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Johnny Marr finds a voice in being 'The Messenger'

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When guitarist Johnny Marr entered a studio a few years ago to remaster the entire catalog by the Smiths, the 1980s band that made him and singer Morrissey famous, it was not a nostalgic enterprise.

"It didn't dredge up any personal things," he says. "I wasn't sitting in a darkened room with a bottle of wine, crying tears of sadness or regret or nostalgia. It was a job that needed to be done. It was a technical exercise, and it was bloody hard work."

JOHNNY MARR
• 8 p.m. April 25
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $30; (800) 514-ETIX; metrochicago.com

Marr is nothing if not a hard worker. That's part of why he's been in such great demand as a hired gun in the quarter century since the Smiths folded. Marr has written, produced and performed with an impressive array of artists -- the Pretenders, Kirsty MacColl, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, Oasis -- and joined other bands such as The The, Electronic (his duo with New Order's Bernard Sumner), Modest Mouse and most recently the Cribs.

Marr paused recently during a tour stop in Eureka, Calif. ("With a name like that I feel like I should be doing something exciting," he says) to chat about looking back, looking forward and Marr's proper solo debut, "The Messenger," released earlier this year.

Q: Something's changed with you. You've been a studio guy, now you're on the road a lot. What switch got flipped?
Johnny Marr: The time feels right for me to be fronting my own group, something representing all of my catalog. I don't know why that is. It probably has to do with having been out on the road from 2006 to 2010, really getting a new kind of relationship with not only the audience but with playing live. I've been such a studio guy all my life, like you say -- at least the balance has always tipped over that way. I'm more passionate about making records. But that period of Modest Mouse and the Cribs put me in a slightly different place. I feel different about performance. It helps if you have a decent catalog to back it up.

Q: What about this batch of songs made you feel it was time to put this out under your own name?
Marr: I felt like I'd cut loose and didn't really give a damn about any career outcome beyond fans liking these songs. People who like what I do were liking them. As long as my crew around me, close friends and musicians, were digging it, you know. I also had a great deal of enthusiasm for getting in there this time. I'm always enthusiastic about the studio. It's what I've wanted to do all my life. But I was excited about a whole load of notions backed up in my mind as songs, and I wanted to see if I could turn them into poetry and marry that to some kicking riffs.

Q: You've been a sideman a long time. What have you picked up from people you've worked with about being a front man?
Marr: I don't think I picked up anything directly from other bands, maybe not even from Morrissey. But the experience of playing in Modest Mouse and the Cribs definitely helped me identify today's concertgoer and my own audience. Not just people who like me and what I do, but in the U.S. particularly I got to meet and play for a couple of generations of music fans. I'd not looked into their eyes before. I've been in the studio in the U.K. making records and producing. I realized once I started going out with them that I'd reconnected to what I did back when I was 16, 17. I fronted bands then, new wave bands, had to do it not necessarily by choice.

Q: I've read much about how adamant Morrissey is not to reunite the Smiths in any way, but how do you feel? Are you equally firm against it?
Marr: We're in agreement. I get asked about it often, too much.

Q: Did anything -- memories, sounds, riffs -- from the Smiths remastering project inform what came together on "The Messenger"?
Marr: Oh, God no. That would be tragic. I don't look back that far. At one point the only real personal impression made on me was how young we were when we did it. The second was that hear could hear so much love in the music. I sent an email to a couple of the band members saying that, that I could hear the love in the music. The rest of it, though, was just me being a producer in 2011. My main concern with that project was, sh--, I'd better not mess this up.

Here's a Spotify playlist of Marr guitar performances, from the Smiths and his solo work, plus sessions with the Pet Shop Boys, Oasis, Neil Finn, Billy Bragg, a lovely duet with Jeff Tweedy ("Too Blue") and more ...


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on April 22, 2013 1:00 PM.

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