The Boy With The Thorn In His Side: An Interview with
To every curmudgeonly rock critic who claims that Boomslang, the debut album by former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and his new band, The Healers, lacks originality, Marr would probably respond by saying something like: When you’re feelin’ it, who gives a shit? Being original, by definition, has never necessarily meant that a band’s music is any good. And is it really necessary to create music which sounds like nothing ever heard before when the songs are as good as those found on Boomslang? Marr might tend to think not. “With Boomslang, I’m trying to balance [the hype] with the sensible notion that it’s a new band’s first album, to look towards the future and not really want the earth, moon and stars from it,” says the 39 year old guitarist, on the phone from an East Coast tour stop. “I just want people who like my stuff to really like this record. I’m not trying to hit any kind of jackpot with this group, but to have a four or five album journey. I have a subconscious eye on building a [career], really.”
Marr formed The Healers with Who drummer (and son of Ringo Starr) Zak Starkey and ex-Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan to realize an idea he had “for this type of music that I wasn’t hearing; melodic with a touch of groove and an anemic, very white approach to the vocals, but still soulful,” he says with his very dry British sense of humor that is so very charming. An obsessive music fan and record collector himself, Marr has compared The Healers to a “Mancunian Sly and The Family Stone,” creating music that’s basically “a melting pot of the stuff I liked growing up.” The indelible influences of some of his favorites – T Rex, David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, and early Stones – as well as bits and pieces of the Smiths and Bevan’s middle eastern rhythmic sensibilities – filter through Boomslang’s eleven tracks of relentlessly melodic, psychedelic guitar rock. Clearly, Marr and his bandmates saw no need to reinvent the wheel.
“I think there’s a certain type of person who my music resonates with, and ultimately that’s people like yourself,” Marr continues, after I confess to having been a ridiculously, stupidly huge Smiths fan back in the ’80s. “Most musicians, whether they realize it or not, are really making music for people who are like them. That’s what you start out doing and, luckily for me, I’ve always been aware of it… so I kind of got it right,” he laughs. “I’ve always assumed that there are people – outside of my own country, outside of my own city – wherever, who like a bit of passion. Also, with Boomslang, I made the assumption that people who like what I do aren’t afraid of major chord changes and a bit of rock & roll as well.”
Up until the time I discovered Motley Crüe, The Smiths were my favorite band of the ’80s. Formed in 1982 in Manchester, England by Marr, vocalist Morrissey (AKA Stephen Morrissey), bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, The Smiths were the definitive British indie rock band of the ’80s. Their music marked the end of synthesizer-driven new wave and the beginning of the guitar-heavy sound that dominated English rock way into the ’90s. Smiths songs like “What Difference Does It Make?,” “The Head Master Ritual,” “Back To The Old House,” “How Soon Is Now?,” “William, It was really Nothing” and “Panic” meant the world to me and will always have a place in my heart. So you can probably imagine the total squealfest thrill it was for me to have a chance to interview a guy like Johnny Marr, whose music profoundly affected my life during my early to mid ’20s. Johnny was totally rad and friendly and after a few minutes I almost completely forgot I was talking to one of my favorite musicians of all time. Almost.
I know you’re an obsessive music fan and record collector so I wanted to ask you some questions about your favorite songs from your childhood and teenage years. First off, I’ve heard you speak about the song, “All the Young Dudes” as recorded by Mott the Hoople and I wanted to get your comments on that, because I think that’s my favorite song of all time.
Right, Mott The Hoople’s version of “All the Young Dudes,” which I didn’t realize was written by David Bowie, was almost mystical to me. I was obsessed with it. To get technical about it, I wondered where the “magic spot” was – this split second of magic. I realized it was on the line (sings) “Carry the new-ews” – the chord change goes from a major chord to a minor chord. That experience coincided with me actually putting chord changes together on the guitar. Of course, I felt like I was learning alchemy or something. It’s just the chords really [that have that affect], rather than Mick Ralphs guitar part. Obviously, it starts with a guitar lick, which I was into getting down, but I was more interested in being able to play the entire record and then in creating the impression of what I was hearing coming from the record. On that song there were strings in there and backing vocals and pianos and an organ in particular. That whole “glob” of sound – for want of a better word – that dramatic slab was what I was trying to get out of my little supermarket acoustic guitar.
[Warning: Here is the part where I totally, willingly and shamelessly kiss Johnny Marr’s ass] Well, honestly you are so extraordinarily talented. As you say in your song, “you are the magic.”
Thanks, Gail. I appreciate it, and so are you.
I know you’re a big Rolling Stones fan, what’s your favorite Stones song?
Well, when I’ve been asked to name a favorite-ever record, it’s always been “Gimmie Shelter.” I heard it [for the first time] when I was off school one day, goofing off with a couple of my friends. The first time I heard it, it wasn’t actually on Let It Bleed, it was from a weird Decca cut pressed album called Gimmie Shelter – which I’ve never seen since, but which I still own. Amazingly, for me, the song was the last track on one of the sides and therefore I was able to keep playing it continuously on my parents’ record player, just by lifting up the tone arm. If I left the speed at 33 RPM, and left setting where the arm dropped for a 7”, then it would drop right on the last track on that side, which was “Gimmie Shelter.” When my parents went out, I would turn all the lights off, lay down in the dark on the floor and take the speakers from off the shelves and put them next to my ears – like the world’s biggest headphones. I’d press them up against my head and just leave the arm off the turn table so the record would play continuously until I just completely zoned out. That’s transcendence for you, and no one’s gonna tell me any different [laughs].
Oh yeah, I had a ritual like that with Led Zeppelin Four, where at Christmas time when I was a kid, I’d listen to it in the dark with headphones on and our Christmas tree all lit up. It was like magic. Like an acid trip before you even knew what acid was.
Wow, it’s incredible isn’t it? That kind of obsession and being drawn into that world, whether that was even intended by the people who made the records, it was so important to me, and people who are like me. It’s something you can’t get from anything else. You can’t get it from religion, you can’t get it from drugs and you can’t get it from sex. You can get all sorts of other things from that stuff, but that escapism and that kind of visit to a kind of place that’s mysterious, but yet familiar, can only happen through those kinds of records and those kinds of experiences, for me. That’s what I’m trying to do myself, when I play, primarily, because ultimately now I know that when I had those moments [which are] rare in your own stuff, they do translate and people pick up on it and have the same sort of experiences.
The Smiths’ song that would have had that kind of effect on me would be “How Soon Is Now.” From the very first bit of the staccato guitar feedback through to the very last words Morrissey sings, that whole song just takes you on a kind of journey. It’s just brilliant.
That song was kind of a bit of inspired luck, really. Although I know John Porter, who is the producer of that song, who I love, had said that he steered us towards this direction or that direction, I heard recently that he [claimed he] was trying to get us to play “That’s Alright, Mama” by Elvis Presley. I totally disagree with that and somewhere I’ve got the demo that I brought in, when the song was called “Swamp.” I did it on a Porta-studio and it was my idea of what I’d heard that Creedence [Clearwater Revival] was supposed to be about [laughs], hence the working title of “Swamp.” It had that kind of swampy feel. So, I would argue with John, because I know he said recently that he’d suggested that we make it sound like “That’s Alright, Mama.” If that was the case then why does it sound nothing like it [laughs]? But it was very much a team effort and it was a magical night. There was myself and John Porter and the engineer, Kenny Jones left to our own devices, as usual.
Everyone else had gone and we just stayed up through the night doing the vibrato thing and then that slide feedback-y thing. That was where all the inspiration really came into it. I was able to reach back and pull out an idea that originally – weirdly enough – came from when I was about twelve or thirteen and I was absolutely crazy about “Disco Stomp” by Hamilton Bohannon. He was an American, late ’60s/early ’70s artist that pioneered the kind of four-on-the-floor thing. He had a big chart hit, which was an unusual sound in ‘75 for the UK, called “Disco Stomp.” It went [sings call and response] “Everybody do the Disco Stomp/ Everybody do the Disco Stomp,” and it had this overstated, choppy rhythm. It wasn’t this vibrato as such, but I found the rhythm totally infectious and I was nuts about it. Then obviously, some time later I discovered Bo Diddley through my love of the Stones and John Lee Hooker.
I knew there was something that we needed on the track; I just adjusted the whole overstated vibrato thing. It was always something of a dream to be able to do a song that was recognizable within just a few seconds, because of the guitar riff. A lot of my heros and influences did that. I mean, you know it’s “Brown Sugar” as soon as you hear it. You know it’s “All The Young Dudes” as soon as you hear it. Luckily enough, that one floated by. I was really, really pleased with it, but there was a little bit of a battle with the label to put it out. They were just happy to have it as the extra track on the B Side of “William, It Was Really Nothing.”
The first time I heard “William, It Was really Nothing,” I was in a Woolworth’s in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Really, wow. And it wasn’t even the regular B Side, it was stuck on the 12”.
Which I own.
Nowadays of course, the label is more than happy to pontificate about what it all meant at the time, but as I remember it, the record company didn’t really like it very much.
Well, they’re nuts.
Yeah, they’re totally nuts.
The Smiths career really took off right on the cusp of the compact disc’s first introduction to the marketplace, so most of your recordings were also initially released on vinyl, but the first album and Hatful of Hollow and The Queen is Dead were some of the first compact discs ever manufactured. Do you know if there are any Smiths records that are especially collectible because they are only available on vinyl?
Over the years, I’ve found quite a lot of promo things that I didn’t even know existed. There are things like vinyl versions of “The Headmaster Ritual,” which was a European single, not a British single. It was like a European Benelux single – you know Benelux, they were distributors. And there’s a really rare promo single of “Still Ill,” which I imagine has never made it officially to CD. Of course the lines get very blurred now, with people being able to burn their own CDs. It’s become a bit of a grey area. There are people who are far more qualified to talk about Smiths’ rarities than I am. I don’t even own all of our records [laughs]. There was this picture disc, some sort of horrendous French thing that was an interview interspersed with little bits and pieces from radio sessions, I think. I do seem to remember that, but I don’t know if it was a photograph of just Morrissey, or Morrissey and myself. So it was either really horrendous or… just horrendous. Please put “laughs” in brackets after that. [Laughs] I’ll be head-hunted for that one.
What kind of an impact did the Beatles have on your early musical development?
The first Beatles record I bought was the Red double compilation album (The Beatles 1962-1966). You know, one was Red and one was Blue (The Beatles 1967-1970). It was quite unusual at the time to be buying music by groups who had ceased to be. The rest of my friends were buying music by bands like The Jam and Boomtown Rats and The Stranglers and all those crappy, so-called punky bands. That music seemed lame to me. I took my sister’s lead, really, and started to troll backwards. Retro was new when I invented it [laughs]. Then this entire ocean of amazing music opened up. I then started to hunt down as many of the original Motown singles as I could. At the same time, I was reading Patti Smith interviews and I bought a bootleg where she did “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes. I heard [Patti] talk about Phil Spector and the Rolling Stones so that just spurred me on to travel through the past, really. All that music was, to me, far more happening than the so-called British new wave, and “Turning Japanese” and all that kind of stuff. It’s also kind of cool, when you’re a teenager and you like stuff that no one else is into. There’s a little bit of elitism in that. But lucky for me it was all about something good.
But to get back to your question, I remember “Love Me Do” from my parents playing it, and the harmonica on it. But my favorite Beatles record has got to be “I Am The Walrus.” To me, it’s Hieronymous Bosch and Salvador Dali set to music.
You’re only the second person I’ve ever interviewed who’s brought up the name Hieronymous Bosch in an interview.
Oh really? Who was the other?
Do you know the band The Dandy Warhols?
They’re disciples of yours, I would venture to guess.
Well there’s some talk of us going out and playing with them this year. So, he mentioned Hieronymous Bosch, did he?
Yeah, Courtney is really into his artwork.
Well, that’s what “I Am The Walrus” sounds like to me. That is completely and utterly beyond what we think of as pop music. It could only have come out of popular culture. It’s completely anarchic and beautiful. I very rarely would use the word ‘genius’ but it’s a genius piece of work, and genuinely trippy, you know? I don’t think anything’s really quite surpassed it in terms of pop music. Not even “See Emily Play” or anything like that.
You’re a Syd Barrett fan, then?
Yeah! What you really hear in that sort of genre of music, even the American band’s which were on a slightly different tip, it really doesn’t get much better than Syd Barrett, for me anyway. I’ve got recordings of “Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man,” which didn’t come out, but were the last things that he recorded with Pink Floyd. “Scream Thy Last Scream” is just insane. It’s interesting because, if you compare Syd Barrett solo records to, say, Oar by Skip Spence, which is another album that I really like… Skip Spence was in Moby Grape and he famously went off and did this legendary album in two or three days in Nashville. There was a tribute album out a couple of years ago with all different acts doing versions of it. Beck was on it. There’s a track called “War In Peace” on it, you should check it out. It’s incredible. But if you compare his solo record with Syd Barrett’s, what’s interesting is you’ve got two unhinged psyches there; both around the same age, with amazing talent. And you hear the difference between an unhinged American psyche and the unhinged British psyche. Syd Barrett’s music is very claustrophobic and concrete and intense and, to me, Skip Spence’s album is very open and, for all its confusion, it’s very vast. It’s the difference between Kensington and… Ohio [laughs]. It’s just a very interesting difference between the American and British psychedelic psyche, I think.
What’s your take on the claim that it’s harder today to find good music – quality rock music that possesses that transcendent quality we’ve been discussing – than it was 20 or more years ago?
It’s not on the radio, but I wonder if it was ever on the radio. I’m often asked the rhetorical question about how I feel about the charts and modern radio, and there’s a certain answer that’s expected. But when I think about it, it’s very easy for people who are idealists about music and the way the radio should be and [how] the charts are, and [there’s a tendency] particularly for people in the media to take cultural snapshots. Life isn’t like that. The ’60s weren’t all Ray Davies and Steve Marriott and the Beatles and The Stones and Pink Floyd. For every one of those bands, there were five Englebert Humperdinks. I personally have a very strong affection for the early ’70s because that was the time when I was buying all of these gems. Therefore, to me, the charts were nothing but The Sparks, Roxy Music and David Bowie, when in fact there were the New Seekers and Gordon Lightfoot or [Tony Orlando &] Dawn and the Osmonds – “Crazy Horses” aside, which of course is a work of genius (laughs).
The charts were predominantly for 12 year olds, and 12 year olds with pretty bad taste, to boot. The function of the charts and the radio is probably not that much different, essentially, [than back then] except that, it being in line with the modern world – and the modern world being even more corporate these days, with advertising rules – everything is complete baby food. But it always was that way, to an extent. All I know is that if I talk to someone about Godspeed You Black Emperor, most people know who they are. And a lot of people know who Sigur Ros are – and their last album didn’t even have song titles! Maybe I can’t be objective, but all I’m saying is it’s the journalists and the musicians who are asking the rhetorical questions. I’m almost playing Devil’s Advocate. We all know about Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor and Boards of Canada, so it can’t be that bad. If anything, it goes back to making a difference. Another way of looking at it is that the underground is underground and the overground is way overground. That’s better than the stuff we love being [slips into American accent] hijacked by “The Man.”
I’ll never forget seeing Anthrax play a small club in NYC about ten years ago and the singer saying “Remember that the underground is the best place to be.”
Right, it’s a beautiful thing when the underground infiltrates popular culture, there is nothing better. Whether it’s The Rolling Stones or Roxy Music or The Smiths or New Order or Pet Shop Boys. Getting onto national television and into suburban households with an obviously alternative agenda…[is amazing]. It’s almost like when you have a breakthrough single. You know that, for instance, when The Smiths were on Top Of The Pops almost weekly, you know that those kids who sat there who were clued up, and were sussed, realize that you’re not living a straight lifestyle. And they’re in there watching it with their parents! For Brian Jones and people like him, and John Lennon, to have loomed so large in straight suburbia – particularly in the U.S. – is a very powerful thing [laughs]. That’s one of the great things about pop culture. The absence of that channel or opportunity is, obviously, a shame. You do have to go out and look for it. Once in awhile, somebody always breaks through. Kurt Cobain obviously comes to mind. They’ve got to have a good way with a tune and some charisma, though, to do it.
It does happen, obviously, but when you’re inundated with so much dreck, it’s harder to see.
Interestingly enough, I don’t think I’m that untypical or dissimilar from a lot of people who are into what I do. All I know is that I purposefully set out a few years ago to create my own sort of filter. You start off with ignoring certain television news and then certain magazines – because we are totally inundated. I think that overload of information, and essentially feeling like a target and part of a demographic – which is what my album and a lot of my lyrics are about – results in building up a certain kind of filter, if you like. Mine’s becoming more and more reliable now. If I go into a news agent, my eyes go to one place, and if I go into a town, there’s a certain record store that I’m looking for. On the Internet, there’s a certain thing I’m looking for. All the other stuff, I just avoid. Ultimately, the good stuff just floats to the top. It’s just riding that wave of technology and the things that you can do and whether that be the sounds that people make in the studio or the kinds of websites they go to or the way they use computers, or whatever journeys they’re on. You kind of go, “Alright, this new thing is only good for this.” I think the same can be said for a lot of magazines. It’s just media overload now, so I just don’t even bother reading most of it. If I want to know about the news I just find out what Noam Chomsky’s up to at the moment.
[Warning: second wave of blatant ass-kissing approaching] I hate to be such a fanatic but I really want you to get how important your music is and how significant it has been in the lives of so many fans, and how important Boomslang is to people who really love what you, specifically, do.
Coming over here, I’ve been looking out for that message, and that’s made the whole thing worth it, Gail. I really mean it, because it would be kind of easy for me to go out on stage and really have the comments that certain albeit-well-meaning journalists who have interviewed me ringing in my ears, hearing, “Do you think Smiths fans are going to like it? Do you think Smiths fans are going to like it? Are your old fans going to like it?” These people are actually talking about themselves. I’ve started now to ask them, when that comment’s made, to explain exactly who are these people that they’re describing who are afraid of a major chord change? Who are, at this moment, as we speak, standing on a bridge with their pockets full of rocks and clutching their journal, and ready to jump? They don’t exist. They’re talking about themselves. Because people who are into me, and what I do and interested in what I do, I assume are big enough and open-minded enough to like all kinds of music, and to have really gotten the celebratory and obsessive and humorous aspects of The Smiths down. That whole sort of stereotype is totally grubbing the shadow and missing the substance of what the band was about.
Honestly, a lot of Morrissey’s solo stuff –with the exception of “Suedehead” – I just can’t take, because I think, “Oh Jesus guy, get over yourself.” You know what I mean?
But when it was in the context of The Smiths, I think it was a combination of him really, lyrically, putting his finger to the pulse of a certain angst and misery and sadness that no one was really addressing at the time, and then your musicianship – and I’m talking about you, Mike and Andy – just lifting it all up. The Smiths were such a special band. You should be so proud.
I am, I’m absolutely proud. I sometimes feel like the lone defender out of all four of us really, because unfortunately they appear to be bickering about issues that don’t really matter. They should be defending what the band was really about and getting rid of this silly, stereotypical idea. But to get back to your comments, I don’t have that agenda. Some people might expect that, oh, I’m trying to ‘lay some rock on some delicate wallflowers.’ The people in my audience have always been able to rock out and they know the world’s a big enough place to like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada and Electric Six and The Vines and whoever else there might be, and like me as well. So I do appreciate people like you and that’s the message I’m taking from this tour.