The Messenger, Johnny Marr's forthcoming album, grew out of the guitarist's urge to return to Manchester, the place of his youth. The architect of the tragically short-lived Smiths' one-of-a-kind sound had been living with his family in Portland, Oregon, for several years, where he had a stint as a member of Modest Mouse. (His son, Nile Marr, is now performing out of Seattle under the stage name Man Made.) Marr also recorded with the Cribs and cut some soundtrack music, including work with Hans Zimmer on the Oscar-nominated score to Inception.
"It was very important to me that I got away from the U.K. for a while, for musical reasons. You can start taking things for granted too much," Marr tells Rolling Stone, just minutes after finishing the edits on the video for the song "The Messenger." The album, technically his solo debut (his 2003 release was credited to the Healers), is due in February.
But just as he knew when he had to leave, a couple of years ago he was struck with the impulse to go home. "I felt if I was going to make the record I needed to make, then I had to go back to the environment that shaped me musically. It was just about reconnecting with a certain energy that shapes you as a musician – almost picking up where you started off, not where you left off."
Not that he was feeling nostalgic, he says: "I'm not a nostalgic person. I tend not to look back, which in my case is not always easy," he adds with a laugh. Like his former songwriting partner Morrissey, Marr continues to shrug off any hope of the Smiths ever reuniting, calling such talk "boring."
Marr recently finished remastering work on the Smiths' Complete, an eight-disc box of the band's four studio albums, three official singles compilations and the live set Rank. "There weren't any surprises," he recalls. "I know every piano note, every guitar strike, every second of that music like I know my own fingerprints."
His new album was inspired in part by the music he fell in love with before he became a working musician. "This record is a little more rooted in the New Wave shows I used to sneak in to see when I left school – not directly, but in terms of the energy, the shadow of the memory of that." He's also attended "quite a few" Northern soul all-nighters over the past couple of years: "Anything to make things rock without actually being rock," he says.
While recording, he kept in mind the styles of three of his favorite guitarists: the Stooges' James Williamson, Pentangle's Bert Jansch and Chic's Nile Rodgers. "Those three guys have always been the constants," says Marr. "All three always serve the song."
Rather than writing with another voice in mind – most recently, Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock or the Cribs' Ryan Jarman – for The Messenger Marr felt compelled to write for his own voice.
"I started to be haunted by these ideas for songs and titles, images and notions," he says. "There seemed to be a lot of ideas of what I wanted to say, a lot of melodies. And that feeling sort of stockpiled to the point where I started to visualize a group, really."
Though he felt driven to return to Manchester, he says, "lyrically, I'm not thinking about the Union Jack. There's just something in the air being around the place where you started out . . . The Kinks could have only come out of London. Kraftwerk could've only come out of Dusseldorf." And the Smiths could have only come out of Manchester.