend that to anyone.