'I don't think of myself as being a pop star," says Matt Johnson, the guiding force and only permanent member of the Anglo-American band The The. "I don't have hit singles; I'm not that popular. I have sold a lot of records, but I don't think in those terms. I've led a very private life and, artistically, just go wherever I want to go."
Certainly, Johnson has never jumped the rock 'n' roll express train. Rather, the softspoken 31-year-old singer-songwriter has embarked upon a decade-plus crawl toward the upper levels of the alternative rock world. Johnson has done it his way. "I would like to reach a wider audience," he says, on the phone from California, prior to The The's US tour, which stops at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts a week from tomorrow, "but I've always said I would never compromise my work to do that."
Johnson has written serious, emotionally rich songs. He's blended bouncy synth-pop with spare acoustic guitar lines and bluesy harmonica riffs. He's lined insinuating melodies like "Uncertain Smile" and "This is the Day" with sharp, critical lyrics that often probe too deeply into the psyche. He's opened up himself and looked inside -- and found both light and dark. He's heaped scorn upon himself, society, organized religion, and his native England. "I'm just a symptom of the moral decay gnawing at the heart of the country," he sang in 1983's infectious "The Sinking Feeling."
Johnson initially recorded under his own name, releasing the import-only "Burning Blue Soul" in 1981. "Soul Mining," the first full-fledged The The album, was released two years later. "Infected" came in 1985; "Mind Bomb" in 1989; and, late last year, "Dusk." It was only in 1989 that Johnson assembled a touring band and took The The to the US. Prior to that, The The had been perceived mainly as a solo project, with various pals called in to work in the studio. By not appearing in concert, The The's visability, and potential for success, was limited. "I've made all the wrong moves for all the right reasons," says Johnson, with a slight laugh. "Many of my contemporaries went out with that sole goal [success] and they've achieved that. I've always been frightened of that, didn't think I could handle it. I suppose you could say that. I'm a person caught between fear of failure and a fear of success -- there's some excitement in that."
Johnson has thought a lot about fear. He uses it plaintively in "Bluer Tahn Midnight," one of "Dusk's" more seductive songs. "Why can't love ever touch my heart the way fear does?" "Fear," Johnson says, "is the greatest enemy of man, in a way. It makes small countries arm up against each other; it makes people arm themselves and create aggressions. It is something that's quite apparent and tangible. It can paralyze you and make you frightened to do anything and, in its most extreme form, push people to suicide."
Even at its most insouciant, The The's music always has at least an undercurrent of tension. With "Dusk," Johnson lays the tension cards on the table at the outset, kicking off with a melodramatic hiss. "Have you ever wanted something so badly / That it possessed your body and your soul / Through the night and through the day / Until you finally get it? / And then you realize that it wasn't what you wanted afterall?!" Johnson says that's an overriding theme of the album: The difficult struggle to find whatever thing it is that makes you happy.
"It came from just observing the cycles of my own life, really", he says. "The destructive cycles, the long bouts of womanizing I'd go through without ever satisfying me, just chasing ... whatever habits ... and an inability to face up to things. I think it's human nature. We tend to think short-term and try to gratify our impulses rather than think about other people or what's good for the long-term. I know what I should do, but it's difficult making your whims meet up with your ideology. I mean, I'm up and down. We're all caught between being a sinner and a saint; it's a constant struggle."
Given that internal battle, Johnson considers "Dusk" to be The The's most optimistic record yet. One standout track is the gently persuasive, lushly layered "Love is Stronger Than Death," written in tribute to Johnson's late brother. The closing song, "Lonely Planet," has a hopeful refrain. "If you can't change the world, change yourself / And if you can't change yourself, change the world."
In general, says Johnson, "the music expresses the happier side. At the moment, I'm probably happier now than I've ever been in my life. I wouldn't want to be 21 again. Every age has its compensations and I get more pleasure from my relationships now. I have a very close family, a great relationship with a woman for 10 years, a lot of close friends all over the world, and I'm at the age, or stage, where I'm learning to just relax and appreciate the life I've got. I feel I am changing. People often say 'He's mellowed,' but I don't feel I'm mellowing at all. My thoughts and feelings are probably more intense -- I feel more alive than I've ever felt. It's just that you're able to appreciate things more, see more deeply into people, deeper into yourself and the world."
Johnson says as a writer-performer, he's worked hard to excise what he's seen as potentially flawed elements. "'Dusk' is, I think, not a bombastic or patronizing album. I felt things passionately and I wanted people to feel the things that I felt. Sometimes I could come across as disrespectful of the audience's intelligence, almost preaching, and that's not something I intended. But upon reflection, that's maybe how I came across."
This year's touring The The will not feature Johnson's most prominent partner over the past two albums, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Johnson explains Marr took the tour off to be with his new infant; he's still part of the nebulous, loose-knit The The family. On tour this time are The The vets D.C. Collard on keyboards and David Palmer on drums, joined by guitarist Keith Joyner, bassist Jared Nickerson (a former Bostonian and former member of Human Switchboard) and harmonica player Jim Fitting, a Bostonian and former member of Treat Her Right.
Johnson talks about the possibility that his new band might face some pre-show jitters: "If the members of my band get a bit nervous, I just say to them, 'People pay a lot of money to feel like this by taking certain drugs. When the adrenaline is pumping and your mouth is dry and your hands are shaking -- it's a wonderful feeling!' There's something Gus D'Amato, the old boxing trainer who handled Mike Tyson, said: 'Make fear your friend.' Fear in that respect," says Johnson," can be useful."