As part of the early Manchester scene, the Smiths wrote songs that reflected a country they loved to hate–a romantic gray landscape of working-class boredom, delusion and despair. After five years, the group disbanded and the friendships dissolved.
This includes the relationship between guitarist/songwriter Johnny Marr and singer/ lyricist Steven Patrick Morrissey, the relationship that launched a smooth-skinned, scowly Marr to fame at 18.
Now pushing forty with two kids, Marr is calmer, more self-assured, and his career doesn’t depend on work that came out of those "confusing and intense" years with the Smiths. While Morrissey hides out in Los Angeles enjoying a sudden career revival from an adoring Latino fan base, Marr is singing, writing, and playing guitar with the Healers, who just released a debut album called Boomslang. The record is more guitar-driven rock than Manchester mope, which is appropriate, coming from a man once lauded as a guitar god on par with Hendrix, Clapton and Page.
While there are veiled hints of Moz/Marr classics a la "This Charming Man," older fans will be disappointed if, as Marr put it during a recent telephone interview, "they’re trying to recapture some feeling they got from a Smiths record back in their college days." The new record reflects plenty of influences, but those influences are Marr’s, and the label-loathing musician hates the idea of his new baby being tossed into a trendy "Brit-pop" or "garage rock" bucket.
"It would have been undignified for me to try to sound like the Strokes," he explains. "Or Coldplay, god forbid. I just wanted to make sure [the new record] was wide awake and natural and honest."
It wasn’t hard for Marr to be honest on this record, since for the first time in his career, he wrote the lyrics to every song himself. They are vivid and personal, vaguely philosophical, and Marr drew inspiration from all over the map. Still, "If there’s an overall theme," he says, "it’s preserving your own space, your sense of freedom and individuality and not getting sucked in to the whole blob of the masses."
No longer interested in writing "about alienation or vicars in tutus," a matured Marr is most concerned with the dualities of self-identity. He wrote this record for the "in-betweens"–people who, like him, don’t fit into a little box. "Most people I know are between labels," he explains. "They’re interested in esoteric things like what’s going on in the ether and spirit life, but at the same time they know that it’s important to [match] the right shirt with the right shoes."
He continues, "The people who are in between are the ones that really know what’s going on. They’re not sitting on the couch getting sucked into so-called reality tv and the shopping channel."
Marr himself doesn’t have time for the idiot box. Not only has he kept busy writing and producing everything on Boomslang, but he’s adopted another new role with the Healers: lead singer and front man. "I’ve never harbored any ambition to take center stage," he says. He fell into singing only after realizing he did it better than the people who auditioned for the role. His band urged him on, and Marr accepted without much deliberation.
"I’m kind of glad it turned out that way," he admits. "Had I thought about it too much I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would have turned myself in psychological knots, thinking ‘What are people going to make of it?’ and ‘I’m not supposed to do this’ and ‘What’s this going to bring into my life?’ and ‘Do I need this sort of shit?’"
Marr took the advice of drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son) and bassist Alonza Bevan (formerly of Kula Shaker). The group officially formed three years ago, but the wheels had actually begun turning in November, 1997 when Marr first met Starkey.
"There was a certain amount of synchronicity involved," he recalls. "I bumped into Starkey in an elevator in New York. I wasn’t even aware that he was a musician. We started talking and we hit it off… We arranged to get together and play when we got back to Manchester, and that was it." Marr enlisted Bevan, a friend of a friend, to play bass.
But Marr wasn’t satisfied with keeping the budding band a small and tidy affair. Inspired by film footage of 1960s jammers Santana and Jefferson Airplane, Marr envisioned the Healers as a "tribal band" with many members. "I’m not a retro-head," Marr promises, "but there was a certain freedom and purity about those guys that seemed less postured, more altruistic. I was really tired of seeing [bands made up of] four British boys standing there snarling, like a silly little gang."
In 2000, the Healers, then a six-piece, supported Oasis on tour. In those initial gigs, "the songs were very rambling," says Marr, "I wanted to really stretch them out and jam." With the group slimmed down to a threesome, Marr has abandoned his love-in esthetic, at least temporarily. "We know each other better, and the songs have become more concise. We don’t really jam anymore. It’s something I’d like to do in the future, but you need a fair amount of money to do that, and you need a big tour bus and a lot of patience because it’s hard work looking after five other heads as well as your own."
He would know. Throughout his 21-year career, Marr has contributed his musical prowess to dozens of notable projects. In 1988, one year after the Smiths split up, he joined longtime friend Matt Johnson in the The. A year later, he formed the synth outfit Electronic with Bernard Sumner of New Order; together they released three albums. Since his Smiths days, Marr has also produced, played guitar and written music for artists as diverse as the Talking Heads, Everything but the Girl, Beck, Kirsty MacColl, Beth Orton and the Pet Shop Boys. These collaborations happened on their own, apart from any grand scheme. "I’ve never planned on working with anybody," he insists. "I’ve just been invited to work with people I was interested in, [most of whom] I had struck up a friendship with beforehand."
Music has consumed Marr for as long as he can remember. He "never considered doing anything else" and blames this obsession on his "record freak" parents. "I learned the art of playing the same seven-inch 27 times in succession from my mother," he says.
"I was brought up with this idea that as soon as you got to 18 and were able to vote and drive and drink and all those things, that you were a man. But I found that emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, that was when all hell broke loose," he recalls.
Today, Marr is "less concerned with other people’s opinions, whether in public or in private." Though he’s still based in Manchester, he spends most of his time in London. He’s an avid reader with a particular interest in philosophy and mysticism. (The new band’s name comes from Madame Blavatsky’s 19th-century text, The Secret Doctrine.) The greatest benefit of age, for him, is having "a sense of how you fit into the world, instead of how the world fits around you."
Johnny Marr & the Healers’ new album, Boomslang, is out now on imusic.