If suffering is an essential part of becoming an artist, then Matt Johnson -- the guiding force behind the British Band The The -- has lapped the competition.
The 1983 "Soul Mining" LP won The The a solid following in the U.S., but Johnson was far from sastified. He described the album, which yielded hits such as "This is the Day" and "Perfect" as "sterile...too perfect and clean." So instead of capitalizing on the success with a tour and a similar-sounding follow-up record, Johnson tried to top himself. He retreated to the studio where he spent two years crafting his next opus, "Infected," and an accompanying full-length video. Ironically, the work lived up to its title and nearly killed its maker. An exhausted Johnson, drained by his ceaseless pursuit of perfection, required hospital treatment.
At last re-energized, The The dropped the "Mind Bomb" LP (Epic) late last spring and Johnson for the first time was working with a full-time band (previously he had hired musicians on an ad-hoc basis). But just as The The was about to embark on its first U.S. tour, tragedy again struck when Johnson's brother died unexpectedly, reportedly of a brain hemmorhage. Johnson postponed the tour and took two months off to contemplate whether it was worth rescheduling. "It was very hard to take," Johnson says, "and I considered canceling the whole thing. But it's not what my brother would have wanted."
Even over a long-distance phone connection, it's clear from the tone in Johnson's voice, barely above a whisper, that the latest and perhaps deepest wound in his life remains unhealed. He brightened, though, when discussing his band and its first U.S. tour, which brings stops at the Riviera Tuesday.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the current The The lineup, which includes drummer Dave Palmer and bassist James Fuller, is that it finally unites Johnson with long-time friend, guitarist Johnny Marr, who rose to prominence in the '80's as a member of the Smiths and as a side man for Bryan Ferry. "Back in '81, '82, Johnny and I thought about starting a band in Manchester," Johnson said. "But it wouldn't have been right then." Left unsaid is that Johnson and Marr are both headstrong artists with little taste for compromise. "Let's just say we've both been through a lot since then and settled down a bit," Johnson summarized.
But though Johnson has brightened and broadened his outlook considerably since the insular, one-man-band days of old, his music remains as uncompromising as ever. "Mind Bomb" is replete with vivid, occasionally horrifying imagery -- from the impaled dove pictured on the back cover to the verbal grenades hurled by Johnson at the world's false gods in songs like "The Beat(en) Generation," "The Violence of Truth" and "Armageddon Days are Here (Again)":
"Islam is rising / The Christians mobilizing / The world is on its elbows and knees / It's forgotten the message and worships the creeds.""Know thyself," the album seems to urge. "That's right, we don't know ourselves," Johnson concurred. "Our minds are filled with too much superstition, and it's not in our government's interests for the people to know too much. Ignorance, just do your job, that's what they want."
The view extends to Johnson's relationship with the record industry. "I don't like the term 'rock.' One of the reasons I haven't toured is that it's a treadmill: record, tour, record. It's just a business to make money. You have all these grand plans to create something, and then you have to help someone sell it. That's not why I became a musician. What sustains him is the knowledge that "at the end of the day, justice is served when someone puts on the record and decides whether they like it or not."
As harsh as these assessments sound, they only tell part of Johnson's story. There's a gentle, soulful undercurrent to each of The The's albums that indicates the singer is an optimist in spite of it all. The last half of the "Mind Bomb" LP, for example, is an extended meditation on the politics of love. On "August & September," a spurned lover wrestles with his conscience, torn between flying into a jealous rage and acting maturely, responsibly: "What kind of man was I? Who would sacrifice your happiness to sastify his pride? / What kind of man was I?"
In a world where things keep going wrong, these are life sustaining questions. "You can take whatever life has in store for you," Johnson said. "For me the key line on the album is 'Nothing in your world can kill you inside.'" Matt Johnson offers himself as living proof.