Interview From Alive

August 4, 1989


This is Dave Gottlieb, interviewing Matt Johnson, lead singer and creator of the group The The. The The has just released their third LP in the states called "Mind Bomb" and has procured two singles: "The Beat(en) Generation" and "Gravitate to Me" and have just started their first ever world tour. We're going to talk to Matt about "Mind Bomb" and evolving into a full group from just the one-man-band it was on "Soul Mining." Matt, welcome. It's been six years since "Soul Mining" came out and that was a time when you were just a singular artist, now you have a full time band and you have decided to take on touring. Why now as opposed to 6 years ago or 6 years from now?

"I just feel that if you're going to do anything, you've got to do it with 120% enthusiasm and I would rather not attempt anything unless I was completely into it and behind it. My attitude from the days of "Soul Mining" and before that was....I was more interested in writing and producing than neccesarily playing. I didn't see the equation where you had to figure that just because you wrote songs and recorded them, then you neccesarily had to tour. I resisted having a permanent lineup because I've always been quite a loner as a person and that's the way that I work. I always try to do things in an unorthadox manner."

Being, as you described, a loner, how hard was the process of deciding on who was to be in the band and how much emphasis and input they had?

"It was kind of hard, but it wasn't hard in that I knew immediately as soon as I met the various people that they were the right people to have in the band. David had played drums with me on 'Infected' and he's a very close friend. James joined at the beginning of 'Mind Bomb' and he had been working with Dave before. In fact, James and Johnny were going to work together as well. And Johnny I'd known from about 1981. We bumped into each other in about 1986 at a concert and decided to work together then. But it's just people that have everything. I just wanted to work with people that understood the way that I worked 'cause I wasn't really prepared to change the way that I worked. I've developed a system of writing and recording that people have put up with the past 10 years."

When you made the desision to start touring, what did you devise as far as once the band is onstage so that the power of the songs comes across live?

"Well, basically, I brought together powerful individuals. I think that's the difference. I've never relied on gimmicks. Just by the way I dress, or the way I look, or the way I am. I like simplicity and I like strength. And, like I said before, I think the material is so strong, the songs strong, the musicians are so good, the personalities are so poweful....that's what comes across. And people are responding to that. As a band, we are no gimmicks. What you see it what you get. It's the power beyond the eyes and what comes out of the instruments, that's what counts. It's what makes us different from everyone else is that we have this simplicity, 'cause most band try and find ways of hiding the fact that they really haven't got much to say. I think audiences have been patronized for so long and they been spoken down to by imbecilic groups, that they'll probably respond to people talking to them on-the-level and being straight with them. And what they see is what they get, whether they like us or they hate us."

You mentioned that you had known Johnny previosly. How was he when you approached him about joining as full-time member of The The considering what he'd just gone through as a member of the Smiths -- with their success and then breakup?

"The final days with the Smiths was a quite depressing time for him. He worked through lot of things which, probably ultimately, did him good. A situation like that can only benefit you in the long run. We'd always admired each others work from a distance, but when I contacted him -- he came round at about nine in the evening and we sat up talking 'till 9 the next morning. We had so much in common and so many ideas. Initially, I contacted him just to play on "Beat(en) Generation" -- we both didn't say anything, but he wanted to join and I kind of wanted him to join and we didn't broach it, but it kind of came out. And he said, 'You mean you want me to join?', and I said, 'Yeah. Do you actually want to join?' And he said 'Yeah,' and it just came together like that. I'm very happy the way it's been working out."

As musicians, how much do you compliment each other? Offset each other in guitar styles or creation styles?

"Oh, a lot. Our styles are kinda similar in a way. I had always played guitar. The difference between us as musicians is vast. As people, we're very similar -- similar ideas, aspirations, sense of humor. There almost a psychic bond. We always seem to know what the other is thinking. But as musicians, I would say that he comes from a more traditional school. In the fact that he has a vast knowledge, almost encyclopedic knowledge, of music -- of guitarists, of groups. Incredible record collection. He practices all the time. He's a fantastic guitarist and works incredibly hard at it. Whereas the area I come from was kind of a natural musician. In that I was able to play anything that I picked up. Unfortunately, I never praticed. I'm a bit lazy and I never, ever practice. I never have. I play to write, whereas Johnny plays -- he obviously writes, but he plays for the love of playing. I'm more of a song-writer than a guitarist. I don't sit there practicing the guitar. I just get bored doing that actually which is why I use other musicians 'cause I write a lot of the parts -- the drum parts, or bass, or strings, or whatever. I don't write notationally. I just write from my head. The way I get other people to play is a bit like a field director would get actors to say their parts. My music can be articulated better by better musicians. I mean, I played all the instruments on my first album and I could do another album where I play all the instruments, but it wouldn't be articulated as effectively 'cause I'm not a good enough musician to put across the ideas that I write."

How would you describe the changes that your music and your song-writing has gone through from the early 80's up to now and considering that you're always working in the future? How does that all mesh?

"It's like learning a new language. You've got all these things inside your head and your heart that you want to say, but you're very limited by the vocabulary and the more you learn, the more you can express just as I'm expressing now. That's why I feel that 'Mind Bomb' is the best thing I've ever done even though for some people, 'Soul Mining' is their favorite album and that is because you are competing against people's nostalgia. But, I know this stuff is stronger; is articulated more; it's more diverse. It's simpler in some ways as the more you know, the more you know to leave out. The thing that worries me is that I don't bland out and become mellow. I don't see why people should bland out. A lot of musicians do because they burn out from drugs and a lot of them are not particularly bright. They just waste themselves away that way. There just are not many songwriters or musicians to look to for inspiration as far as that goes. A lot of them sustain it into their thirties -- in their late thirties and early forties, they're gone by that time and that's a bit of a worry. By the end of the day, it's not for me to say how much my stuff has changed. It's like getting up each day and looking in the mirror. You don't notice yourself changing, even though if someone hasn't seen you for three years, they'll come and say 'Christ, you look old, or fat, or ill, or well, or whatever.' But it's difficult to gauge it yourself. It's for other people to say."

'Mind Bomb" tends to have a personal look at the outside world -- kind of a personal commentary. Is that one way you combat burning out? Instead of constantly looking into yourself, now you're looking at the outside world.

"From the first album through to 'Soul Mining,' in fact, and this one, they've all had an equal proportion of personal and political songs. There were more universal commentaries like 'Good Morning Beautiful,' 'Armageddon,' 'Violence of Truth,' which are considering the religious aspect; the nature of God, good, evil, and human spirituality. And there is stuff that is more personal, autobiographical love songs or whatever. I've always had that, in my albums anyway. There's always been that division between the two. I would say that 'Mind Bomb,' again, is just another chapter."

You once said in an interview that most of the pop music you hear on the radio was music by dead people to dead people. If that's the case, why choose the medium of pop music as....?

"I think there's nothing wrong with the medium. It's like any medium. You could say the same with film, with newspapers. It's like tabloid newspapers are for dead people, by dead people. The same with most of the television you get. It's the same about most popular culture is for dead people, by dead people. I think pop music as a means of expression is very relevant. I think it's a good means of expression. Music is a very powerful force. Lyrics are... Visuals are... I'm very keen to start working more in film and music. And I've got great ideas for the future which I can't wait to get going. There are things I want to do which no one else has ever done. And I think it's a really relevant form of expression. If I was around 150 years ago, I'd would probably just be writing words. But as I've got music at my disposal -- it's something anyone can do now. You don't need to be classically trained. You can buy little machines, portable studios, and synthesizers for so little money [that] anyone can do it now and I think everyone should be doing it. I think it's a real good means of expression."

How did you get involved with Sinead O'Connor for the song "Kingdom of Rain?"

"I think she's got a great voice. I think she has a very haunting voice. There's a strength and a vunerability and you're not quite sure which one is on top of which one. And I just sent her the song and she liked it. And she came and recorded it and she went away again."

She kind of sings her part with a subdued anger.

"I think part of that is due to what she was going through at the time. As far as the song goes, I think it was good. I think it comes across well. In fact, the person that the song was written for, my girlfriend, actually said that she thinks Sinead has captured how she felt at the time, perfectly. And if she'd have been feeling happy, she probably wouldn't have gotten the same performance. A lot of people didn't even realize it was Sinead. People hear it and it doesn't even sound like her."

Each side of "Mind Bomb" ends with a very powerful song about relationships -- "Kindom of Rain" about the disintegration of a relationship. But "Beyond Love," which ends the second side, seems to be a very uplifting song. Kind of a song about rebirth.

"And that is because I am an optimistic person. I aspire to that. I do believe in romance and love, ultimately, and human spirituality. And I do believe in those things. I believe everyone has a devine right to happiness and to have full expression. That's one of my favorite songs actually. I'm happy with that song. Lyrically, I think it's broken new ground. It's almost romantic poetry. 'The drops of semen and the clots of blood which may one day become like us,' I think is one of best lines I've ever written. I was really happy when I wrote that 'cause it talks about the life process itself. It uses the sexual act and talks about it on a biological level, so it works on many layers. It works on that one level, but it's about the life process itself from the feeling of sexual attraction between two people through the sexual act -- the life force in the shape of semen and in human beings growing. And people tend to think that you stop growing when you stop growing physically. That's the tragedy of our society anyway. You meet people that are 60 years old with the emotional and mental capacity of a sixteen year old. The spirit isn't nutured. The body is fed and you're told certain things in school and that's it. You stop growing and the people often stop looking, but the life force is still yearning for something. It's trying to break out."

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