After years playing in some of the world’s most important bands, Johnny Marr has found his feet at a solo artist. Andy Welch gets philosophical with the former Smith
You wait 26 years for a Johnny Marr solo album, and then two come along at once.
Well, that’s not quite true - his first, The Messenger, was released in February last year - but you get the point.
After a long period of working with other people - The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs - Marr’s now entering a new, assured phase of life, and with it comes a sense of urgency that’s rare for someone at his stage in a career.
Playland, his second solo album, was released last week, and very much sounds like a man hitting his stride. There’s no massive change in direction from its predecessor, but the ideas are better executed, the songs sharper and, as is the case for Easy Money, the first single released from the album in September, more memorable.
“I wanted to write a song about money, but because it’s been done before so many times. It was a tricky proposition,” says Marr. “It clicked when I decided to be upfront about it, although I hope there’s some sort of hidden ambiguity. It’s not a complaint about money, nor is it a complaint about greed, that’s been erroneously reported.”
If it’s not a song decrying our love affair with capitalism, it does lampoon our motivation for pursuing it, and examining, as much of Playland also does, our pursuit of “play and pleasure”.
“I’m asking the question; if these things - money, sex, drugs, big-screen TVs and so on - are things we’re moving toward, or things we’re moving away from, as a consequence of modern life?
“Are those things the very things that cause dislocation, paranoia, tension and unhappiness, making us ill-at-ease? Or do we feel that way anyway, and therefore gravitate to those things?”
Whatever the answer, Marr doesn’t think it’s a cataclysmic state of affairs, and readily admits to being a consumer. “I am, like most musicians, a product of this culture, and very happy to be so. I try to avoid finger-pointing, and I’d never be so crass to say money is necessarily a bad thing.”
If he is a consumer, he looks good on it; 51 at the end of October, he runs almost as many miles a week, has been vegetarian since recording The Smiths’ second album Meat Is Murder in 1985, vegan since 2005, kicked a 40-a-day fag habit and hasn’t touched booze for the last 15 years.
If he’s not running or writing new material, you’ll likely find Marr with his head in a book. He counts novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley among his heroes, spent months researching the idea of euphoria ahead of writing this latest batch of songs, and regularly travels around the world in search of the best architecture.
Playland itself is a play on the English translation of Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens - man the player, or playing man. No one could accuse Marr of just trotting these songs out; he’s pored over every lyric.
Money is an ever-present theme on Playland, with Little King aimed squarely at property developers and other entrepreneurs who, Marr reasons, “brazenly regard the country as their resource to use to line their pockets”.
“I’ve come across a few of those people in my time, and the shocking thing is that this government has enabled them, and encouraged people from backgrounds that are used to more social mobility. It’s not so much an ecological problem I have, it’s more sociological, because the country doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to everyone.
“These people are lining their pockets and the knock-on effect is putting young families under pressure, whereas these families would’ve once been nurtured by council housing.”
If he gets boisterous when discussing this, it’s nothing compared to the ire he reserves for politicians, who, he believes, are obsessed with the cult of superstar. There’s an irony here, given that Marr is perhaps in the position to behave like an egomaniac and chooses not to, while those paid to serve us appear driven by vanity.
“I don’t want any of this to sound alienating, though,” he counters. “The subject matter on Playland is an interesting subject for me to marry with this type of music, these stomping, energetic guitar tunes. And if I can wrap up a lyric that says something about where we are, and how we all move around and live our lives, then I will. It’s a perfect medium for the message.”
Marr left The Smiths, the band he founded in Manchester in 1982 with singer Morrissey, who this week revealed he has been treated for cancer, in 1987.
They released four studio albums, although Marr left a few months before the final Strangeways, Here We Come came out. Almost as astonishing as the music they made in those five years was that, by the time the band came to end, Marr was still only 23.
He says he’s been asked about the band, and the chances of them reforming, almost every day since they broke up.
He’s not hugely forward when it comes to discussing The Smiths, although he will hold court for hours on the actual music, including Smiths songs in his sets.
“It’s a great privilege to play those songs now,” he says. “As much as I want to explore my own songs, and that’s very exciting.
“ I’ll never stop playing those Smiths songs. I love them, and I’m so happy they still go down so well with the crowds.”