Johnny Marr on what to expect from his “expansive” new album and his hopes to rejoin Modest Mouse
The Smiths icon tells NME about his “human and personal” double album ‘Fever Dreams Pts 1-4’, and not just “coasting along with earnest rock music”
As Johnny Marr releases his new EP ‘Fever Dreams Pt 1’, the guitar icon has spoken to NME about what to expect from the rest of his upcoming double album project and his hopes of reuniting with Modest Mouse.
Today’s EP forms the first taster of ‘Fever Dreams Pts 1-4’ – which is due for release in February. Speaking to NME, The Smiths veteran turned solo star said that the album was made throughout lockdown around his work on the soundtrack to the new James Bond film No Time To Die with Hans Zimmer – with the time allowing him to reaffirm his role as a producer as well as songwriter and musician.
“It felt like a big undertaking, and I think it sounds like a big undertaking,” he said of the upcoming record. “For me, the album and the whole experience has been expansive, ironically – at a time that’s been so much about seclusion. The ideas and the sound reflect that.”
With that in mind, he chose the song ‘Spirit, Power & Soul’ to be the launch single from the project to not only prove a departure from his third solo album ‘Call The Comet’  but also to offset the general pandemic mood of the last 18 months.
“I wanted to come back from the last album with something extremely uptempo and energetic,” Marr told NME. “A little bit of me thinks that my peers and I are almost expected to coast along with mid-tempo, earnest rock music. I wasn’t at all feeling like putting my feet up and getting some slippers. That never occurred to me.
“I wanted a title that sounded super-pop and committed. I didn’t want something vague that I could hide behind. I wanted a slogan and some music to match it. I wanted to come out of the blocks and demand your attention.”
Asked if he was attempting to steer clear of the label of ‘indie statesman’, Marr replied: “With my generation, there’s a fine line between being sincere and being worthy. I’ve got enough respect for a good record to not ruin it with too much of a personal hang-up. I try to have an intellectual trapdoor if I can.
“I wanted my music to be authentic. For the people who follow me and can be bothered hitting that play switch on Spotify through all the album, I want them to relate to what I’m saying. I’m not going to hide behind imagery.”
Despite ‘Spirit, Power & Soul’ receiving praise from fans and heavy rotation from indie radio, Marr admitted that he “always switches off as to how something is received once it’s done”.
“I’ve always done that; I was like that in The Smiths,” he said. “Once it’s done for me, I become so absorbed in it and know it so well that it’s like my thumbprint. I forget to check out how it’s been received. I’ve had stuff that I thought was brilliant that just went under the radar.”
“Electronic’s ‘Second Nature’ I thought was a beautiful single,” he revealed. “[Solo single] ‘The Messenger’ is a good record in old money, and is something I’d have had in my singles collection. It got the right kind of attention but it wasn’t a hit.
“Sometimes I just don’t know how well something’s done. I’ve been told so many times what number ‘This Charming Man’ got to in the charts and I still can’t remember. I’m the worst person to have at a Johnny Marr pub quiz!”
As for the first EP from the ‘Fever Dreams’ project (released on October 15), Marr said that the songs were held together by a “futuristic indie rock” sound met with a “feminine element” – as well as showcasing the rest of the album’s themes of “empathy and connection”.
“There’s a femininity to the new music, which is in no small part to do with Mereditch Sheldon [who has played in the touring bands of Marina & The Diamonds and The Lemonheads] who sings with me on the record. She was in this band called Family Of The Year and I really love her because she can be quite boyish and I’m more than happy to be quite feminine in what I do. There’s quite a lot of that coming from a male rock musician.”
He continued: “The overarching thing of this EP and the whole album is that I want it to connect with people. It’s so interesting being a songwriter, because sometimes it can drive you mental – but with a song like ‘Aerial’, I just felt like I wanted to sing something to do with empathy.
“The first thing that I thought of was about someone I wanted to make feel better, so I thought of Sylvia Plath and that’s where I got the title ‘Aerial’ from. My feelings on Sylvia Plath and her tragedy are similar to my feelings on [Pink Floyd‘s] Syd Barrett. It’s a story of tortured genius. They’re amongst my pantheon of heroes and people I care about. I want my audience to think of it as a song about friendship, empathy and compassion, while avoiding any corny kind of tropes.”
Speaking to NME backstage at Glastonbury 2019, Marr said that he was more interested in exploring “politics of the self” than world politics in new music – which he now reveals is “all over” the new music.
“A lot of what I do is about how something effects my emotions,” he said to us recently of the upcoming material. “I went into this solo thing thinking, ‘Do not sing about yourself, do not sing about your feelings’. For whatever reasons, I was finding these get-out clauses. Perception is interesting because it’s something that we can all relate to.
“‘Spirit, Power & Soul’ for example is all about perception. The lyric ‘Lay awake too long, dark has come, hope has gone‘, I imagine that a lot of people have been feeling that way over the last 18 months. Then, the song resolves with the dawn coming and a positive rallying cry.”
Marr went on to describe the rest of the album beyond the ‘Part 1’ EP as sounding “really different” while gathering elements that he’s covered in his past after learning to “modernise them and be OK with it”.
“There are some things that I’ve done in the past which have dated quite well and better than others, but even if I do draw on something that could have been in The The, The Smiths or Electronic or whatever, it’s definitely modernised,” he said. “I have to give credit to the people I work with, like James Doviak [keyboard, vocals] in my band is a great co-producer – that’s why I work with him.
“There are bits of Electronic and The The in there. There’s a song called ‘Lightning People’ which has got a glam-gospel feel, alongside some electro-soul.”
Another band from his past that he’s hoping to reconnect with is Modest Mouse. Marr was part of the Modest Mouse set-up between 2006 and 2008, playing on the band’s album ‘We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’ in 2007. Having responded to frontman Isaac Brock’s claim that “the option’s available” for him to rejoin the band by calling his tenure with the US indie cult heroes “the best time of his life”, Marr also recently hailed Brock as “the greatest living lyricist he’s ever worked with”. Now, he has told NME that Modest Mouse remain the previous outfit that he longs to play with again the most.
“I would like for it to happen one day,” said Marr. “That’s not me being coy – I just miss them. We’ve just got so much planned for the next couple of years. We’ve got the double album, touring and then I’m going to probably do another film, but I’d probably have to do a new record with Isaac. They’re the one band that I’d rejoin.”
For now, Marr said he just hoped that his new music would make a human connection with the people that matter.
“There’s something about the time’s that we live in, where as much as I like artifice, I’ve had to recognise that it’s OK to focus on connecting with people,” said Marr. “I quite like my audience in that regardless of how much music is in competition with other entertainment, music always saves me.”
He added: “It’s quite ironic that a couple of years ago, a lot of people in music were resigning themselves to the fact that it isn’t perhaps as potent a cultural force as it once was. That’s OK – you can’t do anything about the passing of time – but we’ve just come through a world crisis where I imagine a lot of people have been really connecting with music in a really important way. I know I have.
“The fact that I make it, firstly for myself and then for people like me, is not something I take for granted. It’s quite intense. Music is still saving me on a personal level.”
Marr also spoke to NME about his work on the No Time To Die soundtrack and the “honour” of working with Billie Eilish and Finneas on the title track single, as well as putting to bed the row with Blossoms and Rick Astley over their Smiths tribute shows.
The ‘Fever Dreams Pt 1’ EP is out now. ‘Fever Dreams Pts 1-4’ will be released on February 25, 2022 via BMG. Marr will tour with Blondie as a special guest on the latter’s ‘Against The Odds’ tour in the UK next April. The guitarist recently previewed his new music during a run of intimate gigs across the UK.