The driving force behind The The

Boston Globe - February 1, 1990
By Jim Sullivan

Vital Stats
Upcoming Shows Personnel Semi-Hits Reason To Catch A Show This Time Difference Between On Stage and Off
Feb 4 and 8 at Citi -- Sunday is sold out, tickets remain for Thursday. Feb 7 at Orpheum Theatre, scattered seats available. Matt Johnson, voice and synthesizer; Johnny Marr, guitar; James Eller, bass; David Palmer, drums "Uncertain Smile," "This is the Day," "Infected," "Waiting for Tommorow," "Heartland," "Soul Mining," "The Beat(en) Generation," "Jealous of Youth," "Armageddon Days are Here (Again)" "This tour will be the last time most of the songs from 'Soul Mining,' 'Infected,' and 'Mind Bomb' will be played," says Matt Johnson. "I think after this tour the people that initially supported The The would have seen me. It's time to move on. You always have to move on." "There's none. I'm exactly the same. I can't switch off. I'm always thinking about things and the way I dress on stage is the same way I dress off stage."

Matt Johnson, the main creative force of The The, is a popular guy -- the band's Sunday show at Citi is sold out, the Orpheum show Wednesday is nearly sold out, while tickets remain for the Thursday Citi show. But do not mistake Johnson for a pop-star. "I cannot bear the rock industry," the 28-year-old singer-songwriter says. "I've always felt like that, ever since I started." Johnson experienced a moment of truth not long ago in Paris, while filming a French television show. "This moment," he says on the phone, "this could be like a catalyst. There was an audience there and it was a live broadcast to three or four million people, and the cameras went on and I'm thinking, 'I'm a grown man, what am I doing here miming this song?' And I just felt really embarrassed. It reminded me of when I was a little kid and me and my brothers used to have tennis racquets and mime to these. God, I love writing, the gigs are pretty good, but not the rest of the garbage." It's not that surprising that Johnson doesn't shy from the provocative or self-critical statement. This is, after all, a man who made a mark by casting himself this way in song: "I'm just a symptom of the moral decay that's gnawing at the heart of the country."

Spend half an hour with him and you'll discuss religion -- "We're fed fairy stories by the major religions. It's crap, untrue garbage. You're supposed to hang up your critical faculties as soon as you approach a church" -- and drugs -- "Through things like hallucinogens, I've realized things like time and space are illusions and if you tell somebody that maybe hasn't done them, they can't understand the concept." Sometimes, you'll discuss rock 'n' roll, too, but Johnson clearly finds rock talk a fairly dull pursuit. Johnson would rather burrow into topics like this: "I like to try to think of things in a more philosophical way. The body is something that tends to wear out. When you're a kid, you tend to think that's you, but it's not, it's just your temporary clothing in a way. A lot of people find it difficult to understand these ideas, but I'm absolutely convinced and passionate about these beliefs. I'm passionate about philosophical freedom -- knowledge should be given to people. I don't like the way that people have been pushed in the corner, the way the majority of the population are filled with fear and superstition because it's in certain people's interests to keep them that way. All the major religions would collapse if people realized that."

It's a lengthy discourse, but it also serves to illustrate the manner in which Johnson the songwriter works. These are the kinds of issues he wrestles with, and these are the kind of thought processes he takes, in song. On "Mind Bomb," the third The The album, Johnson looks at young England in "The Beat(en) Generation" -- "And our youth, oh youth, are being seduced / by the greedy hand of politics and half-truths." In "The Violence of Truth" -- "What is Evil? What is Love? / What is the force that possesses us? ... What is it that makes us ashamed to be white? (when we close our ears to the sound of machine gun fire)." In "Aramgeddon Days are Here (Again)," "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He'd be gunned down by the CIA."

As a songwriter, Johnson likes to move from the personal to the global. "There's always been that combination," Johnson says. "I see the two intimately related. And I'll be developing that. I guess everyone has their sort of themes don't they? Every artist, whatever they do, they spend their lives trying to articulate them. I'm just going to try and express it in better ways. To try to combine those sort of beliefs, metaphysics and religion with my love of music as an expression."

After he writes, says Johnson, "there's a heavy editing process. I'm very critical -- sometimes too bombastic and patronizing. I certainly don't mean to -- it's not my intention to patronize people." Where does the satisfaction come? In concert. "Seeing how much a song like 'This is the Day' means to people, because they know the words. It really gives me a feeling inside that I've never had before. It's a really brilliant feeling, a real humbling, warm feeling."

Johnson began recording under his own name in 1981 with the "Burning Blue Soul" album. He resurfaced in 1983 as The The -- which was essentially himself plus studio musicians -- with the brilliant "Soul Mining" LP, in which Johnson's sonic collages were fusions of the jaunty, the dour, the bitter, the sardonic, and the melodically upbeat and engaging. "Infected," in 1986, was more embittered and worldy. Last year's "Mind Bomb," the first album that features a regular band, mixes cynicism, optimism and restless sensibility about the fate of mankind.

Explaining his decision to form an actual band, Johnson says, "I've always been a bit of a loner. I work very well alone, I enjoy my own company. I've got a lot of confidence in the ideas. But, the point was it does get a bit lonely, travelling around the world on your own. There's nobody to share it with. And, with something like music, you can't quite beat the magic of sharing it with other musicians you really get along with." The chosen few were drummer Dave Palmer, bassist James Eller and, most notably, guitarist Johnny Marr, former Smiths co-leader and co-songwriter and session star, who has, so far, been less of a creative force in The The than he was in the Smiths. "It's a new The The," says Johnson. "His stuff is more atmospheric." Johnson does, however, promise that next time out, Marr with be a more integral part of the writing process.

The The's new song is called "Jealous of Youth." Is Johnson feeling a bit old? "I feel young in spirit," he says, "because of that child-like curiosity. But, like I was talking about that catalyst moment in Paris, I feel old doing a lot of things I'm bored by."

Go Back