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The Smiths' Johnny Marr Goes His Own Way: 'I Like Being a Frontman' (Q&A)

Solo album "The Messenger" brought the guitarist back to his native Manchester. Now, Marr looks ahead to high-profile gigs (among them: Coachella) where he'll take center stage.

Johnny Marr publicity 2013 P
Jon Shard

A quarter-century after leaving The Smiths, arguably one of Britain’s most seminal pop bands, Johnny Marr has at long last released a solo album. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the guitar great finally got around to it.

First came years of collaborating with acts as disparate as Talking Heads, The The, Electronic, Bryan Ferry, Beck and Modest Mouse. He even contributed to Hans Zimmer’s acclaimed Inception score. But before those, of course, was Marr’s most famous alliance: with Morrissey. Together they crafted enduring anthems of alienation and heartbreak, such as “How Soon Is Now?” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.”

To make The Messenger (out now) -- a collection that harkens back to his roots: the guitar jangles and shimmers, the songs are often wistful and romantic -- the Englishman left Portland, his home since 2005, and decamped to his native Manchester, a city that owes him a huge musical debt. (On Wednesday, Marr is set to receive the NME Godlike Genius Award, the long-established British music paper’s highest honor, for his influence on generations of artists, including last year’s winner, Noel Gallagher.)

“I came back to see if I could connect with some of the notions that I had about music and bands when I was starting out,” Marr, 49, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Not that I was looking to be nostalgic, but I think you can be someone who sounds like your environment. I mean, Kraftwerk could only come out of Dusseldorf, and the Beach Boys could only come out of California, you know?”

But Marr’s Messenger is far sunnier than the rain-soaked streets of his northern industrial city -- or the Smiths’ catalog, for that matter.

“The album is surprisingly upbeat,” says Marr, who sings on every track (his unaffected voice often calls to mind his Electronic mate Bernard Sumner of New Order). “I’m surprised myself that pretty much all the tempos are really up, and the songs are quite short and happy.”

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Though Marr left the Smiths in 1987 after they released just four studio albums, the band’s impact has been immeasurable. Even without a single hit stateside, the Smiths, along with the Cure and Depeche Mode (both of whom were selling out stadiums by that decade’s end), are alternative-rock deities -- college radio’s holy trinity. Their songs are more popular now than ever and are the go-to soundtrack for anyone who seeks to wallow in romantic disappointment. Witness: Independent Sprit Awards winner Perks Of A Wallflower, wherein the film’s lonely teen protagonist cites The Smiths as his favorite band.

Meanwhile, Morrissey keeps their legacy alive by crooning Smiths songs in his tour’s set. (After a weeks-long hiatus to undergo treatment for a concussion, a bleeding ulcer and Barrett’s esophagus, the world's most famous vegetarian will perform Tuesday on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Friday at a much-publicized -- and meatless -- gig at LA’s Staples Center.)

And this spring, fans can hear Marr’s particular interpretation of the songs he co-wrote. After spending March touring the U.K. and Ireland, he commences his 18-date North American trek in support of The Messenger April 11 at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. For that show, as well as the one April 18 at the Santa Barbara Bowl, the guitarist will share the bill with New Order. On April 12, Marr is set to take the stage at Coachella for the first of the fest's two-weekend bow.

While there has been much speculation over the years about a Smiths reunion, fans probably shouldn’t hold their breath. Still, after a long and at times reportedly acrimonious rift, Marr and Morrissey are said to be on cordial terms. The two corresponded via email when Marr spearheaded the remastering work for the band’s 2011 box set, Complete.

Marr recently spoke with THR about how he’s finally able to embrace his signature sound, why it’s taken so long for him to stand alone in the spotlight, and more.

The Hollywood Reporter: There are moments on The Messenger that immediately call to mind The Smiths. Was that intentional?

Johnny Marr: For the longest time when I did that, I would erase it. What I did with The Smiths is still so loved, but as a young man trying not to be stuck in a box, I went through many periods where it was very important to me to do things other than that. No one wants to have a tag put on them at the age of 24. At the same time, you get to a point where you’re just really happy to have something that people love. So now, when a riff comes up, and people in the control room start smiling, and [you] have a feeling that someone is gonna love it, you just drop your agenda -- you record it, and you just look up and thank the god of inspiration and don’t overthink it. That’s the difference, really, with where I’m at now. It’s good to have those considerations and attitudes at a certain point in your life, but at other times you just drop the shit, you know?

THR: Did you have some very definite thoughts about what you wanted to do on your first solo album?

Marr: Sound-wise, I didn’t try to conceptualize it too much, and lyrically, pretty much the same thing. I wanted to be able to take inspiration from my environment. It’s important that I made a record that would be good live. Other considerations were that I wanted it to have energy, and I didn’t necessarily want to sing particularly too much about my feelings, but more about my thoughts. There’s already too many people singing about their feelings; I’d rather more people sing about their minds. I’m kind of joking about that, but also there’s plenty of other people who can do that better than me. I like Brian Eno’s early solo records, and I like Siouxsie Sioux and Wire. I’ve tried to not get too sentimental or emotional. And then right at the end of the record, just before it was all done, I felt that I succeeded too much in doing that. So, at the eleventh hour, I wrote the song “New Town Velocity,” because I wanted to put something emotional [and] autobiographical in there.

THR: What’s the story behind that track?

Marr: It’s about the day that I decided to leave school and never go back. It was a beautiful start of a summer’s morning, and it was one of those moments in time, if you’re lucky enough to have one, where you feel like you can bring the world to you. I felt like I could shape my own destiny. I’ve had many, many times like that throughout my life and still do now -- a particular sense of freedom that you don’t necessarily have to lose because you’re not a kid anymore. I felt that was the one thing on the record that needed to be noted. When I got the music together, I wanted the lyrics to match that mood, and the mood reminded me of that day. So I wrote about that day. My then-girlfriend and my best friend just decided to take off and walk around the city all day being free, you know?

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THR: Did making this album in Manchester made you nostalgic?

Marr: Well, what made me think about that specific day was that the track had that same feeling in it, a wistful kind of optimism. It wasn’t just that I went home to Manchester. I’m not particularly a roots-y person. I worked out of Manchester because it’s a great environment for a rock musician, and that’s where I feel I can relate to people. It’s a creative kind of place in much the same way that Portland is. It doesn’t matter that I came from [Manchester]. I’m not at all a nostalgic person; I don’t really look back that much. But Manchester is a good place to be a rock musician.

I also went to Berlin because I didn’t want the record to be all U.K.-centric. I feel like British people are missing out if they don’t feel like Europeans. With Paris being so close, and Barcelona being so close, and Pablo Picasso being in Paris and Salvador Dali and just the great tradition of regular, ordinary Europeans citizens with centuries of bravery and crossing borders -- hence the song, “European Me.”

THR: So why did it take so long for you to make your first true solo record?

Marr: The reason it happened now is because the record came really quick. I didn’t need or want anyone to collaborate on these songs. The thing I love about collaboration is the element of surprise when you work on something, then you hand it over and somebody else turns it upside-down and puts their mark on it. That’s something I love and have been very privileged to have done with so many great people. But in this case, I didn’t want to hand over the tunes. I wanted to keep them for myself, and I wanted to put my words on them. A few weeks into making demos, my friend who co-produces with me just put it to me that I should put it under my own name since I had the whole big picture, so to speak. So I didn’t decide to do a solo record and then start writing the songs; I started making the record and it was obvious it was a solo record.

THR: Were you initially nervous about being the frontman?

Marr: No, I like it. I went around the world a couple of times with The Healers and learned how to do it. I didn’t really like playing gigs or touring until the late nineties. All the way through the eighties and early nineties I didn’t like touring, but now I do. I don’t feel any sort of special weight or expectation; I just think it’s going to be a lot of fun ... For the longest time, I’ve wondered whether what I do is entertaining or art. Now I understand that for me, anyway, it’s both.

Twitter: @THRMusic