Know that game where you’re asked, “If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?” If you changed “have dinner” to “be in a band” and then actually did just that with your top 15 picks, you’d be Johnny Marr. The guitarist and singer-songwriter has been a member of The Pretenders and The The; he’s worked with Modest Mouse, Paul McCartney and Beck; he’s collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys, Jane Birkin and Talking Heads.
And that’s just a partial list.
Yet when he talks about his new solo album, The Messenger, Marr underscores the impact of his stint with one critical band: The Smiths, which he formed in the early ’80s with a certain surname-only vocalist who’s canceled Asheville shows on more than one occasion.
Not that Marr discounts the imprint of all those other big-name groups he’s been involved with. “I think it does influence me, and I’m very lucky to have that,” he tells Xpress. “My experiences from playing in The The are always going to be with me. I learned a hell of a lot about playing live from Modest Mouse and a lot about playing live in the modern age from being in The Cribs.”
When it came time to make his record, Marr went all the way back to his earliest musical reference point: Manchester, England, his hometown. Having spent the last four or five years in Portland, Ore., the guitarist says he’d gotten settled there. But he didn’t want The Messenger to sound “too relaxed.”
“England’s sometimes a good place to get uptight,” says Marr. “The sound that was influencing me, and the attitude, more so, was something that I got into when I was a kid. I just wanted to be sure that I was around the place where I got those influences.”
Tracked in the U.K. and Berlin, The Messenger is all caffeinated kick and hyped-up rock with little pretense. “The Right Thing Right,” the lead song, is all glowering guitars and washes of cymbal. “Generate! Generate!” is a smoothed-over, post-punk anthem. “Say Demesne” references the shimmery darkness and thrum of ’80s alt-pop. The record does have a couple of slowish songs, but only because Marr says he wanted to give listeners a break. Not that he needs one himself, despite having celebrated a personal golden jubilee on Halloween. (It probably helps that he’s a regular runner, a nondrinker and a vegan since his days with the band that insisted “Meat is murder.”)
There’s also no real experimentation on The Messenger, which Marr sees as ironic. “No indulging myself or the things that people usually associate with a solo album,” he explains. “When I got a chance for my own band, it tends to sound like a compilation: bang, bang, bang out of the gate.”
He adds, “What I’m doing right now is not a million miles away from the band that I was in when I was 16.” Back when he was soaking up the likes of Blondie, Richard Hell, The Psychedelic Furs and Buzzcocks. Back when, as he puts it, “New Wave was my rock ’n’ roll.”
If Marr is not averse to plumbing the vaults for the pitch-perfect rock demeanor, he’s also interested in trying new things musically. But “when you’ve been around for a while,” he says, “it wouldn’t be very healthy to be chasing some kind of trendy credibility.” And one of the things he’s not about to explore is the “overearnestness that’s crept into a lot of current music.”
“It’s OK,” Marr continues, “for the people who like that, but I find earnestness to be something of a turnoff in rock music, because it gets in the way of really great guitars and good, live drums.”
So don’t expect a banjo solo or an uplifting chorus about who belongs with whom, sweetheart. “I want the songs on this record to make you listen to them at 2 in the afternoon, really loud,” says Marr. “I wasn’t interested in fronting a group that you listen to at 1 a.m. with a glass of wine and a spliff.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Johnny Marr with Meredith Sheldon
where: The Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, Nov. 20 at 9 p.m.
$25 advance/$27 day of show