The The's Matt Johnson
The The's Matt Johnson
Thomas Feiner

Welcome Back Matt Johnson and The The — It's Been Far Too Long

When it was announced almost exactly a year ago that Matt Johnson would be assembling a new lineup of The The and touring again, fans around the world needed a minute to gather themselves. Because, while reunion tours are commonplace, this one feels special. The The haven’t toured in 16 years, and they haven’t played North America in 18 years. That the post-punk icons are back is cause for genuine celebration.

Even better, Johnson appears to be in fine form. Those familiar with the work of The The know that Johnson is a true punk poet — a man capable of turning personal tragedy and genuinely heart-wrenching pain into something achingly beautiful. Like Morrissey if he wasn’t a dick, Johnson mines his own heart and soul for lyrics that have an emotional impact on those open to them.

It’s well known that the song “Love Is Stronger Than Death,” from beloved 1993 album Dusk, is about the death of his brother. Since the start of the The The reunion, Johnson also has lost his father and his older brother. The man can’t seem to escape tragedy, yet he seems positive as he reflects on the very first The The shows last year.

“[I was] very comfortable, surprisingly,” Johnson says. “We did some warm-ups — a couple in Nottingham and one in Leeds. Then we headlined a festival in Denmark and played a show in Stockholm, and then London came after that. Unfortunately, the start of the tour coincided with my father’s unexpected death, so that was primarily on my mind. When I walked out onto the Royal Albert Hall [stage], which was the first of the London dates, he was going to be in the box watching, and I was very excited for him to be there, but he died a couple of days before, unexpectedly really. He was 86, and I found out after I’d just arrived in Stockholm. Collected my bags, and got a phone call. I had to go onstage a couple of hours later, so that was tough. That to one side, it was very easy. I’ve never been one who suffers from stage fright or nerves, to be honest, so I knew that the band were very well rehearsed.”

Johnson is a charming conversationalist; he seems as keen to ask us questions as we are of him. It feels like he’s always thinking, and that wit, insight and intellect comes across in his lyrics, from his 1981 Burning Blue Soul debut (originally released as a solo album but later repackaged as The The) through 2000’s NakedSelf, taking in fan favorites Infected and Dusk. Johnson is well aware of the connection that his audience has with his songs.

“The catalog has quite a bit of longevity with people,” he says. “It’s become a part of people’s lives, so the songs do a lot of the work. We work very hard ourselves, but the audience has such a strong emotional connection with a lot of the songs that that instantly creates very good atmosphere inside of the venues. It’s a lot easier than I thought, and in fact I’m probably enjoying this tour more than any other tour that I’ve done. We have a good laugh on the road. The band is very tight — they’re friends as well as colleagues. They’re brilliant musicians with a great sense of humor, so we have a lot of fun, just doing what you love doing with people that you like.”

So the question is, if he’s enjoying The The so much, what took him so long to get back out there? After all, fans have been baying for shows for years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson says that “life just got in the way.” He had kids and, while working on some movie scores, watched as the music industry went through some radical changes.

“I formed The The at 17, releasing records as a teenager,” he says. “Long tours, lots of promotion. I had my first son around 1997, and at that stage I wanted to step into the shadows. Months pass, and decades before you know it. The industry changed, and I realized I didn’t want to be on major labels anymore. I went from Sony to Universal and then back to Sony. The way that the industry changed, specifically the major-label aspect, it was no longer a suitable place for album artists. It became very much dominated by R&B, pop and an obsession with short-attention-span hit singles. For an album artist like myself, who had a happy home with the old CBS company, I found myself at odds with the way it worked.”

So Johnson spent some time setting up his own small label and working on soundtracks, forming a small book publishing company, buying a London studio, assembling his own team — basically going back to his grassroots beginnings. Now he’s comfortable with it all, hence the return of The The.

This North American tour coincides with the release of a documentary film about the band, The Inertia Variations, and a biography by Neil Fraser called Long Shadows, High Hopes. The former will be screening at Hollywood Forever the day before the first L.A. show. While Johnson admits that he struggled to hand over creative control, he also says he’s pleased with both results.

“There are probably things I would have done differently, but that’s always gonna be the case, I suppose,” he says. “But I am pleased. They’re both people that I trust and like, I think they’re both talented and I’m happy with what they did.”

The The performs at the Ford Amphitheatre on Monday, Sept. 24, and at the Hollywood Palladium the following night. Again, these will be the band’s first shows on local soil in 18 years, so anticipation will be high. For Johnson himself, he’s looking forward to coming back to the States even if he has no particular memories attached to specific shows in the past.

“The problem with touring is, and I think a lot of musicians tend to say this, it tends to blur,” he says. “When you’ve done various tours and you go from one city to another in quick succession, it’s hard to remember. I can’t remember specifically about the last time we played there. I lived in New York for about seven years but I haven’t spent much time there since 9/11 really. I’ve probably been back around five times since then, and I’ve not been there for six years. I’m slightly disturbed at the shift that the regime in Washington started to pursue. That’s a problem for me — this extreme, neo-conservative, hegemonic agenda. That’s been a worry. I’ve always been very fond of America and I’ve spent a lot of time there since I was a 15-year-old. To suddenly see this ultra-right-wing shift, ultra aggressive toward the rest of the world, is very disturbing.”

Tell us about it. Meanwhile, though he’s playing two sets in Los Angeles, he doesn’t plan to tinker too much with the set list.

“We kinda play the same set, unless it’s a festival,” he says. “Generally, we’ve tinkered and we’ve found a pace that really works. We tend to stick to that. I don’t like to change the set for the sake of it in case someone was at two shows. Most people weren’t at both shows. We’ve settled on a set that we’re quite pleased with now.”

To finish, Johnson offers news that longtime fans have been holding out for — there’s new The The material in the works.

“I’ve just started writing new material and am hoping to get something going next year,” he says. “I’m not quite sure when the new album will be finished, but obviously I’m going to finish the touring, and there’s a soundtrack I’m scoring at the end of this year. Early next year I can start cracking on with recording the new album.”

The The plays at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 24, at the Ford Amphitheatre. That show is sold out. They then play with Agnes Obel at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the Hollywood Palladium. On Sunday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m., the documentary The Inertia Variations will be screened at Hollywood Forever, followed by a Q&A with Matt Johnson.

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