Johnny Marr, The Messenger, Comes to Belfast
The iconic guitarist releases his first solo album this month, and plays Belfast in March. 'I always wanted to perform there because Rory Gallagher did'
Lauded by many as one of the most influential guitarists of all time, Johnny Marr has spent his time chaulking up membership of an impressive array of bands since The Smiths disbanded in 1987.
From forming supergroup Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner in the early 1990s to bringing his trademark staccato style to US band Modest Mouse and indie champions The Cribs, Marr has managed to maintain an understated career over the last 20 years.
February 2013, however, brings with it Marr’s long-awaited debut album, The Messenger. After two decades of being a piece in various musical jigsaws, Marr is now embarking on life as a solo artist. Though he obviously revels in the joys of creative collaboration, it was time for Marr to do something new, to release something with his own imprint on it.
'The ideas for the songs and the sound came first, and my life followed them,' he explains. 'I started writing, got on a roll and stayed with it. The process of touring with Modest Mouse and The Cribs made me want to do something different.'
The Messenger is released on February 25, and showcases Marr's signature staccato guitar playing style, and features a lush Abbey Road production.
The album illustrates Marr’s broad influences and musical tastes, and is, perhaps, finally the rip-roaring rock record that all fans of guitar music have been waiting for, full of catchy hooks, swaggering riffs and confident vocals – that's right, Marr can most definitely sing.
The themes are also strong throughout. Having worked with some fantastic lyricists over the years – and none better than the mercurial Morrissey, whom Marr formed The Smiths with in the early 1980s – Marr approaches his lyrics according to that age-old literary addage – write what you know.
'My lyrics are mostly observations and comments about my environment,' he says. 'I've grown up around cities and spent a lot of my life in cities, and that comes into it quite a lot. I find that I like commenting on the modern world as I see it, but I try not to make the songs complaints, as that would bring the music down.'
Despite being critical of the current UK coalition government – even taking to Twitter to tell Prime Minister David Cameron that he is not allowed to like The Smiths – Marr's new songs tend not to delve into the political (under)world. You get the feeling that with Johnny Marr, the music takes precedence. 'I don't know what any politicians would get from listening to The Smiths,' he adds.
While the current trend seems to be for legendary British bands reforming, with fellow Mancunians the Stone Roses even getting in on the act in recent years, Marr seems to be happy moving forwards, trying new things. 'I don't believe in looking back as an artist,' he admits, 'but I'm totally cool with the past and I like all the stuff I've done. I play old songs live too, all sorts of things.'
However, the question he has probably had to field more than any other over the years is inevitably the one about a possible Smiths reformation. When I ask if he misses writing with Morrissey and what his reaction might be if, by some miracle, Morrissey were to phone him to say he was up for it, Marr's answer is simple: 'You can probably Google that.'
Although disappointing for the thousands of fans who cling to the hope that the two will someday share a stage again, it is somewhat refreshing to see an artist at peace with the past and wishing to create a new chapter in their musical career. Marr is not one to go in search of a fast buck, and the time it took for him to release his first album is surely testiment to the man's artistic integrity.
Marr has proved that he can succeed in playing in different genres, but there is the sense that he has unfinished business to attend to regarding his solo album. At a time when manufactured pop acts, superstar dance DJs and hip-hop behemoths rule the airwaves, the state of British guitar music has often been debated. While some may say that its popularity has dwindled, Marr offers up a more simplistic, rational argument.
'I've always been asked if guitar music is on the decline. I don't think it ever really is, no matter what's going on, even in the late 1980s when a lot of people were using samplers for the first time. There's too much about the guitar that clicks with people wanting to play them and hear them to ever fade out.'
The Messenger will provide another six-stringed dose of unabashed rock and roll to those who doubt the impact of the guitarist on the current British music industry, with the record showcasing some of Marr’s best melodies in years, and songs that fans of his incredible repertoire will instantly fall in love with.
And he is bringing the record to these shores on March 26, playing the newly refurbished Limelight in Belfast. Marr last played in Northern Ireland with The Cribs at Queen's University. He has abiding memories of performing in Northern Ireland's capital city, and cites one of the country's greatest guitarists as a formative influence.
'The last time I played in Belfast was at the university a couple of years ago, and that was a good night. The Smiths played the Ulster Hall a couple of times and The The did too. The shows were wild, really magic. I always wanted to play there because Rory Gallagher did.'
The Limelight gig will be a chance to hear a master at work once again, while for newcomers to Marr’s oeuvre, it is an opportunity to be inspired. When I admit that he was a major influence on my own (admittedly dodgy) guitar playing as a teenager, Marr is typically humble in his response. 'It's quite an honour, of course. To inspire someone to pick up the guitar is pretty much the highest accolade.'
The Messenger is out on 25 February. Johnny Marr plays The Limelight 1 on 26 March.