Once in a while you get to talk to someone or have an experience that positively readjusts your own view of things. My phone conversation with Johnny Marr (the Smiths, the Cribs, Modest Mouse) was one of those experiences for me.
Musicians talking to other musicians puts a different slant on the typical interview. It’s not necessarily better per se, it’s just more casual and full of surprises. With Marr, I was much more interested in just how the hell he keeps so current and fresh in his songwriting, and I wanted to know how he came upon his particular style of guitar playing. A “journalist” may have pestered Marr on other more tired topics (“Hey! When are the Smiths getting back together”?).
The interview in these pages, I believe, showcases a man dashing headlong into the still-mysterious and exciting arena of writing new songs and playing with musicians who inspire him. He is as excited about plugging in a guitar now as when he was 14 years old. When Marr talks about being as inspired to make music today as he was as a kid, there’s honest excitement in his voice—not the blasé and predetermined excitement of some veteran trying to simply “pimp” a new record. Johnny Marr is an original, and a damn fine gent.
Marr had been living in Portland for some time during the Modest Mouse run. He jammed with that band because he was completely mystified about what and who influenced them. His wanderlust for musical exploration leads him just as strongly now as when he was a teen taking trains across Manchester to jam with some dudes he didn’t even know.
Moving back home to Manchester in 2010 with his wife and family, Johnny got a large dose of the gravity and familiarity of returning to a place of comfort and invention. The songs for The Messenger were born on his trip home, and now he has been touring with this great band of his. Johnny Marr is the anti–guitar hero—an inventor, an explorer, and a guy who seems to fully “get it” as far as his place in the mix. He is a regular guy with an irregular past. I was glad and honored to have been able to have a chat with this affable and pleasant Manchesterite.
Duff McKagan is the founding bassist of Guns N’ Roses. His column runs every Thursday at seattleweekly.com/music.