Johnny Marr on The Smiths’ legacy and Morrissey: “You can’t change history. The songs are out there for people to judge”

Before taking to the main stage for his glorious appearance at London's All Points East festival, NME caught up with Johnny Marr to talk over what he's working on next, finding hope in this modern dystopia, his future as an actor and whether he's worried about Morrissey's big mouth ruining the legacy of The Smiths...

Hello Johnny. You’ve been on great live form of late – especially the stuff from ‘Call The Comet‘…

“It feels good at the moment because we’re got an ever-growing repertoire now and the new songs are quite dramatic. With ‘Walk Into The Sea’ and ‘New Dominions’, it’s added a new dimension to what we do as well as the bangers. I thought it would always just be bangers but now I see there’s some value in mixing it up again. The audience and I definitely own it, and it feels like there’s an understanding between us.”

Would you say your new single ‘Armatopia’ is a bookmark of where you’re at or a signpost of where you’re going?

“I think it’s a bookmark of where I am. I’m not sure where I’m going, and I like that. I got ahead of myself when I was making the last album and had an idea for ‘Armatopia’, but I didn’t feel that it fitted with the rest of the songs. It was just too much about the world, really. I almost pathologically want everything to be more about the world than myself, but there was some more personal stuff on ‘Call The Comet’ like ‘Day In Day Out’, ‘Hi Hello’ and ‘Walk Into The Sea’. They were all pretty revealing songs, without being too confessional. That’s the great thing about being a songwriter, you get to add all this nuance. I’m making it sound easier than it is! Some of them take a lot longer to come to the right conclusions.”

So it’s about finding a sense of self in this mess of a world?

“I had this idea in my mind about people going out, getting fucked up, and the backdrop to it being serious ecological stress. That’s going on and it’s just a fact. I like that in my own mind there was a dichotomy whether people were either not giving a shit, or that they do give a shit but are feeling powerless. Maybe to go out and have fun with your friends might not be such a bad idea. The fact that I’d been sitting on the fence and couldn’t come to any real conclusion about it was actually an interesting position.”

“I had this idea in my mind about people going out, getting fucked up, and the backdrop to it being serious ecological stress. That’s going on and it’s just a fact.”

Do you have any more new stuff coming soon or are you focussing on an album?

“I’ve got another single coming in about six weeks or so that I’ve finished. That’s a bit more psychedelic guitar. Then I’m going to finish off the touring and get into some new stuff at the end of the year which is pretty exciting. I’ve got a new solo album coming, and I’m also hoping to get in the studio with Maxine Peake again.”

There was some really good will around your work together on ‘The Priest

“Who doesn’t love Maxine? She’s the best actress to come out in my lifetime. She’s so modest and humble that it almost doesn’t do her any favours. Someone like Gary Oldman, you know how epic he is, but Maxine recently did a one-woman show called Avalanche – holding a massive room on your own with so much intensity? Not many people can do that. We’ve got a fascinating friendship, so I hope she’s around when I get off the road.”

So what’s inspiring you lyrically at the moment?

“That’s a really good question. I’m going to spend the summer pondering that, to be honest. My instinct tells me that what is inside my own mind is probably going to be more rewarding that trying to work out what’s inside the mind of people whose faces I’m saying on the telly and in the media. There are times when I find the public life and the people in it are intriguing, but I don’t want to make a cynical record. When I look outwards to the impact of public figures, it’s hard for your cynicism to not kick in. I want to find some idealism in life and I’m probably better off finding that inside my own heart and mind.”

“When I look outwards to the impact of public figures, it’s hard for your cynicism to not kick in.”

And musically?

“There are a load of different ways I can go. I like living in the modern world. I like the sounds, the technology, the way people relate to music. I get asked a lot about the way music has changed and perhaps devalued. It’s becoming more and more obvious to me that music can’t be devalued because of the way that people relate to songs. How a person relates to a particular song, be it an emotional song or a banger or something aggressive or romantic, it makes no difference about the device it’s delivered on. There’s too much of that. It’s a separate question about the value or the potency of music in the culture. Modern music isn’t going to stop a Vietnam War, but how a person relates to a song isn’t going to change. It’s always the same – whether they’re relating to John Peel, a preacher, a blues musician or a punk rocker.”

Johnny Marr live at All Points East 2019

Speaking of context, Morrissey has seen his music banned from record stores and posters removed from train stations due to his recent support of For Britain. Are you worried about a generation of people missing out on the music of The Smiths as a result?

“No. I don’t think you can change history. I’ve said that before. I’m not worried. It’s got nothing to do with my world or my life. The songs are out there for people to judge, relate to and hear. I think that’s all going to be forgotten in a few weeks, as these things inevitably are – for better or worse. It’s always been that way. I understand the issue, but I’m used to stuff coming and going. I don’t worry about people missing out on the culture. That would be like saying to a teenage me ‘Are you worried about you and your mates missing out on The Velvet Underground?’ That was never going to happen. I know the way things go. Things come and go.”

On the impact of Morrissey’s comments on The Smiths: “I don’t think you can change history. I’ve said that before. I’m not worried. It’s got nothing to do with my world or my world or my life. The songs are out there for people to judge, relate to and hear.”

While we’re on the subject of Morrissey, did you see the biopic England Is Mine and how you were portrayed?

“I honestly didn’t, and I feel bad because the guy who played me is a really nice guy and was really sincere about it. I just kept forgetting to watch that bit! I didn’t hear great things about the film, though. It just came and went for me. Luckily, I have so many things I want to think about that they distract me from all kinds of stuff.”

Who would you want to play you in a movie on your life?

“Robert Downey Jr! Well, he’d probably have to go meditate for a few years! I don’t know. As long as they’re beautiful and glamorous. There’s got to be a kid out there who fits the bill?”

Have you had any offers from people wanting to make your autobiography Set The Boy Free into a movie?

“I have had some offers, yeah. I’ll maybe look at that next year. Luckily I prioritise the life of being a working musician almost to a fault. You know, ‘I can’t take these meetings because I’m rehearsing’ or ‘I can’t come to LA because I’m writing’. I should dial that down a little and schmooze a little I guess. I’ve had some offers for that, plus some acting offers.”

People have been asking you to act?

“Yeah. It’s exciting me more than I expected, to be honest. I don’t know where that’s come from but it’s become a recent thing. They’re usually drug dealers, which is a stretch! I can do the whole range from psychedelics to CBDs. I’m your man!”

The crowd for Johnny Marr at All Points East 2019

Did you celebrate Theresa May resigning last week?

“Man, the balls of that woman! I will give her that! How long as she been in office? Most other people would have had a nervous breakdown every morning of having done such a catastrophic job of it. She seems to just front up, balls out, stand up and deliver it with incredible arrogance. Fuck her. Fuck her! Good riddance. I thought Cameron had some front. She’s just a vile, vile human being. Where’s the humanity? What must her agenda have been? There must have been some insane personal agenda inside that woman. Fuck man, we could have had three consecutive Tory leaders during this period.”

“Fuck Theresa May. Fuck her! Good riddance. I thought Cameron had some front. She’s just a vile, vile human being. Where’s the humanity?”

Do you feel a revolt coming?

“How British people have managed to not actually turn on each other…Well, we’re getting pretty close to it. There’s no accountability at all at the moment. I can’t wait until two generations later. I’ve got so much faith in young people. Look at Extinction Rebellion or the LGBTQ Rights movement. All of these people in their late teens and ‘20s doing great work.”

Do you feel that hope can only come from the young?

“Mine was the generation of Reaganomics, Thatcherism and the original indie wave – that was very much about home concerns and the world under your nose and right around the corner. It was very community based and national. We’re talking the Miners’ Strike, unemployment, threats to the NHS, those kinds of things. Generations after dealt with such issues as globalisation and the environment, but particularly with equality. People of an older age may applaud that and say ‘Of course, of course, of course’, but we didn’t do it. It was entirely down to the mobilisation of people born in the ‘90s and after. They’re really impressive people. Older people fret and stress about the impact of social media, and quite rightly, but younger people adapt and don’t feel quite as violated or frustrated or angered by it. They don’t take it so personally.”

There is a sense among many that Brexit was voted for by a generation who won’t inherit it

“Absolutely. I would be fucking livid. Although I think I there should also be a fair amount of anger pointed towards those that didn’t vote. That is equally as galling. That was a big number. The people I revere from the ‘20s, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, these are British people who had to deal with the impending rise of the right. Look at Picasso, the surrealists, the Dadaists. It would be trite and puerile to say that great work came out of it, but real value came out of it because when I discovered them they were like Gods to me. The more I found out about them, the more it fed my idealism.”

“I can’t wait until two generations later. I’ve got so much faith in young people. Look at Extinction Rebellion or the LGBTQ Rights movement.”

Do you feel that among your fellow artists today?

“When I think about my friends in public life – journalists, singers, actors, writers – it’s our turn to deal with this stuff and react to it. Doing good work is the appropriate response. You can react and get it wrong, though. It’s really tricky these days. I don’t know if you’ve seen Billy Bragg’s new book [The Three Dimensions Of Freedom] . It’s an exposition and it’s really fair-minded, sees both sides and it’s constructive. These things are important. We’re doing a good job.”

Johnny Marr’s summer tour continues with dates at European Festivals including Glastonbury, Truck, Tramlines, Mad Cool, INMusic and many more.