Fresh Meat: Johnny Marr

The Former Smiths Guitarist (And Former Portland Resident) Won't Grow a Beard but Might Like to Build a Clone Commune

Editor's note: Welcome to Fresh Meat, in which Portland comic Amy Miller interviews newcomers or latecomers to Portland about their hopes and dreams and the foodstuffs from their native lands that Portland fails to prepare properly. This week Miller talks with guitarist Johnny Marr, who is originally from Manchester, England

I struggled with the right approach to a morning phone call with Johnny Marr. Should I put on pants? Did I need makeup? Even on the phone, chatting with such a perfectly coiffed man can give you some serious butterflies. And this wasn't just any fancy man. This was Johnny. Fucking. Marr. (His words.) The former guitarist of the Smiths. It almost seemed impossible that someone so magical could live in Portland.

Turns out he's recently (maybe temporarily) defected to make a record. In this interview, he said he was looking forward to returning to Portland, but in the meantime he's had to cancel the rest of his United States tour because of a family issue.

But the question remains: In "New Town Velocity," my favorite track from Johnny's first solo album The Messenger, he asks the question "Can I get the world right here?" I wanted to know if Johnny did ever find a way to get his world right in Portland, and if he had any tips for me.

I did not end up putting on any pants. And I gotta say, for my first conversation with Johnny Marr, I think I played it pretty cool.

Amy Miller: Johnny, we miss you!

Johnny Marr: I'm happy to be coming back to Portland. I may come back full time at some point. I've just been on a kind of hiatus. I went over to the UK to do the first solo record and it went really well and I got really busy touring and I went back to record the second solo record. I don't really think of anywhere as home at the moment but I'm intending to move back.

You've said that part of the reason you had to move temporarily was that Portland is too mellow for you to make the kind of record you wanted to make. What does that mean?

It may have a been a superstition at the time, and it was a little bit of me needing to reconnect with my musical values. Doing the first solo record was a little bit of an unknown quantity. I just wanted the security of knowing the kind of musical terrain that I would be dealing with. And in my case it was that kind of post-punk music that I was around a lot when I left school. And my environment really reminds me of those times. I'm not a nostalgic person, but it was just a matter of being practical and I needed to kind of get a little pissed off, which England is very very good at providing. Across all walks of life. In Portland I was just playing too much acoustic guitar for what I wanted to do. I was there so much I was really considering growing a beard and no one needs that.

I think you would look pretty good with a beard!

No, Can you imagine? I'll leave that to the experts.

Well unlike a lot of the other beards I see around town, at least it would be well-kempt.

That's true. And I also don't wear the World War I haircut very well. All my friends do. I love Portland but I felt as though I needed to get a little uptight. Too much happiness is not good for the kind of music I need to make.

I know what you mean. I do stand-up comedy and I sometimes feel like I need to be slapped around by life a little more often than I get to be here.

Yeah, that's good. It's good for your art. I don't mean to be glib about it. Portland does have a sensibility and therefore a kind of sound and an aesthetic that everybody knows is one I really like and is one of the reasons that made me want to move there in the first place. As a member of Modest Mouse, it wasn't a condition of being in the band that we live in Portland. I just loved it and my family loved it.

Something you often say about Portland is how much you like walking around Powell's, and hanging out in the record and guitar shops. What do you think it is about Portland specifically that allows the analog to continue to thrive so well?

Part of it is sheer numbers of people who make that aesthetic and lifestyle choice a full-time thing. That's very encouraging. I think there's a good balance between appreciation of the non-corporate attitude— let's call it DIY—a nurturing of a sort of smaller lifestyle, in personal and in business, and how that works in the modern world. I don't think Portland is just entirely retro by any means. The word that came to mind when I first got to Portland was progressive. There's a tradition of progressive thinking compared to the rest of the United States that goes back to the '70s in Portland. I like the pace of life and the scale. People are OK with living not on a giant scale but still living in the modern world. It seems to suit the attitude of the place, and it's all well and good to have tons of old vinyl shops everywhere, but a city still needs to sustain itself and Portland seems to do that well. You can't have a city in 2014 where nobody has a job. They seem to keep the modern corporate world more inconspicuous.

My own city, Manchester, has an ever-growing conspicuous corporate world, as well as Seattle which is maybe why a lot of people move from Seattle. There's no escaping it. I like to think that so much of keeping that corporate sensibility at bay is down to the people and how people vote and respond to it. By allowing the corporate world to exist and not kick up a fuss about it, it will eat you. It will eat the town up like a monster. And Portland seems to find some way of resisting it.

Do you think part of the resistance to corporate culture comes from having a slightly more educated population? 

I'm not sure about that. That's interesting. There's a sophistication that lies underneath all those beards and tattoos and plaid, to be glib about it. There's a political sophistication and I guess the word is...awareness. And awareness plus tolerance is not always in plentiful supply in the U.K. or the U.S. It's very easy to be sarcastic and kind of smart ass about hipsterdom, and to be cynical or make jokes. Pick up a magazine for people interested in culture, and they're all bemoaning the fact that there are no more movements, or that there will never be anything as powerful as punk rock, rock 'n' roll, etc etc. And yet when a culture of people who dress alike (let's call it hipsters), when that happens and there's been a wave over the last ten years, that like-minded, similar looking, similar thinking young men and women with their backpacks and beards get together, well that's not such a bad thing when you consider what those values may be about. 

It's cool to make jokes and have a laugh but there's a lot fuckin' worse that towns could be about than liberalism and arts and gender politics. I remember what times are like when those things go away, which we went through in the 80s. So what if people are wearing similar haircuts and similar clothes? I try to be around people like that with ok politics and a certain kind of awareness over those wankers that were walking around in the 80s any day.

Don't you think it's also rare for an American city that's sort of dominated by white culture to be so progressive, at least politically?

Thats what comes hopefully of awareness and self-awareness. I'm pretty positive on the way younger people are taking responsibility for their own culture. And I also know that there's a helluva a lot of people who don't have the time or resources to even consider culture and that's fucked. So it's not like we're living in any kind of utopia or anything.

You're a big fan of Portland band The Thermals. Did you know that lead singer Hutch Harris is now doing stand-up comedy? If you took a break from music, what would you do?

I've heard that, yeah! I'd probably try and learn how to build houses and start a commune and put my houses on it. Also I'm thinking of a certain new kind of life-coaching, informed by 80s rock star values.

Like a style coach?

An "indie life coach." Nah, its the whole package, man. Just get rid of all the new age shit.

You could call it "From Outlook to Outfit" with Johnny Marr.

(Marr laughs) Exactly. Just have everybody entirely looking like me and acting like me on the commune. That would be pretty good. I've seen it. It will work. You get to a point in your life where you just have to procreate. Why deprive the world of this rock 'n' roll indie perfection?

So you just want to make a bunch of smaller versions of yourself?

Yeah exactly. Male and female.

If every guitar went up in flames tomorrow and couldn't be remade, what instrument would you pick up?

Theremin. Already doin' it. Already doin' it. I may rock a bit of a theremin jam in Portland. I wanna get really really really good at it though. I wanna be the best theremin player that anybody has ever ever heard. There's some kind of comedic value in there, also some kind of mystical advantage as well. I'm workin' on my moves!

Do you ever play the autoharp on tour? I have no real reason to ask this other than Dolly Parton plays the autoharp a lot on tour and I love her.

No, not on tour no. Autoharp doesn't really translate well to the stage I don't think. It only translates to sitting in the corner of the studio when the rest of the band has gone out to dinner, and trying something on a track that often doesn't work but once in a while might actually come together. I'll tell you when autoharp does really work is Matt Johnson from The The had one of the electronic ones that he wrote a few songs on. And that was pretty cool.

You're coming to Wonder Ballroom on December 10, and the last time you were in town you played The Aladdin. Are you partial to any Portland music venues?

I actually really like the Aladdin. It feels like it's in its own time and space for some reason. I saw Frank Black there, and I did my own show there. It's kinda cool how the audience is sitting down eating pizza. I wasn't expecting that and I quite like it. I think that's the future. It seems like it's like being in 1968 or something. That's sort of my favorite.

There's also that really cool little outdoor place in a park where people have gigs in the summer sometimes. Where's that?


Yeah. Modest Mouse played there. It's a nice space. I'm really looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and turning up the volume and getting back to Portland. I miss it.