Johnny Marr once said he was more content with being the guitarist of a band than a singer. But now, long after his 1987 departure from the Smiths -- the group that put him on the map as one of Britpop’s greatest axmen -- he‘s not only finally formed his own band, the Healers, but also fronts the trio, which includes bassist Alonza Bevan and drummer Zak Starkey. And with a legacy he started in the ’80s -- “How Soon Is Now” is contribution enough -- Marr knows the biggest bump in the road is getting fans accustomed to a sound other than that of the Smiths, who also happened to include one of Britpop‘s greatest lyricists.

Instead of rewriting The Queen Is Dead, Marr has the Healers swimming in different waters on Boomslang (due February 4), which is essentially all rock yet mellow, with a seemingly unintentional psychedelia that would easily fit acoustically onstage. “A few people have said it’s psychedelic, and that‘s okay with me,” he explains by phone from Manchester. “But I’m not the sort of person who wishes it was 1967 or 1968. I like the idea of it rocking with a bit of attitude, but also fairly tranced-out.”

Marr met Starkey in New York, oblivious of the drummer‘s Beatles genes. They got together for informal jam sessions back in the U.K., and once Bevan was free to join after the breakup of his band Kula Shaker, a trio was born in 2000. After testing other singers, Bevan and Starkey saw no reason why Marr shouldn’t tackle the job himself. But having provided guitar backing for the likes of singers Chrissie Hynde, the late Kirsty MacColl, The The‘s Matt Johnson and, yes, Morrissey, how confident is Marr with his own vocals?

“It sounds pretty good, so I’m all right with it,” he says. “When we do play, no one seems to rush to the exit door or call the cops.” However underwhelming his voice -- mediocre, really, with a long, lazy pacing akin to Noel Gallagher‘s -- those finely spun guitar webs are all over Boomslang: jangled and swirled on “Caught Up”; Beatlesque on “Another Day”; like wafting incense on “You Are the Magic.” While the heavy, tripped-out “Last Ride” is the first single, “Need It”’s toe-tapping chugging-train buildup is the album‘s real standout.

But why take 15 years? Just waited until he was damn good ’n‘ ready, is Marr’s short answer. Also because he was studio bed-hopping with a long list of artists from Bryan Ferry to Talking Heads, and more recently collaborating with Beck and Oasis. Marr had also forged the two partnerships closest to his heart: with The The and with Electronic, the superduo of Marr and New Order‘s Bernard Sumner that made early-’90s club hits like “Disappointed.”

“What I wanted to do in the late ‘80s and early ’90s was be in The The,” says Marr, “because I love the people in the band and we were really on a mission. It was also a good time for me to form a band with Bernard Sumner, who was rightly considered one of the most innovative musicians to come out of Manchester. That was a part of my life that was really about friendship and experimentation, and I wouldn‘t change it for the world.”

Toward the end of 24 Hour Party People, last year’s musical ode to Manchester and Factory Records‘ Tony Wilson, God appears in Wilson’s image and tells him, “A pity you didn‘t sign the Smiths.” Manchester is where Marr still lays his guitar, and though the movie glossed over the Salford lads, it more than captured what the city was, and is, to Marr: home and inspiration.

“When the Smiths happened and we all moved down to London, we always came back here to write albums,” he says. “But the thing that made me want to come back is also the thing that made me want to escape. Roots can sometimes be suffocating, and when I was a kid I couldn’t wait to escape. But when I was out doing whatever around the world and maybe a bit burnt-out, I knew I always had a place to come back to.

”I was actually in California for six or eight months when the Smiths split. But I would be phoning my friend in Manchester and he would be shouting, ‘Aw man, it’s so good here, you won‘t believe this new record, and oh we had this really cool night at the Hacienda,’ and I was watching MTV with the sound down, with Poison on it. So I thought, Okay, pack up your bags and go home. I‘m able to get ideas here, and it’s just nice to be away from the industry but still be in a place that‘s got lots to do.“

Johnny Marr and the Healers play at the Troubadour Sunday and Monday, February 2 and 3.


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