Ever since he left his legendary UK outfit The Smiths back in 1987, guitarist Johnny Marr has been content to stand in the shadows, strumming behind such luminaries as The The, the Cribs, the Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, Modest Mouse, Bernard Sumner's outfit Electronic, even film composer Hans Zimmer on Christopher Nolan's Inception soundtrack. "And there were some projects that nearly happened," he recalls. "One being doing a record with Yoko Ono — that would've been a really good thing, but we just never got 'round to doing that for some reason. But yeah, I get offered a lot of work. And I've been very lucky to be able to pick and choose what I do."
Marr just received NME's coveted Godlike Genius Award for 2013. And he's still the same whip-thin, steely-eyed, dry-witted, mop-topped Mancunian he was when he teamed up with melancholy warbler Morrissey all those years ago for such definitive Smiths anthems as "How Soon Is Now, "Meat Is Murder" and "Panic," which was particularly memorable for its "Hang the DJ / Hang the DJ" chorus.
And now he's finally stepping into the spotlight — and up to the mic — with a brand-new solo set, The Messenger. The debut album finds him putting his signature Fender Jaguar (plus his favorite Gibson and Rickenbacker) through its elastic paces on the tambourine-shaking "The Right Thing Right," a squealing "I Want the Heartbeat," the spider-walking title track, and the acoustic-chimed childhood reflection "New Town Velocity."
For the past several years, Marr has been residing in Portland, where he actually did a stern-faced cameo on Portlandia at the request of the show's creators. But in talking about the new album, he can't help reflecting on the punk and new wave singles he heard as a kid, back when the guitar was becoming not only his first toy, but an eventual lifelong obsession. While other kids were kicking the soccer ball around, he was inside, growing fascinated, he says, "with the way certain records sounded, how chord changes made you behave, and how sounds came together. All this was, and is, like a science to me — or better, because it had some emotional quality, and it's also, I believe, art as well as entertainment."
For The Messenger, the artist regressed himself to his teen years, back when he was listening to early Television and Psychedelic Furs albums. "So what I did was, I grabbed an attitude in my mind, which was not at all difficult to do," he says of the songwriting process. "And I just remembered the sort of vibe of a band I wanted to be in when I was 16, 17 — that's the best way of putting it. And at this point in my life, I'm not particularly interested in making stuff that you can kick back to at 2:30 in the morning with a bottle of red wine. The mission I'm on right now is to make records that make people feel good in the daytime for four minutes."
Read between the lines on this axeman's résumé, and a single defining trait jumps out: Humility. Or as he puts it, "I don't think that there's anything to be gained from having your name any bigger. If somebody has their name in larger type or is louder coming through the P.A. than me, I don't care, you know? I'm OK with being a team player."