Johnny Marr calls himself “a lifer”. It’s a fair description of someone who started playing guitar in bands aged 13, founded the Smiths at 19, departed the band five years later, and went on to become an integral part of the sound of the Pretenders, Electronic, Modest Mouse and the Cribs. Latterly, Marr has contributed to soundtracks with Hans Zimmer, including the Billie Eilish song No Time to Die for last year’s Bond film, and made four solo albums. His latest is Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, a terrific, vigorous double album of 16 tracks that swoops from moody introspection to rousing anthems. So, yes, after 40 years in the business, it’s hard to deny Marr’s zeal and commitment.
“When you get older, you learn that no matter whether your work is in or out of fashion, it’s all about whether you can stand behind it,” he says, “because you can’t do anything about the trends and fashions and the way you are perceived too much – that’s a really secondary load of baggage that just gets in the way. So there are definitely some advantages to the mentality of being older: you don’t really care too much about being liked, certainly not as much as how much you like the work.”
At 58, Marr is, you have to say, in indecently good nick: his eyes alert, his skin clear, his hair raven black. He hasn’t always lived the most temperate life, but he became a vegetarian in the mid-1980s, and he hasn’t had a drink or smoked for more than 20 years. Since he was a kid he’s been a ball of energy, but these days his release is running, and he has completed marathons in under four hours. Marr met his wife, Angie, when they were both teenagers, and they have two grown-up children. He is careful not to preach, but perched on a stool in a photo studio in north London, sipping green tea, he’s certainly an impressive advertisement for wholesome living.
“It’s worth saying that if I thought that drugs and booze would make me a more interesting musician I would do it,” says Marr. “And I don’t go around skipping through cornfields, by any means; I have my issues just like anybody else. But it’d be tougher if I was a boozer, that’s for sure. I just don’t think it’s a particularly happening drug. I don’t think Bob Marley thought that either.”
On the evidence of our shout-out for questions for this feature, there is clear affection for Marr, both from former collaborators and Observer readers. Not everyone, though, feels so well disposed. After our interview took place, his former Smiths bandmate Morrissey posted an “open letter” on his website asking Marr to stop talking about him in the press. “Move on,” the singer wrote. “It’s as if you can’t uncross your own legs without mentioning me. Our period together was many lifetimes ago, and a lot of blood has streamed under the bridge since then. There comes a time when you must take responsibility for your own actions and your own career, with which I wish you good health to enjoy. Just stop using my name as click-bait.”
Marr, on Twitter, responded that open letters haven’t “really been a thing since 1953” and went on: “Also, this fake news business… a bit 2021 yeah?” And in fairness to him, Marr didn’t say the name Morrissey once in our 90-minute conversation. A couple of readers asked emotional questions about the Smiths, but his responses were thoughtful and measured, as you can judge below. As for Morrissey’s complaint that Marr doesn’t discuss his own solo work, Marr would probably much rather do that, but he knows that fans are still interested in the Smiths, and he seems to feel no compulsion to erase that period of his life.
He would brush off the comparison, but Marr is almost entering Paul McCartney territory. Both men were blamed by many for the break-up of their iconic British bands; both have remained mostly tight-lipped about what went down and have relentlessly worked in the intervening decades to create new material that they know will inevitably be compared to their formative output. And both McCartney and Marr seem to be now enjoying a revisionist take on their lifetime in music.
Has Marr seen Get Back, the Peter Jackson documentary series about the Beatles? “Yeah, amazing,” he replies. “There were so many things to take from it, little things. And that 50 years later Paul McCartney is exonerated almost. Really, really impressive. He kept a lid on a lot of things for whatever reasons. I think that’s really impressive.”
Did any of that resonate with Marr? “Maybe, yeah,” he says with a wry smile. “No, I wouldn’t want to say that. I think Paul McCartney is out on his own dealing with a whole lot of different agendas on a world scale, on a historic scale. But he definitely seems to be such an impressive person because of how he’s just stayed human. He’s an absolute beacon for everyone. And, yeah, it does cross my mind quite often: if he can do it, anyone can, know what I mean?”
Questions for Johnny Marr from readers and famous fans
Which song have you written that still gives you goosebumps? And which can’t you stand any more?
Richard Hornby, Manchester
I’ve always really liked That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore by the Smiths. And Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me and The Headmaster Ritual. City of Bugs by the Cribs, Dashboard by Modest Mouse and Get the Message particularly by Electronic. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done; almost my favourite, really. What sounds don’t I really like very much any more? I got tired of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now pretty quick. As much for the music as anything else. What else? I know Reel Around the Fountain is a big, big song for some people, but I fell out of love with that fairly quick. I don’t want to ruin it for people but, yeah, those two songs I could live without.
Debbie Harry, singer
How has the global pandemic changed your sources of inspiration?
I’ve just come out of this two-year period having made a double album. But to be honest, it was time for me to make a record anyway. I went into the pandemic with this idea for an album called Fever Dreams. I’d started a few songs already, but then broke off to do the James Bond movie. Then the pandemic started and I definitely didn’t want to make a lockdown record and be singing about the stores not being open and anti-vaxxers or any of that. But the psychology of that time and how it was affecting me and my thinking, and how that might be the same for my audience, fed into the album entirely.
Jason Williamson, lead vocalist of Sleaford Mods
As someone who broke into music in their 40s, how do you navigate pushing forward in an industry that mostly values youth?
I’m maybe being over-idealistic here, but I think that people or fans of music recognise an artist’s agenda and possibly their motivation. You can tell a lifer when you see them. And Sleaford Mods are a really good example of that. In a way, the fact that you can be still bothered with all the bullshit involved in a modern career says quite a lot about you, I think. It’s as simple as that.
What do you think about being considered a fashion icon, particularly among some groups of current teenagers?
Daisy, 22, Liverpool
Well, these days, you just cross your fingers and hope for the best. Me and my sister got into clothes really young, like eight or nine. Growing up on a housing estate, it’s something to share and be in competition and get noticed and obsess about. And it’s never really left me. But it all comes from an interest in style and design, I think, not vanity. So I’m glad some people are noticing. Because otherwise, I’ve wasted a lot of my time.
Guy Garvey, musician
I heard you were collecting art long before the Smiths took off – is that true?
Yeah, it is, but it was stuff from junk shops. The most valuable stuff was some Man Ray and David Bailey photographs that I picked up on an excursion to Covent Garden in this crappy little junk shop. But the first thing I got into when the Smiths took off was collecting books, buying first editions. People like Isherwood, Huxley, Bernard Shaw, Gurdjieff. It wasn’t anything to do with an investment; I just figured if I was going to educate myself, I might as well be holding a really nice artefact.
Hans Zimmer, composer
Which painters have influenced your sound the most?
I suppose it’s obvious, or obvious to me: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Cy Twombly, Paul Klee. With David Hockney, it’s a sense of being wide awake, his sense of inquiry and joy and curiosity. David Shrigley has got this sense of knowing about him, and he’s funny. I also think Tracey Emin is really deserving of her reputation. In some ways the noise around her persona gets in the way of the actual work sometimes. Maybe I can relate to that!
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester
Did the Smiths ever fall out over football or politics?
We never discussed football so that’s that. And we never fell out over politics, but we probably would now.
Morrissey’s recent political views have cast a shadow over the Smiths for me – reaching back into the past and tainting something that was very important to me. I’m so disappointed in him. Has it impacted how you feel about the Smiths or are you able to separate the past from the present, the band from the man? I find it very difficult to do so.
Johnny Spence, Northern Ireland
It hasn’t impacted how I feel about the Smiths. That’s all I can say about that. I’m certainly able to separate the past from the present. I don’t know whether you can separate the band from the man, but I can separate myself from the man and what I did, so when I do see how disappointed people are, it really does make me sad. But it’s completely out of my control. And I can only really do what is in my control. So I play Smiths songs for reasons that I think are real. And over the years I’ve tried to take care of the catalogue and the releases as much as I was able to. As I would have done anyway. So, you know, I see it the way everybody else sees it. I don’t have any answers. And I don’t want to have any answers.
Nabihah Iqbal, musician and writer
Where do you go to think?
I go to a room in my house for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night and meditate. I’ve done that for 20 years. It still doesn’t get any easier for anyone who’s thinking of taking it up, but it works, it does work. Most people use running to unwind, but for some reason, I just get more rewound and get a lot of ideas. I certainly don’t zone out. But, yeah, either meditating or running.
Bernard Butler, musician
We have both had many casual musical flings but one very strong personal bond in our lives. How has your relationship with the wonderful Angie influenced your creativity, and does she have a favourite guitar?
I’ll answer the easy bit first: Angie’s always loved Les Pauls. That’s to do with when we first met – she was 14 and I was 15. We were into Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, so she became bit of a Gibson fan. I’ve had a Gold Top guitar for 20-odd years and I think if I’ve ever got rid of that one, she’d leave me. The important thing I can say about my relationship with Angie is that she made me brave at 15, 16. Not only did Angie know me before everybody else knew me, but she knew me before I knew myself. She was there before the Smiths started: it was me and Angie. And then when that whole thing got together, it was me and Angie and Joe Moss [the late manager of the Smiths]. Not only was I with my soulmate, but I was with somebody who was very smart and very talented.
Lottie Pendlebury, singer and guitarist of Goat Girl
I feel that listening to the Smiths growing up and hearing your guitar playing was crucial to my understanding of the guitar and how to approach it, as I can imagine it was for many others. Who were your main influences growing up and what kind of techniques did they provide you with?
Wow. Well, first off, it’s great to get a question from Lottie because she’s one of my favourite musicians to come out over the last few years. Whenever I hear a Goat Girl track and I don’t know it’s them, I’ll say to whoever I’m with: “I really like this, who’s this?” And it’s always Goat Girl; I should know by now. So I’m chuffed about that. The biggest influence on me would have to be Bert Jansch. When I was about 14, a friend of mine told me he’d got into this folk group called Pentangle. And I immediately thought: “Well, OK, I don’t need to know any more about that.” Anyway, when I was round at his house, he played me Basket of Light by Pentangle. And I couldn’t believe what I heard, especially from the guitar: it was jazzy, it was bluesy and kind of funky, it went off all over the place. I could see straight away that there are people who are influenced by Bert Jansch that don’t even know it. Anyone who got into Nick Drake – totally into Bert. Anyone who got into Led Zeppelin’s acoustic stuff, Neil Young, Donovan, therefore the Beatles. No Bert Jansch, no Back to the Old House, no Unhappy Birthday, even my electric stuff. So it runs all the way through what I was doing in the Smiths. All roads lead back to Bert Jansch.
Maxine Peake, actor
You really are a musical chameleon – would you ever consider becoming an actor? If so, what would be your preferred medium: film, TV or stage? I personally think you would be a natural.
Do you know what, Maxine? Telly or film, I’m not fussy. I’d like to play a menacing, villainous eastern European gangster or a drug dealer. One or the other, as long as it’s not a fucking musician from Manchester in the 80s. That’s about the depth of my range. Or if Robert Downey Jr decides to retire I’ll just take his gig – got the same haircut.
It’s apparent that you keep getting better and better with age. Can you speak to the role that removing alcohol from your life has played in that?
Mike Shennan, Ontario, Canada
Giving up alcohol has played a massive part in the last 20-odd years of my life, from day one. Without getting judgy, because people get very touchy about this shit, I can really recommend it. I’m not coming from a place of abstinence or a place of “my drink and drugs hell”, but for me, I just thought it was a shit drug, and other drugs were better. No, seriously, if anyone gave me a pill that would make me feel that shitty the next day and say such stupid things then I just wouldn’t be taking it.
Neil Tennant, musician
You’ve played on orchestral film soundtracks – do you ever listen to or take inspiration from classical guitar music?
I don’t, to be honest, no. Whenever I’ve been recommended classical music – once or twice by Neil in fact – I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s just a little bit too formal for me. I like the guitar to do everything but formal. I’m aware that it can be dramatic and expressive, but whenever I’ve listened to Julian Bream or something like that, it has always felt just too stiff to me.
I was at Glastonbury in 2019 when you played There Is a Light That Never Goes Out at the end of your set. Without wanting to sound too gushy and obsessive, men and women in their 40s and 50s were openly crying, I guess because it felt like you were giving us permission to love these songs again. What is going through your head when you perform these songs? Do you feel any sadness or regret, or do you feel that you are claiming them fresh, as yours?
Lindsay Wright, London
I’ve been asked about claiming the Smiths songs quite a lot before and I’m not doing that. Because I’m a musician, I’m thinking about joy and about giving people that I like something they love. I feel like their sort of leader, conducting everybody. Of course I’m aware that there’s a lot of different meanings going on for people, and I experience this huge wave of elation, there’s no doubt about it. After just a few seconds, I’m just joining along with everybody else really. It’s no deeper than that. But I don’t think I need to claim anything, because I wrote them.
Bobby Gillespie, musician
When you left the Smiths you said you’d like to be like Nils Lofgren. It was something I instantly understood, but could you explain to non-Nils fans what you meant?
Never been asked that before; trust Bobby. My introduction to Nils Lofgren was in the 1970s and finding out that he was a young, hyperactive ace guitar player who had been brought in as a ringer for Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. He was little, like me, and a great singer. Then in the 80s, he was playing with Bruce Springsteen. So I guess really what Bobby was understanding was this idea of the ringer. I always found that really attractive: John McGeoch did it when he went from Magazine to the Banshees to Public Image; Ronnie Wood did it when he went from the Faces to the Rolling Stones. Nile Rodgers has done it with countless groups. And I was relating to that, really, as a way for me out of this shitstorm that was the Smiths split.
You’ve recently collaborated with one of today’s most popular artists, Billie Eilish, on the brilliant track No Time to Die, which won a Grammy. Are you planning on doing another collaboration like this? I would love to see you work with Taylor Swift, who you recently tweeted about playing your signature Jaguar guitar!
Paula, Malaga, Spain
Well, I can’t think of one collaboration that I’ve done over 40 years that I went after. They all come about by being invited by always very interesting people. When me and my band were listening to Billie’s first record on the tour bus, I had no idea that I was going to be doing the Bond song with her that would get to No 1. So it’s quite likely that some other stuff is going to happen that I don’t know about. That window is always open for me, for whoever it is.
Pauline Black, singer
My favourite track on your new album, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, is Ariel. The music and the lyrics successfully mesh together with a convincing, almost dark intention. You have spoken about getting in touch with your “feminine side” on this album. Sylvia Plath, who wrote the astonishing collection of poems Ariel, and who you’ve said in interviews influenced this song, very much turned upside down the notion of “feminine” as it was understood in 1965. So I am interested to know how you embrace your “feminine side” in this new age of gender politics in 2022?
Well, I was brought up with a sister who’s 11 months younger than me. And we are incredibly close. And I’ve been with my wife since I was 15. And I’ve got a daughter who’s now 27. As well as that, I’ve worked with some really amazing women like Chrissie Hynde and Kirsty MacColl. So it’s never really been too difficult to have an awareness of the life that the women around me might be living. I think there are a lot of men out in the world right now who are really enjoying the opportunity to be part of a change. It’s an exciting time of, hopefully, enlightenment. Now I’m aware that plenty of people might scoff at that and think I’m being naive, but speak for yourself! But I’m really glad Pauline clicked with Ariel, because if that’s coming across, that’s good, because it’s there.
Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter and activist
You once told me that your unique guitar style was just “Martin Carthy licks sped up”. How influential was traditional folk music on your development as a musician?
Well, to follow on from Lottie’s question, because of that introduction to Bert, you then need to know about Davey Graham and Martin Carthy. This was just before punk, and compared with the heavy rock that my mates were getting into, the more radical folk stuff just sounded much more interesting and tougher and less straight to me. But “Martin Carthy sped up” is actually quite a good way of describing what I was doing, with the equipment of the Patti Smith Group. The idea of folk music played through punk gear was really modern, but – I also should insert here – with the chord changes of the girl groups. My technique was folk playing, but harmonically I was going for Phil Spector music, with gear that my peers were using.
Which book has had the biggest impact on you and why?
Sarah Corbyn, Essex
I’d say The Outsider by Colin Wilson, because it’s the ultimate explanation of a certain kind of mindset that I’ve had, that I’ve recognised in myself from being a kid and maybe even a predicament sometimes in my own thinking, my own life. Or The Bhagavad Gita, which Chrissie Hynde introduced me to, because you can read it and read it and read it, and then keep doing it for thousands of lifetimes.
Chris Packham, naturalist
Johnny, the world is in a big mess but me and some of my equally defiant mates are determined to make a last stand for life. We will probably end up on a muddy hill surrounded by those who just don’t care. Facing such odds, will you be willing to provide the rallying song to stir our hearts in the time of ultimate darkness?
No pressure there then! I think even if I was to be ambitious enough to try and tackle a song on a big level, if it happened, it would be by accident. The last song on the new album, Human, is the closest I’ve got to writing something like that. It’s the most stirring song I’ve written myself on my own. But now I think of it, I’d either do it by accident or, yeah, I’ll try and accept the challenge!
Harry Hill, comedian
Johnny, out of 10 what would you give me for my turn as Mozzer on Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes? [Hill sang This Charming Man.] PS: if you and the fellas ever decide to regroup and his nibs won’t play ball, I still have the wig – and more importantly, the hearing aid.
I sort of remember that. I’m going to have to give Harry a solid two out of 10 for that, and he can make of that what he will. As for the offer, I don’t even know what to make of that…!
What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
Gemma Faulkner, London
Well, the obvious thing is playing concerts. Human contact. I’m very fortunate that in my life I have strangers say hello to me on the street. And plenty of them just say “Hi” and walk on – they don’t need to do selfies or anything like that. There was a time probably leading up to the pandemic that I was a little overwhelmed with selfies. And after a couple of years, I’m not saying: everybody come and take a selfie – but I’m looking forward to human contact on a large scale.
Johnny Marr’s new double album, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, is released on 25 February via BMG. Marr tours UK arenas with Blondie starting at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro, 22 April