The comfort of strangeness

Age and fatherhood have mellowed many an angry young rock star. The The's Matt Johnson still wants to change the world.
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"What do you think of globalisation?" demands The The's Matt Johnson. "Do people actually care about it over here?" I am pinned to my chair by the intensity of his gaze. He is dressed in black, his jagged, bleached features standing in stark contrast to the gaudy flock wallpaper that surrounds him. I have already listened to his diatribe on the US election ("Auction, more like!"), democracy ("America is one of the most undemocratic democracies in the world"), and how advertising and marketing are sucking the life out the music industry.

"Aah, yes. About the music..."

"I think journalists have a part to play," he persists. "You don't get many good investigative journalists anymore. In America you don't get any at all; they're all soap opera stars. But then there's the issue of who owns the media... "

I'm not entirely sure what started this. It certainly wasn't me. I had asked him to account for his seven-year absence and, somewhere along the way, had inquired where he lives in New York. It turns out that his house is near Wall Street, an address that cannot be good for his peace of mind. It is the equivalent of a vegetarian living next door to an abattoir, or William Hague moving into Tony's spare room.

But then it is Johnson's very proximity to all he abhors that galvanises him creatively. The scenes of urban decay and political oppression depicted in his songs would not ring true if he were not trapped in the middle of them. Besides, it would be too easy for someone like him to retreat to the country to grow his own vegetables and block out the rest of the world. Johnson may be approaching middle age, but he wants it to be known that he is no more complacent than he was at the start of his career.

The The - the band that comprises Johnson and whoever else he sees fit to employ at the time - was conceived at the start of Margaret Thatcher's government. Despite having been released under the name of Matt Johnson, 1981's Burning Blue Soul was essentially The The's debut LP, in which the abrasive effects and disaffected sentiments set the tone for the band's career. But it was 1983's audacious Soul Mining, with its amalgam of African, Cajun and sleek, smart pop, that provided soundtracks to the lives of students and bedsitters across the country.

There have been three albums of original material since then - 1986's Infected was probably the height of Johnson's commercial career - though since the release of Dusk, in early 1993, The The have remained conspicuously quiet. In fact, Johnson has been in New York since 1994: "I actually only went there for four months, but you know how time just slips away." During that time he made Hanky Panky, an erratic album of Hank Williams covers, though most of the time has been spent playing chess, becoming accustomed to being a father and trying to reason with Sony over the renewal of his contract.

"They wanted me to write a more commercial album," he explains. "Naturally, I refused. I'm 37 and I'm not about to start writing hits." After years of wrangling, he eventually gave up on Sony and signed with Nothing/Universal.

Johnson is a man who instinctively feels the injustice of things. He says he has to go to his next interview at London's GLR radio station and suggests I come with him. In the car he says he remembers GLR from the late Eighties as a champion of new music and is distressed over the rumours that it is to become a talk radio station when its name changes (as it did on Monday) to BBC London Live. On air, the presenter has barely introduced Johnson before he's off, exhorting listeners to stand up for their radio station and telling the staff not to give in.

In an era when political conviction is scarce in music, The The may seem something of an anachronism. As Johnson points out, music seems to be all about fashion, excess and hob-nobbing at No 10. But as his new album, Naked Self, underlines, Johnson has always upheld an incisive mix of political persuasion and extreme introspection. The record looks forward as much as it looks back: musically, it is closer to Burning Blue Soul than any of his other albums, though lyrically Johnson looks to the future, voicing his concerns about the environment, consumerism and - yes - globalisation. His words are as grimly photogenic as they were 15 years ago, his voice as piercingly insistent.

But is music still a relevant forum for political debate? "No... well, not as much as it was. Music can never have the potency that it did in the Sixties. We are saturated with music now, and the advertising and marketing industries have diluted it. If there's any hint of an underground scene, they just burrow down, grab it and stick it on an advert."

So why does he continue writing such overtly political songs? "This is the way I've grown up making music," he explains, "I write extreme, personal songs that put things under the microscope. It may make people maybe a little uncomfortable, but it's the only way I can write. We have this monoculture at the moment, where everyone's using the same sounds and sounding the same way. I'm not running it all down: there's a lot of good stuff about. But there's nothing worse than people in their thirties dressing up like teenagers or bands from my generation getting in trendy DJs to do remixes. So in terms of changing, I don't think so. I'm going to stick to my guns."

'Naked Self' is out on Nothing/ Universal