Fans of ’80s Manchester post-punk band The Smiths are a loyal bunch. Throughout the world, there are legions of devotees hanging on every (often ludicrous) word that Morrissey utters, while proudly proclaiming that Johnny Marr is up there with the best guitarists of all time. But even amidst the global adoration, there’s always been a special relationship between Los Angeles and The Smiths.
It’s something that Marr holds dear to this day and, as he prepares to perform at the Ace Hotel on Thursday, Oct. 4, in support of Call the Comet, his third solo full-lengther, he talks fondly about past glories in and around this city.
“Growing up in the U.K. in the ’70s, you can imagine what playing in California could mean to me,” he says. “It was this remote fantasyland for me as a little kid. Just images on the TV screen and movies. The Smiths kind of took off like a rocket in California, and people still talk to me about Irvine Meadows gigs and the L.A. [Universal] Amphitheater, and the famous Smiths gig at the Hollywood Palladium in ’85, to this day. The The played at the Wiltern in the early ’90s. Electronic made our debut at Dodger Stadium. Me and my band had a great night at the El Rey a couple of years back. I’ve got a really strong connection with the place. People have followed me from being a kid, and we’ve all grown up together so it’s very much like that kind of feeling now.”
He’s right, of course. Morrissey might be the outspoken focal point of The Smiths’ legacy, but fans know that Mozza and Marr were the co-writers. Not only that but Marr rivals Tom Morello when it comes to guitar heroes who don’t necessarily look like guitar heroes, playing in a unique and distinctive manner. Indeed, there are plenty of people who adore the sounds that Marr make, but appreciate Morrissey’s vocal utterances far less.
As Marr mentioned, as well as The Smiths, he was a member of Matt Johnson’s The The and of Electronic alongside New Order’s Bernard Sumner, as well as playing with The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, The Cribs and more. In 2003, Marr put out an album called Boomslang as Johnny Marr + The Healers and then, a decade later, he released his debut solo album, The Messenger. His third solo effort, Call the Comet, landed this summer.
“I definitely feel like there has been an evolution,” Marr says. “You try and keep moving forward from record to record. I think with the first album, I did achieve my objective. I had this notion about getting a group together, and singing up-tempo, tight, punchy songs built around the guitar of course, that kind of had the feeling of living in the towns and cities that I was traveling through. That was my agenda and direction, for putting this group together. The second record, Playland, was deliberately written whilst we were on the road, to have that touring energy, and frankly to do the classic second album thing. I happen to like a lot of groups’ second albums. I like the Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and The Only Ones. So that went to plan, really.”
Marr says that, with the new album, he was following his emotions and didn’t have much of a strategy going in. He concedes that the world has changed a lot since the second album, and that has had an inevitable impact on his music.
“I wasn’t so much commenting on it as trying to escape from it, but inevitably, the effects of the world you’re living in make their way into the music,” he says. “Well, they do in my stuff anyway. Even the process of escape managed to reflect the outside world in some way. So I think there has been a process and a bit of a journey, and I’ve gone from one point to another point to another point, and as long as I’m playing well and singing well, and I’m happy with the words, then I’m satisfied. I do think the songwriting is the best so far on this solo record, and that’s probably something to do with it being more emotional and slightly less intellectual.”
It’s interesting that, while Morrissey launched a solo career immediately after the breakup of The Smiths, Marr spent a couple of decades skipping from band to band. However, he doesn’t believe that he had to get used to the idea of being the focal point in a project. He has, after all, learned from some of the most influential frontmen in music.
“I’ve been doing it for such a long time now,” Marr says. “I know what bands are, I know what being a frontman requires, I know what I’ve required from whoever’s out front, whether it be Morrissey or Matt Johnson or Chrissie Hynde or Bernard Sumner or Isaac Brock [Modest Mouse], etc., etc. But also, I’ve been doing it since I was 15, and even though I was just a kid, I took it just as seriously. I had to take it seriously, because it was my escape and my dream. So I’ve been a student of bands and what it means to be in a band. The big learning curve was in 2001, when I was fronting The Healers. So I know what’s required. I’m not saying that you just walk out on a stage and it’s easy. There’s more of a workload because it’s a solo venture. But I think I know how to do it. Put it this way — I wouldn’t be doing it unless I knew how to do it right.”
Speaking of Matt Johnson, when this piece goes to press, The The will have just performed two shows in L.A. We ask Marr if he considered being a part of that reunion, with the knowledge that Marr and Johnson remain close friends.
“Yeah, I would have loved that if I hadn’t been doing my own group,” Marr says. “What a great dilemma that was. Because The The are a real family to me. If I was ever gonna rejoin any band that I’ve been involved with, it would be The The, and I’d still like to play with Modest Mouse at some point. I couldn’t do it, and Matt understood that and probably expected it. I recommended Barrie Cadogan, who’s my friend, and that’s worked out absolutely perfectly for them, which is what I expected. I was just speaking to Matt actually, just now before I spoke to you.”
Oh well — this way, we get to have a The The show AND a Johnny Marr show. At the Ace Hotel, Marr is promising a special set.
“Propelling rhythms, glamorous guitars, a four-piece band that put on a good show, and fairly cosmic lyrics with a good amount of energy,” he says. “Business as usual, really. That’s what I try to do. It’s important to me to do something up there.”
After that, more touring as Marr continues on his modest quest to be part of the best live rock group in the world.
“Whether it’s the biggest or most popular is not something I’m bothered about, but being great is what I’m shooting for,” he says.
He means it, too.
Johnny Marr plays with The Belle Game at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Ace Hotel.