Many artists are lauded for their debut album but hit a stumbling block when it comes to the follow-up. Not so Johnny Marr, now frontman of his own band after years spent playing guitar with acts such as The Smiths, The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
Three decades writing, recording and touring with others have taught the 50-year-old Mancunian not to fall victim to the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome.
Instead of lapping up the plaudits for first solo record The Messenger, which came out last spring, he was straight back to work crafting new songs.
“I started writing it almost as soon as we started touring,” he says of his new album, Playland, out now. “There was not any plan to do that, it just worked out that way.
“I knew the best time to record a band is when they are playing live a bit. They’re tight as a musical unit and tight as a personal unit. We went out on the road to promote The Messenger and the songs kept coming.”
One song, The Trap, he already had in unfinished form, he admits, but Dynamo and Easy Money, the album’s standouts, came “pretty much as soon as we started touring”.
“It was like I sometimes literally had the sound of the audience and the sound of the band ringing in my ears on the tour bus at night. It was a good feeling. It’s a good time to write if you can do it.”
While he appreciates why some artists flounder on their second albums – “the reason it’s difficult is because the band is sitting in hotel rooms wondering what to write” – Marr has discovered “the trick is to spend as little time as possible” idling away the hours. “You need to try to stay inspired. Luckily I was able to do that for Playland. The energy of the shows and the energy of being on a tour bus going from city to city inspired me rather than tired me out, so we did demos and I was writing between festivals, that kind of thing.
“When we came to record the album proper we knew the songs fairly well. We’d played a few of them in South America – Candidate, Little King and Boys Get Straight – and they’d gone down very well. All of that adds up to a certain enthusiasm about what you are doing. For the kind of music I make, it’s pretty handy.”
With second albums by favoured bands such as Talking Heads, the Buzzcocks and Wire in mind, he says: “I know when inspiration is worth capturing. I didn’t see any reason to go away.”
Though not a concept album as such, many of the songs on Playland seem to be about escaping. “I look around and make assumptions about a lot of things for songs,” he says. “Essentially songs are likely to start off as theories you hope will develop into subjects that you hope are poetic and interesting enough to turn into a kind of song. For Playland I wanted to develop a couple of things on The Messenger about cities and towns and the preoccupations of us all while we’re running around often quite manically chasing things.
“It was important for me to start the record with the sounds of words of escapism and euphoria and ecstacy which Back In The Box is kind of about, as is Playland, in a way. I’m celebrating the culture as much as commenting on it. I don’t think I would ever criticise or point fingers because that would bring the music down.
“If I had to put a concept to what the album is about it’s the idea of everybody chasing escapism through consumerism and sexual gratification and chemical and alcohol gratification and money and whether what we are escaping from, like for instance tensions, anxiety, loneliness and boredom, is caused by the things we are chasing. Trying to get 300 or 400 quid together for a new piece of technology, say a phone, might be the thing that causes stress in the first place.
“It’s the same with any kind of consumerism, wondering why we can’t be with ourselves for five minutes. But, at the same time, I like the culture. Like everbody else, I’m fascinated by it. We live in fascinating times. It’s not about bringing everybody down with my polemic. It’s also about words that sound like the music and vice versa. Few songs deal with the down side of what I imagine to be going on in this country. When we do have to look behind the music we present to each other and can be ourselves.”
He quickly corrects my assertion that Easy Money is about greed. “It’s about lampooning the precoccupation and sometimes unquestioning chase of money which is why I wrote it as a commercial pop song – well, I tried. I like the idea of talking about money and commerce and expense to the backing of an upbeat, catchy thing that people people might be dancing around to in Wetherspoons or a fun pub on a Saturday night.
“At the same time it’s important to acknowledge that there are a lot of people around for whom money is not something to be lampooned. And to have a dig at the Government for their tuition fees is always a good thing.”
His new single The Trap, he says, is “about deception and double speak and manipulation in relationships – it’s not so much about society”. “Maybe I was p***ed off with somebody,” he chuckles.
Having played dozens of gigs in the past 18 months, Marr agrees it’s where he now feels happiest as a musician. “It wasn’t always the case – far from it,” he says. “I spent a lot of my time in recording studios. That was a great thing. As a youngster the process by which records were made was a mystical occupation to me. That has not exactly changed but I had many years of exploring and experimenting with that with various degrees of satisfaction.
“Whatever band I was in I would quite happily not go on the road. The day an album was finished I was always into going into the studio and doing another record. It was one of the main reasons why I did not stay in some bands.
“It’s an unusual trajectory. Nearly every musician bar none wants to go on stage and do their thing. My interest in recording was really deep and really obsessive. I spent a lot of the late 80s and early 90s learning about recording – that was in Electronic. Now it’s completely the opposite; I’m almost impatient when I’m in the studio now. Playing shows is an amazing thing, travelling is an amazing thing, but the actual night of being with an audience, getting to celebrate loud music and hopefully enjoy new music, makes you want to play the old songs too.”
He feels “very lucky” to have come to the realisation that “you can be an artist 24 hours a day and a performer as well – they’re not mutually exclusive”. He says he’s “got a real respect” for performance. “No one has a divine right to be on stage. When you are there you should do something pretty good on it.
“The shows are getting on for two hours long these days. Everybody is pretty exhausted when it’s all finished. I hope the audience get what they came for from me.
“I’ve had not complaints so far but...” he smiles, “it is England.”
One venue that Marr has particular fondness for is the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds. He’s played there three times in the last 18 months. “It’s no surprise to me that the Brudenell is so loved,” he says. “Places like that are getting more and more unique. A lot of why it’s so good is that word ‘vibe’. It’s run by people who really care about gigs and care about people and are not in it to exploit people. They’re in it for the music. Because of that it’s created its own culture.
“The audience like a certain kind of music, I think. It’s kind of away from the mainstream. I’ve seen a couple of shows there and the vibe is really special so I liked starting my tours there in the last couple of years.”
Marr’s forthcoming concert in Leeds will be at the O2 Academy, where he last played with his old band The Cribs. The guitarist might have formally left the group three years ago but he still speaks fondly of Ryan, Gary and Ross Jarman.
“The Cribs are like family to me,” he says. “Even though I’ve been in many bands they are the only band I could say that about. I’ve never not liked anything they do. Musically they’re always spot on. Their ethos and philosophy is the same as mine.
“Sometimes people would try to make something of the fact that we come from different times but that was completely irrelevent. The things I have in common with the Jarmans are very important to all of us. Me coming from the 80s and they coming from the 2000s is irrelevant. It’s what happens when you plug in and why you share a way of life.
“I would surprised if we did not get around to doing something together again.”
It was recently announced that Marr had contrinuted to the new album by Bryan Ferry. Avonmore is set for release in November.
“Bryan is easy to work with,” says the guitarist. “He’s very encouraging and enthusaistic about being in the studio. He is very interested in working with a lot of good musicians. Whenever I’ve worked with him there have always been people like Nile Rodgers or Marcus Miller or Andy Newmark or younger musicians too such as Mani or Jonny Greenwood. It’s not just luminaries. He’s got very good taste in musicians. I was inspired to be part of that. He was a big inspiration to me when I was starting out. I was really happy to be involved. We wrote a song together called Soldier of Fortune.”
Marr adds he thinks Ferry is in good voice at this point in life, comparing his distinctive tones to that of a character actor. “In some ways he’s maybe like a more glam Leonard Cohen who can dance,” he quips.
This feverish burst of recording and touring has meant Marr has had to put his planned autobiography on the back burner. “I’ve been thinking about it and making notes and colelcting ideas for it. After the next phase of recording and writing I’ll get down to do it before I lose interest,” he says.
“I’ve got a couple fo friends who have done really good jobs of writing their own stories – Nile Rodgers and Andrew Loog Oldham. They give me a little nudge every now and again. They’re difficult guys to say ‘no’ to. I’m not going to say ‘no’ to Andrew Loog Oldham. You tell him!” he laughs.
Johnny Marr plays at O2 Academy Leeds on October 29, 7pm, £27. www.ticketweb.co.uk