Johnny Marr: “I’m from a generation of musicians who don’t all want to be Gary Barlow…”

When Johnny Marr decided to call his next album Fever Dreams, he had no idea how prophetic it would prove to be. “I had the title before lockdown, before Covid,” he tells Weekend. “Then, as I was writing it during the pandemic, it all just made total sense. It’s not just that my sleep patterns became erratic, the daytimes also felt like a fever dream – there’s a line in one of the songs, ‘every day is a fever dream’, which I deliberately put in, because it felt like the whole world went into that mindset. Every 24 hours was like a fever dream. And for some it was a nightmare.”

Having expanded over lockdown to become a double album, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4 find the 58-year-old guitar hero in contemplative mode – though looking inward doesn’t always come naturally, he admits. “Going into this record, it was an instinct… almost my conscious telling me ‘on this one, Johnny, you really have to not avoid going into the interior world a bit’. I felt if I didn’t explore those things, I’d be cheating myself. And then the big [Covid] fever dream happened, and I knew this was exactly what I had to do. 

“But I wanted to avoid being overly earnest,” he adds. “I try to avoid sentimental platitudes. I’m from a generation of musicians who don’t all want to be Gary Barlow…”

There are plenty of other musicians he was more than happy to channel, though, on an album that finds the indie elder statesman fusing “the language of soul” – as showcased on the recent, gospel-infused single Spirit, Power and Soul – with the glam rock of his youth, via pounding electronica (Sensory Street) and piledriving guitar anthems (Counter Clock World, The Whirl). 

While numerous songs channel the anxious spirit of the times – Night and Day, in particular, captures the febrile atmosphere of the summer of 2020, when the silence of lockdown gave way to the anger of the Black Lives Matter protests – the album is shot through with a defiant optimism, not least on intimate closing track Human, which owes a strong debt to Working Class Hero-era John Lennon. 

“I had this kind of stirring tune, and I knew that, for the lyrics, I didn’t want to be too clever or post-punk or art-rock about it, because that wouldn’t have served the song well,” explains Marr. “So I thought, who’s a singer who does that kind of direct, honest language really well? John Lennon. And then later that same day, I got a card and a package through the door – from Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. I thought, ‘it’s a sign…’”

No slouch in the working class hero stakes himself, John Martin Maher grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, where his parents had moved from County Kidlare, his dad finding work laying gas pipes while his mum cleaned in a hospital. Young Johnny was bright enough to win a place at the local Catholic grammar school, but he preferred Roxy Music to RE: having first picked up the guitar aged four, he’d already been in four bands when, aged 18, he formed The Smiths with fellow musical dreamer Stephen Morrissey.

The combination of Marr’s distinctive lead rhythm-guitar, with its trademark juddering arpeggios, and Morrissey’s waspish tales of social alienation made The Smiths instant heroes to a generation of smart, teenage misfits. Was it a lot to take on, when he was still a teenager himself? “In all honesty, it didn’t feel like it at the time,” says Marr. “I’d been working at it, kind of professionally, since I was 15, which is pretty unusual. So even though I was very young, if anyone was ready for it, it was me. But you know, from a more mature perspective, I look back and I can see that it was a lot. I think the exuberance and the single-mindedness of youth helped me get through that. 

“And in the case of The Smiths, the dramatic nature of the group’s day-to-day story” – Marr has previously talked of ‘drug busts, deaths and court cases’, sometimes all at the same time – “was a blessing and a curse. Because it kept me so busy, I didn’t really know how weird my life had become until the end of it – until it had run its course. But you know what? It was great. It was great, because I was churning out songs in a band that I formed that I thought were the greatest, and a lot of other people – particularly people of my own generation – thought were great, too.”

The Smiths burned brightly but briefly, splitting up in 1987 after just four albums, and a brace of generation-defining songs like Panic, Ask and How Soon Is Now? It was a messy separation, from which Morrissey and Marr’s once burningly intense friendship never recovered.

Today, many Smiths fans feel deeply betrayed by Morrissey’s increasingly provocative flirtations with the far-right – such as his support for the anti-Islamic For Britain party, and his inflammatory statements on immigration. Does Marr, whose own politics could scarcely be more different, sympathise with those whose love for the band now feels compromised?

“I don’t examine it,” he says, carefully. “I don’t know… honestly, I really don’t know what the answer to that is. I avoid analysing it, really, because… it’s a bloody dead end. It doesn’t do any good. I’ve maintained a connection with a certain kind of music fan from that period – they’ve followed my records, they’ve followed my interviews, they’ve followed my career through different bands. My audience knows me, I think. They know where I’m at.”

Presumably he hasn’t spoken to Morrissey recently? “Well, you know, there is no need,” he says.

(Shortly after Marr’s conversation with Weekend, Morrissey published an “open letter” to his former friend, asking him to “stop using my name as clickbait” in interviews. So let the record show that Marr wasn’t the one who brought up the M word here.)

My audience knows me. They’ve followed my records, they’ve followed my interviews. They know where I’m at.

Johnny Marr

If the chances of a Smiths reunion are currently less than zero, fans could at least enjoy a guilt-free nostalgia trip when 80s hitmaker Rick Astley stepped up as a somewhat unlikely – and surprisingly convincing – Morrissey substitute for a recent series of tribute shows with Stockport band Blossoms. But while the collaboration delighted many, Marr seemed less than amused, describing it on Twitter as “funny and horrible at the same time”.

“I don’t have a problem with people doing my songs, but the way they went about it was not cool – it was underhand,” he says today. “They [Blossoms] and their organisation didn’t really cover themselves in glory. I just say it how it is, you know? I’m not a musical snob, I have got nothing against Rick Astley personally. I’m sure he’s a nice fella. But he wants to be careful of the company he keeps.”

It’s not the first time Marr’s speak-as-he-finds attitude has made headlines: in 2010, he responded to then-prime minister David Cameron choosing a Smiths song as one of his Desert Island Discs by announcing: “I forbid you to like it”. Is the ban still in force? “Is it ever,” he laughs. “That was pre-Brexit, as well.” So he’s doubling down on it? “I’m tripling down on it!”

If all this makes Marr sound as blunt and combative as fellow Mancunian indie heroes Liam and Noel Gallagher, he isn’t at all: ever genial and good natured, in Smiths terms, he’s less Bigmouth Strikes Again, more This Charming Man.

A recipient of the NME’s Godlike Genius Award (not that it cuts any ice with his wife Angie, he notes) Marr’s post-Smiths career has included stints as an official member of The Pretenders, The The and The Cribs, as well as being one half of Electronic – creators of dance-rock classics Get the Message and Getting Away with It – with New Order’s Bernard Sumner. As a guitar for hire, meanwhile, he’s played live with everyone from Paul McCartney to Oasis, and contributed to hits by Talking Heads, the Pet Shop Boys and dozens more.

He also collaborates regularly with film composer Hans Zimmer – most recently on the soundtrack to the Bond film No Time to Die, whose Billie Eilish theme song had the added bonus of gifting him his first UK number one single. “It’s funny how these things come when you’re not looking,” he says. “But if you’re British, and you’re going to have a number one, you might as well make it a Bond song. It was a really nice moment, particularly working with Billie,” he adds. “She gives me a lot of hope about modern music.” Has he seen the finished film? “I saw it about 400 times while we were doing the score – but I saw the ending first, which was a bit of a spoiler.”

In the spring, Marr will be opening for Blondie on their upcoming arena tour, before doing the same for The Killers. For a kid who once dreamed of escaping the suburbs of Wythenshawe for a life of rock and roll adventure, it’s all gone rather swimmingly, hasn’t it?

“Yeah, that’s a nice thought, thank you,” he says, as if it’s never occurred to him to reflect on his success before. “I’m excited about the future, too. I’ve got the album, I’ve got lots of shows coming up, there’s always another record on the horizon… It’s just more of the same, really. It’s what I do – and it’s too late to stop now.”

Fever Dream Pts 1-4 is out February 25 (BMG).

JOHNNY COME HOME

Marr and his wife Angie have been together since 1979. They have a grown-up son, Nile (also a musician) and daughter, Sonny. “I met Angie when I was 15, she was 14,” he says. “We were inseparable straight away and… let’s just say it was one of my better decisions.”

The family spent five years living in Portland, Oregon – where they still have a home – but returned home to Manchester a few years ago. Marr, who has a studio in a disused factory, says the city’s famously “overcast, dramatic” weather helps inspire his music.

Marr has been a vegetarian since The Smiths released their Meat is Murder album in 1985. “I’ve got that record to thank for 40 years of vegetarianism, but it wasn’t like it was a great sacrifice, because I basically lived on 40 Silk Cut and 20 cups of coffee a day anyway,” he notes. “And then in 2008 I became a vegan, as a sort of… gesture, for want of a better word, towards sentient beings.” 

First published in Waitrose Weekend, February 24, 2022 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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