Dec. 10 2014 02:32 PM

Former Smiths guitarist moves beyond his storied past

Photo by Jon Shard

Johnny Marr has new goals. You’d think the guitarist for The Smiths would be content more than 30 years into his storied career. He’s not.

After the last quarter-century of lending his talents to bands like The Pretenders, Electronic, The Healers, Cribs, The The, Modest Mouse and others, Marr is finally performing exclusively under his own moniker.

Playland, his second solo release in as many years, came out in October and has Marr making ambitious new plans.

“It occurred to me,” he told CityBeat by phone from the Vic Theatre in Chicago, “that being the best live band around is something to shoot for. And it may seem trite, but to have an ambition when you’ve been doing this for such a long time is pretty good. I wasn’t expecting it, but I take what I do seriously.”

Playland and 2013’s The Messenger have done more than return the gifted guitarist and songwriter to the spotlight. Although recording with Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads and Billy Bragg, and scoring the Christopher Nolan film Inception with Hans Zimmer, were all great experiences for the Manchester-born musician, they didn’t allow him to be creative at his own pace.

“I don’t want to punch anyone else’s time clock right now,” Marr said. “I had ideas for my own outlook and the kind of group I wanted to be in. And as a creative person, if the good ideas are coming, you really need to act on them. I’m not about to go trekking around the Himalayas to find my inner child just yet. And, anyway, my inner child would probably be saying, ‘Write some songs, you lazy bastard.’” 

From his numerous collaborations, production work, film scoring and playing lead guitar in international touring acts, Marr seems like anything but lazy. In fact, he hasn’t really slowed down since The Smiths broke up in 1987.

And while the possibility of a Smiths reunion is highly unlikely, the success of these new solo albums has allowed Marr to reconcile some of the past and his constant association with the massively influential band.

“I’m super-proud of the legacy of The Smiths,” he said, “and, frankly, quite blown away by how popular they still are. I’m more than happy to own those Smiths songs I wrote.

“But it’s also good to know that it’s not just all about that. I play all of the older stuff, particularly the Smiths stuff, as a celebration now. If I was in a place where I felt those songs were propping up my career or my show, I’d just go back to doing the movies or I’d call it a day.”

Luckily, that’s not the case, but by playing a few of them in the set each night, Marr helps to paint a complete picture of his illustrious and eclectic career—one that finds the musician happier than ever before.

Perhaps that’s because he can dictate the pace of his current creative output, but at least some of the contentedness is coming from not having to justify every one of his professional moves.

“It’s been 25 years of explaining myself,” Marr said. “But it seems with the passing of time, I’m beginning to be understood. And it’s really nice to be understood. It’s nice not to have to explain myself for a change. How your records are received is a bit of a crapshoot—like everyone, you think what you’re doing is great. But that’s just validated by the people that follow you. I’m very philosophical about it all, but it’s good days at the moment.”

While it seemed on this side of the Atlantic like nothing more than an impressive collaboration, Marr recalls a three-year stretch when the British press routinely asked why he was with “those bearded nobodies from Washington.”

However, it was his tenure with Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse that may have been the thing that allowed him to fully realize his solo career.

“It was just so intensive as a guitar player,” Marr said. “With Modest Mouse, I got to play the role of an eccentric facilitator and ringer. Taking that around the world a few times and playing so many shows— tour after tour after tour—it was so full-on and intense that it became a road I no longer needed to explore. It was so satisfying, and I had such a great time, I feel that part of my life is complete in a way.

“Ironically, though,” he continued, “if I ever was going to go back and join one band, it would be Modest Mouse. I think I’ll always be able to do something with them.”

Fans of both can only hope it happens again. But it’s hard to deny the ease and joy with which Marr is playing these days. And for an artist who’s never walked a traditional path, peace of mind can only bode well for the future.

“From the time I was 14 or 15,” Marr said, “the choices I’ve made have always been about following my musical instincts and curiosity. And now I’m in the kind of band I would want to go and see.

“I just want to keep my mind on the next load of ideas and explore where they take me.” 

Johnny Marr was scheduled to play the Belly Up Tavern on Dec. 18, but his West Coast tour was canceled on Monday due to an illness in the family. Write to