“I absolutely love Soho,” beams Johnny Marr as we meet at the bar of The Social, not far from Oxford Street. “I’m this way pretty much all the time when I’m in London now,” he continues, telling us how his work on movie scores for the likes of No Time To Die and Inception with Hans Zimmer tends to bring him to the west of the capital. “Why go anywhere else? You can get good shoes, good jackets, caffeine and get something to eat late at night. I can’t be doing with trundling over to east all the time.”
Could one expect to see him and Zimmer parading around Chinatown after a night of debauchery in the early hours?
“Yeah, it has been known,” he laughs.
The now long sober polymath misses “the obvious stuff” from Soho’s history like “the folk clubs, the jazz clubs, the Flamingo,” now “long gone”. It’s certainly not the same place from when Manchester’s The Smiths made their London debut at The Rock Garden down the road in 1983, but then Marr is not the same man either. We’re not here to re-tell the tall tales of rewriting the rules of indie with Morrissey, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce way back when. He’s reflecting on a much more present past before opening a new chapter, as he releases his first best of collection as a solo artist: ‘Spirit Power’.
He was known for decades as the guitarist’s guitarist and the best man to have on the left wing – be it with The Smiths, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, The The – but did he ever see this coming? Did the young teen picking up a guitar in his Manchester bedroom back in the ‘70s, practising his soon-to-be-iconic moves in front of the mirror, ever foresee that Johnny Marr solo greatest hits could be on the horizon?
“There was a time when I had to get it together to be able to front a band OK, which was between being 14, 15, 16,” he remembers. “I got pushed to the front. We were doing quite a lot of covers, as you do at that age – a bunch of Blondie songs, Eddie & The Hot Rods, stuff like that; power pop. In that period, it was deadly serious. I just got pushed to the front because that’s what happens to the one with the best haircut!”
Fast forward to 2013, when the still-well-coiffured go-to-collaborator for any indiehead was stepping out from his time with Wakefield’s finest art-punks The Cribs to finally go it alone with his punchy and propulsive debut album ‘The Messenger’. “I remembered how it felt to be out front, but obviously it had a completely different context because by then I’d been known for being a guitar player,” he says. “It’s probably been well-documented, but the reality of my ambition was to make a 45 [record]. It wasn’t like I’d have been happy to stop there. Now I’ve made a best of – which is over 10 years of my solo career after years of playing with loads of other bands – this scenario I wouldn’t have imagined.
He continues: “When I got to [make a 45] that with The Smiths, that was like standing on the mountain top. As the old Daoist saying goes, that’s when you see the other mountain. That’s the way life is. I’m just kind of riding it out now.”
We sat down with Marr to talk about a decade of adventure, what Billie Eilish has in common with The Cure, how the chi of Radiohead and Noel Gallagher haunt his guitars, and what the next 10 years could hold.
Hello Johnny Marr. What does releasing a ‘best of’ mean to you? Could this be a gateway record like ‘Changes One Bowie’ or The Beatles’ ‘The Red Album’?
Marr: “That’s a nice thought, actually. If it does that, I’m happy. Someone asked me about it the other day and said, ‘Look, it’s a double album full of bangers’. Being an artist or songwriter you kind of go, ‘What does that mean?’ On reflection, I think a double album full of bangers? There’s nothing wrong with that.
“It’s funny you mention ‘Changes One Bowie’, because it wasn’t my entry point to him for me or my mates, but it was still a really good listen. It’s a great album, so if ‘Spirit Power’ has any of that about it, then oh man, I’ll take it all day long.”
Putting this album together, did you learn anything about your journey as a solo artist over the last 10 years?
“In all honesty, I learned that I’ve put myself under pressure to make singles – with very little let-up. I’ve got enough about me when I’m making albums to realise that if you’ve got a lot of up-tempo songs, it does give you an excuse and an absolute need to do a deep song. Every solo album I’ve made has a sort of atmospheric, moody, slower or cinematic song. It’s almost a bit of light and shade to all the bangers.
“You do get reflective and go, ‘Flipping hell – that 10 years has gone by really quickly’. Because when I started with my own band on the first record, my intention was to keep the tempos up. I wanted to make music that sounded really good in the day. I had this mission about it. Now with a best of, I think not only did I achieve that but I may have done too good a job of it. I don’t mean that in an immodest way, but it just doesn’t let up.”
Take us back to 2013. What gave you that compulsion to say, ‘Right, now it’s Johnny Marr time’?
“When I was working with The Cribs, we were touring and I got on a roll of writing quite a few songs. Sometimes when I’m in bands with other people, it’s my job to write riffs and music, but I was on the bus and came up with ‘Dynamo’ and was thinking, ‘I’d like to have a song called ‘Dynamo’’. That went on the second album. Then the words for ‘The Messenger’ came and another one called ‘Word Starts Attack’ came as a title. That used to be the way that I would write in bands when I was younger. I’ve always written words. With Electronic, sometimes I’d make that contribution.
“After the last Cribs’ touring cycle, I said to the fellas, ‘I’ve got a bunch of songs here that I want to finish, and it’s my mission to write a whole load more’. Because they’re my mates, they understood that when someone says they wanna write 30 songs you’re best to go, ‘Well go on then!’ The songs just started coming from under my fingers in dressing rooms and tour buses. I knew when I was onto something.”
How was that challenge of forming your own little worlds? Some of your albums are quite literally imagining utopias and alternate realities…
“The thing was, I was really inspired. I got the idea for ‘Playland’ from this book Homo Ludens [by Johan Huizinga] which is about adult society. All the albums have had a vague conceptual thread running through them. For ‘Call The Comet’  I got back into science fiction, H.G. Wells and that kind of thing. That suited what was going on in the political climate of the time. If I feel like my feeling and inspiration is 60 per cent a good idea, then I will then apply myself to create the remaining 40 per cent in the process. That might be getting a load of books, or going to a library – remember them? I did that a lot on ‘Call The Comet’.”
A lot has been written about how the political backdrop of the ‘80s was a breeding ground for the cultural kickback that followed. With this past decade that you’ve been working in as the Brexit age, the social media age, the age of division, would you not say that it’s just as rife for that kind of creative response?
“Yeah. People know that I went through that time in the ‘80s, so maybe Damon [Albarn] and Graham [Coxon] get asked about the ‘90s? If you made a big noise in a certain decade then you tend to be attached to that. It would be easy for me to look back and go, ‘Thatcherism and the miner’s strike gave us something to fight back against’. But what you’re saying did recently occur to me – that we’re in such a time of turmoil, uncertainty, rapid change, rapid dialogue. Doing what I do, which is to observe as much as I can, is a rich thing.
“On ‘Fever Dreams’ I remember deliberately going, ‘I will not make a record about the pandemic’ but a lot of what I do is about perception and that can tip over into regular human consciousness. You’re not just singing about a political situation, you’re trying to inhabit the mind of your audience. Doing what I do, you can’t escape, but you can either reflect or comment on the world around you.
“That might sound really obvious, but there are plenty of songwriters whose impulse and job is to sing their inner world. They get up in the morning in their dressing gown, get out the acoustic guitar, look out wistfully…. I don’t mean to demean that, but that ain’t my bag really. I see a lot of people doing that at festivals. If I was in the audience, I’d be done after two songs.”
Is that modern sensibility what drew you to working with Billie Eilish on ‘No Time To Die’? She could arguably only exist now…
“It’s interesting with Billie. Like all people who are great, I think she and [brother, collaborator] Finneas could have existed at any time – so I’ll have to disagree with you there. But her form, her process, her influences and her sound are extremely modern. That’s why she’s so relatable, particularly to young people, for both boys and girls. That’s what great pop stars do. She and her family are just so musical. She can pick up a uke and just write a song like that. It was a pleasure being around Billie and Finneas. It was a very short project, but quite insightful for me.”
New Order’s Bernard Sumner once described your songwriting style as ‘bittersweet’ – pop meets darkness. Eilish has got that too…
“For me, the best writers and novelists have got that. The Smiths were exactly like that – musically, for my part. There’s plenty of New Order and Joy Division music that has got that human beauty in it. I heard ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed this morning. That’s an evergreen staple and you’d have to be made of stone to not like that song, but is it a happy song? I’m not really sure. Billie’s got that in abundance. That’s what attracts human beings to other human beings who are expressing it. It’s tricky being a human being sometimes – no matter how long you spend at the gym.”
We once spoke of your admiration for The Cure’s Robert Smith too. Would you put him in that category too?
“So much of The Cure stuff that appears to be dark is very beautiful. ‘Disintegration’ is an amazing record. But I saw them as a kid when ‘Seventeen Seconds’  came out. I just thought it was beautiful and modern. It’s funny, Billie is definitely coming from a similar sensibility but I think it has a similar vibe to it, in a way. A modern version. I can imagine being really into her records when I was 16 or 17.”
What made you put your cover of ‘I Feel You’ by Depeche Mode on the best of?
“With ‘I Feel You’, it’s become a little bit of a live staple, which took me by surprise. When I’ve been playing shows over the last couple of years with The Killers in the States and our arena tour with Blondie in the UK, you can feel the audience sort of half recognising it. Plenty of people do know it, but I’m surprised how long it takes for them to click to it. I’ve kidnapped it, in a way. It’s a little of a tribute. Me and my band inevitably turn it into a guitar track. With the way I’m feeling now and with the release of this record, [this cover] is a marker of the momentum and – I’m gonna say it – journey. You go somewhere else after that.
“Now it’s on there because it’s going to be part of the past. Also ‘The Priest’ with Maxine Peake would have just floated away into the ether, and I think it’s valid. Same with ‘I Feel You’ – this is a best of album, and these are some of the best things I’ve done.”
And we have to talk about your new book, Marr’s Guitars – we’re guessing that’s added to this mood of reflecting and looking back?
“It has. I wasn’t expecting quite how reflective I was going to be about that. I did an autobiography in 2016 [Set The Boy Free] and assumed there would be some catharsis. I was like, ‘Where the fuck is this catharsis? When’s it gonna come?’ It never arrived, right. So maybe I’m just good at processing stuff or maybe I’m good at burying stuff deep down inside… I felt a little bit cheated by that; I’m still waiting for it.
“This book has been an absolute mission. I’ve got a bunch of people I wouldn’t have been able to do this with, but it was a lot of work. We were shooting 100-odd guitars, and that involved getting some back from mates and getting them to look right in decent condition, but when I was playing them and reconnecting with them, it really put me back into the place I was when I got them.
“I picked up some of The Smiths guitars and remembered, ‘Oh, ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’’ and doing the video. There was something about holding these objects and these instruments that I’ve got a close relationship with that reminded me of where my head was at in those days. It’s very poignant. It’s how you might imagine it – like having a high school reunion with myself.”
What else came to mind when you picked up these guitars?
“I remembered all the records that they’d been on, and consequently loads of stories came out about the guitars. That wasn’t in my original remit. I wanted to make an art book that just happened to be about guitars. The idea was it would be a guitar book for people that wouldn’t normally buy guitars because the photos in it are just so beautiful. Pat Graham, my friend the photographer, has long pioneered a way of taking photos of people’s instruments where you get this abstract photo that’s absolutely gorgeous.
“There are three different layers to the book: the beautiful art and abstract photographs, then all the stories about joining The Pretenders or when I wrote ‘Meat Is Murder’, playing Top Of The Pops or New Order using my guitar for ‘Regret’. I’d forgotten that Radiohead had used a few of them…”
I was surprised to learn that too
“Yeah, Franz Ferdinand use one of them and Nile Rodgers gave me one. I had totally forgotten that I played with R.E.M. for quite a few nights. It was only when I saw the Rickenbackers and photos of me with Peter Buck that it all came back. That’s the second element of the book, and the third is just straight portraits. Even that’s different because guitar books usually look like watch catalogues – it’s all very dark and sexy, trying to make everything look as expensive as possible.”
Whereas guitars are supposed to be used, battered and thrown around?
“Yeah. Mine is in my studio in my environment. I had to fight for that. It’s ticked all those boxes and now it’s come out and I’m really proud of it.”
Sorry to be superstitious, but do you feel like the guitars have a spirit? When you get a guitar from Nile Rodgers or Bryan Ferry or whether you give one to Noel Gallagher or Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, do you feel they’re on your records or you’re on their records?
“It’s a definite, valid thing. It’s in your mind. I could tell you it’s a fact that if you have a guitar, even a brand new one, and you loan it to someone who is a good player and a good person and they really love it, then it comes back two weeks later, it feels great. Back in the day when I was younger, you’d lend a guitar to one of your mates. If they were not treating it well then you’d have to fix it up.
“I once asked this acupuncturist, an old guy in Los Angeles years ago, about chi. He was amused by my line of questioning, because I wanted to know if guitars had chi – a life force. He was explaining it and said, ‘When you leave your house to go away on holiday for two weeks, then you walk through the door to come back and the house feels really odd? That’s because it’s got no chi in it. It’s the Daoist thing. Look at the Dao de jing; it’s this belief in the force of life that makes a plant want to reach towards the sunlight. I’m already on board with that. He said, ‘Yeah, your guitars have got chi in’. I was like, ‘I knew it! I knew it!’
Give us some examples of that sweet chi…
“My Les Paul Custom has still got Pretenders chi in it from Glastonbury, without a doubt. My Smiths guitars from certain records have got that kind of chi in it. Bernard Butler’s got what was my 12-strong 335 that I used loads on the last Smiths album and ‘Sheila Take A Bow’. I also used it on the Talking Heads album. Bernard will tell you that the thing is bursting with chi.”
That could have been the name of the book. I won’t ask you to pick your favourite guitar, but do you have a favourite haircut from the archive portraits?
“That’s The Healers era. That’s Soho in New York about 2001, rocking the Dolce & Gabanna. There are lot of haircuts going down. The Healers one is pretty good. It’s a feather cut, 2001, it’s very Camden.”
So, the next 10 years – what’s going to happen?
“I’ve been doing this now, man and boy, and people have got used to me being around since 1983 so they’ve got a few years of me yet. I’m gonna say what all musicians say: I’m not any good at anything else. Maybe I’ll make more film music, because I’m given a lot of leeway. Especially when I work with Hans; he just lets me do my thing, really. Whether it’s a big film like the Bond movie or Freeheld or something I’m doing in the background, it’s still the same to me and I work just as hard. I’m still in the studio at 4am and wake up the next day and think, ‘Wow, that was brilliant’. That’s a buzz for me. Then just write some more bangers, it’s not to be sniffed at really.”
Start writing ‘Spirit Power’ part two? The ‘Blue Album’ to the ‘Red Album?
“Yeah, that would be great! Give me something to shoot for. More bangers. I’ve had the same band for 10 years, they’re great musicians, I’ve got good people around me, and it’s a good time. It’s a coincidence that the book is happening at the same time as the best of, but it does feel like a reflective period. But I’m always looking forward.”
‘Spirit Power: The Best Of Johnny Marr’ is out November 3 via New Voodoo for BMG. Marr’s Guitars is out now via Thames & Hudson. ‘A Night With The Johnny Marr Orchestra’ will take place at Factory International on December 7 & 8 at Manchester’s Factory International, before a full UK tour in April 2024. Visit here for tickets and more information.