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Johnny Marr on Breaking Up the Smiths, Remastering Their Catalog

'I had the foresight to see disaster looming,' says guitarist

Johnny Marr performs with The Healers in New York.
Roger Kisby/WireImage for Ray-Ban
April 11, 2012 9:00 AM ET

The Smiths were only a band from 1982 to 1987, but during that time they produced a cache of British indie-rock classics that remain highly influential. During their abbreviated lifespan, the band released just four proper studio albums, augmented by a few non-LP track compilations and a live recording – eight full-lengths in all. Guitarist Johnny Marr was never really happy with how the CDs sounded compared with their vinyl counterparts. So, 25 years after the band's final studio release, Marr went back into the studio with the original master tapes and made things right again.

"It was more of a restoration rather than remastering, as such," Marr tells Rolling Stone, explaining that he didn't add anything that didn't already exist  – he just brought it all out. "I knew there was a lot of music hiding in there," says Marr. All eight remastered Smiths CDs have just been released by Rhino Records, including the first U.S. CD release of the band's 1987 U.K. compilation, The World Won't Listen.

Marr accepts responsibility for disbanding the Smiths, but – perhaps surprisingly – it appears he's not entirely opposed to reuniting with his former bandmates, including lead singer Morrissey. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the guitarist looks back fondly on the Smiths' celebrated career.

Before working on the remasters, how long had it been since you actually listened to these albums?
I never actually sit down and play a record myself. That goes for everything. Once a record is released, I kind of just feel like it belongs to everybody else who wants it, and it takes on a life of its own and a different kind of story.

I kind of went out of my way not to [hear them] until, I guess, around 1995 or 1996 – so that would've been 10 years later – when I came in from a session one night and I'd been talking about one of the Smiths records, and I put on Strangeways, Here We Come. That was the first and only time that I played a record in its entirety and just kicked back and listened to it. And what happened was, a split second before every note or every cymbal crash or every word – I knew it was coming. Every bit of information. It was like muscle memory or instinct. It was kind of cool.

And then I didn't need to do that again, of course. You hear stuff when you're in stores, or at a show and it comes on the PA, or if you're in a club, and usually it's a surprise. I'm usually like, "Wow! How cool is that bass line?"

As you listened to the catalog for this project, did any new favorite songs emerge? Did any particular album surprise you in any way?
Since I've worked in the United States, in the last six or seven years, I've picked up on the fact that Meat is Murder was the record that was the introduction to the Smiths for a lot of people. Living in Portland meant that I would meet people who heard that record first. I know now that that record is more important to a lot of people than I realized. So I guess I kind of listened to it differently because a lot of my friends know that record best. I always have really liked "The Headmaster Ritual" off that record, and "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore."

I think that overall, during the mastering of it, I kind of connected with the songs that were the most emotional rather than necessarily the ones that are the most well known. So "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me" and "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" and those things – "I Know It's Over" – yeah, they sounded quite powerful. When you hear anything in passing, you tend to hear just the radio ones, of course. So maybe there's that aspect to it, too.

Did working so closely with the recordings after all these years bring back strong memories of being in the Smiths?
Well, sure, yeah. But I've got a really good memory, so nothing really came to me as too much of a surprise. The strongest thing that caught me off guard was the realization of just how young we all were. That came as something of a surprise, perhaps – the memory of what it felt like to be that young and on such a mission. That, I think, was the thing that came across that wouldn't have happened had I not been in those sessions. We really, really were young and we were filled with a very powerful kind of drive and passion. It was good to be reminded of that.

I'm sure that not one interview has gone by in 25 years where you haven't been asked the inevitable reunion question. But your answer has changed slightly over time. So...is there any possibility of a Smiths' reunion, in any way, shape or form?
I don't know about the possibility, but what I do know is that I understand how great it would be to make so many people happy. And the other thing I know is that Morrissey and I are so very different. Those are the only things I know.

Morrissey has said in interviews that he actually wanted the Smiths to continue and that you were the one – and the only one – to break up the band. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, but...I was the lookout saying, "Rocks ahead! Rocks ahead!" I had the foresight to see disaster looming – both for the individuals, personally, and the band, professionally. I had a lot of insight and wisdom for a 23-year-old.

At the time of the breakup, you blamed it on a lack of good management and a number of business problems. Do you still stand by those reasons?
Yeah, that's really it. I've said it before, but anybody that thinks that it was a good idea for the 23-year-old guitar player of a really big rock band to go back to being a manager of that band...

It was reported that you and Morrissey declined a $75 million offer to reunite for a 50-date world tour in 2008, as the Smiths. Is that true?
I have heard that – a few times. No official offer was ever made to me...But I did hear that, yeah. Nothing really gets off the ground just purely because of money. Certainly, as I see it, so many other things would have to be fixed and we're just too different to get them fixed, it appears.

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Roger Kisby/WireImage for Ray-Ban
Johnny Marr performs with The Healers in New York.
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