×

Matt Johnson Talks About Reviving The The, and What’s Next

Except for a 2013 reissue of his classic “Soul Mining” and some instrumental film soundtracks, we haven’t heard much from Matt Johnson or The The — the band that basically is him — since 2000’s “NakedSelf.” He even officially retired the The The name in 2002 after touring behind that last album. But in 2017, spurred by the passing of his brother Andrew, Johnson recorded and released a new single for Record Store Day, “We Can’t Stop What’s Coming,” promised new music, regrouped with several former bandmates and booked his first tour of the U.S. in 18 years, which starts Friday night in Boston. Johnson and the group (above, L-R: Barrie Cadogan, DC Collard, Johnson, Earl Harvin, James Eller) are also the subject of a biography, “Long Shadows, High Hopes: The Life and Times of Matt Johnson & The The,” by Neil Fraser, and a feature documentary, “The Inertia Variations.” Johnson caught up with Variety before the tour’s launch.

You retired The The 16 years ago. Could you have returned as “Matt Johnson” and not The The?
I haven’t been “Matt Johnson” since I was a teenager and I made my first solo album.

What about your brother inspired you to write “We Can’t Stop What’s Coming”?
He was a very important part of my life. He was two-and-a-half years older than me, and we had an intense relationship — ups and downs, surely, but we also shared an aesthetic vision, and had similar tastes in humor, music, film and literature. He was the closest brother, and we had collaborated on The The record sleeves, which added more poignancy. A lot of this too is told through “The Inertia Variations,” as it was an inertia I was going through until that time. Once I had committed to take part in that film, however – doing its narration and such – I think I was beginning to spring into action. I even did two live radio broadcasts for the film, one political forum, and one musical where different artists sang my songs. That task pressured me to come up with new songs to begin with, but then my brother’s illness came about, his health deteriorated, and the only thing I wanted to write and sing about was his situation. That was more relevant to me than singing about something abstract.

You’re known for being quite private, but now there’s a documentary and a book in the works. Why is now the right time to reveal so much?
Experiencing death close up – two brothers, a mother and a father who passed away just months ago; being a father, getting older and more philosophical. I wanted to collaborate with people I trusted. I have certainly been asked repeatedly to be documented. Plus, I haven’t had any books about me until now, yet there are all these books out about artists who are far less interesting.  It’s nice that my kid and other people close to me can read about what I’ve done. It felt right, or it didn’t feel uncomfortable. I’m a far more mellow person than I was years ago.

You’ve reunited The The with several former members of the band — are they going to help you make new music?
That’s a very good question. Coming back after so long away, there was apprehension. My British agent [Paul Boswell] would take me out to lunch once a year and hear how not interested I was! It was only after my brother Andrew died, I watched a cut of “The Inertia Variations,” and saw my oldest son, Jackson, say he was pleased to see me make a comeback on behalf of his uncle – I found all that inspiring. I wanted to make my return more substantial than one single. So along with new music, I began calling my old band members, all of whom were very keen — save [guitarist] Johnny Marr, who wanted to do it but has his own new album and tour.  I needed to be around people I like and feel sure around. I will keep the momentum up with new music after this, but can’t announce that as yet.

Your dad ran a pub called the Two Puddings that was famous London hangout in the ‘60s: The Who and all kinds of celebrities went there.
Yes, many English bands, American blues artists too like Muddy Waters, [legendary London gangsters] the Kray twins. I grew up around that. Ours is an interesting story in this day and age, particularly in Britain, in the post- WWII period, the glory days of the ‘50s and until the Thatcher government when they began making cutbacks against public services. There used to be great opportunities for working class people to be able to express themselves and have greater social mobility. But now, the ruling class has become richer and more powerful , and the working class has gone backwards.

You know this already, but you are pretty much describing life in America under the current administration.
It is sad to me how things have changed under your current administration. I fell in love with New York City, and wanted to move there. But I have a problem with Washington D.C. as it’s a cabal of psychopathic warmongers bound to destroying your country, and turning it into a police state. We grew up very influenced by your culture, so to see it become a bullying country, throwing its weight around, aggressive and making sure others are sanctioned if you don’t do things the American way – it’s horrendous. It’s like the Mafia. They preach free speech, and are, in truth, living a contradiction. I must say, though, Britain is not much better.

Are you choosing songs for your new setlist that reflect how you feel now?
Some of them I must do because they are un-droppable, especially as I am coming back for the love of playing and fans are fond of songs such as “Uncertain Smile.” I needed to be able to strip them down without samplers or sequencers — just five guys playing.

And lyrically? You must be looking to present music that means something to the sociopolitical now. 
Some of the songs rule themselves out because they don’t resonate with me any longer, or work musically. But “Globalize,” for example, works. It’s pertinent. The songs did need to resonate with me lyrically, especially the political ones. I can sing them with real conviction, because the events that I wrote about 20 or 30 years ago are still playing out before my eyes, on a stage larger than mine.

More Music

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • Haim Saban

    Haim Saban Pledges to Invest $500 Million to Launch Music Label

    Businessman, investor and philanthropist Haim Saban, who heads the Saban Capital Group, has pledged to invest $500 million to launch a record label. Saban Music Group (SMG) will be led by music executive Gustavo Lopez and focus on “international A&R, artist development and strategically supporting a 360 model for artists,” reads a release announcing SMG, [...]

  • Dunkirk

    Harry Styles Is the Perfect Prince Eric; Why He'd Rock 'Little Mermaid' Role

    Could Harry Styles be the perfect Prince Eric? One day after the announcement that the One Direction star is “in early negotiations to play the iconic ‘Little Mermaid’ role,” the internet exploded with speculation as to how he would portray the object of Ariel’s affections. “I can see lots of reasons why Harry is perfect,” [...]

  • Plume of black smoke rising from

    Universal Music Files Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit From Artists Claiming Fire Damage

    Universal Music Group filed a motion on Wednesday to dismiss a class-action lawsuit from attorneys representing Soundgarden, Hole, Steve Earle and the estates of Tupac and Tom Petty over master recordings reportedly destroyed in a 2008 fire, the extent of which was revealed last month in a New York Times article. UMG argues that the musicians cannot pursue a [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    New Kinks Music is Underway After More Than Two Decades Apart, Dave Davies Confirms

    The road to reunion for the Kinks has been fraught with in-fighting and bitter sibling rivalry, but despite it all the band has made its way back in the recording studio. Dave Davies confirmed to Rolling Stone Tuesday that he and his brother have been recording new songs and re-recording older unreleased tracks. “This has [...]

  • After Yet Another Rejection, What Could

    After Yet Another Rejection, What Could Be Next for Woodstock 50?

    In the wake of the Town of Vernon’s third rejection of Woodstock 50’s permit application to hold its music festival at a venue in the Upstate New York municipality, one may well wonder what the troubled event’s next move might be. In the hours after the latest rejection was announced, even the optimistic-bordering-on-unrealistic producers sounded [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content