Amid a changing music industry, Johnny Marr says our love for music stays the same

Amid a changing music industry, Johnny Marr says our love for music stays the same

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88Nine Radio Milwaukee
Marr discusses change in his own work and music industry

Johnny Marr is a legend, best known as the guitarist for The Smiths. He’s also been in The Pretenders, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse and his own work as a solo artist. We caught up with him before he performs in Milwaukee on May 14 at the Pabst Theater.

Photo via Pabst Theater

Johnny Marr.

Interview Highlights

Johnny Marr on changes in how people listen to music

“What a song does to a person, whether you’re looking for the lyrics or the sentiment, the melody, the strings, the groove, the beat, how it makes you feel on your way to work, the gym, and your way back from high school. All those things only a song can do, and your relationship with that song and singer that has nothing to do with how it competes on the internet or how it competes on Instagram. There might not be a Rolling Stones or a Nirvana at the moment, but how do you feel about a song, and what a song can do for you personally, that’s never gonna change.”

“You know whether it’s Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo, Courtney Barnett, me, or whoever you see onstage that has nothing to do with f*****g YouTube or Instagram no matter what. If you’re standing there seeing those people, who cares if Spotify is around. It makes no difference.

How Johnny Marry explains how he listens to music

“My mother used to always say that, ‘Johnny doesn’t listen to music as much as he does study it.’ I would analyze like, ‘Oh, this one shouldn’t have a fade out or they should’ve finished on a chorus.’ Or ‘I like how this one starts on the chorus or that sounds like an organ, how did he do that?’ So, my guitar style kind of developed as I was bugging out over all these little 45s. And that’s how I ended up playing guitar how I do.”

Johnny Marr describes the meaning behind “Armatopia”

“Well, ‘Armatopia’ is a cross between armageddon and utopia. The reason I came up with this word is because I had this idea for a song. Back in the day it was called a message song and there’s plenty of issues that come to mind these days, but I wanted it to not be a heavy, preachy, judgy kind of thing. I mean the ecology, as far as issues go, the world burning up is one of the big issues. One of the fun things about being a songwriter is that if you take a concept, like what’s going on in ‘Armatopia.’ I thought it would be a good device to marry that to a party tune without being too trite about it. I was wondering when people go out on the High Street when it’s Friday, and they’re going out to forget their troubles and going out partying. How concerned we are about the heightened seas, or whether it’s a matter of we feel like, we’re powerless and we want to raise our spirits if that’s the right response.”

Read the full interview below.

There might not be a Rolling Stones or a Nirvana at the moment, but how do you feel about a song and what a song can do for you personally, that’s never gonna change.

Interview with Johnny Marr

Justin Barney: When you are listening to new songs, are you just focused on the guitar or do you find yourself listening to other parts?

Johnny Marr: No, I take in the whole thing. One of the reasons I play guitar like I do is, because I was very fortunate. When I started to play properly — and I’m self-taught I never had a lesson or anything — I used to have a little toy guitar that I would carry around everywhere when I was five. Then, I got an acoustic at eight and started holding chords down and tried to write my own little songs. This would have been 1971 or 1972. I was obsessed with pop records. Luckily for me at that time the pop records of the day, particularly in the UK were glam rock. What Americans call bubblegum. And they relied largely on guitar. They were quite often 50s parodies, but you know bands like Sparks and Mott The Hoople. Roxy Music, obviously David Bowie and T. Rex. And there’s a whole load of bubblegum bands, like The Sweet. You know, they had a big hit on that movie “Wayne’s World” with The Ballroom Blitz.

Justin Barney: Oh, yeah.

Johnny Marr: All of that stuff. Now, they’re all really well made guitar records. So, at the same time I got obsessed with this instrument and couldn’t really get it to selling it. I was too young to be flashy solos or blues rock or anything. I was absolutely studying these records. My mother used to always say that, “Johnny doesn’t listen to music as much as he does study it.” I would analyze like, “Oh, this one shouldn’t have a fade out or they should’ve finished on a chorus.” Or “I like how this one starts on the chorus or that sounds like an organ, how did he do that?” So, my guitar style kind of developed as I was bugging out over all these little 45s. And that’s how I ended up playing guitar how I do. So, a good example of how I do stuff now is…and sorry if this is getting a bit technical, but “Easy Money” was off my second solo record. Which, was a hit in the UK.

Justin Barney: Yup, we play that.

Johnny Marr: Oh, good thanks. That song was deliberately written around the vocals. I came up with the vocals and the hook. To be honest, I thought, “Either this is a really good pop record or it’s deeply irritating.” [Laughing] I was little embarrassed for a couple of weeks, and I was too frightened to play it to the band. But I divided the guitar part and built it around what should be happening under the vocals. So, that’s a little bit of a technique from those glam rock records. But in a way it’s how a soul guitar player would play. In that it’s all about the vocal. You can come up with a riff like, “What Difference Does It Make” by The Smiths or a “Ticket to Ride” by The Beatles and the vocal sits on top. The way soul guitar players used to play is like the song “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave or the way Steve Cropper used to play is that you make a bed underneath what the singer is doing, and you then you try to grow that into its own independent rift. “Easy Money” is a good example, or what Nile Rodgers does with Chic is a good example. It doesn’t all necessarily have to be funk. So, I listen to kind of an impressionistic thing from being a child. When I hear a song, I listen to the whole song. Not necessarily the words, and plenty of people think that music is primarily the words, and that’s okay. But I listen to it all as a whole impressionistic thing. It’s a little like sitting in front of a stain glass window, and I start breaking it down to the components. And I’ve just done that from being a child.

Justin Barney: For it being the bed, do you ever feel like you want it to go beyond being the bed, and that you want it to be the star of the show?

Johnny Marr: Oh sure, yeah I think “How Soon Is Now?” kind of did that although Morrissey’s words really equaled it, which is a great thing. You know, I hope this doesn’t sound embarrassed, but I think that it’s true that if you’ve heard, “How Soon Is Now?” if you heard it again, you know what it is.

And that’s within four seconds, and I think that’s because of the guitar. So, that’s one of the things that makes me so proud of that song. I always wished that I’d have good fortune to stumble across something like that. You know, there’s a few Smiths records, and there’s a few peppered around over the years. I mean some of the solo stuff, like the end of “The Messenger” has a good riff. Yeah, I could talk about all this stuff for ages. [Laughing] I really like talking out over the technicalities of guitar music.

 

Justin Barney: What is “Armatopia?”

Johnny Marr: Well, “Armatopia” is a cross between armageddon and utopia. The reason I came up with this word is because I had this idea for a song. Back in the day it was called a message song and there’s plenty of issues that come to mind these days, but I wanted it to not be a heavy, preachy, judgy kind of thing. I mean the ecology, as far as issues go, the world burning up is one of the big issues. One of the fun things about being a songwriter is that if you take a concept, like what’s going on in “Armatopia.” I thought it would be a good device to marry that to a party tune without being too trite about it. I was wondering when people go out on the High Street when it’s Friday, and they’re going out to forget their troubles and going out partying. How concerned we are about the heightened seas, or whether it’s a matter of we feel like, we’re powerless and we want to raise our spirits if that’s the right response.

Justin Barney: Right

Johnny Marr: I’m not making a judgement. So, that’s why it’s good being a songwriter. So, you can pop that question or raise the thought. You’re not coming at anybody with any kind of answer or judgement. So, I thought is this a utopian thing or an Armageddon and that’s how I came up with “Armatopia.” And decided to marry it to a banging upbeat track. Now, it would just be too corny to see in a video sat on the porch with a mushroom cloud in the distance and me on acoustic looking into the distance as the world burns up.

Justin Barney: That’s such a perfect way to do it, because if it were super serious it would be too much of one thing.

Johnny Marr: Yeah, I feel that it would be a bit pompous and a bit of a downer. You know and I wonder if that is the correct response. People do feel powerless, and also when you go out with your friends and try to have a good time. When I wrote the song, the lyrics came first and that doesn’t always happen, but I felt that the first time people hear this record when it’s released it should be with the video. Which is, in fact, what we did. We made the video to kind of reflect that, as well. So, with the characters in the video, you’re not sure whether they don’t care or they really care, but feel powerless. I was really pleased with how the video turned out, and that’s not always the case. Although, I’ve enjoyed the solo videos quite a lot, but sometimes they don’t turn out the way you hope. But, “Armatopia” the whole thing has turned out alright. So it’s been really enjoyable and I have no idea how it’s going to be received. It seems to be going pretty well. So, I’m grateful.

Justin Barney: It’s great! We have it in heavy rotation. I mean, it’s fantastic, and we love it.

Johnny Marr: Oh man, that’s so good to hear. I genuinely had no idea how it was going to go. Putting out a standalone single and I was feeling inspired. We’re in a culture where it’d be very easy to complain about how music is consumed now.

Johnny Marr: You know and rather than just go, “Oh, it used to be so much better in the old days. Music is not an event anymore.” I’m asked about this a lot as an older musician. So, just get on board and just take advantage at how people are consuming music now and doing standalone singles. Don’t be complaining about the old days being gone. Just try and enjoy the way music is now. So, that was another big influence on doing “Armatopia,” and I had no idea how it was going to go. Fingers crossed, but I thought, “I think this is a good radio track.” So, thanks for telling me that. It feels like some people are getting it, and I really appreciate it.

Justin Barney: Yeah, it does such a great job of doing exactly what you said. Not looking at the way that things are done now, because there’s nothing we can do about it. You know, no amount of complaining is going to change how we’re listening to music and consuming music. So, to embrace it and say, “Hey, I’m going to release this single as it is and have it be great and release it with the video.” That’s how you succeed, and that’s why I think that song succeeds.

Johnny Marr: Yeah, I’ve thought about how I feel about the music scene is with downloads and streaming, particularly. It’s a big issue, and it’s a big question. Well, you know from the post-war onwards, we’ve enjoyed this amazing culture where bands, artists, radio, performers and all these major events. Woodstock, protests, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, all these amazing figures from the 50s, 60s, 70s of rock culture have been so important in everybody’s lives. And now that it’s all gone away, and it’s true that rock culture and pop culture…it doesn’t have the same impact as it once did, because the world is so changed in visual evolution. There’s a myriadic distraction. A myriad event is a chain of distractions, and it comes from everywhere and music’s free. So, maybe it’s not that prominent. But, actually what a song does or looking at a band or looking at an artist. That doesn’t change.

Justin Barney: Yeah, yes.

Johnny Marr: What a song does to a person, whether you’re looking for the lyrics or the sentiment, the melody, the strings, the groove, the beat, how it makes your feel on your way to work, the gym, and your way back from high school. All those things only a song can do, and your relationship with that song and singer that has nothing to do with how it competes on the internet or how it competes on Instagram.

There might not be a Rolling Stones or a Nirvana at the moment, but how do you feel about a song and what a song can do for you personally. That’s never gonna change. That didn’t change from Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim to Lennon-McCartney to Morrissey and Marr maybe, and The Sex Pistols, and on and on. It’s what the art does. It’s always gonna be what the art is. Just maybe now, it’s just content with things. Maybe it’s just not as potent as it once was, but you know.

Whether it’s Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo, Courtney Barnett, me, or whoever you see onstage that has nothing to do with f*****g YouTube or Instagram no matter what. If you’re standing there seeing those people, who cares if Spotify is around. It makes no difference.