Johnny Marr Skewers Greed and Dreams Big on Second Solo Album

Former Smiths guitarist discusses his forthcoming memoir and new album: "We tried to make good, catchy guitar pop."

Johnny Marr
Pat Graham
Johnny Marr
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"I always liked bands' second albums," Johnny Marr says. "I like the Talking Heads' second album a lot. I liked Wire's second album. And I liked Buzzcocks' second album. I couldn't wait to get the follow-up record from my favorite new band."

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Although Playland – Marr's second album under his own name, due out October 7th – is far from the singer-guitarist's first follow-up effort, he approached it with the same spirit as the bands he named. Musically, the record picks up right where 2013's The Messenger, left off, with driving, jangly, guitar-heavy modern rock riffs and hushed, husky vocals projecting lyrics about the decadence and degradation of modern society. The through-line, he says in his confident, Manchester accent, is the fact that he began writing Playland as he was wrapping up The Messenger.

"I just wanted to take the energy of the band I was touring with and put it into the new songs," he tells Rolling Stone, talking from the studio where he's finishing up Playland's B-sides. "I kept on writing as soon as The Messenger came out. I wrote a few songs on the road and kicked them around in soundcheck. I didn't want to change up what I was doing; I just wanted it to be more of it."

The first song that came to Marr was "Dynamo," a big rocker with Cheap Trick riffs, New Wave keyboard and lyrics about secrets and illusions. Next was the down-tempo and dreamy "The Trap," then, as his band hit the road, the shimmery "Candidate" and Playland's lead track, the anthemic "Back in the Box." He also wrote and demoed the album's lead single, "Easy Money" – a song that uses throbbing bass, funky guitar and a catchy melody to mask lyrics about the downfalls of greed – on the tour bus.

"I like the idea of sneaking a serious concern into the mainstream, disguised as a big pop tune," he says of that last song. "The riff was so catchy and infectious that I wanted it to be about something that appeared to be trite but was actually quite universal. Money is a preoccupation of everybody, and it took me quite a long time to write something that appeared to be simple. If you were to ask anybody in the City [London's equivalent to Wall Street] what they're after, essentially the root of it is money. It's the age-old thing of people thinking that it will make us happy."

Although Playland is not a concept record, Marr found himself gravitating toward themes of escapism – not to be confused with escapism itself – while writing its lyrics. "Is consumerism something that, whilst we think we're enjoying it and we need it, is actually escapism?" he asks as an example of his lyrical direction. "Are drugs and sex and adrenaline something people are pursuing or are we trying to run away from something? There seems to be endless preoccupation with consuming, ingesting, arriving at – or perhaps running away from – the very things that those things are courting.

"They're themes that can be celebratory, and you can hear the music that way, but at the same time it could also be symptoms of mental illness," he continues. "A song like 'Playland,' it's just classic sex, drugs and religion in a rock & roll song, and in that way, it's not really millions of miles away from a Patti Smith song."

Currently, Marr reports that solo records are his primary objective, but he has not forgotten the project he teased two years before The Messenger: an autobiography. Although his former Smiths bandmate, Morrissey, was the first member of that group to publish a memoir, the guitarist says his book will be "my life story, it won't be any kind of response to anything."

Marr began collecting stories and information for his book about 18 months ago. He estimates he'll finally begin writing it in another 18 months' time, so that nothing obstructs his recording and touring process, "no matter how much money I get offered."

Part of the reason for Marr's tunnel vision, he says, is because for the first time in his career, he actually enjoys spending time on the road. In his formative years, the now 50-year-old guitarist was fixated on the recording process, an obsession that led him to record with groups ranging from Modest Mouse to The The to the dance supergroup Electronic, among others. But now his viewpoint has shifted.

"I've been very lucky that the love of playing shows has come to me over the last few years, and a lot of that was from playing with Modest Mouse and the audience," he says. "Now my records are directed at what I do onstage. Some people like to be very experimental in the studio, and I understand the value in that, but with Playland we tried to make good, catchy guitar pop with lyrics that make you feel like you're living your life.

"I've been very lucky because my adult life has been marked out by records and tours, and that's a really amazing thing to have," he says. "I just plan on continuing to do it loud and fast."