After roaming the globe for a quarter century to briefly aid a dizzying litany of acts, his résumé reads like guitar-hero fan fiction even without mention of Morrissey or the enormously influential four albums recorded by the Smiths during their short career. One of the few truly unassailable members of the modern-rock pantheon—a recent NME award for “Godlike Genius” rather underplays the Manchester guitarist’s standing among contemporaries—his just-released solo debut, The Messenger, finds him thriving in the newfound role of frontman.
While Marr is not, perhaps, the most successful or well-known musician ever to call Portland home, his 2005 arrival in response to entreaties from Isaac Brock felt as much a nod to Portland as to Modest Mouse, and no number of indie-rock stars spotted locally could quite compare to the approval of one who birthed the firmament.
“I was supposed to be here for 10 days, as an experiment,” Marr says in a phone interview. “And we got on a roll.”
To some surprise, Marr lingered around town well after ending his participation in Modest Mouse, and maintained a Portland residence through untenured stints as visiting professor for the University of Salford in 2007 and a member of the Cribs in 2008.
“First of all, you’ve got a bunch of guitar stores,” he says, “and they’re reasonably priced, which is a dying culture. There’s a great drum store called Revival. We were really knocked out by Powell’s. That was cool. I could spend so much of my time there. We’d found that there were a lot of thrift stores—Buffalo Exchange, Red Light—and record stores like Jackpot. I’m not a great one for hanging around bars, but all of these shops I liked quite a lot.”
Local shopkeepers can blame The Messenger for Marr’s most recent absence. Marr returned to Manchester to ensure the first record ever released under his name alone would achieve the proper Britishness for an album whose themes center upon the challenges of modern life within the United Kingdom. Given the often drearily hectoring lyrics—a particular shame considering the prototypical sideman demonstrates unforeseen strength of vocals; less shockingly, the guitar work is excellent throughout—one suspects he was aiming all along for a tone rather the opposite of fun, though he’s quick to defend his hometown and point out the similarities between his chosen cities.
“Because I’m a Manchester musician, over the years I’ve been asked many, many times why so many groups that people really like came from this area,” he says. “I’ve been thinking over the question for a long time, and the weather—although it’s a quite predictable answer—has to play some part. I think indoor culture’s usually quite good for making people be creative. There’s an attitude that comes with people hanging out indoors and rehearsing in basements.”
For the indefinite future, Marr will be playing shows around the world to audiences excited about the new collection of songs and faintly ecstatic to hear the handful of Smiths classics he has been newly performing. In past years, of course, any precise schedule depended heavily upon whichever frontman Marr wished to join, and it’s probably too soon to see if his success at center stage would lessen the desire for constant collaboration. “I plan to come back very soon, but I also like not really knowing too much about what I’m doing next,” he says. “I just follow my musical instincts and guess that in a couple of years it will probably work out.”
When asked if our city might deserve its own album by then, Marr laughs.
“That would be
interesting, yeah,” he says. “With some of the comments I have to
make—and I hope I never complain—I’m not certain how appropriate it
would be for me to write about a country that I wasn’t born in, but,
sure, I’d love to do something that was inspired by Portland. Maybe I
could do a track with the Thermals.”
SEE IT: Johnny Marr plays the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., with Alamar, on Tuesday, April 16. 8 pm. $25 advance, $30 day of show. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.