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Johnny Marr was 20 years old when the Smiths hit it big with their eponymous debut. He was 24 when he called it quits.
On Thursday, Oct. 31, Marr will be turning 50, which means it will have been more than 25 years since he was in a band with Morrissey. And yet, his jangly, shimmery, space-echo guitar tone—which made the Smiths' sound so distinct and led NME to award him the Godlike Genius Award—is still what gets fans flocking to his shows.
"I have an incredible amount of pride in being part of something that meant so much to so many people. It's been a privilege," Marr says. "But in actuality, [the Smiths happened] so long ago that, in my life, so much has happened since."
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So what has Marr been doing the past two decades? There were some guest guitar stints for the Pretenders, Paul McCartney and Billy Bragg. He formed the techno band Electronic with Bernard Sumner of New Order. In 2007, he helped to produce songs for Modest Mouse's most commercially successful album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. He even wrote and toured with Modest Mouse for that album.
And earlier this year, he debuted his solo effort, the 12-song The Messenger. Each track is catchy, singable and definitely Marr's. "Generate, Generate," or "European Me," for example, still evoke the Smiths' iconic sound, with layer upon layer of sonic guitar trails. "The Right Thing Right" is an in-your-face reminder that Marr was, in fact, the reason that the Brit-pop revival of the '90s happened. (And yes, it's a way better song than anything Oasis could have come up with.)
"My main consideration when I wrote it was to have an energy about it," he says. "Something you could listen to on the way to work, on the way back from school or your lunch break. . . . I wasn't interested in writing a record that you'd listen to late at night, crying over a bottle of wine. I didn't want that."
It also had to work live. "Me and a good four-piece band could play it in a little hallway or theater, and every song would get the place rocking," he says. "So the arrangements are tight, and the lyrics are almost slogan-like—words you could really grab onto."
Marr—who had been living in Portland, Oregon, since joining Modest Mouse—moved back to Manchester to record the album. "It wasn't because I was nostalgic; it was because the things that influenced me, that I wanted to be part of this record, happened there," he explains.
Obviously, it's Marr's most personal and definitive work yet. "The things I'm talking about—because I write the lyrics—are my concerns. I'm not particularly interested in my lyrics being particularly emotional; I'd rather have them be philosophical and conceptual, but musically, you can get emotional. [The Messenger is] the sound of me playing my feelings, expressing what's going on at that time."
For Marr, having old-time fans like the album was a relief. "People who've followed me over the years are liking the new stuff as much as they love the old stuff—which is quite loved," he says. That the album was well-received by critics and younger, new fans was even more of a bonus. (The album went gold in the United Kingdom and placed on the Top 10 charts there.) "I have audiences who were born in the late '90s and go to the shows—they really love the new stuff and started listening to the old stuff because they bought The Messenger. That's really amazing when you've been around a long time," he says. "And if I thought about this all before I made the record, I would've scared myself to death!"
And perhaps the most surprising thing is just how great Marr's voice sounds. "It's really gratifying when people say my singing voice is great. I've worked with so many singers as a collaborator or producer that [when I was recording] I just put myself in their shoes. When I was judging [the tracks on the album], I just treated my own vocals like I would've anybody else's. It's all about technicalities."
As the band's front man, Marr is living up to the responsibility of doing his job right, he says. Luckily, having been in bands since he was 14, he has performed with some stellar singers in his life. "I watched what the singer should be doing, what he does for the band," he says, "and that's just part of what I do."