Marr's 'The Messenger' debut takes him to the Picnic this weekend

JOHNNY MARR has stopped running from the past. Ten years ago, the ex-Smiths guitarist refused to play his old songs on tour. When he visited Dublin’s Academy, last March, he led his band through half a dozen Smiths standards; for his encore rendering of ‘How Soon Is Now?’, grown men were hugging.

Marr's 'The Messenger' debut takes him to the Picnic this weekend

“I’ve gone to both extremes,” says Marr, who brings his first solo album, The Messenger, to Electric Picnic this weekend. “I had a couple of tours where I didn’t perform any of that material. This time, it felt like the right course of action. I’ve played those songs to get the feeling of what they are like to do in a club.

“I’ve realised that, ultimately, what a concert is about is making people feel good. In my case, that means sharing moments with the audience. Stuff that is either an important part of their past, or is giving younger fans something they have discovered.”

But Marr doesn’t utter the ‘S’ word. He has a complicated relationship with The Smiths, a band he quit when he was 24, his relationship with singer, Morrissey, having broken down (not helped by nervous exhaustion and Marr’s drinking). Marr turns 50 this year, having lived half his life in the shadow of tunes written in his early 20s.

Morrissey was in town the night before Marr’s Dublin gig, attending an Ireland soccer international (he is distantly related to LA Galaxy striker, Robbie Keane). The morning of the concert, Twitter lit up with rumours that Marr and Morrissey had been seen palling around the city. It sounded like the usual internet noise, but fans asked themselves: had the pair mended their differences? Might Marr’s show be the moment they publicly make peace and perform together for the first time since 1987? Nothing of the sort happened and Marr played the gig with his regular band. “I wasn’t aware of that,” says Marr of the speculation. “Actually, I heard something about it afterwards. Maybe a week afterwards? There are always rumours knocking around.”

If Morrissey has the biggest ego in pop, Marr is the opposite. With The Smiths, he was a picture of shyness, hugging the corner of the stage as if to slip free of the spotlight. He’s grown more confident with age, but for a bona fide indie legend he is remarkably unprepossessing. That hasn’t always been to his advantage. When a solo album was announced, some wondered if he could front a group. “I am fairly self-effacing,” he says. “I don’t believe that necessarily impacts on my role as frontman. You don’t need an ego the size of Chicago to be able to go up in front of a crowd and play songs. I’m thinking of the likes of Joe Strummer and PJ Harvey. These are singers that I admire.

“My feeling is that if I go to front a band, I am propelled by the music. I’m not trying to be worshipped or be super-philosophical. I’m trying to be entertaining. There are times I think of what I do as art. There are times I think of it as entertainment. What I’ve come to conclude is that it’s both.” Marr wrote the new album after returning to his native Manchester from Portland, Oregon, his home for the past ten years. He loved America’s Pacific Northwest — maybe too much. “I was so relaxed there, it was hard to get anything done,” he says.

“Moving back to the UK was important to my imagination. It was helpful that I was in a place that wasn’t excessively mellow. Portland is an amazing music city, with a fantastic music community. However, it was important for me to make a connection to my past, to my music foundations.”

In Dublin, Marr dedicated a song to ‘anyone from Kildare’. His family is from Athy. ‘Lockdown’, one of the best tracks on The Messenger, is about the sort of small town from which his parents hail, which he says are wrongly disparaged as depressing dead-ends.

“There was a book slagging off Britain’s coastal towns. And I thought, ‘what a pompous premise’. If you live in those little towns, which are all over Ireland and the UK, a lot of your existence feels like it’s perpetually a Wednesday night in November, even when it’s not. There’s a bravery and dignity in that. We live on these small little islands. We have to find poetry and motivation to make our lives remarkable. Pop culture is a testament to that. Lockdown was a celebration of those towns.”

* Johnny Marr plays Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Laois, Sunday

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