Johnny Marr was just 23 when the Smiths broke up, but it took him until he was nearly 50 to finally cut a solo record. "There were plenty of other things to do," Marr, who has played with everyone from Modest Mouse to the Cribs in recent years, tells Rolling Stone. "So I did them. I love being in bands because you have all these different ideas lying around, and I've been in bands with so many interesting people."
In 2011, Marr parted ways with the Cribs and began writing music without much of a plan. "I started to get really excited about the work," he says. "Each day I went into the studio, there'd be a new song. A couple of weeks into it, people around me suggested that I just think of it as my own record and not stop it to try out different musicians. It all just came together very quickly."
The result was The Messenger, his solo debut – and for the first time in his long career, Marr had final say over an album. "It's a very different thing," he said. "I also produced it, so I had to look at it in an almost schizophrenic way. It was like I was producing somebody who just happens to be me. That was helpful because I'd put myself under the same scrutiny as everyone else. I'd be like, 'Is this a good riff?' or 'Is this bit cutting it?' I tried to keep some objectivity and not overanalyze it."
The Messenger hit shelves on February 26th and was met with largely positive reviews. Marr's spent the past few months promoting it on the road. "We had been dying to play it live," he says. "Every song on the record sounds right onstage, no tricks involved. That was one of the considerations we made when making the record. The songs had to work live."
Marr's live show features most of the tracks from The Messenger, along with about five Smiths songs and a couple by Electronic, his former side project with New Order's Bernard Sumner. "I'd feel a bit weird about playing old stuff if I felt it was propping my set up," he says. "But I'm playing a ton of new songs and you gotta give people some stuff they know from back in the day. I just approach it as if I was seeing a band I like. You wanna hear something that reminds you of that time in your life."
Hearing Marr sing Smiths classics like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "How Soon Is Now?" is a little bizarre for fans so used to Morrissey's distinct vocals, but the guitarist enjoys his new role as a frontman. "You have more direct contact with the audience," he says. "When you're at the microphone, you can be more communicative. If I'm just playing guitar, I'm not likely to grab the microphone out of the singer's hands and start talking. That would be rude."
Even though he's willing to perform old Smiths songs, a reunion of the band remains a virtual impossibility. "I've probably been asked about a reunion about 8,936 times," he says with a big laugh. "I don't mind, though. I can understand people asking it, even if they're not actually listening to the answer. I also don't want to be impolite." Still, he's working on a new stock answer to the inevitable question: "I must just start saying 'Google it' when people ask me that."