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.