Johnny Marr: "Everyone should get a fair shout, and no one can tell me that the Conservative Party have ever been about that"

Rob Pollard speaks to the erstwhile Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr was one half of the most influential British songwriting partnership of all time. In May 1982, inspired by how Leiber & Stoller met, Marr approached fellow Mancunian Morrissey to convince him that they should write songs together. It was the start of one of the most beautiful relationships in pop music. They added Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums: The Smiths were born.

They quickly developed a reputation for combining thoughtful, sensitive lyrics with beautiful guitar arpeggios; a powerful mix that garnered the most devoted following in popular music, a following still fervent today. It’s incredible that a band who were together for such a short space of time left behind such a lasting, powerful legacy.

Marr left The Smiths in July 1987 and the band subsequently split after four glorious years which saw them produce four of the finest studio albums you’re likely to hear. Not only did he face the pressure of being a songwriter in the most highly regarded band of a generation, but he was also the producer, and very often the manager of the band, stepping in to fill the void left by people Morrissey had wanted rid of. However, Johnny Marr’s place in the pantheon of great guitarists was already enshrined; a player with the ability to explore different styles, an acute understanding of beautiful chord patterns and an encyclopedic knowledge of great music.

Since his decision to leave The Smiths, he has collaborated with an array of musicians, never settling on one specific project. From his time writing with Bernard Sumner in Electronic, to his recent projects adding sparkle to Modest Mouse and The Cribs (via brief collaborations with Talking Heads, John Frusciante and many more), he’s been free to express himself musically in ways that have suited him.

His latest project is his first solo album: a collection of 12 nu wave pop songs which demonstrate what a talented guitarist he is. With the album now available and receiving excellent reviews, it’s a pleasure to welcome him to the New Statesman, where we discussed what motivated him to produce the solo record and whether he still associates himself with the Labour Party and British politics at large.

Congratulations on the new album, it must be a really exciting time for you. The first thing that struck me was just how many guitar layers there are on there - it's a really guitar-heavy album. Do you feel like you've gone back to your roots on this record?

I don't ever feel inclined to answer 'yes' to a question that says 'going back' because I honestly never really look over my shoulder when I'm working. One of my motivations for making the record when I started it was that I thought, for people who follow me, it's about time that all the guitars were played by me. The last couple of bands I've been in, I've been with other guitar players as well, and I've been thinking, quite rightly, as a whole, whereas one of the first notions about making this record was to do something for fans where it's all about what I do naturally. So, because a lot of the records I'd done in the past were me using just guitars at my disposal, then that would make sense, but it wasn't a conscious decision or notion to go back to my roots, it's just what I do really, without any collaboration with other people, or without me collaborating.

Are you playing a Rickenbacker on the album?

In parts, but nearly all with my signature Jag which does the job of a Rickenbacker, a Fender and a Gretsch all together; that's why I play it and that's why I made it. I designed that signature guitar for Fender, so it basically sounds like 30 years of me, and I wish that I'd known that 30 years ago because it would have saved me a lot of money.

What was it about the Rickenbacker that originally drew you to that guitar?

Well, it steered me into a direction that played to my strengths, and away from things that I didn't need to do, and that exact same process happened again in 2005 when I picked up a beaten up old black Jag with Modest Mouse at 3.30 in the morning, out of desperation as much as anything else. I had exactly the same sensation: it brought out what I'm best at, which is melody and certain kinds of quirks that lend itself more to pop music rather than classic rock.

I generally get my sound - or what's thought of as my sound - out of pretty much anything, but the decision to get the Rickenbacker in the early days was much more about its effect on my technique. You just can't play too rocky on a Rickenbacker. There's only Guy Picciotto from Fugazi who's successfully got some really heavy stuff out of it. It always pulls me down an interesting road, and a Jag does exactly the same, although, the Jag does it in a better way now, that's why I said I wish I'd know this 30 years ago because, really, the sound that I've used on a lot of records is a combination of Ricky, clean Les Paul, and Gretsch, and when I'd finished building my signature Jag, the guy who was helping me make it said: 'oh right, I get it, it sounds like a Ricky and Gretsch, but it plays like a Fender'. Basically, it sounds like me playing two guitars. I'm just so pleased I've had a chance to do it, talking as a musician, just to have a tool that is my voice. That's just an amazing thing.

My favourite track off the new album is European Me, the very beginning of which reminds me a little of What She Said. Tell me about that track, what inspired it and where were you when you wrote it?

Well, I came up with the title a couple of years ago. Because I'd been in America for a while, and around a lot of very interesting American people, their impression of the UK as being part of European culture started to rub off on me in a way that made me realise how much I take being European for granted. My friends really taught me to see Europe culturally for what it is. It made me think about Christopher Isherwood, and Aldous Huxley, and Picasso, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the list goes on and on.....Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Nietzsche - just that incredible legacy of amazing European people. So, I had a kind of cultural pride and reappraisal, and I had the title European Me and it felt like it fit. And then, when I started to write the record properly, I just woke up with the line 'Heroes in an empty station,' and that got me off on a thought about families crossing borders, and I just came up with this little story about a young family from Europe crossing borders for a better life. I wanted it to be a celebration; I didn't want it to get too dark, so it was a very deliberate decision to come up with a very upbeat, catchy tune. I didn't want it to get too morbid or sentimental, and I thought it was a good juxtaposition to marry that. In my own mind, when I was singing it, I wanted to pay tribute to everybody who's ever crossed a border in pursuit of a better life, so it also has a part of my childhood in it. My parents aren't particularly political but there were a couple of things that were taught to me when I was young and one of them was that this country in particular has a great heritage, or legacy, of opening its doors for people in need. My family and parents came from Ireland, then being in America whilst I was working on the track I remember thinking that the entire country seems to be built largely - a big chunk of it anyway - on European heritage, so it's just me celebrating Europe, really, and I'm glad I've got to that point in my life where I have that sort of awareness, and I'm dead pleased I put it in a song. It's one of the great things about being a songwriter and writing your own lyrics: these notions can get married to a pop tune and they mean something to you.

That brings me nicely to another question I had. Our relationship with Europe is under huge scrutiny at the moment since David Cameron's speech offering an EU referendum if there's a Tory majority at the next election. What's your opinion on that?

I have such a feeling of regret, and almost dread, in that the last thing we need is more isolation. I suppose, as a musician, I do think of things slightly more culturally and artistically, but still there seems to be absolutely no consideration for a wider agenda other than the bank, and I really feel we're about to give up something that we should be working harder to maintain, which is a unification. I feel we're going in completely the wrong direction. We're starting now to see the result, politically, of the mistakes that were made four years ago, we almost have an arrogance and a belligerent attitude towards the EU, and I just don't see the value in it, I absolutely can't. Surely, if we as an island have learnt any lessons it's that isolation doesn't make us any happier. There's only one way to go, in my eyes, and that's to celebrate being European together.

One of my favourite tracks that you’ve appeared on is Nothing But Flowers. I absolutely love that song. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to work with Talking Heads, and how you came up with that brilliant guitar part?

Thanks, I'm really glad you like it, no one really talks about that track! When I got invited to go over to Paris to play with Talking Heads, it came really out the blue and was very much a professional invitation because I didn't know any of the band personally. It was one of those many moments in my life where I didn't even have to think for a second because of course it was a 'yes'. Talking Heads were one of the really important bands when I was a teenager, and I still like almost everything they did to this day, so off I went. When I got there, there was just this modal bass line with no chord changes on it, and a drum groove. That immortal phrase was being banded about: 'it's something of a blank canvas'. Usually, that's music to my ears, but I was listening to it and, it being my very first day, I was a little nervous and not wanting to be inappropriate, but the truth is that I listened to it a good four, five times and I couldn't think of anything, and I just thought: 'right, Johnny boy, your moment has come, at the age of 23, that's it, you've lost it,' so I went for a walk around Paris and I was just beating myself up thinking 'this is it, you've choked'. And that was the first time that had happened. Just as I was going back into the studio I thought to myself it's because there's not very much there for me to hang what I do on. So I just turned to Steve Lillywhite, who was producing, and said: 'do you mind if I just put some chord changes on it?' And he was like, 'be our guest!' David [Byrne] had just nipped out, so I took that opportunity whilst he wasn't there to just throw a chord change on there, and pretty much treat it like it was my own demo, and take pure liberties, as they say in the north. Once I got a chord change on it, it just had a comical, quirky aspect to it. So I pulled out this 12 string, which now belongs to Bernard Butler, and just went for that amusing, catchy, American type riff.

The best thing about doing that song, was the very start of it when it all falls in and the bass player's sort of warming up - and this is down to Steve Lillywhite's great production technique - I just started playing completely absentmindedly, almost lighting a cig whilst talking to somebody because I assumed the machine wasn't on, and he said: 'right, OK that's the intro done, next, verse two', and I was like, 'hang on a minute,' and he just said 'no, that was perfect'.

Basically, the short version of that is that I just had to throw a load of stuff at it to get to where I could be inspired. It taught me to not be too timid when you're doing sessions. When I worked with Beck, even though I was totally sleep deprived, I just said 'plug me in, and the very first thing I record just let me go with it, and let me overplay and don't be too precious'. But I'm glad you like the track. I couldn't believe it when he put his vocal on it, it was so inspired. The lyrics are the complete opposite to Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi.

Some people are quite critical of the fact that, since The Smiths, you've not been involved in a permanent band set up, but from where I'm standing you've appeared more than happy to operate independently, getting involved in projects that excite you. Do you feel like you wish you'd done things differently?

I feel very, very happy with the road I've taken because I can't really see a problem with having made the records I made with The The, and the records I've done with the Pet Shop Boys, and the Inception soundtrack, and Modest Mouse. I don't really see a problem, other than if you're applying a really basic paradigm: thou shalt stand with three other geezers for the rest of your life until you die because it's been done by everyone else. I honestly think I've got more in common with Brian Eno in that regard but the problem is I'm trying to do it as a known guitar player and that is breaking a mould that seems to be set in stone, except in my case I just don't accept that. I love absolutely everything about guitar culture, and have done since I was a little boy. But I also don't agree with the limitations of having to be either the lonesome guy walking down the railway track in Mississippi with his beat up acoustic on his back, because I don't come from where Robert Johnson came from, and I don't want to emulate that. I come from the inner city in the early seventies and the eighties. But one thing I really do embrace, entirely, is that guitar players love to play with their friends, and that seems to be a point of the old-fashioned dictum that is missing when applied to me. I mean, Jerry Garcia played with Jefferson Airplane, and David Crosby played with Jefferson Airplane, too. So why's it weird when I play with Billy Bragg or Kirsty MacColl?

I'm cool with it, though. My life is always affected by whatever musical situation I'm in. So I moved myself and my family over to Portland, Oregon because that was where I was gonna make some music that was important to me, and play some guitar that I would never play - the stuff all out of the left-hand speaker on the Modest Mouse record [We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank]. On that record, I was pulling stuff out that I was doing in my bedroom when I was 14 or 15, like weird, odd stuff, on songs like Steam Engenius, or Fly Trapped in a Jar, or Missed the Boat. It was really pulling all kinds of things out of me. That record alone justifies me and my family having to move out to Portland, and when people lay some baggage on me, I just think it'll all come out in the end because the record's really good.

In terms of your politics, do you associate yourself with the Labour Party these days?

No, I really can't do that anymore because when I've been around politicians they are so incredibly show business, and that's the only way I can put it. Comfortable with their egos beyond any musician or actor that I've worked with. I've realised that they're probably not even really making policy. They're more akin to game show hosts, and I say that about all of them. It's probably a better idea if we decided our politicians the way we do our singers X Factor; that's probably be a better representation of who the general public really relate to. I don't regard myself as political. As an artist, I'm sociological, but I can't even get involved in the political game because I don't really know the people who are making policy, because it sure as shit isn't those game show hosts.

You famously once forbid David Cameron from liking The Smiths, which Morrissey then backed you up on, and then Labour MP Kerry McCarthy used that to attack Cameron at PMQs. I presume your reason for saying that is because that band were very sensitive and compassionate, and not very Tory-like whatsoever.

I left school in 1980, and was therefore completely affected by the Conservative government. As a small child, I utterly relied on the National Health Service; it's so important to my family, and my community. By nature, I am someone who feels that everyone should get a fair shout, and no one can tell me that the Conservative Party have ever been about that. So there's a difference in ideologies. But what happened with David Cameron saying he liked The Smiths just felt like show business manipulation, so I wasn't gonna let him get away with that. I also thought it was really funny.

Yeah, it smacked of a PR stunt. He was basically borrowing the reputation of your band to promote his Compassionate Conservatism, or at least that's how I felt.

Yeah, but it was disingenuous and a lot of people saw through it. But, honestly, so much of me saying that was just about being funny and glib. It's not personal, I don't like any politicians. And I don't think it's enough to just be slagging people off, so I really wish that there was some alternative that I could be proactive about. I was someone who, as a young person, did Red Wedge gigs, so I'm not just someone complaining or criticising, and I certainly don't do it on the record. The album, lyrically, is my observations, but at no time do I make a complaint because I wouldn't sully a tune with a complaint. I'm just trying to be sardonic, at times, and make observations about the way I'm living.

For many Smiths fans, the idea of a reformation is not something they even consider. It seems to me that there was no unfinished business, and the band have left behind a very strong legacy, so why is there this obsession from the media about putting The Smiths back together, despite you and Morrissey categorically ruling it out?

On the one hand, it's the Princess Diana syndrome, where everybody just gets caught up in some game of words without really caring about the end result. It seems that just the question being asked is the whole point, really. I think half the people asking the question wouldn't even bother to buy a ticket. Also - and most journalists are surprised when I tell them this - I don't get asked about it by anyone other than journalists. People in the street and fans don't ask me because they're clued up enough to have bought a Cribs record, and an Electronic record, and know what they're talking about. But then, from a humanitarian point of view, maybe it's just that people get carried away with a happy ending. I like to see the good in people, and I like to think that a lot of it is just a desire from some people to see a happy ending, but that's a massive assumption that we're not happy, because we're absolutely fine. I think both me and Morrissey are about as proud as anyone can be about those records. I'm proud of everything the band did, and I'm proud of the relationship, and I'm proud of the friendship. I don't have any feud going on. I support what Andy's doing, and I don't know what Morrissey's doing but I'm behind it.

Johnny Marr's new album, The Messenger, was released on Monday 25th February after being recorded in Manchester and Berlin.

Marr. Photograph: William Ellis

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood