To get into the right mindset to record his forthcoming solo album Call the Comet, Johnny Marr and his band spent nine months holed up in a dark studio above an old factory in his hometown of Manchester, England. "We brought a bunch of old projectors and lights and gadgets to keep me inspired," he tells Rolling Stone. "Sometimes we'd have different news feeds projected onto the wall: Al Jazeera, Fox, the BBC and French news. Other times it would be wildlife films or just the swirling cosmos."
The dizzying kaleidoscope of projections reflected the many ideas bouncing around Marr's head while he penned lyrics for the album, which largely takes place in an "alternative society" set in the "not-too-distant future" far removed from the world where Donald Trump is the leader of the free world. "I wouldn't call it a concept record," the former Smiths guitarist says of the album, due out June 15th. "But it's got a unifying theme going through it about the Earth welcoming a different intelligence from the cosmos to save us from our own plight. The title Call the Comet is sort of a conscious plea for a new way." Marr has released the propulsive first single "The Tracers."
England's decision to exit the European Union in June 2016 spurred the album's initial creation and was solidified five months later when Marr happened to be in New York City promoting his memoir Set the Boy Free when Donald Trump was elected president. To him, the two events represented an enormous step backwards for mankind and he felt compelled to write about it. Lyrics like "Everybody feels the aching/Population is sick and shaking," which appear on the track "Bug," began pouring out of him. "That song is about the virus of right-wing ideology that is spreading through the nervous system of the Western world," he says.
Manchester's Crazy Face Studios proved to be a perfect location to cut the album, with the city skyline visible from one side, the picturesque Pennine Mountains visible from the other side and a factory floor from the Industrial Revolution beneath them. Marr spent a lot of time wandering the large, empty building as he tried to dream up the songs. "It was a very unusual and creative environment," he says. "I often lost track of the outside world. I'm glad that I've come out of it now, to be honest. It was quite taxing."
The album begins with "Rise," where we meet two people that live in the futuristic society that popped up after a comet hit. (Marr says that comet could be a metaphorical one or an actual massive projective like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.) "It's the dawn of the dogs," he sings. "They hound they howl/Never let up/The fear is on."
"[One] song is about the virus of right-wing ideology spreading through the nervous system of the Western world."
The catchiest song on LP is "Hi Hello," which has been already been compared to Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" and "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" by the Smiths. "Another journalist brought that up and I said, 'Oh, I can see that,'" says Marr. "I see why people think that it is the most immediately catchy song and it sounds like what people know me for."
It ends with "A Different Gun," which was inspired by the 2016 Bastille Day attack in which 86 people in Nice, France were killed when a terrorist drove a cargo truck into a dense crowd. It took on another meaning for Marr in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack. "It's such a serious subject, trying to tackle all that without compromising it as a rock song or trivializing the concept," he says. "It's very tricky to get the balance right and I hope I was able to do that."
At the end of the song, Marr takes an optimistic stance in the light of overwhelming tragedy. "Come the glory," he sings. "Listen/We're chosen/We're chosen." "It focuses on the same two characters that began the album in 'Rise,'" he says. "It was important to me that I end with a sense of idealism, though it's interesting to me that I put it in a song that was inspired by terrorist activity."
Marr will tour Europe next month before playing a series of intimate shows in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles, where he'll play every song from the album. In September, he'll begin a proper tour of larger halls that'll feature songs from his entire career, most likely including a few Smiths tunes.
The shadow of the Smiths looms over everything he does, but Marr says he tries to not let that frustrate him. "I'm very lucky to be known for anything," he says. "But it's been so long now that I think some people need to get with the times. I really, really love the stuff I did with the The and Modest Mouse. I understand why interest in the Smiths is so high. Bands that made music that has stood up over the years are special things. On one hand, I'm very pleased about that. But I think people who get preoccupied…" He stops himself mid-sentence, perhaps envisioning the sort of headlines that will erupt if he says it's time for people to end their preoccupation with the Smiths. "It's their life," he says with a chuckle. "They can like whatever they like."
Call the Comet Track Listing
2. "The Tracers"
3. "Hey Angel"
4. "Hi Hello"
5. "New Dominions"
6. "Day In Day Out"
7. "Walk Into The Sea"
9. "Actor Attractor"
10. "Spiral Cities"
11. "My Eternal"
12. "A Different Gun"