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Modest Marr.

Smiths legend Johnny Marr tells Elizabeth Alker what it felt like to be number one in the US charts.

Published on May 29th 2007.

Modest Marr.

This month signals the 25th anniversary of the formation of The Smiths. In May 1982, Johnny Marr and Stephen Patrick Morrissey were introduced, and subsequently formed one of the UK music industry’s most innovative and influential song-writing duos. A quarter of a century later, and Johnny Marr is still making headlines in the music press as the newest member of American outfit Modest Mouse. The band left the music industry stunned when they shot to the top of US charts in March this year and were one of the many unlikely bands to benefit from the new rules about downloading in the mainstream charts.

“The album going in the charts at number one was a complete surprise,” muses Marr, sounding genuinely perplexed. “When we were recording the record, we thought it was going to be popular because some of the tracks were quite catchy. But, no one expected it to go into the charts at number one.”

I’ve never known a time, certainly since I’ve been playing, where American musicians are on Mars and British musicians are on Jupiter.

After hearing the Modest Mouse album you can see where Marr is coming from. Tracks like Dashboard, with its bluesy vocals, bouncy rock riffs and uplifting sing-along choruses are a stroke of pop genius. But, alongside these accessible pop classics is more challenging material that broods in the shadow of groups like Pavement and Beck.

“We didn’t think it would be such a commercial success, partly because some of it’s a bit weird,” Marr explains. “But that bodes well really. It’s certainly given us a bit more faith in record buyers and I think it signposts a move away from superficial formulaic indie.”

“Formulaic indie”, it turns out is one of Marr’s pet hates. “So many bands today put X next to Y and get Z. It’s like they had it all planned out before they’d even picked up an instrument. It’s because these days, bands are so tied up with big business. Even the indie scene doesn’t have room to be experimental.”

Marr believes this myopic brand of indie music is due to a breakdown in the dialogue between the British and U.S. music scenes. The result is an inward looking UK industry which celebrates its Britishness with tunnel vision.

“I’ve never known a time, certainly since I’ve been playing, where American musicians are on Mars and British musicians are on Jupiter. Without groups like Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith and Television, The Smiths wouldn’t have existed. Our relationship with the US is important.”

Marr continues, “I’m not a fan of nationalism of any kind and I think Brit-pop did the UK scene a lot of harm. It set down a load of dogmatic rules and what we ended up with was a ton of bands that sounded like a shadow of a shadow of the Beatles.”

So does Marr believe that Emo is the answer to repairing the dysfunctional relationship with our cousins across the pond?

“They’re just boy bands with guitars.” Marr laughs at his own cynicism. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking back romantically to an era when everything was rosy. Every generation has its Engelbert Humperdinck. It’s just now I think you have to work a bit harder not to be just aural wall paper.”

Modest Mouse, with their distinctive contemporary sound are in no danger of being dubbed ‘aural wallpaper’, but will they always boast Marr as a full time member?

“Everyone is really keen to ask me whether I am going to become a full time member and all I can say is, I travel on the tour bus and I’m part of the band. We plan to make another record together and in this day and age that’s as permanent as it gets. I’m playing a good collection of songs with a good collection of people in front of nice audiences and I’m happy. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Elizabeth Alker

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