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Still Pissed Off After All These Years

Prisoner in disguise: Matt Johnson of The The.

Matt Johnson, the man behind the entity dubbed The The, is a good quote -- and he knows it. "I'm one of the kinds of people who journalists like," he says, "because I'm always putting my foot in it and speaking my mind."

How so? Most performers who've just issued their first album on a new label are prudent enough to avoid slagging their imprint's parent company. But not Johnson, 38, who goes after Seagram, owner of the nothing records subsidiary that just put out Naked Self, The The's latest, with the enthusiasm of a starving dog in a butcher shop.

"The conglomerization of the record industry is very worrying, and Seagram is one of the worst offenders," he declares in a British accent thick with indignity. "I don't think it has any business running a music company, to be honest; they should stick to drinks. The music industry is unlike an industry where you're dealing with inanimate objects, because you're dealing with people's feelings on both sides: the people who create the music and the people at the record company who really need to be enthusiastic about it in order to bring the best of it to other people's attention. It's not the same as selling cans, drinks or cars, and I don't think you can go about it in the same way -- and the rumors that I hear through the industry bear me out. In talking to a lot of people who work for them, the dismay amongst the employees is shocking, and the morale is terrible."

Such comments call the phrase "career suicide" to mind. But despite his trademark disregard for self-censorship, Johnson, now living in New York City near Wall Street, has managed to maintain a nice standard of living in a notoriously fickle profession for around two decades -- a far greater span than the ones enjoyed by uncounted musicians who assumed that the road to longevity was paved with the principles of sucking up and playing by the rules. It'd be nice to think that quality had something to do with it, especially considering that Naked Self is quite a potent offering. But odds are good that Johnson has survived in large part because of his single-minded persistence and a passion that has hardly flagged since the early '80s. The majority of angry young men who emerged during the original punk and new wave era have either mellowed substantially (Elvis Costello) or turned into parodies of themselves (John Lydon, who's now trotting out his Johnny Rotten shtick for the amusement of aging VH1 viewers). Johnson, however, still seems to harbor a bottomless reservoir of resentment and anger. Even the popularity of innocuous teen pop riles him up.

"There's so much dross out there now and it's shocking that they can get away with it," he says. "I can't believe the tolerance level of the general public. Maybe they're starting to turn it off -- I don't know -- but I'm surprised it's taken so long for something to come along and blow this stuff out of the water. Because it's enough to drive you around the twist."

At the same time, Johnson takes pains to leaven his inveterate misanthropy with the occasional upbeat remark. When he refers to himself as an "optimist," he instinctively pauses to allow for the laugh he knows this assertion will prompt. But he repeatedly argues that the obstacles to creative expression endemic to the current music environment actually present artists with wonderful opportunities (he praises the DIY approach to commerce associated with Frank Zappa and Ani DiFranco) and acknowledges in an awkward but sincere manner the impact on him made by his son, Jack, who's three.

"It just opened me up," he says. "The whole experience of seeing your child born touches you in ways that you can't even imagine. It's not something that can be contrived, and it really affected this album."

Don't worry: Naked Self isn't a collection of marshmallowy lullabies for the pre-toilet-training set. The disc, built around a support crew consisting of onetime Iggy Pop guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, MC900 Foot Jesus drummer Earl Harvin and studio pro Spencer Campbell, is overwhelmingly dark and foreboding, with plenty of jagged guitar noises and doomy tempos complementing Johnson's meditations on urban angst ("Boiling Point"), ennui ("Shrunken Man") and exploitation ("Swine Fever," which kicks off with the inspirational lines "Fee fi fo fum/Smell the blood of a gullible bum/Brain dead bored bought into the fraud/Bigger! Harder! Faster! More!"). And while the three songs Johnson wrote for Naked Self following Jack's arrival on the planet are more melodic than his other inventions, they won't cause many listeners to compare him with Little Mary Sunshine. "Soul Catcher," for instance, includes the verse "I can barely face it/My life is halfway through/And I still haven't done/What I'm here to do," while "Weather Belle" is a snapshot of passing strangers ("It's the first and the last time/That we'll ever meet") that's more dour than wistful. As for the delicate, acoustically driven "Phantom Walls," it juxtaposes outwardly benign advice ("Open your heart again/And let the walls dissolve") with sentiments that can be read in a decidedly creepy way, such as "Don't try to run away/Because pain can be your friend." Thank you sir; may I have another?  

Couplets like these have helped typecast Johnson as the Duke of Despair, but he rejects such blanket judgments. "Personally, I find music like 'N Sync or Britney Spears depressing," he allows. "That stuff depresses the hell out of me; I can't bear to have it on. But there are plenty of other people who would say, 'No, it makes me feel great.' So there are always going to be different opinions about any musician or songwriter. But to describe what I do in such a one-dimensional way is unfair and cliched. People fall into musical stereotypes when they're describing people instead of listening to them.

"I've always believed in confronting or embracing subjects, including heavier subjects, as a way of discharging them and understanding them and dealing with them rather than running in the opposite direction or writing about more inane things."

Johnson received heavy doses of reality throughout his formative years; he lived above Two Puddings, a pub owned by his parents that wasn't frequented by many members of the upper crust. He formed his first band, Roadstar, at eleven, and six years later, he placed an ad in New Musical Express that led to a collaboration with synthesist Keith Laws. Together, they came up with much of the music on 1981's Burning Blue Soul, released under Johnson's name, but the pairing wasn't meant to last forever. Soul Mining, from 1983, was clearly Johnson's baby, and an attractive one at that. The album is considered to be an early electro-music landmark thanks to numbers such as "Uncertain Smile," featuring ex-Squeeze member Jools Holland on keyboards, and the eminently catchy "This Is the Day."

Infected, The The's second platter, hit stores three years later along with an album-length video that further established Johnson's cult status and eye for talent; the disc's highpoint is "Slow Train to Dawn," a duet with Neneh Cherry. That was followed by 1989's Mind Bomb, on which Johnson was teamed with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the 1991 EP Shades of Blue, the erratic 1993 CD Dusk, and 1995's Hanky Panky, a completely unexpected batch of Hank Williams Sr. covers that no doubt thrilled executives at Johnson's longtime label, Epic. The suits were even more dismayed by Gun Sluts, a salvo Johnson describes as "quite obscure," and when they asked him to come up with something more commercial, he walked out instead. Ten months later, he signed with nothing records, whose guiding light, Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor, is an unabashed The The fan; in an August 1999 press release, Reznor said, "Matt Johnson's music was one of the main reasons I began working on Nine Inch Nails. The passion, the honesty and the nakedness of his work opened doors of possibilities in my head."

So why did Johnson decide to temporarily shelve Gun Sluts (he plans to make it available on his own label, Lazarus, in the next year or so) and record the more linear, song-oriented Naked Self for the folks at nothing? Didn't he leave Epic precisely because he wanted to avoid compromising? Although Johnson doesn't explicitly acknowledge this point, he makes it clear that his decision was strongly influenced by the merger mania afflicting the music biz.

"The truth of the matter is that the marriage between Universal and Polygram [the labels that encompass nothing records] has been a disaster -- so what would be the point of letting them put out an album like Gun Sluts?" he asks. "It's hard enough with Naked Self. Look at the problems they've had with other artists. Beck's album [Midnite Vultures] didn't do what it should have done, and neither did Nine Inch Nails's album [The Fragile]. So with something like Gun Sluts, which I own -- I redid it when I was between contracts -- I'm better off putting it out myself and dealing with my audience directly. There's nothing on it that would ever be played on the radio, so there's nothing that a major label could offer for the record that would make it worthwhile."

Of course, this thesis assumes that Naked Self (which contains one Gun Sluts cut, the fragmentary, feedback-drenched "Diesel Breeze") has a reasonable shot at garnering significant airplay -- and in today's Christina Aguilera-dominated universe, that's a real stretch. But Johnson isn't ready to surrender just yet.  

"I just cannot understand why everybody accepts that this is the way things are and the way they will always be," he announces. "I had an argument with the chairman of Polygram in the U.K. about this a couple of weeks ago. He's an old friend of mine, and I told him, 'It's insane that you're just putting up with this.' And he said, 'Well, the market, the market, the market...' But if you apply that argument historically, then you never would've had a Bob Marley or a Kate Bush, who achieved great success around the time of punk but didn't sound punk at all.

"It's incredible to me that there are people at these companies drawing massive paychecks who don't have an ounce of creativity or foresight, and who think they're doing their jobs if they sign more boy bands. You can guarantee that if by some fluke, a track from my album got on the radio and did really well, they'd be looking to sign hundreds of The The soundalikes -- not that they'd probably find any of them."

In the interim, Johnson isn't sitting around waiting for fate to smile on him. "I know a lot of musicians who've become very bitter about the way their careers have gone and have jacked it in -- and if I didn't love what I'm doing, I'd jack it in myself. But I have a different definition of success than a lot of people. Obviously, I'd like to sell a certain amount of records, and if that means I have to go out and tour all the time, I'll gladly do it. Because when you do, you get to play with tremendous musicians and connect with a lot of people -- and when they come up to you afterward and tell you how much a song means to them, it's fantastic.

"The record companies can't stop that," he adds, "no matter how hard they try."


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