Johnny Marr materializes on the Zoom screen a little bit like an apparition until he’s settled, his camera following his movements as he swings around the captain’s chair in his studio, Crazy Face Factory, in his hometown of Manchester, UK.
Marr can be regarded as practically a mythical figure to those who have long regarded him as one of the greatest guitar players of all time, and the co-songwriter in one of the greatest bands of all time, the Smiths — status that’s a little bit at odds with the thoughtful and grounded gentleman who is dressed kind of like a cleric.
There is a lot going on with Marr at the moment. “No Time to Die,” the Billie Eilish song on which he played guitar, won a Golden Globe last month to go along with its 2021 Grammy and current Oscar nomination. He regularly contributes to high-profile scores such as “Inception,” “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the aforementioned Bond film with his pal Hans Zimmer. And, as he reveals for the first time in this interview, “Top Gun: Maverick” has joined his list of film credits.
Marr’s fourth solo effort, “Fever Dreams Pt. I – IV,” is the first double album Marr has attempted, and it sounds like a musician who has harnessed the confidence of an almost decade-long solo career that has been met favorably by his loyal audience. Marr uses “us” and “we” when he talks about himself and his devoted fans. If their reaction is any indication, “Fever Dreams Pt. I – IV,” which has been teased since September 2021 with a series of singles, is hitting the mark. Marr sums up his aim for the album as: “Me and my audience, what do we want? What would we like to hear? I’ll try and set my hands for that, for us.”
He weighs in on his pandemic-era album, his film score work and how he might become a star of the silver screen himself.
What were your thoughts as “No Time to Die” was unfolding?
When the rumor went around that Billie and Finneas would be doing the song, straight away I thought it was a great idea, but I was surprised. I was expecting a more conservative idea. But I’d done a couple of festival shows with Billie, and I thought she and Finneas would bring something smart and modern with an intense undercurrent. I thought the song was great as soon as I heard it. But, as always in the movies, there’s a lot of discussion. At first the song got overly Bond-fied, which has to happen. Then it calmed down and the strengths of it really shone in the end. The most important bit was how it worked in the movie and that was absolutely spot-on, not the usual, obvious bombast. Everyone involved did a really great job, but my bit was easiest.
You’ve done quite a few projects with Hans Zimmer, but a Bond film is such a milestone, one that most musicians don’t have the option to mark.
As soon as Hans got the call to do the Bond film, he called me first, which is cool, but now that I think about it, he better. It’s not just because of our relationship, but because it was Bond and he thought of the guitar. That was a real buzz. I got in my bit of it quite quickly. The first thing I had to work on was the end, which meant that I know how the film finishes; I’ve seen it 200 times. Then I saw a little bit from the middle for two weeks, and then I saw another bit from somewhere else that didn’t even end up in the movie. At some point, I got a chance to see the whole thing and then I said, “Turn the fucking guitar up.”
Any upcoming film music you’ve worked on that you can talk about?
I’ll tell you, I don’t think I’ve mentioned this anywhere yet, but I don’t see why not. Almost by accident, I guess did the theme to the new “Top Gun” [“Top Gun: Maverick”]. I think there was some issue with how the theme was sounding, and I was around and I have a guitar. It really was as simple as that. I haven’t seen the movie in its entirety.
I didn’t do the score, I just played the theme. Hans had something to do with it because he was a friend of Harold Faltermeyer. Harold Faltermeyer [who did the music for the original “Top Gun” film in 1986] was who I got the music from, but then Harold Faltermeyer wasn’t doing it. But anyway, that’s the only movie news I’ve got to report. I suppose as news goes, it could be worse. I was presented with the thing and they wanted me to make it sound epic. I was like, sure, okay, I can do that!
Any other epic film news from you?
I got asked if would I be interested in acting in this movie that’s being made in England, which has happened a couple of times. I don’t even know what the film is, or anything about it. You know how it is in movies: most things that get talked about don’t get made. This would be me playing some nasty European villain. I could see myself doing that. I might have to start buying cigarettes again.
What are your thoughts about musicians using their platforms to express their political views?
I’m ambivalent about social media. Not that I’m against it, far from it, but I have mixed feelings about it. Free speech does not mean exemption from accountability. From what I’ve seen, it is usually the bullies who bleat on about freedom of speech, and conveniently hide the reasons behind their opinions when it comes to accountability. It’s so complex, and everybody is tying themselves in knots, trying to beat each other in arguments that ultimately are futile and waste energy and add a toxicity to the culture that we’re just getting used to. Insane intolerance is now the go-to and the norm, and it has been that way for a while, in either direction. I can only make sense of the culture at this moment by deciding whether someone is a full-on asshole or an OK human being.
What are your thoughts on the pandemic at this point?
My go-to was to be fairly philosophical. Stoicism has the meditation of absence, this practice where all your perceived hardships — for example, your journey to your job, family members you don’t like — all of them disappear, so you don’t take things for granted and are grateful. When the pandemic happened, I thought, “Wow, enforced stoicism.”
Were you getting a little bit fed up?
No, because was time for me to make a record anyway. I started making this record before the pandemic. I had my ideas and hopes for it already. I had no idea we were going to go into this worldwide nervous breakdown. Had the pandemic not happened I would have been living a life of obsession and isolation anyway. But being part of the world and going through stuff with everybody else definitely played a part in the record. Driving around the streets and it feeling like a 1950s sci-fi movie was not something I could ignore. There was a lot of weird insomnia around the world, a lot of escaping of the century. The consequences of it all will take a lot a long time for us to unpack mentally and economically. If you came out of it unscathed, you were lucky and you have to have some gratitude for that.
How are the circumstances reflected on the album?
Albums mark out big chapters in your life. This one will always remind me of that period of my life with the strangeness of time and the estrangement a lot of people were feeling. The words are to do with estrangement — sometimes from yourself, or trying to fix that estrangement.
The lyrics are more introspective than your usual outward observations.
That was my intention. Some of my peers and friends wait until they have a record to make and then they make it, but I’ve never done that. When I’m done touring, I say, it’s now time to make another record. I don’t sit under trees or walk down rivers or “find myself” in Bali, then four years later make a record about it. This was this was the first of the solo records where I felt a slight twinge of pressure because the previous one was really liked by my audience, and they’re my world.
Your fans love hearing anything personal from you.
The feeling I’m getting from the songs where I’ve expressed my feelings is a good feeling, and the audience likes them, so I need to explore doing that a little more. I didn’t want to be singing about train stations and cities in the sky. I love that stuff, but I’ve done it for the time being. I hope I will never turn into a confessional artist. The idea of sitting with my acoustic singing about relationships is not something I can imagine. But I found myself conjuring up little stories in “All These Days,” “Lightning People,” “Spirit Power and Soul” and “Human,” where a feeling creates some scenario in my mind. I presume that people in my audience will hear it and go, “I know what he’s talking about. I feel the same way. I am also lying awake in the middle of the night wondering what the fuck is going on. But when I wake up in the morning, I have a new resilience or there’s something inside me that is called hope.” I always add a caveat, because you can be as conceptual and poetic as you please as a songwriter, but the bottom line is, is it a good listen?