We asked the influential guitarist about his solo career, his favorite guitars and his healthy lifestyle.
Although he is best known as the guitarist of the 1980s English post punk/rock band The Smiths, in which he employed a melodic, poppy guitar sound, Johnny Marr has had a rich career since the group disbanded in 1987. Marr has worked with a plethora of musical groups and artists — among them Bernard Sumner of New Order, the Pretenders, the Cribs and Modest Mouse. Marr and his band will perform Tuesday, May 14, at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater.
Manchester, England, a city where you spent much of your formative years, is known for its vibrant music scene, producing post-punk bands like Joy Division and The Fall, and 1990s rock bands like Oasis and the Stone Roses. How has living in Manchester shaped your musical career?
I come from a family of Irish immigrants that were obsessed with music, so I was already into music. When I was about 13, my family moved to what would be considered a housing project in the US. I met a bunch of working-class kids who all wanted to be in bands. It was a really great apprenticeship; I knew exactly what I wanted to do [for a living]. I left home at 14 and I left school at 15 to be a pro musician, and I started playing in bands with adults. Whether or not I was going to make a living as a musician was questionable, but everything else besides my music, including my home life and school, was secondary to me. I met my wife, Angie, when I was about 15. I was playing in a New Wave band that did Blondie covers. She had the same philosophy as me and just loved guitar music.
You’re known for your jangly Rickenbacker guitar sound, but you use many different guitars and effects in your music. What are some of your favorites?
It’s amazing, really. I’m known mostly for my Rickenbacker and being in the Smiths, but in 2010 Fender put out a guitar I designed, so I’ve been playing on that. It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my more than 35 years of work; it does the job of what would have taken me three guitars back in the day. I’ve given the guitar to some great musicians that I really respect, like Paul Weller and Ed O’Brien from Radiohead.
For many years after being a member of The Smiths, you were known as a sort of “hired gun,” working with many different musicians. How’s it been, playing with your own band again?
I’ve had the same group together since 2011. We are a pretty good unit now. We all knew each other socially — it was people I had things in common with. We get together a lot and play. We try to stay tight. I’ve got old-fashioned values and it means a lot for me to have a tight-knit band.
How did global politics influence your latest album, Call the Comet?
I started working on Call the Comet after the 2016 presidential and UK elections, as a way to escape from British and American politics. This record is like tapes I would make as a kid, when I would escape and do something creative. The album provided refuge in the form of my craft. I just put my guitar on and start writing words. I like writing about society in general, and with this album, I found myself writing about an imaginary society.
What bands and musicians are you listening to these days?
There’s a whole galaxy of music you can follow these days. I really like a UK band called Yak, a band called The Cruel Intentions, a girl group, PINS, and Australian musician Courtney Barnett. She’s fantastic.
Are there musicians and artists you haven’t collaborated with yet, but would like to someday?
It’s a funny thing. After the Smiths, when I started playing in different bands, people would ask me when I planned to release my own albums. Now, people ask me about working with other musicians. Between writing songs, recording and touring, I don’t have the time to play in other bands. I have enjoyed working with film composer Hans Zimmer, on movies like Inception and Spider Man. I imagine that will continue.
I’ve read somewhere that the American hip-hop group Naughty By Nature encouraged you to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Are you still pretty health-conscious?
I’ve been a vegetarian since about 1984, when the Smiths put out the Meat is Murder album. In the 1990s, me and Matt Johnson did a movie in New York City when we met the Naughty by Nature guys. Hip hop has this philosophy of empowering oneself, which I found really intriguing. It was so far removed from rock and roll philosophy. It’s quite a radical position for a rock musician to not drink alcohol. For me, not drinking is a creative, proactive decision. I felt it would make me a better musician. I’ve got no judgments toward anyone else, but everything I do is to fuel my creativity.
Social media and digitization have changed the face of the music industry. Are you much of a Facebook user?
When Twitter came out, I thought this was an opportunity for me to be cerebral and funny — I wound up getting into a bit of a spat with the UK prime minister at the time. With Facebook, people can be very negative but want to stay anonymous. They don’t want to be held accountable for their behavior. I find this a bit much to take. I do use social media to post music updates and things like that.
What do you do in your free time, if you have any?
I just work all the time. Luckily for me, work is a creative endeavor. I’ve been like this since I was 11. In 2016, I wrote my autobiography, Set the Boy Free. I didn’t use a ghostwriter. I’ve always been interested in writing and the process of writing, so this was a good opportunity.
What can Milwaukee fans expect from your upcoming concert?
I have a mix of old and new stuff in my repertoire. I’m looking forward to playing Milwaukee again. Last time, I believe, I played with Modest Mouse in this big, old theater, [the Rave/Eagles Club].
Go See It: Johnny Marr at the Pabst Theater, Tuesday, May 14