Morrissey once said, “I would rather eat my own testicles than reform the Smiths.” Which seems like a pretty definitive statement, especially coming from a vegan. Did he really need to take it that far? Couldn’t he just have said, “No, sorry, the Smiths still aren’t reuniting?” Probably not. Because we aren’t a pop culture-loving world that takes no for an answer. When I read Morrissey’s scrotum-eating declaration, my first thought wasn’t, “Wow, he really doesn’t like the Smiths.” My first thought was, “So you’re saying it’s pooooossible?”
This problem became especially apparent to me when I was invited to interview Johnny Marr, one of the founding members of the Smiths and possibly the greatest guitarist of his generation. Marr’s first official solo album, The Messenger, comes out this week and by all accounts it’s an amazing return to form, particularly if you like jangly guitar riffs. The album alone should be enough for a full interview. And then there’s his dozens of musical projects over the years, with bands like the Pretenders, The The, Modest Mouse, the Cribs, and the Healers. He’s collaborated with the likes of Bernard Sumner, the Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, Paul McCartney (allegedly) and Beck. He has a musical resume that’s wall-to-wall awesome. I could spend a week with Marr and not run out of questions about his post-Smiths career. But while preparing for this interview, what was the one subject I couldn’t stop myself from researching, traveling down countless rabbit holes of musical minutiae? The fucking Smiths.
It’s not his problem. It’s my problem. And I know for a fact that I’m alone.
If you’re one of those people who gets super-annoyed whenever Marr is asked about the Smiths — because come on, he’s already made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t like Morrissey that way anymore — then I’m begging you, please don’t read any further. But if you’re one of those people who loves the “Johnny Marr denies a Smith reunion for the umpteenth time” interview, because it’s fun to dissect his answers for any sign of second-guessing or uncertainty, or maybe decode hidden messages within his constant denials, which roughly translate as “Yes, it’s totally happening, we’ve been rehearsing for months in secrecy, David Bowie-style, and one of these days, out of the blue, we’re going to drop a new Smiths song that’ll blow your mind,” well, then come on in.
You once claimed that Chrissie Hynde called you a “chicken” in the late ‘80s for not singing. Are you finally admitting she was right?
Yeah, but don’t tell her that.
What took you so long to stop being a chicken?
Well, I’ve been touring so much since 2006. I made a record with Modest Mouse that was a lot of fun, and then I made another record with the Cribs and we’ve been touring that for a long time. I got to do the Inception soundtrack with Hans Zimmer after that. So the past six or seven years have been pretty busy with those things. It was more a question of what next, rather than some sinister plot to take center stage.
Do you like the sound of your own voice?
I do, sure. I’ve been singing for years, man. I started out singing in bands when I was 14, 15. But by 18 I was like, “I’ve got to just concentrate on playing the guitar.” That’s what I really wanted to do, and what I wanted to develop. I only picked up the responsibility of singing lead vocals when I formed the Healers with Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son) in 2000 or whenever it was. And that was mostly because I got pushed into doing it.
Are there any songs in the Smiths catalog where you thought, I should be the one singing this?
No, it wasn’t at all in my mind to sing lead vocals at that point.
Not even one song? Keith Richards is primarily a guitarist, but he got to sing the occasional Stones song.
In the Smiths days, our roles were very clearly and deliberately defined. We were too busy being who we were to be anything else. I wouldn’t have changed anything.
The Messenger was inspired by moving back to your home town of Manchester. Why move back now? You’re, what, 49?
On the cusp of 50. Are you feeling nostalgic for your youth?
Everywhere I’ve ever been physically has been in pursuit of the music that I need to make at that moment. It’s been that way since I left home. I’m not a nostalgic person. And I didn’t come back to Manchester because it’s my roots. I moved the Smiths back to Manchester from London in I guess ’85 to make our second album because I needed to be around a certain kind of cool person. My mates in Manchester were very cool. They were listening to interesting music and having very interesting lives.
And the people in London weren’t?
[Laughs.] Not so much. I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2005 for the same reason. I came back to Manchester in 2011 to write this record because it was where I thought I would get the sound that I wanted.
Did the people in Portland seem as cool as your Manchester friends from the ’80s?
I didn’t really know anybody from Portland when I decided to move there. But I liked the infrastructure. It just seemed like a good place for creative people to be able to afford to live. When I visited before deciding to move there, I remember walking past a vinyl record store. And this store only opened whenever it damn well pleased. I thought to myself, wow, there’s somewhere in the world that is still like that. That made a big impression on me.
It also rains a lot in Portland.
Yeah. I loved the rain. That’s one of the things I love about Manchester as well. Which probably explains a lot about me.
I’ve never been to Manchester, but based on people I know who were obsessed with bands like the Smiths and the Stone Roses, I’ve been led to believe that everyone in Manchester wears cardigans and has floppy hair. Is that true?
Oh yeah. It’s still like that right now. And it’s always been that way.
Seriously? So my floppy-haired teenage brother was right.
He was. Manchester is a very youthful city because there are a lot of students who’ve come here over the years. That tradition just carries on and on and on. And also, it has that interesting thing that happens with other second cities, in terms of their relationship with the capital city. I feel like the artistic people in Manchester are very happy not to be in London. I got that feeling about Portland as well. They seemed quite happy not to be in Los Angeles or Seattle. Those secondary cities have a physical distance from the media, and it’s usually a better bubble to get your work done.
There probably aren’t a lot of places you can live without being asked about the Smiths. Are people in Manchester as obsessed with a Smiths reunion as much as the rest of the world?
People don’t ask me that. Only journalists ask me that.
Really? We’re the only ones curious if you’ll ever work with Morrissey again?
Most people in Manchester know that I’ve been doing something else for the past 25 years.
But are they thinking it? Maybe they’re just being polite, but in their heads they’re like “Please get back together, please get back together.”
I would have no idea.
There are several Smiths-centric walking tours in Manchester. Have you been on any of them?
[Long pause.] Nope. Why would I do that?
I don’t know. Might be fun. You could go in disguise, then reveal yourself at the end and tell ’em what they got wrong.
That would probably be everything.
You don’t want to school some smug Manchester tour guide who thinks he’s a walking Smiths encyclopedia?
Not in the slightest. Who cares? I’m not going to try and fix stories from 30 years ago. I’ve got other things to do.
I heard that you got arrested as a teenager for helping somebody sell stolen art. Is that accurate?
Well, it’s kind of nearly true. But the story is more mythology. I can’t really remember it, to be honest. You probably know more about it than I do.
Apparently when you got busted, you were playing your guitar and it was plugged into an amp.
Oh yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] That bit’s true. You know that expression, when the story’s more interesting than the truth, just print the story? I like that. That’s a good adage. That’s your business, mate.
You formed your first band at 13, right? The Paris Valentinos, I think it was called.
Yeah. I used to kick around some chord changes with friends before that, probably about 11 or 12. As soon as I could hold chord changes down, I started putting a few together and getting a couple of us to play along. So yeah, that’s about right. I got serious when I was 14.
Serious as in, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
Oh yeah, absolutely yeah. I never thought I was going to make a living at it, or pay the rent even. That was another matter. But it was the most important thing in my life, and everything was secondary to it, like school and hanging out with friends and pretty much everything really. Certainly homework.
Does some of that teenage seriousness seem a little adorable in hindsight?
No. I thank god I did take myself seriously. How else was I going to get myself out of the suburbs? If you don’t take yourself seriously, then you’re never going to make it. You don’t wake up in the morning with a talent to write songs, you have to work at it. It’s hard work but in my case I was passionate about it.
What I mean by adorable is that you were crafting your music career like an adult rather than a kid. You were 14 when you changed your name from John Maher to Johnny Marr because you don’t want to be confused with John Maher the Buzzcocks drummer.
Because … that mattered when you were 14?
I thought if I’m ever going to get my name on a record, I don’t want to have the same name as another musician. It was also because people pronounced it “May-her.” The name was actually Mah-her. I changed it so people could know how to say it.
Noel Gallagher once called you a “fucking wizard.” Is there some truth in that?
[Laughs.] Am I a wizard?
Obviously nobody can play exactly like you. It’s like playing exactly like Brian May or Jimmy Page. You can approximate it.
“It’d be pretty obnoxious if your thought your popularity was totally deserved. I don’t think I like that notion. It’s good to feel lucky.”
I suppose that’s true.
How much of it is skill and practice, and how much is mystical dumb luck?
I think good luck has a fair amount to do with it. It’d be pretty obnoxious if your thought your popularity was totally deserved. I don’t think I like that notion. It’s good to feel lucky. I like it. It starts with a passion, and my passion led me to develop my knack. And then I got popular very young, which motivated me to develop and try to keep getting better and raising the bar. Growing up in public brings all sorts of musical challenges.
Are you absolutely positive you never met Satan or any of his representatives at a crossroad and made a legal deal?
Oh absolutely. I’ve done that a few times, yeah. But I still lived to tell the tale.
A few times? Wow, you’ve got a good lawyer.
Sure, mate, yeah. Pictures of Dorian Gray, man.
Speaking of legal deals, what’s the latest offer on the table? What ridiculous money is being dangled in front of you to reunite the Smiths?
There’s never been an offer. That’s bullshit.
Morrissey said a few years ago that Coachella offered five million or something ridiculous.
Naaaw. Nawww. There’s never been an offer. Don’t believe anything you read. Don’t believe anything you read.
About the Smiths specifically, or anything at all?
Don’t believe anything you read.
Even if you say it?
Even if I say it. Especially if I say it. Don’t believe it. [Laughs.]
Wait, now I’m confused. If I shouldn’t believe you, then should I believe you when you say don’t believe you?
Don’t believe any of it.
Wait, wait, let’s back up. You’re telling us that nobody has ever offered any financial incentive for a Smiths reunion?
That’s what I’m saying.
You realize how much power you have, right? You say anything even remotely hinting at the rarest possibility of the Smiths ever getting back together again and the Internet blows up.
No, man. No, man. I’m just trying to make new records and go forward. That’s way more interesting than blowing up the Internet. Although, you know, there might be a moment of interest in it. I’ll stand back and watch the fireworks. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me. What you’re asking me is a story about my life from 30 years ago. I just made a new record. It was really interesting to make, and it’s interesting to let people hear it. It’s interesting to play those songs live, and it’s interesting to me what I’m going to do next. All this other stuff just isn’t interesting to me.
When you tour to support the new album, will you at least throw in a few of the old songs?
When I wrote the new album, it was to play those new songs live. So that’s what I’m going to do. But, you know, if me and the band want to play some of the old stuff from some of the other bands I’ve been in, we’ll do that. I have a feeling that it’d make the audience kind of happy for me to do that. And I aim to please.
The Messenger is out now on Sire.