In August, it will be a quarter of a century since Johnny Marr left The Smiths. Since then, he has preferred a seemingly never-ending succession of guitar-hero-for-hire stints with The Cribs, Modest Mouse and others to going it alone. Until now.
The good news for fans of his previous work is that Marr’s first solo album, The Messenger, is a blistering – if slightly unorthodox – listen, with psychedelic krautrock, northern soul and lyrics about toddlers protesting primary school cuts and lottery winners having sex with heart monitors.
ShortList sat down with the 49-year-old indie god to talk style icons, Morrissey’s football skills and ‘having a word’ with David Bowie…
Why go solo after all these years?
I didn’t know until I was actually doing it. My co-producer and I were scheduling when to bring in some musicians and start rehearsals, but my demos were already sounding like the record. I knew how I wanted the basslines to sound, I had a lot of the lyrics worked out, a lot of titles. I was on a roll by myself. So we just stayed on a roll.
Do you feel more exposed as a solo artist?
Yeah, you have to be 75 per cent braver. When you’re in a group you only need 25 per cent of the bravery, which is part of the appeal [laughs].
You’re a stylish man – do you have a killer style tip?
You should always, always have a black shirt. Not always wear a black shirt, but always own a black shirt. And never stray too far away from Clarks shoes, no matter what the prevailing trend. It worked for David Bowie in 1976, and it worked for me.
What do you make of the new Bowie song?
I don’t appreciate that I recorded a lot of my album in Berlin and the cover is a picture of me in Berlin, and then this ‘David Bowie’, as you say, comes along and tries to jump on my new thing. We’re going to have words next time I see him.
Who are your style icons?
Robert Fraser – who owned the Fraser art gallery – Andrew Loog Oldham, Rob Symmons from Subway Sect, Ray Davies in 1966, Aldous Huxley, Jasper Johns.
Can you remember the moment you fell in love with the guitar?
Yeah, I was four or five and there was a little wooden toy hanging in the window of a shop that sold mops and buckets and brooms around the corner from my house in Ardwick. Whenever we walked past it I’d be doing that thing that you see dogs on a lead do, where they just dig into the pavement and don’t move. My mother got so sick of it that she bought it for me. I painted it white and stuck on beer bottle tops to make it look like an electric guitar, and I carried that thing around everywhere. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered there were shops that sold real ones.
You famously banned David Cameron from listening to The Smiths – are there any politicians who could get away with it?
I wouldn’t be unhappy if Barack Obama got into The Smiths. I’d send [our albums] to him. I don’t like politicians, but I like Obama.
You helped to create the Inception soundtrack. Was it hard work?
It was the hardest soundtrack to make when you’re suffering from jet-lag and working 15-hour days. I was hanging in there, nodding over my guitar in the studio with these ‘sleep’ themes going round and round. Nevertheless, it was the best experience of my life.
You used to play for Manchester City juniors – what kind of a footballer were you?
I had trials for Forest, but I wasn’t good enough to be a professional footballer. Some of the guys I played with went on to become professionals and they were really intense. I just wanted to dick about. I could run pretty fast, so I was a tricky winger. Still am.
Have you ever seen Morrissey play football?
Yeah, he was pretty good. Pretty fast. He was a surging midfield general. He was quite imposing.
Did you ever play with fellow City fans Liam and Noel Gallagher?
I kicked a ball around with them in my studio when they were first starting out [in Oasis]. I’ve still got the ball because I asked them to sign it for my kid. They were both pretty good. Noel’s a tricky winger himself, actually.
Have you met Roberto Mancini?
Yeah. I met him the day after City won the Premier League. I could see he was incredibly tired and worn out. We were all in the town hall and they were being presented with the cup. I was elected to go and make a bit of a speech, which was utterly terrifying. He was really softly spoken and friendly. He deserved an award for being so gracious, having clearly not got to bed until 5.30am. He still looked good, though.
You’re a keen runner – are you constantly stopped by fans when you’re out?
I don’t get stopped much when I’m running. I get a lot of beeping from cars, but I usually have my hood up and a huge, stupid hat on.
Finally, are you sick of being asked whether The Smiths will ever reform?
People care more about the question now than the answer. It’s become a thing in itself.
So… what is the answer?
The answer is: you will be the first to know.
The Messenger is out on 25 February
(Image: Rex Features)