The Smiths turned solo star and mass collaborator recently dropped a track from his latest team-up with actor Maxine Peake. We talk the man himself about what's next, politics, and his awesome Christmas present from Hans Zimmer.
Johnny Marr has been very busy lately – but you’d expect no less from one of the most prolific men in music.
As well as playing live with movie score icon Hans Zimmer and lending his skills to Noel Gallagher‘s latest album ‘Who Built The Moon?‘ (as well as hanging out with him at Man City games), he’s also been working on an album of his own and launched a new project with friend and actress Maxine Peake.
The former Smiths, Cribs, Modest Mouse and The The guitarist turned solo star has teamed up with the award-winning ‘Shameless’, ‘The Village’ and ‘Silk’ actress Peake to deliver a hard-hitting commentary on homelessness.
Based on the experiences of former Big Issue salesman Joe Gallagher from his first the first few weeks of being homeless in Edinburgh (which he would later publish in The Big Issue under the name James Campbell), ‘The Priest’ sees Peake reading out Gallagher’s poetry, backed by a cinematic soundscape provided by Marr. Directed by Marr himself, the hard-hitting video stars Peake’s ‘Three Girls’ co-star Molly Windsor on the streets of Manchester.
We caught up with the guitar hero to talk politics, working with Peake, his various projects, going to the footy with Noel Gallagher, his new album, and the awesome Christmas present he got from Hans Zimmer.
How have you found the world’s reaction to ‘The Priest’?
“It’s been really gratifying and quite heart-warming. People are reacting to it on a humanitarian level. People are also finding it to be an interesting listen – that’s really what my job is. As important as the subject matter and the text are, me doing a track with Maxine is exciting in itself – as is doing a film with Molly. The issue of the song and what we’re portraying is something that everyone can understand and relate to, regardless of their own personal and political ideology. We can disagree about all kinds of things, but we all understand that no one who is sat on the street in the freezing cold at night wants to be there. We can all relate to how bleak that is. Speaking as someone from the UK, the acceleration in which we see people dealing with that bleak scenario makes us all feel like something really isn’t right. Is society really OK with this?”
So rather than a call to action, you’re basically holding a mirror up to the situation?
“Yeah, that’s right. That’s a good way of putting it. It’s an authentic, genuine account. We worked with Joe on the video and he was there every minute of filming to contribute. It was a collaboration between us and my friend Mat Bancroft who co-directed it with me. Maxine and I are using it as a piece of art that happens to be social commentary, but the heart of it and the impulse is all Joe’s.”
Is there more to come from you and Maxine then?
“Oh yeah. We’ve got about five or six things that we’ve done that sound good. Next year, the idea is to turn it into a record. If it’s the way I want it to be then we’ll try and stage it. It started because aside from making my next record, I wanted to try something different and take the guitars in a slightly different direction. You can’t really do that in rock songs. I had this idea for some kind of abstract but emotional music built on the guitar, and the first person I thought of asking was Maxine Peake. We came together to work on it and became friends pretty quickly.
“I always do assume with people that I like, whether I work with them or not, that I’ll get along with them. I had the same thing with Hans Zimmer. When there’s someone who’s acting, music or painting really clicks with you, you think you’re going to get along. Fans feel that way about bands and artists they follow too. We met up and we had a lot in common. We had this instinct about what we were going to do – to try and reflect how we feel living in the UK at the moment. There are all kinds of concepts to hang dialogue on. We made an assumption without spelling things out too blatantly. What that means for me is that I can do something cinematic. It’s like a movie you can listen to.”
Exactly. It does feel like it’s a scene starring Maxine and you’re simply scoring it.
“Yeah, that’s right. Someone pointed out that there’s only been a couple of other spoken word ‘pop’ records that actually have a chorus. It’s usually by Serge Gainsbourg.
“I tend to think in terms of records. ‘The Priest’ is not particularly abstract. To me it falls somewhere between a pop single and a documentary. It came together like a little movie in my mind. Seeing the depiction of it on film had to happen. Maxine suggested Molly for the film and that was just perfect. What she’s doing is very difficult. To mime to singing is one thing, but to mime to dialogue against a beat for five minutes in the pouring down rain over and over again is pretty tough. We did the video DIY, guerilla style over two days, but Molly was exactly the right person for the job. I was really proud of her and I’m hoping we can do some stuff with her in the future.”
What can you tell us about the content of the other stuff you’ve been working on with Maxine?
“The feeling of life as it is right now in the UK – but without falling into the obvious things that might conjure up. It’s not all about boarded up shops because part of the human experience is about hope. Maxine and I have been working during a pretty chaotic time of upheaval and confusion. Us and people like us feel like we’re on our mettle. You can’t just piss, moan and capitulate. You feel like you need to adapt and not be beaten down – while also being realistic and standing your ground. Maybe it’s because I’m very fortunate to do what I do, but the arts and music stand for hope. Without brow-beating people with politics, the great thing about the arts is that you can get your point across in a music more subtle and three-dimensional way. It’s my job to just make good music – now more than ever.”
“Going through weird times requires a belief and sense of faith. We’re not interested in being some doom and gloom thing with shopping trolleys. There’s more to life than that. There are some beautiful moments of what we’ve done, while other bits sound quite industrial.”
So is your own solo album more of a straight up pop record?
“Yeah. You’d know it if you’d seen me with the band on my first two solo records, but it’s a little more emotional, ‘out there’ and dramatic. The lyrics are a bit deeper. It’s mostly concerned with external things but there are a couple of personal songs on there for me. This time around, I had to imagine a society, rather than just report what I see.
“There’s some H.G. Wells in there. I’ve been reading a lot of interesting stuff from the early 20th Century. It’s not quite utopian, but it’s imagining a new kind of society. That’s how I felt going into it at the start of last year. Rather than feeling like it was too bleak as reportage or commentary about what I see outside, it’s kept the psycho-geography of the first two records but I had to reimagine it. I don’t want those fuckers contaminating my creativity.”
The last time we spoke you said you wanted to ‘make a connection with the seemingly surreal barrage of events’. Did you achieve that?
“That does sound like me. I remember talking to you about that. That is what I’ve done. I think I’ve predicted it better than I’ve summed it up. That was at the NME Awards last year. That was a good night, wasn’t it?”
It was. Did you enjoy the strong presence of grime artists?
“I thought it was really good. Wiley is pretty interesting, right? Pet Shop Boys were great too.”
Are you going to come this year?
“Oh you never know, I might do. It’s at Brixton right?”
It is. February 14. We’ve got Liam winning your Godlike Genius Award.
“Ah I can see that. I hope I can come. I went into the studio the other year and now I’m just wondering around blinking in the light. I find myself strolling around this factory on my own at night – but I’m ready to draw a line under it now.”
Did you get Hans Zimmer on the album like you wanted?
“Do you know what? I didn’t. I got up to like 20 tracks and I was like ‘oh no’. We’ll end up doing something this year. There’s a track on there that some people think it filmic and cinematic, but it would have been too obvious to get him on that. I want to get him on something that’s outside of what we’d usually do.
“I’m going to call Hans after this actually. He sent me a really cool pair of shoes.”
“You really want to know? They are champagne sparkle Gucci trainers. The man does not mess about. That was my Christmas present.”
You played on Noel Gallagher’s latest album. Did he return the favour?
“Not yet, because he’s always playing. He’s always on the road. That’s the second time I’ve played on one of his solo records now, so hopefully we’ll get around to working on my stuff. He’s always off in exotic places every time I hear from him – like some enormodome in South America.
“I liked his record. I played on a couple, but the song that ended up on the record is actually my favourite on the album. I was pleased about that, ‘Love Is The Law’. I’ve never heard a rock song like it. It hangs together like nothing else. It’s like a fucking movie.”
When you were in the studio, did you feel like he was pushing himself into a more adventurous place?
“Yeah, before we went into the studio I knew that anyway. We see each other on and off, and I know that he knew he was onto something. He and David [Holmes, producer] were working at every opportunity.
“I knew it was good because he told me it was good. Nothing with David is out of bounds, as long as it feels good and sounds good. They’re a good team because Noel can get a good melody over anything. What he’s proven with his solo stuff is that he’s still writing with the spirit that people love him for, but you can’t really imagine Oasis doing.”
He’s been very vocal about living outside of his legacy. You must understand that as well?
“Yeah. I’ve played a couple of shows with him now and the new stuff really stands up. The audience love it and it makes people feel really good. That’s something that he’s better at than anyone else.”
“Ha! I did. I saw one that was pretty funny.”
Did you see the one about ‘Johnny Marr fighting off a super fan’?
“I did. What can you do? You can sit there looking stone-faced or just enjoy the match. I think I was just like ‘oh, as long as Leroy Sané’ is playing. What do you think of Leroy Sané?’ I was just bending his ear about that.”