Everyone’s favourite guitarist has turned vocalist with his new band Johnny Marr And The Healers. Singing? How did this come about? We catch up with the former Smith at the swanky Hyatt Regency Hotel in Marylebone, London
First thing, your hairstyle. Very nice. How long have you had this one?
Yeah, I bought this one about five years ago and it still fits. I think I’ve looked this way for ages.
It’s a lot different from your hairstyle on this (shows Johnny the cover of Electronic’s Electronic album, where he’s got a skinhead).
Yeah, but what year is that? When was that out, now?
1991, wasn’t it?
Well, there you go. I’ll tell you what, if I brought out a picture of you from 1991 you’d look different.
I played the first Electronic album over the weekend. It still sounds great.
Great – I don’t mean to sound surprised. I haven’t heard it since then.
Where did you get your haircut done?
Oh, my haircut. It’s actually the law in Manchester to have a haircut like this. It’s mandatory. If you don’t, you have the hair police come down on you. They wrestle you to the ground and make you smoke two ounces of hash.
How much is a haircut in Manchester?
Well, I have a gentleman friend of mine. It’s my mate, Bruce Maysfield. He’s a genius and a visionary. I’m glad I got to say that cos I’ll get some more freebies. Well, seeing as you ask, I’ve always had friends who are hairdressers from being in my teens. My best friend for years lived with me all the way through The Smiths time and for a few years afterwards, and we’d be sitting around at 2.30 in the morning and I’d look in a book and say, “Ray Davies’ hair was great there,” and he’d leap up and go, “Come on then, Johnny.” So occasionally I’d wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, I forgot about that last night.”
You had a proper big hairstyle as well at one point.
Yeaaahh! How did that come about? I really liked Stu Sutcliffe.
The other Beatle.
Yeah. I was really into his style when I first started off with The Smiths. The whole sort of V-neck and white polo neck and the beatnicky thing with the Ray-Bans. It came from the Stu Sutcliffe Hamburg pictures. And because I was so into his look, I did the systematic fringe then, which wasn’t about The Byrds or Brian Jones. My sort of Hamburg thing. It’s very important all this.
Are you never afraid of trying new hairstyles?
It’s a young man’s game.
We know you support Man City. Do you go to many of their matches?
I do, yeah. I go to the home games when I’m about.
Do you have a bit of a drink afterwards?
I don’t drink.
Not at all?
Has that always been the case?
No, no. I drank plenty when I was younger, but I kind of got bored of it a couple of years ago. I stopped as an experiment almost. I stopped to see what effect it would have on me. So far, I’ve had no downside.
How long has this been going on for?
A few years.
Most of us are afraid to stop drinking because we become very, very boring.
Right then, maybe you should give it a go. I doubt that would be the case, to be honest.
Also, if you don’t have a drink, you can’t sleep because you’ve got too much energy in your body.
Yeah, well maybe you should try getting up at seven in the morning. That’ll sort you out. Maybe buy a running machine or something. I just got really bored of it. I didn’t want to live the same life over and over again. It was like, let me try this for a novelty. There was no downside.
I bet that went down well with the missus.
Erm, yeah. I haven’t really changed very much. The only difference is I can actually get up in the morning now. I’m not going, “Oh God, oh God.” Yeah, yeah. She has a cheeky marguerita now and then. But I end up as a taxi service.
Did you used to have a bit of a runaround when you were younger at the football?
What do you mean, runaround?
Oh God, no. One of the reasons I became a musician was to avoid violence. I didn’t have the stomach for it, or the legs. I never was into that. I went to a few away games when I was younger and that got a little intense, certainly at Anfield one time. I did a fair bit of running away. But the idea of clobbering a stranger is not really my scene.
Do you think the north does music better than the south? You’ve got to say yes at this point.
Ha! Right, yes. Cos I am being strong-armed at the moment. God, talk about partisan. Do you know, Radiohead have just messed that whole thing up. But I’m sure somewhere there’s got to be some sort of genetic tie. We’ll have to investigate that. They’re still doing great stuff.
Well, they’re heavily influenced by Joy Division, so they’re a northern band really.
I like it! Loophole. I like it, there’s a loophole. A resounding yes!
Do you think they put something in the water in Manchester to make it such a hotbed of musical talent? Why not Bradford? Why not Huddersfield? Why not Carlisle?
I think a lot of it’s got to do with the infiltration of immigrants, I guess. There’s a lot of Irish immigrants, a lot of Jewish immigrants, a lot of West Indian and Jamaican immigrants. They would have arrived in the Fifties and given the place a bit of a vibe. I know in terms of the Irish influence – I can only talk about what I know – but I grew up around music all the time. My parents came over with their families in the early Sixties. They were music mad. They loved living in Manchester. I grew up around those communities.
There’s always been a history of after-hours parties in Manchester, hasn’t there, because of the West Indian community, bringing jazz over? And it pretty much followed up to the rave scene.
Yeah. The Northern Soul scene drew people from all over the country to dance all night, and maybe take a five-hour coach ride back, to explore obscure American records, that were only played in that particular place.
Apparently, the reason Manchester got all those soul records was because of the American ships using records as ballast. When they got to Liverpool and Manchester, the records were swiped – nicked!
That’s amazing. That’s lucky for Manchester. I don’t know very much about Northern Soul. There seems to be a connection for me between the feeling of Wigan Casino, just from photographs I’ve seen, to the rave scene. Not very many clothes, very, very wide trousers, with their hands in the air. Dilated pupils, having a really fantastic time.
Of course, you’re not just Johnny Marr who plays guitar – with Johnny Marr And The Healers you sing. At which point did you think, “Hang on, I’ll do the vocals…”?
I didn’t. The band approached me with, pretty much, an ultimatum. I had a five minute mutiny on my hands. Which was great.
You’ve done backing vocals before, though.
Yeah, I sang with Pet Shop Boys and The The, and a few other people.
So you knew you could do it.
Yeah, I knew I could sing. I wrote the songs and sang because I didn’t want to get another known singer in. I didn’t want the direction of the music to change too much. I got given a couple of CDs of guys who were in bands with a, in quotes, traditionally great rock voice. Rubbing my hands and pretty pleased with myself, I said to the band, “We’ve got a front man, it’s gonna be fine.” And we played the stuff, and they were really good singers. The band went off to a café for half an hour or so, while I was on the phone, and when I got back they just hit me with the decision really. I had to be the singer. And I trust them. They had no other reason to like what I was doing other than they thought it was right.
So there were other people up for the job as singer?
There were two other blokes, but I can’t remember their names. I don’t even know if they’re in bands or anything. I wanted to play them to The Healers before I approached them. There were a few days of complete shock, an angel on one shoulder going, “It’s cool, trust the boys, it’s going to be fine, it sounds great.” Then a devil going, “This isn’t what you do, people are going to read too much into it, blah, blah.” I just listened to it and I thought, “Yeah, that’s OK. That’s all right.” And then I was off. Telling people not to make eye contact with me.
Do you think with the current climate with all this Pop Idol nonsense, that it’s virtually impossible for another Smiths to break though?
No. When you say another Smiths, I’m guessing that you mean…
A good, credible band.
A good band with integrity, who are into messing stuff up. I think it’s more likely that that will happen. It’s reached a horrible situation. I’d forgotten all about Pop Idol and the Rivals and all that stuff until you mentioned it. I can’t stomach it. Horrible karaoke on a really mass level. It’s embarrassing, isn’t it? It’s really embarrassing. I don’t know, people seem to like it, don’t they?
Well, they’ll accept what’s put in front of them.
What bands have you been into over the last couple of years? Apart from your own, of course.
I like Lemon Jelly. They’re pretty good. They’re more electronic. Wait, I’ll try and think of something a bit more obscure. Godspeed You Black Emperor! are absolutely fantastic. If you like your music about 18-minutes long with lots of drama and kind of heady. I think they’re happening.
What did you think of John Squire’s attempt at singing?
I only heard a few of his songs. I quite liked it. I was taken by surprise. His voice was a bigger deal than I was expecting but I was really quite impressed by that. I admired it.
I thought he was trying too hard to make a style.
I thought it would be really interesting to see where he goes with his next few albums. He’s obviously smart and talented. It’s hard when you’re trying to break the mould. The situation I’m in, it makes me have a sense of admiration because it takes a lot of balls.
When are you and Barney getting back together to do another Electronic record?
I saw Bernard recently and it was really good to see him. In fact, I spoke to him yesterday morning and we’ve still got a really good friendship. I’d like to get together with him and do some kind of soundtracky thing, just because it was the one thing that we could do and that we never did.
Have you had offers for that before?
Years ago, the manager at that time thought it was a really good idea. I just saw the whole Mark Knopfler headband thing, fiddling about in a studio to a low-key film.
If I was to take up guitar, and I wanted you specifically to teach me how to play, how much would you charge an hour?
With your background, we’ve got to be looking at… at least £30 an hour.
I was thinking more in the region of £200 and I thought that was being generous. I’d throw in a haircut as well.
I need your favourite Smiths and Electronic tracks, please.
Favourite Smiths track would be “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”. When we recorded it, I’d never heard anything like it. Even though I haven’t heard it for years, I know it’s a beautiful song. It kind of gets across all the emotion that was around the band. It crystallises what we did. If I had to play something for someone who’d never heard the band, one record, this would be it. This is the essence of the band. It would be that track, I think. But I love loads of them, obviously. Electronic, it would be “Get The Message”. That’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done.
The guitar at the beginning, the break in the middle, which you’re drawn into, the strength of that sound – a great record. It still gets me going.
I’m pleased, because it’s one of the favourite things I’ve ever done.
Have you ever been too drunk to play a gig?
Not to start the gig. By the time the encore came around, without a doubt, yes. I came off stage a few times and when that adrenalin left me, I was just like a total heap on the floor. I think there’s some photographic evidence of it around.
What clothing label are you into?
Dolce & Gabbana.
Who makes that shirt you’ve got on?
Dolce & Gabbana, yeah. And you can’t go wrong with a good pair of Birkenstocks.
Do you remember Gio-Goi?
I do, yeah.
You wore a coat at Wembley in about – and this makes me sound like a trainspotter – 1991 and you had a coat on that was brilliant.
The black one.
Yes, the black one. With the yellow writing on the back. As soon as I saw that, I went to Manchester, found the coat, and bought it for £100. It cleaned me out for the month. I was so proud of it.
Bastards, they told me it was a one-off.
Mine certainly was – one arm was longer than the other. There were about three in the shop.
Have you still got it?
I let a girl borrow it when I was at college in Derby and I never got it back.
I don’t know where mine is. That was really cool. And the jumpers as well, that was really good.
They had some good T-shirts as well. They still do them.
Gio-Goi was the Donnelly Brothers in Manchester, wasn’t it?
I knew the Donnellys who ran it. When I was about 13 or 14 they lived on the same estate as me.
Do the Manchester acts hold yearly parties for themselves, where 808 State make the cakes, Morrissey supplies vegetarian sandwiches and Mani hosts a hook-a-duck stall?
What do I do then?
What would you do?
I’d probably ferment my own alcohol, wouldn’t I? I’d be on the moonshine stall. Or yoghurt. A yoghurt stall. It’s funny you should say that cos I went to one of those last Thursday. It was Mani’s birthday.
Was MC Tunes there? He’s one of Mani’s best mates.
Is he? Ha-ha-ha! Yeah, but everyone’s one of Mani’s best mates. It’s impossible not to be his mate. He’s a diamond geezer. It was fantastic. I normally avoid going out to places where I meet people where I’ll have the same conversation I had 15 years ago. Yeah, just cos I’ve kind of done it, do you know what I mean? I love seeing everybody, so I wasn’t going to miss this one. It was really funny. As soon as I saw him, he had two magnums of Champagne, and he dropped one on the floor. That’s a lot of booze, man. It completely blew up. I was soaked from the waste down. I was walking around like this, like I had ski boots on.
Did you tell him off for it?
I haven’t seen him since, but he claims he can’t remember any of it, which all sounds a little bit convenient.
What would have happened if The Smiths had signed to Factory Records?
We would have ended up in short trousers, wouldn’t we?
You might have done the England record for a World Cup.
We might have done the England record, yeah. Bloody hell. God, can you imagine that?
That’s not a bad idea. If there is going to be a Smiths reunion – which you’ve probably been asked about 50,000 times…
If The Smiths get back together, it could be to do the next England World Cup record. Genius!
[Does Morrissey impression]: “Let’s score one, and another one, and another one, another one, whooo-oooo-oooo!”
It’s got Number One written all over it. Final question. Come the day when there’s a film made about The Smiths, which is probably just round the corner, who would play you?
Don’t say Ralf Little.
Err… you’ll have to give me some ideas here. Come on, don’t worry, I won’t be offended. Err… Winona Ryder. Yeah, Winona Ryder definitely.
I think I’ll try and hold off the drinking for a bit.
Give it a go – you might enjoy it.