Following widespread raves this winter for his first solo album, Johnny Marr is finally known as a reliable rock ’n’ roll frontman and not just the revered guitarist from British mope-rock band the Smiths.
Turns out, the 49-year-old Manchester native — who also recorded and toured with Modest Mouse, the Cribs and The The in the 26 years since leaving the Smiths — can be quite a gracious and polite guy, too. Maybe it’s just guilt-by-Morrissey-association to think otherwise.
Talking by phone last month from London, Marr gave thoughtful and direct answers to questions about his old band’s work and his new album’s inspiration. He didn’t even seem to mind talking about his daughter’s Minneapolis-based boyfriend.
The only time Marr proved less than forthcoming was when the name of his old bandmate Morrissey came up. The Smiths singer twice postponed and then finally canceled a Minneapolis gig and many other U.S. dates, all in the same time frame that Marr announced his first-ever solo U.S. tour, which comes to the Varsity Theater on Tuesday.
Surely, Mr. Marr, there must be satisfaction in playing the old Smiths songs in cities where Morrissey let fans down? At least you have to admit it’s funny timing, this tour coming right after Morrissey’s caved?
“Honestly, I haven’t once thought about any of that,” he said with a huff after a long pause.
Any explanation for what’s going on with his longtime collaborator? No pause this time: “Ah, no.”
Smiths songs but no reunion
Both Marr and Morrissey have long since answered any and all queries about the chances for a Smiths reunion: It’ll never happen.
But the guitarist did open up about his decision to play Smiths songs on tour this year.
“You’ve got to be cool with your past, and I’m more than proud of my past,” Marr said. “And I really do enjoy playing those songs.”
Just like Moz — with whom he wrote most of the band’s material — he usually does four or five of them a night.
“Where I’d have a personal problem is if my entire show was propped up by Smiths songs, but it’s not like that at all,” he said. “We’re playing the entire new album — 11 new songs — so it would actually be pretty weird if we didn’t offer some of the older stuff.”
Those new tracks all hail from “The Messenger,” which came out stateside in February via the Smiths’ old U.S. label, Sire Records.
The album rocks harder than Marr’s followers might expect, with a dissatisfied political undercurrent and disdain for modern technology. Echoes of the old Smiths sound pop up in a few tracks, including the feisty opener “The Right Thing Right.”
The single, “Upstarts,” actually recalls the punchier side of fellow Mancunian rockers New Order, whose singer, Bernard Sumner, sporadically worked with Marr in the ’90s as the duo Electronic.
Marr pointed to “Upstarts” as an example of how he wanted the album to “sound defiant without sounding sanctimonious or self-righteous, like a lot of protest music can be.
“ ‘Upstarts’ was inspired by the [middle-school] student demonstrations that turned into riots” recently in Manchester, he explained. “I imagined what it’d be like being one of those kids, knowing one day I’d have to pay for my own education, and imagining what their very sarcastic and jubilant protest would be.”
A singer by choice, or necessity
“The Messenger” is actually not Marr’s first outing as a frontman. He sang in bands before the Smiths, “sometimes out of want, and sometimes out of necessity,” he quipped.
He also released an album in 2003 as Johnny Marr & the Healers, featuring Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey, on drums, but it went relatively unnoticed.
“In the case of the Smiths, we just didn’t have a place for other vocals, and I was more than happy to be who I was in that band,” he said. “When I was playing with Modest Mouse, there were some parts that worked with me singing, and some parts in The The, too. It just depends on the place and time.”
He’s not averse to singing, in other words. He was just in no hurry to do it again, mainly because he liked “the chance to continue working with some other exciting bands.
“I’ve loved the diverse musical life that I’ve lived,” he summed up with noticeable glee.
He was equally cheery about Howler, the Minneapolis band that graced the cover of England’s NME magazine last year. Marr’s daughter, Sonny, wound up dating Howler’s 21-year-old frontman, Jordan Gatesmith — though that’s not how he first came to the elder rocker’s attention.
“I got a copy of his record before it came out, and that was quite a while before I even met him,” Marr recalled. “It was recommended by a friend, and I really liked it, and I liked it when I saw them live. Jordan’s very interesting, and straight away I could hear he’s someone who puts a lot of effort into what he’s doing.”
Of course, it warranted asking Marr how he feels about his daughter dating a musician. That’s the only other time he clammed up — but in this case he laughed.
“That’s none of my business,” he said, “and it is certainly none of yours.”
We’ll give him that one.