Johnny Marr on Making Big Noise With an Old-School Attitude

Johnny Marr (front) performs at the Gothic Theatre on Thursday, May 16.
Johnny Marr (front) performs at the Gothic Theatre on Thursday, May 16. Niall Lea
During guitarist Johnny Marr’s tenure with The Smiths in the ’80s, he wasn’t too keen on touring. He says he was more enthralled with making records and wanted to be a studio rat, which explains why he ended up recording guitar tracks on so many albums with different acts, like the Talking Heads, the The, Electronic and Pet Shop Boys, following the Smiths' split in 1987.

Now 55, Marr, who started playing in bands as a teenager, says it wasn’t until he started touring with Modest Mouse in 2007 that he really started to like performing live again.

“Back then, Modest Mouse were on the road all the time,” Marr says. “There were lots and lots of shows between 2007 and 2010. I got to play to so many people I wouldn’t have normally played in front of. We were doing well, and it was just part of the band’s culture to live on the bus. The lifestyle really suited me because I just kind of flipped and got really into…I guess the quickest way of putting it would be straight edge. But in a way that was really about making me a better musician and more intense musician and more full-on.”

Marr had given up booze, was a vegan at the time, and was running around sixty to seventy miles a week, sometimes running fifteen miles before each show with Modest Mouse.

“Often the media asked me about it, like it's some kind of abstinence from some drink-and-drug ’80s hell, but it’s not,” Marr says. “It was just about really getting my attitude even more intense. That was a really interesting time. I’ve sort of kept that philosophy up, although I don’t run fifteen miles before shows — far from it. But I still get out and run around the cities and stuff whenever I can. All of that, to me, is about making the shows and my performance and making me more radical, really. Not less radical.”

Before taking his band out on this current American tour in support of his third solo album, Call the Comet, Marr wanted the act to rehearse enough so that it played tight before getting on the plane.

“Then it’s just all about being in the moment and the performance, and you’re not thinking about chord changes and sounds and the lyrics or anything like that,” Marr says. “You can try and just make something happen, really, if you’re not thinking about things you try and remember.”

When making Call the Comet, which he says is a bit more dramatic and experimental than his previous two solo releases, Marr knew he wanted the songs to sound really good in the live setting. On this tour, he and his band are playing nearly every cut from Call the Comet, along with Smiths songs (including “Bigmouth Strikes Again, “The Headmaster Ritual,” “How Soon Is Now?”) and a few Electronic songs over the course of a two-hour show. Marr says that playing the new material has taken on a new dimension in the live setting.

“And that’s purely because of the songs,” he says. ‘Part of it is that me and the band have been playing together so long now. But I think it’s mostly about this new material.”

James Doviak, who co-produced Call the Comet, is part of Marr’s quartet on the road to play second guitar and keyboard. Although there are four musicians on stage, Marr says it sounds more like a six-piece, and they incorporate technology on the fly.

“We’re like a cross between a brand-new modern-rock band with today’s technology, but with the attitude of a late-’70s new-wave group,” Marr says. “That’s how it’s turned out and how I wanted it. “

He says they make a big noise with an old-school attitude, and they don’t necessarily play everything the same way every night.

“We can react to the feeling in the hall in terms of tempos and intensity and dynamics and all of those kinds of things,” Marr says. “That’s what makes playing in a rock band fun for me, among some other things. But that’s when you feel like you’re really playing — provided, of course, you’ve got songs that you get off on.”

An Evening With Johnny Marr, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 16, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood, $19-$25.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon