If every band Johnny Marr has worked with were to play a show together, you’d have the makings of a multi-day festival. Naturally, the headliner would be The Smiths, a band that — despite existing for only five years — has become one of the most influential rock groups of the past century, but the bill would also include Modest Mouse, The Cribs, The Pretenders, Paul McCartney, and composer Hans Zimmer.
In short, Marr’s career is a survey of rock music over the past four decades — which is just how he planned it.
“It was never my intention to stay in the same group for 40 years,” Marr says. “I understand that narrative. It’s become a thing in some areas of rock music, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or U2, but that was never for me. I was always interested in collaborating.”
Many people have attempted to position Marr’s post-Smiths career as though he were a lone soldier with a Fender strapped behind his back. His press clippings are littered with phrases like “hired gun” and “journeyman,” but Marr resents the implications that he’s not fully committed to every opportunity he undertakes.
“I find that somewhat reductive and quite demeaning,” he says. “It’s funny how when Brian Eno works with 25 different bands in his career, he’s referred to as eclectic and creative, but because I’m a guitar player who came out of a British four-piece rock group, I get saddled with that kind of lazy stuff.”
At present, Marr is preparing for a U.S. tour that will place him under the center spotlight as he shares cuts from his latest solo record, Call the Comet.
Following 2013’s The Messenger and 2014’s Playland, Marr’s third album imagines an alternate world in which tenets of humanity like kindness and empathy were valued above the almighty dollar. The conceptual nature of the 54-year-old’s new record was also an opportunity to explore psychogeography.
“It’s the idea [focused on the] vibe and spirit of cities and towns and buildings and streets and, to an extent, the people in those places,” Marr explains.
Call the Comet was also an outlet for Marr to channel his feelings following the 2016 emergence of Donald Trump and Brexit. Following a book tour to promote his memoir, Set the Boy Free, he found himself eager to return to the studio “as a kind of escape.” To that end, he decamped to the top floor of an old industrial factory on the outskirts of his hometown in Manchester.
“It got pretty psychedelic in there,” Marr recalls. “We were projecting a lot of news feeds on the walls, which were about 25 feet high. Working in that environment inspired a certain kind of … I don’t know whether dystopian is the word, but it got fairly sci-fi in there.”
At points, Marr would even sleep in the space after working extended hours.
“I thought the days of waking up in the recording studio to start another day behind the mixing desk were behind me,” he says, “but I got pulled into it and it was good.”
The result is an album that blends Marr’s trademark jangly guitars and British rock aesthetic with lyrical constructs that recall the work of literary greats like Philip K. Dick and H.G. Wells. However, elements of the fantastical are contrasted with songs that reflect the stark truths of reality.
While Marr’s only self-imposed limitation in creating Call the Comet was that he “not write a political record,” he concedes that the finished product is a reflection of the world in which it was created. “Different Gun” was written in response to the 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, and Marr penned “Rise” the morning after Trump was elected.
“I arrived in the United States to find my friends in the same kind of shock and disappointment that my U.K. friends had all been through six months before,” he says of that day.
Then there’s a song like “Hi, Hello” — a feverishly catchy (and entirely autobiographical) tune that could be mistaken for something from Marr’s time with The Smiths. Call the Comet is thus a reflection of Marr’s commitment to his own intuition.
In 1982, he hopped on a bus and knocked on strangers’ doors to find and recruit a lad named Steven Patrick Morrissey. In 2005, he jumped on a plane across the Atlantic to meet with a band called Modest Mouse, which would eventually lead to Marr’s first album in the U.S to reach No. 1. With Call the Comet, Marr has yet again followed his instincts to create a record that is part concept album, part personal reflection, and entirely befitting of one of rock’s most iconic talents.
“There was a period when I was 14 or 15 when I found myself in a band called Sister Ray,” he recalls. “I knew that if I played with them for a while, I would learn how to play like the Stooges. So that’s what I did. These men were complete strangers to me, and some were very dubious, scary dudes, but two nights a week I went to the red-light district in Manchester with my guitar and went into this basement with these guys and played a set with them. I got beaten-up once trying to get home. It was fucking dangerous man, but that’s my life. That’s my life. That’s what I do.”
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @zackruskin
Johnny Marr, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m., at The UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall, 2036 University Ave., Berkeley $39.50, theuctheatre.org and Wednesday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m., at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd. $39.50; 415-346-3000 or thefillmore.com