Johnny Marr ends 2014 with one of the year’s most buzzed-about rock albums, the vivacious and aptly titled Playland, and the announcement this fall that his former band The Smiths are among the 2015 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame clearly doesn’t compare. What’s old is not new for the 51-year-old Manchester, U.K., native—he is focused on the present, which includes his Playland world tour and getting started on his autobiography.
Despite playing guitar for five years in one of Britain’s most celebrated bands, which split in 1987, Marr has recorded as a solo artist for almost as long, creating two lauded albums: last year’s The Messenger and the just-released Playland. In between, Marr joined The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs, and also helmed Electronic, a non-guitar project with New Order’s Bernard Sumner. Marr also worked on the Inception and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtracks. (The latter included a songwriting collaboration with Pharrell Williams.)
EW caught up with Marr after he’d stepped off stage and clambered onto his tour bus, far from exhausted. “We just played a show in Glasgow,” he says excitedly in his heavy Mancunian accent. “We’re all sitting here in the post show glow, which is a very nice place to be.” If The Messenger brought Marr out of the sidelines, Playland, with its driving riffs and melodies, and strong, soaring vocals, seals the deal: Johnny Marr has something to say and he’s just the man to sing about it.
EW: Your recent London show made headlines when Oasis’s Noel Gallagher joined you for The Smiths’ ‘How Soon is Now?’ and Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. How fun was that?
JOHNNY MARR: That was a good moment. First off, it sounded really good. ‘Lust for Life’ with very loud guitars really gets you going! What Noel played on ‘How Soon is Now?’ was great. It reminded me of the sort of stuff I used to do, with all this echo. It was quite psychedelic.
How did the audience react?
Musically, it was a nice surprise and there was a really nice feeling in the place, because everyone knows Noel and I have been mates for a long time. It’s one of the perks of having your own band. Since The Messenger came out, I’ve had Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene, Billy Duffy from The Cult, Ronnie Wood, and [Smith’s bassist] Andy Rourke get up with me. Noel getting up was a real treat. We don’t do it too often, but if one of my friends is in town, we drag them out of the house and put them to work.
Is there a concept behind Playland?
Absolutely. I had the title early on; it came from the amusement arcades around when I was a kid. The most famous Playland was in Piccadilly in London—that was a very dubious and illicit place with a lot of drugs and prostitution. I liked the title. I was talking to a friend about some of the songs and the narrative of using the Playland as a metaphor for modern adult life in cities in the western world. He introduced me to a book written in 1939 called Homo Ludens. It was by Johan Huizinga, who was a Dutch theorist. When I got a copy of the book, I couldn’t believe how close it was to what I was thinking. The book seemed very prescient, it almost predicted the age of the Internet and home entertainment.
Is Playland a statement on consumer society’s self-gratifying and self-celebrating culture?
The overall idea is that the culture we live in is like an amusement arcade and the need for escape and transcendence by consumerism, entertainment, sex, drugs, and alcohol is maybe caused by boredom, detachment, alienation, and not being able to be with ourselves. We can’t be with ourselves for five minutes without going on the Internet, or going onto YouTube, or going and getting f–ed up, or eating too much. At the same time, what’s interesting is these things we chase might be why we feel those things in the first place.
Clearly, Playland has a dark side, but the record is upbeat and fun.
I didn’t want it to sound bleak: I’m really interested in the culture and I’m a puddle in the culture. I’m not pointing a finger. I’m making observations.
What is your vision as a solo artist, do you have goals?
My music is hopefully something that sounds good in the daytime. Something people listen to on the way to school or college, etc., etc. I find that music more challenging to write. It’s easy to knock back a bottle of wine and sit at a piano and write an introspective ballad. But writing something to listen to at two in the afternoon that gets you wanting to go out on a Friday night takes a bit more doing. I want the lyrics to do that job too. I want lyrics that sound right as we rush around our cities and towns. It was always my wish that my solo records stand up there with people like Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, and The Jam. I’m not interested in making music for people to sit around and light candles and be mellow.
Why did it take you so long to record and perform as a solo artist?
I wasn’t exactly waiting to do it. I’m more than happy with the way things turned out and what I was doing before the solo records. I consider myself the luckiest guitar player ever; I’ve done exactly what I wanted and done things my own way. I wasn’t interested in forming a band after The Smiths. Well, not a guitar band anyway. Joining The The was the best thing I could have done when The Smiths split up. That was the band I was going to join before The Smiths, so there was a matter of unfinished business. We made two records that I’m really proud of. One of those, Dusk, was one of the best records I’ve ever made, I think, and one of the only records I’d listen to for personal pleasure. Going solo was the only thing left to do. My band was the only band I wanted to be in.
It’s rumored you’re writing an autobiography.
Yeah, I’ve got to start it pretty soon. There have been plenty of people making money with their misinformed tales about my life; I thought I might as well do the job right. I’ll get on with that over the next year.
After two albums in two years, plus Spider-Man 2 and touring, your work ethic is admirable.
Yeah, but I haven’t done it yet though; it’s easier said than done.
How do you feel about The Smiths being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I honestly don’t know what the answer to that is. No one contacted the band firsthand and I’ve only heard about it from fans and journalists asking me questions. Whenever I’m given awards, I try to accept them with a gracious spirit and not be too cynical. But I can’t take it very seriously until they contact the band. You know as much about it as I do.
So you haven’t dusted off your tux yet then?
No, no. I had a pretty good suit when I went to the Oscars for Inception. That was fun.
The Oscars: That’s the Big One, isn’t it?
Yeah, totally! The thing about awards is, in the last ten years I’ve been very lucky to be given a few and I’m always asked how it feels. When I went to award ceremonies for someone I really liked, say The Kinks’ Ray Davies, like everyone else I stood up and applauded very loudly. This was somebody I really like and who brought me pleasure, and I wanted to celebrate him. When that happened to me, I remembered people are giving you a pat on the back. That’s a great feeling. I can’t be a smart-arse or cynical about it — no matter how hard I try. It’s kind of fun when the naughty boys get an award. I’m sick of seeing all the goody-goodies getting awards.
Wait a minute; you’re a naughty boy? Johnny Marr: bad boy of rock and roll?
Yeah, absolutely, I’ve had me moments. I like to think the bands I’ve been in relate to outsiders. We’re hardly Mumford and Sons!
You moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2005. Is that still home?
The last two records kept me in England and Berlin. It’s been this tour bus, Berlin, London, and Manchester. I really miss Portland; it’s one of my favorite places in the world. It’s my intention to go back there. I’m very lucky to get to go to all these places really. When I was doing Spider-Man, I was spending all my time in Los Angeles. As long as I’m still able to write and play concerts, I’ll keep on the move. God knows where I’ll end up next year.
Probably on that tour bus.
Yeah, but it’s not bad work if you can get it.