Heaven knows, he's a lot less miserable now

After the Smiths' demise, Johnny Marr took 13 years to form his own band: the Healers. Why so long, asks Eddi Fiegel, and are you really on lead vocals?
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The Independent Culture

Johnny Marr is not your typical pop star - neither in person nor on paper. For one of the major British rock heroes of his generation, Marr's career has veered dangerously far from what is considered the norm. As guitarist extraordinaire and, with Morrissey, one half of the creative songwriting team behind The Smiths - arguably the most socially and musically significant band of the 1980s - everyone expected both Morrissey and Marr to initiate new solo projects following the band's demise in 1987. And Morrissey duly did.

Johnny Marr is not your typical pop star - neither in person nor on paper. For one of the major British rock heroes of his generation, Marr's career has veered dangerously far from what is considered the norm. As guitarist extraordinaire and, with Morrissey, one half of the creative songwriting team behind The Smiths - arguably the most socially and musically significant band of the 1980s - everyone expected both Morrissey and Marr to initiate new solo projects following the band's demise in 1987. And Morrissey duly did.

Marr, however, proceeded to spend the next decade playing with an assortment of outfits including Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders, The The and Kirsty MacColl. He also recorded three albums with Electronic - the guitars-with-beats supergroup Marr formed with New Order's Bernard Sumner.

Now, a mere 13 years after it was expected of him, at the age of 36 Marr has formed a new group, The Healers, with Marr himself not only on guitar, but also on lead vocals. The obvious question is: why has he waited so long? As one would expect, the answer lies partly with the circumstances of The Smiths' break-up. Perhaps more importantly, it also lies in the very thing that informs everything Marr has done, from his career decisions to the way he plays guitar: his relationship with the music.

Over the course of two hours, he expounds freely on his hallowed sense of his own musical vocation. What's more, for someone who in the past has been notoriously reluctant to be interviewed, Marr seems keen to talk, his manner a mixture of gentle earthiness and impassioned eloquence.

Whereas most rock musicians will often readily admit to having joined a band primarily to improve their status - particularly with the opposite sex - Marr's reasons were always purely musical. "I was fortunate in that I was able to follow this insatiable drive for music. Because the thing that takes up most teenage boys' hormones - finding a girl - was taken care of with me, 'cause I'd found the girl for me [his wife Angie whom he first met at the age of 15 and with whom he's had two children]."

"When I first started buying records", he continues, "I didn't so much just listen to them as study them. That's what made me different to a lot of other guitar players, 'cause I didn't just sit there and go 'What's the guitar player doing?' and emulate them. I wanted to play the whole record. That's why I play the way I do.

"And that's why I've done what I've done over the last x [sic] years. Had I been told when I was 16 that I was going to be playing guitar for Beck [as Marr did a year ago on an, as yet, unreleased track, I would have just been punching the air. Instead, I had to deal with the outside world going 'What are you doing?' And I'm like: have you ever heard of 'have guitar, will travel'?"

But why a new band now? "It was only when the time felt right. Only when I started writing songs and jamming with Zak [Starkey, son of Ringo and now drummer with The Healers]. It was like, well, we might as well be a band. And also the idea of being in a band felt good."

Clearly, with the exception of Electronic, the idea of being in his own band had not felt good previously. On the break-up of The Smiths he explains: "I just felt that everything was rotten. The relationship between the members of the band was rotten; I didn't like myself very much and I liked the others less. It was paranoid and egocentric, a ship with two captains, each going in a different direction."

Marr was also wary of creating something that might have reflected the more negative emotions that emerged in the aftermath of The Smiths. "There were a lot of feelings of bitterness, sadness, frustration and confusion, and had I formed my own group directly after The Smiths, it's feasible that that would have come out in the work. And I would hate to have that legacy.

"In that particular climate we would have been judged terribly as well, so really it was just unthinkable. Plus, the big thing was that I ended up being in the band that I really really wanted to be in. Which was The The."

Surely Marr's not suggesting that, while in the most revered independent group of his day, he was secretly hankering to be in the, albeit excellent, The The? "Yeah, I was," he deadpans. "The truth is that had Matt Johnson and had I not been so skint, I would have been in The The instead of The Smiths. I met Matt before I met Morrissey and it was just one of those meetings that you have all too rarely in life where you find a soulmate."

Visibly relieved to be no longer talking about The Smiths, Marr begins telling me about The Healers, whose name was inspired by the book The Secret Doctrine by 19th-century medium Helena Blavatsky. (He later confesses that "the bottom line is, I know a great name for a rock'n'roll band when I see one".) And judging by the promo, "The Last Ride", taken from the studio sessions Marr is currently finishing, a rock'n'roll band The Healers most certainly are.

On the basis of this track, which Marr tells me is fairly typical, The Healers are dramatically heavier than anything fans of the Smiths' lighter tunes might expect. Having said that, half-close your ears to the opening fade-up riff and it could almost segue into "What Difference Does It Make". But the reverie is soon shattered by a pounding, driving onslaught of psychedelic, fuzz-fuelled rock. And yes, Johnny Marr can sing.

"One of my ideas for the band," says Marr, "is to do something that's heavy, and go against this corporate musical tide. You find yourself being delivered air-brushed, short, sharp, naff pop, and your intelligence is being under-estimated. I don't have a three-minute attention span and I find it interesting that young people are again going back to music that is just for music's sake - longer songs and darker melodies. I think Nirvana proved it."

Comparisons will undoubtedly be made to Marr's long-standing chums and erstwhile protégés Oasis (Marr gave Noel Gallagher one of his own treasured guitars early on in the band's career and recommended the combo to his management company). Marr may also have to defend himself against accusations of those dirty words "Progressive Rock". This doesn't remotely worry him. "The one ambition I have with this band is to have a set list with five songs on it. We'll be lucky if we get to the third!" he laughs.

Alongside Marr and Starkey in The Healers are percussionist Liz Bonney - a 23-year-old veteran of 12-hour-long percussion jams in Eastern Australia, ex-Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan, ex-William Orbit collaborator Lee Spencer on synth and guitarist Adam Gray.

Marr had also found a singer, but after much discussion the band insisted that he sing himself. "They told me that I had to do it because, although this guy had a classically good voice, what I was doing was more interesting. In the end, I found the notion quite liberating."

Although Marr describes The Healers as "more cerebral than the stuff that I'm known for", those in search of the urgent, shimmering, blisteringly passionate Marr guitar which was such an integral part of The Smiths will not be entirely disappointed. Because the feelings which have always fuelled that passion remain unchanged.

"Music's my way of connecting with existence and the real world, because, without wanting to sound angsty, I do feel like a bit of a square peg in a round hole. I did as a kid and I think I still do now. But I think there's some sort of need to make sense of the world, because otherwise I'd either be too idealistic, too poetic or too cynical to deal with life." He pauses for a moment. "So I do it through music."

Johnny Marr's Healers: Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth (0239 286 3911), Tuesday; Scala, N1 (020 7833 2022), Wednesday. An album is expected next year.

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