Musician Johnny Marr has worn many hats throughout his three-decade-long professional career. Godlike Genius. Portlandia guest star. Morrissey handler. And with his recently released album, the critically acclaimed The Messenger, the ex-Smiths guitarist takes on possibly his most daunting role yet: solo artist. To mark the start of Marr’s U.S. tour (which began at the Coachella festival), Vulture chatted with the amiable, humble musician (“Bizarrely, I’ve always regarded the fans as being somewhat like me,” he says) about everything from the first song he ever wrote to the projects he sees in his future.
The Messenger is technically your first solo album. And you’ve indicated it’s the first of three. Why three?
I’d like to think I’d do more as I ride off into the sunset. But I can’t see myself doing any less than three. I don’t like to make any big claims, but two just doesn’t do the job enough. I wanted to be realistic.
Does that mean you’re retiring after these solo albums?
Oh, no, I’m just being poetic. You think it’s going to go on forever — that’s what I meant by sailing into the sunset. But I don’t plan to finish. If anything, I’m inspired by the artists that I like, particularly painters who … I want to work up until the day I die. Or maybe the day before. Have a day off before I die.
Which painters inspire you?
Uh, well, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns — the obvious people, I guess. I very much like people from the sixties: David Hockney and Lucian Freud. I like Susan Hiller. She did some really interesting things. I like the example they set: that you do work come rain or shine, because that’s what you do.
You recently picked up NME’s Godlike Genius award. Has it gone to your head yet?
[Laughs.] Well, the thing about the Godlike Genius award [is], it’s both touching and somewhat irreverent at the same time. So that’s sweet and funny. Some awards ceremonies, regular people can’t relate to you. You have to be a billionaire to even be involved. The Godlike Genius one is the cool one, really.
You’ve said in the past that you feel great anxiety playing live. Does that get worse as a solo artist?
That kind of disappeared a while ago, I think. I was very, very young and did a lot of shows. It’s exciting and I wanted to do well and I never phoned it in. Now I just have the desire to make a show better than the night before. Sometimes smaller shows are difficult ’cause you can see the lights in everybody’s eyes. We did a TV performance a few weeks ago, and about 100 people were there. That was almost too intense. But the bigger the show, sometimes, the more abstract it gets. I don’t like being too far away from my bandmates. Nowadays, you can take a taxi to the bass player.
Everyone obsesses over why the Smiths broke up. But can you tell me about one of your happiest memories in that band?
Tons of them! When we gate-crashed Glastonbury festival ’84 or ’85 — I can’t remember the year, but I remember the situation. Glastonbury was very different then, of course, but it was nevertheless an alternative festival. And we were outsiders. We’d had a couple of hits by then, but just kind of stood out on our own. I felt part of something new. It’s easier to be alternative at the Grammys. But to be alternative in a field full of English snobs was quite a feat. There were many, many amazing times that filled me with pride like that.
And all of a sudden, your following became fanatic. And legion.
When we gained success, we had that thing going, like a lot of bands did, where people jump out in front of cars and pull you off the stage. They climbed on the outside of hotels to try to get into windows. Those kind of things. Used to go on quite a lot, really. That was kind of freaky, especially because I was so young.
And now you’re going to be 50. How do you plan to celebrate your birthday?
Probably in a tour bus between Nottingham and Liverpool. [Laughs.] I’m not freaked out by getting to 50. I never really paid too much attention to those things. But it’s also because I’ve been able to mark out periods of my life with records and bands and those kinds of things. That’s always what I’ve wanted. I have to say that playing the Inception soundtrack with an orchestra at the Cannes Film Festival was probably a bigger kind of marking point in this period of my life. I’ll remember that more than a day on the bus with some candles. As long as people [book] me decent gigs, that’s all I’m about, man.
You worked with Hans Zimmer on that Inception soundtrack. He’s currently working with Pharrell Williams. Have your three paths ever intersected?
No, but that sounds interesting. That would be a good situation. We’ve [wanted] to do something again. That’s the only thing I’d be interested in doing besides my own group. Hans contacted me to score Inception — with me in mind! — and that was an incredible thing. When I got to do it, he gave me total freedom to put as much of my personality into it as I could. Hans is an intellectual in the best possible way, but is soulful like any rock musician. That’s a completely winning combination.
Has your Portlandia cameo opened any acting doors?
Doing Portlandia was really good. I didn’t want to be that guy who messes it up for everybody else by cracking up. Fred and Carrie are obviously hilarious, pretty much all the time. But they made it very easy for me. And the situation was pretty funny from the word “Go.” If something came around that I was able to do, sure, why not? I’d do more.
Does that show accurately capture your experience living in Portland, when you were a member of Modest Mouse?
Pretty much, to be honest with you! I wish more cities were more like that. Their mayor’s kind of cool, and you’re allowed to ride bikes through the library.
I wanted to end this interview with how you got your start as a songwriter. Can you tell me about the first song you ever wrote?
[Laughs.] The first song I ever wrote! I was 10, and I wrote it for a band — my friend was the singer. The chords were D to D minor to F to G. They were the only four chords I knew at that time. So naturally they became the song. And then I had a few other songs with those same chords, but in a different order. I hadn’t worked out that I should do it in a different tempo too. So I had a bunch of songs with the same chords. The song was about leaving school, funnily enough.