Here’s Johnny!

 Sean Hannam interviews Johnny Marr (2002)
Eighties jangly pop fans of the world reunite, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is back, and back at his best, working with the likes of Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys. Not only that, in true once-was-famous-in-a-supporting role fashion, he’s now also fronting his own rock outfit, The Healers. SEAN HANNAM grabs a rare audience with the secretive godfather of indie.
This year, it’ll be difficult to avoid Johnny Marr. The former Smiths guitar hero has contributed to Oasis’ newly released album, Heathen Chemistry, Pet Shop Boys’ Release, and folky comedown queen Beth Orton’s latest long-player, Daybreaker. He’s also produced the debut album from up-and-coming, moody indie act Haven, and found the time to front his own back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll band, The Healers.
In fact, Marr’s work can be heard all over Pet Shop Boys’ Release, which heralds a new, guitar-oriented direction for the electronic dance-pop duo.
“Yeah, I’ve done their new album and I’ve recorded some stuff with Liam from Oasis, so I think a couple of my guitar parts have ended up on their record,” he says.
Does he ever get sick of being a gun-slinging, guitarist-for-hire? “I’ve never sat down and planned collaborations,” he says. “They’ve always come about from having something in common – a friendship.
“I’ve just stopped saying ‘I’m not going to do it’. I said in the States I was going to stop collaborating but then a couple of days later I got a call from Beck, asking if I’d work with him. While working with Beck, I met Beth Orton, and discovered we were staying in the same hotel. One night, we got back at four in the morning, with the sun coming up over LA, and the next thing you know we’re hanging out on a balcony and we’ve written six songs together! I was definitely Graham Nash to her Joni Mitchell!”
Last year, Johnny unleashed the debut single from his new band, The Healers. It was the first time he’d written, played and sung one of his own songs.
The Last Ride saw him shelving his tried and trusted, jangly sound for a heads-down, greasy Led Zep groove. It was also miles away from the hedonistic House and Euro disco territory he’d explored with New Order’s Bernard Sumner in the duo Electronic.
Aided by musicians including former Kula Shaker bassist, Alonza Bevan, and Ringo Starr sprog, Zak Starkey, on drums, Johnny created an enormous, filthy drone-rock boogie, built on an FX-heavy wall of sound, with some blissed-out vocals reminiscent of Ray Davies.
“I was really interested in getting back to the thing that was in me when I was in my early teens,” says Marr. ” I don’t want to be retro, but I want to rock. I want to get back to the notion of energy. I started to listen again to the music that had some balls to it – T Rex, The Stooges, early David Bowie. I have a massive respect for old records, but I don’t wish it was 1969 again. I just find that there’s a primal thing which you get from some records by The Rolling Stones, Peter Green and The Stooges that shows up today’s music industry for what it is – just soap-powder.
“I was brought up on classic rock, but I don’t want to look back. I want to make something that’s for the times. I’m not trying to make a classic record – I’ve done that with The Smiths.”
Ah, The Smiths; one of the biggest successes of the Eighties. Marr and flouncy frontman Stephen Patrick Morrissey will be remembered as one of the greatest songwriting partnerships of all time – Marr penning intricate guitar melodies to accompany Morrissey’s sometimes tragic, sometimes comical lyrics of sexual frustration, inadequacy and alienation. Between 1982 and 1987, The Smiths recorded four brilliant, ground-breaking studio albums which became the soundtrack to student bedsits everywhere and paved the way for a whole legion of indie guitar acts, including Oasis and Blur.
“When we made those albums, we weren’t trying to be classic,” says Marr. “Had The Smiths sat down and said ‘this is going to be a classic,’ it wouldn’t have happened.”

The Smiths split in 1987, when Marr grew disenchanted with the band’s musical direction, and his relationship with Morrissey disintegrated, ending in bitterness. However, their legacy still lives on and often returns to haunt Marr.
In 1996, former Smiths drummer, Mike Joyce, took him and Morrissey to court over unpaid royalties – a situation Marr now describes as ‘very ugly’.
Last year, record company Warner Bros upset him when they released yet another Smiths Best Of compilation album, with an unfortunate cover shot featuring camp Carry On star Charles Hawtrey.
“The Smiths’ back catalogue has been spectacularly tarnished by Warner Bros,” says Marr. “They mastered the album really badly, they misspelt song titles, got the producer’s name wrong, chopped off one of the intros and put on an unbelievable sleeve.
“I felt that The Smiths’ stuff could have been re-mastered. It could have been a valid release that wouldn’t have been ripping people off. I’ve got loads of video stuff from making the albums that we could have put out on a DVD – given some people value for money. What is really irksome is that the guys at Warner Bros can’t do their jobs as well as I can. That sucks, but the rest of The Smiths have done a pretty good job of tarnishing the legacy as well!”

Johnny is now surprisingly open about his time in the band. For a long time he refused to talk about what had actually happened between him and the other band members.
“I’m no angel, but I didn’t speak about The Smiths for years because I didn’t want to bring anything negative up,” he says. “I once talked about them, on a BBC TV programme, and then in a big magazine. I did four hour interviews and I swear that for three-and-a-half hours I talked about the strength of The Smiths’ friendship, the magic of the music, our influences, how great Morrissey was as a live performer and our relationship with the fans. It was all positive stuff, but the 20 minutes of complaints that I had became the theme of the articles. I don’t take it personally, but it shifts papers. The journalists who write those kind of things are a long way away from the classic writers of the late Seventies and the early Eighties, who they’re trying to emulate.”

Following the demise of The Smiths, Marr became a guitar-for-hire, lending his services to a long list of artists. Throughout his post-Smiths career he’s worked with acts including The Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, The The, Billy Bragg, Kirsty MacColl, Beck, Neil Finn and Echo & The Bunnmen’s Ian McCulloch.

“I’ve got a strong friendship with everyone I’ve worked with – apart from one obvious exception – which shows you just how dysfunctional The Smiths were,” he says.
Marr was actually a fully paid-up member of The The for three-and-a-half-years, appearing on both the Mind Bomb and Dusk albums.
“The The was as much of a band as a band could be,” he says. “Dusk is my favourite album I’ve ever worked on – without exception. It’s the only album I’ve made that I could sit down and listen to.”

Over the years, Marr had been approached on several occasions to record a solo album, but he’d resisted, believing the time wasn’t right. However, something clicked when he met Zak Starkey. “It would have been easy for me to just bang something out, but I have to be passionate about what I’m doing,” he says.
“I met Zak in New York a few years ago and we hit it off straight away – we were kindred spirits. When we got back to England we started jamming together, just for the fun of it. I’d written some songs that I couldn’t see anyone that I knew recording, so we got them together and decided to make up a group. It was a real instinctive thing.”

So was he reluctant to take up the role of frontman, after standing on the sidelines for so long? “As far as fronting the group goes, it wasn’t really my call,” he explains. “It was down to the rest of the band. I had found a singer in Manchester with a pretty good classic rock voice, but the band conspired and said that I should sing because my voice was more unusual. It took me about a week to get my head round it, but I trusted them. It then started to make sense, as there seemed little point in me giving someone else my music to sing. I had pretty strong ideas about what I wanted The Healers to be, so bringing anyone else in would have diluted it.”
Marr is keen to stress that The Healers are a group – not just him and his backing band. “The idea behind The Healers and our shows is not about coming along and adoring me – I don’t need to be loved.”
We all need to be loved, don’t we? “Not me, I’m getting it!”
So, he’s not a frustrated frontman, then? There was never a time when he looked at Morrissey and thought “that could be me up there?”
“Never. Not in the slightest. I was more than happy to carve out the path that I did. I haven’t got any aspirations to be different from the way that I am.”

 The Healers are currently working on their debut album and plan to release it some time later this year. “It’s going really well,” says Johnny. “I want to put it out on my own label. I met up with a couple of record companies last year, but they wanted me to walk around a square in Barcelona, wearing a white suit, like a guitar-playing Richard Ashcroft!”

He’s also looking for someone to produce his new material. “At some point I’d like to work with somebody, but the problem is finding someone who has made as many records as I have! Me and Bernard, in Electronic, were always looking for a producer, but everyone we met wanted to make Blue Monday or How Soon Is Now. We were like ‘hang on a minute’.”
Looking at the future, Marr has high hopes for The Healers, which he views as a long-term project. “Hand on heart, I’d like to make six true Healers albums without any kind of commercial consideration or compromise,” he says. “It seems like a test of idealism whether I can do it, but I know I can do it in terms of inspiration or will. It’s a case of trying to not let your idealism get knocked out of you by commercial and financial concerns. I’m just gonna carry on the way I’m going.”

So, we won’t be queuing up for any Smiths reunion gigs just yet, then?



This article originally appeared in Upfront magazine – 2002.


"The indie scene is completely dead" – My Life Story’s Jake Shillingford hasn’t lost his sparkle

Last month, Britpop’s most glamorous band, My Life Story, made a triumphant comeback at Koko, performing their 1994 debut album, Mornington Crescent, in its entirety. Backstage, Sean Hannam spoke to front man Jake Shillingford about the birth of Britpop, Camden nights and why he used to dress like Tommy Steele – even when he nipped into Sainsburys.

If there was ever a time when we needed Jake Shillingford and his orch-pop army My Life Story more than ever, then it’s now.
Indie music is in a dire state, made up of dour, identikit ‘landfill’ bands with no glamour, stage presence, ambition and – let’s face it – memorable tunes.
So, thank god, after two years, they’ve reformed, principally to play a special live show at Camden’s Koko (formerly the Camden Palace).
Over 15 years ago, Jake wrote the songs that would end up on their 1994 debut album Mornington Crescent while working on the door at the venue. Now, fittingly, he’s back with his band, playing those very tunes in the place where he penned them. For one night only, My Life Story are performing Mornington Crescent in its entirety – including some songs that have never ever been played live before.
To paraphrase one of their early songs, they’re going to stand triumphant. With the current indie scene how it is, it’s just like being back in the early ’90s, during the beginnings of Britpop, when Jake took on grunge armed with a cheeky smile, a kiss curl, high kicks, splendid suits and a bunch of bold, brassy, bombastic and grandiose tunes that sounded like Scott Walker and Anthony Newley on a tour of London’s seedy underbelly.
To put it quite simply, it’s great to have them back.
“The indie scene is completely dead, with terrible, terrible bands like Scouting For Girls and The Wombats. Any scene gets the life thrashed out of it. At the end of it, it’s made up of lots of bands who aren’t really part of the scene who get signed to major labels – they’re mimicking the bands that went before,” says Jake, speaking backstage before the band’s big comeback show.
“Now pop music is back and people are writing really good pop songs – Lady Gaga is quite simply head and shoulders above anyone else at the moment and she’s actually a really experimental artist.”
So if he’s such a fan of contemporary pop music, rather than indie, how does Jake feel about The X Factor?
“I love The X Factor – I think it’s a brilliant TV show. I’ve got nothing against it – it’s a pantomime and I’ve always loved panto and theatrics. What’s interesting is that to a certain extent it’s choking the A & R process. Who would have ever dreamed that there would be a TV show about A & R being watched by 10 million people. I find it amazing that people are interested in the process of A & R.
“Ironically, of course. you’ve got A & R being watched by 10 million people on ITV, but half the A & R men in this country are being made redundant because the music industry’s fucked. It’s an incredibly interesting time at the moment.”

Birth of Britpop

It was an interesting time, too, back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Jake was hanging out in Camden and sowing the seeds for what would turn out be the birth of My Life Story and then, later on, the Britpop movement.
“I used to work on the door of the Camden Palace for two hours, earning ten pounds an hour – in cash. I was employed there because I was becoming quite well known in the Camden Town area in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was way before Britpop, but there were little seeds going on.  I used to hang around with Paul Tunkin – the DJ who started Blow Up,” he recalls.
“At the time, Mornington Crescent Tube station was closed. I was living in Belsize Park and I used to travel down a few stops on the Northern Line – a lot of the Tube references in my lyrics come from around then. At the time, there was a campaign by the London Underground to put art and poetry on the Tube. If you look at the back of the album sleeve [of Mornington Crescent] you can see the bits of rubble from where they tried to rebuild Mornington Crescent. It was like the rebuilding of Camden – previously Camden had become a bit of an original R & B place.People like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells played in Dingwalls.  At that time, a lot of us did feel that something new was going to happen – we just weren’t too sure what it was.
“The problem was that in the Camden Palace, they were a bit confused. They’d play Nirvana and Pearl Jam and then The
Wonderstuff and then some house record or something shoegazing like Paris Angels or Slowdive. It didn’t seem to fit together – the late ’80s and early ’90s was a funny time. There didn’t seem to be a focal point and there didn’t seem to be any bands coming out of London. The only band from London that I knew was Carter USM.
“With the early Britpop movement  – before Oasis came along – people like Graham Coxon from Blur and I would go to bars and discuss about trying to bringing a Swinging London back – just like Austin Powers! Britpop was totally premeditated – it didn’t happen by accident.”

Style and panache

Central to this movement was the desire to bring back some style and panache to pop music, particularly when it came to fashion.
“The journalist Taylor Parkes wrote an article in Melody Maker in ’93 or ’94 in which he said he’d seen me shopping in Sainsburys, wearing a Tommy Steele type blazer and winkle pickers,” laughs Jake.
“He said, ‘this is going to be the new movement and these are the lengths people are going to to dress up. Jake Shillingford was seen in Sainsburys buying a sandwich and some fruit, dressed like he was about to go on stage,’.”
So, how does it feel to be back on stage, performing an album that’s 15 years old?
” ‘Cause we recorded Mornington Crescent so early in the ’90s, I actually think it sounds quite ’80s. We were still using Pet Shop Boys-style samples,” muses Jake.
“You have to place it in context – some people listen to it and now don’t really get it, but at the time it stood out because it was completely different from anything that was going on at the time. It was a bit of a risk. We’ve never played all of the songs from it live. For example, we’ve never played Bullets Fly live – partly because I couldn’t play guitar and sing at the same time!”

Reunion shows

So, this is the first My Life Story Show for two years. Can we expect any more reunion shows?
“Lots of bands reform for lots of different reasons. Someone like the Pixies, who’d you think would be all mates and reform for the hell of it, actually vehemently dislike each other. They’re doing it for the money – as are The Police – they hate each other,” says Jake.
“With us, we’re doing it for the music, but, ultimately, we’re not a band – we’re a community. We’ve all maintained friendships over the years – it’s just a chance for us to meet up. If I said to everyone in the band, ‘let’s all meet up in a pub and go for a curry’, they wouldn’t do it, so I have to do a gig instead.”
So what does the future hold for Jake and My Life Story? Will he still be high kicking  and camping it up on stage in 15 years’ time?
“You have to be careful with nostalgia, but there’s no reason why we can’t keep on playing. Performing in this size venue [Koko] was as big as My Life Story got anyway. What we will not do is milk it,  like a lot of bands do. They come back, play a big gig and then you end up seeing them at The Garage or something.
“My new thing is that I’m really getting into being a songwriter. Written Large [his solo album] was the beginning of that process. I’m really pleased that Written Large and all the Exile Inside [his post My Life Story project] is up on Spotify now. The next step for me is to write for other artists. I’ve been talking to Polly Scattergood, who’s just signed to Mute, about writing together.
“My Life Story’s biggest influence was the Phil Spector sound. Now he’s out of the picture, I quite like the idea of being a svengali in my old age.”

Picture credit: DOSFOTOS