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Caleb's Bloody Bride

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Johnny Marr: Marr's attacks
Johnny Marr is the only member of The Smiths to have moved on from their bitter, infighting past. With a new group and new songs, he's back on the warpath, he tells Fiona Sturges
10 January 2003

Manchester, one bitterly cold December morning. The former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is sipping on a cup of herbal tea in a slightly grimy bar in the middle of town. It's clear he's a regular since, midway through our conversation, the barman hands him a pile of post. He's a boisterous interviewee, cracking jokes at his own expense, and seems a million miles away from the sour-faced grouch that 20 years of publicity shots would have you believe. Some things never change, though. Marr's hair is still jet black and, over a characteristically kaleidoscopic shirt, he wears a thick cardigan. Well, style was never The Smiths' strong point.

Now 39, Marr has been in and out of bands since he was a teenager. During his five-year tenure with The Smiths he was hailed as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation; since leaving them at the tender age of 23 he's never been short of work. After a brief session with The Pretenders and a stint with Matt Johnson's band The The, he formed the indie-dance group Electronic with New Order's Bernard Sumner.

In the last few years he's played with Beth Orton, Beck, Burt Jansch, Lisa Germano and has toured with Neil Finn. Yet it's taken him until now, exactly two decades into his career, to form his own band, the Healers. So what took him so long?

"I never wanted to do it before," he explains with a shrug. "When I was in The Smiths or The The or Electronic I was never standing at the side of the stage wishing that I was in the middle. I was doing exactly what I wanted. But by the last Electronic album I found I was on a roll with the songs I was writing. When I go back and listen to that record I realise some of them could have been Healers tracks. Even then, I was moving back towards rock music."

Marr says he was aiming for a "melodic, hypnotic yet energetic" sound with the Healers. While this is a fair description, it's a sound that may not sit comfortably with Smiths fans weaned on gentler, more melodic guitar stylings. He confesses that he had to temper his desire to rock out while recording the album.

"Obviously I feel that for me to try and do something that sounded like The Strokes or The White Stripes or The Vines would be incredibly undignified. But neither do I want to repeat what I've done before. I don't want to be the guy who forms his signature sound at 23 and then relies on it for the rest of his career. I would hate to become a parody of myself."

Along with Marr the Healers are the drummer Zak Starkey (offspring of Ringo Starr) and Alonza Bevan (offspring of the abominable retro-rockers Kula Shaker). Starkey and Marr met by chance three years ago in a New York hotel.

"We got into the same lift. I had no idea who he was but we were both in running shoes and, as we discovered, we were both in bands so we already had things in common. When he said he was playing drums with The Who the penny suddenly dropped. A soon as we got back to England we started to play together and I immediately felt like I was 16 again. I felt a real chemistry between us. It was only then that I thought 'It's worth forming a group with this'."

It's not the first Marr project to be a product of chemistry. The Smiths could never have existed without the Morrissey-Marr songwriting partnership, while in Electronic he had Sumner as his foil. Yet, however much he may feel a bond with Starkey, the Healers is still primarily Marr's band.

"I wouldn't have done it without the others but since I write the songs and I sing them I guess that makes me the big cheese," he grins.

Ah yes, the singing. It's not easy to imagine Marr, a man who always seemed so comfortable lurking in the shadows, behind a microphone. For a long time, Marr couldn't imagine it either. "I got hold of tapes by a couple of singers but when I played them to Zak and Alonza they didn't like them," he says. "I think their words were 'these guys are too normal and your voice is weird. We think you should do it'."

Looking back on his childhood, Marr says he was a "quiet and introverted kid" and cannot remember a time when he wasn't listening to music. When his parents moved over from Ireland as teenagers they brought box-loads of American records with them and used to invite friends and family members to their home in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe to dance around to the Everly Brothers. "I don't remember why I became obsessed with the guitar but I was and every year I was given a slightly bigger one to play," recalls Marr. "Getting a proper guitar coincided with my discovery of glam rock, in particular T-Rex. Those two things changed me forever."

I'm surprised to find Marr happy to talk about his days with The Smiths – in old interviews he's seemed reluctant to rake over the past – although since I have already confessed to being a sad, slavering fan it's possible he's just indulging me. Either way, he still adores the music he made with them – "It's stood the test of time. I'm really proud of that" – and it seems he harbours no lasting grudges against Morrissey.

"If you think Smiths fans were obsessive, you should have seen what me and Morrissey were like. We were absolutely in love with what we were doing. We were really high on the band and high on our relationship – the two of us were always walking three feet off the ground. It was an incredible and very intense friendship. Of course it had its down side but it had to be that way because of the sort of people we were and the environment we created. The negative elements were so small and insignificant compared with the positives."

If Marr has any regrets, they stem from the years after The Smiths' split when relations between band members descended into a "silly soap opera" of back-biting and public slanging matches.

"On the occasions where I've been dragged into it, it makes me embarrassed to have been in the band," he says grimly. "They're like a bunch of bitchy schoolgirls who should know better."

The in-fighting reached a head in 1996 with a highly publicised court case over royalties during which Morrissey and Marr were ordered to pay the drummer Mike Joyce £1.25m in back earnings by a judge who, it was reported, had never heard of Top Of The Tops, let alone The Smiths. However, Marr accepted the judgment but Morrissey appealed against it.

"It tied me up for a couple of years while I was trying to make a record," remembers Marr. "It's really hard because it weighs you down and puts you off the whole business of making music. I had no respect for the court case at all including my own side. Morrissey kept fighting it and fighting it and the consequences are still affecting me to this day. The drummer has now decided that, since Morrissey won't pay, he can exercise his legal right to get me to pay Morrissey's debt. It's a struggle to be positive with that hanging over me."
 
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