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Johnny Marr
Johnny Marr

Johnny be good

There are few musicians that have had as diverse a career as Johnny Marr. As a compilation of Electronicís best tunes hits the shops, we spoke to him about revisiting his time with Bernard Sumner, working with big names and constantly moving forward.


Why now for the Electronic Best Of album?

"Thatís a good question. Iíd have been totally ok if it had come out a few years earlier. It was prompted by the record company. They put it to us 18 months ago that it would be timely and could we start working on the running order. So I made a list of the tracks that I thought should be on it, Bernard changed it, and then I changed it behind his back and I won!"

Itís seven years since the last album was released. Was it good to revisit those tracks?

Johnny with Bernard Sumner
Johnny with Bernard Sumner

"Yeah, it was, because Iím always more concerned with what Iím going to be doing next week or next year really. I donít listen to anything once itís finished. Iíve always been that way, even in the Smiths days. By the time youíve run everything through the mill, scrutinised it and heard it over and over again, thatís when you know youíre done, because you donít want to hear it again.

"So Iím a great believer in leaving things in the past. However, over the years, if Iíve been in a shop or a club, and Iíve heard, say, Get The Message or Forbidden City, itís always sounded good and almost undervalued.

"When I started finding all the tracks to assemble them in the studio, I got a little bit of a kick out of it. It didnít sound stale. There was a playfulness about some of the tracks and a joyous aspect that brought back a lot of good memories. Our stuff doesnít sound super-laboured, which is amazing considering how long we spent doing it."

Somehow, Electronic seem to have become Manchesterís great lost band of the 90s. Why do you think that is?

Electronic in 1999
Electronic in 1999

"We were overshadowed by The Smiths and New Order, which is not such a terrible thing, but it is inevitable. The satisfying thing about putting this together is that it does validate what we were doing as a singles band and as a innovative pop group.

"With The Smiths and New Order, youíre dealing with legacy and mythology, and thereís not very much you can do about that, unless one of us had thrown the other one off a building. Unless weíd kicked up a media storm, the music is just going to be the music. There seems to be a lot of great lost records by bands that didnít really create that much of a fuss."

It says in your album notes that you were always in search of the Ďupbeat beautiful trackí. Do you think you succeeded in that aim?

"I either donít do anything because Iím waiting to be excited by something or Iím very excited and I want to make it happen right away."
Johnny Marr explains his unique work ethic

"I think we did, but Iím only able to say that in hindsight, which is ridiculous because it was easily number one on our agenda. That pursuit of the beautiful track is what was going on 95 percent of the time without either of us discussing it.

"Probably the other five percent of the time is what we remember most, which was us trying to be innovative and new, and not trying to be New Order or The Smiths, just trying to do something that had the spirit of our influences.

"Looking back on it and listening to it, more importantly, we were looking for a great intro riff or an outro that made you want to play the track again. Those were our concerns on a daily basis. You can hear it in Vivid, Forbidden City, Get The Message and several others.

Electronic in 1991
Electronic in 1991

"Iím okay with that, but I was probably trying to drag an In A Lonely Place out of Bernard and he was probably trying to drag a How Soon Is Now? out of me, but along the way, we did Getting Away With It, Get The Message and Forbidden City, and thatís not bad."

You worked with so many people; itís staggering the number of big names attached to Electronic. Was that an easy thing to bring together?

"It wasnít too difficult because Karl Bartos, Jimi Goodwin, Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe, people like that are great people and accommodating people who are into what they do. So on a personal level, we were working with people who werenít going to cause us a problem.

"It was informal but serious. For example, if youíre dealing with Neil Tennant, thereís an underlying ambition in the session because he wants to do something great which normally in Neilís case is going to go top ten. Everyone we worked with were serious about their music but not about their celebrity. Cool people, in other words, and not arseholes."

Youíve got Karl Bartos on one side and Neil Tennant on the other; was it intentional to work with such different people?

"Yeah, it was, although we had no idea what form that was going to take, because when Bernard and I first hooked up, he was very keen to collaborate with other people, but because I had already done it, I was fine with it but more keen to just crack on with what we were going to do.

"So the collaborative aspect was more driven by Bernard. Particularly as a Kraftwerk fan, he organised the collaboration with Karl Bartos, which went on for quite a long time. Karl ended up living in my house. Typical Bernard Ė he organises it and then I have to be the landlord!

Neil Tennant
Neil Tennant

"Neil Tennant was really important to us. He lit the blue touch paper because it was early days when Neil got involved and Getting Away With It was a serious platform for us. Neil and Chris gave us the push we needed into the mainstream; otherwise weíd have just carried on pretending that we were an acid house group."

So is this the closure to Electronic or could there be something beyond this?

"Bernard and I were talking about doing a movie soundtrack that we could put out as a CD in its own right, if we got the right movie. We did so much stuff that didnít come out. There was a point where we met in our love of Ennio Morricone and instrumental mood music, not ambient but atmospheric music. Sometimes weíd spend several days on things, with the intention of putting it out as a B-side or unusual album track, and we only actually released one of them, Soviet on the first album.

"Thatíd be something that we should really investigate because to me, that would be artisticly valid and thereís where Iíd be right now in terms of the intrigue of working with Bernard. Weíve done the modern pop thing and Iíd like to do something that was artistically not obvious."

Thatís something that youíve pursued throughout your career, right up to the fact that youíve just been working with Modest MouseÖ

"Yeah, Iím a mixture of impatience and laziness, which is a weird combination. I either donít do anything because Iím waiting to be excited by something or Iím very excited and I want to make it happen right away.

Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse

"Thatís something thatís informed my whole career, even before The Smiths. I was always forming groups and once Iíd absorbed and played and taken a sound to a logical conclusion, Iíd get stirrings and ideas about other things that I want to investigate. Thatís what happened with Electronic and more recently Modest Mouse.

"I couldnít stand the idea of trotting out things that sounded anything like what youíd been doing ten years ago. In the Electronic days, I had that agenda to a fault. There was points when Iíd just erase stuff if it sounded too much like The Smiths, which is admirable but not entirely necessary."

With such a forward-looking view, are there any bands that you now miss?

"I miss Talking Heads and the Go-Betweens and Public ImageÖ oh, and Magazine. But if you asked me this next year, itíd be four different bands. But if you listen to those groups now, they sound really on the money and were very of their day, not looking over their shoulders trying to be the Kinks!

"That super-derivative retro vibe in the UK has really run its course and got very boring now. Iím very positive about the UK music scene, thereís nearly always good stuff happening, but weíre going through an uncomfortable period where weíre constantly looking back. Bands now are being compared to Franz Ferdinand all the time. Itís all Ďthe new Killersí or Ďthe new Franz Ferdinandí, and I think weíve got to get away from that.

"Itís possibly the fault of the bands. Iíd usually tend to blame the media, but if youíre wandering round sounding like Joy Division crossed with Leo Sayer, then you canít complain if thatís the label thatís stuck on you. And when I say it, that means itís really bad!"